Paul Bongiorno
Out of plebiscite, out of mind

Make no mistake about it: the political climate has dramatically worsened for the Abbott Coalition government. And that is because of, rather than despite, one of his most resolute displays of fearless leadership. The manoeuvre to kill marriage equality for this parliamentary term has confirmed the view that Tony Abbott’s political judgement is deeply flawed. Worse, his style of politics is being exposed as highly cynical, further draining a well of credibility that is already at a low point.

On the night he announced his rout of those pushing for a free vote on same-sex marriage, he put it this way: “Just at this moment in particular, the last thing you should do is dud the people who voted for you. And there was a strong view ... that if we were to drop the policy, even if we were to adjust the policy to the extent of having a free vote, a lot of people who voted for us were going to feel dudded.” But the people feeling dudded surely were those who heard him at the last election saying that if same-sex marriage came up in the next term, the issue of a free vote would be decided in the Coalition party room. The trickiness began right there. It allowed the perception to be created that should he become prime minister, his own view against marriage equality would not necessarily prevail. This was a deliberate subterfuge.

And it didn’t stop there. Back in May, in the wake of the Irish referendum and the United States Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage, the prime minister sent a signal that he supported the issue being decided in parliament. He said then: “Plainly this is a matter that could quite properly come before the Commonwealth parliament if members of parliament want it raised.” When Labor’s Bill Shorten raised it by way of a private member’s bill, Abbott changed tack again. But the message was still disingenuous. He said it should be a decision of the whole parliament and called for a cross-party bill. Senior Queensland Liberal Warren Entsch obliged.

A confrontation with Entsch on Monday finally saw the Abbott mask drop. Entsch, the old crocodile hunter, told the prime minister point blank that he would not be withdrawing his bill. That’s when Abbott, at the urging of his fellow travellers on the right, decided on an ambush. He called a special joint party room meeting at short notice. A furious Christopher Pyne accused him of pulling the equivalent of a branch stack by including the Nationals. There was, in fact, no party room vote. A consensus did emerge, as Abbott told a news conference: about 60 were against a free vote, 30 spoke in favour. What he didn’t say was that another 30 did not enter the debate.

Towards the end of the discussion, the realisation dawned that maybe it’s not a good idea to go to the next election with such a Stalinist look. And confusingly, Abbott seems to agree, saying this is the last term where the Liberals will be bound by this policy. Figure that out. He grabbed on to his Liberal deputy Julie Bishop’s suggestion that a plebiscite or a referendum would fill the vacuum. Never mind that just three months earlier he ruled that out as a bad idea. Malcolm Turnbull spoke for many in the party room when he rightly pointed out that rather than taking marriage equality off the agenda, Abbott has ensured it will be an issue up to the election and beyond.

Australian Marriage Equality’s national director Rodney Croome was bitterly disappointed. He says the decision has nobbled Liberals such as Teresa Gambaro, Kelly O’Dwyer and Turnbull, whose seats have a significant gay vote. They can’t credibly go to another election saying they support an end to marriage discrimination; it’s just that they can’t vote for it. Croome says there are moves to have the terms of a plebiscite legislated in the parliament before the election. In a vote of no confidence, he says advocates for change don’t want the poll defined by the prime minister.

The Abbott overreach plays into Bill Shorten’s hands. He says if Abbott is re-elected you can forget about marriage equality. The plebiscite is another cynical ploy and delaying tactic. He homed in on the PM’s credibility deficit. If he didn’t want to dud the voters because of what he said before the election, why not a plebiscite on pension cuts, “on $100,000 degrees, about 800,000 being unemployed, about your cuts to hospitals and schools, and your cuts to the ABC?”

You know things are going badly when one of the government’s most high-profile urgers despairs at the malaise that’s befallen it. In a scathing assessment, The Australian thundered in an editorial that little has changed since Abbott’s near-death experience six months ago. “The common thread is lousy judgement, a poor sense of political priorities, inept messaging via the media, and a tin ear for the concerns and reactions of the electorate.” While the national daily dismisses gay marriage as a boutique issue, a survey by Crosby Textor, the Liberal Party’s pollsters, found 72 per cent support for the change.

The issue is totemic of a leader out of touch with mainstream sentiment and with the nation. Much in the same way John Howard’s refusal to apologise to the Stolen Generations became a touchstone of his isolation from reality. An Essential poll found 72 per cent believed Abbott out of touch with ordinary people, compared with Shorten on 45 per cent. Another measure found 63 per cent believe Abbott is narrow-minded, and the same number believe the Liberal leader is arrogant. A slew of published polls in the past week have the gap between the government and opposition widening to 8 per cent Labor’s way.

There’s little doubt the festering Bronwyn Bishop saga fed into this dreadful result. The mood in the Coalition was already glum before the Newspoll came out. It turned to disbelief when Tony Abbott made a show of kissing the disgraced former speaker in front of the cameras as they left the party room. The defiance compounded when he praised her in parliament: “Despite some admitted errors of judgement, she has served this parliament, our country, her party with dedication and distinction over 30 years.” A debatable assertion at best, and one that trumpets no contrition. Just a poke in the eye of voters whose anger had forced Bishop’s departure. A piece of arrogance compounded by the PM’s senior colleague Christopher Pyne. Bishop, for him, was a victim not a perpetrator. Pyne said she had “been felled in most unfair circumstances by politics today”. Instead of turning the election of a new speaker into a positive reset, it sent a message that key people “didn’t get it”.

The shambolic resumption of parliament allowed Labor to claim the government was lurching from crisis to crisis. Abbott’s ruthless determination to kill off marriage equality pushed his big announcement on emissions targets out of the frame. Ironically, MPs who were dismayed by his tactics killing off a free vote welcome the fact he now has a plan to address climate change, but without “a great big tax”. One starry-eyed backbencher told me it reminds him of Paul Keating’s tactics in the 1993 election, where he came up with a plan without a GST. Keating won the election only to lose the ascendancy over the term as his plan unravelled thanks to broken promises raising taxes in the scramble for revenue.

Labor may even concede that comparison, because it is convinced that the target of reducing emissions by 26 per cent and possibly 28 per cent on 2005 levels by 2030 has no realistic road map. The government is counting on its carbon tax scare campaign working again. It’s sure to be aided and abetted by the Murdoch tabloids. They were at it again with a breathtaking exclusive revealing a secret report done for the previous government showing an emissions trading scheme would cost billions, jobs would go and the lights be turned out as coal-fired power stations closed. The story was derided by economists as a fanciful beat-up. That didn’t stop Abbott and his environment minister, Greg Hunt, quoting it as gospel truth all week.

In Labor’s favour this time is any number of polls that show Australians accept climate change is real and want something done about it. Shorten is onto a winner with his commitment to renewables, and in Mark Butler he has a shadow minister on top of his portfolio and willing to engage in hand-to-hand combat.

While Shorten is no Kevin 07, Abbott is in much worse shape than he was in 2013. Will voters give him the benefit of the doubt now that they have seen him in the top job? Not if The Australian’s editorial writer is correct: “Mr Abbott’s approach to messaging is a shambles of conception, strategy and execution.”

No wonder the rumblings have begun again as Coalition MPs fear their leader is dooming them all.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 15, 2015 as "Out of plebiscite, out of mind".

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Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.

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