Having given them four weeks to get used to the new Government, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull last week commenced the delicate task of pushing back against his harshest critics.
Not the Labor Opposition, but conservative MPs within his own party.
Turnbull had gone to some effort when he first became leader to placate the right, not only in the Liberal Party but also in the Nationals. This reportedly included disavowing any move to reintroduce an emissions trading scheme or exchange the plebiscite on same-sex marriage for a parliamentary vote.
Such commitments would have provided some comfort to the right, but also exposed Turnbull to the obvious criticism that nothing about the Government had materially changed.
However, in a series of statements and announcements last week, the Prime Minister finally started to show his progressive hand. In detailing how his regime differed from Abbott’s, Turnbull was testing the limits of hardliners’ opposition to his planned progressive reforms to better understand how far and how quickly he could move the Government to the more competitive political centre.
First the PM referred to his Government’s support for greenhouse-friendly public transport in contrast to the Abbott regime’s narrower focus on fossil fuel-intensive roads.
Then there was the pointed omission of any praise for the harsh Abbott-Hockey economic reforms when Turnbull paid tribute to the departing former Treasurer. This was followed by an announcement that the 2014 budget’s cuts to family tax benefits would be softened to secure Labor support.
These hints of the PM’s determination to put his progressive mark on the Government were joined by an announcement that funding for climate contrarian Bjorn Lomberg’s think tank was no longer available, and a parliamentary statement denouncing continued efforts to water down the Racial Discrimination Act.
Each of these moves can be seen as an attempt by the PM to find the weak spots in Liberal conservatives’ resistance to progressive policies, as well as identifying the points where the right (and their supporters in the tabloid media) are likely to dig in before waging an unedifying war upon their own kind.
Same-sex marriage appears to be once such touch-point, given it was the only issue that provoked squeals of indignation from the right last week when PM Turnbull canvassed the binding nature of a marriage equality plebiscite on the Parliament.
“When the Australian people make their decision, that decision will stick. It will be decisive. It will be respected by this Government and by this Parliament and this nation,” Turnbull said.
Former Liberal Senate Leader, Eric Abetz, hit the airwaves, labelling a proposal to automatically legalise same-sex marriage if the plebiscite was successful as unhelpful and an ambush.
Even before Turnbull had addressed the issue in Parliament, arch-conservative Liberal Concetta Fierravanti-Wells warned the PM to tread carefully on the matter or risk alienating the Liberal Party’s conservative base.
Speaking to the National Press Club in her capacity as the newly-appointed Assistant Minister for Multicultural Affairs, Fierravanti-Wells said the party’s “mostly conservative” base was “devastated” by the leadership change, and that she had done her best to talk people into staying “for the good of the Liberal Party that we all serve”.
“A Coalition policy that directly supports same-sex marriage could place under threat some of our most marginal seats which have disproportionately high religious and migrant communities,” she said. The Assistant Minister based this assertion on her own analysis of the religious and cultural makeup of 14 marginal seats across Australia.
However, the most recent opinion poll on the subject suggests 69 per cent of all voters now support same-sex marriage, including 53 per cent of Coalition voters.
These numbers suggest Turnbull could attract more “new” Liberal voters by taking a centrist position on marriage equality, than the number of existing voters he’d lose by doing so.
Having identified same-sex marriage as one of the points on which the right will aggressively push back, Turnbull desperately needs those opinion polls to be accurate.
The Coalition’s conservatives may be prepared to waive their principles on welfare cuts and free speech in the interests of party unity, but it appears they’ve decided to make opposition to same-sex marriage a totemic issue.
Consequently, Turnbull needs to convince the right that opposition to marriage equality stands between them and re-election. Even then, the conservatives may still prefer electoral oblivion to having to concede the issue to their new progressive overlord.