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Federal Politics

06 Oct 2016

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Parliament, not a plebiscite, for marriage equality

Marriage equality is a right whose time has come.  But a plebiscite is not the way to bring it to fruition.  

In this I am only referring to civil marriage, i.e. what the state is prepared to sanction.  Religious marriage is a matter for respective religions.

Already there are at least 21 countries in which it is legal for two people of the same sex to marry, including countries such as Ireland, United Kingdom, United States, Brazil and Argentina.  And acceptance of marriage equality is only moving in one direction.

Institutions, standards and values evolve and change over time.  History bears this out.

For example, it wasn’t until the late 19th century that slavery officially ended in America.   In England, it was only from 1882 that married women could own property.  In Australia, aboriginal people were only given the right to vote in 1962.  

The notion of no fault divorce is something we take for granted today.  Yet it was not until 1975 that a spouse could get a divorce without establishing some egregious fault on behalf of the other spouse.

Marriage equality is inevitable in Australia.  It is really now a question of when and how.  

The Turnbull Government wants to hold a plebiscite (a vote of the people) on this issue at a cost of at least $160 million and no earlier than February 2017.   

A plebiscite is in some ways similar to a referendum but is also significantly different.  A referendum is a vote to change Australia’s constitution.  And when passed, it has binding legal effect.  

A plebiscite is an indicative vote that isn’t legally binding.  Malcolm Turnbull has said that if marriage equality is passed by plebiscite, then it will become law.  But the parliament must enact the law, and Turnbull has not outlined how he can guarantee that will happen.  Not even members of his own party will be bound.

The rules of a plebiscite need to be determined, but probably the most important issue will be the formulation of the question to be put to the people.  How that question is worded will be crucial in determining its outcome.  

Turnbull is well aware of this given his experience as head of the failed “yes” campaign for the referendum on an Australian republic in 1999.  A key factor in that failure was that Australians were not in agreement as to the particular republican model proposed, even though they may have been broadly sympathetic to the notion of Australia becoming a republic.

Australia’s record when it comes to passing referendums is poor.  Forty-four referendums have been held, of which only eight have been carried.  

Referendums and plebiscites are particularly susceptible to scare campaigns.  If sufficient doubt can be raised in the minds of the public, even if those doubts are unfounded, then the question will be defeated.

It is highly unusual for a matter to be put to a plebiscite.  And in the case of same-sex marriage such a plebiscite is likely to be unfair, divisive, hurtful and costly.  This issue is one that particularly calls out to be decided by parliament.

The only reason the Turnbull Government has chosen to hold a plebiscite on marriage equality is to appease certain conservatives in the government.  The Prime Minister must know, particularly given his own experience, that there is less chance of a plebiscite succeeding than if parliament were to decide the matter. And what will happen if the plebiscite is defeated?  

The issue will not disappear from public consciousness, nor will the drive for change diminish.  And if the issue is to be resurrected, would the failure of an initial plebiscite mean that the parliament is morally precluded from deciding the matter in the future?  The argument here is that if the people have rejected the proposition in the first place, then arguably it should go back to the people for the decision to be overturned.

In short, the Australian public is being forced to pay for a purely political, unwise and unnecessary decision to hold a plebiscite.  It is a decision that will only delay the inevitable adoption of same-sex marriage, but in the meantime will give rise to aggravation, hurt and division.

Hon. Michael Danby

Federal Member for Melbourne Ports

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