Don’t fear the people
A plebiscite will confirm the Australian public’s support for marriage equality and marginalise bigots

Image: ACL

When Tony Abbott proposed a plebiscite on equal marriage last year, it was quite obvious that he intended a popular vote as a dodge, a stalling mechanism to defer reform while his conservatives allies figured out how to derail it entirely. In that context, progressives were right to reject the idea and demand immediate parliamentary action instead.

But that was then and this is now. According to Michelle Grattan, the Greens and Labor are currently contemplating preventing a plebiscite from getting off the ground, even if by so doing they delay the achievement of equal marriage. That’s a very strange position for progressives to take – and one with potentially disastrous consequences.

Yesterday, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews published an eloquent open letter to Malcolm Turnbull arguing against a plebiscite. In particular, Andrews claimed that allowing a popular vote would lead to bigotry:

This plebiscite will hurt people. It will legitimise a hateful debate which will subject LGBTI Australians to publicly funded slurs and denigration, further alienating a proud community who have fought so hard against prejudice for so long.

This argument is widely and sincerely believed to be true, and thus deserves serious consideration. But it’s by no means as self-evidently valid as its proponents think.

Why should we assume that an exclusively parliamentary debate (which is the alternative to a plebiscite) would be more successful in marginalising homophobes?

Let’s recall that it’s because of parliament that the main organisations campaigning against equality enjoy such a remarkably high profile.

The Australian Christian Lobby provides the best example. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the ACL owes its current stature to prolonged pandering by both Labor and Liberal politicians. Since the mid-2000s, prime ministers from both parties have attended its events and addressed its concerns, with even the famously atheist Julia Gillard sitting down for a long interview with ACL head Jim Wallace and telling him that her “values were formed in a strong family, in a family that went to church”.

The ACL’s proximity to politicians allows it to present itself as the voice of the mainstream, the champion of suburban mums and dads. During a parliamentary debate about equal marriage, we would thus expect the ACL to feature in the media denouncing marriage equality as a fashionable agenda championed by unrepresentative inner city elites. We’d hear that marriage reform doesn’t interest real Australians; we’d be told that real Australians passionately oppose any change. These are the traditional (and entirely contradictory) arguments by which homophobia has been legitimised.

What would happen during a plebiscite?

Only about 8% of Australians regularly attend services of worship – and not all of those are Christian. Christianity comes, in any case, in many different shapes and sizes. Repeated surveys have shown that, contrary to what the ACL would have us believe, the majority of Christians actually support same-sex marriage.

A popular vote would thus reveal that the emperor has no clothes; that, rather than representing the silent majority, the ACL represents almost no-one at all.

For years now, every poll shows that, if given the chance, Australians would vote in large numbers for equality. That’s why, rather than legitimising hatred, a plebiscite would delegitimise the haters. It would show that bigots who claim the mantle of “normalcy” are, in reality, extraordinarily isolated. It would reveal equality not as some zany idea imposed on Australia by latte sipping elitists and out-of-touch members of the political class but as a principle actively embraced by the majority of ordinary people.

In his letter, Andrews refers to a plebiscite as “divisive”. But, in the context of establishing equality, a certain kind of division is all to the good. An overwhelming demonstration of support for equal marriage will publicly divide the homophobes from everyone else. That’s a good thing. We’re happy to isolate racists: we should be equally glad to marginalise other bigots.

The great advantage of a plebiscite is that it would serve as an official illustration of the extent to which popular sentiment has changed. After a purely parliamentary vote, homophobes might still console themselves by thinking that they were defeated by politicians, not by the people. A plebiscite will take that away. It will prove that their agenda no longer has support; it diminishes the acceptability of homophobia.

Recall the scenes of jubilation in 2015 when Ireland voted for marriage equality. The revelation that ordinary people supported reform fundamentally shifted the self-perception of a nation once assumed to be deeply socially conservative. A legislative change made purely by professional politicians would not have produced the same effect as a result owned by the voters themselves.

Certainly, during a campaign before a plebiscite, some anti-equality activists might proselytise bigotry. But hardcore homophobes have never ceased their homophobia. In a parliamentary vote, they can appeal surreptitiously to the prejudices of individual parliamentarians. In a plebiscite, by contrast, they must attempt to win a majority through public arguments, something that makes overt hatred substantially less likely.

In his letter, Andrews warns about to the cost of a plebiscite: “$160 million of taxpayers’ money”. But all the trappings of democracy have a price tag: if we reverted to the divine right of kings, we could save the entire expense associated with elections. But a nation that merrily allocates half a billion dollars to commemorating the centenary of Gallipoli can surely afford to poll its citizens.

Andrews also alludes to another common argument: that it’s innately wrong that the inalienable rights of LGBTI people should be subjected to discussion.

You can see his point. Yet this debate is only taking place because, back in 2004, John Howard, with the support of the ALP, voted to amend the Marriage Act to exclude same-sex couples. In other words, it was parliament that explicitly intervened to make the law discriminatory – and, ever since then, it’s been parliament that has proved incapable of rectifying the damage, despite an overwhelming public desire for change. Given that history, the insistence that a purely parliamentary discussion is somehow more respectful than an extra-parliamentary one seems distinctly odd (as I’ve discussed at greater length previously).

A popular vote will not, in and of itself, change the law. It would still require parliamentary ratification. Some equal marriage campaigners have accordingly pointed to Liberal Party dead-enders muttering about not being bound by a plebiscite result. What’s the point of the poll, they say, if parliamentarians can just ignore it?

But public sentiment provides the only means ever available to discipline politicians. When Howard ostentatiously changed the definition of marriage, Nicola Roxon immediately announced Labor’s support for “promoting the institution of marriage between men and women and as a bedrock institution for families”. Why? At the time, both parties believed that “protecting” marriage was an obvious vote-winner and acted accordingly.

For the same reason, it’s almost unthinkable that a Turnbull government would refuse to abide by a plebiscite’s indication of the public will: to do so would be courting destruction.

That’s what’s so strange about the current debate.

In many ways, the Liberal Party has backed itself disastrously into a corner over same-sex marriage – and yet its opponents seem determined to help it escape.

If a plebiscite goes ahead, senior Liberals will have to take sides. But given the near certainty that the “No” case will be defeated, what politician would want to be associated with the campaign?

Last week, speculation emerged that John Howard himself might be approached to head the campaign. But one imagines that Howard’s too canny to link himself with a losing cause. In lieu of him, who will put up their hand? Tony Abbott? His political rehabilitation depends on fostering the perception that he (not Turnbull) represents mainstream Australia. He could scarcely sit out a plebiscite, given the whole thing was his idea – but he runs the risk of being damaged by his side’s inevitable loss.

What of Turnbull? Presumably, he would have to campaign for a “Yes” vote, but by so doing he would deepen the already yawning divisions in his party.

In that context, it seems crazy for the Greens and Labor to undermine a plebiscite – and not just because, as Grattan says, by so doing they risk of delaying marriage equality.

The plebiscite provides the Greens and the ALP with a chance to marginalize the homophobic right and put immense pressure on the Liberal Party. Just as importantly, it offers an opportunity to agitate for an issue that’s morally just, overwhelmingly popular and almost certain to win.

How often does that come along?

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Melbourne editor, writer and broadcaster.

@Jeff_Sparrow

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