The Politics    Monday, August 29, 2016

The plebiscite mess is Turnbull’s own doing

By Sean Kelly

The plebiscite mess is Turnbull’s own doing
But the consequences are hard to predict

Six days before election day, Malcolm Turnbull was still railing against “the chaos and dysfunction of the Rudd–Gillard-Rudd–years”.

Two days out, Turnbull warned voters of “the chaos of a hung parliament”.

Yesterday, on ABC’s Insiders, as the PM sought to normalise his own parlous parliamentary situation, Julia Gillard’s ability to govern even with a minority government was suddenly seen in quite a different light – if she could succeed then surely he could too: “we have a majority in the House, obviously Julia Gillard didn’t, but she got some numbers from the crossbenchers, she governed as a minority government. We are a majority government, the majority in the House, and we’ll have to negotiate with senators.”

The conveniences of political rhetoric, hey?

At a couple of other points in the interview Turnbull found himself in a situation Gillard might have had some sympathy for: being pressed on the inconvenient views of his immediate predecessor. He was asked if compromise flew in the face of Tony Abbott’s instruction not to move closer to Labor, and if he agreed with Abbott that the Coalition was in office but not in power. The answers were, respectively, not really an answer, and a clear no.

By repeatedly returning to this theme the interview foreshadowed the week to come. In the battle royale over the marriage plebiscite, Turnbull finds himself responding to Abbott’s agenda rather than pursuing his own.

While the plebiscite was Abbott’s idea, the current mess is more of Turnbull’s making than it might first appear.

For a start, Turnbull accepted the plebiscite as a condition of becoming prime minister. We will never know if this was unavoidable or if, given the choice between losing government under Abbott and accepting a free vote under Turnbull rather than a plebiscite, the Nationals and the conservatives would have backed a strong-willed Turnbull anyway. Certainly Turnbull’s negotiating hand within the Coalition has never been stronger than it was then. But the lure of power can be hard to resist, and at the time the compromise would have seemed like a small thing to give away.

Just as importantly, Turnbull could have done more since then to lock in a plebiscite as sensible policy. It was only very late in the campaign that we got much of a sense of how the plebiscite would work, with basic questions asked, such as whether the vote would be compulsory and whether a simple majority victory would count.

Meanwhile, we were assured that many Coalition MPs would “abide by” or “respect” the plebiscite vote, while being left in the dark as to what this meant in practice. Did it mean they would vote Yes, or simply abstain if the Yes vote succeeded? Or that, if their electorate voted No, while the country voted Yes, they would “respect” their electorate rather than the country?

With a national vote expected so soon, it is absurd to have left such large questions unanswered. Gaps like these have left the field wide open for the plebiscite’s opponents (of which I am one) to argue that it is a waste of time and money, given its apparently non-binding status.

And so the prime minister now finds himself in a situation where a plebiscite may not be delivered at all, with Nick Xenophon confirming today that he won’t support it. It’s now down to Bill Shorten and Labor – and Shorten is ratcheting up his arguments against a plebiscite every day.

Ironically, had Turnbull insisted on a parliamentary free vote on his ascension, although it might have been difficult at the time, this would have resolved the issue for Turnbull fairly quickly.

It’s hard to know precisely what the political fallout from all this will be.

It is still possible that Shorten will support the plebiscite at the last moment, on the grounds that marriage equality should come sooner rather than later. Given the government’s intransigence, maybe he’ll be unwilling to delay for another three years.

If the plebiscite does not go ahead, the conservatives in the Coalition will be overjoyed (possible paywall) – killing off marriage reform was their aim all along. It won’t be all bad for Turnbull – he will get a reprieve for now. In the longer term, though, it will create a bafflingly tricky situation. Does he go to the next election promising a plebiscite he was not able to deliver? Or does he promise a parliamentary vote, risking the ire of his party? For Shorten, too, things are not as simple as they seem. He would get a quick win, but might lose out over the longer period, coming to be seen as the man who killed off the prospect of marriage equality in this term of government.

As Turnbull reminded us on Insiders, the verdict of history can be a fickle thing.


Today’s links

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is the author of The Game: A Portrait of Scott Morrison, a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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