Everything you wanted to know about a plebiscite, but were afraid to ask…
Why is Australia one of the few remaining developed countries without same-sex marriage?
In the last five years, there’s been a massive upswing in countries legalising same-sex marriage. This has caused renewed pressure on the Australian government to do the same. One of the sticking points for Australian politicians has been whether the matter should be a ‘free vote’ – meaning that individual politicians get to decide for themselves, rather than go along with an official party policy. Up until very recently, both the Australian Labor and Liberal National Party have been reluctant (that is, scared) to form a party policy on the matter of same-sex marriage. Prime Minister Gillard originally said the matter should be a free vote. Kevin Rudd only supported same-sex marriage on his short-lived return to the Prime Ministership in 2013. The Australian Labor Party now officially support same-sex marriage legislation, but they’re no longer the gang in charge – it’s the Liberal National Party.
The LNP government are going through an existential crisis. In the world of Trump and Brexit, what does it mean to be a Conservative party in the 21st century? Tony Abbot is a self-proclaimed conservative, believing in ‘traditional values’ and appealing to the LNP ‘base’ (the right-wing conservatives). Malcom Turnbull, however, has historically been far more centrist in this views. He originally pushed renewable energies, for example, and has been an outspoken supporter of Australia becoming a republic. He’s even supported the idea of same-sex marriage in the past. Both Abbot and Turnbull are part of the same party, which is made up of a wide-ranging mix of views. Same-sex marriage is one of the most sensitive issues for the LNP government. In the last few days, it has threatened to tear them apart.
What’s a plebiscite and where did it come from?
A plebiscite is a public vote. Just like an election, it’s where the Australian public rock up and vote on a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to same-sex marriage. Everyone then sees the results of that vote. Importantly, a plebiscite is non-binding, meaning that Parliament can just take it as advice. They don’t have to do anything about it. Australia has had very few plebiscites. The last one was in 1977 and it was about the National Anthem.
In the 2015 elections, then Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced that the LNP would hold a plebiscite on same-sex marriage if elected. They were elected, and they attempted to pass it. Labor and the Greens blocked it in the Senate back in February, so we didn’t end up with any movement on the issue.
What are the arguments against a plebiscite?
- It’s expensive. It will cost the tax-payer over $100 million to execute it properly.
- It’s a big poll with an outcome we already know – that most Australians support marriage equality.
- It’s a delaying tactic for the LNP government to appear to be moving forward on the issue without actually legislating.
- There will be a funded ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaign, creating more division in the country. In particular, young and vulnerable queer people are likely to suffer from such a passionate, public debate that will have very dark corners.
What are the arguments for a plebiscite?
- It proves to everyone, even the doubters, just how many Australians support or disagree with marriage equality.
- Those against same-sex marriage don’t necessarily see it as a human right, but as a moral or ethical issue, and therefore not for the Parliament to decide for itself.
- It allows LNP politicians the chance to not have to risk their careers by going to a free vote. Either way the plebiscite goes, they can turn to their voters, shrug their shoulders, and say ‘the plebiscite made me do it.’
- Conservatives say that shutting down the plebiscite because of fears of hurting the vulnerable is a slippery slope and political correctness gone mad. Democratic debate is a fundamental part of our society and opinions should not be silenced.
Last week, the LNP received new pressure. Four of its members said they would cross the floor on the issue of same-sex marriage – meaning they would go against their party’s official policy. They had heard loud and clear from their electorates that they wanted same-sex marriage to pass. One West Australian MP, Dean Smith, even went so far to write up a bill, ready to put it into Parliament (it resumes this week). Meanwhile, conservative MP’s threatened to walk away from the party if Turnbull changed the official party policy – or to try and chuck Turnbull out of the leadership.
Turnbull did his best to evade questions on the matter last week, and called together the party in a meeting yesterday (Monday) afternoon to decide on what the LNP approach to same-sex marriage should be now that the plebiscite had been knocked back. In the end, only seven MP’s voted for a free vote (out of 86). The vast majority voted to stay with the plebiscite. So, tried to pass the plebiscite again. The attempt failed, and so the LNP went into Plan B – a postal plebiscite, ordering the Australian Bureau of Statistics to organise the voluntary, legally non-binding survey. No one’s very happy about it, and advocates have even taken the matter to the High Court to challenge the idea that the government can even ask the ABS to do such a thing. The challenge failed, and the plebiscite is going ahead. The ABS started mailing out forms this Tuesday just gone. (12th of September)
What’s your opinion?
As you can probably tell from this article, I, like most Australians, believe that same-sex marriage is the only way forward. It’s fair and it’s the right thing to do.
It’s obvious that a lot of politicians, even Malcom Turnbull, think so too. It displays a stunning lack of leadership, and a hell of a lot of cowardice, to not stand by what you believe to be right. Instead, the LNP government, under the Prime Minister’s leadership, is choosing to tread water, delay action, and pour fuel on a fire that will burn many vulnerable people. I believe this is all in favour of keeping the LNP ‘united’ with its more conservative voters – so that, come next year’s election, the LNP can turn to its base and say ‘the plebiscite made us put in same sex marriage.’ Because, ultimately, we all know it’s going to happen sooner or later.
Weekly news update on Friday. This post will remain updated with the latest churning on this issue.