Paul Bongiorno
Turnbull's reality check is in the mail

Malcolm Turnbull couldn’t wait to jump on board his RAAF VIP jet and make it back to Australia from Manila for the same-sex marriage survey result. After the eight-hour flight there wasn’t a hint of jet lag as he bounded into the prime ministerial courtyard at Parliament House to proclaim, “The Australian people have spoken. And they have voted overwhelmingly ‘yes’ for marriage equality.”

A voluntary mail-in hadn’t been tried before and was a departure from longstanding Australian voting practice. The almost 80 per cent participation and the 61.6 per cent “Yes” vote gave Turnbull an authority that was denied him at last year’s near-death general election. He grabbed it with both hands to send an unequivocal message to his internal critics and naysayers. He said it was now the task of the parliament to get on with the job “and get this done, this year, before Christmas”.

Along the way he had a slap at Bill Shorten, who was opposed to the postal survey. The irony is, of course, so was Turnbull before he had to accept it as the price for support from Liberal conservatives in his coup against Tony Abbott. And it should be noted that the 60 per cent result was in line with published opinion polls on the issue over the past couple of years. A lot of pain and anguish could have been spared, particularly for members of the queer community, if parliament had just done its job earlier.

We are in fact back where we were before Abbott hijacked the government party room, imposing a plebiscite rather than a free vote. It was always a delaying tactic and it was born of Abbott’s hubris that he could defeat anything that looked like a referendum. But “Captain Demolition”, as some of his colleagues call him and not all from admiration, failed miserably this time. His attempt to turn the survey into a rejection of political correctness, whatever that means, was dismissed for what it was: a deceptive irrelevancy. His own electorate recorded one of the highest “Yes” votes in the country, some 75 per cent.

In the dying days of the campaign, when it became increasingly likely that “Yes” would triumph, one of Abbott’s mates from the Institute of Public Affairs, Senator James Paterson, gave flesh to the sort of political correctness they wanted to reject. And that is the political correctness that says it is unacceptable and illegal to discriminate against anyone on the basis of gender, race, religion or sexuality.

MPs who worked with Paterson on the committee looking at section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act say he is a zealot in wanting to abolish all safeguards against discrimination. His libertarian world view sees it as nanny state intrusion. So while claiming he voted “Yes” in the survey, he came up with a bill, prepared for him by the Australian Christian Lobby, that would dramatically extend “freedom of religion” into a much broader “freedom to discriminate” against homosexuals.

The bill came up with a new concept of “relevant belief”. You don’t have to be even a minister of religion or an adherent of any religion, providing you have a conscientious belief that gays should not have the same rights as everybody else. It was that bad. Even for Paterson, the penny dropped – at least it did after a meeting with Turnbull. Late on Wednesday afternoon he gave up trying to introduce his bill. He will now attempt to heavily amend his colleague Dean Smith’s bill. Apart from time-wasting it will be a doomed undertaking. Turnbull and Bill Shorten won’t be alone in resisting any winding back of Australia’s anti-discrimination laws.

The bluff of the conservatives over religious freedoms will be tested in the months ahead. Dean Smith is calling for a separate process, a beefed-up senate or parliamentary inquiry into any deficiency and what the remedy might be. The Jesuit priest and lawyer who headed an inquiry into a Bill of Rights Act for the Rudd government, Frank Brennan, says this is the most appropriate course to follow. Victoria and the ACT have already gone down this path, but it has been resisted strongly in Canberra by the likes of John Howard and Abbott.

The dangerous, retrograde bigotry pushed by many on the “No” side was rejected overwhelmingly in the survey. Fellow travellers on the right, such as Ian Goodenough and Andrew Hastie in Western Australia, Michael Sukkar in Victoria and George Christensen in Queensland, saw voters disprove their claims that they were speaking for most of them.

Their mistake is to equate their electorates with the members of their local branches. Religious extremists have begun infiltrating Liberal branches around the country. Their potency comes at preselection time, when they determine the fate of an MP. This is the downside of Abbott’s push for “democratic reform” in the New South Wales division of the party. It makes the whole show even more vulnerable to strategic branch stacking.

It was not only Liberal conservatives who were second-guessed by their electorates. Of the 17 that voted no, 11 were in NSW and nine were Labor seats in western Sydney. This multicultural heartland has big Chinese, Muslim and Middle Eastern Christian Orthodox communities. The biggest “No” vote in the nation was in Labor frontbencher Jason Clare’s seat of Blaxland. He, like his colleagues, will be following his conscience in parliament. His neighbour, Tony Burke in Watson, tweeted that he went into the last election with a commitment to “Yes”. He said his community “knows that if they are treated with prejudice, vilified or marginalised in any way” he will stand up for them regardless of the polls.

Another of the seats that voted “No” was Bennelong, by a slim 272 votes. This electorate has shot once again to prominence after its Liberal member, John Alexander, was forced to quit parliament as a dual citizen. He now faces a heavyweight challenge from former Labor premier Kristina Keneally. Her bombshell announcement on Tuesday throws new uncertainty into the contest. The experience of dual citizen members forced to recontest their own electorates sees them returned with an added swing of about 5 per cent. This happened with Liberal Jackie Kelly, for example, in 1996.

While the affable Alexander, a former Australian tennis champion, increased his margin at last year’s election, he is widely believed to have planned to retire at the next general election. His moving out of the electorate to Bondi is seen as an indication of this. Despite high praise from Turnbull for Alexander, the PM didn’t see fit to promote him to the ministry. There’s not much doubt that, if Keneally pulls off an upset, she would be a senior minister in any Shorten government.

Labor research in the electorate last weekend, before Keneally put her hand up, found a 56-44 two-party-preferred result the Liberal’s way. Her nomination is not without risk for Shorten. If she cannot generate any sort of meaningful swing, it will throw up doubts about Labor’s overall prospects under his leadership. After all, when the Keating government was on the nose there was a 16-point swing against it in the 1995 Canberra byelection. A swing just above 10 per cent would be needed in Bennelong.

On day one, Turnbull was taking no chances. The stakes are very high for him, given his one-seat majority, presuming Barnaby Joyce hangs on in New England. The prime minister immediately tarred Keneally with the lingering stench of corruption that eventually led to two of her state colleagues, Eddie Obeid and Ian Macdonald, being jailed.

Obeid, a factional powerbroker, backed Keneally in her leadership lunge against Nathan Rees. A bitter Rees slammed her as a “puppet” of Obeid. Turnbull, on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in Manila, warmed to the theme. He said, “She is Bill Shorten’s hand-picked candidate so, obviously, Eddie Obeid and Bill Shorten have formed the same view about Kristina Keneally.”

Labor is well aware of the opening those dark days give the Liberals. It points to page 70 of the Independent Commission Against Corruption’s report into Obeid’s dealings and Australian Water Holdings. There it says Keneally “impressed as a credible and conscientious witness”. Her evidence helped convict Obeid. One strategist says that if the Libs go too hard, “we’ll just remind them that one of Turnbull’s ministers, Arthur Sinodinos, was actually in business with Obeid”.

Turnbull will be hoping the positive outcome of the same-sex marriage survey will finally be the circuit-breaker he needs. It is one contentious issue that should be out of the way by year’s end. It is a considerable victory over Tony Abbott, showing that Turnbull is much more in touch with contemporary Australia than his manipulative and reactionary predecessor.

Abbott appears to have beaten a strategic retreat. He told his favourite radio station, 2GB, he would not vote against the Smith bill. Ironically, two of Abbott’s erstwhile allies, Peter Dutton and Mathias Cormann, backed the voluntary survey as a substitute for a compulsory plebiscite, but will they be just as willing to see Turnbull be truer to his brand on other issues such as climate change?

That reality check is still in the mail.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 18, 2017 as "The check is in the mail".

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