Bernardi has let the beast out of the bag

Cory Bernardi's risible comments on same-sex marriage will put considerable pressure on Tony Abbott to convince voters he is engaged with their views.

The beastly outburst of Senator Cory Bernardi, in which he asked whether the "next step" after legalising same-sex marriage might be unions between three or four consenting adults or between humans and animals, has upset many – not least my jack-russell-cross Roxy, who clings to the hope her love for me will one day be sanctified.

It's hard to resist such jokes – Bernardi's comments were so extreme as to be risible. However, for the Coalition their impact will be deadly serious.

The Senator's comments come at the worst possible time for Tony Abbott. Not only has Australian political discourse just emerged from a long debate about what Abbott 'really' thinks about women, but across the Pacific we are also witnessing the slow-motion limo wreck of conservative Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, as his 'real' views on America's poor and the Israeli-Palastinian conflict are played over and again in a leaked video.

This is not a double edged sword – while the left-ish politicians have their inaccrochable views, theirs is also the side of politics constantly lambasted for being 'politically correct'.

No matter what kind of misogynist, racist, or sheep-fancier a Labor (or Democrat) politician is, they rarely get to express those deep dark views with comrades, even behind closed doors. In that sense, the Labor Party is the party of psychological repression.

But then repression isn't all bad. Free association of our darkest impulses can lead to dreadful political consequences. Malcolm Turnbull yesterday called Bernardi's comments "the worst sort of slippery-slope argument". Quite so, and the past century is full of slippery slopes – how different the 20th century would have been if certain elements of Germany's political elite had not, by degrees, slipped down the slope of anti-Semitism, for instance.

Abbott is not making that kind of mistake here – his swift sacking of Bernardi was entirely appropriate, as was his statement to journalists that the Liberal Party had a "proud history of opposition to discrimination in any form and, as Leader of the Opposition, I will not have this record undermined".

And yet that is not all that's needed to correct such a gaffe. To a rational mind, Abbott has done enough to demonstrate his anti-discrimination credentials. But then politics, particularly in the social media age, has become a swirling sea of irrationality.

Look at the interaction between Tony Abbott and David Marr in relation to Marr's 'sensational' Quarterly Essay. Abbott reportedly thought Marr's 33,000 word essay was a balanced and thoughtful summing up of his political career – but that didn't prevent a tiny part of that essay (the 'wall punch') becoming a two-week political maelstrom.

In politics it's important to remember how disengaged most voters are. Bernardi's bestiality comments have real 'cut-through' with generally apathetic voters, and Tony Abbott's anti-discrimination comments do not.

The man who, many voters believe, has a 'problem with women' can now easily be cast as the sniggering confidante of Cory Bernardi – saying one thing behind closed doors, and another to camera.

Mitt Romney's comment that "there are 47 per cent who are with [Obama], who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them" showed an astonishing ignorance of what drives individuals in the lower socio-economic strata.

More importantly, it appeared to reveal a gross ignorance of a decades-old belief on the conservative side of politics that tax cuts and tax credits to lower socio-economic groups produce large economic benefits. As the New York Times reminds us today, even Ronald Reagan referred to tax credits for the poor as "one of the best anti-poverty programs this country has ever seen”.

Abbott has not demonstrated Romney-esque ignorance on the issue of same-sex marriage. However his party is today stained by Bernardi's apparent ignorance of what a committed, loving relationship between two adults really is – and of the social and economic benefits of giving same-sex couples the same respect and legal rights as heterosexual couples.

That means Abbott has considerable work to do to convince voters that he's not secretly laughing at same-sex couples from behind closed doors.

That task is made doubly difficult by the fact that Malcolm Turnbull has been so vocal in his support for same-sex marriage – including, according to Jacqueline Maley of The Sydney Morning Herald, fulminating on the topic up and down the press gallery corridors yesterday.

Abbott will effectively now be forced into overstating his politically correct credentials, to prevent voters writing him off for holding all manner of unsavoury views behind closed doors.

Such is contemporary politics. It will be a long time before Bernardi is forgiven for letting the beast out of the bag.

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