When Malcolm Turnbull came to power, it seemed he had a lot going for him. Only a minority disapproved of his move to topple the unpopular Tony Abbott, and he retained power for the Coalition in the 2016 election. He brought with him strong personal appeal, appeal that notable bridged the major party divide, leading to suggestions he may be better suited as Labor leader. Perhaps those suggestions were accurate, an omen of problems to come.
As the country has moved on from the election, Labor’s fortunes have risen despite the indifference and antipathy the electorate feels for opposition leader and lettuce aficionado Bill Shorten. Malcolm Turnbull’s personal approval compared to Shorten has remained high, even as support for the coalition fell, now at 47% to Labor’s 53% in this week’s Newspoll. That compared to 46% who prefer Turnbull as Prime Minister, to Shorten’s 31%.
The problem seems to be that voters like Turnbull more than they like the party he leads and the policies it offers. Perhaps that’s because he doesn’t really lead it. And the more he doesn’t lead, the more his personal brand slowly weakens, his disapproval now above 50% despite still being the preferred PM.
The party, and therefore the government, is divided. There is arguably a sensible liberal tribe, to whom the Prime Minister is more naturally aligned. There too exists a conservative rump, a minority, too anachronistic and out of touch to help the party appeal to voters, but too powerful and influential within the party for Turnbull to ignore.
We see this divide apparent in several issues, but none more so than same-sex marriage. It’s an issue, neither so important nor so controversial, as to merit the amount of debate it receives. More and more countries are embracing it, from relatively conservative Ireland, to the UK were Tories endorsed it, to the United States. Opinion polls show at worst, a vast majority do not oppose it, and at best, a clear majority, even among those who identify as Christian, approve of it.
Yet the government is in a quagmire over the issue, a quagmire that deprives the government of oxygen for the issues it would rather focus on, and it is the Prime Minister who has allowed that to happen.
The power to legislate for marriage, including same-sex marriage, is clearly within the legislative power of the Parliament. There is no constitutional limitation that requires the public have a direct say. And as John Howard demonstrated in 2004, no need for Parliament to measure the will of the people on this issue. Certainly governments and the Parliament, the representatives we have elected to make choices on our behalf, have not felt compelled to seek opinion before making other major decisions in our name, not least going to war.
This abrogation of legislative responsibility over people’s rights is not born of any rational argument such as law, instead, it is born of weakness. It is born of a Prime Minister, who long ago should have stood up to the conservative rump holding his party’s fortunes back, but has instead retreated and appeased, time and time again.
Appeasement over same-sex marriage came in the form of a plebiscite policy, taken to the 2016 election by the coalition. Non-binding, perhaps not even compulsory. Expensive, costing over $100m, and likely to prompt inflammatory opposition arguments, some on the taxpayer dime. In no way does this appear like sound policy. It is neither an appropriate way to determine rights in a modern representative democracy, nor is it a justifiable use of taxpayer money. It was rightly defeated by the Parliament.
A wise leader listens to their conscience, listens to the mood of the people, and is acutely aware of the winds of change. Malcolm Turnbull supports same-sex marriage, he knows the public supports it, and that the tide of history on the issue is unmistakable. Yet Turnbull has refused to move away from the plebiscite policy toward allowing a vote in Parliament.
Turnbull, and members of the conservative rump like Tony Abbott, will justify this as keeping faith with the public, that it is important not to break promises. From Tony Abbott in particularly this justification is ironic, given his government broke over 20% of the promises it made according to ABC Fact Check. It’s also impossible to attribute any majority will to an issue at the election in which same-sex marriage played a minor role.
Finally the public understands governments can change their mind on issues, or need to make decisions when new issues or circumstances arise. The test is not necessarily whether they keep a promise, but in how well they justify a new decision to the public.
Today’s Liberal Party meeting, at which the Prime Minister reiterated his support for a plebiscite, will ensure the same defeated policy is sent to the Parliament, destined for defeat again. After which the government will move to Plan-B, a postal opinion poll. This vote arguably still breaks the plebiscite promise they vowed to keep, and demonstrates clearly the motivation isn’t to gauge the will of the people, but to appease the conservative rump.
The divided government, irrationally beholden to the anachronistic conservative elements within lead by a bitter deposed leader, faces bleak electoral prospects. About the only thing going for it, is that Turnbull remains more popular than Shorten. Now is the time for Malcolm Turnbull to bank on that fact. A popular leader may not save a government, but it should be a clue about where a government needs to look for direction, for leadership.
Turnbull can choose to go out a wimp, beholden to those who cling to that past, and undermined by an impish predecessor the electorate doesn’t miss. Or he can choose to stand up, choose a legacy he would want to be remembered for, and a direction the Liberal Party can be more confident in.
Image: Office of the GG – CC BY 3.0