Who’s afraid of the plebiscite?

The most immediately newsworthy takeaway from Julia Gillard’s speech about marriage reform came from her new position on same-sex unions. As the Age explained, she ‘told an audience in Melbourne on Wednesday she had changed her view that both heterosexual and same-sex couples should embrace civil unions’.

As is well known, Gillard opposed same-sex marriage when she was prime minister. Since quitting politics, she’s claimed that her opposition as PM derived from the feminist critique of marriage she developed as a campus radical – that, in effect, she opposed same-sex marriage from the Left. As she explained in one interview: ‘If someone had said to me [in her campus days]: what about you get into a white dress to symbolise virginity and you get your father to walk you down an aisle and give you away to a man who is waiting at the end of the aisle, I would have looked with puzzlement like what on Earth would I do that for?’

In Wednesday’s speech, she repeated that claim. ‘Given the 1970s feminist in me,’ she said, ’saw much to be concerned with from a gender perspective with traditional marriage, I thought the better approach was not to change the old but to create something new through civil unions.’

Now, only Gillard knows her private thoughts. But, in 2011, her public rationale for opposing same-sex marriage was entirely unambiguous. She explained that she was ‘on the conservative side’ of the debate ‘because of the way our society is and how we got here’.

Rather than attacking marriage as being innately oppressive, she defended it on the basis of tradition: ‘I think for our culture, for our heritage, the Marriage Act and marriage being between a man and a woman has a special status.’

Just to make sure she wasn’t misunderstood, she added: ‘Now, I know people might look at me and think that’s something that they wouldn’t necessarily expect me to say, but that is what I believe. I’m on the record as saying things like I think it’s important for people to understand their Bible stories, not because I’m an advocate of religion – clearly, I’m not – but once again, what comes from the Bible has formed such an important part of our culture.’

A few days later, she reassured Christian leaders that she respected ‘traditional values’ when it came to marriage (and, for that matter, euthanasia).

It’s entirely commendable for public figures to change their views. It’s less commendable to rewrite history. But Gillard’s trickiness about (the easily accessible) public record reeks of the mentality that got Labor into such a mess in the first place. Rather than openly acknowledging that pandering to the Christian right was a mistake that she now rejects, she reaches reflexively for spin and obfuscation.

In that respect, her discussion about her own opinions provides an illuminating frame for the broader argument in her speech.

For Gillard intended her address as a polemic against marriage reform being put to a plebiscite or some other form of popular vote.

Now, Abbott’s new enthusiasm for bringing same-sex marriage to the people was devised, fairly obviously, as a cunning manoeuvre – a way to avoid an immediate parliamentary discussion of marriage reform, so as to buy some time for the Liberals. Many activists have rightly argued that there’s no need for delay – that parliament could and should vote now.

Gillard’s focus is different.

She opposes a plebiscite almost as a matter of principle, on the basis that a popular vote on same-sex marriage will make wider ‘reform’ more difficult by undermining the authority of parliament. ‘The only foundation stone for the idea of a plebiscite or referendum,’ she says, ‘is an appeal to the all too popular sentiment that politicians are inadequate, that their decision making is somehow deficient. … There is truly something absurd about politicians themselves inviting the public to conclude that politicians are not up to making a decision.’

A plebiscite might set a precedent. If, she says, same-sex marriage were to be put to a popular vote, she would vote yes. ‘Then I would watch with wry amusement as some disgruntled wag suggested that the next plebiscite should be on parliamentarian’s entitlements. After all, they could reason why should parliamentarians set their own employment terms and conditions? I will leave it to your imaginations to come up with more tongue in cheek examples.’

It’s a very, very strange argument. Over the past months, we’ve seen parliamentarians demonstrate their utter inability to resist hiring helicopters and gondolas and other extravagances. People are, quite rightly, disgusted by the behavior of representatives, who preach austerity and then take their families on lavish holidays funded by the public purse. It’s also become blindingly apparent that neither party wants to make an issue of the abuses because both Labor and Liberal are deeply implicated in them.

So what makes the notion of a popular vote on parliamentary entitlements so innately risible? Why does Gillard simply take for granted that her audience will share her conviction that the public cannot be trusted on such matters?

In part, it’s because she assumes they share her commitment to what she calls ‘reform’, something that she says is proving problematic in the twenty-first century: it is, she says, ‘a difficult age in which to sustain deep reform conversations and to build public acceptance of vital change.’

But why do plebiscites make ‘deep reform conversations’ and ‘public acceptance of vital change’ more difficult? Indeed, you could make a strong case that the opposite’s true: that, when the public has a chance to vote, the ‘conversation’ becomes far deeper and broader, precisely because the electors become involved in the process. Consider the two most significant plebiscites in Australian history: the votes about conscription in 1916 and 1917 involved about as deep a participation as you’re ever likely to see, with rallies and meetings and debates in every city and town across the country. A plebiscite showing massive support for same-sex marriage (and that’s what every poll says would happen) seems far more likely to demonstrate public acceptance than a vote taken on behalf of the public by politicians, most of whom (Abbott, Shorten, etc) are on record opposing the reform in the past. That’s precisely the reason why, traditionally, social democratic reforms usually followed periods of mass mobilisation – think of the Whitlam government’s relationship to the New Left.

But, of course, Gillard’s using ‘reform’ in the modern sense, in which the word doesn’t describe a Whitlam-style social democratic program so much as technocratic economic tinkering which, she says, will make us ‘agile and innovative’. That’s why she assumes agreement from her listeners since ‘reform’ of that nature – and the seeming inability of recent governments to deliver it – is the great preoccupation of the political class. Over at the Australian, Paul Kelly explains the outcomes of that paper’s typically pretentious National Reform Summit. ‘The agreement from the summit,’ he harumphs, ‘is that reform is now urgent, our economic and social position is slipping, unemployment is too high, poverty is rising and growth combined with equity is the priority objective.’

Gillard’s concern is that, with his plebiscite, Abbott might unleash a populism that will make top-down economic reform more difficult. That is, she acknowledges that the ‘reforms’ of the neoliberal age have been profoundly unpopular.

‘An easy target for … rage,’ she says, ‘is the mainstream political class, who preach about the inevitability of globalisation, the need for more modernisation, the requirement to respect diversity, all the while leading seemingly pampered lives. How easy is it to conclude that these be-suited men and women are out of touch? A feeling of disenfranchisement joins the anger.’

That’s the basis on which she sees plebiscites as dangerous – they offer an outlet for the growing disenchantment with the status quo. Instead of pandering to the mob, politicians should be trying to boost the authority of parliament, for otherwise their unpopular reforms won’t be possible.

‘It is actually in our nation’s interests to be bolstering belief in the capacity of our parliamentary system. The speed and temper of our times is already working to undermine faith in the ability of democracies to cope and to embrace reform. The bonds that bind government and the governed together are already fraying.’

It’s a deeply conservative argument, one in which parliament exists less to represent the popular will than to guard against it, imposing reforms upon a populace incapable of making decisions themselves.

The irony is, of course, that she could not have chosen a worse illustration of her point. For she complains that Abbott is ‘inviting electors to believe that parliamentary decision making is an inadequate, even shoddy, way of creating change’. But anyone who doesn’t believe parliamentary decision-making to be inadequate and shoddy on marriage reform simply hasn’t been paying attention. After all, parliament created the mess in the first place, back when John Howard inserted – with the full backing of the ALP – a clause into the Marriage Act to exclude same-sex couples.

At the time, Howard made much of that parliamentary consensus, explaining: ‘Nobody can say [the amendment] is being used as a wedge, nobody can say it’s a diversion, everybody can say it’s a united expression of the national parliament and therefore of the will of the Australian people.’

It’s very strange to argue for the precedence of the parliament over the people using as an example a problem created solely by, in Howard’s words, ‘the united expression of the national parliament’. Indeed, Gillard’s own ongoing slipperiness about the stance she took against marriage and the rationale behind it only reinforces the public’s entirely accurate belief that parliamentarians made a tremendous hash out of what should have been a simple (and very moderate) democratic reform. Quite simply, on marriage equality, the politicians neither led nor followed the public. Rather, they legislated discrimination and then they obstructed reform.

Gillard’s change of mind on same-sex marriage is to be welcomed (though it probably doesn’t have much political weight now). Her sense of the public as a problem, a difficulty to be managed by politicians, is far more significant, precisely because it’s an attitude so widely shared.


Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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