Let’s get something clear right away — same-sex marriage has not been and will not be the kind of issue that could destroy Tony Abbott’s prime ministership. Electorally, despite overwhelming popular support for equal marriage rights, it has consistently been a lower-order issue in terms of votes. And within the party room Abbott is on the side of the majority in holding to party policy that treats marriage as something that must be “between a man and a woman”.
Yet late last week same-sex marriage suddenly became the most important issue in federal politics, not least because it provoked an outrageously prolonged joint party room meeting which has since been reported as indicative of a major crisis for Abbott.
After the first sitting week of the current session, the picture of intra-governmental chaos and prime ministerial misfortune is being painted as almost as bad as the days following Abbott’s announcement that he would grant a knighthood to Prince Philip. In that case the trashing of a traditional institution led eventually to a spill motion that gained almost 40 percent of party room votes despite there not being a declared alternative leadership candidate. It was the perfect metaphor for the Abbott leadership — experiencing a life and death challenge from a yawning void: a purely negative phenomenon, collapsing in on itself like a black hole.
Last week’s Coalition imbroglio on marriage rights held none of the same conservative ideological risk for Abbott, but it did carry “a far bigger unspoken implication: that the government is descending into chaos devoid of process and judgment.” And it followed a series of entirely manageable fiascos that were entirely mismanaged.
First, there was the extended agony of the Bronwyn Bishop entitlements scandal. Abbott showed his “tin ear” again on an issue where public anger was not about insider issues like Bishop’s partisan and incompetent handling of the Speaker’s job Abbott had given to her, nor even so much about rules being technically broken, but because voters hate seeing their money spent by a political class that seems to play no socially useful role. Abbott could hang onto Bishop as long as he did in part because Labor can never fully connect with voter disdain on the issue because (as Christopher Pyne’s defence of Tony Burke’s entitlements showed) it colludes in the same culture.
Second, the choice of replacement Speaker should have been Abbott’s and yet it was up and comer Scott Morrison who was the key backer of Tony Smith, engineering his elevation over the PM’s preferred option — and by a large margin. It was a very traditional “doing of the numbers” that exposed just how weak Abbott has become within his own side.
And third, after managing to get some mileage from the Trade Union Royal Commission, with its stream of revelations about union dealings and the past activities of certain prominent ALP politicians, the government suddenly found its conservative (but cleanskin) Commissioner exposing his partisan role for all to see by signing up to speak at a Liberal Party fundraiser.
In such a context, the marriage issue could suddenly be destabilising for the government. This was despite Bill Shorten having delivered Abbott a free kick by stitching up a deal at ALP conference for his party’s current “conscience vote” policy to be continued, at the same time improbably claiming that Labor was the true pro-SSM party. Given that the three times this policy has been tested in federal parliament at least 40 percent of ALP politicians opposed marriage equality, Labor’s claims look a little thin. What really made the issue blow up was that it has become part of internal wrangling over the explanatory narrative for the government’s problems. As in the case of Shorten using SSM to shore up his meagre internal authority, the issue is not the substantive one but how it can be used as a political weapon for other ends.
Therefore when Laura Tingle argues that on same-sex marriage “Labor is starting to present itself as the party of the future and Tony Abbott as the dinosaur of the past” she misses the fact that what most voters see is stasis and hand-wringing on both sides of politics on an issue that for them is already settled.
The reaction of the mainstream marriage equality lobby and its political supporters to Abbott’s brazen “let the people, not the politicians decide” formula reveals just how much they had always seen this as an in-house political class issue, not very much to do with the public’s wishes. With Abbott killing the conscience vote, the Greens’ Sarah Hanson-Young simply continued to attack the Liberals for not being Liberal enough to allow one. Many other SSM supporters have recoiled in horror at the dark forces that might be unleashed if the voters are given the chance to resolve an issue that the politicians are simply unwilling to resolve. Or they argue that voters would be sucked in by Abbott’s trickiness in constructing the question — presumably the same kind of evil genius that has seen the government languishing in the polls since soon after being elected. If nothing else, Abbott’s move has managed to wrong-foot opponents who saw lobbying conservative politicians as the main path to changing the law.*
Of course, because the manoeuvre is really about the Coalition trying to fix its internal problems on the fly, there have immediately been ructions and muddle over whether the popular vote should be a plebiscite or a Constitutional Referendum (not technically “necessary” — depending on what wording was used — but perhaps designed to scare SSM-supporting voters from voting for their views). But these are more about the breakdown of order within the government than anything else, alongside positioning by leadership hopefuls.
It is the passing of the six-month anniversary of Abbott’s plea for him to be given six months to steady the ship that is the real question here. Rarely a day goes by without a mainstream commentator decrying the government’s drift, lack of purpose and failure to pursue that much-desired “reform agenda” thingy. Peter Hartcher exemplifies how the commentariat sees the problem by referring to the conclusions of the NZ prime minister’s travelling party after a visit to Australia in February 2014:
First, they saw that the Abbott government had no reform narrative… Second, they concluded that it had no “political architecture” to manage the government.
This treats the problem upside-down. The lack of a narrative with which to justify their policies and the extreme centralization of government direction around an Abbott-Credlin axis are not the causes of the government’s inability to carry society with it. Rather, they are the product of the Liberals’ long-run loss of a serious base within society that it could carry. Because it lacks a stable mooring in society, the party risks internal fragmentation whenever choppy waters hit. Abbott was able to rescue the conservative-dominated party room from a split over climate policy in 2009, and to ruthlessly hold it together on a hard, ultra-partisan, anti-Labor basis in opposition, but he could not generate a positive program that could both keep his side together and take voters with him.
Commentators also tend to date the government’s problems from the surprise it dropped on the electorate with its April 2014 Budget of “broken promises” but, as this blog argued as early as October 2013, its poor public standing started almost immediately after winning office. Promising “grown-up government”, Abbott instead delivered directionless drift punctuated by primitive culture war forays that would’ve made little sense to people outside his core supporters — oh, and the Left, with its Pavlovian tendency to react to such games. Even the Budget was designed and sold along culture war lines, as if the hardline economic ideologies inside the Liberal bunker would translate into public acquiescence. The end result was a demonstration of the government’s lack of authority to drive serious reform of any kind. Its legislative agenda rapidly crumbled to the point that this year’s Budget was akin to the kind of grim mixture of piecemeal belt-tightening and targeted handouts that Wayne Swan was regularly castigated for.
All that Abbott apparently had going for him was his ability to prey on people’s “fears” over terrorism and national security. But we are no longer living in the shadow of 9/11 and such an agenda has more often left Abbott looking out of touch with geopolitical realities and a risk to the traditional conservative defence of the state. More importantly, even if the government wants the bureaucracy to deliver it one story every week to milk for political advantage, national security has been a consistent electoral fizzer. The last time a national poll showed the government ahead on two-party preferred was in April 2014.
How much longer the Liberal party room can tolerate this is hard to know, but it cannot be a good sign for Abbott that Peta Credlin has once again become the subject of backgrounding. The strong sense is that Abbott is back on the shortest of short leashes, and that this time there will not be an empty chair as alternative PM. But any idea that the main threat to Abbott will be from a moderate like Malcolm Turnbull — no matter what the polls are saying — should really be filed in the too-silly basket. The party room majority would prefer to go down with their ship’s Captain and his silly “picks” than risk a repeat of 2009’s trauma.
Rather, there is now a candidate for the top job who both has the respect of the party room’s hard Right and enough runs on the board as a policy and political fixer: Scott Morrison. Morrison’s self-satisfied turn on ABC 730 last week (superbly dissected by The Piping Shrike) was designed to assuage fellow anti-SSM MPs while giving the impression the social services minister would rise above politicking and respect the people’s will.
When Tingle last week compared Abbott’s government to that of Whitlam she had a point in terms of the constant air of chaos and incompetence. But the comparison only goes so far. The current government is, despite its chronically poor poll position, in a much better position than Whitlam was — although not because of any of its own qualities. Instead it has an advantage Whitlam never had: an Opposition so hollowed out and degenerate that whenever voters notice its leader actually exists they are repelled by the vacuum that seems to occupy his position, itself a reflection of the exhaustion of Laborism as the bedrock Australian political institution of last century. A new Liberal leader imposing a modicum of stability on the government, even one who is likely to be as grey and workmanlike as Morrison, will be enough to shine the political light back on federal Labor. And being in the glare of public attention is the last thing Labor needs.
Whether Abbott manages to hang on by cobbling together a few months of stability or (much more likely) Morrison is installed to save the show it is much clearer that Australian politics is now little more than a clash of hollow vessels with no formula emerging on either side to reconfigure its relationship to the people it governs. The situation is so despair inducing in elite circles that Australia’s two rival national dailies have sponsored a National Reform Summit™ that specifically excludes the current government and opposition from its deliberations.
The dilemma for the Left in this situation is that it has defined itself almost exclusively as being “anti-Abbott”. While the Greens have been able to recover somewhat on the back of Labor’s paralysis, they have less of an identifiable purpose under Richard Di Natale’s so-far bland technocratic leadership than at any time I can recall. Di Natale inadvertently explained the Greens’ inertia when asked about his political heroes soon after taking the leader’s job:
Tony Abbott a close second, because he allows us to really shine. You know, there’s one way of bringing Greens policies into close focus and that is to have someone like Tony Abbott — who’s more of a villain, I suppose, but in some ways he’s a hero to us — because he allows us to communicate what we stand for.
In Australian politics today, negativity seems to be all that’s left on offer.