Opposed to women's suffrage2
Equal marriage

A plebiscite for every issue

The marriage equality campaign has been having a pretty good run over the past 13 years. It has transformed public opinion, turning 30 per cent support into 60 per cent support. It has dragged the Labor Party (which joined with the Coalition in banning it in 2004) over to its side. It has (probably) built a cross-party parliamentary majority in favour.

And now the High Court has turned out to be the friend the campaign needed, rather than the friend it wanted. Thanks to the Court’s decision, we can confidently expect to have same-sex marriage by the end of this year. (A decision the other way, against conducting the postal survey, would not have delivered this.)

The campaign’s major organisations opposed the plebiscite and its alternative, the Plebiscite-Lite postal survey, on a number of grounds. One was that it is a waste of $122 million. But this is a lazy argument – there are always better things to spend government money on. Then there was the danger of losing the vote – rarely spoken of in public, it would emerge in private conversations, a lot. This was an implausible argument. Public support has built steadily over the past 13 years across a remarkable range of demographics.

And it has been clear for some time that the popular vote in favour of same-sex marriage was more certain than the parliamentary vote, where we simply have no public record of what the vote was likely to have been in the various possible scenarios. A yes vote is likely to sway the wavering MPs and senators.

The argument that is made with the most passion is the one that says that the rights of minorities should not be the subject of a popular vote. This seems reasonable, but it rather misunderstands the nature of rights in a society like Australia. Here, rights are not to be found in the Constitution. They are not inherent in the human being; nor are they bestowed by the gods. Rather, rights are accumulated over time. At particular moment in history some section of the population will decide that, for example, women should have the right to vote, or own property. Those people then set out to make that a reality via political work – from lobbying to violence (as in the case of woman suffrage in Britain.) A right is born. Eventually they persuade enough people that the legislature decides to act on it, to embed it in law.

Australia’s Constitution gives the Parliament the power to legislate on marriage. Who can marry (addressing characteristics such as age, degree of family connection and so on) is for legislators to decide. (Most recently, the decided to reword the Act to make sure same-sex couples couldn’t marry). The only way that the socially recognised and historically generated right to marry someone of the same sex can be brought into in law is via a vote. It is not clear why we might object, in principle, to a popular vote being part of this process.

The decisive argument against the plebiscite and postal survey, though, seems for many to have been that the debate will get really unpleasant. But it is hard to imagine that the marriage vote will not unleash anything more than we have been exposed to over the past few years about the Safe Schools program, which has been marked by vile and entirely dishonest abuse of queer people and their allies. Lies and abuse that have, it must be said, been largely successful.

The Safe Schools program is under serious threat, where it continues to exist at all, as Benjamin Law details in his new Quarterly Essay. So, it is not surprising that the right’s case against marriage has built on this success, conflating marriage, parenting, children, sex and gender and sexuality into an incoherent – and transparently silly – fear campaign against same-sex marriage.

To bring a longer timeframe into our understanding of what we are up against: those of us of a certain age, or with a knowledge of the past, will know that the sort of things that are said about queer people from the right today were, until relatively recently, considered simple common sense. These were ideas held by millions of people, including many LGBTQI people. The difference is that, back then, no-one much was standing up against the abuse.

When I was being bullied at school for being a sissy no teacher felt impelled to step in. There were no social, medical, welfare support services I might have sought out. No Minus 18, no Rainbow Families, no Switchboard. When the Christian right in the 1970s – the Festival of Light, the Community Standards Organisation and the like – said things even worse than what we hear today, prime ministers did not speak up.

Or, take a more recent example: the campaign against decriminalisation in Tasmania in the 1990s, which was really well-organised and really, really unpleasant. But dropping the demand for law reform wasn’t an option – powering on through is what got the job done.

Which is by no means a version of ‘toughen up, princess’. Rather, it is a recognition that we have the will and the awareness and the resources to look after ourselves and each other if the right’s campaign gets as ugly this time round as many fear it will. And if the reports of an increase in traffic to the support services is true, those organisations are doing the work they were created for.

But my contention is not just that the arguments against the postal survey don’t really stand up; it is that there are positive reasons for supporting it. (Reasons that applied even more strongly to the first plebiscite proposal, put forward earlier this year, which would have delivered same-sex marriage shortly after the 11 February polling date.)

When we win this vote, we will deliver to the LGBTQI movement a win bigger than anything since Tasmania decriminalised homo-sex in 1997, which, in winning, powerfully transformed Tasmanian society for the better. The Christian right claims to speak for the silent majority. A win by the ‘yes’ campaign will demonstrate unambiguously that they do not. It is likely to set them back on their heels for some time.

Even before the High Court decision – even despite things being on hold till it was clear whether the survey could go ahead – people mobilised and got active around the vote. Posters, leaflets, rallies (including the largest gay-rights rally in Australian history), conversations … Tens of thousands of people enrolled themselves to vote; hundreds of thousands updated their address records. Well beyond the inner suburbs – in the outer suburbs, in rural and regional towns – this is an issue that has galvanised people to pay attention and to do something more than hit the ‘Like’ button or sit around the kitchen table bemoaning the state of things.

People who worry about popular disengagement from the political process would be well-advised to attend to this campaign. In Victoria at the moment there is a proposal to legalise euthanasia, a very popular policy. But in the absence of a public campaign, or of a popular vote, it is perfectly possible not to know that it is on the agenda at all. Similarly, some recent research showed a majority of Victorians support the creation of safe injecting rooms as a way of managing the drugs crisis – but the government is pretty much unmoved. Because why would they stick their necks out? It is a simple fact that asking people to take a stand and giving them the means to do so brings them into the political process in an active, responsible, thoughtful and engaged manner, as the same-sex marriage survey/vote campaign has shown.

There are great issues decided every day in the political sphere – life and death, war and peace, moral questions. The marriage equality campaign has shown that it is possible to bring people in on these issues and to get well-thought out responses. It is possible that the real beneficiaries of the same-sex marriage campaign won’t just be gay and lesbian couples, but Australian politics more generally.


Image: Passers-By Looking at Window Display at the Headquarters of National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, ca. 1919

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Graham Willett is a historian. He is not now, nor has he ever been, married.

More by


  1. Agree entirely, Graham. The plebiscite is an opportunity for greater democratic participation – we should be arguing for a say in more things.

  2. Well said Graham. Indeed, what seems on one hand a disgusting display of unwelcome opinion can also be a chance to have the voices of those most passionate heard.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>