News White House leak will offer PM only brief relief from gay marriage battle

White House leak will offer PM only brief relief from gay marriage battle

Malcolm Turnbull
The Turnbull government has announced a postal vote on gay marriage. Photo: AAP
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Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull may have actually been grateful when a leaked transcript of his testy first phone conversation with US President Donald Trump appeared in the media at the end of this week.

But that unexpected relief wouldn’t have lasted for long.

Before the leak, Mr Turnbull would have been wondering whether there was anything capable of wresting the attention of journalists from the slow-moving train-wreck that is the Coalition’s internal debate over gay marriage.

The PM had certainly expressed frustration with the single-mindedness of those journos as he’d spent the last week before the resumption of parliament pressing the flesh in Western Australia.

But it’s not every day the White House is suspected of leaking a diplomatic document just to chip one of America’s supposed allies, even if the printed version was in no great way different from descriptions of the exchange already given by Mr Turnbull and Mr Trump.

Journos caught the scent of this fresh blood, shifting their gaze to the simultaneously forthright but obsequious manner in which the PM had argued the case for Mr Trump to honour the Obama administration’s refugee deal with Australia.

“You can certainly say that it was not a deal that you would have done, but you are going to stick with it,” Mr Turnbull told the clearly unhappy Mr Trump, adding it would “show the respect that a trusted ally wants and deserves”.

‘You can decide to take 1000 or 100’

But the PM also appeared to beg the President to agree to the deal even if it resulted in no refugees being accepted by the US: “You can decide to take 1000 or 100. It is entirely up to you. The obligation is to only go through the process,” Mr Turnbull stressed.

He then offered to “take anyone that you want us to take,” in return as long as they were not boat arrivals. “The only people that we do not take are people who come by boat.”

This apparent demonstration of weakness will be pounced upon by the conservative forces currently rallying troops for next week’s Liberal Party showdown on marriage equality.

During the week Tony Abbott’s former chief of staff, Peta Credlin, framed the breakaway Liberals advocating a free vote on gay marriage as evidence that Mr Turnbull was a weak leader who could not control his own moderate faction. Ms Credlin also predicted that Mr Turnbull would not be Prime Minister by Christmas.

It’s more likely that Mr Turnbull has unofficially sanctioned the gay marriage rebellion, in an effort to get the issue resolved and off the agenda before the Liberals escalate the internal battle over a clean energy target.

Dean Smith
Senator Dean Smith. Photo: AAP

Somewhat ironically, it is a conservative gay Liberal, Dean Smith, leading the push for marriage equality. Senator Smith will make available his proposed draft legislation to legalise gay marriage before Monday’s special Liberal Party meeting, which is being held to discuss how the party will respond to the bill.

Both Senator Smith and his Liberal colleague Warren Entsch, the long-time same-sex marriage supporter, this week dismissed the calls for a plebiscite as delaying tactics, and pressed their colleagues to drop the policy requiring a plebiscite to be held before Parliament has a free vote on the matter.

Close loss would admonish

Media speculation, fuelled by leaks from the opposing forces, has created an expectation that if they are unsuccessful in getting this change the Liberal “rebels” will cross the floor to help Labor force the issue in the Parliament.

If that were to occur, Mr Turnbull’s detractors could argue he’d lost the confidence of the Parliament.

It is still too early to tell whether that would be enough of a crisis to lure Liberal MPs away from Mr Turnbull to a conservative alternative leader.

It’s also difficult to predict whether Senator Smith’s private member’s bill, or any other, would even attract enough votes to legalise gay marriage. Labor MPs still have a free vote on the issue and not all support the idea, so there might not be enough Liberal floor-crossers to save the day.

A loss by a small margin would be a setback for the marriage equality cause and an admonishment to Mr Turnbull. The PM’s judgement and leadership capability would again be brought into question, given that so much political capital would have been expended on the campaign for a free vote.

Mr Turnbull’s best chance for success on gay marriage would be for the Liberals to change their policy on same-sex marriage to a free vote.

Unfortunately for the Prime Minister, there does not appear to be enough supportive Liberal MPs to make this a reality.

Mr Turnbull might be able to convince a cranky and capricious president to do something he’d rather not, but that ability clearly doesn’t extend to the arch conservatives in the Liberal party room.

Paula Matthewson was media adviser to John Howard in the early 1990s and then worked for almost 25 years in communication, political and industry advocacy roles. She is now a freelance writer and communication strategist. Paula tweets @Drag0nista.