On 15th September former Coalition leader and former Leader of the Opposition Malcolm Turnbull was sworn in as the Australian Prime Minister after successfully challenging Tony Abbott for the Coalition’s leadership. For many LGBT activists all over the world the news was welcomed as Australia will have a leader who, despite his own Catholic faith, supports same-sex marriage; although the are right not to mourn the departure of Tony Abbott I would say that there are a few things that should be acknowledged about the new Australian political reality.
Malcolm Turnbull in the first few hours after being sworn in, the new Australian PM stated that despite his personal support for same-sex marriage, he would stick with the Coalition’s policy of holding a referendum on the issue after the next election. This in itself is nothing to celebrate as Abbott’s position was the same, however it does now mean that the psychological aspect of the referendum will be beneficial to the pro-equality campaign as both the Prime Minister, if the Coalition are re-elected, and the Leader of the Opposition will support equal marriage. If Abbott had stayed on as PM the appearance of a legitimate debate would be presented which may have influenced which way certain parts of the country voted; the other aspect is that the argument from authority would now come from the pro-equality side which could sway some voters to support marriage equality.
However there are two other points that should be mentioned that activists and the wider LGBT community should take into account: the chances of equal marriage via parliamentary vote are made less likely, and the progress of other social movements may stall as a result of Turnbull’s election.
In the first few days after being elected as the Coalition’s new leader he was asked by the mainstream media to clarify his positions on certain issues, with same-sex marriage among them. He has long supported same-sex marriage and is much less socially conservative as his predecessor. As I have already mentioned Turnbull supports the Coalition’s current policy of holding a referendum after the next election, and his more favourable poll numbers in comparison with Tony Abbott make a Coalition victory more likely, thus making the parliamentary route of legalised equal marriage less likely.
In a previous post I outlined my belief that the LGBT community needs to stand in solidarity with other marginalised groups in society such as exploited workers, BME groups, women etc., and as a result I believe that, because Tony Abbott was bound to lose the next election, it would have been better for this more political aspect of the LGBT-equality movement if he had remained at the helm of the Coalition. With a socially conservative party more likely to be re-elected these marginalised groups shall not see the social progress that the LGBT community has seen when compared with the progressive programme put forward by other parties. Whilst I agree that it is better to have a supporter of equal-marriage leading the Coalition, it must also be acknowledged that societal change needs to happen in many different areas and celebrating his election as the Coalition’s leader would ignore the struggles of other Australians who will remain marginalised under another right-wing government.
In short although Malcolm Turnbull is much more favourable to the cause of marriage equality than Tony Abbott, his election as the Coalition’s new leader makes the Coalition more electable at the next election and therefore would make same-sex marriage being legalised by parliamentary means less likely. However, although I am impatient for change, I am encouraged by a right-wing government being led by someone that supports equal marriage, especially as that will give the ‘Yes’ campaign in any referendum, irrespective of who is Prime Minister, more gravitas.