Thursday, August 10, 2017

Today by Sean Kelly

Shorten’s huge chance
The repugnant postal plebiscite will have political consequences too


There was a curious moment during today’s prime ministerial press conference, when two worlds wobbled next to each other.

A journalist asked whether Bill Shorten would be in jail if the legislation Turnbull was there to celebrate had been in place just a few years ago, when Shorten had been a union chief. Turnbull replied [$], “Conduct of Mr Shorten, if it were repeated, under these laws, would attract criminal sanctions, yes, that’s right.”

Turnbull didn’t just reply. He seized on the question. He had spent much of the press conference looking sullen while the relevant minister, Michaelia Cash, positively popped with enthusiasm. With this one question their roles reversed. Cash began the response and was not quite so definite, saying that Shorten would potentially have been in trouble. Turnbull, though, was clearly thrilled by the prospect, and by the chance to articulate it for the world. As soon as the question had been answered he called an end to the press conference and strode away.

And fair enough. In a quieter, gentler time – say, the days of John Howard vs Kim Beazley – this would have been huge news. The prime minister had just as-good-as called the Opposition leader a criminal. No caveats, no “it would have been open to the courts to find it so”, no “could attract criminal sanctions”, but “would”, not even said under protection by parliamentary privilege (though Shorten would be mad to sue). There would have been outrage. There would have been some debate about abuse of power, and whether national leaders should pass laws directed in any way against their opponents. Not all of this would have been favourable to Turnbull, but he would have chosen the battleground, and in politics that is half the distance to victory.

I must record that there was some outrage, with shadow treasurer Chris Bowen sent out to decry Turnbull’s journey along the low road. But this, too, was quickly sucked into the vortex. The old world in which such things mattered had shimmered into existence for a moment, and then faded away again just as fast.

This fading wasn’t actually obvious in the press conference. There were a couple of questions about same-sex marriage, a question about an ex-MP and some lobbyists, questions about the legislation. If that was all the information you had about the day it might have seemed as though politics was returning to its usual state, in which a number of issues clamour for airtime.

But outside the press conference, it was clear the battle for existence had been won by the world in which same-sex marriage was the only political issue. Every politician had something to say on the matter. Headlines screamed. Actual outrage bloomed everywhere.

The press conference was a clear demonstration of both Turnbull’s political strategy and of how hard he has made it for himself to implement that strategy. Turnbull knows his government is on the nose, but that voters retain some vague belief in his own abilities, while having little in Shorten’s. He knows he needs to turn the political tussle into a contrast between his character and that of Shorten. He can see what his strategy should be, and he’s going after it.

But this is happening at the same time that he’s launched a three-month-long national campaign, courtesy of the postal plebiscite (unless the High Court says no). Michelle Grattan last night reported that Christine Forster, Tony Abbott’s sister, would be up for a televised debate with her brother. Such attention-grabbing events are sure to pop up regularly. The postal plebiscite is important in itself, but cast in terms of Turnbull’s political needs it is a distract-a-thon.

In fact, it is worse than that.

Shorten today revealed that Labor would campaign for a “yes” vote. In other words, Shorten himself will be campaigning hard for a popular cause he can fairly say he has long believed in. Voters may well see him as generally lacking in conviction. He now has the best three-month chance he will ever have to change that.

Compare his approach to that of Turnbull, who has said he has many other things on his hands and implied that he is unlikely to campaign, though he will vote yes.

Of course, it’s possible that voters will penalise Shorten if he is seen as ignoring their other concerns. But even if Shorten is stupid enough to provide this opening, Turnbull is unlikely to be marked up for his attitude. After all, he is the one who called this plebiscite.

Which reminds me: the government spent much of today answering criticisms of the postal plebiscite by saying “we could have had a normal plebiscite but Labor wouldn’t let us”. This argument never works well. Voters know who is in charge, and they know this wasn’t the only option on offer. Having put the postal plebiscite in motion, the government now has a responsibility to make it work as well as it possibly can.

One of the most disturbing revelations today was that because the Australian Bureau of Statistics, and not the Australian Electoral Commission, will be running the show, campaigning materials will not be subject to the same regulations as in an ordinary election. This makes Turnbull’s facile comparison of the persecution of LGBTQ people with criticisms faced by election candidates even worse. Candidates are given legal protection. LGBTQ people, as well as their children, are to be given no such protections.

The final thing I want to say today is that there is a very, very, very, very, very good chance the “no” vote will win. Look at Antony Green’s analysis of various postal polls, from 1997 until 2014. Young people, who are more likely to support same-sex marriage, vote in far smaller numbers than the very old. Osman Faruqi argues that this is likely to be exacerbated by the housing crisis. Howard and Abbott, both of them ferocious campaigners, will actively take the “no” side. Abbott has already shown he is willing to make whatever absurd arguments he believes will be effective. Greg Barns, who directed the “yes” campaign at the 1999 republic referendum, said that unless the “yes” side united fast to argue its case, it would be crushed [$].

This would be an awful result, with an unguessable impact on the campaign for change in the years ahead. Marriage equality would be delayed by who knows how long. The impact of that loss on the rights of LGBTQ people is the most important thing here.

But to end this column where it began, with a look at the prime minister’s political fortunes: Turnbull has so far remained pretty tepid in his public comments arguing for equality. Perhaps he has not turned his mind to what a “no” vote would do to his prime ministership. He would not just be the man who had forced an unnecessary plebiscite on the nation in a tortured, if vaguely explicable, attempt to deliver a result he has always said he wants. He would be the man who had delivered the plebiscite, then failed to do enough to ensure the right result. It would tarnish his prime ministership, and ensure it was almost over.

In other news


‘Being Here: The Life of Paula Modersohn-Becker’ by Marie Darrieussecq

Darrieussecq explores genius and motherhood

Helen Elliott

“In 1907, in a small German town, a young woman prepares to get up for the first time since giving birth to her daughter 18 days earlier. A little party has been organised, and the house is filled with flowers and candles. She asks for a mirror in bed and braids her hair; she pins some roses to her dressing gown. Then she stands briefly before falling to the floor. She dies of an embolism, uttering just one word: Schade. A pity.”  READ ON


A day in North Korea

Big statues, high swings and a ‘Sound of Music’ sing-along

Linda Jaivin

“We have a camera, but it stays in the bag. We have been told not to take photos of bridges or soldiers or people on the streets. Mobile phones are forbidden; we left ours with Chinese friends in the border city of Dandong, in China’s north-eastern Liaoning Province. When you go to North Korea, even just for a day, it is important to follow the rules.” (January 2014)  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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