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.

In the battle for marriage equality, we must not forget to fight against religious exceptions

The long struggle for marriage equality does not involve waging just one battle. Instead, it includes a range of related, and sometimes overlapping, fights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) equality.

 

Obviously, there is what most would consider to be the ‘central’ fight – to amend the Marriage Act 1961 to ensure all LGBTI couples who wish to can be married under secular Australian law. Victory on that particular issue is long overdue.

 

A closely-related fight is ensuring that the definition used to amend the Marriage Act is sex and gender neutral – referring to the union of two persons (replacing man and woman which is currently used in section 5) rather than referring to man/man, or woman/woman, unions. The latter would only be gay or same-sex marriage, instead of genuine marriage equality, and would continue to deny equal rights to some members of the LGBTI community.

 

Fortunately, most recent legislative attempts to amend marriage have used this more inclusive definition[i], although this is something that we will need to be vigilant about until equality is finally achieved in Australia (whenever that might eventually be).

 

And then there is the current procedural fight about how marriage equality should be implemented – with Malcolm Turnbull’s Liberal-National Government intent on holding an unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive plebiscite.

 

The $158.4 million-plus[ii] public vote appears to be supported by only the Australia Christian Lobby and other extremists opposed to LGBTI equality, while pretty much everyone else believes Parliament should simply do its job and pass a law to introduce equality (in exactly the same way then-Prime Minister John Howard entrenched inequality in the first place, way back in 2004).

 

However, there is one fight that is inherently connected to the larger battle for marriage equality that seems to be commonly overlooked – and that is the need to ensure that, irrespective of how marriage equality is ultimately achieved, no new special rights are created allowing religious organisations, and individuals, to discriminate against LGBTI couples.

 

These so-called ‘religious exceptions’ could take several possible forms. The narrowest version would be the introduction of a new right for civil celebrants and other celebrants, like military chaplains, who are not ministers of religion to be able to refuse to officiate ceremonies solely on the basis of the sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status of the couple involved[iii].

 

The next, more expansive type of special rights to discriminate would allow businesses that provide wedding-related services to deny those services to couples where one or both persons are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex. This is the type of exception that excites Christian fundamentalists in the United States, with claims that requiring florists and bakers to sell their products to LGBTI couples is oppressive or even totalitarian in nature.

 

The broadest form of new religious exceptions would more radically change existing anti-discrimination laws, allowing all individuals and businesses to discriminate against LGBTI couples on the basis of their own religious beliefs, with such discrimination not restricted to wedding-related activities.

 

No matter how narrowly or broadly these new special rights to discriminate are defined, they are all completely unjustified – there is no reason why civil celebrants, businesses or anyone else operating in public life should be free to deny LGBTI people equal treatment.

 

But, just because they are unjustified, doesn’t mean they are not on the public agenda, as recent experience in the United States amply demonstrates.

 

From Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis, who found fame by refusing to perform the duties of her Government job[iv], instead denying service to members of the public solely on the basis of their sexual orientation, through to more recent state-wide Bills to ‘restore religious freedom’ (or, more accurately, to reinstate the rights of individuals and businesses to treat LGBTI people as second class citizens) in North Carolina, Mississippi and elsewhere, there has been a renewed push for religious exceptions to undermine marriage equality, and anti-discrimination laws more generally.

 

There seem to be three, inter-related and mutually reinforcing objectives behind the religious right’s latest homophobic ‘crusade’:

 

  1. In a practical sense, they genuinely want to prevent the equal treatment of LGBTI people – both by being legally permitted to refuse service to LGBTI couples themselves, and to encourage the broader population to do the same;
  2. In a symbolic sense, they want to undermine the equality aspect of marriage equality – if lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people are allowed to marry under secular law, then Christian fundamentalists want to ensure that they are still treated as differently as possible, turned away by civil celebrants, wedding-related businesses and even public servants; and
  3. In a strategic sense, they want to use this ‘moment’, when marriage equality and LGBTI rights are being discussed across the community, to reassert the supposed primacy of ‘religious freedom’ and use it to dismantle LGBTI anti-discrimination laws where they exist – or hinder their development where they have not already been passed.

 

Before we judge our US counterparts too harshly, however, we must remember that conservative and other right-wing forces in Australia are engaged in exactly the same campaign here.

 

For example, Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm’s Freedom to Marry Bill 2014, that would have introduced marriage equality (of a sort), included provisions that would have granted civil celebrants the ability to reject people on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status[v].

 

Others on the ‘religious exceptions’ bandwagon include former Human Rights Commissioner, and now Liberal candidate for Goldstein, Tim Wilson[vi], as well as his former employers, the Institute of Public Affairs.

 

In addition to their outrageous calls for what limited LGBTI anti-vilification laws we do have[vii] to be temporarily suspended for the duration of the plebiscite, fringe group the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) have also repeatedly argued for any Marriage Amendment Bill to include permanent special rights for individuals and businesses to discriminate against LGBTI people.

 

In his own words, ACL ‘homophobe-in-chief’ Lyle Shelton believes existing anti-discrimination laws are somehow a threat to Australian democracy:

 

“The rights to a free conscience, freedom of religion or belief, freedom of speech and freedom of expression are the nuts and bolts of democracy. If they are to fall, then we have serious questions to answer regarding out democracy…

 

“Most fair-minded Australians would accept the right of a person to maintain their belief that gender and biology still matter to marriage and family and to always be free to give voice to that belief.

 

“Marriage between a man and a woman is fundamental to a flourishing society. When the definition is changed, the law will say that gender is irrelevant to the foundation of society.

 

“Those who believe gender, kinship and biological identity do matter to society’s fabric will be fundamentally at odds with the law and the anti-discrimination laws will be weaponised against them.”[viii]

 

Leaving aside the fact the ACL have been able to use their disproportionate-sized megaphone to publicly spew forth hatred against LGBTI Australians for many years[ix], without any apparent consequence, on this as with too many other issues they have found numerous supporters within the Liberal-National Government.

 

Indeed, ongoing debate on the issue of whether a draft Marriage Amendment Bill should include new ‘religious exceptions’, and if so how broad they should be in scope, is a key reason why Malcolm Turnbull was forced to back down from previous statements he would announce the timing and details of the marriage equality plebiscite ahead of the 2016 Federal Election.

 

In reporting on the decision by Turnbull to shelve the plebiscite announcement until after the poll, Dennis Shanahan in The Australian made the following observation:

 

“The key to reassuring those opposed to same-sex marriage, including conservative Coalition MPs, is not only the wording of the proposed plebiscite question changing the Marriage Act but also the protections for freedom of religion and speech.

 

“Those involved in the talks regard it as essential that Senator Brandis provide protections for those beyond the tight circle of religious and marriage celebrants who do not want to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies.”[x]

 

Lenore Taylor in the Guardian Australia had earlier reported that internal tensions over the extent of these exceptions could cause the Government to delay announcing the Bill:

 

“The Turnbull government is wavering on its commitment to reveal details of its planned marriage equality plebiscite before the federal election because of deep divisions on crucial issues such as public funding and exemptions from anti-discrimination laws…

 

“[C]conservative MPs have been demanding broad exemptions from anti-discrimination laws for officials and wedding service providers, including florists, bakers and reception centres. Government sources said there were concerns that the issue would become internally “divisive.””[xi]

 

These reports confirm that the potential creation of new special rights to discriminate is very much a live option within the Turnbull Liberal-National Government.

 

This development is something that should have anyone interested in achieving marriage equality worried, especially because, as previous debates around Safe Schools and the plebiscite itself have demonstrated, the conservative and/or religious right are not shy about throwing their weight around inside the Coalition party room – and that applies just as much, if not more, under Prime Minister Turnbull as it did under his predecessor Tony Abbott.

 

The consequences of a conservative victory on this issue would be dire. On top of the practical and strategic problems identified above, the inclusion of new special rights to discriminate against LGBTI people in the plebiscite question – or its associated legislation – would make campaigning for marriage equality significantly more challenging.

 

In effect, it would ensure that the proposal considered at a plebiscite was fundamentally flawed from the beginning and that therefore many people in favour of genuine marriage equality would be forced to campaign, and vote, for something less than ideal while effectively ‘holding one’s nose’.

 

It would also tarnish the achievements of a successful ‘Yes’ campaign – instead of a unifying moment of national celebration, where true relationship equality was extended to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians without qualification, we would be left with a law that continues to permit discrimination in certain circumstances. In short, a ‘Yes’ result would be marred, leaving the overall job half-finished – and making it bittersweet to celebrate ‘equality-lite’.

 

For all of these reasons, it is incumbent upon us to ensure that, at the same time as we fight for marriage equality, we fight against the introduction of new religious exceptions, whether in the Marriage Act itself, or the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (or its state and territory equivalents).

 

Fortunately, we already have allies in this particular fight. In addition to the Greens, who have long campaigned against religious exceptions, the Australian Labor Party is also firmly opposed to their introduction.

 

160417 Guardian Why Knot

The Guardian Australia/Australian Marriage Equality event ‘Why Knot?’ where Opposition Leader Bill Shorten gave a firm commitment that Labor will oppose any expansion of religious exceptions – and will seek to repeal any provisions that are introduced by the Turnbull Liberal-National Government.

 

At the recent Guardian Australia/Australian Marriage Equality ‘Why Knot?’ forum in Sydney, I had the opportunity to ask Opposition Leader Bill Shorten the following:

 

“There is a real risk that, when Malcolm Turnbull finally gets around to drafting it, his Marriage Amendment Bill will seek to include new special rights for civil celebrants and other wedding business-providers to discriminate against LGBTI couples. Just to get it on the record: Mr Shorten, will you commit the Labor Party to voting against any attempt to expand religious exceptions beyond existing provisions and, if they do somehow end up being passed and polluting the Marriage Act, will you seek to repeal them at the earliest available opportunity?”

 

Mr Shorten’s answer was unexpectedly strong, and reassuring: “Yes, and yes.”

 

As reported by the Guardian Australia, he went on to note that “[i]t’s not allowed now under the current law – why would we water down existing laws? We don’t need to water down anti-discrimination law to keep some people [who oppose same-sex marriage] happy.”[xii]

 

It is possible that, after the Federal election, the combined votes of Labor and the Greens in the Senate will be able to block any attempt by a re-elected Turnbull Liberal-National Government to include expanded religious exceptions as part of its legislative package creating the plebiscite.

 

However, with a double dissolution election now almost inevitable on July 2nd, and the reduced Senate quotas associated with it, the final result in that Chamber will be especially hard to predict, with a range of minor parties still chances to win the 12th and final seat in each state.

 

Which means that there are now only two ways to avoid the creation of new special rights to discriminate against LGBTI Australians: for Shorten and Labor to be elected (and then implement their own policy to introduce marriage equality legislation within 100 days), or for a re-elected Prime Minister Turnbull to publicly commit to not introducing new religious exceptions in his own Marriage Amendment Bill.

 

Given his track record on LGBTI issues since taking over from Tony Abbott last September – selling the LGBTI community out on multiple occasions by ‘gutting’ the Safe Schools program and abandoning his previous personal position against holding a plebiscite – securing any enforceable commitments from Mr Turnbull will likely be an incredibly difficult task.

 

But, if we are committed to genuine marriage equality, then I believe this is a fight we must take on. Because if we don’t, we might find that we win marriage equality in the next 12 to 18 months but, instead of being able to celebrate achieving a better, fairer and more equal Australia, we are left to deal with new forms of exclusion, discrimination and state-sanctioned homophobia.

 

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[i] Although Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young’s Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill 2014 disappointingly only sought to recognize overseas marriages between “a man and another man or a woman and another woman”.

[ii] 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.

[iii] Thus providing them with the same right to ‘reject’ couples that ministers of religion already enjoy under the Marriage Act.

[iv] It is instructive to consider how people like Ms Davis would be received were they to refuse to serve African-American people, rather than LGBTI people – presumably such acts of outright racism would not be tolerated, or even celebrated, in the same way her egregious acts of homophobia and transphobia have been.

[v] For more on why Leyonhejlm’s Freedom to Marry Bill 2014 was offensive, see “Senator Leyonhjelm’s Marriage Equality Bill Undermines the Principle of LGBTI Anti-Discrimination: Should we still support it?”

[vi] In Wilson’s opinion piece in The Australian on 6 July 2015, “Religious freedom and same-sex marriage need not be incompatible” he argued for religious exceptions to be extended not just to civil celebrants but also to a wide range of wedding-related businesses.

[vii] Only four states and territories currently have vilification laws that cover lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people: Queensland, NSW, ACT and Tasmania. There are no protections federally. Instead of suspending the paltry laws we do have, the Commonwealth Government should actually be introducing LGBTI anti-vilification laws of its own. See also: “Don’t limit racial vilification protections, introduce vilification protections for LGBTI Australians instead”.

[viii] From ACL Media Release, 5 April 2016 “ACL Concerned by Shorten Plan to Fine Business Owners who Disagree with Same-Sex Marriage.”

[ix] With Mr Shelton’s predecessor Jim Wallace saying that smoking was healthier than gay marriage, and the ACL under both leaders drawing comparisons between LGBTI parenting and the creation of another Stolen Generation, which is not just deeply offensive to LGBTI Australians but to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as well.

[x] Dennis Shanahan, The Australian, 26 March 2016, “Federal election 2016: Same-sex marriage plebiscite pause for poll”.

[xi] Lenore Taylor, Guardian Australia, 16 March 2016, “Marriage Equality: Coalition disunity puts pre-election plebiscite details in doubt.”

[xii] Paul Karp, Guardian Australia, 31 March 2016, “Shorten: Labor won’t change discrimination laws to please gay marriage opponents.”

2016-17 Pre-Budget Submission: Save $158.4 million – Scrap the Marriage Equality Plebiscite

 

The Commonwealth Government has called for submissions[i] to assist it in developing the 2016-17 Budget, which, barring an early election, is due to be handed down on Tuesday 10 May.

This process is another opportunity to highlight to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Treasurer Scott Morrison and the Liberal-National Government generally just how ridiculous it is that they are proposing to waste (at least) $158.4 million on something that can be passed by the Parliament, in the usual way, for no cost.

Submissions are due by Friday 5 February 2016, with full details here. This is my submission:

 

Budget Policy Division

Department of the Treasury

Langton Crescent

PARKES ACT 2600

prebudgetsubs@treasury.gov.au

 

Tuesday 2 February 2016

 

To whom it may concern

2016-17 Pre-Budget Submission

Thank you for the opportunity to make a submission regarding what I believe should be the priorities for the 2016-17 Budget.

In this short submission I would like to focus on just one issue that, as well as being the right policy approach, would also have significant Budget benefits, and that is to call on the Turnbull Government to scrap the proposed marriage equality plebiscite.

There are a variety of policy justifications for not proceeding with a plebiscite on this issue, including that holding a public vote is unnecessary because the High Court has already found that Commonwealth Parliament has the constitutional power to pass marriage equality, and that subjecting the human rights of a minority group to such a process is inappropriate.

I, and many other members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community, also have serious concerns that the campaign leading up to a marriage equality plebiscite will be divisive, and expose LGBTI Australians, and the children of LGBTI families, to increased levels of homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia.

However, there are also strong budgetary reasons why the marriage equality plebiscite should not go ahead.

The Australian Electoral Commission has estimated that the cost of holding a stand-alone plebiscite on marriage equality would be at least $158.4 million.[ii]

Such a significant expenditure of public monies must be considered wasteful when the alternative approach – to pass (or at least to hold a free vote on) marriage equality legislation in Parliament – does not carry any additional cost.

Holding a marriage equality plebiscite could even be considered duplication, given, in the event of a ‘yes’ vote, a Bill introducing marriage equality would still need to be passed.

The two media releases, issued by the Assistant Minister to the Treasurer, the Hon Alex Hawke MP, calling for Pre-Budget Submissions, both reiterated the “Government’s commitment to restrain expenditure responsibly”.[iii]

It is difficult to think of a more perfect way to ‘restrain expenditure responsibly’ than by avoiding spending $158.4 million on something which is entirely unnecessary in the first place.

Of course, scrapping the marriage equality plebiscite also fits in with the Government’s broader fiscal policy, as outlined in the Mid-year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO), including the “Government’s commitment to returning the budget to a sustainable position and reducing debt over the medium term”[iv].

With an underlying cash deficit estimated at $33.7 billion (or 2% of GDP) in 2016-17 (when such a plebiscite may be held), and net debt now expected to peak at 18.5% of GDP in 2017-18, it is undeniably profligate to spend an extra $158.4 million on a public vote the outcome of which is not even binding on Government MPs. This money would instead be much better used to lower the cash deficit and therefore reduce net Government debt.

Other Budget Rules, contained in the MYEFO, are also relevant to the consideration of whether to allocate money in the 2016-17 Budget to holding a plebiscite on marriage equality.

For example, I note that the MYEFO states: “This strategy sets out that:

  • new spending measures will be more than offset by reductions in spending elsewhere within the budget.”[v]

Given the monies required to hold a marriage equality plebiscite have not been allocated in the Budget to date[vi], that means it would need to be included in the 2016-17 Budget as a ‘new spending measure’ and, according to the Government’s own rules, there must be at least an equivalent amount of reductions in spending elsewhere.

It seems absurd to me that the Government would need to cut $158.4 million in spending on justice, or health, or education, or any number of other areas, simply to hold a plebiscite on something that could be resolved by the Parliament in the ordinary course of business for no extra cost.

If the Government does decide to continue down this path, and makes such cuts in order to fund a marriage equality plebiscite, then in the interests of transparency I urge it to include the details of these cuts in the Budget, linking them to this ‘new spending measure’, thereby allowing Australians to make up their own minds whether these actions meet the stated ‘commitment to restrain expenditure responsibly’.

Of course, if the Government is interested in spending a similar amount of money on issues that affect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians, then I would suggest a variety of different ways in which it could do so that would bring much greater benefit, including:

  • Removing out-of-pocket medical costs for transgender people
  • Ending involuntary surgical procedures on and sterilisation of intersex children
  • Increasing refugee places for LGBTI people fleeing persecution in Syria, Iraq and other countries
  • Funding campaigns aimed at addressing homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia across society and
  • Expanding the ‘safe schools’ program to cover every school in the country.

Even if the Turnbull Government is not interested in funding these programs, it would nevertheless be preferable to use this $158.4 million to reduce overall Government deficit and debt, rather than to waste it on holding an unnecessary, inappropriate and divisive public vote.

Scrapping the marriage equality plebiscite, and holding a parliamentary vote instead, might be the easiest Budget saving any Government could ever hope to make.

Thank you for taking this submission into consideration.

 

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

 

160202 Scott Morrison

Treasurer Scott Morrison, tasked with ‘restrain[ing] expenditure responsibly’. Scrapping the marriage equality plebiscite would be a good place to start.

[i] Media Release “2016-17 Pre-Budget Submissions” 18 December 2015 and Media Release “Deadline for Lodging 2016-17 Pre-Budget Submissions”.

[ii] 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.

[iii] See links to media releases above.

[iv] Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook 2015-16 Part 3: Fiscal Strategy and Outlook.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] “Labor sees a plebiscite-sized hole in the Budget”, Huffington Post, 18 December 2015.

Response to Letter to Malcolm Turnbull About the Marriage Equality Plebiscite

A lot has happened in the 10 days since I first posted my letter to Malcolm Turnbull about the marriage equality plebiscite.

To begin with, a number of Coalition MPs have publicly revealed that, irrespective of the outcome of any plebiscite, they will continue to vote against the equal recognition of LGBTI relationships.

This conservative crusade was led by Senator Eric Abetz who told The Guardian that:

“everyone knows my view is very strongly that a marriage between a man and a woman is the foundational institution for socialising the next generation. And every member of parliament will make up his or her mind after the plebiscite is held. People will take into account the views of the electorate, the views of the nation and their own personal views… There will be people in the parliament who could not support the outcome of a plebiscite whichever way it went.”

His view – that if the voters of Australia supported marriage equality at a plebiscite they could essentially ‘get stuffed’ – was soon supported by both fellow Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi, who told Sky News that “[a] plebiscite is a glorified opinion poll, and no government should be bound by that” and Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie, the latter so committed to opposing LGBTI equality she is willing to deny legal rights to her own brother.

Then, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott (who similarly thinks his own relationship more worthy of recognition that that of his sibling) jetted off to address an audience of homophobes in the US, telling them that:

“[w]e shouldn’t try to change something without understanding it, without grasping why it is one that one man and one woman open to children until just a very few years ago has always been considered the essence of marriage and the heart of family… We can’t shirk our responsibilities to the future, but let’s also respect and appreciate values and institutions that have stood the test of time and pass them on, undamaged, when that’s best. That’s a goal we should all be able to share” [emphasis added].

Despite claiming that he still supports holding a marriage equality plebiscite, it is clear which outcome he wanted, placing into serious doubt his sincerity in introducing legislation following a successful ‘yes’ vote (were he still Prime Minister – a position to which he obviously wishes to return).

The Australian Christian Lobby has also done its job in undermining the credibility of any marriage equality plebiscite, with comments reported by The Guardian that:

“Abbott emerged from that meeting announcing the Coalition had decided to use its numbers to block the introduction into the Australian parliament of yet another bill to change the definition of marriage… Instead, a people’s vote known as a plebiscite would be held sometime after the 2016 election, kicking the issue into the long grass (putting the issue off) and blunting the momentum of same-sex marriage lobbyists” [emphasis added].

Australian Marriage Equality head Rodney Croome, quoted in the same article, quite accurately summed up these developments with the following: “[a]s a policy option, the plebiscite is collapsing under the weight of its own cynicism.”

Indeed, one of the most pleasing aspects of this week’s debate has been the increasing media scrutiny of the proposal to hold a plebiscite on marriage equality, with respected journalists such as Lenore Taylor describing it asdaft and Mark Kenny observing that:

“Malcolm Turnbull’s commitment to the plebiscite can be seen for what it really is: an internal matter – the price of entry to the leadership. Slow and costly… his own credibility with voters is also at stake if he is seen to trade principles in pursuit of power and an easier life.”

The final major development of the past 10 days was yesterday’s (Friday 29 January 2016) announcement by Australian Marriage Equality that it now believes there is majority support for passing majority equality legislation in both houses of parliament – if only the Coalition were willing to grant their MPs and Senators a free vote.

All of which puts the issue of marriage equality squarely in the Prime Minister’s court (the current one, Malcolm Turnbull, not Prime Minister-in-exile Tony Abbott). The original proposal to hold a marriage equality plebiscite may not have been his, but, now that he is in the Lodge, he owns it.

It is up to Malcolm Turnbull to decide whether Australia will be subjected to a pointless plebiscite on this issue. The time has come for him to show whether he is a leader who is strong enough to back a free vote, or whether he is instead prepared to allow this farce to drag on for not just months, but years, solely for reasons of political expediency.

The signs, however, are not good. Turnbull reiterated the Government’s position in support of a plebiscite to 3AW Radio just yesterday, saying it will “absolutely” pass parliament following a successful vote (something which Abetz, Bernardi, McKenzie and others may have more to say about in coming weeks).

Finally, he has responded to my letter to him on this subject – well, sort of anyway. Given he seems to have outsourced his decision-making on marriage equality to his homophobic predecessor Tony Abbott, it is possibly unsurprising, although nevertheless disappointing, that he has outsourced responsibility for answering correspondence regarding the marriage equality plebiscite to Attorney-General Senator George Brandis, who in turn has delegated it to his Department.

Here is the Government’s response to my letter to Malcolm Turnbull about the marriage equality plebiscite:

 

“27 January 2016

 

Mr Alastair Lawrie

[Address withheld]

 

Dear Mr Lawrie

Thank you for your recent correspondence to the Prime Minister, the Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP, about same-sex marriage. Your correspondence was referred to the Attorney-General, Senator the Hon George Brandis QC, as marriage falls within his portfolio responsibilities. The Attorney-General has asked that I reply to you on his behalf.

I appreciate you taking the time to write to the Government on the issue of same-sex marriage and for sharing your personal experiences. It is clear that this issue holds particular significant for you.

The Government appreciates that, like you, many Australians have strong personal views about same-sex marriage. That is why, last year, it was decided that this issue should be resolved through a national vote that gives every Australian the opportunity to have their say.

The Government believes it is thoroughly democratic to ask the Australian people whether the Marriage Act 1961 should be amended to allow for same-sex marriage, provided there are appropriate safeguards in place to protect religious freedom[i].

Although a plebiscite will cost money, the Government is of the view that every Australian should be able to have their say on this important issue.

Thank you for bringing your views to the Government’s attention.

 

Yours sincerely

[Name withheld]

Marriage Law and Celebrants Section”

 

Croome on Plebiscite

 

[i] The reference to “appropriate safeguards in place to protect religious freedom” is obviously of major concern, given the push for exceptions to be granted to civil celebrants and other businesses that supply weddings to allow them to discriminate against LGBTI couples. This is an issue that will be addressed in a future post.

Letter to Malcolm Turnbull About the Marriage Equality Plebiscite

 

The Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP

Prime Minister

PO Box 6022

House of Representatives

Parliament House

Canberra ACT 2600

Wednesday 20 January 2016

 

Dear Prime Minister

Re: Your Proposed Marriage Equality Plebiscite

We don’t personally know each other[i]. Which means that the only things I know about you are what I can glean from the media.

Just over four months into your Prime Ministership, three main themes have emerged:

  1. You’re rich.

Newspaper reports from around the time you deposed Tony Abbott estimated your net worth at $180 million[ii], or ‘conservatively’ at around $200 million[iii].  And you don’t just own a lot of money, you ‘own’ that description too, responding to a question from Tony Burke in Parliament in October with the following:

“… really, if the honourable member wants to go around wearing a sandwich board saying, ‘Malcolm Turnbull’s got a lot of money,’ feel free. I think people know that.”[iv]

  1. You’re Intelligent.

If there’s one thing that even your detractors are compelled to acknowledge, it is that you are not wanting for intelligence. Indeed, there are many people in public life today, no doubt including colleagues of yours, who would like to think that they are smartest person in the room. With you it seems that boast at least has the chance of being correct more often than not.

  1. You’re not Tony Abbott.

As we head into an election year, it is still not entirely clear what the Government you now lead is going to do differently from its first two years in office. What is clear, at least in presentation if not (yet) in substance, is that you are not Tony Abbott.

In fact, some might say you have rather ‘intelligently’ managed to employ that singular qualification – that you are not Tony Abbott – to retake the leadership of the Liberal Party. It also appears to be the primary explanation for why you are currently so far ahead in the polls. Right now, it even looks like you might be able to parlay the truism, that you are not someone else, into winning another term in Government.

If those three characterisations are accurate – you’re rich, you’re intelligent and you’re not Tony Abbott – then my question to you is this: why do you support a plebiscite on marriage equality?

A marriage equality plebiscite is:

  1. Profligate.

It is difficult to imagine a bigger waste of money than holding a plebiscite on this subject, when the logical alternative is introducing it through an ordinary parliamentary vote (in the same way that it was originally banned, by the then Howard Liberal-National Government, in 2004).

The Australian Electoral Commission has estimated that the cost of holding a stand-alone plebiscite would be at least $158.4 million[v]. Well, imagine one of those agile and innovative entrepreneurs (that you love so much) coming to you with the following proposition:

a) You could make this change, for no additional cost, within a month or two, and with minimal disruption to business as usual, or

b) You could instead waste the equivalent of at least three quarters of your personal net worth trying to introduce this reform, take 18 months to 2 years, and ensure there is maximum distraction from everything else you wish to accomplish?

I don’t imagine you accumulated the wealth you have today by choosing a) very often.

  1. Stupid.

What transforms choosing option b), above, from being merely a very poor decision, into an undeniably stupid one, is that even after holding a plebiscite, you will still have to pass marriage equality legislation in parliament anyway.

There is no constitutional reason for holding a public vote on this topic. The High Court has already made it abundantly clear that Commonwealth Parliament has the power to introduce marriage equality – no referendum, or plebiscite, is required.[vi]

Nor is it appropriate to subject the human rights of a minority group to what is essentially a popularity contest, preceded by what will no doubt be a vicious and ugly public debate driven by the homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia of many of those opposed to the legal equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians.

About the only reason anyone has been able to identify for holding a plebiscite on this topic is to try to paper over the cracks of deep division within the Liberal and National Parties – which sounds doesn’t sound like a very intelligent use of $158.4 million of taxpayers’ money to me.

  1. Exactly what Tony Abbott proposed.

The then Prime Minister Tony Abbott put forward the idea of a plebiscite when marriage equality was discussed at the extraordinary joint Liberal-National Party room meeting on 11 August last year.

Forgive me for being cynical for a moment, but here is a man so opposed to the concept of marriage equality that he is comfortable with his own sister being denied the same legal rights he enjoys simply because of her sexual orientation.

So, when Abbott emerged from the Coalition Party room, happy to declare support for a referendum or plebiscite as official Government policy, most LGBTI people saw it as essentially a stalling tactic, as a way to postpone the inevitable for as many years as possible – pushed by a man who, it is fair to say, does not have the best interests of LGBTI Australians at heart.

Indeed, it was reported that you spoke against the proposal for a public vote at that meeting, and told reporters the following day that a parliamentary conscience vote would have been “consistent with Liberal party tradition”, with the additional benefit that:

“One of the attractions of a free vote is that it would have meant the matter would be resolved in this Parliament, one way or another, in a couple of weeks”[vii].

And yet, despite all of this, now that you occupy the top job, you are persisting with your predecessor’s approach, of holding an unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive plebiscite.

On marriage equality, you’re not ‘not Tony Abbott’. On marriage equality, you’re just another Tony Abbott.

**********

I started this letter by saying that we don’t personally know each other. As well as me not knowing you, that means you don’t know me either.

You don’t know that I have been together with my partner, Steven, for seven and a half years.

You don’t know that this coming Saturday, 23 January 2016, will mark the sixth anniversary of our engagement.

And, as someone who has been married to your own partner for almost 36 years, you can’t know what it feels like for successive Governments, Coalition and Labor and Coalition once more, to repeatedly tell you that your relationship is less worthy of recognition than the relationships of other Australians, simply because of who you are.

Steven and I, and tens of thousands of other couples across the country, know the bitter taste that is left in one’s mouth by this abhorrent, and completely unjustified, discrimination.

As Prime Minister of this country, a position that you have coveted for so long, you have the power to change this situation.

You could choose to start 2016 by doing what you know is right – by reverting to the policy position which you supported right up until you assumed your current titular position, and pushing for a parliamentary vote on marriage equality in the coming session.

If you did, marriage equality could be reality in Australia within a matter of months, and you would be remembered as the leader, in the true sense of the word, who helped to finally make it happen.

Or you could instead choose to continue to support a profligate and stupid plebiscite on marriage equality.

In doing so, not only would you be entirely indistinguishable from Tony Abbott on this issue, you would join the long line of other so-called ‘leaders’, from John Howard, to Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott, whom Australians will need to achieve marriage equality in spite of, not because of.

After the last national public vote on an issue in 1999, a certain president of the Australian Republic Movement said of John Howard that:

“History will remember him for only one thing. He was the prime minister who broke this nation’s heart.”[viii]

Well, I won’t be quite so grandiose here but please know this: if you continue to support an unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive plebiscite on marriage equality, some people will remember you for only one thing – and that is for breaking many LGBTI Australians’ hearts, mine included.

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

 

 

151222 Turnbull

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull – on support for a marriage equality plebiscite, he’s indistinguishable from predecessor Tony Abbott.

 

[i] We did sit next to each other, once, at a forum on climate change in the lecture theatre at Parliament House in Canberra, but we weren’t introduced, so I don’t think that counts.

[ii] “The Investments that Built Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s Wealth”, Herald Sun, 18 September 2015

[iii] “So Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is Really, Really, Rich. Get Over It”, Sydney Morning Herald, 25 September 2015, and “Malcolm Turnbull, the Member for Net Worth”, Australian Financial Review, 17 September 2015.

[iv] Hansard, 15 October 2015.

[v] 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

[vi] In the 2013 case overturning the Australian Capital Territory’s same-sex marriage laws, the High Court stated, unequivocally, that: “[w]hen used in s51(xxi), “marriage” is a term which includes a marriage between persons of the same sex.” The Commonwealth v Australian Capital Territory [2013] HCA 55, para 38

[vii] “Turnbull Dismisses Gay Plebiscite”, Perth Now, 12 August 2015.

[viii] “Turnbull Re-Launches Campaign for Australian Republic”, ABC Lateline, 10 May 2013.

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

No Referendum. No Plebiscite. Just Pass the Bill.

The following is my submission to the current Senate Inquiry into whether there should be a referendum or plebiscite into marriage equality. As you can tell from the title of this post, I am strongly against both.

For more information, or to make your own submission, go here: http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Legal_and_Constitutional_Affairs/Marriage_Plebiscite

Committee Secretary

Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee

PO Box 6100

Parliament House

CANBERRA ACT 2600

legcon.sen@aph.gov.au

Saturday 29 August 2015

Dear Committee Members

SUBMISSION TO INQUIRY INTO “THE MATTER OF A POPULAR VOTE, IN THE FORM OF A PLEBISCITE OR REFERENDUM, ON THE MATTER OF MARRIAGE IN AUSTRALIA”

Thank you for the opportunity to provide this submission on the question of whether Australia should hold a ‘public vote’ on the issue of marriage equality, and if so what form and timing such a vote should take.

My overall response to this question is that a marriage equality plebiscite or referendum would be unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive, and therefore should not be held.

My detailed responses to the terms of reference to the inquiry are set out below.

a. An assessment of the content and implications of a question to be put to electors

I believe that a plebiscite or referendum on marriage equality would be unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive, and therefore will not address this term of reference.

b. An examination of the resources required to enact such an activity, including the question of the contribution of Commonwealth funding to the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigns

I believe that a plebiscite or referendum on marriage equality would be unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive, and therefore will not address this term of reference.

c. An assessment of the impact of the timing of such an activity, including the opportunity for it to coincide with a general election

I believe that a plebiscite or referendum on marriage equality would be unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive, and therefore will not address this term of reference.

d. Whether such an activity is an appropriate method to address matters of equality and human rights

It is absolutely inappropriate to use a ‘public vote’ to determine whether all people should be treated equally under the law, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

The recognition of the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians should not be subject to a popularity contest, and only granted if enough people express the view, through such a vote, that we are ‘worthy’.

In circumstances where it is not already formally recognised, the right for all couples to be married under secular law should be recognised in the usual place and in the usual way – in our nation’s parliament.

Turning specifically to the question of a referendum, the High Court has already found that the Commonwealth Parliament has the constitutional power to introduce marriage equality.

In the 2013 case overturning the Australian Capital Territory’s same-sex marriage laws, the High Court stated, unequivocally, that: “[w]hen used in s51(xxi), “marriage” is a term which includes a marriage between persons of the same sex.”[i]

This makes those who argue for a ‘constitutional referendum’ on this subject, or who even suggest that one could be held, seem to be one of two things, either:

  1. Completely lacking in understanding of the Constitution, and the Australian system of government generally (and arguably dangerously ill-informed where such people are current parliamentarians)

Or

  1. Motivated by a desire to block the equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex Australians by whatever means necessary, even by holding an unnecessary referendum, solely because it imposes a higher threshold for success (the requirement to be passed by both a majority of voters, and a majority of voters in a majority of states).

While there are fewer legal arguments against holding a plebiscite on marriage equality, there remain strong reasons why it would be inappropriate.

First, as described above, whether human rights are recognised or not should not be determined through a popularity contest.

Second, the result of any such plebiscite would not be binding on the Parliament, and there would obviously be no requirement for a successful result to be recognised immediately (as demonstrated by the 1977 plebiscite on the national anthem, which was not legislated until 1984).

Third, and related to the above, the suggestion to hold a plebiscite on marriage equality appears to be nothing more than a delaying tactic, designed to hold off the prospect of full equality for LGBTI Australians for at least another term, or more (especially given Prime Minister Abbott has expressed his desire for it to be held after the next federal election, and even then after the referendum on constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians).

Fourth, and finally, it should be noted that the same people who are arguing for a plebiscite now (including Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Deputy Liberal Leader and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Treasurer Joe Hockey) voted against marriage equality in the Parliament in August 2004 and, joined by Social Services Minister Scott Morrison, did so again in September 2012.

At no point did they express the view that parliamentarians voting on marriage equality was somehow inappropriate – at least while the Parliament was voting ‘No’.

Indeed, in May, responding to the Irish marriage equality referendum and rejecting a similar proposal here, Prime Minister Abbott said that: “questions of marriage are the preserve of the Commonwealth Parliament”.[ii]

The only thing that appears to have changed is that, unlike 2004 and 2012, and were a Liberal Party conscience vote to be granted, marriage equality legislation would have a reasonable chance of success in 2015.

Which only makes the decision to reject the concept of a parliamentary vote, in favour of a plebiscite, appear even worse.

It is not just moving the goalposts, it is changing the fundamental rules of the game, to thwart opponents who simply want the right to be treated equally under the law.

It is beyond unreasonable, it is hypocritical and grossly unfair, and should be rejected.

A referendum or plebiscite on marriage equality would also be extraordinarily wasteful.

Public estimates of the cost of holding such a vote (particularly when it is a standalone ballot, which is the preference of Prime Minister Abbott) have put the figure at in excess of $100 million.[iii]

This is extraordinarily expensive, particularly given introducing marriage equality is something that could be done by our nation’s Parliament in the ordinary course of events, at no additional cost to the taxpayer.

Of course, if the Abbott Liberal-National Government genuinely wants to spend $100-150 million on issues of concern to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians, then might I suggest the following:

  • Implementing the reforms recommended by the 2013 Senate Inquiry into the Involuntary or Coerced Sterilisation of Intersex People in Australia, to end this gross violation of human rights
  • Removing out-of-pocket medical expenses for transgender Australians
  • Increasing funding for the Safe Schools Coalition to ensure it reaches students in every school across the country and
  • Funding housing services for LGBTI young people, who are disproportionately affected by homelessness.

All of these suggestions, and indeed a great many others, would be better uses of public monies than throwing millions of dollars away on an unnecessary, inappropriate and wasteful plebiscite or referendum.

In addition to the above reasons, it should also be acknowledged that a public vote on marriage equality has the potential to be incredibly divisive, and therefore dangerous.

This is because any referendum or plebiscite would necessarily stir up homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia in the community, and especially in the media.

We experienced a small taste of what such a debate would look like this week when the Daily Telegraph newspaper devoted its front page, and several pages thereafter, to attacking the idea that students should be exposed to the reality that rainbow families exist, and are normal (with one columnist even ‘bravely’ telling a 12 year old girl that her family was not normal).

The only positive aspect of this outrageous and horrific ‘beat-up’ is that it has gradually receded in prominence, replaced by other stories as part of the regular news cycle.

Unfortunately, the holding of a plebiscite or referendum on marriage equality would all but ensure that such stories were featured prominently for days, weeks or even months on end.

We should not underestimate the damage that such a vote would cause.

Research consistently finds that young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are disproportionately affected by mental health issues, and have substantially higher rates of suicide than their cisgender heterosexual counterparts, with one of the main causes being the discrimination and prejudice to which they are exposed every day.

A bitter and protracted public debate, about whether who they are should be treated equally under the law or not, would inevitably have a significant, negative impact on their mental health.

But they would not be the only ones adversely affected. A nasty campaign against the equality of LGBTI families, which would be an inevitable part of any public vote, would also negatively impact on the wellbeing of the children of these families.

Indeed, nearly all LGBTI Australians would probably be affected in some way by the holding of a public vote to determine whether we should continue to be treated as second class citizens by our own country or not. Such a vote should not be held.

A plebiscite or referendum on marriage equality would be unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive. It should be comprehensively rejected by this Inquiry, and by the Commonwealth Parliament.

e. The terms of the Marriage Equality Plebiscite Bill 2015 currently before the Senate

I believe that a plebiscite or referendum on marriage equality would be unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive.

I therefore call on all Senators to reject the Marriage Equality Plebiscite Bill 2015 currently before the Senate, and to resist any and all attempts to hold a plebiscite or referendum on this subject in the future.

f. Any other related matters

There is absolutely no justification whatsoever to hold a referendum on something which the High Court has already found is within the power of the Commonwealth Parliament.

Nor is there any justification to hold a plebiscite on marriage equality. I am 37 years old, and there has not been a federal plebiscite in my lifetime.

It is bizarre, and offensive, that the first plebiscite since 1977 should be held to determine whether my relationship should be treated equally under the law.

My fiancé Steven and I recently celebrated our 7th anniversary. We have been engaged for more than five and a half years. We, like thousands of other LGBTI couples in Australia, are done waiting.

We have gone to protests, we have written submissions, we have commented in the media, we have patiently (and sometimes less than patiently) campaigned for change.

Finally, when the numbers for reform appear to exist within the Parliament, if not this year then certainly after the 2016 election (irrespective of who wins), Prime Minister Abbott and the Liberal-National Government he leads seek to change the rules.

Despite voting against my equality for more than a decade, without reservation, he and his colleagues now believe that this is not something which can be determined by the Commonwealth Parliament.

Plainly, they are wrong. Marriage equality can and should be passed, in the House of Representatives and the Senate, the same places where it was banned in August 2004.

And, if our current House of Representatives MPs and Senators will not do their job, if they refuse to legislate for the equal right to marry for all Australians irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status, then the Australian people must do their job next year and vote them out. Because LGBTI Australians have waited long enough.

Thank you for taking this submission into consideration.

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

If Prime Minister Tony Abbott, and the Government he leads, will not change the law, then the Australian people must change the Government.

If Prime Minister Tony Abbott, and the Government he leads, will not change the law, then the Australian people must change the Government.

[i] The Commonwealth v Australian Capital Territory [2013] HCA 55, para 38.

[ii] “Gay Marriage Referendum in Australia Dismissed by Tony Abbott”, ABC News Online, 25 May 2015: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-05-24/leaders-dismiss-same-sex-marriage-referendum-in-australia/6493180

[iii] “Williams said the average cost of a referendum was between $100m and $150m outside an election and half that if it was held in conjunction with an election”: “Tony Abbott says no to referendum on same-sex marriage, despite Irish vote”, Guardian Australia, 24 May 2015: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/may/24/tony-abbott-says-no-to-referendum-on-same-sex-marriage-despite-irish-vote