In 2004, with the balance of power in his hands, former Prime Minister John Howard made a small amendment to the Marriage Act 1961, entering a definition of marriage as between ‘a man and a woman.’ Twelve years later, the now Liberal Government of Malcolm Turnbull are unable to undertake even an open vote in the House of Representatives to introduce a Bill to approve Marriage Equality. Whether we agree or disagree with the 2004 amendment, it shows the big difference between the past and present Liberal Governments. One had the guts to do what they thought right, the other is beholden to the far right wing of their party, unable to make any independent move in case they are rolled from their role as Party Leader.
History of the Marriage Equality Plebiscite in Australia
In August 2015, under growing pressure to allow the Liberal Party a conscience vote on what was becoming a thorn in his side, then Prime Minister Tony Abbott called a surprise Party Room meeting to determine once and for all the Liberal Party’s stance on Marriage Equality. Having gone to the election in 2013 with a blanket refusal to allow anything other than a No vote, the Irish Referendums success saw increasing pressure on the Prime Minister and his Party to change their stance.
Tony Abbott, who history will show was a Prime Minister who never met a promise he wasn’t keen to break, a staunch supporter of the status quo and 1950s values argued that the public needed to have their say on the issue. What emerged from the meeting was the announcement that the Liberal Party would continue to vote No as a block during this Parliament and that some time, in the distant future, a costly non-binding Plebiscite would be run to allow the voters of Australia the opportunity to say whether they agreed or not with same-sex couples being awarded the same legal protections as their heterosexual brothers and sisters.
At the time of the announcement, then Minister for Communications Malcolm Turnbull broke party ranks suggesting the plebiscite was a distraction that would haunt the LNP in the next Federal election and should be dealt with with a vote in the House of Representatives. Since he became Prime Minister in September 2015, Malcolm Turnbull has continued to back the Plebiscite, saying he is a leader not a dictator and the Australian people deserve the right to make their voices heard.
What is the point of a Plebiscite
According to the dictionary, a Plebiscite is “the direct vote of all the members of an electorate on an important public question such as a change in the constitution.”
Yet, the change of the Marriage Act (as shown by John Howard in 2004) is not a constitutional issue, rather it is a legislative change to an ACT of Parliament. That the Plebiscite is non-binding, meaning regardless of the outcome MP’s can ignore the will of the people and vote as they like anyway, shows that for all intents and purposes the Marriage Equality Plebiscite is simply a costly polling exercise.
Marriage Equality wasn’t the first time Tony Abbott threw out a the idea of a plebiscite. In 2011 he called on the then Gillard Labor Government to spend $70 – $80 million of tax payers money on a Plebiscite in relation to the Carbon Tax. Although he was spearheading the plebiscite, he said at the time that even if it won a Coalition Government would still repeal the legislation. While his announcement of a Marriage Equality Plebiscite surprised a lot of people, he had already shown his hand back in 2011. Ask the people what they prefer and if it’s not what he wants, ignore them.
Throughout Australia’s history there has only been three plebiscites. They were:
- 1916: Military service conscription (defeated)
- 1917: Reinforcement of the Australian Imperial Forces overseas (defeated)
- 1977: The choice of Australia’s National anthem (Advanced Australia Fair preferred)
For further information on both the history of, and the purpose of, a National Plebiscite the Federal Parliament has put together a quick guide, which can be found here.
What can be expected from the Plebiscite
Australia lives under a representative democracy. That means we vote for a voice for our local electorate. The party with the most votes wins the seat, and the party with the most seats wins the right to form Government. By voting for our local member, the Australian people expect them to be our voice in Parliament and do what needs to be done in order to keep Australia moving successfully towards the future. By announcing the Plebiscite, the Government has removed it’s own ability to do what it is paid to do.
When the High Court of Australia threw out the ACT Marriage Equality Bill in 2013 it said in it’s findings:
“The Court held that the Federal Parliament has power under the Australian Constitution to legislate with respect to same-sex marriage, and that under the Constitution and federal law as it now stands, whether same-sex marriage should be provided for by law is a matter for the Federal Parliament,” the court said in a summary of its judgement.
The highest court in Australia clearly stated that the power to legislate Marriage Equality fell to the Federal Parliament as a matter of law. There was no need to change the constitution. There is no need to waste hundreds of millions of dollars to do what could take a week. The Plebiscite is nothing more than a smoke screen, the opportunity to allow a Government that refuses to move forward the time it needs to wait out Marriage Equality and hope it goes away.
The Plebiscite has the potential to be extremely damaging to the LGBT population in Australia. Last week South Australian Senator Penny Wong said the annual Lionel Murphy Memorial Lecture:
“A plebiscite designed to deny me and many other Australians a marriage certificate will instead license hate speech to those who need little encouragement,” she said.
“Mr Turnbull, and many commentators on this subject, don’t understand that for gay and lesbian Australians hate speech is not abstract. It’s real. It’s part of our everyday life.”
To read more click here.
A Licence to Hate
While politicians like Malcolm Turnbull can say they have trust the campaign will be dealt with maturely and with respect, the reality is a plebiscite on Marriage Equality is a licence to bring out the very worst in the argument.
In February 2016 the Australian Christian Lobby called for the suspension of Australia’s anti- discrimination and hate speech laws for the duration of the Plebiscite. What possible reason could any group have to call on the Attorney-General to suspend those laws? What exactly are they planning and hoping to get away with?
ACL Managing Director Lyle Shelton said at the time the No camp weren’t looking to say anything bigoted but simply wanted to use the “millennia-old” argument Marriage is between a man and a woman. If this was truly the case, the need to suspend anti-discrimination and hate speech laws is overkill. We’ve heard that argument forever and there’s no reason it can’t be used in a manner that is respectful of those who disagree.
It isn’t the argument that marriage is between a man and a woman that incites hate. It’s the way in which it is presented. It is the use of hate, of degrading the LGBT community to make it’s point that is prevented by those laws. At both a State and Federal level the call to suspend the laws during the campaign was rejected.
But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be all sunshine and rose petals. The No camp is not going to settle with “marriage is between a man and a woman.” Any politician who thinks this campaign is going to be a polite discourse is at best ignorant of the day to day harassment and abuse LGBT suffer.
Last week, in response to Senator Wong’s comments Australia Treasurer Scott Morrison said he understood all too well the harassment and fear LGBT people have, because he’s a victim of it being a middle-aged white Christian with strong religious beliefs.
The LGBT community didn’t take kindly to Mr Morrison’s argument, rightly pointing out that there is a big difference between him being told his religious beliefs have no baring on a social policy issues and being afraid to walk down the street holding your partners hand or being bashed simply for being who you are.
Comedian and writer Rebecca Shaw wrote a wonderful piece that was posted on SBS highlighting the sort of abuse Mr Morrison claims to be experiencing, taking every day scenarios faced by the LGBT community and changing the word Gay or Lesbian for Religious. While the post pokes fun at Mr Morrison’s claims, it is remarkably poignant for those of us who experience the hate on a daily basis. You can read Rebecca’s post by clicking the title “A day in the life of Scott Morrison if he actually faced the same bigotry as LGBT people“.
Back to Binding:
Politicians from the far right wing of the Liberal Party have been all in a flap about binding things recently. Ignorant claims that school programme Safe Schools promoted genital binding to primary school children are just the tip of the ice berg.
When it comes to hate speech the usual suspects like the Australian Christian Lobby and Marriage Alliance are the first to come to mind in connection to Marriage Equality, but our own Parliamentarians and Senators definitely have skin in the game.
Connecting Marriage Equality to pedophiles grooming children, creating another stolen generation, and beastiality are all in a days work for certain segments of the current LNP Government. If our own representatives feel it is an appropriate way to speak about our people what hope do we have that the actual Plebiscite isn’t going to be a colossal hate campaign?
That the plebiscite is non-binding is a well known fact. What has come to light yesterday however really shows how worthless the whole campaign is going to be. Yesterday Fairfax Media broke the story that Liberal MP’s and Senators are going to be allowed to vote however they want, anyway. Regardless of what the decision is in the public vote, the Liberal Party will vote to how they already feel.
So what is the point?
Beyond a campaign of ‘them v us’ and a public whipping of fear and hysteria of the glitter covered boogey-men hiding under our children’s beds the Marriage Equality Plebiscite is just as Tony Abbott intended. A publicly funded hate campaign that will see a portion of Australia’s population vilified by the haters and the right wing nut jobs.
The Liberal Party have given permission to their members to ignore the outcome of the Plebiscite, to vote No in a Parliamentary vote even if the Yes vote carries. Based on history, plebiscites have an almost zero percent chance of succeeding anyway. 2 out of 3 of the past plebiscites have been defeated.
The Australian Parliament is elected to represent their constituents. It’s what they’re paid for. To vote for their electorates and the community as a whole. Not to inject their vote with their own personal beliefs.
Galaxy polls show overwhelming (majority) support for Marriage Equality. According to research support for Marriage Equality is:
- 64% of Australians support Marriage Equality
- 53% of Christians support Marriage Equality
- 75% believe Marriage Equality is inevitable
- 81%o of 18 – 24 year olds support Marriage Equality
While the stats above are from 2012, a more recent Fairfax/Ipsos poll in 2015 showed support for Marriage Equality to be at 68%. The Fairfax/Ipsos poll further breaks down support as follows:
- Men – 63%
- Women – 74%
By Political Party Voting Preference:
- Labor – 74%
- Liberal – 57%
- Greens – 90%
- Born in Australia – 71%
- Born overseas – 60%
Every poll in recent times has shown community support for Marriage Equality is growing. At the upcoming election there are two very distinct and clear choices. The LNP’s Marriage Equality Plebiscite which has been shown to have no meaning and be non-binding on their own Members, or the Australian Labor Party who have promised a vote in the House of Representatives within the first 100 days if they gain the seats required to lead the Nation.
Whatever you believe in and whatever vote you would cast at a Plebiscite the reality is, the campaign against providing the same legal protections to the LGBT community Marriage Equality would provide will be nothing but Government sanctioned and paid for hate.
The only people Marriage Equality will impact, are the LGBT communities in Australia. Marriage Equality has zero impact on anyone else, and as such should be voted for by the Parliament, just as John Howard did in 2004 when he set the changes in motion that bring us to today.