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Issue #1747      September 7, 2016


Plebiscite already causing division

The Australian electorate is known to be cautious and conservative when it comes to plebiscites and referendums. Often the wording of the proposition is so restrictive or inadequate in dealing with the question that voters give a resounding thumbs down to ideas that have solid support in the community. The 1999 referendum to make Australia a republic was a classic of the type. The currently proposed plebiscite, supposedly to test support for same sex marriage, suffers from this problem including a number of others that are already causing division.

The poll, estimated to cost a hefty $160 million, won’t decide the matter. The federal parliament won’t be bound by the decision. It could ignore a “yes” vote and continue to dither on the issue despite overwhelming popular support. A “no” vote, arising from a rejection of the wording of the question or some other circumstance, would set back any move to change the marriage act for a long time. A plebiscite, rather than a vote of the federal parliament, is a “win/win” for opponents of change.

It is instructive that the marriage act was amended by a vote of the parliament as recently as 2004. It was in the period when the Howard government had a majority in both houses and was very busy advancing its reactionary agenda. It changed the act to unambiguously define marriage as the union of a man and a woman. The argument presently being advanced by these same political forces that the people, rather than the houses of parliament, should decide the question stinks to high heaven.

Clearly, there is a range of opinion among the Coalition’s gang in parliament. The group that appears to be dominating policy on the question of the marriage act is gathered around former Prime Minister Tony Abbott and ultra-reactionary SA Senator Cory Bernardi. The latter is currently leading the charge to repeal section 18C of the Racial Descrimination Act. This would allow bigots to give vent to their hatred without fear of prosecution. Smearing Islam is another tool of Bernardi’s community-dividing trade.

For some time, the federal parliament has been riddled with members pushing a reactionary social program. On the Labor side are former protégés of the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association – a union whose leadership is notorious for selling out its lowly-paid membership while it pursues its ultra-conservative hobbyhorses, including opposition to equal marriage. Former heavyweights of the Australian Workers Union come from a similar anti-Communist background with a deep commitment to keeping the basic pillars of capitalist society in place.

For all that, the ALP committed itself to a parliamentary vote in the lead-up to the federal election. It sniffed the political wind and noted, correctly, that the community wants this question decided quickly so that people can get on with their lives with respect and equal rights. As it stands, the debate is a distraction from the many legislative and other attacks on workers and other exploited people. This is just what the reactionary elements on the Australian political scene want.

Some have pointed to the experience of the vote in favour of same sex marriage in Ireland last year and claimed it as a success story for the holding of a nation-wide poll. In that case, the vote for change was won but the cost was high. Visiting celebrity and symbol of the poll, Panti Bliss (Rory O’Neill), emphasises that a vote in parliament would be a far less destructive method. The referendum in Ireland was the cue for hate-mongers to weigh into the “debate”. They got major media attention for their unpopular homophobic cause due to a distorted application of the principle of journalistic “balance”.

There is no doubt that a plebiscite would mobilise the same forces in this country. They will rally their lobby groups and “foundations” to stir hatred for LGTBI Australians. A matter that could be resolved simply and in a dignified manner will become an ugly opportunity to build political careers on the extreme right. The holding of a plebiscite on equal marriage must be opposed.

Next article – Nauru Fathers’ Day hijack

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