A RECENT poll showed that 66 per cent of the general population believe there should be a national vote of sorts on marriage equality.
From the outside, a plebiscite may look perfectly reasonable. It is a democratic method to resolve an impasse in Federal Parliament. Human rights issues have been resolved by a public vote in the past: voting rights for Indigenous Australians, the planned referendum to recognise Indigenous Australians in the Constitution and to remove discriminatory clauses, and, of course, the Irish marriage equality referendum. It could be the breakthrough we need in this increasingly bitter debate.
[showads ad=MREC]However, LGBTI voices have yet to be properly heard on a national vote which would affect our rights.
Our survey found that 70 per cent of respondents do not support a national vote on marriage equality.
While a public vote might be seen as a breakthrough, in reality it is unnecessary, costly and potentially harmful to young or vulnerable LGBTI people and their families.
Firstly, it is a $100m million-plus opinion poll, the cost of which would be much better spent on health, roads or education. Secondly, the ensuing public campaign could cause grave harm to young or vulnerable people.
Here are some of the selected concerns raised in our survey:
“I worry for my daughters who are young and vulnerable.”
“I fear the impact on my own mental health let alone that of people who are less strong or more vulnerable than I am.”
“A protracted public debate is so emotionally difficult for me and my children.”
Under the current bill there is no public funding for a “yes” campaign to take on the cashed-up anti-marriage equality lobby.
Worst of all is that a marriage plebiscite actually rewards Federal Parliament’s inaction on this issue. By putting this to a public vote, parliament is abdicating its responsibility to act. The outcome of a plebiscite is not even legally binding, and may simply lead to further delaying on their part.
Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard said in a recent lecture: “A plebiscite or referendum is an idea of superficial appeal and long-lived dangers.”
On this basis, the Greens and cross-party Marriage Equality Plebiscite Bill should be rejected and this should instead be resolved through a parliamentary vote where all members are entitled to a free vote. The Greens allow a conscience vote, Labor allows a conscience vote and it is time for the Coalition to do the same.
Nevertheless, there is a real risk the government may independently establish a plebiscite on its own terms.
With this in mind, if a plebiscite were to be held, it should be held at a fixed date after the next Federal Election. It’s clear the LGBTI community is tired of waiting, with 53 per cent of survey respondents saying they wanted this issue resolved before the next election, but it is equally clear that LGBTI people do not want this resolved through an unnecessary, costly and harmful public vote.
Delaying a public vote until after the general election would ensure the public has the opportunity to consider each party’s position on a plebiscite at the polling booth — and vote accordingly. The Coalition has promised a public vote in the next term. Labor has promised a parliamentary vote within the first 100 days of forming government.
The choice is clear.
Sean Mulcahy is the co-convenor of the Victorian Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby. To read the lobby’s submission to the Senate enquiry on a plebiscite and more, visit vglrl.org.au. You can follow the lobby on Twitter: @VGLRL. Sean tweets at @seanamulcahy
**This opinion piece was first published in the October edition of the Star Observer, which is available to read in digital flip-book format. To obtain a physical copy, click here to find out where you can grab one in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, Canberra and select regional/coastal areas.