Opinion: Turnbull must stand up and lead

Malcolm Turnbull: Many now ask, legitimately, "Did Malcolm ever really believe in these issues?".
Malcolm Turnbull: Many now ask, legitimately, "Did Malcolm ever really believe in these issues?".

One of the most distinguishing posters of the Obama Presidency was an image of his face, under rolling colours, with the single word "Hope" emblazoned across the bottom in bold capitals. There is little doubt Barack Obama won with the promise of "hope".

By contrast, Tony Abbott's reign as leader saw the emergence of a similar poster, featuring his face, under similar colours, but with the single word "Nope" emblazoned across the bottom in bold capitals.

There is little doubt he established his political reputation as a negative campaigner – he set out to, and succeeded, in "destroying" the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd government.

Abbott is at it again, and coming alive, setting out to lead the "Nope" campaign in the now voluntary postal vote on same-sex marriage. His deliberately divisive "pitch" echoes the successful "No" strategy of previous referenda: "If you don't understand it, don't vote for it" – this time expressed as "And I say to you if you don't like same-sex marriage, vote no”.

“If you are worried about religious freedom and freedom of speech, vote no, and if you don't like political correctness, vote no because voting no will stop political correctness in its tracks.”

This is a position driven by "emotion", not "reason". It doesn't seek to go to the substance of the issue, but rather to spuriously link it with other "concerns" and "sensitivities", to foster opposition by division.

Abbott is also deliberately setting himself against Malcolm Turnbull, who has said that he will vote "Yes" but, claiming a number of other "challenges on his plate", is reluctant to actively lead the "Yes" campaign.

Unfortunately, Turnbull just doesn't get it. He was able to seize the prime ministership from Abbott with the "promise" of genuine leadership, creating expectations that he would deliver "good government", all policy options would be on the table, no more slogans but solid policy debate and delivery. All against a background where most expected that he actually believed in, and was passionate about, a number of key issues, such as climate, tax reform, and including same-sex marriage.

It all rings very hollow when he has ended up proposing and supporting yet another delay on the inevitable parliamentary vote on same-sex marriage, now in the form of a postal vote, when he is well documented to have previously strongly opposed a plebiscite, and questioned the effectiveness of a postal vote.

Many now ask, legitimately, "Did Malcolm ever really believe in these issues?", or were they simply positions he embraced at the time out of political expediency, to differentiate himself from the then leader?

Given the expectations with which he became PM, the electorate has every right to expect he would now show a bit of passion and pro-actively assume the role of leading the "Yes" campaign. To the extent he doesn't, he leaves a vacuum for those intent on running pretty much a "scare campaign", fostering division, even "hate mail", bringing out the worst in our society.

Turnbull has consistently chosen political expediency, and compromise, rather than commitment and substance.

An expensive, postal plebiscite on same-sex marriage is not where any rational person would have assumed that we could end up. But, here we are. Stand up Malcolm. Get your hands dirty, and lead. If you don't there is still a chance that the ultimate parliamentary vote will be lost.

John Hewson is a former Liberal opposition leader.