Should the public be consulted about same-sex marriage, or should it ultimately be left to politicians to decide?
The Liberal-National coalition was re-elected on the promise that a plebiscite would be held on the issue.
However, the situation became more complicated when the Greens leader, Richard di Natale, announced that he would not support a plebiscite in the Senate.
Nevertheless, the issue of redefining marriage is far too important to be decided by politicians, writes journalist Michael Cook:
“Holding a plebiscite at least recognises the solemnity of a decision taken by the nation to reconfigure foundational social bonds. If disastrous consequences ensue, at least we will know who was responsible.”
In his dissent in Obergefell v. Hodges, The Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court put it eloquently:
“This universal definition of marriage as the union of a man and a woman is no historical coincidence. Marriage did not come about as a result of a political movement, discovery, disease, war, religious doctrine, or any other moving force of world history—and certainly not as a result of a prehistoric decision to exclude gays and lesbians. It arose in the nature of things to meet a vital need: ensuring that children are conceived by a mother and father committed to raising them in the stable conditions of a lifelong relationship.”
The fundamental debate underlying same-sex marriage is whether kids need – or have a right to – a mum and a dad, that is, whether gender is relevant to the most fundamental unit of society. Such a fundamental question requires the input of all members of the electorate, not just politicians.
As Cook points out, many public intellectuals and other social elites will often argue that the electorate cannot understand public policy issues. Referring to the recent Brexit decision, prominent biologist Richard Dawkins wrote in Prospect Magazine:
“It is unfair to thrust on to unqualified simpletons the responsibility to take historic decisions of great complexity and sophistication.”
A plebiscite will give the public the opportunity to vote on this highly significant issue. While Labor leader Bill Shorten has proclaimed that a plebiscite will be a “taxpayer-funded platform for homophobia”, such accusations link a public vote to a plebiscite without foundation. As Christine Foster, sister of former PM Tony Abbott and one of the nation’s most prominent lesbians has said:
"…obviously there are some people who discriminate and vilify homosexuals but those people have always been there. They are not going to go away."
Mr Shorten’s comments wrongly presume that the poor behaviour is one-sided, even though recent examples show not only hateful words, but intimidation and threats of violence ironically coming from those campaigning under a #LoveWins banner. Nevertheless, a respectful debate is both possible and necessary. The Australian people deserve the right to vote on the issue.
Now, the main question must be addressed: is the plebiscite a waste of money, as many LGBTI advocates claim? Cook continues:
“Not if you believe that intact biological families are vital to the social and economic health of society. If traditional marriage contracts, the welfare state will expand. Two years ago, it was estimated that divorce and family breakdown cost Australian taxpayers $14 billion a year in welfare payments and court costs. The cost of the plebiscite is about 1 percent of this. If the plebiscite helps to stop the erosion of traditional marriage, it will be money well spent.”
In conclusion, Cook writes:
Politics in a democracy is all about the cut and thrust of controversial ideas. Asserting that an idea is too controversial to be debated is a denial of our commitment to free speech.
Perhaps the best reason for a plebiscite is that it will settle the question of whether Australians really want same-sex marriage. If a decision is reached through a simple show of hands in Parliament, many of us opponents will complain that the most sacred institution of our culture has been trashed by opportunists. But with a plebiscite, there can be no doubt about what the electorate thinks. And if we lose, we will only have ourselves to blame.