Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Smoke and mirrors of the 45th federal parliament

The Aboriginal smoking ceremony that is now an integral part of the opening of parliament symbolically purifies the place and wards off bad spirits. Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten seemed to have been instantly cleansed: mutual respect, goodwill and shared commitment to advancing Australia, all duly promised.

But the smoke had scarcely cleared before the evil angels returned. It was hard to detect any respect or goodwill over the burning political issues dominating the early agenda. Labor’s Tony Burke accused the government of lying to the Australian people over its omnibus bill of budget cuts. They are the ones, hand over heart, Treasurer Scott Morrison claims Labor signed up to in the dying days of the campaign. Burke says it contained many measures that Labor had not included in its costings.

And even the ones Labor had included weren’t simple cuts; they were redirections. Burke cited the Australian Renewable Energy Agency as an example. He said cuts there went to other investment in renewables. The treasurer was far from impressed. He accused Labor of being sneaky: putting savings in the forward estimates then hoping everyone would forget about them after the election. It’s a slanging match that may not produce the dividends he’s hoping for.

Burke says a more sensible conversation is needed. The treasurer can’t simply claim Labor’s cuts without taking into account the reinvestments that Labor had as part of its package. If anyone needed reminding, what we are seeing is the facts of political life in a multi-party democracy. The voters have, as they do, presented the nation with a minority parliament. The government can use its bare majority to push its policies through the house of representatives but in doing so needs to have its eye on successfully getting them accepted in the senate.

This is where claims of a mandate or of having won the election don’t carry much weight unless they have broad support. In the parliament, of course, but also in the community. It’s a three-part challenge: ministers need to consult, convince and compromise. But the treasurer seems to be infected by the hyperpartisan bug. This sledge on Bill Shorten is a prime example: “What I know and am confident about is Bill Shorten always plays cheap politics when it comes to the banks. Bill Shorten isn’t motivated by supporting anyone’s case or achieving anything positive in this space.” Not much mutual respect there. In fact, it is a vain hope that innocent bystanders won’t have noticed Morrison and his prime minister have been playing catch-up with Labor on the banks for months. The call for a royal commission is bolstered by compelling evidence that Australians are fed up with the banks’ arrogance and seeming immunity from real accountability.

As Labor’s Chris Bowen says, for a government that denies there’s a problem, they keep contradicting themselves by making new announcements almost every day on measures to address the recurring scandals. “Why don’t they just hold a royal commission?” he asked midweek as the government headed off concerted moves in the house to set up one. Shorten had the support of the crossbench, with the colourful regional independent Bob Katter seconding the motion. The government’s majority of one defeated them. But this fight isn’t over. The senate backed a royal commission and Labor ambushed the government in the house late Thursday forcing a new debate. A stark reminder of how easily a majority of one can disappear if a Coalition MP takes an early mark or misses a vote.

Coalition backbenchers such as Warren Entsch and the outspoken George Christensen, who have been calling for a royal commission forever, toed the line. Christensen even said he was now happy with the government’s suite of half-baked solutions. How long this discipline lasts is key to the survival of the Turnbull reign. It will continue to be tested, by the opposition at every opportunity, and by his own conservative malcontents who are convinced Turnbull “is not a true Liberal” in the big L sense of the word.

In a week that began with the prime minister melodramatically telling his party room that the nation faces “a fundamental moral challenge” of budget repair, his right flank had other priorities. Leading conservative Cory Bernardi organised a backbench revolt in the senate. He marshalled 20 senators – 13 Liberals and seven crossbenchers – to support amending the Racial Discrimination Act. That’s the entire government backbench in the red chamber, bar one. They have scaled back their ambitions to abolish it completely and are now proposing only to drop the words “offend” and “insult” from Section 18C of the act.

Bernardi says this is core business for the Liberal base. Free speech is an article of faith and all these provisions do is feed the “grievance industry”. This is a bold defiance of Turnbull, who says he has much more pressing issues to address. A key ally in the parliament, leader of the house Christopher Pyne, came to the rescue. He bravely asserted “not one member” in the reps wants to change 18C. “We have no plans to change 18C,” he said. Even if they did, the numbers are simply not in the parliament to do it. Labor, the Greens and the Nick Xenophon Team have 38 votes to block any attempt in the senate. The Greens say weakening the protections against hate speech is simply not on. But that won’t stop Bernardi and his urgers, such as Tasmania’s Eric Abetz, from agitating. Destabilising Turnbull is as much a motivation as fighting for pristine free speech. The laudable conservative value of promoting “civility” is collateral damage in this play.

Despite their apparent success in imposing a same-sex marriage plebiscite on Turnbull, the conservatives are not convinced he will abandon the cause of marriage equality if Labor, as is likely, votes it down in the parliament. The Greens, the Nick Xenophon Team and Senator Derryn Hinch have already said they will. While Labor seems to be keeping its options open, the parliamentary leadership team is determined to stymie the “expensive, divisive and non-binding opinion poll”. Bill Shorten is playing a tactical game. Turnbull, somewhat disingenuously, accuses him of “playing politics” with the issue. If he is, he’s not alone. The plebiscite was always a political ploy by Tony Abbott to delay and defeat attempts to end discrimination against same-sex couples.

Shorten’s genuine concerns that the plebiscite would unleash damaging hate speech and would be a licence for homophobia were reinforced on Tuesday. He was confronted by an Anglican priest, Ian Powell, who asked him not to describe those opposed to same-sex marriage as rock-dwelling haters and homophobes. Powell urged a civil and tolerant discussion. The priest is on the record suggesting same-sex marriage could lead to bestiality and marrying children. Gays who want to be Christians, he argues, should stop sexual contact.

In a front-page exclusive, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph reported Australia’s churches and leading ethnic groups had formed an alliance to oppose the same-sex plebiscite. It claimed they represent six million Australians. But if the ABC Vote Compass is any guide, they can’t speak for all of them. For example, it found 58 per cent of Catholics don’t agree that marriage should only be between a man and a woman. 

The problem for the churches is they have long since lost their monopoly on marriage. The Australian Bureau of Statistics says that since 1999 a majority of Australians have had their weddings performed by civil celebrants. The latest figures, for 2014, have that at just over 74 per cent.

When parliament resumes on September 12, there will be an attempt to bring on a same-sex marriage vote. Shorten will try to suspend standing orders, but without at least six Liberals crossing the floor the move is doomed. In the numbers game, Labor is allowing a free vote and by one count could probably muster only 66 of its 69 MPs. The crossbench also has a bill on the notice paper sponsored by the Greens’ Adam Bandt, but that is hardly likely to fare better. His colleague, Sarah Hanson-Young, has reinstated her bill in the senate. It may have more chance there, but without the lower house supporting it will go nowhere.

Turnbull is still counting on Labor backing the plebiscite. He says it’s that or nothing for this term of the parliament. His problem then is what policy the Liberals take to the next election. The issue will simply not go away. Turnbull’s warnings in August 2015 will again be relevant. At that time he said Abbott’s “disposition for a public vote would become an incessant distraction for the Coalition in the lead-up to the next election and into the next term of parliament”. Having failed to deliver the reform he believes in for an entire term, who would believe he could or would in a subsequent one?

As Liberal leader, Turnbull could walk into the party room and change the policy against a free vote if the plebiscite failed to materialise. All hell would break loose, but if it happened later in the term there may not be much the conservatives can do about it. And that’s their fear.

Smoking out an alternative leader to their liking is already exercising their minds. Ngunnawal country, where Parliament House sits, is not so welcoming this term.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 3, 2016 as "Smoke and mirrors". Subscribe here.

Paul Bongiorno
is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a regular commentator on ABC Radio National Breakfast.