The horrible suspicion that Malcolm Turnbull, far from being the saviour of sensible, moderate, reformist politics in Australia, is a kind of dud version of Tony Abbott, is beginning to become widespread. The inept handling of the tax debate, then Turnbull’s own stumbles on tax this week, and his savaging of Labor’s negative gearing plan as sending a “wrecking ball” through the property market, were straight from the Abbott playbook, a document heavy on poor process, gaffes, inconsistency and scare campaigns built on slogans. Turnbull even dropped a “we’ve stopped the boats” last week at a media conference.

When Fairfax’s Ross Gittins, who’s not merely non-partisan but has seen prime ministers and treasurers of both sides come and go for decades, called Turnbull out yesterday for resembling his predecessor, he summed up a feeling that’s no longer contained within the Canberra political class.

Yesterday’s “review” of the Safe Schools program, however, signals that the development of a hybrid Malcolm Abbott is happening in other areas. Much of the criticism about Turnbull’s failure to demonstrate his progressive beliefs is misplaced. Turnbull gave his all for the cause of an Australian republic nearly 20 years ago; calls for him to make it a priority when he’s a Prime Minister without an electoral mandate, and while voters themselves remain diffident about the issue, are unrealistic.

And while the government’s climate action policy is currently nonsensical, Turnbull faces a real challenge in establishing an effective policy that won’t risk real problems with the denialists on his backbench, one that he probably needs to be armed with an electoral mandate to deal with. On same-sex marriage, Turnbull is in an invidious position: as a peace offering to the Abbott dead-enders and far right, he is maintaining the plebiscite silliness, but the right — knowing they are going to lose — are throwing it back in his face by insisting they will ignore the results.

There’s no such contextual justification for the Safe Schools “review”. This is simple cultural warfare by the extreme right within the Liberals, and it’s no surprise to see the likes of Andrew Nikolic and Andrew Hastie involved. Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews nailed it when he said “I don’t think these extreme Liberals are actually offended by the structure of the program, or the teachers who lead it. I just think they’re offended by the kids who need it.”

These are politicians who are obsessed with sex — specifically, people who might be sexually different to their own white middle-aged heterosexual male selves. Obsessed enough that it’s all they want to talk about in their partyroom meeting, bandying about terms like “cultural Marxism” because they read it in the paper the other day. Not merely does the idea of alternative forms of sexuality offend them, it terrifies them, because it’s yet another symbol of a world that no longer grants automatic ascendancy to men like them. Safe Schools is one more reminder that the planet no longer revolves around them. That its purpose is to protect kids, to prevent them from being bullied, is of no moment; these men were never the ones bullied at school for being different. They’ve always enjoyed privilege, entitlement, status.

Turnbull might think that giving them an inquiry is the smart play — the inquiry will be controlled by the civil and sensible Education Minister Simon Birmingham. The inquiry will find no, or minor, concerns; further complaints can be addressed by noting the program has been reviewed and all’s well.

Except, the review also legitimises this kind of cultural war, a war in which LGBTI kids are collateral damage, just like domestic violence victims are collateral damage in the culture war waged by the likes of Mark Latham and Miranda Devine against their mythical “middle class feminist” enemy. And reviews are never enough for the far right — their concerns validated, they will push into more areas. For middle-aged white reactionary males, there’s always something about the 21st century to be outraged by. In fact, they’ve barely finished getting upset about the late 20th century.

Turnbull might merely be playing for time — hold out until the election, then once he has secured victory, move to positions that more closely match his own principles. But if there’s one truth we’ve learnt from recent years and especially from Tony Abbott, it’s that it’s awfully hard to change your style once you’re in power. Abbott could never shed his relentless negativity once he became prime minister. If Malcolm Turnbull thinks he can veer back to the middle after pandering to the right, it might be much harder than he thinks.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey