Democratic politics is all about debating controversial ideas
With an unsteady economy, a huge national debt, slowing commodity prices, terrorism, border protection and a fractious Parliament vexing Australia, a bagatelle like redefining marriage is a distraction from the real business of government. Or so supporters of gay marriage argue.
Most of the Opposition and most of the media are demanding a conscience vote in Federal Parliament to amend the law defining marriage to allow two men or two women to marry.
However, the governing Liberal-National Party coalition was only recently re-elected with a commitment to holding a plebiscite on the issue. This would be a non-binding consultation with the electorate — and its outcome is far from certain. Opinion polls suggest that voters are in favour of same-sex marriage, but their commitment to such a radical change is weak and a well-run campaign might sink it.
The politics of a plebiscite became even more complicated this week after the leader of the Greens Party, Richard di Natale, declared that he would not support it in the Senate. So unless the Labor Party backs it, the Government will not be able to pass a bill authorising a plebiscite. This stalemate will outrage everyone: supporters, because there will be no same-sex marriage until at least the next election, and opponents, because it breaks the government’s election promise.
So whether to consult the public about marriage or to leave it up to the politicians has been a hot issue in Australia this week. Here are seven reasons why the plebiscite should go ahead.
1. This is too important an issue to be decided by conventional political channels. The fundamental conflict here is not between opponents and supporters of same-sex marriage. It is between those who think that children thrive best in a family with a mum and a dad, and those who think that kids don’t need mums (or dads). The nuclear biological family is the foundation of Western civilisation, indeed most civilisations, and it is folly to allow politicians to play football with it. As the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court put it in his dissent in Obergefell v. Hodges,
“This universal definition of marriage as the union of a man and a woman is no historical coincidence. Marriage did not come about as a result of a political movement, discovery, disease, war, religious doctrine, or any other moving force of world history—and certainly not as a result of a prehistoric decision to exclude gays and lesbians. It arose in the nature of things to meet a vital need: ensuring that children are conceived by a mother and father committed to raising them in the stable conditions of a lifelong relationship.”
Marriage is a pre-political institution; it existed before the state and the state has no more power to redefine it than it does to redefine photosynthesis. Holding a plebiscite at least recognizes the solemnity of a decision taken by the nation to reconfigure foundational social bonds. If disastrous consequences ensue, at least we will know who was responsible.
2. Debate is a fundamental democratic value. The Upper Crust are always tempted to declare that the Great Unwashed are too ignorant to understand public policy, as the recent Brexit debate in the United Kingdom revealed. Speaking on behalf of the enlightened Upper Classes, biologist Richard Dawkins wrote in Prospect magazinethat “It is unfair to thrust on to unqualified simpletons the responsibility to take historic decisions of great complexity and sophistication.” This is more or less the argument being pushed in the Australian media about same-sex marriage. A plebiscite is poke in the eyes of the elite and a vote of confidence in the wisdom of the common man.
3. Some members of Parliament cannot be trusted. Back in 2011 MPs consulted their electorates about this issue. The Australian reportedat the time that “The results showed opinion in Coalition and Labor seats was overwhelmingly against legalising same-sex marriage.” Nor, for most voters, was it an issue of great importance. Nonetheless, some MPs have simply given their constituents a one-fingered salute and switched sides. Tony Burke, the member for Watson, a lower-middle income area in Sydney, acknowledged that “the last time the campaign for marriage equality published seat by seat polling, the views in my part of Sydney were, as I had expected, the exact opposite of the national vote.”
So how did he respond to that? By announcing that the simpletons he represents in Parliament would just have to suck it up. He declared loftily that: “The time has now come for the conversation in communities like mine to move to the fact that this change will occur.” A plebiscite would ensure that politicians know exactly what their constituents believe.
4. Predictions of a vitriolic and homophobic debate vilify voters. Labor Opposition leader Bill Shortenclaims that a plebiscite will be a “taxpayer-funded platform for homophobia”. This is nonsense. There will always be a handful of people who don’t play by the rules – but that goes for supporters of same-sex marriage as well. Most Australians support a robust but respectful debate. Immigration is a far, far more inflammatory issue than same-sex marriage, yet discussion in this country has been peaceful. It’s a vicious smear on ordinary Australians to assert that they are incapable of having a rational debate.
One of the country’s best-known lesbians, Christine Foster, dismisses the notion that a plebiscite “will unleash some torrent of hatred”. Foster, the sister of Tony Abbott, the former Liberal Prime Minister who is a staunch opponent of same-sex marriage, says that “obviously there are some people who discriminate and vilify homosexuals but those people have always been there. They are not going to go away.” A candidate to be the Lord Mayor of Sydney, she believes that Australians are capable of having a “respectful debate”.
5. Predictions that a debate leading up to a plebiscite will lead vulnerable homosexuals to commit suicide are overblown. “We’re hearing from psychologists that there’s a risk that young people will take their lives when they are exposed to a debate like this,” Mr Di Natale told the ABCthis week. If psychologists say so, where is their evidence?
There’s precious little. Australian Marriage Equality, the leading lobby group for same-sex marriage, cites a 2010 article in the American Journal of Public Health. It claimed that homosexuals living in US states which banned same-sex marriage during the 2004 and 2005 elections experienced a 248 percent increase in generalized anxiety disorder. But drug-use disorders increased more in states that did not ban same-sex marriage. All in all, the case was not proven.
If data from the US is scarce, there is even less in Australia. The Australian Psychological Society told a Senate inquiry into the possibility of a plebiscite that it posed “significant risks to the psychological health and wellbeing” of homosexuals. But it cited only one local study, from 2012. This found that same-sex attracted people were more likely to feel negative, depressed, lonely, weak and powerless if they were exposed to criticisms of same-sex marriage. However, this was a so-called “convenience” study, in which the participants were recruited by psychologists from gay websites and which is of very little statistical value.
In short, the notion that the mental health of vulnerable homosexuals will be impaired as a result of a debate over the plebiscite is still at the Chicken Little stage.
6. It sets a bad precedent. If the LGBT lobby can shut down debate on marriage because of its potential for vilification, why can’t other groups adopt the same tactic? How about Muslims? The threat of terrorist attacks by Muslim extremists is a reality in Australia. Unfortunately, debating the future of Islam will be hurtful to many Muslims – but it is a debate that has to take place in a democratic society. Politics in a democracy is all about the cut and thrust of controversial ideas. Asserting that an idea is too controversial to be debated is a denial of our commitment to free speech.
7. It’s worth every cent. It wasn’t long ago that the LGBT lobby was quoting a study by the leading accounting firm PwC Australia, which claimed that “a standalone plebiscite” would cost $525 million. Even for supporters this must have seemed ridiculous, so they have trimmed it back to the $160 million estimated by the Australian Electoral Commission.
Is that a waste of money? Not if you believe that intact biological families are vital to the social and economic health of society. If traditional marriage contracts, the welfare state will expand. Two years ago, it was estimated that divorce and family breakdown cost Australian taxpayers $14 billion a year in welfare payments and court costs. The cost of the plebiscite is about 1 percent of this. If the plebiscite helps to stop the erosion of traditional marriage, it will be money well spent.
Perhaps the best reason for a plebiscite is that it will settle the question of whether Australians really want same-sex marriage. If a decision is reached through a simple show of hands in Parliament, many of us opponents will complain that the most sacred institution of our culture has been trashed by opportunists. But with a plebiscite, there can be no doubt about what the electorate thinks. And if we lose, we will only have ourselves to blame.