My home country is fighting with itself right now. The issue? Same-sex marriage.
Rather than do what they were elected to do (legislate), the Australian federal government, which has the sole legal jurisdiction over the definition of marriage, decided to outsource its job to the people. They’re holding a nationwide, non-compulsory vote on whether or not the definition of marriage within the Marriage Act 1961 should be changed to allow for same-sex marriage.
Ballots have been mailed to citizens around the country and the Yesses and Nos will be tallied as of November 7. The results will be announced on November 15.
The issue of same-sex marriage has been on the agenda in Australia for a while.
A public poll held in 2004 showed that only 38% of respondents were in favour of same-sex marriage, with 44% against and 18% undecided. Just three years later, those results shifted to see 57% supporting same-sex marriage, with just 37% opposed and 6% undecided. Same-sex marriage, or Marriage Equality as the campaign is currently called, has enjoyed majority support in Australia ever since. Most recent polls show support over 60% with opposition resting between 20% and 30% and the remainder undecided.
What happened in 2004, you ask?
The Prime Minister of the day (and shit cricketer) John Howard, advocated changes to the Marriage Act 1961 that included a definition of marriage as being exclusively between a man and a woman. Same-sex marriage wasn’t at the front of many people’s minds before then, but it certainly was after.
The Marriage Amendment Act 2004 was prompted by a couple of Australian men who got married in Canada, where it was legal, and came back to Australia seeking to have their marriage recognised in Australia. The more specific definition – between a man and a woman – was therefore inserted to prevent any further attempts to have overseas same-sex marriages recognised under Australian law.
While The Marriage Amendment Act 2004 passed through parliament with bi-partisan support, it did not go through unnoticed. In many ways, the passage of this act was the tipping point for discussion on the issue and the birthing suite of the Marriage Equality movement we see today.
Those who had ‘opposed’ same-sex marriage up until 2004, simply because they’d never really thought about it, began to ask why? Or perhaps more poignantly, why not? The debate around same-sex marriage has been gathering steam ever since.
Former PM Kevid Rudd was opposed to it in 2007.
His replacement, Julia Gillard, was also opposed to changing the definition in the Marriage Act 1961, but the Labor Party she led allowed its MPs a conscience vote on the issue when it came to parliament in 2012. Gillard later stated she’d changed her personal stance on the issue, saying she supported same-sex marriage.
Kevin Rudd returned to the Labor leadership in 2013 and also announced a changed position, following a period of personal reflection and discussions with gay colleagues. Rudd vowed to introduce legislation if the Labor government was returned in the 2013 federal election. Labor was defeated in that election, bringing the Liberal/National (conservative) coalition into government.
The Prime Minister who won that election, Tony Abbott (a monumental prick for reasons that go far beyond this issue), is firmly against same-sex marriage. He declined the idea of having a vote in parliament on the issue while he was PM, promising instead that the government would hold a plebiscite (remember that word) during its subsequent term in office. He never got to keep that promise, however, as his own party voted him out of the leadership in 2015.
His successor, Malcolm Turnbull reaffirmed this pledge to the conservative base at the subsequent election. Turnbull is a progressive conservative in favour of same-sex marriage. While he currently leads the party, he has a razor-thin parliamentary majority of just 1 seat and is consequently hostage to the far right of his party. He probably wouldn’t have won the leadership if he’d changed the party’s policy on this issue.
That’s how we got here. But where is here, exactly? And what does it mean?
The Plebiscite (that Australia is not having)
It’s important to note that it was a plebiscite that was initially proposed by Abbott, because that’s different to what is going on right now.
A plebiscite is a compulsory vote on an issue. The outcome of the vote is not binding on the government, but reasonable people would hope that the government would respect the will of the people.
Tony Abbott offered the plebiscite as means of acknowledging the reality of the issue in the minds of the public. He also offered it because it let him put the issue on the backburner so he could go about being a bastard in other ways (his disaster budget of 2014 being chief amongst them).
The offer was and should be regarded as cynical. Abbott is a skilled campaigner on wedge issues, having dragged the Monarchist movement over the line during the Republic referendum in 1999. His M.O is to create fear and doubt over issues of substantial change, believing that in the presence of fear and doubt, most people will stick with the status quo rather than opt for change. Despite popular support for a Republic in principle, the ‘No’ vote won the referendum.
It worked then, so why not now?
Abbott proposed the plebiscite because he knew that it would be both non-binding and divisive. Outsourcing the vote to the people means that the people would fight amongst themselves, a perfect scenario for the type of anxiety that feeds his blackened soul.
You can’t just hold a plebiscite whenever you feel like it. It requires legislation. When the enabling legislation for the plebiscite was voted down in parliament for the second time, the government opted for a postal survey, which is what we’ve got now.
A postal survey is an even worse option than a plebiscite.
Once again, I hear you asking Why?
The postal survey is exactly what the name suggests. Ballots are posted out to everyone on the electoral roll. Voters then mark their preference on the ballot paper and send it back. Simple, right?
There have already been stories of ballots being taken out of mailboxes, or being blown about neighborhoods by the wind. And those happenings are just the beginning as to why this was a seriously bad idea.
Perhaps the main reason this is a terrible idea lies in the fact that unlike a plebiscite, voting in the postal survey is non-compulsory. As well as being non-binding. That’s why people have been seen offering ballots for sale online. They don’t have to fill them out, so why not make some money??
The Australian government, led by the supposedly fiscally responsible Conservatives, is spending $122 million Australian taxpayer dollars on a survey that will sow bitterness, is not compulsory for voters to respond to, and does not bind anyone in the government with respect to its outcome.
I mentioned sowing bitterness in that last sentence. That is perhaps the saddest outcome of this government’s mistake. It’s one of the reasons Tony Abbott chose the plebiscite option instead of having the cohunas to face legislation in parliament.
The plebiscite-cum-survey was always going to be prefaced by a period of VERY public debate on the issue before votes were due. Despite pleas for decency from all sides (some of which could be rightly viewed with a liberal dose of cynicism), that debate was always going to be vicious. It was always going to be framed in such a way by those opposed to change so as to create maximum anxiety amongst those who are undecided.
And so it has been.
In my next post on this topic, I’ll address some of the ‘issues’ that have been raised and the way they’re being used to distract from what is a pretty simple question: