When Tony Abbott floated the plebiscite on marriage equality, it was clear that a popular vote was intended to stall progress on reform. But now the campaign for equality is in a different place. Labor and the Greens’ decision to vote down a plebiscite will most likely remove any chance of marriage equality being legislated in this term of parliament.
A common argument against the plebiscite is that minority rights should not be subject to a popular vote, in part, because a plebiscite is more demeaning than a parliamentary vote. This sentiment is part of a broader trend of increasing hostility towards participatory democracy in wake of the rise of Pauline Hanson, Donald Trump, and Brexit. This anti-democratic idea has been embraced by some “progressives” who believe the population are uneducated and bigoted and, therefore, oppose a popular vote because it would involve the population.
Let’s remember that this entire debate is only necessary because the Liberal and Labor parties, back in 2004, amended the Marriage Act so as to exclude same-sex couples. These same parliamentarians have stalled on legislating marriage equality ever since. To put it another way, with polling showing majority support for marriage equality, the barrier to equal marriage is not ordinary Australians, but politicians who embedded homophobia into law. Considering the public have been consistently more progressive than the political class on this issue, the assumption that a purely parliamentary discussion is somehow less demeaning is particularly odd.
One of the more serious points against a public vote concern potential negative mental health effects on queer youth. This argument often draws negative stories from the campaign trail during the Irish referendum. What this argument conceals is the fact that no suicides have been linked to the debate, and that there has been a massive increase in people coming out since the referendum passed.
If a plebiscite were to be on the agenda, of course the ‘No’ camp would run a vicious campaign. But homophobic ideologues have never refrained from their bigotry. In fact, rather than legitimising bigotry, the plebiscite would delegitimise it. Since we are poised to win the vote, a ‘Yes’ campaign would function as a large-scale anti-homophobia movement that simultaneously marginalises bigots and provides the queer movement a backdrop to propel into broader social movements, strengthening its organisational capacity in the progress.
This is people power. A plebiscite promotes a grassroots campaign where Yes supporters have to take to the streets and mobilise against homophobia and transphobia at a local level – in our houses, workplaces, and friendship groups – agitating for change everywhere.
A purely parliamentary vote would not challenge the views of homophobic ideologues to the same extent. Reform won via a popular vote would show bigots, who claim to be “the silent majority,” that they are, in fact, on the extreme fringes of society. It would reveal that marriage equality is not some niche idea imposed on Australia by the Twitterati and inner-city elites, but rather, a principle supported by the majority of the nation.
Of course, a popular vote requires parliamentary ratification to amend the Marriage Act. Accordingly, people point out the supposed futility of a non-binding popular vote. But Brexit was also a non-binding vote. In reality, it is unthinkable that Turnbull would turn his back on a successful Yes vote, as to do so, would result in the party’s destruction both internally and at the ballot box.
I am critical of plebiscite as a delay tactic, but Labor simultaneously not binding on their own bill and voting down a plebiscite so as to delay marriage equality until 2019, at best, is even more opportunistic, and shows that this is debate is mainly about politicking and less about equality.
We know that, if marriage equality won a popular vote in Ireland, it will almost certainly win in Australia. With this in mind, the greater harm will be in not having marriage equality rather than in a plebiscite. It’s rare that the Left have the opportunity to fight for a cause that is morally just and almost certain to win – don’t let it pass us by.