Tagged: same-sex marriage

With a little empathy, Turnbull changes the tone

Whatever you thought of Leigh Sales’ interview with Malcolm Turnbull on The 7.30 Report last night, it had a defining moment; one that has the potential to recast the fortunes of his government. It was a moment of empathy, and empathy is a quality that’s become an endangered species in public life.

Turnbull recalled when he was a partner at Goldman Sachs in New York. Everyone, he said, was earning big money. But he queried the CEO about whether they were deserving of their good fortune, pointing out that in the streets below them, there were taxi drivers working far longer hours for a fraction of the rewards they were receiving.

I nearly fell off my chair. As someone who’d driven a taxi for many years – and who occasionally had to shrug off barbs from those who clearly regarded my line of employment as a reflection on my intelligence, as well as my station in life – this was an extraordinary thing to hear. Especially from a conservative politician.

Turnbull readily accepted Leigh Sales’ proposition that he’s been lucky. He has been gifted with high intelligence, a good education, good health, a beautiful family, and he’s been able to convert all of it into enormous wealth, which only a tiny few are able to do no matter how lucky they are, or how hard they work.

But Turnbull wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth. His mother had deserted his family at a young age. And perhaps that’s given him another gift: the emotional intelligence, as he called it, to have the imagination to walk in somebody else’s shoes. It was, he said, was the most important quality for someone in his line of work.

“The fact that we have to recognise is that much of our good fortune is good fortune,” he said. Such a statement must have burned the ears of many of his conservative colleagues. Turnbull is richer than most of them put together, but his words signalled a huge shift in rhetorical emphasis away from the brutishness of his predecessor.

Empathy has been in short supply in the so-called land of the fair go these last two years. It was what went missing when Peter Dutton joked about rising sea levels in the South Pacific. It was missing from his apology, too, for not realising there was a boom microphone over his head at the time.

It was missing when Joe Hockey said that poor people don’t drive cars, and if they did, they didn’t drive them very far. It was missing when he said the key to breaking into the housing market was to get a good job that paid good money. (Frankly, empathy was missing on most of the occasions Hockey opened his cigar-hole.)

It was missing when Christopher Pyne opined that women would not be disproportionately effected by changes to higher education, because most of them would only go on to be nurses and teachers anyway. It was missing from the Abbott government’s attitude to same-sex marriage.

It was missing when the government attempted to repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. All of the government’s empathy on that occasion was reserved for the very white Andrew Bolt. It was missing when George Brandis said people had a right to be bigots. It was missing when Bronwyn Bishop took that chopper to Geelong.

Symbolically, this collective lack of empathy can be summed up in Tony Abbott’s words: “Nope. Nope. Nope.”

Inevitably, this lack of care for others has spilled over into other aspects of our national life. The incessant booing of Adam Goodes. The continuing degradation and dehumanisation of asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru. Where once we found the phrase, “There but for the grace of God go I,” we instead find fault.

The proof, of course, will be in the policies the Liberal Party takes to the election and, in the longer term, their outcomes. But with just a little empathy, Turnbull has changed the tone of the national conversation. It’s the first step towards saving his party from the sort of ideological drift – unhinged from the vicissitudes of life that effect ordinary people – that’s turned the US Republican Party into an unelectable circus.

Wishin’ and hopin’ on gay marriage

It’s only three weeks ago that I ventured the opinion (along with many other commentators) that Julia had her mojo back, or at least was on the kind of roll that Labor hadn’t enjoyed for at least a couple of years. For the first time in her Prime Ministership, momentum seemed to be with her. Perhaps we should have known in advance that a stumble couldn’t be far away.

When the carbon tax bills were passed in early October, she spoke about being on the right side of history. She was correct. Whatever the Coalition crows about in opposition, they will not be able to escape the cost – be it political, economic or environmental – of climate change in even the short term. No amount of wishin’ and hopin’ will make this issue go away.

So too for same-sex marriage. Yet, for reasons best known to herself, Julia’s decided to put herself on the wrong side of history. I’m guessing it’s something to do with keeping those “faceless men” from the Right faction who installed her in power happy – notably the Catholic, socially conservative Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association secretary Joe De Bruyn.

De Bruyn has issued dire warnings that Labor stands to lose up to 15 seats at the next election should it change its party platform to allow “equal access to marriage … irrespective of sex” at the ALP’s national conference this weekend. Yet the polls don’t indicate any such thing, with a clear majority of voters supporting the legal recognition of same-sex unions. According to a Herald/Nielsen poll two weeks ago, even 50 percent of coalition voters are in favour of change.

Here in Queensland, the state ALP has heaped further pressure on its federal colleagues by legalising same-sex civil unions overnight. The arguments against by the LNP were predictably risible, with opposition legal affairs spokesman Jarrod Bleijie telling parliament that “Civil partnerships is not on a priority list in the minds of Queenslanders … The passing of this bill will not save Queenslanders money, it will not ease cost of living pressures, it will not get our triple-A credit rating back.”

Well, so what? As Tim Dick writes for Fairfax online today:

“The arguments for the secular state admitting gay couples into civil matrimony are so clear, so well traversed, and those against dismissed so soundly, that we are left dealing with the twin remaining forces of opposition: political fear, and prejudice. There is not one valid reason to oppose civil marriage for gay people. None.Yet some think it ought not to be a priority, as if doing the right thing by fellow citizens should wait until the mythical day on which the rest of the public agenda is exhausted, when schools and hospitals want for nothing, when plagues and pestilence have been banished and when eternal peace has descended upon all the world. Until there is nothing else to do. Only then can the gays have their day.”

If gay marriage is not on anyone’s priority list (other than those who are directly affected by discrimination) then it’s hard to see how it’s going to have a major impact on the ALP’s electoral fortunes, other than perhaps win a few votes back from the Greens. Which in turn makes it harder to understand why Gillard has chosen to fight another battle she can’t win.

To recap, Gillard’s tried to shore up her right flank without doing herself any damage on her left by opting for a conscience vote. It’s backfired badly. Conscience votes are usually reserved for life and death issues (abortion and euthanasia), not human rights issues. For a supposedly progressive party which believes in equality of opportunity, this issue has long since passed the point of being a no-brainer.

Intellectually, she’s been totally outgunned. Repeating the blandishment that marriage is between a man and a woman doesn’t cut much ice when you have the likes of Penny Wong (from the Left) and ACT Deputy Chief Minister Andrew Barr (from the Right) inside your own party, writing cogent and very personal arguments for change for both the broadsheet and online media alike.

The vote at the conference will be tight, but even if Gillard manages to hold her breath and the numbers with it, I can’t see it doing anything but damage to her authority and her dignity. Should the numbers go against her, there’s the risk of a party split, with some members on the Right indicating they’ll thwart any attempt to change the laws in parliament by crossing the floor. Should she hold sway, the issue will only continue to fester, with the party risking losing more votes and members to the Greens.

Labor has far more to gain than lose by rolling with the tide here. Hold it back and they’ll continue to be swamped. Oh, and there goes your mojo, Julia.