Caving in to the right on Safe Schools could undermine Turnbull’s greatest asset


The prime minister faces a backroom insurrection over the Safe Schools program, but any action other than to stare it down could cripple the leader.

Here’s a curious thing.

February was not the first time Coalition parliamentarians raised objections to the Safe Schools program in their party room. But when Nationals Barry O’Sullivan and George Christensen and Liberal Cory Bernardi previously waved Safe Schools material around in the closed-door meeting and said they couldn’t believe it was being federally-funded, Tony Abbott was prime minister. The then education minister, Christopher Pyne, dismissed the call, saying the government didn’t as a rule trash funding agreements already in place. And nothing more was said.

But now Abbott has signed the petition against the program and publicly called for its defunding. (Christensen and Bernardi say it has resurfaced now because “more information has come to light” which is a neatly circular argument since it is them and their fellow conservative objectors who have been spruiking the new “information”.)

When Turnbull was first confronted by objections to the program he tried to assess and consider the alternative views. He commissioned a review of the program’s content by a respected academic. It has not yet been released but has been discussed with backbenchers.

It largely endorsed the program’s content and it is also understood to have recommended clearer advice for parents, which most people would probably welcome.

But this has not appeased the opponents, even though the disempowering of parents was their first line of attack against the program.

And that is not surprising because their objections run far deeper than that. They see it as “indoctrination” (unlike, apparently, the $240m school chaplaincy scheme), as “social engineering” and being somehow linked to paedophilia, and also to a “Marxist agenda” and “the sexual liberation of young people”, which is, in their view, also a very bad thing. They want it defunded, because apparently if students are not taught tolerance and understanding regarding gender issues, they’ll go away. Or, as Christensen suggests, gay teenagers could just choose to ignore their sexuality.

Consulting and bridge building and considering alternative views are all good things for a leader to do, to a point.

But when a leader is confronted by a rebellion motivated by an ideological agenda apparently incompatible with their own, a blatant and wilful misinterpretation of facts and an obvious parallel agenda of undermining their authority, they really have no choice but to take a stand.

Alongside these ideological objections to the program is an obvious political aim. To undermine Turnbull. To cripple his leadership authority. To stop him governing in his own voice. Turnbull’s political capacity has already been drained by concessions to the right on issues such as marriage equality and climate change.

The conservative MPs’ views are obviously contrary to the prime minister’s and to those of his education minister, Simon Birmingham. If they succeed in forcing Turnbull to back down once again – using a “petition” to convince him to set up a parliamentary inquiry to give every critic a platform to broadcast their inflammatory claims – the prime minister will appear compromised and weak. If they don’t succeed, they’ll keep running the insurgency campaign, backed by the christian lobby and conservative columnists, leaving his government looking divided and chaotic.

Of course Turnbull has faced this dilemma before, in 2009, when many of the same Coalition conservatives took aim at his policy on climate change. He stood up to them then famously saying he was not prepared to lead a party that wasn’t as committed to tackling climate change as he was. He lost his job.

But his greatest weapon in regaining the leadership was his popularity, as measured in opinion polls. And his popularity was based on a perception that he was a centrist, a different kind of politician, a man true to his convictions.

It is still unclear how he will deal with the rightwing push this time. The strongest thing he was prepared to say on Thursday was that “every member” of the parliament should “choose their words carefully” when discussing it.

Caving in to the right this time would further undermine what was at the outset the prime minister’s greatest asset. It would set a terrible precedent for the conduct of the marriage equality plebiscite, another conservative-inspired policy forced upon Turnbull despite his previous public objections. And if Turnbull has to govern at the whim of the conservative wing of his party, the religious right and the opinions of News Corp columnists, what would be the point of it?

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