Thursday, August 3, 2017

Today by Sean Kelly

Troppo times
A series of approaching deadlines will make Turnbull uncomfortable


“The Liberal Party at the moment seems to have gone a bit troppo with this really nasty internal brawl over same-sex marriage. It reminds me of the Labor Party 50 years ago when factions were much more interested in winning internal fights than in winning office. They were unelectable … it’s almost as though the Libs don’t want to hold on to government. The way they’re going they’ll guarantee Bill Shorten becomes prime minister.”

That was veteran political reporter Laurie Oakes today, in a video announcing his retirement in a few weeks’ time. It is almost superfluous to say, but it would be sillier not to: Oakes is a truly great reporter, a must-read commentator and a good man too. I say all of these things with regard to their full meaning, however shopworn the phrases might be. His departure will have a dramatic impact on Australian politics, though its effect – like that of all big events – will only be felt over time. Friday 18 August is the last day we will get to watch him in action.

The other deadlines I want to write about today, relating to same-sex marriage and Malcolm Turnbull’s future, may have dramatic impacts, or may come and go with relative quietness. Right now, it is hard to gauge how significant they will be.

The first comes tonight, with a meeting of the Nationals, in Rockhampton, that will continue tomorrow. It’s reasonably likely that nothing will emerge from this meeting that will affect the debate significantly. On the other hand, Turnbull is crazy if he’s not in regular contact with the deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce, right now. If there are canaries in coalmines to be heard this is where they might begin to sing.

Which brings us to the next deadline: the Liberal partyroom meeting next week, and the dispute over whether any discussion should be held in a joint Coalition meeting or in the Liberal party room.

MP Warren Entsch, a vocal supporter of marriage equality, has said, “We are not an amalgamated party. We are two separate parties. I want a discussion with my Liberal colleagues. I do not want to be ambushed as I was by my previous prime minister.”

As of this afternoon, it seems Entsch has got his way. Chief government whip David Bushby has contacted Liberal MPs [$] to inform them of a special meeting on Monday afternoon – the regular meeting is on Tuesday morning – to discuss same-sex marriage. Entsch had predicted this when he said, “I’m asking for the opportunity to speak in the party room, and it appears from what I’ve seen and heard that that opportunity is going to be afforded to me and I say thank you very much for that.” One question then is how hard equality advocates will push in the Liberal meeting for more than just a discussion.

Then we come back to the Nationals: on Tuesday, the two parties will hold their joint meeting. Reports today suggest [$] the prime minister will ensure that, at that meeting, a secret ballot of MPs will be held to determine whether to stick with the existing plebiscite policy. (In 2009, Tony Abbott used a secret ballot to settle climate change policy.) This ballot may also test the option of a postal plebiscite.

It is possible that will be the end of the matter, especially if a postal plebiscite is set in motion. But it also might not be.

The test after that will be whether moderate Liberal MPs do in fact cross the floor to suspend standing orders in order to deliver a parliamentary vote on marriage equality, and then to deliver marriage equality itself.

The next deadline has been set by Entsch, and appeared in Niki Savva’s column today. Savva wrote [$]: “As a long-time campaigner for marriage equality, he is determin­ed to have the issue dealt with before he heads off to New York next month as government repre­sentative at the UN General Assembly.”

That doesn’t leave long. Whether Entsch has the powers of persuasion to convince his fellow equality advocates to act with him is unclear.

These deadlines come close on each other’s heels, with the next arriving sometime around mid-September, depending on your maths. In that period lies the date on which Turnbull’s time in the top job overtakes Abbott’s tenure. There are occasional rumblings about conservatives getting antsy around this date, though to be honest, my feeling is it’s not that significant. Perhaps Abbott won’t want to let Turnbull outlast him by much, but he is smart enough to know that knocking Turnbull off successfully is more important than knocking him off by a particular day.

A few months later comes Christmas, by which time, according to Abbott’s former chief of staff Peta Credlin [$], Turnbull will no longer be prime minister. Credlin’s statements have to be taken as potential interventions in the political debate – attempts to turn events in a particular direction – rather than pure prognostications, so make of that statement what you will. In this case, I am slowly coming to agree with her (though Turnbull himself may call a spill when he knows he can win). If the government endures another month like the month or so just past – Pyne, Abbott, citizenship, marriage – then surely someone will take steps to end the sense of permanent crisis. Christmas is also when Victorian Liberal Party president Michael Kroger has said he expects the Coalition to be on 48.5% or better in the two-party-preferred polls.

Speaking of, sometime in the new year, we will hit 30 Newspolls since the Coalition first fell behind. Whether the government is still lagging Labor by then is anyone’s guess, but that is the effective deadline Turnbull set for himself when he rolled Abbott and cited Newspolls as justification.

And so we have deadlines approaching in August, September, December and, perhaps, April. And that’s before you factor in the additional deadlines that Abbott, Credlin and co. will spread about the place.

In other words, there are plenty of troppo times coming up. I have no doubt Laurie will be watching, fascinated as ever by the combination of power, policy and personality that politics serves up. I will dearly miss hearing what he has to say about it all.  

In other news


Screen time, all the time

Do smart devices in classrooms help kids learn?

Russell Marks

“Promises that the digital revolution would trigger a revolution in literacy and learning have been around since the 1980s, but despite the frequent research claims about the benefits of digital tech, most measures of educational attainment – literacy, numeracy, memory, recall, critical thinking – show steady declines over the course of the digital era.”  READ ON


‘The Force’ stays with you

Don Winslow’s latest novel transcends the New York cop story clichés

Elle Hardy

“The Force is a story of a man, crumbling, trapped, a victim of a world he felt he created but comes to realise he is only a part of. As the noose of the law tightens, we’re brought into the lore of the soul, a rolling Catholic confessional of the bad king wanting to be good, if not for earthly forces. The humid question sits suspended: who is Judas?”  READ ON


Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for Fairfax and a former adviser to Labor prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.



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