We’re all agreed that the eruption of the marriage equality debate within Liberal ranks has been a disaster for the Prime Minister; that he’s lost control of the debate, that he’s between rock and a hard place, that there are no good outcomes from this, or at least no likely good outcomes, between all the threats to cross the floor, move to the crossbenches, deselect MPs and the incessant debate that sucks the air out of anything the government tries to say.
So far, though, Turnbull has assiduously played a dreadful hand as well as he could. He’s called a special Liberal party room meeting. He’s acknowledged that the issue is one for the Coalition as a whole as well as for the Liberal party. He’s repeatedly said that the government’s policy of conducting a plebiscite remains unchanged. And — according to media reports — he intends to let the debate play out on Monday without trying to lead it or taking a position.
All of those serve the most important goal for Turnbull, of hanging onto the leadership. He has demonstrated, repeatedly and at great cost to his standing with voters, that he is not prepared to back any plans to somehow deal with the matter via a parliamentary vote that passes with the support of Liberal MPs who cross the floor. He has made good on his commitment to the Nationals and the far right of the Liberals that there’ll be no change to the policy on marriage equality on his watch.
If Abbott, Abetz and Andrews, and whatever other handful of extremist zealots, want to come after him, they won’t be able to do so on the pretext that he has broken his commitment on this issue. And nor will any possible leadership contender.
But it’s not merely self-interest. Turnbull has limited political capital and not a lot of authority. He has to use it wisely. There’s no point in wasting it getting between the homophobes and marriage equality advocates in his party. He’ll just get bloodied in the fight. Far better for both him and the government to remain disengaged and let them duke it out. It’s unlikely any prime ministerial intervention is going to change anyone’s mind anyway. Why diminish your authority for nothing?
In short, everything thinks the prime minister isn’t handling marriage equality well. But can anyone identify what, exactly, he should be doing instead? It’s easy to point out the lousy option he’s taken, without bothering to note that it’s the least worst of the ones available.
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