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