We don’t always get to choose our battle grounds. A postal ballot, not requiring everyone to vote, is no-one’s preferred way of resolving the marriage debate, but it’s happening. It is possible that the High Court will rule it unconstitutional, but one assumes that the government sought legal advice in order to facilitate what on the face of it is bizarre; namely a national vote that is run by the Bureau of Statistics rather than the Electoral Commission.
So far the conservatives have out manoeuvred the marriage equality movement. Defeating them in the so-called plebiscite will finally end years of shadow boxing over what should be a simple decision, namely to amend the Marriage Act to remove the requirement that marriage be solely between a man and a woman.
I’ve always been a sceptic about marriage. I wish that the queer movement had been willing to argue that our relationships need neither the blessings of church or state to make them valid, and to celebrate the reality that there are many long-lasting lesbian and gay relationships, some of which do not resemble conventional assumptions about marriage. But ‘marriage equality’ has become a totemic, symbolic issue. Anything other than a large majority in whatever form the popular vote takes would be seen as a huge blow against anyone who identifies – or is seen by others – as queer.
We can all be wise after the event. In retrospect, the equality movement should have recognised that this government would not yield, and bargained for accepting the plebiscite with certain conditions. Above all, they should have argued for it to be binding, thus revealing the total hypocrisy in the government’s position: if the poll shows support for same-sex marriage this only means a bill can be debated in Parliament, it does not guarantee its passage.
I recognise that many people fear the hatred and bitterness that will be unleashed in our Clayton’s referendum campaign. The viciousness of the attacks on the Safe Schools program last year were a warning of what’s in store. But the reality is that this hatred won’t be magically wished away, and better to lance the boil than have it fester.
We can bemoan the cost to the taxpayer of this poll, but governments waste far more on even more dubious ventures. Remember the billion dollars involved in abandoning contracts for Melbourne’s East-West link, contracts entered into by a government that knew it was very likely to be defeated? The real costs of not going the parliamentary route is the time, energy and resources that will be consumed by the equality movement, resources better used to address major inequities for queer people, both in Australia and globally.
It would be tempting to call for a boycott of the poll, but that’s a risky tactic, and could well backfire. Better would be to use the exercise as a means of enrolling as many new voters as possible, and building support to throw out the government that has brought this on in the first place. The Electoral Commission estimates that about 800,000 eligible people are currently not enrolled to vote.
One assumes they are disproportionately young, and therefore probably more likely to support same-sex marriage. A campaign to increase eligible voters will not only help turnout in the poll, it provides the basis for what may well be several far more legitimate referenda in the near future.
Our Constitution is clear: we require referenda to change the basic rules and compacts under which we are governed. That means we need referenda – which need be passed by a majority of voters in a majority of states – to address both indigenous recognition and the republic.
The former Malcolm Turnbull – a figure long vanished – would have relished being the Prime Minister who led a campaign around these issues. It is his tragedy that he is likely to be remembered for a totally unnecessary vote on an issue where he cannot persuade his own followers to support his own position.
As I write this the challenge to the poll is about to go before the High Court. Should it be upheld there is no realistic opportunity of a change to the Marriage Act during the term of this government. Those for whom this is a crucial issue should dedicate themselves to a change of government as soon as possible, which means some tough choices. At least two of the Liberals who’ve led the charge for equality – Trevor Evans and Warren Entsch – represent marginal electorates, Brisbane and Leichhardt [Cairns].
It’s Hobson’s Choice: vote for decent Liberals or replace them with Labor candidates who will almost certainly support Bill Shorten’s pledge to legislate same-sex marriage within 100 days. So far the marriage movement has been scrupulous in avoiding partisan endorsements, but if the process stalls that is no longer a viable position.
If the Court allows the poll to go ahead, then the campaign lines are clear. Opponents of marriage equality are already gearing up, with Tony Abbott at the head, perhaps with nostalgic memories of his role in blocking a republic back in 1999. They will be backed by strong networks in church groups. Homophobia was a feature of Liberal campaigning in several seats in the last federal elections, and may have contributed to Labor’s loss of the seat of Chisholm in Melbourne’s east.
In addition to campaigning for a yes vote, I’d like to see a switch in the language used by equality campaigners. The danger of constantly talking about how much hatred and prejudice the debate reveals is that it actually reinforces stigma. Claims that the absence of same sex marriage contributes to queer suicide is exaggerated and unhelpful. Far better to campaign on the basis that sexual and gender diversity is a strength, not a failure. The nastier and more outrageous the opponents become, the easier it will be to persuade people to vote yes in an unnecessary but vital public opinion poll.