Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Today by Sean Kelly

Silver linings
A bad result in court may yet lead to a good result for Turnbull


It’s always a good idea in politics to keep your mind open to the possibility that things could turn out opposite to the way you think they will.

The government has told us for a while that it’s confident the High Court will let the postal plebiscite go ahead. It might be right, or it may turn out to be completely wrong.

Equally, there is widespread consensus in Canberra that if the High Court – currently hearing challenges to the plebiscite – does say Nice try, no cigar then that will be one of the very final nails in the government’s proverbial coffin.

But, just as the government must brace itself for the possibility of wrongness, so must the rest of us prepare for the chance that a legal knockback is exactly what the government needs.

Consider, for a moment, what we’ve seen of campaigning around the plebiscite, in terms of federal politics. Bill Shorten has had the run of things, taking the moral high ground, skewering the prime minister. Meanwhile, the PM is held responsible by some – including Shorten – for every bit of hateful campaign material out there. At the same time, the government’s attempts to focus on anything other than marriage equality are – to put it lightly – somewhat hampered.

None of this is helpful to Turnbull’s fortunes. So there would be some benefit to him in the plebiscite being killed off.

The reasons given to explain why it would, nevertheless, be disastrous, revolve around the threat of the same-sex marriage issue dragging on forever, and the parallel threat of a blow-up in the Liberal party room as some MPs search for resolution.

But there is an alternative path, in which Turnbull says enough is enough. I’ve tried everything to have a national vote on this, you really couldn’t have asked more of me. It’s the High Court, guys. Come on already, give me a break. I’m taking this to the parliament and we’re going to have a free vote. Got that?

Will this happen? Empirically, it’s pretty clear that Turnbull’s tendency in situations where the party room is fractured is to doggedly seek compromise. Putting his foot down on issues of ideological passion has not, to date, been his style.

So some of you will think that I’m being naive. And I might be.

There are differing signals out there. Malcolm Farr writes today that “The Prime Minister will be urged by Liberal colleagues from both sides of the marriage equality debate to allow the conscience vote rather than prolong the issue should the court find against the Government.”

Phillip Coorey [$], on the other hand, writes that “Coalition conservatives have locked in their position which will be a reversion to the status quo – no vote in Parliament unless the public has a say first. Sources said the faction has discussed the matter and its senior representatives Mathias Cormann and Peter Dutton agreed there would be no default straight to a parliamentary vote. They will put pressure on Labor to rethink its opposition to a legislated national compulsory ballot.”

But if Cormann and Dutton, self-appointed Turnbull bodyguards, have been paying much attention over the past week or so, they would have realised this plebiscite is a disaster for the PM. But it’s pretty good for both Abbott and Shorten. The same goes for allowing the same-sex marriage debate to limp on forever.

As such, if they were smart, Turnbull’s team would find some middle way: like putting one final bit of pressure on Labor (which will obviously fail) before going to a parliamentary vote.

It’s also possible that Turnbull, against all advice, decides there is only one way out of this, and to burn up whatever tiny bit of capital he has left in the party room to make it happen. Remember that Turnbull previously said there would be no parliamentary vote if the postal plebiscite went down, until a few days ago, when he said he wouldn’t answer hypotheticals.

If the High Court does in fact reject the postal plebiscite, Turnbull should move immediately to a free vote. It may be impossible for him to do so without Cormann and Dutton onside; as such, they should get onside. It’s not an easy option, but it may yet be the best option. And should Turnbull prevail, and a vote be held, it will bolster his authority, as well as sort this once and for all. It would also be a huge addition to his legacy. I should add that it would be the right thing to do, and would finally deliver equality, and that these are by far the most important considerations here. But I’m past pretending that’s a factor in how this pans out.

In other news


Tents in the city

The controversy over Martin Place’s homeless community became a political power struggle

Michael Dulaney

“The people of Australia had plenty to see and say during the week or so that the tent city spent in the national spotlight early last month. Sixty homeless people sleeping in 40 tents pitched in the shadow of the Reserve Bank of Australia building, near the construction site for the 33-storey, $300 million flagship development for two of Sydney’s biggest property developers, and just a few blocks from Parliament House, was always going to draw attention.” READ ON


Big little lies in ‘Ali’s Wedding’

Australia’s first Muslim rom-com is a shimmering, engaging romp

Steve Dow

“One wonders how hard it must be in the current climate to play Muslim for the Australian mainstream viewer. Ali’s Wedding has every chance of commercial success. It blends nods to the local religion – cricket and Australian Rules football – with the wittily rendered idiosyncrasies of a transplanted culture.”  READ ON  

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is 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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