Dean Smith

Liberal Senator Dean Smith

Dean Smith and other Liberal backbenchers who are pressing ahead with a plan to end the ban on marriage equality are, contrary to much reportage, acting with the best interests of the government in mind. The government desperately needs to get rid of the issue, to excise it from public debate, to exhaust it as a topic of political discussion. And it’s only going to do that by legislating to remove the ban.

It doesn’t matter whether you think a plebiscite is a good idea; it doesn’t even matter if you oppose marriage equality. Every moment spent talking about marriage equality is a moment not spent on trying to communicate the government’s economic plan and achievements, such as they are, to voters.

Same-sex marriage is a no-brainer. A big majority of voters want it addressed. The current legislation is homophobic, discriminatory, and primarily based on a mix of the superstitions of desert tribes thousands of years ago and garbage “studies” by bigots of the non-existent harm caused by same-sex parenting. But however morally repugnant, it’s also a tenth order issue for most of the community, and — probably — even some LGBTI people. It doesn’t shift votes. People vote based on the economy and jobs, on health, on education, regardless of whom they sleep with. Yeah, sure, a white heterosexual guy like me is enjoying his privilege to say that, but that’s what the polls show.

And at the moment we’re at a tipping point on economic policy — the biggest since the neoliberal revolution swept the Anglophone world in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Voters are rejecting the economic dogma of the last thirty-plus years and want change. The left is well poised to exploit this — look at Jeremy Corbyn’s astonishing success. But not if it continues its “nice face of neoliberalism” approach, best exemplified by the Democrats in the US — a business-as-usual economic model but burnished with identity politics. The right, too, is equally capable of exploiting this electoral turn — even if, as Donald Trump is demonstrating, ultimately it can’t deliver what voters actually want, but simply more nativism and xenophobia — a different, more toxic form, but identity politics as well.

In Australia, Labor, better than the Democrats in the US, has picked the turn and shifted in favour of much greater intervention and anti-globalisation. Malcolm Turnbull has also worked out what’s going on, and tried to shift to the centre, but remains — like virtually all Liberals — too close to business to get that wage stagnation and inequality is what is fundamentally driving electoral disenchantment.

The more time spent appearing to be arguing over an issue like marriage equality, the more voters will be reassured that their suspicion that Turnbull doesn’t get it is right. Labor, too, should be wary of appearing to be fascinated with the issue — yesterday, back from his break, Bill Shorten couldn’t resist stirring the pot in response to reports about Dean Smith’s bill.

Turnbull’s opponents, of course, have a vested interest in ensuring that the issue doesn’t go away. That’s why the reports about Smith generated the usual reactions from his colleagues. Tony Abbott and the febrile right want the issue to keep dividing and distracting the government, to keep signalling to voters the government is focused on something other than growing their pay packets. And should Smith’s bill somehow make it through the House, those same opponents will confect outrage and declare war on Turnbull. There is no way they want this issue off the agenda — it’s crucial to their plans to keep destabilising him. But they’re doing that anyway. Tony Abbott is in open rebellion. What’s he going to do — schedule still more interviews with the airwave fascists of Sydney?

Turnbull needs to keep identity politics off the agenda and stick fiercely to the economy. The current tactic of pretending marriage equality has gone away isn’t cutting it.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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