Despite the change of Prime Minister in September, from the homophobe Tony Abbott to the supposedly ‘gay-friendly’ incumbent Malcolm Turnbull, it appears we are stuck with the decidedly unfriendly option of holding a plebiscite to determine whether the relationships of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians should be treated equally under the law, or if they will continue to be treated as second class compared to the relationships of their cisgender heterosexual counterparts.
This blog has previously looked at the issue of a marriage equality plebiscite, with my submission to the recent Senate inquiry arguing that such a vote would be unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive.
Just how wasteful a plebiscite would be became apparent during the course of that inquiry, with the Australian Electoral Commission estimating that the cost of holding a stand-alone vote to determine this issue would be at least $158.4 million.[i]
$158.4 million, to conduct what is essentially a glorified public opinion poll, which would not be binding on our elected officials, nor compelling them to implement the outcome in a timely manner (with the 1977 plebiscite, which selected ‘Advance Australia Fair’ as our new national anthem, not legislated until 1984).
$158.4 million, to determine what we already know – that the majority of Australians support the human rights of LGBTI Australians, and wish to see a Marriage Act that does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.
$158.4 million, to do something that the 226 members of the Commonwealth Parliament could do for no extra cost, something that they are elected to do, and something that overturns what they have done before (with John Howard’s homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic ban on equal marriage passed by Parliament alone and not subjected to a public vote).
Surely there are a million better things that the Turnbull Liberal-National Government could spend this money on? This post looks at seven preferable alternatives – although I am confident that readers of this blog could nominate many, many more. Anyway, here goes – in no particular order, here’s 7 better ways to spend $158.4 million:
- Resettle an extra 2,297 refugees from Syria and Iraq
The biggest humanitarian crisis of 2015 – indeed, the biggest humanitarian crisis of the past decade and probably of the century so far – has been the civil war in Syria (which started almost five years ago), the subsequent rise of ISIS there and in Iraq and the horrific violence they have inflicted on the people in both places, and the enormous number of refugees that the Assad regime, the Syrian civil war and ISIS have collectively created.
While the vast majority of refugees remain located in neighbouring countries, the increasing numbers of people seeking asylum reaching Europe during 2015 – and, tragically, the deaths of many who were attempting to flee – finally prompted the Australian Government to announce it would accept 12,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq in addition to its annual intake of 13,750 refugees (then Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced this policy on 9 September[ii], making it one of his last acts in office).
The cost of this additional intake of refugees was not revealed until the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO), released by new Treasurer Scott Morrison on 15 December 2015. The MYEFO papers showed that the net cost to the Budget of permanently resettling an extra 12,000 refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria and Iraq is $827.4 million over 4 years[iii].
Which means that, were the Turnbull Government to re-allocate the $158.4 million it is currently planning to spend on a marriage equality plebiscite, we could resettle at least an additional 2,297 refugees from Syria and Iraq[iv]. Surely most Australians, indeed most humans, would consider that a much better way to spend this money.
- Restore 2015-16 Foreign Aid Funding to Afghanistan… and Sub-Saharan Africa… and Palestine… and Middle East & North Africa… and UNICEF
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is a ‘Julie-come-lately’ when it comes to supporting marriage equality – she only announced her personal support for it in early November 2015.[v]
However, in the same breath she also reiterated her commitment to a plebiscite: “I have absolutely no concerns about it myself, but I know there [are] a lot of people who are deeply concerned about the issue… I think the Australian people should have their say.”
So, rather than casting her vote as an elected representative, one out of 226 Federal Parliamentarians who have the power to change the law in a matter of weeks, Minister Bishop would instead prefer to waste years, and $158.4 million, on a completely unnecessary public vote, leaving her own vote as just one out of the 15.26 million Australians currently on the electoral roll[vi].
As well as abrogating her personal responsibility as an MP (which includes the ability, nay responsibility, to consider and pass legislation), according to the Australia Institute, “current foreign minister Julie Bishop [also holds] the dubious honour of being the minister to oversee the largest drop in aid spending [compared] to Gross National Income”[vii].
The Liberal-National Government of which she is a key member plans to cut aid funding by $1.4 billion per year, or 33 per cent, by 2017-18. These cuts include savage reductions in the 2015-16 Budget year across a large number of countries and international aid programs[viii].
Obviously, the $158.4 million intended to fund the marriage equality plebiscite is small change compared to these overall totals, but, applying that figure to the 2015-16 Budget year, it could restore current financial year funding to:
- Afghanistan (2015-16 Budget cut by $52.4 million)
- Sub-Saharan Africa ($74.2 million cut)
- Palestine ($13.7 million cut)
- Middle East and North Africa ($2.3 million cut) and
- UNICEF ($14 million cut).[ix]
And there would almost be enough money left over to undo the $3 million cut to the United Nations Program on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS) too. Perhaps Minister Bishop should spend more time advocating for Australian Government funding to assist the world’s disadvantaged, and less time calling for a pointless plebiscite.
- Support an additional 1,975 postgraduate students
Malcolm Turnbull likes to claim he is the ‘Innovation Prime Minister’, and that it is his mission to lead an ‘agile’ Government and an even more ‘agile’ economy. Well, instead of wasting $158.4 million on an unnecessary, inappropriate and divisive marriage equality plebiscite, he could fund Australian Postgraduate Awards for 1,975 extra students for three years instead.[x]
Imagine that – almost 2,000 extra PhDs in Australia contributing to science, and technology, and engineering, and mathematics, and countless other fields. Imagine what they could add to the sum of human knowledge. Alas, we will not find out if Turnbull insists on spending the money on something which he himself considered unnecessary just one month before becoming PM.[xi]
- Hire 477 more registered nurses
In his 2014-15 Federal Budget, then Treasurer Joe Hockey cut $80 billion from the states and territories, monies that were supposed to fund increases in spending on health and education over the subsequent decade. This included $50 billion in cuts to hospitals, and another $30 billion in cuts to schools.
The new Treasurer, Scott Morrison, has indicated that, not only will he not be reversing these cuts, even if the Turnbull Government increased the GST to 15% and expanded it to cover fresh food he still would not use the revenue collected to restore this funding.[xii]
Obviously, $158.4 million wouldn’t go very far in undoing the massive reductions in future health spending by both Hockey and now Morrison, but it would nevertheless be enough to pay the base salary of at least 477 registered nurses for four years[xiii] – and that’s nothing to be sneezed at.
- Employ an extra 578 teachers in public schools
Based on a similar approach, re-allocating $158.4 million from an unnecessary, inappropriate and divisive marriage equality plebiscite to instead give to the states and territories to allow them to employ an additional 578 teachers[xiv] in public schools across the country sounds like a much smarter, and productive, investment to me.
- Reduce Government debt
The Abbott Liberal-National Government was elected in September 2013 on the back of three relentlessly negative fear campaigns – against a carbon tax, against people seeking asylum, and against ‘Labor’s debt and deficit’. In fact, the ‘debt and deficit’ focus dates all the way back to the 2008-09 Global Financial Crisis, making it perhaps Abbott’s longest-serving attack on the Rudd, Gillard and Rudd Governments (including when Abbott was part of the Shadow Ministry).
Of course, in the years since they were elected the Abbott, and now Turnbull, Governments have overseen ongoing Budget deficits, and continued increases in net Government debt. Based on MYEFO, net debt will now not peak until 2017-18, at 18.5% of GDP (or $336.4 billion)[xv], with Treasury forecasting there will not be a Budget surplus until 2020-21 at the earliest.
Which makes any decision to hold a marriage equality plebiscite costing $158.4 million, in either 2016-17 (when there is expected to be a Budget deficit of $33.7 billion) or 2017-18 (with its anticipated deficit of $23 billion)[xvi], seem entirely profligate.
If Malcolm Turnbull, Scott Morrison, and their Coalition colleagues, are genuinely concerned about reducing Government ‘debt and deficit’, then deciding not to hold a $158.4 million opinion poll would have to be one of the easiest Budget ‘saves’ of all time.
- Fund the National Safe Schools Coalition… almost 20 times over
With the glaring, and profoundly disappointing, exception of marriage equality, the former Labor Government passed a large number of LGBTI reforms, including long overdue de facto relationship recognition, and the introduction of LGBTI anti-discrimination protections in federal law for the first time.
One initiative that received less coverage at the time was the 2013 decision to fund the national rollout of the Safe Schools Coalition, which had previously only operated in Victoria, with an $8 million grant. To their credit, the Liberal-National Government has not overturned this funding, and the expansion of Safe Schools has occurred under their watch.
The estimated cost of the marriage equality plebiscite would be enough to fund this rollout almost 20 times over – and, in practice, it would take much less than $158.4 million to help ensure that all schools across the country could participate in a program aimed at combatting homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia (and sadly one that will be even more needed given the hatred and prejudice likely to be whipped up by the plebiscite debate).
Indeed, there would be plenty of money left over to help fund the implementation of the reforms recommended by the 2013 Senate Inquiry into the Involuntary or Coerced Sterilisation of Intersex People in Australia, and to remove out-of-pocket medical expenses for transgender Australians, and even to fund housing services for LGBTI young people, who are disproportionately affected by homelessness.
If the Turnbull Government really wants to spend $158.4 million on issues that affect LGBTI Australians, it should redirect it to the above programs (and others aimed at improving LGBTI health and welfare). It could do so comfortable in the knowledge that it would still be able to pass marriage equality at, essentially, no cost.
In conclusion, there is absolutely no reason for the Turnbull Government to hold a plebiscite on marriage equality, especially not when, as well as being publicly divisive, it would cost the taxpayer an estimated $158.4 million.
This reform, which is solely concerned with recognising the fundamental equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians, and their relationships, under secular law, should be passed in the same way that John Howard’s ban on same-sex marriage was – by our 226 elected representatives, sitting in the Federal Parliament.
Which would leave the money that would have been spent on the plebiscite available for any of the seven options listed above, or for a myriad of other choices. There’s no denying that Malcolm Turnbull is an intelligent man – here’s hoping he’s smart enough to choose something other than to persist with Tony Abbott’s stupid, and damaging, plebiscite proposal.
[i] As quoted on page 22 of the Senate Committee Report: Matter of a popular vote, in the form of a plebiscite or referendum, on the matter of marriage in Australia, 15 September 2015 http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Legal_and_Constitutional_Affairs/Marriage_Plebiscite/Report
[ii] Sydney Morning Herald, “Abbott Government agrees to resettle 12,000 Syrian refugees in Australia”, 9 September 2015: http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/abbott-government-agrees-to-resettle-12000-syrian-refugees-in-australia-20150909-gjibqz.html
[iii] MYEFO Expenditures can be found here: http://budget.gov.au/2015-16/content/myefo/html/11_appendix_a_expense.htm
[iv] Based on the current estimate of a cost of $68,950 spent per refugee over four years. The number of additional refugees would likely be higher than 2,297 given economies of scale.
[v] ABC, “Julie Bishop announces support for same-sex marriage”, 2 November 2015: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-11-02/julie-bishop-announces-support-for-same-sex-marriage/6906740
[vi] Source Australian Electoral Commission: http://www.aec.gov.au/Enrolling_to_vote/Enrolment_stats/
[vii] Matt Grudnoff & Dan Gilchrist, “Charity Ends at Home: The decline of foreign aid in Australia”, The Australia Institute, September 2015, p iii (full report available here: http://www.tai.org.au/content/charity-ends-home-decline-foreign-aid-australia
[viii] Ibid, and in Guardian Australia, “Budget cuts to foreign aid put Australia on track for least generous spend ever,” 14 May 2015: http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2015/may/14/budget-cuts-to-foreign-aid-put-australia-on-track-for-least-generous-spend-ever
[ix] Figures from Guardian Australia article and Charity Ends at Home report, above.
[x] The 2016 Australian Postgraduate Award full time payment is $26,288 (https://www.education.gov.au/australian-postgraduate-awards ) and applying the current 1.7% inflation figure would make three years of support (2016-2018) cost $80,210.
[xi] “There is a huge number of big issues, so one of the attractions of a free vote is that it would have meant the matter would have been resolved in this parliament one way or another in a couple of weeks.” Guardian Australia, “Malcolm Turnbull says plebiscite on marriage equality will keep issue alive”, 12 August 2015: http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2015/aug/12/malcolm-turnbull-says-plebiscite-on-marriage-equality-will-keep-issue-alive
[xii] Guardian Australia, “Scott Morrison will not raise GST to fund states’ funding black holes”, 10 December 2015: http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2015/dec/10/scott-morrison-will-not-raise-gst-to-fund-states-funding-black-holes
[xiii] Based on the highest base wage of a registered nurse in NSW – $79,383, source: Health Times, “What do nurses earn?”, 17 September 2015 http://healthtimes.com.au/hub/nursing-careers/6/guidance/nc1/what-do-nurses-earn/605/ – and applying 3% salary increases for the subsequent 3 years.
[xiv] Based on the base salary of a five-year trained teacher (BA/MTeach, BSc/MTeach, BEd/BA, BEd/BSc) in NSW government schools – $65,486, source: University of Sydney Faculty of Education and Social Work: http://sydney.edu.au/education_social_work/future_students/careers/teacher_salaries.shtml – and applying 3% salary increases for the following 3 years.
[xv] MYEFO Debt Statement: http://www.budget.gov.au/2015-16/content/myefo/html/09_attachment_e.htm
[xvi] ABC, “Budget deficit increased as MYEFO released,” 15 December 2015: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-12-15/budget-deficit-increased-as-myefo-released/7029472