7 Better Ways to Spend $158.4 million

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:


  1. 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.


  1. 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.


  1. 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]


  1. 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.


  1. 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.


  1. 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.


  1. 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.


151222 Turnbull

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who could spend $158.4 million on resettling an extra 2,297 refugees from Syria and Iraq, or who could waste it on an unnecessary, inappropriate and divisive plebiscite.


[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

Equal Marriage: A failure of political leadership pt 2

I ended my previous post on this topic on a very pessimistic note. I wrote: “Instead, it appears that LGBTI couples will need to wait another eight years or more before being able to walk down the aisle. Let’s hope that, by then, the major political parties are led by people who understand what leadership means.”

I believe this pessimism is justified because, if we look past the failures of the current crop of political leaders (Gillard, Abbott and Truss), there is little evidence to inspire confidence in the next generation. None of the most likely candidates to replace the leaders of their respective parties is, right at this moment, both advocating a yes vote on marriage equality and actually committed to voting yes. That’s right, none of the seven people who are generally considered ‘next in line’ is committed to delivering marriage equality through both words and actions.

There are three who have already committed themselves to voting against marriage equality. The first is no surprise – the future leader of the National Party, Senator Barnaby Joyce. Joyce addressed the annual anti-gay hate rally at Parliament House in 2011 (organised by the Australian Christian Lobby and the Australian Family Association) and claimed, in his usual incoherent manner, that legislating for same-sex marriage would somehow limit the ability of his four daughters to enter into opposite-sex marriages.

Joyce said, “We know that the best protection for those girls is that they get themselves into a secure relationship with a loving husband, and I want that to happen for them. I don’t want any legislator to take that right away from me.” Leaving aside the complete failure of Barnaby Joyce to learn anything from multiple waves of feminism (women can exist without husbands, it has nothing to do with ‘his’ right), it is also devoid of logic, given extending the right to same-sex couples does not affect the right of opposite-sex couples of marry if they so choose. Finally, Barnaby Joyce fails as a human being – if he is the father of four daughters, then surely he must contemplate the possibility one (or more) of those daughters may be a lesbian and wish to enter a same-sex marriage.

The next ‘future leader’ is someone who really should know better. Joe Hockey is supposedly a moderate within the Liberal Party (whatever that means in 2012), and some in the LGBTI community had speculated he may indeed vote for change. However, Hockey cruelled those hopes on ABC’s Q&A in May this year when he said that, after having children, his view on same-sex marriage had changed. He will now vote against marriage equality because he believes that children deserve the right to a mother and a father.

That rationale is almost as lacking in substance as Joyce’s, given that many heterosexual people have children outside of marriage, many opposite-sex married couples choose not to have children (or can’t because of age or infertility) and many gay and lesbian Australians are already having children. It also deliberately mischaracterises the nature of marriage in contemporary society, which has evolved such that it is now the recognition of a loving relationship between two people, nothing more and nothing less. So those hoping for leadership on marriage equality should look elsewhere than the member for North Sydney, whose views have recently regressed instead.

The final leadership contender to have already stated unequivocally that they will vote no on equal marriage is Wayne Swan (and for those thinking he is not a genuine leadership contender, please note he is still the deputy leader of the ALP, deputy prime minister and treasurer, and historically leadership challengers have occupied at least one of these positions). Sadly, despite discovering the power of arguments based on economic justice earlier this year (especially in his attacks on the mining magnates), Swan appears to have little understanding of the meaning of social justice. If he did, he would be supporting the rights of his LGBTI constituents and the principle of equality – instead he is supporting fundamental discrimination against a group of Australians simply on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity. Shame.

There are three other leadership contenders who, at the time of writing (Wednesday 22 August), have not declared a position on same-sex marriage: Julie Bishop, Kevin Rudd and Bill Shorten. One, two or, if Abbott allows a conscience vote, potentially all three could end up voting in favour of equality. That would obviously be a good result numerically, because even if equal marriage is likely to be defeated this year, less momentum will be lost if the result is at least close.

And yet, by failing to adopt a public position, by failing to advocate for change, each has also failed to demonstrate the qualities most desirable in a leader. Irrespective of their reasons for staying quiet (and especially with Rudd and Shorten it can be viewed through the prism of their desires to assume ALP leadership later this year, and consequently not wanting to ‘offend’ the Catholic Right of the caucus), by doing so they have effectively abdicated their responsibility to help achieve progressive social reform and thereby make Australia a better place.

That sentiment might sound a bit ‘pie in the sky’, but, as I wrote in my previous post on this topic, these reforms are usually won when true leaders stand up and be counted, when men and women of substance put forward the case for change and prosecute it until victory is achieved. It is not as if Bishop, Rudd and Shorten could claim to be surprised that same-sex marriage is a public issue either: it has been on the agenda ever since Howard amended the Marriage Act in 2004 (indeed, Rudd and Bishop were already members of parliament at that time).

Equal marriage has also been one of the most discussed issues during the life of this parliament, with Adam Bandt’s successful motion that House of Representatives MPs should consult with their constituents on this issue, the vigorous debate in the run-up to and at ALP national conference in December 2011, and particularly now with three bills already tabled in Parliament seeking to implement this reform. And I am sure that each of them would be aware of the large number of constituents writing to them on this issue (on both sides of the debate), on top of the record number of submissions to the House of Representatives and Senate committee inquiries earlier this year.

In short, there is absolutely no excuse for Julie Bishop, Kevin Rudd and Bill Shorten to have not adopted a public position on this issue. Their failure to say or do anything to help achieve marriage equality can be interpreted to mean that they simply do not care enough about LGBTI equality to take a stand. While others inside the Liberal and Labor parties have been fearless advocates, Bishop, Rudd and Shorten have been cowards. Enough said.

There is of course one last member of the current generation of major party leaders to consider: Malcolm Turnbull. As with most things Malcolm, his position on same-sex marriage is more intelligent and articulate than most, but ultimately he remains a politician of words not actions.

In early July, Turnbull delivered the Michael Kirby Lecture in which he eloquently made the conservative case for recognising same-sex relationships as marriages, equal to and no less than opposite-sex marriages (an edited extract of his speech was also published in the Sydney Morning Herald the following day). In doing so, he demolished the religious arguments against change and showed that it was bigoted to believe that LGBTI Australians should accept their status as second-class citizens. Turnbull even announced that, if the Coalition were to adopt a conscience vote on this issue, he would vote in favour of equality.

But that ignores the fact that Tony Abbott has ruled out a conscience vote and, in those circumstances, Turnbull has made clear he would follow the party line and vote against same-sex marriage. Which means that, no matter how nice his words are in support of change, Turnbull’s only ‘action’ will still be to vote against LGBTI equality. Despite being the only one of the current generation of leaders to publicly advocate legislating for same-sex marriage, Turnbull has nevertheless failed this test of political leadership.

That might sound like a harsh judgement. After all, he would have to go to the backbench in order to vote yes, and that is obviously a massive price to pay for any politician. Indeed, Australian Marriage Equality appears to give Turnbull a ‘pass mark’, listing him as a supporter on its website. But in my mind a supporter is not just someone who mouths the words – they also demonstrate their support through their actions, and that is something which Turnbull refuses to do in this case.

By contrast, I suspect he probably would move to the backbench if the vote was to deny Jewish people rights on the basis of their religion, or Indigenous Australians on the basis of their race. It is just that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and bisexual Australians don’t seem to count as much (something which I hope LGBTI residents of Wentworth remember at the next federal election).

Turnbull’s vote against equality means that the failure of this generation’s political leaders on same-sex marriage is complete. Including Gillard, Abbott and Truss, none of the ten leaders or alternative leaders of our major parties have both advocated for – and committed to vote for – equal marriage. Six of them (including Joyce, Hockey and Swan) have announced they will be voting against LGBTI equality. Three (Bishop, Rudd and Shorten) have refused to indicate which way they will vote and have effectively abdicated from the responsibilities of (moral) leadership. Only one, Malcolm Turnbull, is currently advocating for a Marriage Act which does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, and even he is voting no.

That is why, even though it might be pessimistic to think Australia might not achieve equal marriage until next decade, it may also be the only realistic view. Maybe by then we will have the real leadership required to deliver this reform. In the meantime we are forced to imagine what that leadership looks like.