Australia’s same sex marriage plebiscite

After what feels like an eternity, Australians will finally get the chance to vote yes or no on the contentious issue of same sex marriage. For many Australians the vote is an unnecessary and divisive vote on their individual rights; but for many others it’s an opportunity to participate in the democratic process. But what role do plebiscites play in our democracy? And why don’t our politicians want us to have our say?

The Same Sex Marriage plebiscite came about as result of Australia’s parliament being unable to resolve the issue through a free vote. The Coalition has been unwilling to resolve the issue via a free vote due to the concerns of its more conservative members. This was partially due to the Australian Labor party denying its members a conscience vote on the issue, preventing socially conservative members of that party voting no.

This led to the resignation of Labor senator Joe Bullock with him stating, “How can I in good conscience recommend to people that they vote for a party which is determined to deny its parliamentarians a conscience vote on the homosexual marriage question which I regard as of fundamental significance to the future shape of our society.”

As a compromise with the left of his party former prime minister Tony Abbott promised a plebiscite to directly ask the Australian people. This was partially influenced by the referendum held in Ireland that resulted in same sex marriage being legalised (unlike Australia, Ireland required a constitutional change to legalise same sex marriage). In the event of a yes vote the Australian Parliament would vote on the issue with a ‘Yes’ vote being the most likely outcome.

This compromise position has proven to be controversial and has failed to pass the Australian Senate. In a cunning move the government side-stepped the senate by announcing a postal plebiscite (technically a survey) that would be run by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. This surprise tactic has terrified the Yes camp; with them worried their millennial support base either won’t be registered to vote or won’t understand the concept of mail assuming that changing their facebook profile will suffice.

The Yes Campaign warned that a plebiscite would result in an outpouring of hate and homophobia. Thus far Yes campaigners have had a perverse obsession with finding homophobia anywhere on the internet, all too ready to point to obscure memes on conservative facebook groups as evidence of all the hate. Ironically, this is not unlike ultra conservatives who obsess over sodomy and pornography.

However, since the postal plebiscite was announced the Yes campaign has for the first in a long time focused on campaigning for same sex marriage rather than silencing its opponents. Both sides have had to put their arguments out there in the public arena. Rather than publicly shaming politicians, both sides have to had to take their case to the public. The Yes campaign have had to convince people unconvinced by explaining why marriage equality is so important to them, and the No campaign has had to articulate exactly why they don’t support the change.  

Thus far the No campaign seems to have been caught unprepared, struggling to make clear and consistent arguments. Instead they’ve focused on the bullying No supporters have received from supporters of same sex marriage. The No camp has complained of unfair media coverage, false flag attacks and de-platforming.

Most alarming about this debate has been the lack of trust in democracy by both politicians and the media. Echoing the Brexit vote, the media and political elite assume that voters are too bigoted and stupid to vote the right way; that decisions are best left to the bien-pensant. For this reason by media and political class are hostile to plebiscites.

Plebiscites are not common in Australia with the only previous plebiscites being held on the issues of conscription during the first World War and changing the national anthem. However, at the state level referenda have been used to resolve controversial issues; including that most controversial issue: daylight savings in Queensland.

Should Australians be happy with only getting a vote every three years? Too often major decisions have already been decided by the political class and there is no opportunity for the people to have their say. Switzerland has been successfully run for generations by having regular referendums; some states in the United States allow their citizens to petition plebiscites where there is sufficient support. The question shouldn’t be why are we doing a plebiscite on same sex marriage, but why aren’t we having more plebiscites on a whole range of issues? I for one, would like a plebiscite on government expenditure!

Democracy isn’t something we shouldn’t be afraid of, yes, some people will say nasty things. That is inevitable in any controversial debates, but we are all big and strong enough to handle that. The fact some people are nasty isn’t an excuse to hand even more power to the political class.

Justin Campbell
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