Australia’s PM gets boost after same-sex marriage legalised

Sydney Letter: A year of Liberal-National infighting is sweetened with recovery in polls

Australia's prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, finally has a spring in his step again, after a year of infighting in his Liberal-National government.

The coalition had been so far behind in the polls all year, it desperately needed a win before the long summer break. The legalising of same-sex marriage provided that win. That it was followed by a December byelection win is surely proof its fortunes are turning.

Despite doing all it could to make things difficult for the proponents of same-sex marriage, including holding a completely unnecessary, non-compulsory, non-binding postal survey that cost $100 million (€64 million), the marriage equality Bill finally passed on the last sitting day of the year. And history will record the coalition was in power when it did. Though same-sex marriages were not expected to happen until January because of a 28-day notice period, some exemptions were given and marriages have already taken place.

The opposition Labor Party has no cause to complain about the coalition getting most of the credit. Labor was in power from 2007 to 2013 and did nothing to advance the cause of same-sex marriage. It must be especially galling to Labor that one of the most right-wing Liberal MPs, Tim Wilson, has become a darling of progressives after proposing to his partner, Ryan Bolger, in a speech in parliament.


Prominent policies

Among the prominent policies Wilson advocated during his seven years as director at free-market think tank the Institute of Public Affairs was opposition to plain packaging for cigarettes and the abolition of Australia's Human Rights Commission. This didn't stop him being appointed by the coalition to head that same Human Rights Commission in 2013, on a salary of $325,000 a year.

With same-sex marriage now legal, and Victoria having become the first state in the country to legalise assisted dying for the terminally ill, many assume the power of religion, limited though it already was, is now entirely gone in Australia.

But the religious lobby is not going away. The anti-marriage equality enabled the movement to gather names, addresses, mobile phone numbers and email addresses. Right-wingers now know exactly who their most committed supporters are and how to contact and mobilise them.

The defeats will harden their resolve to wield political influence in areas such as northwestern Sydney's Bible belt, which is home to many evangelical churches and schools. The Liberal party will lose some of its voter base there, while Labor will lose votes in the western Sydney seats it holds that have high numbers of voters who have emigrated from the Middle East and Asian countries.

As summer heats up, Australia is having its now-annual debate on the latest battleground in the culture wars – the celebration of Australia Day on January 26th. On that day in 1788, governor Arthur Phillip raised the union flag at Sydney Cove. Most Aboriginals consider January 26th to be "invasion day" and want the holiday date changed.

Australia Day

The state-owned pop music radio station Triple J recently announced it would no longer hold its top 100 of the year countdown on Australia Day, to predictable outrage from coalition MPs. Communications minister Mitch Fifield said "what Triple J and the [broadcaster] ABC have done is to respond to a petition which has said it's not appropriate to have the Hottest 100 on the controversial Australia Day. There's nothing controversial about Australia Day."

The petition Fifield referred to was a survey of 65,000 people, of whom 60 per cent supported moving the day of the top 100. Of course, that survey was non-compulsory and non-binding. Just like the survey the government used to outsource its moral conscience on same-sex marriage.

In the Queensland state election Labor has just been returned for a second term, which is music to the ears of its federal leader, Bill Shorten. Labor needs to pick up several seats in Queensland if it is to win power in the general election due in mid-2019.

Federally, the coalition still trails Labor 53-47 per cent in polling, but that’s a big improvement from the 55-45 per cent polls were showing just a month ago.

The early months of 2018 will show if the coalition and Turnbull can continue their recovery, or if the marriage equality moment was just a temporary respite.