The Politics    Wednesday, November 15, 2017

A very good day

By Sean Kelly

A very good day

Supplied by ABC News

An excellent result shouldn’t trick us into thinking the survey was a good idea

This is a wonderful result.

The numbers are overwhelming. However bad your maths, clearly 61 is a much larger number than 38.

Australians don’t like change much. First-term governments rarely lose elections. And when we consider change that is likely to be permanent, we are even more reluctant: only about one in five referendums succeeds. But had this been a federal election, it would have been an unprecedented landslide for change. Had this been a referendum, it would have required a majority of votes in a majority of states. In the end, the Yes vote received a majority in every single state and territory. The smallest majority was in New South Wales, and that was still nearly 58 per cent.

The No campaign did not achieve even the 40 per cent that Tony Abbott had claimed would represent a “moral victory”. Of course, what Abbott argued for and how he argued for it were never moral; now he’s been deprived of victory as well.  

But forget about the numbers, and the margin. The sheer fact of a Yes result is wonderful, for this simple reason: it has changed the country for the better. 

That’s not because anybody’s family is more legitimate today. Nobody has any more dignity than they had yesterday. Those facts exist outside of popular mandate. The country is better because now we know that very soon the parliament will legislate for marriage equality. And once that happens, the law of Australia will no longer treat LGBTQ Australians differently from any other Australian. Soon, every child born in this country will grow up in a society in which there is no legal distinction between people of different sexualities. For that generation, it will come to seem crazy that such a line was ever drawn.

Historical hindsight is a funny thing. It has divergent effects. On one hand, we look back at the past, stunned that people ever acted or thought the way they did. But when it comes to chains of events, we tend to assume the opposite stance: wasn’t this sequence inevitable? Isn’t that the only possible way things could have gone?

You can see this already in reactions to Malcolm Turnbull’s decision to hold a voluntary postal plebiscite on same-sex marriage. A few weeks ago, the result unknown, it seemed like a dicey call. But now, with the results in, a Yes vote in the parliament almost assured, it is easy to slip into thinking that Turnbull did what he needed to do, and that the ends justified the means.

A few points here.

It is arguable that Turnbull did this the only way possible, given his divided party room. But we’ll never know, because he didn’t try any other way. To try to push a parliamentary vote through his party room would have been brave. It might have been crazy-brave, but that’s the thing about bravery: if you know the result beforehand, courage is not required.

Secondly, the idea that a high turnout in any way vindicates Turnbull’s decision to hold a vote is intellectually deceitful. Turnbull himself argued beforehand that the turnout would prove “that we were right. Australians did want to have their say and they’re having their say”. But it is possible to hate the plebiscite, and still vote – which is exactly what most LGBTQ Australians did. It’s what I did. An Essential poll this week found that 45 per cent of Australians thought it was a bad process – but we know from the turnout that most of them voted anyway. That so many Australians voted proves nothing except that when they were asked to have their say, they did.

Others who make this case mean “vindication” in a different sense; they mean the gamble worked. But the fact that a gamble worked does not mean it was a gamble worth taking. By all means, bet your mortgage on number seven in race three at Randwick. You might win. That doesn’t mean you should have done it. In this case, Turnbull was taking a big gamble, and he was doing it with other people’s rights.

Does all this mean there were no benefits to the survey? No. For many queer Australians it will be of immense comfort that more than 60 per cent of voters said yes to equal rights. It is the strongest ever endorsement of equality for LGBTQ Australians in this country. But it is possible to believe, as I do, that there are some positives that come from the vote, while also believing the vote should never have occurred. 

The reason the survey should never have occurred – and we should not forget this simply because it is over – is that the LGBTQ community was overwhelmingly against it. It was their rights we were voting on; and they said, very loudly, that they’d rather not have the rights if this was the way it had to come about.

As it happens, their predictions were not overblown. ReachOut, which provides mental health services to young Australians, reported a 40 per cent increase in demand for their services. Most LGBTQ people I know said the survey made them feel sick – not just in the giddy minutes before the results were announced but for the past two months. It brought back every moment they had been made to feel lesser for the fact of who they loved and were attracted to. If your reaction to reading that is that two months of pain is a worthwhile price to pay for a valued right, then it’s very likely that (a) you’ve never had to experience anything like it; and (b) you’ve never been forced to ask other people to award you a basic right.   

All of these arguments could have been made before the results came in. But here’s one that we can only say with certainty now: We should all be glad the Yes result was so high. But the No vote is there, too, staring us in the face. I went today to Sydney’s Prince Alfred Park, and it wasn’t long after the announcement of results that some LGBTQ friends with me began checking how high the No vote was in different regions, like the regions they grew up in. 

They’re not the only ones. Many people who voted No will be encouraged by the fact that 38 per cent of the people around them did, too. Perhaps some of them were voting very narrowly on the question of marriage, on the basis of strict religious rules they felt unable to depart from. But as Dee Jefferson put it in an unmissable piece today, “the debate has been as much a debate about homosexuality as it has been about marriage.” When people were told “it’s OK to vote no”, many of them would have taken that the way it was intended: “it’s OK not to like gay people”.

Turnbull does deserve praise for his actions over the past two days, when he has made clear to the conservatives in his party that he will not tolerate the backwards bill put forward by James Paterson. The going might get tougher; he should stand strong. It has been said many times of the prime minister, on many issues, that he should take a stand because he has nothing left to lose. If that was not true before, it must be now. Nevertheless, the temptation in politics is often to make things easy for yourself. The prime minister should do in the remaining parliamentary weeks what he failed to do in permitting this survey in the first place: put the interests of those at the centre of this debate above his own. 

In other news


The shape of a generous mind

Oliver Sacks’ brilliant ideas echo on through ‘The River of Consciousness’

Kate Cole-Adams

“I was disconcerted less than a third of the way through, at having to remind myself that I did not actually know the man. While I get that the Sacks who leads us through these pages is not the Sacks who inhabited his own physical and emotional space in the world, the engagement with Sacks the thinker and writer is compelling. What, he wonders, might some future brain monitor reveal about the nature of creativity and the ‘gorgeous clarity and meaning’ that flow through him in this state. At such times, he writes, ‘I feel I can bypass or transcend much of my own personality, my neuroses. It is at once not me and the innermost part of me, certainly the best part of me.’

And, while attuned to the specificity of lived experience, this is primarily a book of ideas: Sacks’ own and, at least as importantly, other people’s taken in and filtered through his own unique consciousness.”read on


It’s time

The case for marriage equality

Penny Wong

“Most people recognise what our marriage laws don’t: gay and lesbian Australians are just like everybody else. The challenges of parenting we experience – the sleepless nights, the struggle to find child care, the angst over schooling – are the same. Our relationships are like other relationships. Our desire to make a public and lasting commitment to the woman or man we love is the same, too.” (February 2016) READ ON

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is the author of The Game: A Portrait of Scott Morrison, a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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