Strong Principled Leader, Stable United Party

In reality, Weak, Unprincipled, Unstable & Divided

rejectSince the stirrer first started sounding the alarm over the proposed plebiscite on marriage, the issue has rocketed up the political agenda (Secret Plebiscite Bill, June 22nd)

It seems like everyone has weighed in, bagging the whole idea, from the usual suspects on our side of the fence, like Matt Akersten on Samesame, Shelley ArgentBrian Grieg, Paula Gerber, Penny Wong, to columnists Mark Kenny in The Age , Paul Bongiorno in the New Daily, in the Murdoch papers the Herald Sun  and Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, all the way over to Peta Credlin, and Alan Jones on Q&A . That’s an impressive line up of NO votes!

I think we can safely say the story is out there. Whether it will impact people’s votes, who knows? But it should, because it tells us more about the character of Malcolm Turnbull, the man who would be PM (again), than almost any other issue. He’s made his pitch on the Coalition – and himself – as strong, united and principled.

Australian Embassy Jakarta

The plebiscite issue, however, reveals a weak leader, willing to abandon his principles for political advantage, unable to control or lead his colleagues, at the head of a deeply divided party that is only waiting for the election to end to tear him down.


He’s been changing his spots – or at any rate, pretending to – all his political life. When he first contemplated politics, he wondered whether to join Labor or the Liberals. He plumped for the Libs because he calculated – rightly – that not only would he be a better fit among his fellow silvertails, but he would also have a better chance of becoming PM.

In quest of this he espoused a series of small-l liberal positions. Unfortunately, by the time he got the top job, his party had shifted right. He had to throw them away to get the job back. He does not appear to be finding this too difficult. He has shown no appetite for challenging his philosophical opponents in the party. Sorry to repeat this yet again, but once upon a time he was

  • pro marriage equality
  • against the whole idea of a plebiscite
  • a republican
  • a climate change believer

Now, as we all know, he isn’t any of those things. At least, not where anyone can see him. Not out in the street where it might frighten the horses.


If Turnbull had abandoned maybe one position to appease his opponents, compromised on a couple more, made a show of trying to compromise on others, and stood firm on even one, we might be entitled to conclude that he retained some integrity. As it stands, he cannot make that claim.

His supporters make numerous excuses for him. They say he lacks a power base within the party.  But a leader in this position does have other choices besides lying on the floor wearing a shirt saying “please wipe your feet.” He can be bold and dare his opponents to rip him down again, and take their chances. He could have done this shortly after taking over, during his honeymoon period. Or he could have used the honeymoon to start building alliances, so that he would have a base from which to attack later.

He did neither. He chose the path of appeasement, and we all know that never ends well.The Nationals threatened to leave the Coalition unless Turnbull agreed to the plebiscite. Instead of calling their bluff, telling them: “Good luck out there on your own”, he caved.

He does not have the ticker to stand up to his opponents. Worse he does not appear have the ability to build alliances, a power base inside his own party strong enough to face them down. Is this sort of man fit to run the country?


Turnbull’s appeasement of the mad-eyed religious zealots swarming around Tony Abbott has allowed them to dominate the party room and set the agenda. It has also emboldened them. With each fresh capitulation, they ramp up their demands.

A plebiscite bill was drafted and ready to go before the party room. We don’t know what was in it, but we do know that someone, somewhere (most likely Turnbull himself), decided this leadership busines was all just too difficult. Either the zealots wouldn’t like it and would kick up a stink, or the small-l Liberals would revolt. Or both. Turnbull chose not to pick sides, but to evade the issue altogether. Instead of trying to hammer out a compromise, the bill was put back in George Brandis’s bottom drawer, otherwise known as “the too hard basket.”

Since when the hard right has been drafting their own version so filled with tricks and booby traps, they hope, that the plebiscite will never pass. And even if it does, they’ve openly said they’ll ignore it. Turnbull is reliably rumoured to have given in to at least some of their demands: notably, the demand that the count be conducted electorate by electorate.

(I know George Brandis denied it, but Turnbull carefully did not)

Turnbull then went into the election with the dishonest position that all these ‘details’ would be sorted after he was re-elected, not to worry, it will sail though, no problem, if you want a vote on marriage equality, vote for me, and don’t worry about details like how the vote will be organized or what the question will be.

The rest of the party, meanwhile, are sick to death of the swivel-eyed holy loons, and despairing of a leader who refuses to discipline them or rein them in. Tensions within the Coalition are running high.


The Coalition elevated Turnbull, not because they liked him, but because he had stellar poll numbers. They then proceeded to eviscerate him, tearing out all the bits that made the voters like him: that he was a moderate, not a zealot; he supported equal marriage; he would tackle climate change.

They thought he would get them back into power, preferably with an increased majority. It hasn’t worked. The best he can hope for now, barring a miracle, is a slim majority in the lower house, and an even more difficult upper house.

The only thing holding the Coalition together at the moment is the desperate dash for the finish line. Shortly after the dust has settled, the knives will be out, and Turnbull will be gone. So why elect him in the first place?

shelley letter

One last thing. It’s my birthday on Saturday. Please, no gifts, no flowers. And please, please, please, no coalition government.


About the author

Veteran gay writer and speaker, Doug was one of the founders of the UKs pioneering GLBTI newspaper Gay News (1972) , and of the second, Gay Week, and is a former Features Editor of Him International. He presented news and current affairs on JOY 94.9 FM Melbourne for more than ten years. "Doug is revered, feared and reviled in equal quantities, at times dividing people with his journalistic wrath. Yet there is no doubt this grandpa-esque bear keeps everyone abreast of anything and everything LGBT across the globe." (Daniel Witthaus, "Beyond Priscilla", Clouds of Magellan, Melbourne, 2014)