In Defense of the Marriage Plebiscite

On 10th August 2015 the joint Liberal and National Parties held a seven hour marathon party room meeting to determine a united position on a policy issue that seems to consume much of the media cycle currently, that of same sex marriage. With the majority of the party room opposed to any change to the Marriage Act but realizing that opinion polls consistently showing a majority of Australians supported allowing same sex marriage the then Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his senior ministers came up with a compromise of putting the question to the people of Australia in a national plebiscite if they won the next election. The compromise was a way to keep mainly the Liberal Party together as opinions and tensions between the conservative and small-l liberal wings of the party ran strong on this issue. Both wings of the party were happy because they both believed the plebiscite would lead to their desired policy outcome.

When Tony Abbott was deposed as Prime Minister the following month Malcolm Turnbull a supporter of same sex marriage realising that he needed to unite the divided Coalition decided to stick with putting the issue to the people however the policy was changed to having the plebiscite as soon as possible after the next election. Malcolm Turnbull won the July 2016 therefore having a mandate to conduct the plebiscite, polls showed although the public supported allowing same sex marriage they were also supportive of being allowed to have a say on the issue. Ever since the new parliament resumed the media, opposition parties and same sex marriage advocates have been engaged in a bout of anti-plebiscite hysteria. Apparently allowing more democracy in our country to resolve a divisive issue will be the most horrific event of the decade.

The arguments against the plebiscite consist of a range of anti-democratic, anti-free speech arguments as well as a misrepresentation of what the issue is we are trying to resolve. The four most common arguments are it will be non-binding and is not legally necessary for a change in law, that it will cost $175 million to operate, it is an affront to our system of representative democracy and a vote on other people’s rights and it will lead to hate speech against a vulnerable group. You would think that where every poll published indicates states that the public overwhelming supports same sex marriage its advocates would be saying bring it on, we know we will win. The arguments against appear to be smokescreen for the fear that they have deep down that they are scared they might lose, therefore they are wanting to have same sex marriage become law by the easiest means possible regardless of the legitimacy of the method.

The reason why I support the plebiscite is because it is the best way to decisively resolve this issue once and for all and to see what the whole public really thinks, not just in an opinion poll of a few thousand. The outcome of plebiscite can then be accepted as the will of the people and both sides should be satisfied by a democratic resolution. To address the objection of it not being binding or necessary, it is true that parliament has the power to legislate a change to the Marriage Act however neither party was elected on a platform to do so. The Coalition could not agree on a united position on marriage hence forth they came up with putting it to the people. The Labor party for all their talk about introducing a same sex marriage bill if they got elected still has a conscience vote on the issue for all its MPs.

Advocates of same sex marriage argue that the Coalition should also be allowing a conscience vote or free vote as it is called. But conscience votes are anti-democratic because they are basically votes on how an individual politician feels without any mandate from the voters. Voters during elections vote on the policies of the major political parties as stated by their leaders and senior ministers. Based on the reality that voters are rationally ignorant, they are not bothered to find out what the candidates from their local electorate think on every single issue and base their vote on what the candidate’s personal beliefs are. So when a political party declares it will have a conscience vote, which are typically on subjects such as abortion and euthanasia it means they don’t have a policy on those issue which means the public never got to vote on them and the issues are decided based on the personal views of an MP, which most voters did not vote on or even know about. The reality of how conscience votes operate is that they are also influenced by various special interest groups trying to lobby individual MPs, these groups make up a tiny proportion of the voting public. So resolving the same sex marriage issue by conscience vote of parliament, although the result would become law it is by no means a democratic outcome and actually disenfranchises most Australian voters.

The argument from others that the result of the plebiscite is non-binding on parliament, it should be pointed out that elections are non-binding. A government can say one thing before an election and do exactly the opposite after, as the Gillard government did with introducing a carbon tax. So the plebiscite is not unique in that it can be ignored by parliament, but of course politicians ignore the will of the people at their peril as demonstrated when they are punished for broken promises.
The second reason against the plebiscite is that it will cost $175 million to operate, well newsflash everyone democracy isn’t free. Counting votes and setting up polling stations costs money, if you are going to complain about democracy’s cost then why not only have elections then every five or six years? Is reducing the democratic rights of the people worth saving some money to the budget’s bottom line? It is interesting that this reason is used by many progressives yet they are more than happy to waste public money on giant health, education and environmental bureaucracies, not mention fund a variety of unpopular arts, sports and community groups. Therefore this objection is one of convenience for most opponents of the plebiscite to appeal to those voters and politicians who might be more fiscally conservative.

The third reason is that advocated by most constitutional conservatives and libertarians in that putting an issue up to a popular vote is affront to our tradition of representative democracy by politicians delegating out their jobs because they don’t want to do it. But the reason we have representative democracy and not direct democracy is due to the difficult practicalities of direct democracy in having popular votes on all issues all the time. Which is why most western countries settled on the system of representative democracy with elected members of the public to create laws on behalf of the people. But given most people believe that democracy is the best system to create laws, wouldn’t logic dictate that the more democracy the better? Direct democracy is the most pure method of democracy there is which is what a plebiscite is. Two of the freest democracies in the world are the United States and Switzerland which blend both direct and representative democracy and you can hardly say they are countries run by mob rule or a subjected to the tyranny of the majority.

That leads onto the objection by many libertarians to the plebiscite in we shouldn’t have votes on other people’s rights. To this objection I say who declared you the supreme overlord of what rights are? Just because you’re a libertarian doesn’t mean your worldview should just be obeyed and your libertarian beliefs should be implemented by some sort of royal decree. Simply screaming something is a right does not make an argument nor convince others of your beliefs. You are in fact making an anti-democratic elitist argument in that you know better than the awful commoners and you are so much more enlightened to run society, you are no better than a leftist. If you believe that same sex marriage is a right then what you should be doing is convincing the rest of the population why that position is correct through education and persuasive arguments. Newsflash not everyone agrees with you and unless you are going to get rid of democracy the way you achieve a more libertarian society is through winning at the ballot box on libertarian positions. You are also forgetting that capitalism is a form of democracy in people directing dollar votes to goods and services they prefer, do you realize how absurd it is if you claimed when product you liked ceased production because of poor sales that it was somehow tyranny of the market and I should be able to decree that a product be made no matter how unpopular?

This leads onto the final objection that having a public vote on same sex marriage will unleash a no campaign of hate speech on a vulnerable group in the community. This is essentially an argument against free speech and public debate on policy issues. Basically saying that we cannot debate certain issues because somebody’s feelings might get hurt, this is no way to run a free society. If somebody for example did self-harm because of something said in the public discourse it is more than likely that there is something going on in their own lives that drove them to such action. Let’s also remember that the term hate speech is subjective, what appears to somebody else to be a perfectly reasonable statement could be interpreted as hate speech by somebody else.

Let’s not forget that discourse against homosexuals has been much worse in the past. I’m old enough to remember when Fred Phelps was still alive with his “God hates Fags’ sermons and his family constantly being given a platform in the media. Also the objection to hate speech also stems from a belief that the public are so stupid they are likely to be convinced of it. With Fred Phelps and his church because his rhetoric was so extreme and so ridiculous it actually had the opposite effect on the public in those who may have a problem with homosexuality were so turned off with what was being said by those with a similar view that they decided to adopt the opposite point of view when they saw how reasonable and decent those in the homosexual lifestyle were.
The point of this story is that the public are not as stupid as many elites believe them to be, if there is extreme language used then it is likely to just be laughed off or dismissed as ridiculous by most members of the public. Plus the plebiscite is unlikely to create more homophobic people, those who have such views already are still making their voices heard very loudly, again this is the false belief that if people see a homophobic ad they will automatically be convinced of that view.

Also let’s focus on the issue that we are voting on, should the law be changed to allow people of same sex to marry? It is not a vote of whether same sex relationships are acceptable, it is a vote whether marriage is an appropriate institution to recognize same sex relationships. It is not a vote on other people’s rights as is suggested, let’s remember that everybody has the right to get married as long as it’s to somebody of the opposite sex so we do have marriage equality in that sense. Asking the public how they would like an institution or word defined is hardly a radical proposition, since when did governments get to decide these things?

The worst thing those in favour of same sex marriage can do if the plebiscite legislation passes is just chuck a tantrum and boycott the whole process claiming that it is somehow rigged to fail which we haven’t seen any evidence of such and the accusation is only made by those who tend to see anti-gay conspiracies everywhere. My message to them is not reject this opportunity to resolve the issue once and for all, don’t you want an opportunity to try and shut the homophobes up for good? What better way that to have same sex marriage become law by it passing through the most legitimate means possible in a democracy, a direct vote of people?