You’d have to have a heart of stone not to feel sympathy for the Prime Minister yesterday. In Perth, holding a media conference with the local head of the Australian Hotels Association to spruik the government’s
wage cut scheme PaTH program, what did journalists want to talk about? Not jobs, but marriage equality. “Do we [sic] some questions on the PaTH program and employment issues?” the PMO’s perhaps-flawed transcript has the PM imploring the assembled hacks. The only path they were interested in was to a vote on removing discrimination in marriage law and the ramifications for Turnbull’s leadership. And so they peppered him with questions about that. The prime ministerial shits were duly, and rightly, cracked.
“I think Western Australians and Australians generally are focused on jobs, on employment, on economic growth and investment. They are focused on the issues my government is focused on, which is ensuring that we deliver the strong economic growth and the opportunities for young people to get ahead and get a job and, for example, with this PaTH program. I think there are a lot of parents watching us today who will be really wondering why it is that not one of the journalists here has got any interest in a program that is going to give up to 120,000 young people on welfare an internship and a job. They’ll be really wondering, really wondering what the priorities are of our friends in the media here versus the government.”
It’s an entirely fair point. Marriage equality is a 10th-order issue for many voters, including many LGBTI voters. But, in a literal example of how the issue is effectively jamming the government’s capacity to get its message out, the media could talk about nothing else. Coalition MPs should read the transcript or watch the tape before they return to Canberra next week for yet another party room “showdown”.
Journalists can talk about nothing else because, in an endless cycle within Coalition ranks, MPs can talk about nothing else. Marriage equality advocates will talk about ways to bring a vote to the floor of Parliament; marriage equality opponents will savage them, threaten to move to the crossbenches, demand ever sillier ways to delay the issue, and opponents who have crossed the floor on issues dear to them will invent reasons why others shouldn’t cross the floor. Marriage equality advocates will hit back. The PM will be quizzed about it all. Rinse, repeat, with variations. This time around it involves threatening the preselections of marriage equality advocates. It’s a broad church in the Liberal Party, with a bright green exit sign for non-homophobes.
For the Eric Abetzes of the party — well, for Eric Abetz, and Kevin Andrews and Tony Abbott — this is all fine, because they want to destroy the Prime Minister, and preferably before he serves as PM longer than Tony Abbott, which is now just under two months away. For the rest of the party, who aren’t basing their political thinking on a personal vendetta but on trying to deliver for their constituents and win the next election, it’s purgatory, with no end in sight. The postal plebiscite is no solution. Even some reactionaries sense that. Paul Kelly, transmitting over the event horizon from the black hole of his own self-importance, today acknowledged it might “degenerate into discredited farce” (a fate of which he is perhaps not ill-informed). The junk mail vote will be boycotted by advocates, and if it fails, opponents will insist there be no parliamentary vote, locking the government back into the cycle of endless distraction all the way until the next election or a change of leader. And there’ll be the same outpouring of lies about same-sex couple parenting, and outright hate, as would accompany a real plebiscite.
How likely there’ll be significant movement next week, when MPs return to Canberra, has to be questioned. Advocates within Liberal ranks have talked a big game before, without delivering. The only serious chance of movement is if sensible Liberals opposed to marriage equality decide to put away their religion-based desire to control other people’s lives for the sake of giving the government a chance to talk about jobs and other issues of real moment to voters, thereby maximising their own chances of re-election. Don’t put too much money on that happening in the next few days.