Paul Bongiorno
Jelly roll Shorten

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann sounded every bit like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator as he tried to bludgeon Labor into supporting $6.5 billion worth of budget savings this week. “Will Bill Shorten step up to the plate on budget repair in this parliament, or will he be like a jelly on that plate?” he asked without a trace of humour. “The wibble, wobble, wibble, wobble jelly on a plate?”

With his Belgian accent he actually said “vibble, vobble” but Bill Shorten got the idea and while he wasn’t cowered by it, nor was he amused. Although the amount specified had been identified by Labor in the campaign as savings it would either implement or seriously consider, Shorten was giving no easy wave through on any of the measures: “They don’t give us the detail. Many of you have negotiated in your private lives and other commitments you’re involved in – have you ever heard of someone negotiating by getting a megaphone and just saying, ‘Trust us’? This is not a negotiation.” And then the cruncher: “These guys are acting like they still have a 90-seat margin in the house of representatives. They don’t; they have a one-seat majority.”

That majority would evaporate if George Christensen delivered on his threat to cross the floor if he doesn’t approve of Scott Morrison’s superannuation changes. That reality will hit with a thud when the 45th parliament finally gathers next week. Both the chamber and the senate will look very different. In both places, the Turnbull government has gone backwards. In the senate, if Labor and the Greens vote against a government bill Turnbull will need nine of the 11 crossbench senators to join him.

If any on the government side are still underestimating Shorten after he almost snatched power from them, they are slow learners. His speech at the National Press Club on Wednesday was clever politics with scarcely concealed menace for the Coalition.

Shorten made a point of speaking to the prime minister at this week’s welcome to returning Olympians, to alert him to an offer from Labor on superannuation reform. It was a none-too-subtle dig on how co-operation can be achieved. His solution, at face value, was a generous helping hand for Turnbull and his treasurer, who are struggling to get party room support for their $6 billion superannuation package. That’s the one Scott Morrison took to the election and assured voters was not negotiable in its bottom-line objective. The Labor leader homed in on its greatest vulnerability as far as people such as Christensen and others are concerned: its apparent retrospectivity.

The Shorten compromise would date the controversial $500,000 lifetime contribution cap to budget night 2016 instead of 2007. To make up for the shortfall, the opposition would then vote against three other measures Morrison included as a sweetener. The gain for the revenue would actually be higher than the original scheme, according to Shorten. But there is a sting in the offer: if Morrison rejects it, Labor will not support the package.

With budget repair the imperative, it was a very powerful return serve from Shorten. It also highlighted the fix in which Morrison and Cormann find themselves, belting Labor about the ears for wobbling on budget reform while at the same time struggling to deliver their own reforms through the Coalition party room.

But there is a bigger and more ominous development that could seriously derail the Turnbull government, and that is the increasingly contentious same-sex marriage plebiscite. Labor is giving every indication it will join the Greens, the Nick Xenophon Team and Derryn Hinch in voting it down in the senate. But that will be after an all-out attempt to force a parliamentary vote introducing the reform.

The showdown is not likely to happen until the government actually introduces the plebiscite legislation into the parliament. It hasn’t even gone to cabinet yet. Talk of it being taken to the party room later this month is just that: talk. In fact, according to a relevant minister, it is wrong.

Shorten has sharpened his attack on the plebiscite that, according to a Galaxy poll, loses majority appeal when its cost and non-binding reality are pointed out. “Really, what is the point of a compulsory plebiscite,” the Labor leader asked, “when accepting the outcome is voluntary?” And, in a week when the government is attempting to take the high ground on fiscal rectitude, he insists parliament can do its job and spare Australians a $160 million taxpayer-funded opinion poll that will only provide a national platform for prejudice and hate.

In a line that could prove potent with many Australians, Shorten asked: “How can Mr Turnbull seriously fine Australians for not voting, when he cannot make Liberal MPs acknowledge the result?” Few clear thinkers would disagree when he says, “It’s a nonsense.”

A vote of the parliament is, as everybody knows, Malcolm Turnbull’s preferred option, as is recognising the rights of same-sex couples to a civil marriage like everyone else. Shorten broached the subject when he met the prime minister in Sydney earlier this month. Turnbull made it clear it was an Abbott policy he was not prepared to ditch. It is a sure sign that the issue is a powder keg for the government and Turnbull. The militant conservatives in his ranks make no secret about their position: any backsliding on the policy would lead to an open revolt.

A plan Turnbull and Attorney-General George Brandis hatched last year for enabling legislation for marriage equality to be brought into the parliament had to be scrapped after fierce internal resistance. The plan was to go to the election with the details of the plebiscite already legislated, wording and all. Voters would know exactly what was being proposed and a successful plebiscite would be the immediate trigger for the change.

Instead, Turnbull went to the election with no details and only a promise to hold the nationwide opinion poll before the end of the year. Even that has now been scrapped. Just when it will be held next year is equally moot. It seems to be sliding down the agenda in exactly the same way Turnbull was convinced Abbott had always intended.

The Liberal premier of Western Australia, Colin Barnett, was alarmed at reports it would be held in February, just one month before a state election that is looking very difficult for him. A distraction this big, he definitely doesn’t need. He echoed Shorten’s view that the issue should be dealt with by the parliament.

A powerful voice has entered the debate arguing against the plebiscite on constitutional and moral grounds. Former High Court judge Michael Kirby says it would be better to wait for a parliament prepared to do its job than go through a harmful process that would be easily manipulated for failure. Kirby sees the precedents of failed referenda and plebiscites as a warning to those anxious for reform. A loss would set back the cause for years. Politicians would be unwilling to broach the subject again any time soon.

Such a defeat would also damage Turnbull, possibly fatally. While he is confident the vote will pass easily, the republic, another of his magnificent causes, looked a no-brainer in prospect only to fail amid confusion and skulduggery. Besides big lies from the “No” campaign in that referendum, such as that the Queen was not our head of state, behind the scenes then prime minister John Howard and his agent Nick Minchin warned business leaders against bankrolling the “Yes” campaign. The funds vanished and Turnbull had to dip into his own pocket to the tune of millions of dollars.

Having capitulated to the conservatives on the same-sex marriage plebiscite, Turnbull would have to campaign extremely hard to ensure it delivered his desired outcome. If he failed, it would significantly undermine his standing in the electorate and in the government. His initial assessment that Abbott proposed the nationwide vote as a ploy to delay the reform and defeat it is as valid today as it was before the September 2015 leadership coup.

Already we are seeing those opposed to marriage equality demanding public funding for their campaign and for a suspension of anti-discrimination laws. This can have no other purpose than to allow them to engage in hate speech. They want to be able to say the LGBTIQ minority are dangerous perverts and a threat to children and their relationships are of lesser value than the majority heterosexual couples. The Australian Christian Lobby’s Lyle Shelton believes there is a respectful and considered way to do this. And he isn’t joking. But it’s an argument that relies on a proposition that says homosexuals and those who identify as transgender do not have the same civil rights as others.

Apparently recognising this human right, accepted in comparable countries such as Britain, Canada and New Zealand, is of less importance than the highly dubious politicisation of the Country Fire Authority dispute in Victoria. The prime minister’s office says the CFA, the budget omnibus bill and the two industrial relations bills aimed at curbing the construction unions are the top-order issues for parliament’s first sitting week.

There’s plenty of wobble to come in the new parliament, and it’s not just rubbery budget numbers.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 27, 2016 as "Jelly roll Shorten".

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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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