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Gay Plebiscites: Australia’s Crisis on Same-Sex Marriage

What a fabulous mess. And a churning one it is for the Australian government, now mired in yet another farce of weak leadership and bullying factions. A mess for those who feel that this issue need never have gotten this far. A mess for others who just wish to be left alone with their decisions. Such is the nature of the same-sex marriage debate down under.

While other countries have been going along their merry way, through parliament or through the ballot box, to legalise gay marriage, Australia remains suspended. In Germany, the Bundestag finally agreed to pass a four-year-old bill legalising same-sex marriage. Earlier this year, Finland and Slovenia joined the growing ranks. The politicians in Canberra, however, continue to limp.

The Liberal party room antics have managed to stir the political spectrum with vigour. A handful of MPs from the government side began issuing threats: take the vote to Parliament, or we will force the issue. (The opposition Labor Party has threatened, at points, to do so, though this would necessitate a suspension of standing orders).

Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, ever sniping against the man who ousted him, suggests that the Turnbull government is no longer in control of much. With authoritarian tenacity, he insists that “Coalition MPs are honour-bound to oppose same-sex marriage in the absence of a plebiscite.

Another former Australian prime minister and verbal knuckle duster Paul Keating was venomous as ever on the Liberal Party wobbling: “‘I didn’t want to vote for gay marriage – the plebiscite made me do it!’ Is that what this is all about?

On Monday, the wobblers and the firmly rooted within the party gathered to deliberate the issue. Potential renegades who threatened to take the matter to the floor of parliament and make the issue of same-sex marriage Parliament’s business failed to change the party’s course.

The cabinet wished to push for another vote in parliament to have a plebiscite, another tactic that is bound to fail given the composition of the Senate. No matter, claims Finance Minister Matthias Corman, whose determination remains a testament to hope over experience. “Our preference is to give the Australian people a say through a compulsory attendance plebiscite.

This is the stance favoured by the hardliners who remain committed to delaying what can only be the inevitable. For them, resolving the same-sex marriage debate through Parliament in the absence of a plebiscite would break an electoral promise.

Another alternative was also put on the table: a non-binding postal vote, and even more strikingly for Australian polls, a non-compulsory one, that would bypass any Senate opposition. For MP Craig Kelly, this was, by far and away, the “second-best option”.

Advocates for gay marriage see a plebiscite as a muddling, disgruntling affair. It will agitate the prejudiced, stimulate the bigots, and tease the tax payer’s purse strings. And for what? Those against same-sex marriage are not necessarily going to vote for a change in the Marriage Act, given their burning consciousness. In short, all pantomime and show.

The Australian Marriage Equality group was none too impressed by the proposal. Alex Greenwich, the group’s co-chair, deemed the postal plebiscite “a bloody stupid idea that will weaken Parliament because it basically says people are not prepared to do their job.

Greenwich and his colleagues are also finding a legal route to frustrate the government proposals. They may well have good reason in succeeding, given a lack of authority to expend funds on such a venture. Bypassing the senate, whose authority would be needed to finalise such supply, would be distinctly prohibited.

Today host Karl Stefanovic, who makes a habit of disturbing the airwaves with headlines, told the political classes in Canberra to pull their proverbial fingers out “and get on with it”.  “Why do we elect officials if not to make decisions that reflect our beliefs?”

The default of Australian democracy is parliamentary paternalism. Much red-faced consternation tends to take place about the supposed effectiveness of a system that remains a constitutional monarchy, overseen by the unelected official in Canberra known as the governor general.

Nonetheless, the Australian High Court, in 2013, made it clear that marriage as termed in the Australian Constitution refers to a consensual, enduring union between natural persons entailing mutual rights and obligations, terminable in accordance with prescribed formalities. In less than gentle fashion, the judges also preferred the matter to be resolved through Parliament.

The plebiscite, in short, will be mere pageantry. Parliament will ultimately decide the matter irrespective of the outcome. The actual decision on whether Australia decides, kicking and waddling, to change an old law will still resolve itself by personal prejudice. The window dressing approach will be to term this a matter of conscience.

Dr Binoy Kampmark is a senior lecturer in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University. He was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge. He is a contributing editor to CounterPunch and can be followed on Twitter at @bkampmark.

 


19 comments

  1. Keitha Granville

    why is it never mentioned that the marriage act was changed by John Howard ? why can’t that change be simply reversed, we the people didn’t get a say that time, why now ?
    while they are at it, this business of giving the people a say, can we have a say about politicians’ salaries please ? I am sure that bothers more of us than equal marriage rights.

  2. roma guerin

    I too get angry when the Howard change is never mentioned. It is so obvious. Most of the public agitators would not even know how the wording was changed, or even when. As for the “overwhelming” vote by the LNP yesterday, as heard on ABC radio this morning? I call that out. 25 voted for, 7 against the plebiscite. How many members in the LNP – 92. So the cowards who decided not to vote on it live to fight another day.

  3. diannaart

    why is it never mentioned that the marriage act was changed by John Howard ? why can’t that change be simply reversed, we the people didn’t get a say that time, why now ?

    Keitha & Roma

    Every time this topic, well all the time this topic is aired, I fume, I rage at that nasty little man who, with the assent of BOTH the LNP AND Labor, changed a few words to ensure that marriage is only for a male to a female.

    http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2004/s1117638.htm

    JOHN HOWARD: The definition of a marriage is something that should not over time potentially be subject to redefinition or change by courts.

    GREG JENNETT: The Attorney-General introduced the bill in Parliament 20 minutes later but there’s no political wedge to be found.

    NICOLA ROXON, LABOR SPOKESWOMAN: Labor has made clear we don’t support gay marriage.

    Clearly, marriage has a history within Australia already, it is a heterosexual institution.

  4. helvityni

    Turnbull is willing to spend $122 million of taxpayers’ money on a postal vote….

    We should have kept Abbott, nothing has changed…
    I come back to my usual : Australia is a foreign country, they do things differently there… even Ireland has moved on, and countries like Slovenia and Finland…what are we scared of…???

  5. @RosemaryJ36

    It IS mentioned – over and over – but to many Liberals, John Howard cannot be criticised and to undo his legislation would be criticism! What annoys me even more is the government’s failure to prevent the religious influence on the issue.
    It would be simpler to strip religious bodies of the right to legalise marriage and the problems would disappear!

  6. diannaart

    @RosemaryJ36

    It (John Howard’s hate for LGBTIQ people – well anyone who is not just like him) HAS not received sufficient exposure in the MSM. People at AIMN are aware because we take an interest.

    It is an appalling thing JH is getting away with and now IT is going to cost the public millions.

    AND simpler to strip religious bodies of the right to legalise marriage

    Seriously?
    How about religious bodies treat women as equals, fess up to not being about peace and love but rather about how many people they can brainwash and make money from – that would be easier than your suggestion.

    PS

    Maybe your post was satire and I missed it…

  7. kerri

    We had no say it n whether marriage should be between a man and a woman as per Howard’s amendment to The marriage act in 2004 why do they need to waste money asking us to change it back to the way it was?

  8. king1394

    The High Court was very clear as to the Constitutional definition of marriage. Parliament should line up with this. And get on with it!!!

  9. Kyran

    Only in Australia would a matter of human rights and equality be considered a crisis.

    Bearing in mind the farce most often referred to as our government, what could they possibly do to make this even more farcical?
    Apparently, if the plebiscite is rejected (as expected) in the senate, the AEC need not be involved. Should it proceed to a ‘survey’, it will be conducted by the ABS. You seriously can’t make this stuff up.

    “Asked why the government had decided to run the survey through the ABS and not the AEC — and whether legal advice played into the decision — Cormann told BuzzFeed News:
    “The government’s first preference is a compulsory attendance ballot through the AEC. Should this approach again fail to get the support of the Senate, the government has chosen an alternative constitutionally valid and legal way to keep faith with its election commitment to give Australians a say on whether or not the definition of marriage should be changed.”
    In other details:
    * Officers from the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) will be seconded to the ABS to assist with the vote;
    * It will cost $122 million — about $50 million less than a compulsory, in-person vote — and ballots could be sent out as early as September 12;
    * If the plebiscite bill goes down in the Senate — likely to happen this week — the government will hand over responsibility to the ABS and the supporting AEC officers to make announcements about timetables, logistics, and by what date people need to enrol.”

    https://www.buzzfeed.com/lanesainty/australian-bureau-of-surprises

    As some wag twittered;
    “Let’s get two hugely criticised gov agencies, Australia Post and the ABS, and get them to do an unprecedented national vote on human rights.”
    The only possible addition to this farce will be the appointment of IBM to provide software support!
    Thankyou Dr Kampmark and commenters. The winter of our discontent continues unabated. Take care

  10. guest

    Just read the phone conversation between Turnbull and Trump to see how much Turnbull displays honesty and trustworthiness. Yet he claims that he is a strong leader who fulfills his promises, unlike Julia Gillard whom he claims broke her “promise” not to have a carbon tax under a government she led.

    In using this piece of propaganda he ignores the confession by Peta Credlin that there was not a carbon “tax” and that the campaign against Gillard was a scam (or some such word). We all knew at the time that Gillard had said that she would put a price on carbon. Yet Gillard was called “Juliar” and other insults were paraded on posters in front of some Coalition politicians and a baying crowd- and the right-wing fake-news persisted in a way never seen before.

    It is hard to believe Turnbull when he says he is a strong leader. As some one suggested, when he has to say that he has lost the debate. A list of his stuff-ups is not very reassuring.

  11. Terry2

    Did you notice that on the postal plebiscite the government want to bypass the parliament and to achieve this they have to give it to the Australian Bureau of Statistics to run with personnel seconded from the Australian Electoral Commission.

    This is tricky and deceptive as the government know the AEC could not run it as a plebiscite without funding which would require an appropriation and that would require it to go through both Houses of the Parliament and it would probably fail. So, as the ABS has a charter to gather data they toss it to them as a data gathering exercise which cannot be called a plebiscite and as such doesn’t need to go before the parliament.

    This slight of hand is a lawyer’s trick and could blow up in Turnbull’s face.

    Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive

  12. abbaleangmailcom

    I haven’t been this angry about our government since we invaded Iraq – and we didn’t need a plebiscite to do that even though it affected millions more people than marriage equality will. In the 56 years since I was old enough to vote I have never been a single issue voter but the LNP has finally convinced me to become one. I will never vote LNP again if this is an example of their best thinking. So Turnbull — go ahead with your stupid, childish, non-binding, waste-of-time, unnecessary, damaging, absurd plebiscite, then have a free vote and get it done. You and all your party who voted against change will have to accept responsibility for the suicides which will inevitably result from the vitriol, hate and bigotry that will surely flow through the lobbying stage. I’m feeling disgusted and sick in the stomach.

  13. silkworm

    We have to have a plebiscite, the Libs say, because they made a promise before the election and keeping promises is sacred to the Libs. But on The Drum this evening, someone said that they made no such commitment to having a plebiscite. So now they just make shit up, and regard that as sacred.

  14. MikeW

    Personally I’m not that interested in the SSM debate, with all that ails this country at the moment because of the most incompetent government in Australia’s history I think there are more important issues at hand, I won’t even bother trying to list them as there are so many.
    I see the SSM issue as a smokescreen, covering up the governments total ineptitude.
    The next smokescreen will be about whether or not we want a Republic, anything except address the real issues facing everyday Australian’s.

  15. silkworm

    On the other hand, the suppression of SSM is so important to the Conservatives that they are threatening to blow up the Coalition if they don’t get what they want. THAT should be considered significant to anyone fighting this government.

  16. Jaquix

    Barrie Cassidy said yesterday they could have an opinion poll from a reputable company, with wide sample,for $2 million, and get a far more accurate result. Its a total farce, face saving for the government. Turnbull proclaiming he is a strong leader was the last straw! What a clown he’s become! Fitting into clownshoes quite well nowdays.

  17. Phil

    Arch homophobe Abbott is already spewing his bile on the airwaves – he’s conflating support for equality for LGBTI people with ‘political correctness’.

    What is this thing called ‘political correctness’? As far as I can find it has something to do with a perception amongst right-wingers that they get howled down whenever they shout insults, pejoratives, prejudices and all round hate speech.

    So the right wing really is tragically fragile – can dish it out but can’t take it in reply – sounds to me like the definition of bullying.

    On another point the writer notes: “Advocates for gay marriage see a plebiscite as a muddling, disgruntling affair. It will agitate the prejudiced, stimulate the bigots, and tease the tax payer’s purse strings”

    Yes, so true, and mad dog Abbott is out of the gates and sprinting in the Bigot Stakes – but the Liberals game is more than that – it is intended to suck election funds from the ALP in defending a “yes’ case.

    I hope the ALP is smart enough to refuse to run in this race.

  18. guest

    A non-binding, non-compulsory postal plebiscite. Is that what the voters endorsed/mandated at the last election?

    What is the number of respondents to the postal plebiscite required to make a “forum”; ie, a legitimate result and not just a result made by a few by default? What happens if many respondents follow Abbott’s advice to boycott the postal plebiscite? What happens if many of the voters simply refuse to participate as a protest against a non-mandated, expensive exercise going through the motions? Turnbull seems to be quite comfortable with such a tactic.

    Or is it just a poll to gauge public opinion – an opinion we know already is in favour of SSM?

    If a legitimate result is obtained which says yes to SSM, will the Government reject the decision of the people?

    If the result says no to SSM, what will the Government do then? Abide by this spurious result? And with what consequences in the next election?

    The Government has put itself in a cleft stick because of its stubborn adherence to its dominant ideology. The Double Dissolution and early election showed Turnbull’s lack of judgement, as does his adherence to coal, muddied and inhumane attitude to good people he regards as a “product” of people smugglers and part of his trading of people as if they are cattle, his lack of any real plan on “jobs and growth or housing or poverty… or anything, really. We await the extent of his procrastination with regard to Aboriginal demands, an energy policy, etc etc.

    Turnbull is not a strong leader; he is hog-tied and in thrall to the whims of his party.

  19. silkworm

    @Phil: “… the Liberals game is more than that – it is intended to suck election funds from the ALP in defending a “yes’ case.”

    Absolutely. This would appear to be the motive. They don’t really care whether SSM gets up or not. They only care about defeating Labor next year.

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