The Australian – 29 June 2016
David Crowe, Political correspondent
Bill Shorten and Malcolm Turnbull endured a difficult day.
It had to happen after almost eight weeks of official campaigning: Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten are flagging in the final stretch. Both struggled to set the agenda on Wednesday as they found themselves on the defensive on the same issue – marriage equality. For one it was a problem with the past; for the other it was all about the future.
Shorten has been confronted with a video from 2013 where he said he was “completely relaxed” about a plebiscite on same-sex marriage. Political leaders change their minds, of course, but Shorten has been ferocious in attacking the $160 million plebiscite the Coalition wants to hold if it wins. That story, with the video of his remarks, is here.
“What has happened is that since 2013 I think that the community attitude has moved on,” Shorten told the Nine Network on Wednesday morning when asked about his backflip. He also said the Irish referendum showed the risk of “hateful” public campaigns against marriage equality. Even so, he was branded a hypocrite for railing against something he thought was quite acceptable just three years ago.
Labor wanted to spend the day talking about the damage from Medicare funding cuts and its plan for infrastructure in Sydney. None of those messages made the evening news. In the scrappy final days of the campaign, it becomes increasingly difficult to control the agenda.
Turnbull is being challenged on how the plebiscite will work. At a time when the Coalition is attacking Labor for not being clear about its superannuation policy, the Prime Minister cannot be clear about the mechanism for a plebiscite. “Well, the administrative details have not been finalised but I expect the plebiscite to be very similar to the mechanism used for a referendum,” he said on Wednesday.
Only later did it emerge that this did not mean a majority of votes in a majority of states, the traditional formula for a referendum. Instead, it would be a simple majority nationwide. It suggests the vote will be compulsory and there will be equal funding for the “no” and “yes” cases. Yet the secrecy around the voting mechanism hides the Coalition tensions over how this divisive issue is resolved. There is deliberate uncertainty over whether Coalition MPs will vote in parliament to match the will of the people. Some are positioning to abstain and others are prepared to vote “no” regardless of the plebiscite.
Turnbull became waspish when too many journalists asked him about same sex marriage on Wednesday, a sure sign the issue is a source of frustration. Just as Turnbull tries to appeal to Australians who are tempted to vote Labor, an issue flares up to highlight his tensions with the more conservative members of his own party room given the memories of how he toppled Tony Abbott last September.
This week has gone badly for Shorten with his vague policy on super, his retreat on hospital funding and his weak attempt to take an isolated remark from his rival and make it a “defining moment” of the campaign. There is no sign yet that he can seize the agenda in this final week, just when he needs a rebound. The strangest aspect of the day was that Turnbull could not exploit Labor’s vulnerability.
Who won the day?
It was a draw, a lost day for both sides.
It was also another sign of a common dynamic during this campaign – that each leader has often struggled to get the better of the other. The tally of these “who won the day” posts shows that Turnbull has won 21 and Shorten has won 11. There have been 21 draws.