A non-binding poll: how bizarre

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.


Image: Leaving Seattle City Hall on first day of gay marriage in Washington / Wikimedia

Dennis Altman

Dennis Altman is a writer and academic who first came to attention with the publication of his book Homosexual: Oppression & Liberation in 1972, which was published in eight countries. He has written eleven books. He is Director of the Institute for Human Security at LaTrobe University in Melbourne, and is well known as a commentator on the ABC and Australian newspapers.

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  1. Wither democracy? A postal vote turn out is the problem – just pass the bill in the house and be done with it – as most people want – and as Turnbull himself wanted years ago.

  2. Yes Jake, but the fact is the LNP are hell bent on having this expensive national opinion poll masquerading as a plebiscite, so we have two choices:

    1. Basically sulk and boycott it because we insist like good little liberals that human rights are innate and somehow bestowed by nature despite history making it very, very plain human rights are bestowed by the state and not one of them was given to us without a fight, ever. Eg: women’s suffrage – or suffrage, full stop.

    2. Start working our asses off to lock that yes vote in, in the knowledge that although this faux plebiscite has no legal weight, it has plenty of political weight, both to silence the bigoted minority once and for all, and as a successful exercise in genuine, bottom up, grass roots participatory democracy that opens the door for other exercises in participatory democracy, like Constitutionally binding, citizen initiated plebiscites and referenda. Unless of course everyone’s so happy with the current top down governance we live with in this glorious representational democracy which gave us goodies like the 2004 amendment to the Marriage Act of 1961 that there’s no need or appetite for participatory democracy.

    In short, we see this as an exploitative insult to us, or we see this as an opportunity we can exploit.

  3. A superb analysis, bursting with good nature and calm. It’s like listening to the only grown-up in the room. But I disagree with the view that conservatives have ‘outmanoeuvred’ the progressives. Tactically, perhaps. But strategically this represents a catastrophe (moral and political) for those of us who would argue for the greater (net) functional efficacy of a broadly ‘socially conservative’ society.

    We have essentially dealt ourselves out of this debate by allowing cynics to traduce the deeper philosophical bedrocks of our worldview for their own grubby personal ends. Just as I sense you (excuse the presumption) find yourself rather bemused to be now actively advocating the pragmatic expenditure of activist capital in the service of what you regard as a slightly incongruous political goal, the likes of Abbott have shanghaied Australian ‘liberalism’ and ‘social conservativism’ into arguing against what is surely a definitive component of what we claim to believe is best for the ‘individuals-up’ organisation of society: personal love/family stability as base unit. To exist in a political universe in which social conservatives have somehow contrived to attack couples wishing only to enter into the acme of social conservativism is…well, ‘bizarre’ is apt. But to find ourselves now also being required (by these same imposters, these radical wreckers) to become implicated in the trashing of multiple conservative philosophical and constitutional concepts is…I think where the true ‘outmanoeuvred’ balance sheet ought to be appraised

    This is – and forgive the ‘broader picture’ esoterica, this is first and foremost an outrage against human love, one which demands social conservatives of good faith now quietly concede the field to social progressivism – a politico-philosophical disaster – for conservatism. The ravages of sociopathic neoliberal economics have already brought authentic political conservativism into deep disrepute. I think when the dust settles, regardless of how this issue plays out tactically, we will be left with little but a hollowed-out politico-philosophical shell to inhabit.

    So who, really, is the ‘outmanoeuvred’ political force in the Australian polity?

    Very best regards, DA, and thank you for a very fine piece.

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