Just like Tony Abbott in 2015, Malcolm Turnbull is heading into a perfect storm on same-sex marriage. And as it was for Abbott, it has the potential to be very dangerous for him.
There is a big question over whether Turnbull can keep control of this debate. More to the point, perhaps, is whether he’ll even try.
His present strategy seems to be to stick tight to the government’s current policy of a plebiscite – which it can’t get through the Senate – and see where the Liberal partyroom lands.
With parliament resuming next week, the government’s plebiscite commitment is being openly and concertedly challenged by several backbenchers, who are making a determined move to get it ditched and the issue settled by a free vote in parliament.
Three gay Liberals were out in the media on Monday pushing for change. Western Australian senator Dean Smith, with opinion pieces in two national newspapers, wrote: “It is time to resolve the matter, in parliament”. Smith has a private member’s bill.
The member for Brisbane, Trevor Evans, said a free vote was the “quickest and most likely course” for achieving reform.
And Victorian Liberal Tim Wilson declared he had “a personal conflict which torments and challenges me on a daily basis and I’d like to see this issue resolved”.
Intense work is going on behind the scenes. Warren Entsch, a Liberal from north Queensland who has been a long-term campaigner for marriage equality, said: “I hope we can have a cordial conversation [in the Liberal partyroom] about the policy and the way forward. It’s time for a resolution.
"My view is that there must be a parliamentary vote. I don’t see any form of a plebiscite as an option.” And that includes Peter Dutton’s idea of a postal vote.
It’s unclear whether the advocates for change could get support in the Liberal partyroom to overturn the plebiscite policy.
While they are determined, they face tough opposition.
New South Wales Liberal Craig Kelly said on Monday that “we have an obligation to stick to our election commitments and if we don’t we will be punished as a party.”
Former minister Eric Abetz declared that “the only people talking about this and putting the issue into the media are a select few who have a different view to the prime minister and the partyroom as a whole”.
Tony Abbott has yet to buy in this week.
But while some conservatives are intransigent, others would like to get the debate off the agenda. As Turnbull himself said in 2015, criticising Abbott’s proposed plebiscite: “One of the attractions of a free vote is it would have meant the matter would be resolved in this parliament, one way or another, in a couple of weeks”.
In the background are the Nationals, seeing this as another Liberal distraction from what they regard as issues higher up on the agendas of their voters. On Monday, Nationals were lobbying for a postal vote. The plebiscite was a commitment in the agreement between Turnbull and the Nationals leadership when he became leader.
If the push for change lost in the Liberal partyroom, would the rebels abide by the decision? Or would they cross the floor when, for example, there was a move by Labor for a vote in parliament?
That would be a major defiance of the partyroom. Given the government’s razor thin majority, it could allow a bill to be brought on.
Some took Turnbull’s comment on Monday that “in our party, backbenchers have always had the right to cross the floor” as sanctioning such action.
But the Prime Minister’s Office quickly said this was not meant to be any sort of green light, but rather a statement of how the Liberal Party operated, in contrast to Labor’s binding rules.
One irony for Turnbull, as he stands by the present policy, is that most – though not all – of those who are agitating to scrap it are from his own moderate faction.
Cabinet minister Christopher Pyne provoked anger from among conservatives when he recently predicted at a factional gathering that same-sex marriage might be delivered “sooner than everyone thinks”.
One can understand why Turnbull would be inclined to try to stay above this fray and let events play out, rather than move to lead them. It might seem the safest course, in a situation that could be delicate for his leadership.
But such safety carries its own risks. If the partyroom stuck with the plebiscite and the rebels successfully defied it to enable a vote on a bill that subsequently passed, Turnbull would be humiliated.
On the other hand, if the partyroom changed the policy, authorising a free vote that ended in reform of the law, Turnbull would hardly be able to claim much of the credit for delivering the outcome via the process that he championed in 2015.