Opinion: Egos ignoring the issues of the majority

In attendance: Malcolm and Lucy Turnbull arrive at the 2016 Gay Mardi Gras.
In attendance: Malcolm and Lucy Turnbull arrive at the 2016 Gay Mardi Gras.

I watch on in total dismay and disappointment as a handful of dissidents, a mix of so-called progressives and conservatives, wrangle in the media over same-sex marriage, slowly destroying Turnbull and his government.

To be clear, I support same-sex marriage, and like so many who do, don't, and are just a bit “here and there”, I would like to have seen the matter dealt with expeditiously, given what is perceived as widespread community support. But, it is simply not a “top of mind” issue for most voters, despite their personal preferences, at a time where so many are struggling with their costs of living, with excessive debts, their wages flatlining, and mounting job insecurity.

The matter was essentially off the agenda, for this parliamentary term at least, with the Senate vote against a plebiscite. It is now only dominating the day-to-day political debate and media because a mere handful, driven by personal egos in quest of their moment in the sun, or for some irrelevant factional “power” game, or whatever, have put it there, and been given the leeway to do so. What the hell is their end game? Do these people really believe that even if they “win” by forcing what is ultimately a successful parliamentary vote, that it will help them win the next election? Do they really want to feed, if not ensure, the prospect of yet another PM being replaced mid-term?

The electoral take out can only be negative. To the “silent majority” these dissidents are confirming all that is “wrong” with our so-called democratic system – where a vocal and organised minority can drive our governments, at the expense of the more significant issues of the majority.

Turnbull, of course, has got himself into an extremely compromised position on the issue, and with his leadership. He initially opposed the Abbott proposal for a plebiscite, a proposal designed to simply delay a parliamentary vote. Then, in order to secure the leadership he committed to retain the party position on a plebiscite. He met that commitment by taking it to an election and, even with a narrow win, was able to claim a “mandate”. He then initiated a parliamentary process on the plebiscite, but lost.

I was somewhat surprised that Turnbull didn't seize the moment and move quickly to a full parliamentary conscience vote, just managing any minor party fallout. The electoral commitment of a plebiscite had essentially been met. It was an opportunity for confident leadership. That opportunity was unfortunately lost.

To allow these few dissidents to dominate and drive the debate in recent days has again seen Turnbull look weak, hoist with his own petard.

Voters simply want a government that understands and delivers against their needs, while setting a clear sense of strategy and vision within which the longer-term structural challenges can be effectively met.

Turnbull's first challenge is to start to deliver the leadership he promised, and the first stage of that is to re-establish unity, and an electorally significant purpose.

The joint party room is the venue for a once-and-for all debate and binding secret ballot. Turnbull must demonstrate clear leadership by leading and controlling that debate. His cabinet and ministry simply must support him. Discipline must then be enforced on the outcome, and the government's focus moved back to delivering against voter expectations. To do otherwise will ensure a Shorten victory.

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.