View from The Hill

View from The Hill

Turnbull tests the water on same-sex marriage

Malcolm Turnbull risks provoking the conservatives within his party on the issue of same-sex marriage. AAP/Mick Tsikas

It was another good day at the office for the Turnbull government. Finally, Labor came on board with the China-Australia free trade agreement. And a package of changes for savings from family tax benefits, replacing the disastrous one in the 2014 budget, has a prospect of getting through the Senate.

Labor, as much as the government, was thankful to clear the way for the awkwardly dubbed ChAFTA. There was no way the opposition could have permanently obstructed it – that would have been politically disastrous and, anyway, it was never the plan.

The government gave Labor some cover by being willing to agree to additional labour market protection.

Bill Shorten, caught between union militants and the electorate, needed a settlement. There was a lot of last-minute toing and froing between Labor and the unions. There might be some union discontent about the outcome (though the CFMEU got most of what it wanted) but with voters, there is no harm in Shorten appearing to show a touch of independence from his industrial base.

The government, anxious to bank the achievement and needing to do so quickly in order to reap this year’s benefits from ChAFTA, lost no skin by the concession.

While ChAFTA is now certain of parliamentary passage, the family tax benefit changes still have hurdles ahead, maybe requiring extra tweaking. But they have a much better chance of success than the original version. The recalibrated measures are less blunt and better targeted.

On this issue too, the government is very anxious to get a resolution. It has linked much of the savings to funding its proposed A$3.5 billion childcare package that will be one of the carrots it offers at the 2016 election. The new package saves about $2.4 billion, as against the original $3.8 billion, but the government is throwing in other savings to get the number close to the original one.

The all-round optimistic government mood was evident in the upbeat demeanour of Treasurer Scott Morrison and Social Services Minister Christian Porter as they spruiked the package.

Amid the glow, there were discordant notes.

Former treasurer Joe Hockey, departing parliament after nearly two decades, didn’t hold back in his valedictory speech. The revolving door of leadership change must be “jammed shut”, he said. Such instability was “the enemy of good public policy”. He stood strongly behind the Abbott government’s record – including his 2014 budget – conceding only political not policy mistakes.

His views will be discounted because he failed as treasurer and is now out of the picture. Nevertheless, he has laid down some tough markers for economic reform, including on tax, industrial relations and welfare, ahead of the Turnbull government having to decide just how brave it wants to be in what it puts to the people next year.

Less publicised but worth noticing were remarks by assistant minister Concetta Fierravanti-Wells in an address to the National Press Club.

“As the senior conservative from NSW, I have spent a lot of time talking to our base,” she said. “In NSW, it is well known the left control the [Liberal Party] division, but the base is mostly conservative.

"Many are devastated by the change, some have left and many have threatened to down tools. … The change of leadership will have an impact on our party … We rely on a volunteer base, mostly of older members, some who have simply had enough.”

One core issues for Liberal conservatives is same-sex marriage. Fierravanti-Wells said “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”.

For the conservatives in the parliamentary party, the post-election popular vote on same-sex marriage that Abbott announced – and Turnbull had to embrace when he was seeking the leadership – was a victory.

But now Turnbull is considering arrangements around that plebiscite that might become a red rag to them.

After Turnbull said in parliament on Wednesday that “the consequence of a ‘yes’ vote in the plebiscite will be that same-sex marriage will be legal in Australia”, cabinet secretary Arthur Sinodinos explained that an option would be to frame legislation for same-sex marriage that was subject to the popular vote being carried.

As to whether Liberals would be given a free vote on such legislation, Sinodinos told Sky that it would have to go to the partyroom for endorsement – if approved, it would be party policy.

When something is party policy there is not (in normal circumstances) a free vote.

If Turnbull takes that option – which would be a very logical one – the debate among the troops might get quite willing.

Help combat alt-facts and fake news and donate to independent journalism. Tax deductible.