When Malcolm Turnbull became Prime Minister, the Government's approval rating increased sharply because Australians were pleased to have a centrist leader. His support for marriage equality was a symbol of that centrism.
Since then, Turnbull has consistently given in to the extremists in his party, such as George Christensen, who have waged despicable anti-gay campaigns.
Turnbull's strategy was to maintain Government unity and stem the rise of right wing populists. That strategy has failed.
Despite Turnbull pampering the far right, Cory Bernardi has left to form his own party, other right-wingers have insatiably escalated their demands, One Nation has increased in popularity and the Government's approval rating has collapsed.
Turnbull has lost the support of fair-minded, politically moderate Australians and they have not been replaced by the right-wing voters MPs such as Christensen appeal to. To have a fighting chance at the next election, Turnbull must reclaim the political centre by repudiating ideology and repositioning the Liberal Party as truly liberal.
Marriage equality is the obvious issue to do it on.
Turnbull has fulfilled his promise to right-wingers by championing a plebiscite. Now it's his turn to seize the initiative by allowing a free vote so marriage equality can finally pass.
The ethical argument couldn't be stronger. A free vote is consistent with the Liberal Party principle of individual freedom and its practise of allowing free votes on most issues where deeply-held values are at stake.
Liberal Governments have a proud tradition of achieving gay law reform through free votes, not least the decriminalisation of homosexuality in my home state of Tasmania.
As Tony Abbott's former staffer Paul Ritchie has ably shown in his book about the conservative case for same-sex marriage, there are strong conservative arguments for allowing same-sex couples to marry. It strengthens relationships and families, fosters personal responsibility and financial independence, and makes marriage a more relevant and resilient institution.
The political case is also strong. The dogged determination of some Government culture warriors to delay marriage equality has no support in middle Australia. That was clear at the last election when the plebiscite proposal was widely debated and voters turned on the Government.
Neither will marriage equality cost votes at the next election if it is passed now. The international experience is that marriage equality is nixed as a point of controversy as soon as it passes. The dire predictions of opponents of equality don't come to pass and voters move on almost immediately.
Conversely, if marriage equality isn't resolved by the next election, it will be a millstone around the necks of Liberals who support the reform, particularly in inner city seats. Swing voters will switch off from Liberal candidates who blame Labor for blocking the plebiscite and will want to know what the Liberals have done since then to move reform forward. There will be a stark contrast between Liberals who support marriage equality but can't vote for it and other candidates who can.
A further consideration for Turnbull is that if he doesn't seize the initiative it could be taken from him. A group of Liberal marriage equality supporters reportedly intend to bring on a party-room debate about a free vote after a Senate inquiry hands down its report on George Brandis' draft marriage equality legislation.
Turnbull cannot avoid being confronted by marriage equality, so why not just take the bull by the proverbial and fix it now?
Even if this move doesn't achieve its goal and there isn't a Government free vote, the Senate could still pass marriage equality legislation. This would shine a light on the Government's obstruction of the will of the people and its disconnection from core Australian values.
Turnbull cannot avoid being confronted by marriage equality, so why not just take the bull by the proverbial and fix it now? If nothing else, passing marriage equality will give him a legacy he and his Liberal successors will be proud of.
There's never been a better time for Malcolm Turnbull to show leadership on marriage equality.
The millions of Australians who ardently support marriage equality will be hoping he has the principle and the political smarts to see the opportunity before him.
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