Smart political communicators will tell you messages that reinforce voters’ beliefs will always work better than those that contradict them. At the moment, the Turnbull government keeps reinforcing beliefs — but they’re the wrong ones.
The belief that Turnbull lacks authority either in his own party or in Parliament was vividly reinforced by the chaos at the end of the first sitting week, when the government lost several divisions in a row — forcing it to put in place new parliamentary rules to stop Labor exposing its lack of numbers in similar circumstances and arrangements to physically stop MPs from leaving Parliament House (except, as former Labor MP Steve Gibbons pointed out on Twitter, they can slip out via the basement if they really want).
And yesterday the government did its damnedest to confirm the impression, shared even within its own ranks, that it has no agenda, with government senators forced to filibuster for hours in that chamber because it hadn’t organised to bring any legislation forward. The impression was given that the resumption of the Senate in accordance with the timetable established by the government itself had come as a surprise, even a shock, to the government, which was compelled to improvise, fairly awkwardly. “This Turnbull Coalition government has much to do and much to get on with — indeed, that is the business of government. We get on with it,” declared new Liberal Senator Jane Hume, somewhat nonsensically, as the government got on with nothing at all.
Others in Parliament, however, have an agenda, and really are getting on with it. The right of the Coalition has a very clear agenda: amend section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, water down the government’s superannuation tax changes, resist the will of the electorate on same-sex marriage and, in general, cause chaos for Malcolm Turnbull.
The joke in the Abbott years used to be that the only renewable energy source the Coalition approved of was Greg Hunt getting rolled in cabinet — a political perpetual motion machine that would produce endless power. Malcolm Turnbull is now taking on the same hapless air of a man faced with conservative forces who loathe both him and his beliefs and who take delight in defeating him.
Having accepted that a same-sex marriage plebiscite — something he’d previously derided — was one of the many prices he’d have to pay for the prime ministership, Turnbull has discovered this particular deal with the devil keeps getting worse, because the right wants taxpayer funding for the opposition case — it couldn’t care less about the pro case — and lots of it. That this makes it all the more likely that Labor will vote down the plebiscite legislation. You could tell yesterday which way Turnbull knew the issue was running for the right, with his emphasis on a “fair” process in answers to Labor’s questions. Quite what’s fair about providing taxpayer dollars to hate groups to promote entirely baseless and repeatedly debunked smears of same-sex couples isn’t clear; for that matter, it’s not clear what’s fair about singling out one group in the community for an electoral veto on their basic rights, either, but there it is. That a bizarre “citizens’ and MPs’ assembly” has been tacked onto the funding process to give it some vague legitimacy is the sort of carefully crafted half-arsery that the Turnbull government seems to specialise in.
As with the superannuation issue, the right is ready to jettison principles allegedly dear to their hearts on this issue. The urgent task of budget repair and the need for fiscal discipline — shibboleths of the right in normal times — are dispensed with to defend high-income earners and lose billions in tax revenue on superannuation tax concessions. And not merely is the Right eager to waste $160 million on a plebiscite, it wants another $20 million wasted on advertising for it — bearing in mind most of the opponents of same sex marriage are religious organisations that pay no tax.
And yet again it confirms what is widely believed — that Turnbull’s entire prime ministership is mortgaged to a minority of reactionaries who exert a grotesquely disproportionate influence over public policy. If Turnbull is struggling for an agenda, they aren’t. They know exactly what they want and are pushing their enemy to deliver it for them. It all leaves Malcolm Turnbull, a strong supporter of basic rights for LGBTI Australians for decades, as the last key obstacle to same-sex marriage in Australia. Deep down, that surely must hurt him.