The Australian Gay Marriage Plebiscite: When Too Much Democracy is a Bad Thing

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The Australian Gay Marriage Plebiscite: When Too Much Democracy is a Bad Thing

Australia doesn’t yet have gay marriage. Yes, we are backward.

We on the correct side of the debate here call it “marriage equality,” rather than “gay marriage,” to underscore that it is a human rights issue and discriminatory to think otherwise. As it turns out, more people appear to support it if you call it that. Clever marketing, eh? Besides, in today’s landscape of gender fluidity etc, not everyone in a same-sex relationship identifies as gay. But I digress.

Marriage equality has become a hot button issue over the past few years, particularly since everyone else in the western world, from very Catholic Ireland to yourselves in the US, seem to have achieved it without your countries exploding or sinking into a pit of molten lava.

It has become such a hot button issue, in fact, that we have all become extremely sick of hearing about it all the bloody time.

So, our previous conservative Prime Minister (before his colleagues sacked him in a party room coup) proposed that our government put it to the public in a national vote. If it goes ahead, the Australian people will be asked “Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?” This type of vote is called a plebiscite, and it is like a referendum (which, like in the case of Ireland’s vote, is needed to change the constitution). But unlike a referendum, a plebiscite is non-binding. So all the extreme right-wingers in our government can simply ignore the vote if they don’t like the result. Basically, it is a delaying tactic. It’s currently scheduled for February next year.

In the past, marriage in Australia wasn’t strictly defined. However, in 2004, another conservative Prime Minister (and W’s bosom buddy), John Howard, changed the legislation in an act of parliament. The new wording was “Marriage means the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others…” Pro-marriage equality activists are currently wondering, if the parliament could change the marriage act in 2004 to restrict it to being between a man and a woman, why can’t they simply change it back again? Isn’t that what politicians are for? Why do they need us?

The plebiscite will cost the Australian taxpayers about AUD$170 million (about US$127 million) in a time where everyone is Chicken Little-ing about the state of our national budget (“the sky is falling!”). The government is also giving each side of the debate AUD$7.5 million to campaign. Church groups have already asked for hate speech legislation to be suspended so that they can put forward their views without fear of prosecution. You read that right, they want to suspend laws on hate speech so that they can run commercials.

But it turns out that they don’t need any laws suspended, because the Yes/No campaigns for the plebiscite will be treated as political advertising. This means that not only is the media forced to give equal time to both sides, but that any arguments made do not need to be factual. They can be completely made up, as long as they specify that someone approved the message at the end of the ad.

It is interesting times in Australian politics for gay rights. The Prime Minister supports marriage equality. The leader of the opposition supports marriage equality. The majority of politicians support marriage equality, and 70% of the Australian public supports it. Unfortunately, a small section of very conservative politicians in the ruling party do not, and are using their power to hold their party leader, and therefore the entire country, hostage.

It is now looking unlikely that the legislation required to hold a plebiscite will be passed. Too many socially liberal opposition and independent politicians are against holding it.

They fear that the debate will get ugly. Already politicians are warning that they don’t want the blood of suicided gay teenagers on their hands. They don’t want the shredded self-esteem of kiddies with two mommies or daddies on their conscience either. If you think that they’re being dramatic, read the online comment threads of any article on marriage equality, and you’ll get a taste of how low the debate could sink. Remember that media outlets would be required to give equal time to both sides, and truth is no barrier to their arguments. Ugly doesn’t even begin to describe it.

In an unexpected turn of events, gay activists are celebrating the likely defeat of the plebiscite enabling legislation. They hope instead that the government will just sign marriage equality into law, as they do so many other things on a daily basis. Marriage equality is inevitable, that is the way our society is heading, so why not just pass it and get on with other stuff, like the economy, education and health?

This is not just about gay rights, it’s about human rights and basic human dignity too. Asking the public to vote on whether or not a minority group should be extended legal equality is morally repugnant.

Surprisingly, while 70% of Australians favour marriage equality, a majority want the plebiscite too. They want to “have their say.” Which is fine in theory, but it is an expensive, divisive and extremely hurtful opinion poll, which will NOT BE BINDING on the politicians anyway. I’m sure we would like our say on a lot of things the parliament does every day, but that is not the way democracy is designed to work. Can you imagine if 1950s America were asked to vote yes or no on each piece of racial equality legislation? I’m sure many people at the time would have liked to. Even if the results were progressive, the campaign surrounding it would be extremely damaging. And why should African Americans at the time have to ask for the majority’s permission to be considered equal humans?

We didn’t have a plebiscite to go to war in Iraq. We don’t have plebiscites to decide economic policy, or health policy or education. So why have a plebiscite now? It is because our politicians are afraid to lead. They are instead outsourcing their responsibility to the people.

I don’t want our politicians to only do what is safe. I want them to do what is right. I want them to lead. I don’t want them to ask me what I think, I voted for them because I trust their judgement. I want them to be smarter than me, because I’m sure they know more than me about a lot of stuff that affects other Australians, both richer than me and poorer. With more education and less. With better jobs and those who are unemployed, etc etc. They should be leading for all of us, taking the tough decisions and explaining their reasoning when necessary.

They shouldn’t be asking me to do their job for them.

Come on, politicians of Australia: Vote YES for marriage equality so I don’t have to.

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