crazyjane: (Default)
Why we must vote in the Marriage Equality plebiscite
by Marian Weaver

Any way you slice it, the postal plebiscite is a nasty, but effective, piece of political maneuvring. Let’s leave aside the idea of the direct plebiscite - the Parliament won’t pass that legislation. This is, of course, precisely why the government has fallen back on the postal option.

It’s a win-win situation for the Coalition, albeit an expensive one ($122 million). The postal plebiscite is voluntary, which means many people just won’t bother sending back their ballots. You only have to look at other countries who use voluntary voting to see that only those who are particularly motivated tend to show up on polling day, or send in their postal votes. At the last US presidential election, less than half of registered voters turned out (46.1%), and that was considered relatively high. Assuming a similar turnout for the postal plebiscite (and this is by no means guaranteed), less than half of Australia’s eligible voter population would be sending in their ballots. These would tend to be organised groups with an agenda to push, rather than individuals - and while some of these would be extremely pro-Marriage Equality, there are also numerous, influential groups who are already involved in mounting campaigns of shrill misinformation and scaremongering to convince people that a positive outcome would threaten all sorts of social disasters.

A postal plebiscite will, the government promises us, trigger a bill to bring about Marriage Equality (which they persistently mischaracterise as ‘same-sex marriage’, completely ignoring the needs and rights of trans and intersex folks). Voting on that bill would be a conscience vote - again, mischaracterised as a ‘free’ vote. No matter what the result of the plebiscite, no one will be ‘forced’ to vote for Marriage Equality if they are really set against it.

Now, this is a bit of a furphy. A government can’t force a conscience vote on the Parliament. They can call for one, they can even declare one. The decision, however, is a matter for the party room (or, in the case of the ALP, the national conference). The ALP have already declared that their national policy is to pass Marriage Equality, as have the Greens. Unless one of their members chooses to cross the floor and defy the party, that means all of them will vote for Marriage Equality. Several minor party members have also already called for a bill to be presented (and to drop this absurd idea of a plebiscite, postal or not). There’s also no guarantee that the National Party (the Liberal Party’s Coalition partners) will allow a conscience vote. Their antipathy towards the mere idea of Marriage Equality is well-known. That means, then, that only the Liberals will vote as each MP or Senator sees fit.

This might seem encouraging. With 7 Liberal members already calling for a Marriage Equality bill, the chances are good it would pass the House. They’re even better that it would pass the Senate, and be signed into law. So why is the postal plebiscite such a problem?

It all comes down to participation. Many people in favour of Marriage Equality have already called for people not to fill in their ballots (even going so far as to suggest a public protest including burning the papers). The ‘no participation until full equality’ idea is taking root. It is completely understandable. The idea of a plebiscite to ask people 'if they mind letting the gays marry' is offensive in the extreme. Prime Minister John Howard didn’t bother asking people in 2004 if they wanted him to change the Marriage Act to narrowly define marriage as being a union between a man and a woman. He simply went ahead and did it. No plebiscite, no referendum, nothing. Just an amendment passed through the Parliament. (Apparently, though, that’s not good enough for our current government.)

There is a huge problem, however, in non-participation, either through protest or simple laziness - and this is where the really nasty thing about this postal plebiscite resides.

You can just bet that those groups who are vehemently anti-Marriage Equality - most vocally, the Australian Christian Lobby - will be voting. In fact, given their past record, these groups will already be organising ‘get out the vote’ initiatives. Their disgusting campaign of misinformation is ramping up - accusations that gay people are all paedophiles, that children from same-sex relationships are abused by simple virtue of the fact they don’t have a ‘mum’ or ‘dad’, and the revolting nonsense that LGBTI people are unnatural, dangerous, and just plain perverted. If you need proof, go take a look at their campaign against the Safe Schools program. But have a strong stomach. I recommend not eating beforehand.

If they are the only voices exhorting people to vote a certain way in this plebiscite (or, indeed, voting at all), there will be no voices standing up to them. No groups or people pointing out how bigoted and wrong these ideas are. And that means some people may well decide to vote based on this terrible vendetta, ‘just to be safe’.

Don’t get me wrong, the postal plebiscite is awful. It’s insulting, and it’s predicated on the idea that LGBTI people are in some way second-class citizens. It took a referendum before indigenous people were recognised as human beings - but a referendum is binding. A plebiscite is not. It implies that the government sees queer people as even less worthy of being treated as human, with all the rights to which they are entitled.

But - and this is where is gets horrible for those of us (queer, allies, or just plain decent people) who support that idea of Marriage Equality. Participation gives tacit approval to this ridiculous waste of money and time. Participation means that our argument that we deserve the same rights as others can be undermined.

If we don’t participate, though, there is a very good chance that the plebiscite will fail. And if that happens, the government has the justification it needs to keep doing what is has done so far - nothing. It will even have justification - after all, they asked the people, and the people said no. Even if that’s only 20% of the people. Even if that’s only those groups motivated by such entrenched opposition to the idea of Marriage Equality that they will literally say anything to push their point. What will matter to the government is nothing more than figures - because figures can be twisted to mean whatever they wish them to mean. And you can just bet the government will use a low turn-out to argue that, ‘clearly’, this issue is a low priority to the Australian people.

We need to participate in this dreadful plebiscite, as much as we might hate every moment of it. The government has put us in the position where we don’t have the luxury of refusing. By simply holding a plebiscite - direct or postal - they can say they’ve kept their promise. If the result is negative, they are excused from having to bring a bill before the Parliament. They can argue that there are important issues that are more deserving of the government’s attention than re-litigating an issue that they’ve already ‘resolved’.

The only way to break even in this situation is to participate, and to do so with as many voices as possible. We need to meet the anti-Marriage Equality groups on their own ground - the public arena. We need to be talking to media, talking to our groups and our friends, telling people that they need to vote - and why they need to vote. We need to acknowledge that it’s a terrible situation (as one friend put it, a ‘shit sandwich’), but it’s the only one we have right now. Otherwise, we are gambling on the prospect that Labor will win next year’s election, and be able to form a government that would bring on a Marriage Equality bill. And yes, there’s more chance that Labor will keep its promise, but we can’t say when that would happen, or even if it would pass.

By participating, we put pressure on the government. It’s done a deal with the devil by coming up with this postal plebiscite. The Prime Minister knows he has the beginnings of a back-bench revolt on his hands, and this is the best stopgap measure he can devise. He’s hoping the plebiscite will fail, and can therefore try to get away from this issue.

Don’t let him.

(This article is licensed under Creative Commons. It may be shared in whole or in part, with author attribution. Please share widely.)
crazyjane: (moondark)
When I started blogging about Australian politics, I did so with the aim of helping make it more accessible to those of us outside the rarefied atmosphere of Canberra. My secondary objective was to try to convey the idea that we, as citizens and voters, are not powerless; that we can have an active place in the social and political issues of the day that extend beyond ticking a few boxes on a ballot paper.

I can't claim that I succeeded, by a long shot. It would be good to think that I had some influence that led to others speaking up, acting on the courage of their convictions, but honestly, it's not something I will ever know. That's not really the point, though. I didn't do it to score brownie points (or karma points, or what have you).

For a while, though, I thought there was something happening. People would contact me saying that they had always 'switched off' before when it came to politics, but were now following the issues, discussing and acting. Others commented that they were making an effort to understand what was going on. I'd call that a victory.


It's simplistic to lay it all at the feet of a change of government. The fact is that the majority of Australians voted for the Liberal/National Coalition to take over, and the only way I can explain that is to think that either they wanted to punish the ALP for something, or that they swallowed what was - to me, at least - a transparent scare campaign full of lies. Otherwise, I simply can't fathom why allegedly reasonable people would vote themselves into a situation where low income earners are targeted to come under even more financial stress, where our greenhouse gas emissions skyrocket and contribute to even faster climate change, where we are complicit in the horrendous treatment of people who seek asylum from us. The list goes on - but what matters is that the vote did swing that way, and this is the government we have.

I could write about that. I could marshal my words, cite my sources, invite interviews and examine and analyse and criticise. I'd lose whatever objectivity I strove for, but sometimes objectivity is not all it's cracked up to be. To paraphrase Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom, there aren't always two sides to every story - and I don't think I could even pretend there is in any case.

What's so different this time around?

Part of the answer lies in my mental health problems, and I've written about those before. There's just too much that I need to deal with. It's not the whole story, though. The rest lies in the government itself. When I sit back and look at how this government conducts its business, all I can see is a political coalition revelling in its staggering majority and running roughshod over principles, rules and even the most basically decent behaviour. Like any ungracious and insecure winner, they gloat and change the rules to ensure no one can ever knock them off their pedestals - or even get near.

It was a tradition of Parliament that an Opposition could move to suspend the normal business of the House to bring on a debate and vote of importance, such as a censure. Certainly, when the ALP was in power, the Coalition availed themselves of that power on a daily basis - sometimes even several times a day. As soon as they were elected, however, they used their majority to remove that ability altogether. There is now no way the House of Representatives can bring a censure motion, or any other motion that the government doesn't want. They can silence any voice in that chamber. Any voice.

The President of the Senate, John Hogg, is a tiger more toothless than the United Nations. He drones, 'Order! Order!', and - very occasionally - directs a government Senator to actually put some relevance into their answer. As he notes himself, however, he can't actually force that Senator to comply - and the government is not slow to take advantage of that. Government Senators will happily ignore any directive from the President, to the point where they'll shout him down as he's trying to make a ruling.

As for Bronwyn Bishop, the Speaker of the House - it's an understatement to say she is a partisan hack who clearly enjoys her position of power. She bestows fond smiles on the Prime Minister and his front bench, saving her most delighted expressions for those times when the government either completely ignores the rules of the House, or when she can stymie any voice that might dare to lift itself in opposition. She loves point scoring, and will happily receive the fawning praise of Education Minister Chris Pyne. When he shouts abuse at Tanya Plibersek, Bishop nods and smiles. When Plibersek mutters under her breath, Bishop scolds her and throws her out, and Pyne shouts threats after her - threats that Bishop backs up approvingly, saying, 'Indeed'.

This is the Speaker who, in an interview, smugly declared that she'd 'brought decorum back into the House'.

There's no decorum. There's no democracy, no 'for the people, by the people'. Sure, the government has a majority - but they're using that majority to silence any dissenting voice. Don't like 'em? Gag 'em. Don't want to deal with them any further? Throw them out, on the slightest provocation. They've taken Question Time to new levels of absurdity, substituting reading from press releases and abuse for substantive answers. (And yes, I know all governments attempt to be obscure, but this government is worse even than Paul Keating's.)

This should be familiar to anyone who ever inhabited a school playground, or watched their own kids at school. It's bullying. The confidence of Chris Pyne is the confidence of a weak kid who knows he's got tough mates. He's the kid who pulls the girls' ponytails, and then runs to the bigger kid - Abbott - who's urging him on. And when his favourite teacher (Bishop) happens to be on Yard Duty, he can get away with murder.

It goes on. Day after day after day. If it's not the systematic dismantling of virtually every social reform of the last six years, it's doing everything possible to ensure that only one message goes out, only one voice is heard. Criticism of the military is virtually banned, while Parliamentary privilege is abused and blatant lies are told about everything from upcoming government policy to the personal characters of Labor, Greens and Independent MPs and Senators. In the midst of all this, the government declares itself the champion of free speech and truth. Just today the Attorney-General George Brandis stood with figurative hand on heart to righteously condemn those who would not allow notorious hard-right columnist, serial defamer and noted racist Andrew Bolt to say whatever he wanted to say about whoever he liked. For Brandis, the mere thought that Bolt might have to temper his words and refrain from defaming an indigenous person was truly horrifying. Of course, that doesn't apply to anyone who doesn't agree with the government. Such people are simply not allowed to even insinuate that a government Minister might be abusing his position.

While all the posturing and bullying goes on, there's so much pointless, ridiculous noise. Rather than expending energy building our society up, the government divides, silences and punishes. Yes, punishes. What else can you call it when someone whose only 'crime' is to be in a low-paying job has the payment that helps them buy their kids school textbooks is removed in favour of paying hundreds of millions of dollars to corporations in profit? When a woman in a low income job has her superannuation contribution axed, while a woman earning $150,000 a year is given a massive parental leave payment and government paid super?

And then the government appears puzzled by the idea that people might take to the streets to protest. 'What's their message?' 'What are they after, anyway?' 'Oh, it's a disaffected minority, the loony Left'. No - 50,000 people in one city, over 100,000 around the country, all marching together, all gathering under banners protesting this government's behaviour - that isn't a 'disaffected minority'. It's a cry for help from people who cannot otherwise be heard. They literally have to stop traffic to get the attention of those in power, and even then they're laughed at and dismissed.

This is not democracy.

This is not the country I've loved.

This is not the country I want my children to inherit.

I want my children to inherit a country in which dissent is not only permitted, it is expected. I want them to live in a society that understands what social justice means, that believes the first duty of a government is to its people, not to its bank balance.

I do not know if I have the strength, anymore, to fight. I do not know where, or even if that strength can still be found.

I only know that my children deserve far better than this - and so, don't I owe it to them to try?

August 2017

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