• Grattan on Friday: Barnaby Joyce is telling the government to listen to politics in the pub

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      The Nationals are among the most politically pragmatic members of the Turnbull government

      The impatience of Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce with some among the Liberals is palpable.

      The Nationals leader just wishes they’d SHUT UP about 18C and same-sex marriage. In his local pub people are not talking about these issues. Joyce wants the government to stick to basics, and this week he has made the point loudly, in the party room and the media.

      It’s interesting that the Nationals – with a notable exception in the volatile and opinionated George Christensen – are among the most politically pragmatic members of the Turnbull government.

      They were at the election too. In their neck of the woods Malcolm Turnbull’s “innovation” and “agility” weren’t popular buzz words, and a lot of constituents didn’t believe it was necessarily the “most exciting time to be alive”.

      So the Nats went local and held their seats. Joyce had a good overall result while Turnbull had as bad a one as was possible while still winning.

      The next election is going to be far more difficult for the government, which now has a one-seat majority. No wonder Joyce is obsessed with the bread and butter.

      He’s not against the proposed new wording of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA); he is opposed to same-sex marriage. But the substance isn’t his point. He sees these issues, in the regional circles in which he moves, as niche.

      The Liberal ideologues have got their way on 18C, with the government’s announcement this week. But the political cost is likely to be high.

      The Senate is set to reject the proposed rewording, which the Nick Xenophon Team (NXT) says it won’t support.

      The government is seeking to rush to a vote on the legislation before parliament rises next week for the pre-budget break. The aim is to get the 18C debate over.

      But that won’t prevent a campaign of opposition in marginal seats with big numbers of ethnic voters. Much of it will be below the radar. It will run between now and the election, regardless of the Senate result.

      Announcing the 18C change, Turnbull delivered a passionate defence with all that conviction style he musters on such occasions.

      More revealing, however, was his Wednesday speech to the Australian Migration and Settlement Awards dinner. He didn’t mention 18C once. This was extraordinary. Or perhaps not. Ethnic organisations have slammed the decision. Turnbull knew it would be unpopular with this audience.

      In contrast, speaking at the same function, Bill Shorten was very critical. He condemned those wanting to change the RDA as “predominately powerful, vocal, middle-aged men, who think this is all just a thoroughly interesting philosophical discussion”.

      As the government took the leap on 18C, there was stirring within the Liberals over same-sex marriage.

      Some Liberals want to find a way of dealing with it in this parliament, despite the legislation for the promised plebiscite having been defeated.

      Proponents of same-sex marriage, such as NSW Liberal backbencher Trent Zimmerman, who is gay, are urging Turnbull to just back a parliamentary vote. He says: “It’s quite clear this parliament won’t support a plebiscite, and the only realistic option for resolving this issue in this parliament is a free vote.”

      Apart from desiring a result, gay Liberal MPs are anxious to move beyond this issue. They are tired of being defined by it.

      A few senior Liberal opponents of same-sex marriage, notably Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, who want the issue cleared away, have canvassed a non-compulsory postal ballot, which wouldn’t need parliamentary approval.

      Dutton says the government should stick to its election policy of a plebiscite. But a “postal plebiscite … may achieve in some ways the same outcome to a plebiscite that you would think of in the traditional sense,” he said on Thursday.

      While Dutton might cast a postal ballot as an alternative form of plebiscite (plebiscite lite?), there would be a great deal of criticism of it. The result of a voluntary ballot would not carry much authority, especially if the return rate was low. It would be argued that one side or other could effectively hijack it. And it would mean a prolonged and distracting debate while it was conducted.

      Unlike the change to 18C, delivering same-sex marriage would be a plus for Turnbull electorally. But internally the issue is a fireball.

      If push came to shove the Nationals would probably wear the postal vote idea. But on present indications they would not accept moving straight to a parliamentary vote.

      Most of the Nationals are against same-sex marriage. Remember how in 2015 Tony Abbott brought them into the party room to shore up his numbers in the debate, to the anger of some Liberals? Commitment to a plebiscite was written into the Coalition letter of agreement when Turnbull became prime minister.

      There would almost certainly be serious trouble with the Nationals if Turnbull tried to bring on a parliamentary vote.

      Despite earlier talk of a possible push within the Liberal Party on same-sex marriage before parliament rises next week, the time has passed for this. The free vote advocates need a draft bill first. They say the issue is now likely to reappear late in the budget session, or in the spring session.

      For Barnaby’s pub chat, this parliamentary fortnight is at least delivering some tangibles. If the government can expect to lose votes from its preoccupation with 18C, it should win plaudits for its child care reforms, passed late Thursday night, which will help lower and middle-income families. This week it slashed and refashioned its savings package to win acceptance from the NXT, securing the finance for the child care measures.

      Next week the Senate is expected to pass the company tax cut for small businesses.

      The government refuses to say whether it will then remove the rest of its 10-year tax plan from its budget figures. That would improve its fiscal numbers but leave it without the major policy and rhetorical underpinning for its “jobs and growth” pitch. An invidious choice.

      This article was written by Michelle Grattan -
      [Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra]
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