Going Postal: Why an optional plebiscite may be the best way forward on the marriage issue

The Liberal Party will hold a special meeting this afternoon to discuss what action to take regarding a proposed private member’s bill on same-sex marriage (henceforth, ‘SSM’). It is likely that a commitment to a plebiscite of some kind will prevail – but the situation is anything but certain. This piece argues that the “postal plebiscite” option might be the best hope the nation has of putting the issue to rest one way or another in a democratic way.

[1]

4 Reasons why a postal plebiscite might be the best way forward:

  1. The issue is not going to go away without definitive democratic action

To be very clear I support a plebiscite of any kind with the utmost reluctance. I support marriage being left alone and attempts at legislative change ceasing. But that cannot happen in the current political climate and there currently remains more pathways for pro-SSM activists to keep pushing their agenda than for conservatives to quash the issue.

The only chance we have of putting the matter to rest for the next few terms of parliament is by allowing Australian voters an equal chance to affirm or reject it. Rejection by the public is the most effective means of shutting down the issue in the current and next terms of parliament. Though we can expect activists to keep trying to push their agenda forward no matter what (they believe their cause is righteous and will stop at nothing to achieve it) – those in Parliament with no will to change the definition of marriage will have their hand strengthened by a no vote and be able to move on to addressing other matters of national importance.

  1. Legislation for a regular plebiscite will be blocked in the Senate

Since the government needs to pass legislation to hold an ordinary plebiscite, but cannot get support for such legislation, the option proposed by Peter Dutton – a postal vote which would not require legislation to hold – is a viable means of resolving the issue. The government can commit to taking the outcome of such a vote seriously and act accordingly.

Cabinet Minister and senior conservative Peter Dutton favours a postal plebiscite [2]
  1. A postal plebiscite will see the side that can best mobilise people to vote for their convictions win.

Pro-SSM activists are worried about the nature of an optional vote working against them. But such a huge issue is actually better resolved by people who care about it than the “can’t-be-bothered” mob who exclude themselves from having a say in an optional process. If SSM advocates win such a vote it will be because they campaigned successfully and got people who really believed in changing the definition of marriage to have their say. Likewise for conservatives.

Whichever side loses likely only has themselves to blame for not motivating enough people to vote about the future of marriage – or else we may conclude that they never really had the widespread support they claimed (be it the gay lobby’s supposed 70+% or the conservatives’ supposed “silent majority”). With all the negative effects that will come about as a result of legalising SSM, marriage should never be redefined unless an overwhelming majority are strongly for that change.

  1. The Government has an electoral mandate for a plebiscite – whereas parliamentarians have no mandate to change the definition of marriage without a public vote.

If SSM was the major issue on everyone’s minds when they voted at the last election, Bill Shorten would be the PM. He offered the clearest pathway to SSM – passage of legislation within 100 days of taking office. Most Australians voted for the parties they did while prioritising other issues above this one.

It’s true that a resounding ALP win could justify implementing SSM as part of their election platform – but Australians have not accepted the full package Mr. Shorten & co. are offering and so the public have not voted in a party that will bring change.

Turnbull didn’t really win the election – like Gillard in 2010 he simply stopped short of losing it completely. But the electors who did vote Coalition knew that a plebiscite was their proposed way of dealing with the issue.

So by rights, the two possible courses of action for non-government parties in this parliament should be:
a) Accept that no one has a sufficient mandate for change and stop pursuing SSM        OR
b) Reluctantly admit that the Coalition has a mandate (however slight) for a plebiscite.

The Government is responsible for either:
a) Pursuing some form of public vote as it promised at the election OR
b) Continuing the course which it has been on for the past few months
(i.e. moving onto other more pressing issues due to the plebiscite legislation being blocked by the Senate).

Deputy PM Barnaby Joyce supports holding a plebiscite or getting on with other parliamentary business [3]

Several objections to such a plebiscite refuted

It’s a travesty to our democracy if we hold a public vote to do something that our political representatives were elected to do! This is the job of Parliament.

Many proponents of SSM support a free vote in Federal Parliament, but insincerely pretend that this is because of their high view of parliament’s role in our democracy – rather than mere political opportunism. If Parliament’s authority to resolve the issue is respected, the issue should be dropped – as change has been rejected by previous Parliaments (and there was bipartisan support in 2004 for the clarifications to the Marriage Act made by the Howard Government).

Since many have a two-faced disregard for Parliament’s power to resolve the issue – in any way other than deciding in the affirmative for their cause – the matter must be taken away from the politicians and resolved definitively by the people.

Incidentally (as many have pointed out), it’s a bit rich for the ALP to pressure the Government to hold a “free vote” instead of holding to the party position, when they intend to force all their Senators and MPs to vote for marriage equality (irrespective of their personal beliefs) if the matter isn’t resolved by 2019. They don’t believe in a “free vote” any more than they do the sanctity of Parliament.

A plebiscite is an unnecessary waste of tax-payer’s money, because we’ll spend millions on a referendum-style vote when the Constitution doesn’t need to be changed to bring in ‘marriage equality’”

This is almost completely farcical when used by the Opposition, for two reasons.

1) Shorten & Co. now support not one, but two votes on a Republic (revisiting an issue that has already been dealt with by the Australian people less than twenty years ago) – one of which would presumably be a plebiscite (“Do you want a republic?” doesn’t actually propose a concrete change to the constitution, that’s why they need another vote later). They also support another referendum on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander recognition in the Constitution. It turns out, if we go with Bill it’ll be quite a bill!

To argue against a vote for cost reasons is disingenuous.

2) Marriage is a constitutional matter and changing it’s definition is at least as serious as matters requiring a referendum.

The Constitution gives the Federal Parliament power to make laws related to marriage in the Commonwealth. I recognise the government’s legal right to change the Marriage Act as it sees fit. I don’t recognise its moral right to fundamentally change what Australians understand by the word marriage without properly consulting the populace.

When the constitution was drafted, marriage referred to the legal, social, domestic and almost always sexual union of a man and woman considered by society to be of appropriate age and mental capacity; not already in a marital relationship and not closely related by blood. If the Federal Government wants to use its powers to fundamentally change what the legal definition of marriage is – it should do so with the clear backing of the vast majority of the population. Any proposed changes need to be owned or disowned by the Australian people. Otherwise this is an abuse of power and an unacceptably liberal reading of the constitution.

While the adverse effects of a republic on our political system remain to be seen until the day citizens become silly enough to walk blindfolded into one – the Aboriginal recognition issue is less likely to impact the lives of people across the country to the extent that radically redefining marriage will. An issue that will impact people’s freedom of speech and religion and their educational and workplace environments far more than adding a preamble to a constitution would needs to be weighed by the voting public and then corporate responsibility borne for the road taken.

Any kind of public vote which gives airtime to ‘bigots’ will cause psychological and emotional harm to LGBTI Australians and even risk driving vulnerable people to suicide.”

You know who else faces a higher than normal suicide risk than other members of the general population? Aboriginal youths. And yet the same people that feign concern about LGBTI suicide risk – if a plebiscite is held about their ‘right’ to marry – want to hold a referendum where there will be public debate on whether Aboriginal people hold a special place in our society that should be recognised in our highest law.

This is a sickening ploy by political manipulators that are weaponising young, at-risk people in an attempt to guilt-trip you into rolling over and letting them walk all over you with the changes they want to bring in. Meanwhile, they don’t seem to be worried about other at-risk youth at all. Nor did they seem horrified that Ireland was irresponsibly putting lives at risk when it held its referendum on the issue. Suicide and mental health issues amongst gay and lesbian Australians – or any other members of the community – should not to be taken lightly. But nor should they be used as pretexts to steamroll democracy.

A postal plebiscite may not even be legal” 

If this proves to be the case, of course it should be dropped. But then SSM advocates ought to allow the government to hold a legal plebiscite or be unsurprised when it continues on with business as usual instead of giving into their political tactics on the issue.

A postal plebiscite will favour older, conservative Australians and potentially disenfranchise younger citizens, people living or travelling abroad and those in remote areas.” 

Refer to reason #3 for a postal plebiscite provided above. If young people don’t care about democracy enough to enroll before an electoral deadline they don’t deserve to have a say on such a pivotal issue. If people abroad or in remote areas get plenty of notice that a postal plebiscite will be held and they care enough about the issue one way or the other – are we seriously supposed to believe they will not have a chance to express their views?

This objection translates to: “We’re afraid that people we lazily claim as supporters may be apathetic enough to not make any effort to help us win a vote.” If that’s the case it’s simple – they aren’t actually supporters of the gay lobby’s radical redefinition of marriage.

We know the activists are good at lobbying pollies, running biased surveys and orchestrating media campaigns to make people feel like their view is the dominant one and the only reasonable position on marriage. But could their post-Brexit, post-Trump fear be that they just can’t motivate ordinary people to take action for the radical change their polls claim 70+% of the country believes in?        

They claim it’s time for marriage equality. I say it’s time for Australians who actually care about the future of marriage in this country to have their say in a democratic vote.

[1] Gerard’s World Australia Post Box (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
[2] Department of Immigration and Border Protection “Peter Dutton” 
CC BY 3.0
[3] Bidgee “Joyce in 2010” CC BY-SA 3.0

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