Liberals Claiming Credit for Marriage Equality Can Get in the Bin

Next Thursday, 15 November, is the one-year anniversary of the announcement of the results of the same-sex marriage postal survey, in which 61.6% of Australians said yes to equality.

 

And December 7 will mark 12 months since the passage of the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017, which finally legalised same-sex marriage in this country.

 

With both milestones rapidly approaching, it is likely we will witness a large number of Liberal Party MPs and Senators try to claim credit for achieving marriage equality.

 

Indeed, now-former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull kicked off this predictable right-wing festival of self-congratulation on Thursday night’s QandA,[i] commenting that:

 

“You know, think of the big social reforms, legalising same-sex marriage. I mean, what a gigantic reform that was, I was able to do that … I legislated it, right? So I delivered it.”

 

This statement is about as far removed from the truth as the nonsense that emanates daily from Donald Trump’s twitter account.

 

Rather than ‘delivering’ this important reform, the Liberal Party was in fact the greatest obstacle standing between LGBTI Australians and the right to marry.

 

In case you disagree – or have forgotten the destructive role played by the Liberals on this issue over many years – here’s a reminder of what they actually did:

 

  1. The Liberal Party banned marriage equality in the first place

 

It was John Howard’s Liberal-National Government that prohibited same-sex marriage in August 2004.[ii] While this was prompted by couples who had wed overseas seeking recognition of their marriages under Australian law, it was primarily motivated by the desire to wedge the Labor Party on this issue ahead of the federal election later that year. Sadly it would not be the last time the Liberal Party played with the lives of LGBTI people for base political reasons.

 

  1. The Liberal Party refused to allow Australians to marry overseas

 

The Howard Liberal-National Government actually went further than merely refusing to recognise the marriages of couples who had wed overseas. They then refused to issue Certificates of No Impediment to Australians who wanted to get married in countries where it was legal, even where one member of the couple was from the other, more-progressive country. This was an incredibly petty and mean-spirited move.

 

Fun Fact: The Attorney-General who implemented this pathetic policy was the same person who led the recent Religious Freedom Review which recommended that religious schools continue to be allowed to discriminate against LGBT students and staff, one Philip Ruddock.

 

  1. The Liberal Party voted against marriage equality in September 2012

 

It took eight years before there was a genuine opportunity to repeal the Howard Liberal-National Government’s ban on same-sex marriage. In late 2012, Parliament voted on ALP MP Stephen Jones’ private members’ bill.

 

In line with the hard-fought, and hard-won, decision at its December 2011 National Conference, the Gillard Labor Government gave its members a conscience vote. The majority of ALP MPs and Senators voted in favour of marriage equality.[iii]

 

On the other hand, every single Liberal Party MP and Senator, bar one, voted against same-sex marriage. That includes then-Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull, Scott Morrison, George Brandis and Dean Smith. The only notable, and noble, exception was Queensland Senator Sue Boyce.

 

The Liberal Party cannot expect to be rewarded for the fact that same-sex marriage was legalised on December 2017 when they were the ones who stopped it from being passed more than five years earlier.

 

  1. The Liberal Party refused to hold a parliamentary vote on marriage equality

 

Following its election in September 2013, Tony Abbott’s Liberal-National Government simply refused to hold another ordinary parliamentary vote on same-sex marriage. This recalcitrant approach continued even after it became apparent the majority of MPs and Senators now supported marriage equality.

 

  1. The Liberal Party challenged the ACT’s same-sex marriage laws

 

While the Abbott Liberal-National Government did absolutely nothing to achieve marriage equality in Commonwealth Parliament, they did take action in at least one area: they challenged the validity of the recently-passed ACT Government’s same-sex marriage laws in the High Court.

 

In fact, this was one of the first things the newly-elected government did on any issue, full stop, revealing its fundamental priority was to stop marriage equality in any way possible.

 

This challenge was ultimately successful, meaning that the marriages of 31 couples were effectively annulled.

 

Fun Fact: The Attorney-General who instigated this High Court challenge, that overturned the marriages of 62 people who his own Government would not allow to marry because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity, would later claim that marriage equality was one of his, and his Government’s, greatest achievements, one George Brandis.

 

  1. The Liberal Party proposed an unnecessary, wasteful, harmful and divisive plebiscite

 

In August 2015, with public support for marriage equality continuing to build, and the Abbott Liberal-National Government under mounting pressure to finally do something on this topic, they chose not to do the one thing that would actually resolve it (hold a parliamentary vote).

 

Instead, after a six-hour joint party-room meeting, they proposed a same-sex marriage plebiscite. Despite changing leaders the following month, new-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull continued to support this policy, including in the lead-up to the 2016 Federal election and beyond.

 

A plebiscite like this was essentially unprecedented – there had been only one plebiscite in the previous 98 years, and that was on the national anthem. It was unnecessary, and – at an estimated cost of $158.4 million – it was fundamentally wasteful too. LGBTI Australians also justifiably feared that, subjecting our relationships and rights to months of public debate would be incredibly divisive, and cause significant harm to the most vulnerable members of our community.

 

It should be remembered that the idea for a plebiscite was only being pushed by those who opposed marriage equality, including Abbott himself, the Australian Christian Lobby and other religious extremists. It was never designed with the best interests of the LGBTI community in mind.

 

  1. The Liberal Party held an unnecessary, wasteful, harmful and divisive postal survey

 

After months of intense lobbying by LGBTI community advocates and organisations, the ALP, Greens and members of the cross-bench rejected the Turnbull Liberal-National Government’s plebiscite in the Senate in October 2016.

 

Despite this, Prime Minister Turnbull and the Coalition still refused to hold a straight-forward parliamentary vote. Instead, in August 2017 they proposed a same-sex marriage ‘postal survey’.

 

This was even more unprecedented, and was an abuse of the power of the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ power to collect, well, statistics. Despite the fact the High Court found it was technically lawful, it could at best be described as ethically dodgy, and at worst a perversion of Australian democracy.

 

Like the plebiscite, the postal survey was entirely unnecessary, and completely wasteful, ultimately costing taxpayers $80.5 million. And for LGBTI Australians and rainbow families its impact was exactly as bad as anticipated, unleashing a torrent of homophobia and transphobia, with the worst attacks of the bigoted No campaign reserved for trans and gender diverse young people.

 

Of course, the architects of the postal survey didn’t care about this negative outcome. Because the postal survey was never about us. It was put forward as a quick political fix for the Liberal Party, who knew they couldn’t continue to oppose marriage equality in the lead-up to the 2019 Federal election, but whose homophobic party-room members refused to hold a parliamentary vote without conducting a costly (in multiple senses of the word) public debate beforehand.

 

And if you disagree with this analysis, perhaps you’ve forgotten whose idea the postal survey was, one Peter Dutton.

 

  1. The Liberal Party didn’t actually pass marriage equality

 

This point might sound strange (especially to new readers of this blog), but it is an important one to make. Because while Liberal Senator Dean Smith’s Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017 finally granted same-sex and gender diverse[iv] couples the right to marry, it did not deliver true equality.

 

A hint lies in the title. This legislation did not just amend the Marriage Act 1961 to ensure marriage was available to all couples, it also added new rights for individuals and organisations to discriminate against LGBTI couples on the basis of religious prejudice.

 

This included permitting existing civil celebrants to register as ‘religious marriage celebrants’ and consequently putting up signs saying ‘no gays allowed’. These are not ministers of religion, and the ceremonies they conduct are not religious. But the law, as passed, allows these individuals to discriminate on the basis of their homophobia and transphobia.

 

Smith’s Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act also introduced offensive provisions allowing discrimination by religious organisations in the Marriage Act itself. This includes section 47B:

 

A body established for religious purposes may refuse to make a facility available, or to provide goods or services, for the purposes of the solemnisation of a marriage, or for purposes reasonably incidental to the solemnisation of a marriage, if the refusal:

(a) conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of the religion of the body; or

(b) is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion.

 

Similar provisions allowing discrimination by religious organisations already existed in the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984, so at best they were unnecessary here. At worst, because this amendment was phrased as a ‘positive right’, this allows new discrimination, in particular because it is more likely to overrule the better anti-discrimination laws of some states and territories (especially Tasmania’s Anti-Discrimination Act 1998).

 

It should be noted that these discriminatory provisions were not previously required with respect to divorced people remarrying – another issue on which there are strong religious beliefs. The fact they were introduced last year reveals they were motivated not by so-called ‘religious freedom’, but by homophobia and transphobia masked in that language.

 

By introducing new forms of discrimination, Dean Smith’s Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017 delivered same-sex marriage, but it most definitely did not achieve marriage equality.[v]

 

  1. The majority of Liberal Party MPs and Senators voted for even more discrimination

 

Despite the fact the Smith Bill did not deliver equality to begin with, the majority of Liberal Party MPs and Senators voted in favour of at least some (and in some cases all) of the amendments that would have allowed even more discrimination against LGBTI couples.[vi] The only reason these were defeated was because all ALP and Greens MPs and Senators opposed them, alongside a small minority of Coalition parliamentarians.

 

These (thankfully rejected) amendments included granting individuals the right to discriminate in the provision of goods and services on the basis of their ‘religious marriage beliefs’, as well as personal views that same-sex relationships are wrong, or that trans people don’t exist.

 

The then-Attorney-General, George Brandis, even tried to incorporate Article 18 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights into the Marriage Act 1961 (through an amendment that ‘Nothing in this Act limits or derogates from the right of any person, in a lawful manner, to manifest his or her religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching’) while conveniently ignoring the limitation in Article 18(3): that religious freedom can be limited to protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of others (including the right to non-discrimination). Oh, and he moved an amendment that all civil celebrants should be able to discriminate against LGBTI couples because of their personal religious or conscientious beliefs.

 

It is offensive for Liberals to now claim credit for delivering marriage equality when the majority of them voted for it not to be equal.

 

Fun Fact: Our new Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, voted for every amendment in the House of Representatives that sought to increase discrimination against LGBTI couples. This included supporting having two different definitions of marriage (one for ‘traditional marriage’ – the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life – and one for everybody else – the union of 2 people to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life). He also introduced his own amendments to the Bill, which included protecting individuals who discriminate against others because of transphobic beliefs that ‘the normative state of gender is binary and can, in the overwhelming majority of cases, be identified at birth’. He might now be Leader of the country, but with views like that he’ll never be a true leader.

 

  1. Even after the postal survey, a significant minority of Liberal Party MPs and Senators voted against same-sex marriage

 

The Liberal Party banned marriage equality in 2004. They voted against it in September 2012. They refused to hold a simple parliamentary vote following their election in 2013. They tried and failed to hold a plebiscite in 2016. They ‘succeeded’ in holding a postal survey in 2017, in which more than three-in-five Australians said yes to equality.

 

After forcing us wait for 13 years, and making us jump through hoops that no other group in Australia has ever had to before (and hopefully none will have to again), a significant minority of Liberal MPs and Senators still couldn’t bring themselves to vote for the ability of all couples to marry, irrespective of sexual orientation or gender identity.

 

In the Senate, Liberals Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, Eric Abetz and Slade Brockman, and Nationals John Williams, Matt Canavan and Barry O’Sullivan, voted no. While Liberal Senators Michaelia Cash, David Fawcett, James McGrath and Zed Seselja, and National Bridget McKenzie, all abstained.

 

In the House of Representatives, Liberal Russell Broadbent, and Nationals Keith Pitt and David Littleproud, voted no. Whereas Liberals (ex-PM) Tony Abbott, Andrew Hastie, Michael Sukkar, Kevin Andrews, (now-PM) Scott Morrison, Rick Wilson, Stuart Robert and Bert van Manen, and Nationals Barnaby Joyce and George Christensen, all abstained.

 

After subjecting LGBTI Australians to an unnecessary, wasteful, divisive and harmful postal survey because of their own internal political divisions, the fact that these 24 Liberal and National MPs could not even respect its outcome by voting yes in parliament shows the absolute contempt that they hold for us and our relationships. Their disgusting behaviour should not be forgiven nor forgotten.

 

**********

 

These ten points unequivocally demonstrate that same-sex marriage was achieved in Australia in spite of the Liberal Party, not because of them.

 

So, in the coming weeks, if any Liberal MP or Senator tries to claim credit for achieving marriage equality, tell them to get in the bin.

 

Because that is where such garbage claims belong.

 

Turnbull-on-QA

Former Prime Minister Turnbull on QandA, where he tried to claim credit for marriage equality. Hey Malcolm, Get in the Bin.

 

Footnotes:

[i] Not that I was watching: I was not interested in hearing from the fakest of fake (self-declared) friends of the LGBTI community. This quote is from a transcript in CrikeyWorm.

[ii] Yes, this was done with the support of the then-Latham (!) Opposition, a move that also warrants criticism – but Labor will not be the ones falsely claiming credit for marriage equality in the coming weeks.

[iii] Of course, then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard voted against equality, something for which she should be forever condemned.

[iv] Although trans and gender diverse people are still waiting for forced trans divorce laws to be repealed in some jurisdictions (noting that if they are not repealed by 9 December 2018 the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984 will overrule them).

[v] There is a second, more technical, argument why the Liberal Party didn’t actually pass marriage equality. That is because the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017 was a private members’ bill. It was not Government legislation, so its passage cannot be claimed as an achievement of the Liberal-National Government. Indeed, as a private members’ bill, more ALP MPs and Senators voted for it than Liberal and National ones.

[vi] This includes then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who voted for three different sets of amendments increasing discrimination against LGBTI couples, while abstaining on the others.

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The robo-debt letter that should be sent

This time last year, there was an emerging scandal for the Turnbull Government – the automated letters being sent to hundreds of thousands of people who had received social security seeking repayment of supposed debts worth tens of thousands of dollars.

 

Based on incomplete and often inconsistent information, a significant proportion of these notices were inaccurate, with many recipients owing nothing at all.

 

The ‘robo-debt’ letter program was nothing short of an omnishambles. Unfortunately, despite scathing assessments by both the Commonwealth Ombudsman and a Senate Inquiry, this scheme continues to this day.

 

Instead of targeting many of the most vulnerable members of the community, for debts they either don’t owe or can’t pay, there is one robo-debt letter that I think should be sent.

 

To a group of people that have cost Australian taxpayers a large amount of money, by failing to perform their most basic duties, and who definitely have the capacity to pay.

 

**********

 

Dear Liberal and National Senators and Members of Parliament,

 

We are writing to seek repayment of a significant sum you owe to the people of Australia. This debt has been incurred due to your failure to fulfil the minimum responsibilities of your employment.

 

In August 2017, instead of voting on legislation in Parliament – which is, after all, what you are elected to do – you decided to outsource your obligations to the general public, by holding a postal survey about same-sex marriage.

 

Your postal survey was unnecessary. Unlike Ireland, there was absolutely no requirement for this process, which could at best be described as a voluntary, non-binding, national opinion poll.

 

Your postal survey was harmful. Exactly as the LGBTI community had told you it would be: “experiences of verbal and physical assaults more than doubled in the three months following the announcement of the postal survey compared with the prior six months”, while “more than 90% reported the postal vote had a negative impact on them to some degree.”

 

Your postal survey was unprecedented. Never before has an optional survey, run by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, been used to cast judgement on the fundamental human rights of a minority group. It must never be used again.

 

Your postal survey was wasteful. Originally budgeted at $122 million, it apparently came in under budget – at just $80.5 million*. This is money that could have been spent on health. Or education. Or any number of government programs that actually benefit the Australian community.

 

The historic events of the past fortnight have merely confirmed this monumental waste. LGBTI marriage has finally been passed in both houses of Parliament – the places where this important change should have been made all along.

 

Indeed, Commonwealth Parliament is the only place where it could ever have been achieved.

 

You are one of 105 Coalition Members of Parliament elected at the 2016 federal election. Your personal share of responsibility for this debt, of $100 million, has been allocated equally.

 

Your estimated debt is $766,666.67. We seek your repayment within 30 days of receipt of this letter.

 

Responsibility for seats currently unoccupied due to dual citizenship-related ineligibility – Liberal Senator Stephen Parry, Nationals Senator Fiona Nash and Liberal MP John Alexander – will fall on their respective political parties.

 

We understand a small number of you have consistently opposed your Government’s proposals to hold a plebiscite and then, when that legislation was rejected by the Senate, to conduct a postal survey instead. We thank you for your principled position.

 

If you fall into this category, please supply evidence of your denunciation of these policies, following its announcement by Prime Minister Tony Abbott in August 2015, and during the plebiscite debate in the second half of 2016 and the postal survey debate in August 2017, both under Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

 

Once this evidence is received, you share of responsibility will also be allocated to your party’s head office.

 

Grievance procedures

 

It is possible some of you will feel aggrieved to receive this letter. If that is the case, please feel free to lodge a formal letter of complaint.

 

However, you should be aware we will give it the same level of consideration that you gave to the legitimate concerns expressed by the LGBTI community ahead of your decision to hold the postal ballot.

 

You should also consider yourselves lucky.

 

Lucky you are not having your wages deducted for all the years in parliament during which you failed to pass this most straight-forward of reforms (for some of you, stretching all the way back to the Howard Government’s original ban on marriage equality in 2004).

 

Lucky you are not being charged for all the time and expense wasted by LGBTI Australians, and our families, friends and allies, in having to fight for equal rights during your unjust, and unjustifiable, postal survey.

 

Lucky you will not have to pay damages for the emotional, mental and social harms you have caused by shirking your essential responsibilities and undertaking a bitter and divisive ‘vote’.

 

The LGBTI community was not so lucky. We were forced to wait more than 13 years for the equal recognition of our relationships. And then jump through hoops no-one else has ever been expected to negotiate.

 

We paid the price for your lack of leadership. Now it’s time for you to pay up.

 

Sincerely,

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians, our families, friends and allies

 

Parliament House

*NB An earlier version of this article used the figure $100 million as the estimate announced by the ABS on the day the postal survey results were announced. On 8 December, Finance Minister Senator Mathias Cormann revealed the final cost to the Government was $80.5 million.

2,756 Days. Frustration and Love.

It’s five o’clock in the morning. I’m sitting on a bus leaving Sydney, and I finally have some time to process the extraordinary events of the past few days.

 

It really is hard to put into words just how devastating, heart-breaking and frankly appalling the actions of the Liberal Party room on Monday evening, and Turnbull Coalition Government yesterday, have been.

 

First, was the devastating decision not to adopt a conscience vote on marriage equality, but to instead push once more for a ‘traditional’ plebiscite.

 

That’s the same unnecessary and wasteful non-binding opinion poll that was rejected by the Senate in November 2016, at the request of LGBTI Australians, because of the harm it will inevitably cause young and vulnerable members of our community.

 

It is no exaggeration to say that lives could be lost as a direct result of the extreme, hateful, hurtful bigotry that would accompany any such vote.

 

Second, was the heart-breaking decision that, even if the Senate once again rejects the legislation for a ‘traditional’ plebiscite (as it appears highly likely to do), the Government will attempt to hold a ‘postal’ plebiscite on the issue.

 

A ‘postal’ plebiscite has all of the disadvantages of a ‘traditional’ plebiscite, plus a few more of its own, including that it will be voluntary rather than compulsory to participate, it will disenfranchise large sections of the community, including young Australians (as even Malcolm Turnbull conceded, about the last one held twenty years ago) and, without legislation to give it effect, is constitutionally doubtful.

 

Which brings me to the third, and perhaps worst, decision of all – that they now intend to hold it as a ‘statistical survey’ conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, rather than an actual vote overseen by the Australian Electoral Commission.

 

This ‘pseudo postal plebiscite’ is nothing more than a naked attempt to circumvent not just the will of the Parliament, but also the legitimate limitations of the Constitution.

 

Thankfully, multiple groups campaigning for marriage equality have already indicated they are seeking legal advice before potentially challenging this postal plebiscite-in-all-but-name in the High Court. Here’s hoping they are successful, and that this bad joke of a policy is stopped before it starts to wreak its damage.

 

These three decisions, taken together, reveal the absolute contempt that some members of the Liberal and National Parties have for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians.

 

No other group has ever been subjected to this kind of process merely for the chance of being treated equally under secular law. No other group has ever been expected to jump through these ridiculous hoops just to have their human rights recognised.

 

Of course, in a debate that is about symbolism as much as it is about substance, it isn’t just the process they have chosen to adopt that is offensive – it is the way in which they have carried on the debate, a depressing mixture of denial, inconvenience and frustration.

 

Denial that marriage equality is an issue that is important to everyday Australians (it is). Denial that LGBTI couples, our families and friends exist in every electorate across the country (we do).

 

And denial that access to marriage rites is a fundamental right (it is – and if it wasn’t, there wouldn’t be so many Coalition MPs and Senators who have chosen to exercise that rite, and right, themselves).

 

It seems like many in the Liberal and National Parties find the entire marriage equality debate, and the ongoing demands of LGBTI Australians for equality under the law, to be terribly inconvenient (I’m sure there are some who probably find the mere existence of LGBTI people to be inconvenient too, but that is a topic for another time).

 

It is as if they are somehow ‘hard done by’ just by being forced to consider this issue, and wish it would all go away (here’s a newsflash for those MPs and Senators who mustn’t have been paying attention until now – we will not go away until we are truly equal, and we will keep on making ourselves as ‘inconvenient’ as possible in the meantime).

 

Then there are those, like Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, who have actually said, out loud, that they are ‘frustrated’ by this issue, and frustrated by the fact they cannot spend their time talking about ‘more important issues’.

 

Frustrated? Are you f#$%ing serious?

 

With all due respect, they have absolutely no idea what frustration about this subject feels like.

 

Frustration is being a member of the LGBTI community, and having your human rights, your dignity and your worth as a person publicly debated, year after year, with no apparent resolution in sight.

 

Frustration is being the family member or friend of LGBTI couples, wanting nothing more than to celebrate the wedding of your loved ones, but being denied that ability because of the ongoing, unjustifiable and inexcusable inaction of Commonwealth Parliamentarians.

 

Frustration is me typing this, on day two thousand, seven hundred and fifty-six of my engagement to my fiancé Steve, and still having no idea when we will finally be able to ‘tie the knot’.

 

We have been engaged now for more than seven and a half years (it bears repeating, for the benefit of those MPs and Senators who think that marriage equality is a hypothetical issue, one that doesn’t affect the lives of real people).

 

In that time, we have been involved in campaigns to change the ALP platform to support marriage equality (which was won almost six years ago), and to adopt a binding vote (partially won, coming into effect at the next federal election).

 

We spent the better part of twelve months fighting against ‘Plebiscite 1.0’, even though it could have meant us marrying sooner, because the recognition of our relationship as adults was not worth the harm it threatened to LGBTI young people, and the children of rainbow families.

 

We could not stomach the thought of saying ‘I do’, while knowing the pain that would have been inflicted on 15-year olds around the country, just like 15-year old Steve and Alastair had once been, in order to for us to walk down the aisle.

 

And, just when we thought the marriage equality debate in this country couldn’t go any lower, it reaches a new nadir, with ‘Plebiscite 2.0’ (or a postal plebiscite, or a ‘pseudo postal plebiscite’ dressed up as a supposed statistical survey).

 

Whatever it is called, we’ll fight it too – to stop it from happening, and if it does proceed, to win it. Because, no matter how tired we are, we must.

 

The worst part of all of this is that it is a completely unnecessary battle, imposed upon us by a Government that refuses to do its job – by voting on legislation, in Parliament – but instead shirks, and outsources, its basic responsibilities.

 

Indeed, today could have been the day that a Bill to introduce marriage equality, one that stood a decent chance of success, was finally introduced into the House of Representatives.

 

That would have been a lovely way for Steve and I to celebrate nine years of being together (did I forget to mention that we first met on this day way back in 2008?)

 

Instead, we’ll remember our anniversary as the day the Turnbull Government reintroduced the Plebiscite (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill in the Senate, its latest attempt to delay, and if possible derail, the equal treatment of our love.

 

Of course, despite that personal indignity, there is another date, and another anniversary, this week that is far, far more depressing.

 

This coming Sunday it will be 13 years since the Senate approved the Howard Government’s original ban on marriage equality, on August 13 2004.

 

The passing of a law the sole aim of which was to treat LGBTI people and our relationships as lesser than other Australians was unconscionable.

 

The fact that, today, the Marriage Act 1961 continues to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics is unconscionable.

 

That MPs and Senators in successive Parliaments have failed to take action to remove this stain from our statute books, meaning that many, many couples have died while waiting for the ability to wed, is unconscionable – and unforgivable.

 

And the fact that, through its actions, the Turnbull Government apparently wants nothing more than to unnecessarily prolong the engagements of couples of Steve and me, and to ensure all LGBTI Australians endure as much vitriol as possible in the meantime, is completely unconscionable too.

 

**********

 

It is now almost 8am and the bus will soon be pulling into Canberra, where I will be spending the next three days at a conference just across the lake from our institutions of Government.

 

From a Parliament, and Senate, that I hope will reject the reintroduced legislation to hold a traditional plebiscite.

 

From an Executive that will respond by pushing ahead with a ‘pseudo postal plebiscite’, a mean and tricky proposal that will cause serious and sustained injury to young and vulnerable members of the LGBTI community, and waste $122 million in the process.

 

And from a Judiciary who I hope will find this entire farce to be unconstitutional.

 

Like many in the LGBTI community, I know I am going to find today to be incredibly challenging, just like yesterday was and the day before – and probably tomorrow, and the weeks and months ahead too.

 

But I am going to try my best to spend the rest of today thinking about Steve, and our relationship, and not the parliamentarians who wish to do us harm.

 

Because I love him with all my heart. Because the last nine years have undeniably been the best years of my life.

 

And because one day I will marry him. It won’t be on day 2,756 of our engagement. It probably won’t be on day 3,000 either. But it will happen, and there is nothing, and nobody, who I will let stand in our way.

 

311032_10150319757443027_200380029_n

Steve & I at one of the many marriage equality rallies we’ve attended over the years. We’ll keep fighting until it’s won.

 

It’s time for Moderate Liberals to speak now, or forever hold their peace

Commonwealth Parliament returns this week, for the final sitting fortnight of the year.

 

During the previous sitting week, on Monday 7 November, the Senate finally killed off, once and for all, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull’s proposed plebiscite on marriage equality.

 

The welcome actions of Labor, Greens and Nick Xenophon Team Senators, and even Derryn Hinch, have spared the country from what would have been an entirely unnecessary, fundamentally wasteful and inevitably divisive public vote on the human rights of a minority group.

 

In doing so, they have also ensured that the public, and political, pressure to finally pass marriage equality sits squarely where it should have been all along – on Liberal and National MPs and Senators.

 

After all, they are the ones sitting on the Government benches, meaning they shoulder the responsibility to introduce legislation to treat all couples equally, irrespective of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

 

From now until the next federal election, likely to be held in the 1st half of 2019, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians should put pressure on Coalition parliamentarians to fix this mess.

 

More specifically, we will need to target one of the three main groupings within the Government, the cohort who are more likely to be receptive to our messages – Moderate Liberals.

 

It is difficult to see the other two ‘factions’ changing their respective tunes. National Party MPs, who are supposed to represent all people in rural and regional areas, have instead shown themselves completely uninterested in the relationships of the many LGBTI couples that live in their electorates.

 

In fact, the old ‘Country Party’ rump of the Coalition have been so determined to delay and potentially defeat marriage equality that they included the plebiscite as a core component of its formal agreement with Malcolm Turnbull when he became Prime Minister in September 2015.

 

Apparently, it is far more important to spend at least $170 million, and probably more than $200 million, on a non-binding opinion poll, than on meeting the health, education and infrastructure needs of non-metropolitan Australians.

 

The other major grouping within the Coalition – Conservative Liberals – are even less interested in recognising the human rights of LGBTI people. They would prefer just to see marriage equality blocked, and only agreed to holding a plebiscite under then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott because they saw it, correctly, as a stalling tactic.

 

With the plebiscite now dead, the terrible Tory trio of Abetz, Bernardi and Christensen, and their factional colleagues, are comfortable in seeing this issue left off the political agenda – from their perspective, hopefully permanently.

 

All of which is to say that the only hope of passing marriage equality in the remainder of this term rests with what is, in 2016, perhaps the smallest and least powerful of the Coalition groups – Moderate Liberals[i].

 

These MPs and Senators are the only ones within Malcolm Turnbull’s Government who could foreseeably take any action on marriage equality, at least in the short-term.

 

That’s because, if they are genuinely moderate in their beliefs, they are likely to understand the following three things:

 

  1. There is no justification for discrimination against people solely on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status under secular law – and that includes in the Marriage Act 1961.

 

  1. The plebiscite was the wrong process to achieve marriage equality. Not only was it unacceptable to the vast majority of LGBTI people, it also contravened the traditions of Australian democracy[ii], which has only ever witnessed three national plebiscites, and none on substantive policy for almost a century, and

 

  1. Most importantly, LGBTI Australians have already waited long enough (far too long actually) for their relationships to be treated equally under the law, meaning a parliamentary vote should not be delayed until 2019.

 

But, while they may understand these points, the real question is: What will Moderate Liberal MPs and Senators now do about it?

 

Will they stand up for their principles and push for a parliamentary vote, or will they continue their modus operandi from the past ten to 15 years and adopt the path of least resistance against their National Party and Conservative Liberal counterparts, by maintaining their official support for the discredited plebiscite?

 

Unfortunately, the signs to date are not encouraging. North Queensland LNP MP, Warren Entsch, who has pushed for marriage equality inside the Coalition for several years, has indicated that he is choosing right now, when we arguably need him most, to ‘give up the fight’[iii] on this issue for the remainder of this term.

 

He has, in effect, walked away from the LGBTI community rather than walking five metres across the chamber floor to vote for reform.

 

Disappointingly, few if any of Entsch’s colleagues have so far suggested they are interested in picking up where he left off.

 

warren-entsch

Warren Entsch, introducing his private member’s bill for marriage equality in 2015. Sadly, it seems he is unwilling to even vote for equality for the next two and a half years.

 

What would we ask them to do if they were ‘ready and willing’? There are two ways in which Moderate Liberals could progress marriage equality this term.

 

The first, and most challenging, path would be for them to push for a conscience vote inside the Liberal Party room (and in the absence of National MPs and Senators who, as Christopher Pyne accurately pointed out, were included by Tony Abbott in August 2015 as a means of ‘branch-stacking’ against equality).

 

Their arguments would be strong – the Government has tried and failed to implement its election policy (to hold the plebiscite), so it needs to find another way to recognise the legal equality of LGBTI relationships. A free vote also has the benefit of being far more consistent with the past practices of Australia’s main right-of-centre party than a public vote.

 

But they would also face strong resistance, led by PM-(again)-in-waiting Tony Abbott, among others, meaning it is unclear what the outcome would be.

 

If they failed, the second way in which Moderate Liberals could help pass marriage equality would be by ‘simply’ crossing the floor.

 

It would only take one or two principled Senators to secure passage in the Upper House, and probably only a small handful of MPs, perhaps half-a-dozen, to do so in the House of Representatives.

 

In the absence of a Prime Minister, Ministers or Assistant Ministers who were prepared to give up their positions of power for the sake of the human rights of their fellow citizens, they would all need to come from the backbench. And, by taking such a step, these backbenchers would know they were potentially jeopardising any future advancement within the Party.

 

It is unclear whether there are enough Coalition MPs and Senators to make that crucial difference. But, it is incredibly important that Moderate Liberals find these numbers, one way or another.

 

Not just for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians, and our family members and friends, who have already endured 12 years – and counting – of John Howard’s homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic ban on our weddings.

 

It is also important for the future of Moderate Liberals themselves.

 

Make no mistake, this is a fundamental test for the section of the Liberal Party who identify as moderate, even ‘progressive’, on social issues.

 

Their ‘slice’ of the Coalition has been diminishing for decades, and their influence has waned noticeably from even the time when I was growing up.

 

On many issues, from the (mis)treatment of people seeking asylum, to the prioritisation of ‘national security’ over civil liberties, and even their growing obsession with section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, they are now almost indistinguishable from their National Party, and Conservative Liberal, colleagues.

 

So, if they cannot stand up to the rabid right-wing on this, a straight-forward question of inclusion versus discrimination – a clear-cut choice between granting human rights or actively denying them – it is difficult to see them standing up on anything.

 

If Moderate Liberals fail to ‘deliver the goods’ on marriage equality by the time the next election rolls around, it will be tempting for most Australians to reach the conclusion that they are ‘good-for-nothing’.

 

And, in my view at least, the public would be right – if Moderate Liberals cannot make progress on this issue before 2019, then they will have demonstrated that they have no place in contemporary Australian politics. It probably won’t be that much longer before they discover they have no place in Commonwealth Parliament either.

 

All of which means that, if they want LGBTI Australians to be able to walk down the aisle – and if they want to retain their seats on the ‘right’ side of the political aisle – it’s time for Moderate Liberals to speak now, or forever hold their peace.

 

**********

 

Footnotes:

[i] Irrespective of their actual factual alignment, for the purposes of this article this grouping includes the four out gay men in the Government: Trent Zimmerman, Tim Wilson, Trevor Evans and Senator Dean Smith.

[ii] The argument made by WA Liberal Senator Dean Smith in declaring that he could not, in good conscience, support the plebiscite enabling legislation.

[iii] Sydney Morning Herald, 11 November 2016, The same-sex plebiscite is dead. So what happens now?

Malcolm Turnbull wants YOU to pay $10.83 so HE can keep HIS job

 

Some of the details of the proposed marriage equality plebiscite were finally revealed on Tuesday (13 September), more than 12 months after it was first agreed as Coalition policy under then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

 

That includes the estimated cost: a massive $170,000,000.

 

In the days since, there has been plenty of coverage of the wastefulness of this national public opinion poll, especially when the alternative – passing a Bill through Parliament, in the ordinary way – would cost exactly $0.

 

There are, of course, an almost limitless number of ways in which this enormous sum of money could be better spent, including on funding additional nurses, teachers or postgraduate students[i].

 

But we also shouldn’t forget where this money comes from: from us, the taxpayer. Or, in this context, from us, the Australian voter.

 

The Australian Electoral Commission estimates that, at 30 June 2016, there were 15,696,874 people on the nation’s electoral roll[ii].

 

Which means that EVERY AUSTRALIAN VOTER – cisgender, heterosexual and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) alike – is effectively being charged $10.83 for the ‘privilege’ of participating in a plebiscite which nobody can provide a compelling justification for.

 

Indeed, there are very few people or organisations who are clamouring for the marriage equality plebiscite to be held. The extreme right-wing of the Liberal-National Government. The Australian Christian Lobby and other religious fundamentalists. And the Prime Minister, one Malcolm Turnbull MP.

 

Yes, the same Malcolm Turnbull who argued against the plebiscite in the Coalition party-room in August 2015.

 

The same Malcolm Turnbull who claims to support marriage equality, but who cannot bring himself to do so on the floor of the House of Representatives.

 

The same Malcolm Turnbull who, even as he introduced the Plebiscite (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill 2016 on Wednesday, conceded that the cost of the vote is ‘substantial’, and that this is a ‘valid argument’ against holding it[iii].

 

So why exactly is he pushing ahead with a policy that he knows is wrong, both in principle and in practice?

 

The answer, as it nearly always is, is politics. Turnbull is tied to the plebiscite because it is only way he keeps himself tied to his job.

 

One year to the day before he introduced his plebiscite bill, and the day after he had rolled Tony Abbott to become Leader of the Liberal Party, Turnbull signed a new Coalition agreement with the National Party in which he committed to holding a plebiscite. In doing so, he signed away any principles he may have once held on this issue.

 

Even now, he is so single-minded in pursuing the plebiscite because he continually needs to appease the narrow-minded Abetz, Bernardi and Christensen, the ultra-conservative Senators and MP who, it seems, are the ones actually running the Government.

 

There is no moral justification for this pursuit – it is all about base political motivations. And so we are left to draw the following conclusion:

 

There are no good reasons to hold a plebiscite on marriage equality, but plenty of bad ones.

 

Chief among them is that it is being held so that Turnbull can keep his job.

 

You, the Australian voter, are being charged $10.83 each, so that Malcolm Bligh Turnbull can stay on as our 29th Prime Minister.

 

We are all being charged a ‘Turnbull Tax’.

 

10 dollar note

Malcolm Turnbull wants YOU to pay $10, and change, so HE can keep HIS job as Prime Minister.

 

Of course, the great irony of this situation is that we are all expected to pay $10.83 so he can keep his job, despite the fact he is refusing to actually do his job (by passing legislation), and is instead making us do it for him.

 

What a wonderful system for him. And what a horrible outcome for Australia’s LGBTI community, and indeed for all those who believe people should be treated equally under secular law, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

 

Okay, so maybe the above is a little bit unfair – no, not on Malcolm Turnbull, who is after all the Prime Minister who wants to inflict an unnecessary, wasteful and divisive plebiscite on the population.

 

Instead, it is unfair because there are others who are also responsible for this abhorrent policy, and who therefore should be both named and blamed.

 

As I indicated above, this includes the extremists within the Liberal and National Parties who have advocated the plebiscite as a way to delay the equal recognition of LGBTI relationships.

 

And so, just as you are being asked to pay the Turnbull Tax, you will also be contributing to the ‘Extremist Excise’ if the plebiscite proceeds (I would have called it the ‘Fringe Fee’, except that these bigots are no longer fringe-dwellers within the Coalition, they seem to be in the majority).

 

It would also be unfair to overlook the role of the Australian Christian Lobby in this mess, as one of the few non-government organisations who believe an extended national debate about the validity of LGBTI relationships is a good idea.

 

Which means that the $170,000,000 spent also represents the ‘Australian Christian Lobby Levy’ – or perhaps even the ‘Lyle Levy’, so-named after its managing director Lyle Shelton.

 

Finally, we shouldn’t forget that of this $170 million, $15 million is being allocated towards the cost of the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigns ($7.5 million each).

 

Except that the ‘Yes’ side doesn’t want this money. Indeed, this public funding is one of the main reasons why practically every LGBTI organisation in the entire country came together on Wednesday to reject Malcolm Turnbull’s plebiscite[iv].

 

Only the ‘No’ side wants it, presumably so that the Australian Christian Lobby can have a bigger platform to compare marriage equality and safe schools to the rise of Nazism, or link rainbow families with the Stolen Generations, or to incite ‘bathroom panic’ against trans people, and trans women in particular[v].

 

Mr Shelton and the ACL want your money to be able to promote intolerance against LGBTI Australians on the basis of who they are. In effect, you, me, all of us, will be paying an ‘Intolerance Impost’, on top of the Turnbull Tax, Extremist Excise and Lyle Levy.

 

I mentioned earlier that there are no good reasons to hold the plebiscite. Well, as we all know there are plenty of reasons to oppose it[vi].

 

The fact that we are expected to pay for the ‘privilege’ of participating in this pointless exercise – of paying the Turnbull Tax, the Extremist Excise, the Australian Christian Lobby Levy and the Intolerance Impost – is just one more. And it’s a reason that affects all of us – because we are all being asked to cough up.

 

**********

 

Footnotes:

[i] Mamamia, There are so many better ways we could spend the same-sex marriage plebiscite funding, 15 September 2016.

[ii] Australian Electoral Commission, Enrolment Statistics, 30 June 2016.

[iii] “The other one is the cost – and that is substantial – but then you have to ask yourself: what price democracy? So those are two arguments that are valid.” Hansard, Wednesday 14 September 2016.

[iv] Media Release, LGBTI Groups Joint Statement on the Plebiscite, Wednesday 14 September 2016.

[v] Please see: Lyle Shelton’s Respectful Debate.

[vi] Please see: Letter to ALP MPs and Senators Calling on Them to Block the Plebiscite.

Malcolm Turnbull’s Mid-Term Report Card

 

It is now one week since polls closed, and it is gradually becoming clear that at worst Malcolm Turnbull’s Coalition will form a minority Government, with the support of Bob Katter, but it is much more likely they will achieve the slimmest of parliamentary majorities.

 

However, what is even clearer is that Turnbull himself emerges from this election in a greatly weakened position, with rabid elements within the Liberal Party (hello Eric Abetz and Cory Bernardi) undermining his leadership and calling for the Coalition Government to move even further to the right (if that were possible).

 

In fact, members of the conservative commentariat have already called for his resignation (the most predictably unhinged, but nevertheless hilarious, of the lot being Andrew Bolt).

 

In the midst of this in-fighting and bitter internal recriminations, and without being able to point to a clear election victory in his defence, it is now highly unlikely Malcolm Turnbull will still be Prime Minister this time next year. Indeed, many people doubt he will survive until the end of 2016.

 

All of which means, given he only became leader ten months ago, we are now probably more than half-way through the ‘grand experiment’ that is Turnbull’s stint in the Lodge. What better time to ask what he has to show for it? And so, here is Malcolm Turnbull’s Mid-Term Report Card as Prime Minister of Australia.

 

First, let’s assess the positives – what have been Turnbull’s accomplishments?

 

Malcolm Turnbull's Successes as Prime Minister_

 

 

Nothing. Despite being Prime Minister since September 2015, there is literally nothing I can think of to list as a lasting achievement of his time so far in office.

 

Sure, he managed to become Prime Minister in the first place – which is a great personal accomplishment – but filling out his own CV doesn’t automatically help anyone whose surname isn’t Turnbull (or who lives outside Point Piper).

 

If you had asked people late last year they might have nominated ‘getting rid of Tony Abbott’ as an achievement – and at the time I probably would have agreed. But, given Turnbull has spent every day since meticulously transforming himself into Abbott 2.0, right down to the vacuous three-word slogans (‘Jobs & growth’), it is increasingly difficult to see any difference between them.

 

The shrinking band of Turnbull supporters within the Coalition might also highlight his ‘victory’ on July 2, however close, as an accomplishment. And granted, winning an election is hard, but it also matters what you are able to do with it.

 

Given his entire election platform seemed to consist of a 10-year, $50 billion corporate tax cut – that appears doomed in the new Senate, given the size of the ALP, Greens and Xenophon contingents, and the ‘messy’ state of the cross-bench – Malcolm doesn’t have a mandate to do anything much in the remaining weeks or, at best, months of his Prime Ministership.

 

Now, let’s turn to the negatives – what have been the failures of PM Turnbull?

 

Malcolm Turnbull's Failures as Prime Minister_

 

On this last point, marriage equality, the list of Malcolm Turnbull’s failures might yet grow longer. Because, in the dying days of his leadership, one of his final acts as PM might be to try to push through the enabling legislation to hold the unnecessary, wasteful and divisive plebiscite, first proposed by Tony Abbott but then adopted by Turnbull in his largely unsuccessful attempts to ingratiate himself with the ‘DelCons’.

 

Even if marriage equality is ultimately passed after a plebiscite, it still won’t be Turnbull’s achievement – because it will be the LGBTI community and our families, friends and allies who will need to put in the hard yards to ensure a ‘Yes’ vote wins (and, irrespective of victory or defeat, it will also be the LGBTI community that pays the price of the hatred and intolerance whipped up during the campaign that precedes it).

 

All in all, then, that’s no achievements (or ‘A’s) to list on Malcolm’s Mid-Term Report Card, and a helluva lot of failures (or ‘F’s).

 

For someone who is accustomed to succeeding at most things he turns his mind to (outside the failed 1999 ‘Republic’ campaign anyway), it must be particularly galling to be such a complete non-entity when finally given the nation’s top job. In the many years ahead after he leaves office Turnbull will have to reconcile himself with being remembered as the ‘Nothingman’ Prime Minister.

 

Of course, he was supposed to be better than this. The Liberal who believed in climate change – once famously saying “I will not lead a party that is not as committed to effective action on climate change as I am” – but who now presides over the farcical Direct Action policy.

 

The inner-city moderate, small ‘l’ liberal, who in March 2016 became the first sitting Primer Minister to attend the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras parade – but who refused to stand up to the bigots on his backbench and their nasty attacks on Safe Schools, and their ongoing attempts to delay and/or defeat equal relationship recognition.

 

Malcolm Turnbull once famously described John Howard as “the Prime Minister who broke this nation’s heart”. Well, given his own inconsistencies and hypocrisies, it could be argued that Turnbull himself is far worse. Because a heart can mend, whereas during his time as Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has diminished our hopes – and that is something that is far harder to replenish.

 

Malcolm Turnbull’s Proposed Marriage Equality Plebiscite is Truly Extraordinary

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s policy – that, if re-elected, he will hold a plebiscite to determine whether marriage equality will finally be introduced in Australia – is truly extraordinary.

 

Unfortunately for him, and even more so for us, it’s not extraordinary like Adele’s voice (or, if you’re not a fan, at least her extraordinary ability to sell music).

 

Instead, it’s extraordinary in a ‘Donald Trump is in with a real chance of becoming President of the United States’ kind of way: unprecedented, bizarre, inconsistent and radical.

 

Unprecedented

 

The Commonwealth of Australia is now in its 116th year. A significant number of national votes, other than elections, have been held over that time, including 44 referendums (although only eight of those were successful).

 

But there have only been three plebiscites since Federation in 1901 – and, given the High Court has already found that Commonwealth Parliament has the power to amend the Marriage Act 1961 to introduce marriage equality[i], any national vote on marriage equality would be a non-binding plebiscite rather than a constitution-altering referendum.

 

Of those three plebiscites, only one has been held since World War I: the 1977 ‘multiple-choice’ vote to select a new national anthem (for the record, the options were to retain God Save the Queen, or to change to Advance Australia Fair, Song of Australia or Waltzing Matilda, with Advance Australia Fair ‘winning’ with 43.29% of the ballots cast).

 

With a voting age of 18 (having been lowered from 21 in 1973), only people born before April 1959 were able to participate in that symbolic decision[ii]. To put it another way, nobody born in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s has ever voted in any Australia-wide plebiscite.

 

To find a plebiscite that was used to consider a substantive issue of public policy, we have to travel even further back in time – to almost a full century before the present day. In the depths of the so-called ‘war to end all wars’, the Billy Hughes-led Commonwealth Government conducted the only other two plebiscites in our history, to determine whether to introduce military conscription.

 

These votes – held in October 1916 and December 1917 respectively[iii] – are in effect the only precedent of any kind for the holding of a national vote on a policy issue that did not require constitutional change.

 

But, with the voting age then set at 21, and the most ‘recent’ of these votes a mere 98 and a half years ago, in order to participate in a plebiscite of this kind you needed to be born in 1896 or before – or older than the current oldest person in the world[iv]. In other words, nobody alive today has ever voted in an Australia-wide plebiscite to decide a substantive policy issue.

 

The fact that there is literally no-one around who has participated in a policy-based plebiscite confirms that Malcolm Turnbull’s proposed public vote on marriage equality is essentially unprecedented in modern Australia.

 

As for ‘the Donald’, well, you don’t need to be Nate Silver to understand that his Presidential candidacy is unprecedented in contemporary American history too – there hasn’t been anything like him over the past 50, or even 100, years either.

 

Bizarre

 

One of the strangest things about Turnbull’s policy is that he wants to hold the first substantive plebiscite in almost a century on an issue like marriage equality. Think for a minute about all of the significant changes that have occurred since December 1917 without the need for such a vote.

 

We’ve been through multiple wars – World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, and more recently we’ve followed the United States into seemingly endless wars in the Middle East (a somewhat terrifying aside: who knows how many more we would enter at the behest of President Trump?) Australia even had conscription during WWII, and again for the conflict in Vietnam – yet none of these wars, nor the introduction of conscription, required a single plebiscite to be held.

 

We’ve experienced the Great Depression, the post-War boom, the major challenges of the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, economic rationalism, and the Global Financial Crisis – still no plebiscite.

 

We’ve seen massive social changes too – including the rise of the women’s movement (imagine for a second the reaction of someone from 1917 to former Prime Minister Julia Gillard), and the recognition of Aboriginal land rights (to some extent anyway), as well as substantial LGBTI law reform, such as decriminalisation, anti-discrimination legislation, parenting rights (in most states and territories) and de facto relationship recognition. Not one of these social reforms needed a plebiscite either.

 

There has even been revolutionary change to the institution of marriage itself – with the 1975 introduction of ‘no fault divorce’ having a much greater impact on a much larger number of families than something like marriage equality could ever hope to achieve. And, once again, it was done without Commonwealth Parliament derogating from its primary responsibility to pass legislation by instead calling a national vote.

 

In this context, it is downright bizarre that, of all the possible issues that could have been the subject of a plebiscite over the past 98 and a half years, Malcolm Turnbull and his Liberal-National Government believe the simple question of whether two men, or two women, can marry is the one worth making the subject of an expensive and time-consuming public vote.

 

Although, admittedly, it’s possibly still not quite as bizarre as the fact someone who is perhaps best known as the star of a reality-TV show, and who has never held public office of any kind, is the presumptive Republican nominee for what remains the most powerful job in the world.

 

Inconsistent

 

One of the things many people find most frustrating about Malcolm Turnbull’s proposed marriage equality plebiscite is that it is entirely inconsistent with recent political history. Or, if you’re being less charitable, that it is hypocritical given the actions of the Liberal and National Parties over the past 12 years.

 

Then-Prime Minister John Howard did not hold a public vote before introducing his Marriage Amendment Act 2004 that legislated to deny the right to marry to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians. There was no push for a plebiscite on the issue by anyone in the Liberal and National Parties during the many failed attempts to repeal that ban in the years between 2004 and 2011, either.

 

During the September 2012 debate, and (sadly unsuccessful) vote, on the most recent marriage equality Bill to be considered at length, then-Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and his Coalition colleagues did not use the opportunity to describe the process of Parliament voting on marriage equality as inappropriate – they simply used the votes that they held as MPs and Senators to help block it.

 

All of a sudden, however, in August 2015, just as it appeared that the numbers in Parliament might finally have caught up to existing majority community support for this reform, the Liberal-National joint party-room decided to ‘backtrack’ on more than a decade of practice, and refused to use their own votes on this issue, either for or against marriage equality, altogether.

 

Instead, they chose to embark upon a process that we have already seen is essentially unprecedented in modern Australia – before they hold any further parliamentary votes on marriage equality, they will first conduct a $160 million Australia-wide public vote.

 

It is difficult to see this dramatic change in process – from MPs and Senators voting on an issue, just like all other legislation, to holding a nation-wide plebiscite – as anything other than unfair, given that it moves the goalposts on people, and campaigners, who have been working to effect this change for the past decade.

 

But, irrespective of whether you think a plebiscite is ‘fair’ or not, it is impossible to deny that the policy Malcolm Turnbull is taking to the July 2 election – to hold a plebiscite on marriage equality – is fundamentally inconsistent with what he, and his colleagues, have done since John Howard’s ban on marriage equality in 2004.

 

Donald Trump could be described as the King of Inconsistency (although he might upgrade himself to Emperor). As his recent embrace of the National Rifle Association – after previously supporting gun control measures[v] – demonstrates, there is no position he won’t change, and no principle he won’t sacrifice, in order to become POTUS.

 

Radical

 

The one defence that Liberal and National MPs – including both former Prime Minister Tony Abbott and current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull – regularly make with regards to holding a plebiscite is that it is ‘the most democratic way to make this decision.’ After all, how much more ‘democratic’ can you get than letting the people decide via a public vote?

 

And I’ll readily acknowledge, holding a plebiscite on marriage equality does fit with certain conceptions of ‘participatory’ democracy. But it is also a very different approach to determining matters of public policy from our usual modus operandi, one that does not sit particularly well with our more traditional ‘representative’ democracy.

 

For example, Tony Abbott has said that holding a plebiscite “is the best way to decide something that’s so important but so personal… It’s to let the people decide so that the decision, whichever way it goes, will have their authority”[vi] [emphasis added].

 

Implicit in describing a plebiscite as the best way to resolve controversial issues is a criticism of our Parliamentary system as an inferior, or clearly ‘second-best’, option.

 

This is actually an extremely radical view of how our democracy should operate – and it’s coming from precisely the same people who usually like to describe themselves as ‘capital C’ conservatives (as an aside: we’ve grown accustomed to a Liberal Party that is not liberal, a National Party that isn’t national, and even an Australian Christian Lobby that isn’t very ‘Christian’, but we should also be highlighting that contemporary ‘conservatives’ are actually nothing of the sort).

 

The logical conclusion of statements such as these is that Australia should be holding more plebiscites, and on a wider range of subjects, rather than simply ‘letting the politicians decide’.

 

In fact, this argument neatly complements the first point of this post – while a plebiscite like this is unprecedented today, by conducting a public vote on marriage equality Malcolm Turnbull and his Liberal-National colleagues would be creating a precedent to hold plebiscites on all sorts of other topics.

 

It is a radical shift that even WA Liberal Senator Dean Smith has identified, while warning of its potential consequences[vii]:

 

“We must also bear in mind the precedent being set as we embark on this latest democratic experiment. After all, if Parliament is to send the nation to a plebiscite to determine the question of same-sex marriage, what is to be done the next time an overseas military commitment is needed?

 

“Into the future, shall we defer to popular vote the question of euthanasia? What of changes to family law and child custody arrangements? These issues are informed by people’s moral views and impact upon people’s personal lives just as much as same-sex marriage.”

 

We could add to Senator Smith’s short list an almost limitless range of possible plebiscites: from abortion to assisted reproductive technology; action on climate change and even access to health and education services – all are influenced by people’s moral views, and all would have an impact on people’s lives.

 

More worryingly, you could easily imagine the same types of people currently agitating for a plebiscite on marriage equality subsequently calling for public votes on – or rather against – immigration, refugees and ‘flag-burning’. You could even see public votes to reintroduce the death penalty or to officially declare Australia a ‘Christian’ nation.

 

The fact that ‘conservatives’ within the Liberal and National Parties are willing to risk these consequences by holding a plebiscite, in what is a fairly transparent attempt to delay or defeat marriage equality, shows just how little they are committed to Australia’s traditional system of representative democracy. Theirs is a genuinely radical agenda, and it should be resisted.

 

It almost goes without saying that Donald Trump’s agenda as a Presidential candidate is genuinely radical too – from building a wall between the US and Mexico (and then making the Mexican Government pay for it – WTF?) to banning all Muslims from entering the United States, he’s more parts radical than conservative.

 

Trump

Just like US Presidential candidate Donald Trump, Malcolm Turnbull’s proposed marriage equality plebiscite is extraordinary, unprecedented, bizarre, inconsistent and radical.

 

**********

 

There are of course several other aspects of Malcolm Turnbull’s proposed marriage equality plebiscite that are truly extraordinary. As I’ve written elsewhere[viii], holding a national public vote on this issue would be:

 

  • Extraordinarily unnecessary, given the High Court has already found Commonwealth Parliament can introduce marriage equality,
  • Extraordinarily inappropriate, because the human rights of a minority group shouldn’t be determined by a popularity contest,
  • Extraordinarily wasteful, with a cost of at least $160 million that would be better spent on other priorities[ix], and
  • Extraordinarily divisive, with a real risk that the next six to 12 months will witness extreme attacks on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians.

 

But what I have attempted to show in this post is that the process is extraordinary in and of itself. Just like Donald Trump’s candidacy to become US President, the proposal to hold a plebiscite on marriage equality is unprecedented, bizarre, inconsistent and radical.

 

Thankfully, there is another similarity between these two otherwise disparate phenomena: neither is inevitable. In the same way we hope (and for the religious among us, pray) the American people choose Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump come November 8, we can also choose not to have a marriage equality plebiscite via our election on July 2.

 

If we elect Bill Shorten and Labor at the upcoming poll, then not only will we avoid a plebiscite, we will also most likely have marriage equality within 100 days[x]. Even if the Liberal and National Parties are returned to Government, the proposed plebiscite could nevertheless still be rejected by the Opposition, Greens and minor parties in the Senate. There’s even a much slimmer chance that 2016 Malcolm Turnbull might remember pre-2015 Malcolm Turnbull’s principled stance against a plebiscite.

 

But none of this will happen if we don’t make our voices heard, telling anyone and everyone who will listen: We don’t want a plebiscite. We don’t need a plebiscite. All we want is to be treated equally under the law – and we shouldn’t have to negotiate an extraordinary, unprecedented, bizarre, inconsistent and radical process to do so.

 

 

Footnotes

[i] The Commonwealth v Australian Capital Territory [2013] HCA 55.

[ii] The result of the 1977 national anthem plebiscite (‘Anthem-vision’) was treated with so much importance it wasn’t even implemented for another seven years.

[iii] The October 1916 plebiscite voted narrowly against conscription 51.61% to 48.39%, while the December 1917 margin was slightly larger: 53.79% No versus 46.21% Yes.

[iv] The older person alive at the time of writing, Italian Emma Morano, was born on 29 November 1899.

[v] The Guardian, May 21 2016, “Donald Trump endorsed by NRA despite history of gun control support”.

[vi] The Guardian, 30 January 2016, “Tony Abbott will back result of plebiscite on same-sex marriage”.

[vii] Dean Smith, Sydney Morning Herald, December 21 2015, “Marriage equality plebiscite would set a precedent for when we defer to a popular vote.”

[viii] No Referendum. No Plebiscite. Just Pass the Bill.

[ix] 7 Better Ways to Spent $158.4 million.

[x] If Shorten wins, start planning those weddings for Monday 10 October.