The joy on Malcolm Turnbull’s face was palpable as he exulted in the glow of victory after the Australian Parliament finally passed same-sex marriage. “What a day for love, equality, for respect” he bellowed across the chamber, barely able to contain his passion, knowing this more than anything else will confirm his place in history.
It’s clear, however, that Turnbull is not receiving the credit that is his due for this important and overdue social reform. Reactions on social media and from the majority of the LGBTQI community have been savage on the PM for the process taken to achieve marriage equality. The general consensus being that the reform was achieved despite him, not because of him.
This is unfair and disingenuous, overlooking the political minefield Turnbull had to navigate to get this done. Let’s first agree on one thing – Turnbull has consistently been a longtime supporter of same sex marriage. Since his election to the seat of Wentworth in 2004, he has advocated for reform as a backbencher, a minister and as Prime Minister.
Let’s contrast that record with his predecessors and current opponents. Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott all opposed marriage equality while in power, the former two only conveniently changing their stance once the pressure of office was removed. Bill Shorten, ever the political opportunist, opposed it for the entire six years Labor was in power. The same goes for Penny Wong, now held as the apparent hero throughout the debate.
This is why the visceral anger directed at Turnbull defies logic. The postal plebiscite is cited as an offence that inflicted the LGBTQI community to irreparable harm, an unnecessary $122 Million waste of taxpayer money. What is lost in all of this is that both camps faced the same enemy: arch conservatives steadfast against any change to the Marriage Act.
There were two options: force the legislation through parliament and for years be subject to questions of legitimacy, or to recognise the political reality and nullify the opposition by taking it directly to the Australian public, forever sealing its endorsement. Through the plebiscite, the legislation ticks all boxes: thorough community consultation, overwhelming endorsement and no questions of illegitimate social engineering.
It’s convenient and naïve to label Turnbull as weak and ineffectual, but any honest and objective analysis would conclude that through a painstaking process, he has managed to achieve the long awaited change while successfully rendering future conservative opposition as ineffectual. Is this not better than Julia Gillard (and Bill Shorten’s) submission to factional pressures and ultimately doing nothing at all while they had every opportunity to?
All social reform is difficult, and politics is ultimately the art of the possible. Instead of painting Turnbull as a weak coward, history should reflect on the reality that as Prime Minister, he pursued the only political option available to him to bypass conservative opposition and achieve marriage equality in Australia. While he was certainly not a lone figure throughout the debate, the record will show that same sex marriage was enshrined in law with Turnbull at the helm, and that is a fitting legacy for the only man in Canberra, apart from Warren Entsch, to have been such a strident supporter for so long.