News National Malcolm Turnbull to be left at the altar on plebiscite

Malcolm Turnbull to be left at the altar on plebiscite

Malcolm Turbull
The Prime Minister’s approval is on a downward trajectory and losing the marriage equality plebiscite bill will not help. Photo: AAP
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The same-sex marriage plebiscite will not make it to the altar and that will suit its authors.

Tony Abbott and his conservative allies in the Coalition will settle for whatever they can get. Their plan was always to delay, if not defeat.

But it could be a pyrrhic victory. What will be buried when Labor joins the Greens, the Xenophon senators and Derryn Hinch voting down the plebiscite bill in the Senate is just that: the plebiscite bill.

Support for ending discrimination against gay and transgender adults over the right to civil marriage is growing in Australia. Just as John Howard’s stubborn refusal to say sorry to the Aboriginal Stolen Generations only intensified the will for it to happen, so too will the refusal of a parliamentary free vote.

Marriage equality campaigners are even more exercised over this issue. To get a sense of their persistence and the changing attitudes we only have to check the record.

There have been 19 parliamentary attempts to have gay marriage recognised in law since 2004. Veteran Liberal champion of the cause, Warren Entsch, says his private members’ bill was number 17.

Mr Entsch still says his preferred way of achieving the reform is by a vote of the parliament. Newspoll two weeks ago showed more Australians agree with his druthers now than they did last year when the plebiscite was announced as Coalition policy.

But the MP has come to the conclusion that “the only way we have any chance of getting this through is by letting the Australian people make a decision”.

He is unpersuaded by the closeness of this year’s election as a surefire bet that next time Labor will win. Kim Beazley actually won the popular vote in 1998 running John Howard close, only to be thumped at the 2001 poll.

It may have seemed dull from the outside, but this year's election was eventful behind the scenes.
The PM’s standing in the polls seems to be waning, as Bill Shorten closes the gap. Photo: Getty

Besides, he says, there is no guarantee that the next Liberal leader will be as sympathetic as Malcolm Turnbull to the cause. This is an interesting observation because it begs the question on the longevity of Mr Turnbull in the top job.

But whoever leads the Coalition to the next election is surely going to need a policy on the issue. In 2013 Tony Abbott had everyone believe after that election a free vote would be party room policy.

He made sure it wasn’t. Could he, or someone like him such as Scott Morrison or even Mr Turnbull attempt the same ploy again? Bowling up a plebiscite would have no credibility.

Surely one of the lessons of the plebiscite is the damage it has done to Mr Turnbull’s standing with voters. On the record as not supporting it as a good idea, he nevertheless embraced it to win the party leadership and then to hold on to it.

Warren Entsch
Liberal MP Warren Entsch is a champion of marriage equality. Photo: AAP

As the latest Newspoll shows, the Prime Minister’s approval is on a downward trajectory now below Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s. And 100 days into this new term, for the second poll running Labor is in front 52-48, two-party preferred.

No honeymoon there and as polling analyst Andrew Catsaras says even the five-point lead he has in the preferred prime minister stakes is nothing to write home about.

Newly re-elected prime ministers usually enjoy a bounce in the polls. Besides the preferred prime minister measure is not decisive. Other leaders have gone into elections “preferred” only to lose power.

Some Liberal MPs believe Mr Turnbull needs to score against the run of play. Stand up to his internal critics who have held him in a straightjacket of unpopular Abbott policies.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics. He tweets  at @PaulBongiorno

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