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Saturday 10 October 2015

Comment: The Turnbull question

Posted in: Comment
By Politics and religion commentator Craig Young - 1st October 2015

Now that Malcolm Turnbull has won power, what has happened to his social and constitutional liberalism?


Good question. To avoid excessive descent from Cory Bernardi, Eric Abetz and Kevin Andrews and other troglodyte religious social conservative members of the federal Liberal parliamentary caucus, he's had to agree to the proposition that there is to be a referendum on marriage equality at the same time as the Australian federal election in 2016, although one would expect him to campaign for the yes vote in that particular campaign. LGBT lobby organisations are unhappy at this development, as are liberal Australian media, noting that such a referendum would cost $A148 million to stage and are dismayed about the fact that most Australian constitutional and social reform federal referenda seem to be invariably defeated. Speaking of which, Turnbull has become a gradualist republican, suggesting that any debate be deferred until Elizabeth II passes away. There may also be a gradualist approach to uprooting the anti-science orthodoxy that prevailed under Tony Abbott when it comes to climate change engagement.

These issues should be disaggregated. It may be the case that there is a Yes marriage equality referendum vote victory in Australia, as there was in Ireland and several US states over the issue of marriage equality. Full Aboriginal citizenship was only granted in 1967 after a similar referendum victory, although the republic issue, a federal Australian Bill of Rights and other proposed constitutional reforms were subject to federal referenda and failed to pass electoral muster. Most Australian or New Zealand republicans accept that the issue is one in suspension and will not progress until Elizabeth II becomes incapacitated or passes away. She has already passed Queen Victoria as Britain's longest reigning monarch and its most long-lived and the much-missed Queen Mother lasted until she was 101. By then, Prince Charles would be 79. It appears the issue should be labelled "Schrodingers Republic" and parked for the interim period. Still, at least full Aboriginal citizenship did pass as an issue. One suspects that the misgivings that LGBT Australian groups probably have about the proposed marriage equality referendum is what would probably happen then. The Australian Christian Right is just as cravenly dependent on US Christian Right propaganda, strategy and tactics as our own Family First. Unlike the New Zealand Christian Right, however, John Howard's federal marriage equality ban bill (2004) gave them what they wanted and they will fight to protect it. In the New Zealand context, abortion decriminalisation legislation would be the closest parallel in terms of arousing conservative Christian political activism.

So, what else is likely to happen? Turnbull may actively campaign for marriage equality approval within that referendum, unless he has a change of heart and decides that governmental fiscal conservatism restrains any excessive expenditure on such a gambit. At the same time, I suspect there may be a quiet internal move toward centralisation of federal candidate selection procedures within the Liberal Party to get rid of potential extremist religious social conservative candidates within federal constituencies, although whether that will be met with backlash from the targeted individuals is a moot point. Given its backwardness, Queensland's Liberal National Party is likely to be a particular thorn in the side of this administration if that is carried out there, although there may be similar although smaller scale problems in Western Australia and New South Wales.

I don't think religious social conservatives realise how unpopular they really are within Australia. The Howard era was an aberration, similar to New Zealand's Kirk and Muldoon eras, a backlash against progressive social values. One warning sign was the backlash that occurred against Tony Abbott's attempt to obstruct RU486/mifepristone access within Australia when he was Howard's federal Health Minister. Indeed, obstruction of abortion rights has been met with co-ordinated and disciplined response from the pro-choice movement within Australia. Howard's marriage equality ban has provided nothing but a headache for his successors. Abbott's obstructionism has led to potential political fallout for his colleagues and bequeathed Turnbull a poisoned chalice. If he wants to emulate John Key, he will have to learn how to triangulate properly and emphasise his social liberal credentials on these issues, as Key did with marriage equality and attendant inclusive adoption law reform, and as he is now doing with his procedural, select committee solution to the demands established by Lecretia Seales' abortive assisted suicide case for decriminalisation of medically assisted suicide/voluntary euthanasia. Otherwise, he risks the outbursts and extremism of the likes of Cory Bernardi or Kevin Andrews tainting his party with the colours of unelectable extremism and his already divided party risks only a single term in federal office.

Paddy Manning: Born to Rule: An Unauthorised Biography of Malcolm Turnbull: Melbourne University Press: 2015

Politics and religion commentator Craig Young - 1st October 2015

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