16 August 2015
by Philip Coorey
It's every man for himself on Tony Abbott's sinking governmental ship
When Fairfax Media's Latika Bourke broke the news mid-morning Thursday that trade union royal commissioner Dyson Heydon was booked to speak at a Liberal Party fundraiser, Attorney-General George Brandis was already scheduled to do an interview with Sky News.
Given Heydon had been tainted politically, the Royal Commission castrated, and the government ambushed by yet another crisis, Brandis could have been forgiven for cancelling the interview while he got his head around the latest catastrophe and prepared a considered response. But so determined was the Attorney-General to smack down cabinet colleague Scott Morrison's call for a referendum on same-sex marriage, he didn't give it a second thought.
Not only were his legal sensitivities offended at the prospect of advocating unwarranted constitutional change, but Brandis, a moderate and one of 16 Liberal frontbenchers who spoke in support of a conscience vote on Tuesday night, saw the referendum proposal for what it was: a clever tactic to kick gay marriage into the long grass and kill it.
Brandis strode purposefully down the press galley corridor into the Sky studios, took a handful of questions on Heydon and then launched into Morrison's referendum proposal. For good measure, he backed up in the Senate during question time and again on Lateline on Thursday night.
His actions underscored an alarming behavioural shift which has taken hold in the government in the days following the same-sex marriage marathon debate.
As the government reels from crisis to crisis and the Prime Minister's authority wanes, there is a growing sense of "every man for himself".
The Prime Minister, whose starting point on gay marriage was to not even allow a debate, mishandled the internals and, as a result, has lost control of the issue and, more broadly, his party.
Hitherto meek, loyal and compliant ministers and backbenchers are breaking out, motivated more by preserving their jobs, their seats and their future prospects than any real belief the current crisis can be turned around.
Christopher Pyne, whose seat of Sturt is under threat, has rediscovered his moderate voice and has used gay marriage as a point of differentiation from the Prime Minister who is so unpopular in South Australia.
Pyne fought Abbott to try and stop the Nationals being part of the party room discussion, knowing their overwhelming opposition to gay marriage would give Abbott the numbers to crush the free-vote call. He has joined Brandis in rubbishing a referendum proposal.
Malcolm Turnbull has stopped pretending and has been out every day since the partyroom meeting pushing back at a referendum and any other attempts to kick the issue beyond the election. Other ministers such as Josh Frydenberg have played supporting roles.
On the other side of the argument, Morrison, who will loom large should the leadership be revisited before the election, is being true to his conservative beliefs as well as keeping sweet with that arm of the party.
Joe Hockey, who opposes gay marriage, broke his media drought to rush onto Radio National on Wednesday morning to try to stake a claim on the referendum idea, which Morrison has been advancing behind the scenes for many weeks.
'Doing a Gillard'
Others are conflicted. Julie Bishop won few friends during the partyroom debate when she sat on the fence and advocated a plebiscite or a referendum.
"Julie was thinking aloud," said a critic. Another accused her of "doing a Gillard". This was a reference to Julia Gillard's claim to not support gay marriage. No one close to her ever believed it and they accused her of trying to appease the Right. It won her no support from the Right or Left.
Her defenders say she did well in advocating the third way.
Abbott has been unable to hold back the forces who want change. He is no longer in charge of the policy response, Before he even got to choose between a referendum or a plebiscite, his Attorney-General killed off the former.
Abbott's political instinct has long been to fight to maintain the status quo. He has rarely, if ever, advocated a yes case of significance in his career. He has expended enormous energy over the years opposing change, be it a republic, a carbon price, industrial relations reforms (he was one of two ministers in the Howard government to oppose WorkChoices), renewable energy, and gay marriage.
Such an approach may work a treat in opposition but is unsustainable in a position of national leadership, especially during such a period of great global economic, environmental and social flux.
Abbott told his party room this week that the government flourished when it talked about jobs and growth. One wit noted afterwards that was ironic coming from somebody "who spent three weeks talking about a TV show", a reference to the PM's pathological obsession with the ABC and the Q&A program.
Others note there is little else to focus on other than crisis. Apart from Hockey's periodical calls to cut income tax, the government has pretty much ruled out any way to fund such cuts, let alone embrace with any gusto any other meaningful economic reform.
People are now looking at the Canning byelection, due around October and prompted by the sudden death of Western Australian Liberal Don Randall, as critical to what happens next.
Abbott's stance on gay marriage has shored up his numbers among the overwhelmingly conservative backbench but in politics, never underestimate the power of the survival instinct.
Towards the end of days in Labor, even people who harboured deep personal dislike of Kevin Rudd and who would have rather cut their throats than support him, reluctantly told Gillard the harsh reality of the polls and their imminent demise meant they could no longer support her.
It is not at that stage in the Coalition yet, but there are plenty who are positioning themselves for the eventuality should it occur. If the polls continue to indicate Turnbull is the closest you can get to a sure thing in politics, that becomes a powerful impetus for people to change, and not shilly-shally about with another candidate.
If you are going to do it, you do it properly.
It is a rare politician who is willing to go to the gallows out of personal or policy loyalty