Malcolm Turnbull Backflips On Marriage Equality; Confirms He Won’t Allow A Free Vote In Parliament

Our new ~progressive~ Prime Minister, everybody!

One of the things that tempered any celebrations at the political demise of Tony Abbott was the prospect that his replacement, Malcolm Turnbull, might not turn out to be quite as moderate as he liked to paint himself in the past. Turnbull’s often described as a “progressive” on issues like climate change and marriage equality, but now that he’s Prime Minister it appears he’s making an effort to placate the Liberal Party’s more conservative MPs on the very issues he once used to distance himself from Abbott.

West Australian MP Dennis Jensen told Fairfax yesterday that Turnbull promised the party’s conservatives he wouldn’t stray from the party’s status quo on social issues, and Coalition partner the Nationals have reportedly secured a written agreement from Turnbull pledging not to introduce any kind of carbon pricing system throughout his Prime Ministership.

Now it appears Turnbull’s made good on his concessions to the Liberals’ more conservative elements, announcing in Parliament that he’ll continue the Coalition’s policy of delaying a vote on marriage equality until after the next election, and even then refusing to allow a free vote in the Coalition party room until a nationwide plebiscite on the issue is completed.

Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek grilled Turnbull on his position in Question Time yesterday, challenging him on the grounds that a multi-party marriage equality bill is already before the House of Representatives and could be voted on — and passed — almost immediately if Turnbull gave the word.

“It would take half an hour of Parliamentary time to allow this bill to be voted on. It could be done tomorrow,” Plibersek said.

Turnbull’s response, which hinged on the idea that conducting a $160 million non-binding national vote on a civil rights issue in more than a year’s time is somehow a noble exercise in democracy, was a pretty disappointing one for people who’d hoped that his Prime Ministership would clear the way for marriage equality.

Considering Turnbull famously lost the Liberal leadership in 2009 off the back of his support for the then-Rudd government’s Emissions Trading Scheme, it’s easy to understand why he’d change his support for those kinds of policies from a brute political perspective. He’s also done it before; his spruiking of a metadata retention scheme as Communications Minister went against his vocal and long-held opposition to government snooping in people’s online information.

But a big reason Turnbull was preferred Prime Minister for Abbott’s entire tenure was the perception that he’s a politician of conviction and principle. As he himself noted back in August, leaving the question of marriage equality unresolved until after the next election makes it an election issue, and gives Labor an opportunity to beat him around the head with his newfound reluctance. If it turns out Turnbull’s so easily willing to abandon his principles to secure the job, his popularity might abandon him faster than you’d expect.