UPDATE 23 June 2016:
On Monday June 20, I received the following response from the Liberal Campaign Headquarters to my letter to the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, calling for him to abandon the unnecessary, wasteful and divisive plebiscite on marriage equality:
“Campaign Support (Liberal Party of Australia)
Jun 20, 18:10 AEST
Dear Mr Lawrie,
The Turnbull Government believes that a decision on same-sex marriage should be made by a vote by all Australians via a plebiscite as soon as possible after the election.
The Prime Minister has publicly supported same sex marriage for a long time and will be voting in favour of same sex marriage.
If the majority of Australians vote ‘yes’ in the plebiscite, the Parliament should respect that decision and legalise same-sex marriage in Australia.
Thank you for taking the time to write.”
It is perhaps unsurprising that, given the brevity of this response, what it doesn’t say is just as interesting as what it does.
Specifically, the email does not include ANY qualifications about what would constitute a majority – all it says is “if the majority of Australians vote ‘yes’ in the plebiscite, the Parliament should respect that decision and legalise same-sex marriage in Australia.”
Indeed, that is exactly the same language used by the Liberal-National Coalition in their response to the pre-election survey by LGBTI organisations across the country (for more, see #rainbowvotes).
In the last few days, there have been multiple reports (on The Stirrer, on samesame.com.au and in crikey) highlighting the possibility some conservative Liberal and National MPs might seek to sabotage the outcome of a plebiscite by imposing additional requirements for ‘success’ – for example, that it would need to be supported by a majority of people, AND in a majority of electorates.
In fact, it is almost inevitable that the likes of Cory Bernardi and Eric Abetz will try, and there must be a real risk that they will succeed.
But, the response from Liberal Campaign HQ – both to my letter, and to the #rainbowvotes survey – means that, if Malcolm Turnbull and his Government are re-elected, and then seek to include any additional hurdles whatsoever to the passage of the marriage equality plebiscite, they will be nothing short of liars.
For a range of reasons (including that, if there is a change of Government on July 2, the plebiscite can still be avoided), I hope we don’t find out –but if we do, and the requirement of a majority of votes in a majority of electorates is imposed, then ‘dishonest’ will be one more adjective we can use to describe the disappointing prime ministership of one Malcolm Bligh Turnbull.
Full Title: Dear Malcolm Turnbull, You can take my $10 and shove it… into the hands of someone who needs it. You can give me my rights for free, and in doing so spare Australia a divisive and harmful plebiscite campaign.
The Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP
Prime Minister of Australia
PO Box 6022
House of Representatives
Canberra ACT 2600
Thursday June 16 2016
Dear Mr Turnbull
You can take my $10 and shove it… into the hands of someone who needs it
I am writing to you once again on a subject I have previously written to you about[i].
Specifically, I am writing one last time in the hope you might abandon your Government’s proposal to hold an entirely unnecessary, fundamentally wasteful and inevitably divisive and harmful plebiscite on marriage equality should you win re-election on 2 July.
I call on you to demonstrate the leadership on this issue that, so far, has been lacking. Please drop the proposed plebiscite, and commit to passing marriage equality in the ‘ordinary way’: through a parliamentary vote.
A marriage equality plebiscite is entirely unnecessary
Given you have previously argued before the High Court, I know you can read a court decision. In which case, I am sure you are aware the High Court has already conclusively found[ii] that Commonwealth Parliament has the power to introduce marriage equality. There is absolutely no need to hold a referendum or plebiscite on this topic.
Indeed, holding a national public vote on such an issue, where constitutional change is not required, is almost unprecedented in our nation’s history[iii] – the last time a plebiscite was held on a substantive matter of public policy was 99 years ago (the second plebiscite on conscription during World War I).
Even if you haven’t familiarised yourself with the Court’s decision, or the history of plebiscites in this country, you have been a Member of Parliament since late 2004, just months after then Prime Minister John Howard passed legislation to deny lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians the right to marry simply because of who they are.
Since then, there have been several further parliamentary votes on this issue, including the last major vote in September 2012, when, with the exception of one Senator, the Liberal and National Parties again collectively voted to deny equal rights to LGBTI people.
It seems extraordinary to me, and to a large number of other Australians, that Coalition MPs and Senators are comfortable in using their position in parliament to reject the human rights to fellow citizens but insist on holding a plebiscite before they will use that exact same power to allow LGBTI people to wed the person they love.
A marriage equality plebiscite is fundamentally wasteful
As confirmed in the Federal Budget on 3 May, you and your Government have set aside $160 million to hold the marriage equality plebiscite[iv]. With some decisions yet to be made (including whether there will be public funding for ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigns), the final cost could turn out to be even higher.
For context, the Australian Electoral Commission has announced that there are 15,676,659 Australians enrolled to vote at this year’s election[v].
In other words, it is your policy to charge every Australian voter $10 for the ‘privilege’ of returning to the polls less than 12 months later to vote on something your Government could pass in a matter of weeks, for no cost.
That is incredibly wasteful, especially at a time of ongoing Budget deficits and with both Labor and the Coalition now forecasting a ‘return to surplus’ in 2020-21 (at the earliest).
Of course, for many people $10 remains a lot of money and it would be preferable to leave this money in the hands of voters rather than spend it on something as entirely unnecessary as a plebiscite on marriage equality.
But, if you remain committed to spending this $160 million, there is a very long list of better ways to allocate these funds[vi], including:
- Programs to alleviate poverty and homelessness
- Funding more nurses
- Funding more teachers
- Undoing cuts to foreign aid or
- Supporting the resettlement of refugees from Syria and Iraq.
It would be remiss of me not to also mention that the amount of money you currently plan to waste on this plebiscite is twenty times the funding which was allocated to Safe Schools ($8 million over four years), a vital program to address homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia, and one your Government has announced will have its funding cut in 2017[vii].
So, as someone who can afford to pay the $10 but who fundamentally disagrees with your proposed plebiscite, I implore you: please take my money and give it back to the people who need it, or spend it on something worthwhile, not on an exercise that could be avoided simply by parliamentarians doing their jobs.
A marriage equality plebiscite will inevitably be divisive – and harmful
There is one aspect of a plebiscite that is already crystal clear, beyond any doubt whatsoever – and that is it will be incredibly divisive. The reason I can say that with such confidence is the behaviour of one organisation that will play a central role in publicly advocating a ‘No’ vote: the Australian Christian Lobby.
Not only have they argued for anti-discrimination and anti-vilification laws to be suspended for the duration of any campaign[viii] (which, logically, would only be necessary if they intended to breach them), ACL ‘homophobe-in-chief’ Lyle Shelton has repeatedly demonstrated his willingness to denigrate the lives and relationships of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians.
This includes recent comments linking Safe Schools and marriage equality to the rise of Nazism[ix], as well as his repeated suggestions[x] that same-sex parenting would create a new ‘Stolen Generation’ – statements that are at once offensive to both rainbow families and to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
An extended national debate during which groups like the Australian Christian Lobby, and individuals like Mr Shelton, would be granted a ‘megaphone’ to express their views will inevitably cause harm, in at least two profound ways:
- First, it will create an environment of division, hatred and fear in which violent attacks on LGBTI people become more likely.
Just this week, we have seen the terrible consequences of widespread and systemic homophobia, in the tragic deaths of at least 49 LGBT people in an Orlando nightclub. But violence based on prejudice, even on a much smaller scale, can still be devastating for the people affected.
Earlier this year, a man who lives nearby to my fiancé and me, in inner-city Sydney, was ‘gay-bashed’ twice in one night. Once, by a group of people on the street. And then a second time, by a so-called ‘good Samaritan’, who helped him back to his apartment block but then, upon discovering there was a boyfriend rather than a girlfriend waiting upstairs, turned around and said “you’re one of those fags ya f**king queer c**t” before hitting him in the face again.[xi]
If this is the level of verbal and physical violence that is happening in 2016 in ‘our’ Australia, the country that you and I both call home, then I shudder to think what will happen after three, six or even 12 months of homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic hate-speech is inflicted upon the population.
- Second, it will lead to, or exacerbate existing, mental health issues among young and vulnerable LGBTI people.
There is also absolutely no doubt that subjecting young and vulnerable LGBTI people to months and months of negative public debate, in the political sphere and in the media, will cause harm.
They will hear people and groups repeatedly saying that LGBTI Australians do not deserve to be treated equally under the law simply because of who they are. That they should not have children simply because of who they are. That their relationships are lesser simply because of who they are.
For months and months, young and vulnerable LGBTI people will be told that they are lesser simply because of who they are. This campaign will have an adverse impact on the mental health of many – far, far too many – Australians.
I know because I am one of the many who have experienced depression because of the homophobic environment in which they grew up. Yes, there were multiple sources of that homophobia – including the religious boarding school I attended, and the discriminatory attitudes of my conservative parents (although, thankfully, my family ‘got better’).
But the homophobic comments in political debate, and the media, were one factor that definitely contributed to my depression. And I weep for the 12 year-old boy today, still discovering who he is, and then discovering that who he is, and who he loves, isn’t accepted by significant sections of the community.
Even though there will obviously be many other voices in the plebiscite campaign telling him that who he is is okay, if he is anything like I was back then, he will just hear the criticisms. Only the homophobic barbs will pierce that firmly-shut closet door, exacerbating the fear and isolation he already feels.
What he needs to hear is much less homophobia, not more – and particularly not months and months of vitriol from organisations whose primary concern is to ensure he never enjoys the same rights as his cisgender heterosexual peers.
You might think a ‘Yes’ vote for marriage equality at a plebiscite will be a unifying national moment, a genuine celebration of inclusiveness – and, should it succeed, there will certainly be elements of that.
But I will instead remember the young and vulnerable LGBTI people harmed by the divisive debate that preceded it, including those that tragically never make it to see their country accept them, and others who will be left scarred for years or even decades afterwards by the hateful comments a plebiscite will stir up.
As you can see from the above discussion, I sincerely believe that a marriage equality plebiscite is not just entirely unnecessary, and fundamentally wasteful, it will also inevitably be divisive.
But it is not inevitable per se. As Prime Minister you have the power to stop this harmful exercise, and instead ensure marriage equality is passed in exactly the same way it was banned by John Howard back in August 2004 – via legislation.
I acknowledge that changing this policy involves standing up to, and in some cases upsetting, some of your colleagues within the Liberal and National Parties. But showing leadership in this way would also be warmly welcomed by many more people across Australia, none more than members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex communities, and our families and friends.
And so, I tell you for the final time:
You can take my $10 and shove it… into the hands of someone who needs it. You can give me my rights for free, and in doing so spare Australia a divisive and harmful plebiscite campaign.
All it takes is leadership, from you. Are you willing to show any?
If this post has raised any issues for you, you can contact:
- QLife, Australia’s national telephone and web counselling and referral service for LGBTI people. Freecall: 1800 184 527, Webchat qlife.org.au (3pm-midnight everyday)
- Lifeline: 13 11 14, lifeline.org.au
[ii] The Commonwealth v Australian Capital Territory  HCA 55
[iv] Media Release: Attorney-General’s Portfolio Budget Measures 2016-17, 3 May 2016.
[viii] Sydney Morning Herald, “Christian Lobby seeks anti-discrimination override for plebiscite campaign”, 16 February 2016.
[ix] Sydney Morning Herald, “Australian Christian Lobby likens gay marriage and safe schools to unthinkable Nazi atrocities”, 31 May 2016.
[x] Sydney Morning Herald, “Senator Wong condemns Christian Lobby’s stolen generations comment”, 21 May 2013 and
Sydney Morning Herald, “Q&A debate flares over claims same-sex marriage will lead to new stolen generation”, 1 March 2016.
[xi] Daily Telegraph, “Gay man bashed twice in Waterloo: I’ve never been so scared in my life and thought I would die”, 23 February 2016.