News National So where to now for Australian politics?
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So where to now for Australian politics?

In a rate extra day of Parliament, the Senate has been sitting on Friday. Photo: AAP
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Perhaps even more than people realise, given the events in the US, this week provided a number of “what now?” moments in Australian politics.

After months of refusing to confirm that it would block the establishment of the gay marriage plebiscite, Labor went ahead and did exactly that this week.

Combining its votes with those of the Greens, Nick Xenophon’s senators and Derryn Hinch, the Opposition put an end to a potentially harmful national vote on the issue.

Labor may have led marriage equality supporters to believe that, with the plebiscite out of the way, Mr Turnbull would take the alternative path to legalisation, namely a free vote in Parliament.

If they did, they should be taken to the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission for false and misleading advertising.

There is as much chance of the PM allowing a free vote within the Liberal Party on legalising gay marriage as there is of Tony Abbott being invited to the Turnbull family Christmas dinner. It’s just not going to happen.

Doing so would mobilise the opponents to same sex marriage within the Liberal and National parties, just as emissions trading did in 2009, yet again putting an end to Mr Turnbull’s leadership.

same sex marriage parliament plebiscite
Those who think the PM will allow a free vote within the Liberal Party on legalising gay marriage are going to be bitterly disappointed.

Of course Labor knows this, but will continue to pressure Mr Turnbull to honour “the old Malcolm” by “allowing” a free vote. And when he doesn’t, they’ll claim the PM is the only thing standing between the LGTBI community and their human rights.

The asylum seeker wedge

Less obvious in the “what now” stakes is what Labor is going to do on asylum seekers. The Government tried to wedge the Opposition this week with a proposal to forever ban boat arrivals from ever entering Australia – even on a tourist or business visa.

Labor usually stays close to the Coalition on border protection issues, fearing the wrath of voters who support the existing asylum seeker regime, or want it to be even tougher. Even a majority of Labor voters support the government proposal.

But this week Labor MPs unanimously decided to oppose the lifetime ban, creating the first significant point of difference between the major parties on asylum seekers since PM Julia Gillard re-opened the Nauru and Manus Island offshore detention centres in 2012.

The government is looking to make asylum-seeker boats an election issue
Labor’s unanimous opposition of a lifetime ban is the first significant point of difference between the major parties on asylum seekers in years.

Like Malcolm Turnbull with marriage equality, Opposition leader Bill Shorten would have had a party rebellion on his hands if he had tried to force the left wing of the Labor party to support the ban.

Is this the harbinger of Labor moving even further away from the Coalition on asylum seekers? The Opposition will no doubt be monitoring opinion polls to see if taking a stand on the visa ban affects its support.

The rise of the ‘popcon’

However the biggest question mark of the week hangs over Australia’s populist conservatives (dubbed “popcons” by one commentator), who’ve been emboldened by the angry white wave of disgruntlement that swept Donald Trump into office.

One by one, Australia’s popcons have laid claim to the mantle of champion for the newly enfranchised “forgotten people”, including ex-PM Tony Abbott who tweeted support for Trump on US election night.

“Congrats to the new president who appreciates that middle America is sick of being taken for granted,” Mr Abbott said.

abbott turnbull
The more Turnbull shifts to the right, the more Abbott positions himself as ‘the real deal’.

And then on national radio on Friday morning, Mr Abbott praised his own leader, Malcolm Turnbull, for becoming a more “orthodox” centre-right prime minister since his election.

The former leader has a point, given his successor has adopted pretty much all the Abbott agenda.

However Mr Abbott’s praise for Mr Turnbull shouldn’t be taken at face value; this is mischief making at its worst.

By emphasising how much his successor is like himself, Mr Abbott is not only rubbing salt into the wounds of mourning progressives, but reminding the popcons that Turnbull is only a pale imitation of the real deal.

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