Malcolm Turnbull is now, it seems, wholly owned by the conservatives in the Liberal Party and their strident media allies. His capitulation to them over 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act has been as revealing as it has been dramatic.
It has highlighted that Turnbull is, when it comes down to it, a transactional politician, one who these days will do whatever it takes in pursuit of his ends – in this case, keeping troublesome troops on side.
As opposition leader in 2009, Turnbull paid the ultimate price within his own party for sticking to his guns on carbon policy. Now policy is subservient to the perceived politics of the moment.
But this transaction to get the conservatives off his back is likely to carry a very high cost for him in sections of the electorate.
Turnbull said multiple times that he had no plans to revisit 18C. But then satisfying the right became a greater imperative than keeping a promise. Its breaking is being explained as a response to colleagues coming to him seeking change.
At Tuesday’s news conference Turnbull sounded like a lawyer arguing a brief, when he announced that the words “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” would be replaced by “harass or intimidate”. To open by claiming this would “strengthen the protection of Australians from racial vilification” was an affront to common sense - though delivered with all the professional passion of the skilled barrister.
In 2014, when he was communications minister in Tony Abbott’s cabinet, Turnbull complained about the proposals for changing 18C being landed on ministers without proper process or consultation.
He wrote a blog inviting feedback on the government’s exposure draft, which proposed replacing 18C with a prohibition on vilification and intimidation. The blog was carefully worded, appearing to invite disagreement as much as agreement.
He referenced a policy document and an Abbott speech. He did not declare, as he now insists, that the current law had “lost its credibility”. He did note that “many residents of my electorate of Wentworth have first hand experience of the consequences of racial hatred, of how easily what appears to be ‘crazy theories’ and ‘ranting and raving’ too weird to take seriously can lead to genocide”.
The conservatives, who are driven more by their own principles than Turnbull is by his, have successfully used constant pressure to wear the Prime Minister down.
They have been much assisted in their revival of the issue by the publicity around the high-profile case of the Queensland students, the complaint against a cartoon by the late Bill Leak, and the campaigning of the Murdoch media. In the end, the complaints involved were quashed or withdrawn but they deeply affected the debate – which in recent days has been given a highly personal and emotional edge by Leak’s sudden death.
The Human Rights Commission itself has inadvertently provided abundant ammunition to the conservatives. Its handling of the QUT and Leak cases was poor; the appearances of commission president Gillian Triggs before Senate committees have been inept. There is agreement across the political spectrum that the commission’s processes need substantial overhaul.
On 18C itself, Turnbull now finds himself caught in a three-way squeeze - between the right wing zealots, the Senate, and the ethnic communities, which are strongly objecting to the change.
The Nick Xenophon Team’s Senate votes are required to rework 18C – and it has announced it will oppose the change, while backing process reform. It is likely to stick to this position.
Turnbull’s deep desire has been just to get past this issue. As Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce warns, if it runs on it becomes a distraction. But for Turnbull there will be no way to put it behind him.
If the Senate defeats the wording change, the conservatives will be determined that the fight is not given up. They did not let 18C rest after Abbott decided it was prudent to walk away from the battle. The right will push for Turnbull to remain committed, up to - and into - the next election.
On the other side, Labor and others will also ensure 18C remains an issue. The ethnic and Jewish lobbies will stay exercised and engaged. Turnbull on Tuesday contacted leaders of the Jewish, Indigenous and Muslim communities, seeking to reassure them. It will take a lot more than a few calls from the Prime Minister to counter the on-the-ground campaigns that will be unleashed.
In marginal Liberal seats with large numbers of ethnic voters this has the potential to leach support that an embattled Coalition government with a one-seat majority can’t afford to lose. One such seat is Reid in Sydney, occupied by assistant minister Craig Laundy – it is no wonder that Laundy has been one of the strongest voices for leaving the present wording.
Early this week conservative commentator Andrew Bolt, whose 2011 loss in an 18C case triggered the Coalition’s original push for change, wrote that Turnbull was “slowly working up a list of reasons why we [conservatives] should soon consider backing him”. Bolt, writing ahead of the announcement, said it was crucial that Turnbull’s mooted reforms to 18C were real, “even though big changes will almost certainly be blocked in the Senate”.
“Turnbull doesn’t have to win, but he does have to fight – and give conservatives reasons to fight for him, too,” Bolt said.
The Prime Minister has allowed himself to be enlisted in a culture war crusade in which the risks for him are immense.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra