When Malcolm Turnbull’s political career is finally over – and that could be sooner rather than later – it is likely that the ‘highlights’ package run by TV stations – which, based on his ‘achievements’ to date, will also be shorter rather than longer – will include at least a brief mention of his role as head of the unsuccessful ‘Yes’ campaign in the 1999 republic referendum.
The footage they will probably show will be his (in)famous description of John Howard as ‘the Prime Minister who broke this nation’s heart’.
Almost 18 years later, it is somewhat ironic that this description could just as easily be applied to Turnbull’s own stint as the country’s leader.
Despite coming to the top job with enormous public good will, amid widespread relief that Tony Abbott was no longer Prime Minister, just 18 months later he has seemingly squandered it all.
It is almost as if he consciously set about smashing the high hopes and expectations the public once held, as the modern, moderate Malcolm rapidly became traditional ‘Tory’ Turnbull.
We may not be ‘broken-hearted’ (that description always was a touch grandiose), but we have certainly been left disheartened, and deeply disillusioned, by a man who has sold out his principles across a wide range of issues – from climate change to marriage equality, and most things in between – merely to keep his place in The Lodge.
This past week it appears Malcolm’s stint as PM has officially reached its nadir. And this time it is a different quote about John Howard that springs to mind.
On both section 18C, and the postal plebiscite, the Turnbull Government has revealed itself to be ‘mean, tricky, out of touch and not listening’, which is how then Liberal Party President Shane Stone notoriously described the Howard Government in an internal memo in early 2001.
The proposed reforms to the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, which will make it easier to vilify people on the basis of their race (or, as Attorney-General Brandis once admitted, ensure people ‘have the right to be bigots’), are nakedly ‘mean-spirited’.
The Liberal-National Government is seeking to undermine anti-vilification laws that have protected Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and other Australians from ethnically diverse backgrounds, for more than two decades.
The entire justification for their unrelenting assault on section 18C is to simply repeat the word ‘freedom’ over and over again, and hope nobody notices that a largely homogeneous group of MPs and Senators, most of whom will never experience racism, are taking away protections from people who, depressingly, still need them.
The move to change the wording of section 18C, by replacing the words ‘offend, insult, humiliate’ with ‘harass’, is tricky, too.
Not just because the Prime Minister has tried, on multiple occasions, to describe this amendment as ‘strengthening’ anti-vilification laws (sorry, Prime Minister, we’re not that gullible).
But also because, on at least five separate occasions before the July 2016 federal election, Malcolm Turnbull said that his Government had no plans to change the Racial Discrimination Act.
Being confronted with this inconvenient history this week led Mr Turnbull to engage in this, frankly, extraordinary exchange:
“Journalist: But on backflips, you back flipped on 18C, you changed your mind on 18C. Don’t you agree this is what politicians do, they change their position?
Prime Minister: Again, I don’t accept that proposition at all.
Journalist: You said five times before the election that you wouldn’t change 18C and now you’re pushing through changes?
Prime Minister: What we said before the election was that we did not have any plans to change 18C and that was absolutely true. So again, as a guardian of the truth, you should be more careful with the language you attribute to me…”
‘Honest’ John Howard would be proud of that evasion. And it seems like the Australian electorate are the ones who need to be more careful, and not believe any future promises that Malcolm Turnbull might make.
Amending the wording of 18C is also the definition of a niche political issue, demonstrating that the Government is comprehensively out of touch with the concerns ordinary Australians.
It doesn’t take Einstein to realise most Australians are far more interested in health, education and employment – and increasingly, the cost of housing – than the supposed troubles of Andrew Bolt or (the late) Bill Leak.
Speaking of which, even Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce spoke against the proposals in the joint party room meeting on Tuesday (21 March), reportedly saying ‘the move to amend 18C is really dumb and it will lose the Coalition votes’.
Barnaby knows that this issue is not what John Howard called a ‘barbecue stopper’. For many people, if 18C came up at all it would most likely be in the context of wondering why the Turnbull Government is so obsessed by an issue that, as Treasurer Scott Morrison previously conceded, ‘doesn’t create one job, doesn’t open one business, doesn’t give anyone one extra hour’.
Of course, that is not to say nobody is focused on, or affected by, this issue. For a significant minority, and especially Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and Australians from ethnically diverse backgrounds, the changes to 18C are a threat to vital protections against the hate-speech that remains far-too-common.
And they have been making their voices heard, providing literally hundreds of submissions to the Parliamentary Joint Committee that considered this issue at the start of the year.
In the five days since these reforms were announced, there have also been joint statements against proposed changes to 18C by ‘[r]epresentatives from Greek, Armenian, Indigenous, Jewish, Indian, Arabic, Chinese, Vietnamese and Lebanese organisations.’
But the Turnbull Government is not listening to the millions of people who would be adversely affected by these new definitions.
Quite literally, in fact, as the Aboriginal Legal Service discovered when it attempted to provide evidence to the Senate Inquiry into the Human Rights Legislation Amendment Bill 2017 on Friday, and Liberal and National Party Senators voted not to hear them.
Instead, the Turnbull Government is listening to the (maybe) tens of people – at the Institute of Public Affairs, and the Herald Sun and The Australian newspapers – who have been clamouring for these changes.
Or, as Barnaby Joyce acknowledged (and yes, I’m just as surprised as you are that I’m quoting him, approvingly, twice in the same article):
“This is an issue, it is an issue but I’ll be frank, it lives in the extremities of the bell curve. Where do you meet those people [who care about 18C]? At party meetings, they are absolutely blessed people and they are terribly politically involved and they have an intense interest in some of the minutiae of debate. They come into your office to rant and rave about it, all four of them.”
It is hard to summarise the proposed changes to 18C much better than that – the racial vilification laws that protect millions of Australians from hate-speech are being wound back because of the passionate and vocal interest of extremists inside the Liberal and National Parties who ultimately won’t be affected by it in the slightest.
Not content with displaying its fundamental flaws in relation to 18C, the past week also saw the Turnbull Government debating another subject on which it is consistently ‘mean, tricky, out of touch and not listening’: marriage equality.
Specifically, the man most likely to replace Malcolm as Prime Minister, Peter Dutton (now that’s a phrase I’d hoped never to write), has been actively pushing a proposal to hold a ‘postal plebiscite’ on this issue.
To be fair to the incumbent, Turnbull has so far not expressed formal support for this idea. But then he hasn’t ruled it out either, and, given he maintains his predecessor, Tony Abbott’s, policy in favour of a ‘traditional’ plebiscite, there is a real risk the postal plebiscite will become Government policy.
This is, at its core, another mean-spirited proposal.
Imposing a plebiscite – traditional or postal – to determine whether lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians should enjoy equal rights under the law is a hurdle that no other social group has been forced to overcome.
The idea that we need to hold such a vote to determine whether couples like Steve and me can say ‘I do’ is so ridiculous that it should have been laughed off. But it isn’t just couples like Steve and me, who have only been together eight and a half years, affected by the ongoing ban on marriage equality.
It also denies the rights of couples like Peter de Waal and Peter Bonsall-Boone, who have been together for more than 50 years, and who simply want to be married under the law just like any other couple.
Holding a postal plebiscite will take several months, and a positive result would still need to be confirmed by legislation afterwards. This is time that some couples do not have:
Therefore, the idea that the Government could hold a postal plebiscite on marriage equality isn’t just unprecedented, or ridiculous, it is downright offensive, especially when the alternative is so obvious.
As De Waal says: “[t]he simplest, cheapest, quickest and fairest way to resolve this inequality is a free vote in federal parliament now!”
The postal plebiscite is also tricky in two key ways. First, the legislation to hold a traditional plebiscite on marriage equality was firmly rejected by the Senate in November last year.
Having failed in that attempt, for the Government to turn around and hold one anyway, this time via post and therefore not requiring parliamentary approval, is both sly and underhanded.
Or, as Liberal backbencher Trent Zimmerman acknowledged: “it [is] the wrong path because it would be seen as ‘tricky and sneaky’, it would be non-binding and its result could be disregarded” [emphasis added].
Second, the nature of a postal plebiscite would effectively stack the decks against marriage equality. The group most likely to engage via post – older Australians – are also the least likely to support marriage equality. The converse is also true – many younger people, who are overwhelmingly in favour of the equal rights of LGBTI people, would be less likely to vote this way.
A postal plebiscite would also inevitably be a contest between passionate advocates at either end of the debate, instead of the middle Australia who, as demonstrated by opinion poll after opinion poll, are, to use John Howard’s phrase, entirely ‘comfortable and relaxed’ about the idea of two men, or two women, marrying.
Finally, as Mr Zimmerman suggests, the lower turnout of a postal plebiscite would also reduce its legitimacy, making a public ‘yes’ vote easier for MPs to ignore (remembering that the same conservatives who now support a plebiscite questioned the validity of the Irish marriage equality referendum because ‘only’ 60% of people voted).
Just as with the changes to section 18C, the push for a postal plebiscite on marriage equality also reveals just how out of touch the current Liberal-National Government has become.
While the proposal to hold a traditional plebiscite was initially popular, that support dropped away dramatically through 2016 as people increasingly understood it would be unnecessary, wasteful and divisive.
A postal plebiscite is just as unnecessary, and would still be preceded by a bitter and hate-filled public debate. Perhaps the only ‘improvement’, if you could call it that, is that it would waste tens, rather than hundreds, of millions of dollars.
The idea itself seems to have appeared out of nowhere. I cannot recall any news story, or opinion piece, published prior to last week where anyone was calling for the plebiscite to be revived and for it to be conducted via post.
That simply confirms that this proposal is not about meeting any demonstrated need from the community – instead, it is being driven by the internal politics of a dysfunctional Government that steadfastly refuses to do the one thing that would actually end this issue once and for all: hold a free vote in parliament.
Finally, this is another instance of the Turnbull Government not listening to the people who are affected by this issue: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians.
As a community, we said a very firm ‘no’ to the idea of a traditional plebiscite in the second half of 2016, in large part because of the harm it would cause to young and vulnerable members of our community.
Based on everything that has been said since the absurd notion of a postal plebiscite was floated last week, we reject the idea of an optional opinion poll via return mail, too (perhaps even more strongly).
As Rodney Croome of just.equal notes: “[r]egardless of the model, a plebiscite does not mean more power to the people, but an abdication of responsibility by politicians. It is the coward’s way out.”
Or, in the words of Alex Greenwich from Australian Marriage Equality, it is a ‘desperate ploy’, and “[i]t would be seen as a pretty sneaky and underhanded way to do it, I mean, bypassing the parliament.”
All-in-all, this is an issue that only really affects LGBTI people, and our family members and friends. And we’ve already made our views on this topic very clear – we want marriage equality, we want it now, and we want it passed in the ordinary way: in parliament.
Almost 13 years after marriage equality was originally banned by John Howard’s Coalition Government in August 2004, it is time for Malcolm Turnbull’s Coalition Government to start listening to us and just get it done already. If they don’t, they might find themselves with a lot more free time come 2019.
These two policies – the proposed reforms to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, and the possible postal plebiscite – don’t just reveal a Government that is ‘mean, tricky, out of touch and not listening’. They are also two of the worst, and most indefensible, policies of an era that is already renowned for poor governance.
This Government actually wants to make it easier to vilify people on the basis of their race. Voluntarily holding a national public vote on marriage equality will see people vilified on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status, too.
They also share another similarity – they are things not even John Howard did. He had almost twelve years as Prime Minister, including two and half with a Senate majority, in which to wind back our racial vilification laws, and chose not to do so.
And, even though he legislated the ‘wrong’ way, he also knew that the issue of marriage equality was one that could and should be settled by our 226 elected representatives, sitting in our nation’s parliament.
In this way, we can see that Malcolm Turnbull won’t just be remembered as one of our most disappointing, and disheartening, Prime Ministers, someone who has comprehensively failed to live up to such high expectations. He will also go down as one of the worst. Period.