How the Nationals saved Marriage (and Turnbull saved himself)

We know it’s now almost certain that the bill relating to the plebiscite on same-sex “marriage” will not make it through Federal Parliament and therefore no public vote on the issue will be held any time soon. If we’re to believe news reports, no definitive parliamentary vote is likely to take place in the near future either.

While senior Liberals are blaming Labor for torpedoing any hope of “marriage equality” and Labor is blaming Malcolm Turnbull for backing a “dangerous” plebiscite – I think there’s one political force that deserves “credit” for delaying the redefinition of marriage and one political figure that really stands to benefit from it.

The media has focused too much on the conservative faction in the Liberal party when it comes to issues like SSM, such as Senators Eric Abetz and Cory Bernardi and Howard/Abbott minister Kevin Andrews (and of course Tony Abbott). We’ve been told that it’s these cultural-conservative-crusading, Abbott-backers who are kicking up a stink within the party and holding the government to ransom.

To some extent, this is true, but it  fails to grapple with the fact that some of the most influential opponents of same-sex marriage and strategic supporters of a plebiscite are people who were instrumental in establishing the Coalition’s policy on the issue, but never exercised a vote in the Abbott-Turnbull leadership contest. I’m talking of course about the National Party, led by Deputy Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce.

Deputy PM Barnaby Joyce [1]

Astute followers of Australian politics would know by now that it’s far too simplistic to say that Turnbull stuck with the plebiscite policy against his will because of conservative MPs within his party that he owes his leadership to.
While Turnbull certainly needed the support of socially conservative Liberals who oppose SSM, in order to successfully topple Abbott – his ascendancy was in fact a brutal wounding of the conservative faction in the Coalition and his “moderate” supporters probably could have agitated for his preferred “free-vote” option more strongly than they did.

The problem was that the toppling of Abbott required a fresh Coalition agreement with the National Party – which although remaining officially secret, very obviously contained a memorandum of understanding about retaining Abbott’s policy concerning the plebiscite. It was the Nationals – probably moreso than their conservative cousins in the Liberal party – who made Turnbull drink from this bitter chalice. They got no say in whether he replaced Abbott as PM, but they had an enormous say as to the terms in which he would be enabled to govern.

By forcing the government to stick with this policy – even when it appeared doomed to  parliamentary failure, the Nationals appear to have pulled off an even better solution to the issue than a last-resort public vote. Once the plebiscite bill is defeated in the Senate, the Government will legitimately be able to let the issue drop for the term of the current parliament. This means no SSM unless and until an ALP victory at the 2019 election (which would still need the right Senate composition to get pushed through).

Nationals MPs Andrew Broad and George Christiansen have sent strong messages to Turnbull & Co. about any flirtations he might be having with the idea of switching to a parliamentary free vote. Broad intimated that he might withdraw support from the government over such a move, while Christiansen clearly indicated the plebiscite policy was part of the Coalition agreement.

While Deputy PM, Barnaby Joyce has reportedly chastised Broad over his comments, it is hard to see this as anything but political theatre – a backbencher taking one for the team. Joyce doesn’t want SSM and as he’s indicated in recent days, he’s very happy to see the government agenda move onto a range of matters he considers to be much more important for national development. By being seen to exercise authority and discipline over the parliamentary party and pulling an outspoken MP “into line”, while giving very strong public shows of loyalty to Turnbull, Joyce is able to maximise the power of the Nationals in this situation while others are blamed for the state of affairs.

So if you believe traditional marriage is something that should be protected, preserved and promoted, you should probably thank the one political party to do something serious about halting it’s redefinition for the forseeable future. I had lost a lot of faith in the Nationals over the years, as they seemed to increasingly become the lapdogs and lackeys of powerful Liberal governments. But under Joyce, they have shone at a critical junction in our nation’s social history and achieved a significant victory (however temporary), while the Liberal, Labor and Greens, along with others, were ready to abandon the meaning of marriage.

The strange thing in all of this is that it benefits Malcolm Turnbull and shores up his leadership security. While some view the PM as hamstrung on an issue he himself would like to see change on – and doomed to lose either government or the Liberal leadership if he makes a wrong step – his opponents now face a similar dilemma. If they get rid of Turnbull they’ll almost inevitably bring about SSM in Australia.

Should the conservative Liberals seek to reinstate Abbott or create a movement behind another potential leader (Bishop or Morrison), they risk handing Labor government (with or without an election). Turnbull would almost certainly resign upon losing the leadership and bring about a by-election in Wentworth, which would not necessarily see a Liberal candidate elected. The Coalition would struggle to govern in the circumstances and would probably need to call an early election, which on current polling they’d lose.

It also highly reduces the likelihood of any breakaway conservative party, under a figure like Cory Bernardi. If the government was torn apart by a split, it could lead to a Labor government, which would seek to legislate SSM within 100 days of taking office.

So while Turnbull still needs to perform (frankly, better than he has been so far) to keep the job – he’s a lot safer if he lets this issue die down. It puts to rest one of the things that made him untrustworthy in the eyes of many conservatives and it makes the alternative of an ALP government that implements SSM, all the more unthinkable.

If you’ve struggled to imagine a political scenario where Turnbull, the Nationals and the conservative Liberals all manage to win, while the organised Left of Australian politics loses – this may just be it. The Nationals saved marriage, Turnbull saved himself. At least for now…

[1] Bidgee “Barnaby Joyce…” CC BY-SA 3.0 wikimedia




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