To plebiscite or not to plebiscite? That is the question confronting us right now.
Malcolm Turnbull and his Liberal-National Government won re-election on Saturday July 2, albeit by the narrowest of margins in the House of Representatives. According to their election policy, they will introduce legislation in the second half of 2016 to hold a plebiscite on marriage equality, either in November this year or (more likely in my opinion) in March 2017.
Nevertheless, the picture in the Senate remains less clear, where, with counting continuing, there is a possibility the ALP, Greens and Nick Xenophon Team will collectively hold 38 Senators. All three parties formally support marriage equality and, based on those numbers, would be in a position to block the legislation required to hold the plebiscite.
The question is whether we – the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) community – want them to block the plebiscite or not.
For regular readers of this blog, that question might seem somewhat unexpected. Since it was first announced by then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott in August 2015, I have consistently, and often vociferously, opposed the plebiscite on marriage equality, including by:
- Highlighting that a plebiscite would be unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive
- Demonstrating that the funds required to hold a plebiscite would be better spent elsewhere, and
- Revealing that holding a national public vote on this issue would be truly extraordinary – because it is unprecedented, bizarre, inconsistent and radical.
As someone who has been engaged for more than six years, but who doesn’t want Steve and my right to marry to come at the expense of potential harm to young and vulnerable LGBTIQ people, my personal view would be that we should continue to oppose the plebiscite.
But this issue, whether to block the plebiscite or not, is much bigger than any one individual, or couple – it will affect nearly all members of the LGBTIQ community in some way.
From older couples for whom time may be running out, to younger people who have grown sick and tired of waiting for our politicians to catch up to public opinion, there may be valid arguments to ‘accept’ the plebiscite – if that is indeed the only option now on the table.
On the other hand, many rainbow families legitimately fear the damage that the anticipated homophobic and transphobic campaign by opponents of marriage equality may cause to them and their families. Meanwhile, other members of the LGBTIQ community for whom marriage equality is not a high priority may experience the harms of a plebiscite without enjoying any of the benefits.
For all of these reasons and more, I have decided to conduct a survey of the LGBTIQ community’s opinions about the plebiscite, and what we, as a community, should do next. It will be open from today (Sunday 17 July) for two weeks, closing on Sunday 31 July, and I would really appreciate it if you could take five minutes of your time to express your view:
This survey is now closed.
As you will see in the survey, as well as asking for some optional demographic information (which will help to identify whether there are different opinions within the community on the basis of whether people are LGBTI and/or Q, their relationship status, age and whether or not they have children), the primary question (indeed the only mandatory question) asks participants to choose between the following three options:
- To block the plebiscite, if possible
The ‘if possible’ is added here because the Senate numbers might change in late counting, meaning the plebiscite may proceed regardless of the community’s views. However, assuming Labor, the Greens and Xenophon together reach 38 seats, this option would involve asking these parties to demonstrate their stated support for marriage equality by blocking the plebiscite and instead continuing to push for a parliamentary vote as quickly as possible.
The obvious benefit of this option is it would avoid holding a public vote costing at least $160 million, and almost inevitably preceded by a bitter and nasty campaign against LGBTIQ Australians by the Australian Christian Lobby, Australian Marriage Forum, Marriage Alliance and others.
Nevertheless, there is also a real chance that, once the plebiscite is blocked, Turnbull and his Coalition colleagues refuse to hold any parliamentary vote, meaning the equal recognition of our relationships is delayed until at least 2019 (or beyond). Blocking the plebiscite would also be open to mischaracterisation by our opponents (who could claim we are ‘afraid of democracy’ rather than being genuinely concerned about their hate-mongering).
- To accept the plebiscite, and fight to win
This option doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing that a plebiscite on this issue is desirable. Nevertheless, it would involve pragmatically acknowledging that, following the re-election of the Liberal-National Government, a plebiscite might be the best chance of achieving marriage equality during this term of Parliament.
As discussed earlier, there are risks in this approach. I’m not sure anybody believes Malcolm Turnbull’s naïve statements that the plebiscite debate will be ‘respectful’. As a result, it is highly likely young and vulnerable LGBTIQ people will experience real harm. And, even if we ‘win’ the plebiscite, there is still no guarantee Coalition MPs will actually pass marriage equality (or do so promptly, noting it took seven years for the national anthem plebiscite to be implemented).
But, we also need to consider the fact that there are many couples for whom waiting until 2019 (or beyond) is simply not feasible – a plebiscite might be their only option to legally wed in their own country before one or both passes away. It is, undeniably, a ‘big call’ to block what could be the only way that people who grew up in a different time, and a much less accepting country, might finally be allowed to marry.
- To wait to see the details of the plebiscite
Despite being announced as Liberal-National Party policy more than 11 months ago – and forming part of Turnbull’s re-election platform – there is still a lack of clarity around several key aspects of the proposed marriage equality plebiscite.
For example, it is uncertain what the exact question will be, and it may be more, or less, acceptable depending on the language used (such as whether it refers to same-sex marriage, or marriage between any two adults, or whether it even includes a reference to ‘traditional marriage’?).
The recent election campaign also revealed that there remains internal Coalition disagreement on the measure of ‘success’ – whether a simple majority will be sufficient, or whether it will also be required to be passed by a majority of voters in a majority of electorates (which will obviously be more difficult to achieve).
Finally, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Attorney-General Senator George Brandis have both so far refused to answer questions about the breadth of religious exceptions that may be included in any subsequent Bill to amend the Marriage Act – whether they will only apply to ministers of religion, whether they will also allow civil celebrants to discriminate against LGBTIQ couples, or whether they will attempt to include new ‘special rights’ to discriminate for wedding-related small businesses (eg florists, bakers and photographers etc).
For these reasons, some people might be willing to accept some plebiscites (asking a straightforward question, only requiring a simple majority, and not expanding religious exceptions) but not others, and these people may wish to see the details of any plebiscite before deciding whether it should be blocked or not.
To choose your preferred option, out of the three presented above, please complete the survey here before Sunday 31 July:
This survey is now closed.
I will publish the results of the survey on Sunday 7 August (prior to the return of Commonwealth Parliament). They will inform the advocacy that I undertake on this issue from that point forward. If a clear majority of respondents favour blocking the plebiscite then I will continue to strongly campaign against it.
On the other hand, and despite any personal misgivings, if the majority of the LGBTIQ community believes this is something that, while not desirable, is ‘the pragmatic choice’, then I will turn my energies and efforts toward helping the ‘Yes’ case to succeed. [Of course, if the community is almost evenly divided on this question, then that decision becomes much more complicated].
Finally, I expect some opponents of marriage equality may query whether, by conducting my own survey of LGBTIQ community opinion about this topic, I am in effect endorsing the Turnbull Government’s proposal to hold its own national opinion poll. Pre-empting this criticism, I would note the following:
- This survey will not cost more than $160 million to hold (or the equivalent of charging every Australian voter $10 to take part)
- There is no easily-identifiable alternative to conducting this survey (unlike the plebiscite, which could be avoided by Parliament simply doing its job and voting on – and hopefully passing – legislation, potentially within a matter of weeks)
- Conducting this survey will not lead to community division, and will not cause substantial harm to young and vulnerable LGBTIQ people, and
- This survey poses a question of process – asking LGBTIQ people, who are the group with the most to win (marriage equality) and lose (through the expected homophobic and transphobic campaign by our opponents) from a plebiscite, for their preferred way to achieve equal relationship recognition. It is not asking all Australians – many of whom will not be significantly affected by marriage equality either way, and none of whom will experience any adverse impacts due to its passage – whether the relationships of LGBTIQ people are valid or otherwise.
This survey is now closed.