The robo-debt letter that should be sent

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

**********

 

Dear Liberal and National Senators and Members of Parliament,

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Grievance procedures

 

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

 

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

 

You should also consider yourselves lucky.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Sincerely,

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

 

Parliament House

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

warren-entsch

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

**********

 

Footnotes:

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

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

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

Malcolm Turnbull’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.

What does Malcolm Turnbull want his legacy to be?

It’s time for Malcolm Turnbull to seriously consider what he wants his legacy to be.

 

That might sound premature to some, especially given that tomorrow (Monday 14 March 2016) it will be only six months since he replaced Tony Abbott as Leader of the Liberal Party. Tuesday, the clichéd ‘Ides of March’, is the six-month anniversary of his official swearing in.

 

However, in the life of an Australian Prime Minister, six months is not an insignificant period of time. Indeed, for many, six months is a considerable slice of their term.

 

In the just over 70 years since World War II, Malcolm Turnbull is the 15th person to ascend to our top job. The average term in office – even including the 16-year rule of Robert Menzies[i] – is less than five years. In fact, only four Prime Ministers[ii] in those seven decades have even made it to the five-year mark, while six ended up serving less than three years.

 

The pace of turnover of Prime Ministers also appears to be accelerating – in the 11 years since Turnbull entered Parliament, he is now the fifth Prime Minister (with one of those, Kevin Rudd, even having two non-consecutive turns).

 

Based on the above, six months is likely to represent at least 10% of Turnbull’s entire term in office, and probably more.

 

In fact, there are reasons to believe Turnbull’s stay in the Lodge might be shorter than the average. For example, he is third oldest person to ever be first sworn in as Prime Minister (and the two who were older[iii] served for a combined period of less than two years).

 

It is also reasonable to describe Turnbull’s support inside the Parliamentary Liberal Party as somewhat tenuous. His first stint as Leader, while in Opposition, lasted less than 15 months. And, even after two years of the worst Prime Minister in living memory, he only defeated Tony Abbott by 54 votes to 44 last September (and which was only moderately better than the 39 votes cast for an ‘empty chair’[iv] in the February 2015 spill motion against Abbott).

 

With a switch of just six votes needed to reverse that result (whether to Abbott, who clearly remains interested in returning, or another candidate from the conservative wing of the Liberals) it should be noted that a sizeable majority of Liberal MPs in marginal seats voted for Turnbull[v], meaning that any loss of seats at the upcoming 2016 election would leave him more vulnerable to a challenge from inside the Government.

 

Of course, if the current level of in-fighting and disorganisation within the Coalition continues, there is also the small but real chance of the Government being voted out, cutting Turnbull’s term short at 12 months or less.

 

This thought – that, after just six months, it is time to start seriously considering his legacy – might be confronting for Turnbull, but he should console himself with the knowledge that, for most of his contemporaries, substantial elements of their legacies were built during their first year in office.

 

Kevin Rudd gave the apology to the Stolen Generations after less than three months in the role. He is also most commonly remembered for his response to the Global Financial Crisis, which reached its peak in September and October 2008 – again, less than 12 months from his election win on November 24 2007.

 

In Julia Gillard’s case, the announcement of the ‘carbon pricing mechanism’ (forever dubbed the carbon tax) was made on February 24 2011, exactly eight months after she ousted Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister.

 

The National Disability Insurance Scheme is also seen as a key part of her legacy – and, while the legislation that gave it effect was not introduced until late 2012, the Productivity Commission report which preceded it was already two months into its work before Gillard even became PM[vi].

 

Tony Abbott continues to assert that his first Budget – the ‘horror’ 2014-15 Budget, more widely known for its unfairness– is a key part of his legacy[vii], and that was handed down just eight months into his term. His more trivial – but just as infamous – ‘captain’s call’ to reintroduce knights and dames happened two months earlier.

 

Even in the case of John Howard, who, given he served as Prime Minister for more than 11 years and therefore has a long and highly-contested ‘legacy’, there is probably only one key positive achievement about which almost all parts of the political spectrum agree[viii] – his gun law reforms following the Port Arthur Massacre[ix], which itself occurred less than two months after he swept to power.

 

Six months into his own term as Prime Minister, it is hard to pin down exactly what Malcolm Turnbull’s key achievement or achievements have been (other than the initial, widespread feeling of ‘relief’ which many Australians experienced after he deposed Abbott). Different language has been used, including much talk of ‘agility’ and ‘innovation’ and ‘excitement’, but new ideas or policies? Not so much.

 

That situation will change, to some extent, over the coming months, as Turnbull and Treasurer Scott Morrison put together their first Budget – to be delivered in early May (either May 10th, or 3rd if, as is now widely expected, they head to a double dissolution poll on July 2). There is obviously intense pressure on them both to set out their platform for the campaign ahead in that document.

 

But there is an even earlier opportunity for Malcolm Turnbull to establish his legacy as Prime Minister. Two closely-linked opportunities, in fact: the decision on what to do with the Safe Schools program, and the choice whether or not to proceed with a plebiscite on marriage equality.

 

Both of these issues will come to a head in the coming week. The independent review of the Safe Schools program, instigated following the internal revolt by the likes of Cory Bernardi in the Coalition Party room meeting on 23 February, was expected to be handed to the Commonwealth Department of Education on Friday 11 March[x].

 

While it may be another week or two before the Government announces its response to that review, you can guarantee they will be discussing it internally during the week ahead (it’s also highly likely to be debated again in the Coalition Party room meeting on Tuesday, the second-last such meeting before a potential ‘double D’-election).

 

Lenore Taylor has also reported that the proposal for a plebiscite on marriage equality will be considered in detail by the Turnbull Cabinet this week[xi].

 

While the plebiscite was first adopted as Coalition policy under then Prime Minister Abbott on 11 August last year, this will be the main, Cabinet-level discussion of the process required to hold one – the question to be asked, expected timing (which, depending on who you listen to, may or may not be before the end of 2016), the estimated cost (likely upwards of $160 million[xii]), public funding of the yes and no cases, compulsory or voluntary voting and the supporting legislation.

 

Again, it is possible that the marriage equality plebiscite proposal will also be discussed at the Coalition Party room meeting on Tuesday morning (it will be interesting to see whether this one also takes six hours, especially given how much Liberal and National Party MPs appear to enjoy discussing LGBTI issues).

 

Obviously, the approaches that Turnbull, and his Liberal-National Government, adopts on these two issues this week will be a key part of his personal legacy for LGBTI Australians. Both decisions will have direct, and long-lasting, impacts on literally hundreds of thousands of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, their children, and their families and friends.

 

On Safe Schools, Turnbull will choose between defending a program developed to combat homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic bullying of LGBTI students, thereby reducing the all-too-frequent tragedy of LGBTI youth suicide – or giving in to bullies, like the Australian Christian Lobby, and The Australian newspaper, who it seems would much prefer enforced silence about LGBTI issues in the classroom, and the schoolyard, to the detriment of children with diverse sexual orientations, gender identities or intersex characteristics.

 

The consequences of this choice – whether a school is genuinely inclusive, or a vacuum allowing intolerance and discrimination to fester – can and will have lifelong impacts on the students who receive, or miss out on, programs like Safe Schools as a result.

 

On marriage equality, too, the impacts of Turnbull’s imminent decision will be profoundly felt, not only by LGBTI Australians, but also by the children of rainbow families.

 

As has been made clear by Australian Marriage Equality[xiii], if Malcolm Turnbull implemented the policy position that he held before becoming Prime Minister – of supporting a ‘free’ or conscience vote – then we could have marriage equality legislation passed by the end of this week.

 

But, if he persists with what was originally Tony Abbott’s plebiscite – but which is now most definitely his – not only will he be wasting at least $160 million on something which is completely unnecessary and inappropriate, he will also be causing real harm to LGBTI Australians, and our kids, by ensuring that there will be a protracted, bitter, and downright nasty campaign leading up to the vote.

 

The Australian Christian Lobby, both with its past actions (including repeated suggestions that gay and lesbian parenting creates another Stolen Generation[xiv]), and its recent call for state and territory anti-discrimination laws to be suspended for the duration of the campaign[xv], have effectively guaranteed it.

 

And, even if the marriage equality plebiscite is successful, it will still be at least another 12 – and possibly up to 18 or even 24 – months before Australian couples will finally be able to wed in their own country, with some elderly couples sadly, but inevitably, passing away before they can tie the knot.

 

However, while the impact of these decisions will be most keenly felt by LGBTI people, young and old, and their children, I would argue they will define Malcolm Turnbull’s legacy much more broadly. This is because his approach to Safe Schools, and the plebiscite, will tell us a lot about who he is as a Prime Minister, what type of Government he leads, and ultimately about his vision for Australia.

 

In terms of who Malcolm Turnbull is as Prime Minister, he would like most people, and especially the ‘persuadables’ in the electorate, to believe he is still the leather jacket-clad QandA panellist, with views that are more moderate than most of the members of his party – believing in climate change, supporting a republic, and wanting to be the leader who finally introduces marriage equality.

 

Deep down, I’m sure Turnbull would love to be the ‘cool’ Prime Minister who attends the 2017 Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras parade, claiming credit for removing discrimination from the Marriage Act 1961, receiving the passionate support, even adulation, from sections of the crowd in return.

 

But, if he caves in to the deeply homophobic and transphobic campaign against Safe Schools, led by the vitriolic and hateful scare-mongering of the Australian Christian Lobby and others, and if he continues to support an unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive marriage equality plebiscite, then not only will Malcolm Turnbull fail to be the Leader that he thinks he is (or at least wants to be) – he will become exactly the same type of Leader as the one he replaced.

 

By endorsing the attack on Safe Schools, and persisting with the plebiscite, Turnbull would show that there is no core belief that he will not jettison, no principle he is not prepared to compromise, in his quest to remain Prime Minister of Australia for as long as possible. The Opposition critique of him – that he is just Tony Abbott in a more expensive suit – will be more than justified.

 

And, by ensuring that it will be the public’s vote that finally achieves equality in relationship recognition in Commonwealth law, and not his own vote in Parliament, he will simply become another politician whom we had to win marriage equality in spite of, and not because of[xvi].

 

How Turnbull handles the decisions on Safe Schools, and the plebiscite, will also reveal a great deal about the type of Government he leads.

 

Is it a Government that represents, and serves the interests of, all Australians? Does it believe that the real and urgent needs of young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people are worthy of attention, and above all action? Does it think that people should not be legally discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity of intersex status?

 

Or is it a Government that represents, and serves the interests of, cisgender heterosexual Australians only? Does it believe that the pressing needs of young LGBTI people can simply be ignored? Does it think that the relationships of LGBTI Australians are genuinely lesser than those of other people, and therefore should be treated as such?

 

Turnbull has so far studiously avoided having to address this deep divide inside the Liberal-National Coalition. On Safe Schools, rather than reject the campaign against the program outright, he simply passed the buck to an independent review – thereby encouraging the attack to continue.

 

And, instead of directly reprimanding MPs like George Christensen and Andrew Hastie, who have compared Safe Schools to ‘grooming’[xvii] and George Orwell’s Big Brother[xviii] respectively, Turnbull offered a meek, generic statement saying “I encourage everybody who is discussing these issues to do so in very measured language… and to consider very carefully the impact of the words they use on young people and on their families.”[xix]

 

On marriage equality, he has again chosen not to upset the applecart, instead leaving in place Tony Abbott’s preferred option – a plebiscite – despite the insistence of multiple members of his own Government that they will not be bound by any ‘yes’ vote[xx], thus rendering the entire exercise pointless.

 

Well, on both of these issues, he can no longer kick those proverbial cans any further down the road. This week, in Cabinet and most likely in the Party room too, Malcolm Turnbull will need to decide what type of Government he wants to lead – and then he will need to argue for it, in the face of likely fierce criticism from Liberal and National MPs who do not now, and likely will not ever, support LGBTI equality, possibly at the cost of their ongoing support for his leadership.

 

Ultimately, how Malcolm Turnbull approaches the Safe Schools debate, and the marriage equality plebiscite, in the next few weeks will tell us whether he has what Keating would describe as ‘the vision thing’.

 

Does Malcolm Turnbull have a vision of a better Australia, where young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people can grow up happy and healthy, attending schools where they are free to be who they are, respected and accepted?

 

Does he see a future where all relationships are treated equally irrespective of the sexual orientations, gender identities or intersex statuses of the people involved, and is he prepared to actually do something to make that future a reality?

 

Does Malcolm Turnbull show, in who he is and how he governs, that he has the interests of all of us, including LGBTI Australians, at heart?

 

Or does his vision only extend as far as what is required to keep him in the Prime Ministership, the role that he has clearly coveted for so long?

 

That might sound harsh, and to some even potentially unfair, but that is what I believe is at stake in the next few weeks as Turnbull decides what to do on the Safe Schools program, and on the marriage equality plebiscite.

 

One final comment – some might argue that, given it is not Malcolm Turnbull who is leading the attacks on Safe Schools, and it was not his proposal to hold a plebiscite on marriage equality, assessing his ‘legacy’ on how he approaches these issues is unjustified.

 

To which I would respond with two observations. First, he is the Prime Minister, and the campaign against Safe Schools is happening on his watch, including by members of his own Government, which makes his response to this issue extremely relevant to how we assess his performance.

 

And, while the marriage equality plebiscite might not have originally been his idea, if he chooses to proceed with it, at enormous cost, both financially, and psychologically in the harm it will cause to LGBTI Australians and their children, it will very much be his responsibility.

 

Second, John Howard did not ‘choose’ gun control to be his legacy, nor did Kevin Rudd ‘choose’ for the GFC to dominate his first term agenda, and Julia Gillard certainly did not ‘choose’ for her stint as Prime Minister to include such a large focus on climate change.

 

They were responding to events that were not of their own making – Port Arthur, global markets, and even the hung parliament. But how they responded to these things is what made them Leaders – and that is why we remember these achievements as part of their legacies.

 

Malcolm Turnbull did not choose for the attack on Safe Schools, nor did he choose Tony Abbott’s plebiscite. But, how the Government approaches these issues is now within his control as Prime Minister – and it is up to him how he chooses to exercise that power.

 

Does Malcolm Turnbull choose to support Safe Schools or does he side with those who have campaigned against it? Does he proceed with a plebiscite on marriage equality, even when he knows it is unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive? In short, what does Malcolm Turnbull want his legacy to be?

 

151222 Turnbull

For Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, it’s time to turn his mind to how he will want to be remembered.

 

[i] Although this also includes the three-week term of John McEwen.

[ii] Robert Menzies, Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke and John Howard.

[iii] John McEwen and William McMahon.

[iv] The Australian, Last Post, February 10 2015.

[v] The New Daily, “Why Turnbull could win the election – and still lose”, March 8 2016.

[vi] The Productivity Commission started its work in April 2010, and released the Disability Care & Support Final Report in August 2011.

[vii] The Australian, “Tony Abbott: My legacy the key to victory at next election”, September 26, 2015. Quote from Mr Abbott: “You can always dispute the marketing… but the 2014 Budget was a very serious structural attempt to tackle our long-term spending problems.”

[viii] Outside of ‘gun nuts’, and the accidental Liberal Democrat Senator, David Leyonhjelm.

[ix] Howard’s gun law reforms, and gun ‘buyback’, even has international admirers, as demonstrated by the 2013 segment by John Oliver on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart (as reported here: Sydney Morning Herald, “US Show Uses Howard to Embarrass Gun Lobby”, April 22, 2013).

[x] Gay News Network, “Government Comment on Safe Schools Report Not Expected for 1-2 Weeks”, 11 March 2016.

[xi] Guardian Australia, “Coalition to finalise marriage equality plebiscite details as July election looms”, March 8 2016.

[xii] See “7 Better Ways to Spend $158.4 million”.

[xiii] Sydney Morning Herald, “Majority of MPs would back marriage equality”, January 30, 2016.

[xiv] Guardian Australia, “Q&A Recap: Lyle Shelton locks horns with panel on marriage equality”, 1 March 2016.

[xv] ABC News, “Same-sex marriage plebiscite: Christian lobby group wants ‘override’ of anti-discrimination laws during campaign”, 16 February 2016.

[xvi] For more, see: “Letter to Malcolm Turnbull about the Marriage Equality Plebiscite”.

[xvii] Buzzfeed Australia, This MP Just Compared the Safe Schools Coalition to ‘Grooming’”, 25 February 2016.

[xviii] From Mr Hastie, the Member for Canning’s, Facebook page: “George Orwell foresaw where the abandonment of reason can lead society: to a world devoid of compassion and empathy for those who disagree with us. All that is left is raw power. As Orwell wrote, without reason and charity in our public debate there will be nothing left but “the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.”

[xix] ABC News, “Safe schools: Turnbull warns MPs over language used in debate”, February 26 2016.

[xx] Guardian Australia, “Eric Abetz: Coalition MPs will not be bound by plebiscite on marriage equality”, January 27 2016.

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