10 reasons why we shouldn't vote on marriage equality

23 May 2016

IMAGE: (Mikeybear; Wikimedia; CC BY-SA 3.0)

By Professor Paula Gerber

In 2004, the Howard Government amended the Marriage Act to define marriage as being between a man and a woman. Prior to this amendment, marriage had been expressed in gender neutral terms. This change to the Marriage Act was rushed through Parliament in order to prevent same-sex couples who had legally married in Canada having their marriages recognised in Australia.

At the time, John Howard said:

“(It should) not over time be subject to redefinition or change by courts, it is something that ought to be expressed through the elected representatives of the country.”

Fast forward to 2016, and we see a very different attitude being expressed by the current Government.  According to the Abbott and Turnbull Governments it is not the elected representatives who should decide whether same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, but rather the Australian people via a plebiscite.

Conducting a plebiscite on marriage equality is wrong on many levels. Here are my top 10 reasons why we should not be holding a plebiscite.

  1. It’s unnecessary

    Parliament has both the power to amend the Marriage Act to allow same-sex couples to wed, in just the same way the Howard Government amended it in 2004 to block same-sex couples from legally marrying. Ireland had to have a referendum on the issue because the only way same-sex couples would be able to wed was if the Constitution was amended and that required a referendum. There is no such requirement in Australia.

  2. It’s Parliament’s responsibility

    The nature of democracy is that we elect our politicians to make decisions. The High Court made it clear in its judgment in the 2013 challenge to the ACT’s same-sex marriage laws that Federal Parliament has the power to amend the Marriage Act to allow same-sex couples to marry. It has been observed that our Parliament routinely legislates in respect of socially contentious issues without resorting to plebiscites, including:

    “Women were given the vote, the death penalty abolished, homosexuality  decriminalised, no-fault divorce introduced, the White Australia Policy reversed and detention centres for asylum seekers set up in the Pacific Islands – all without the mandate of a plebiscite.”

    There is nothing special about recognising the right of all couples to marry regardless of their gender that makes it qualitatively different from the above examples.

  3. It’s too expensive

    Modelling by accounting firm PwC estimates that the cost of a standalone plebiscite - that is, one that's not held in conjunction with an election) would be $525 million. I, for one, can think of a lot of better ways to spend half a billion dollars.

  4. It is no more than a glorified opinion poll

    It is rare that Cory Bernardi and I agree on anything, but he has labelled the proposed plebiscite nothing more than a “glorified opinion poll”, and I concur. We already have numerous opinion polls that show the Australian public overwhelmingly support marriage equality, so the government should just get on with enacting the reform.

  5. Parliament is under no obligation to give effect to the plebiscite result

    Unlike a referendum, there is no obligation on Parliament to give effect to the will of the people as expressed in a plebiscite. Three senators - Bridget McKenzie, Cory Bernardi and Eric Abetz - have indicated they will not vote in favour of marriage equality even if a plebiscite reveals that the majority of Australians are in favour of such reform. Without any rules requiring Parliament to enact legislation consistent with the result of the plebiscite, it is a risky and pointless exercise.

  6. It will be divisive

    The public nature of the debate leading up to a plebiscite is likely to include abusive and discriminatory commentary.

    We had a glimpse of this when the NSW Education Minister banned the screening of the documentary Gayby Baby at schools, and The Daily Telegraph ran a piece asserting that:

    “The drive to create the fantasy that homosexual families are the norm has come from the politically left-leaning Teachers Federation which is also pushing the Safe Schools Coalition, another political front group, which claims that anyone not involved in promoting safety for the “same-sex attracted, intersex and gender diverse young people, staff, families and communities” are bigots.”

    Vitriolic attacks such as these in the media are likely to divide rather than unite our society.

  7. It will harm children and vulnerable youth

    Following on from Number 6, the toxic campaigns that are likely to accompany a plebiscite will have a harmful impact on the mental health and wellbeing of LGBTI children and youth as well as the children of same sex parents. This is inconsistent with protecting the best interests of children. According to numerous studies, LGBTI people have extremely high rates of psychological illnesses and suicide rates compared to the mainstream community. This is directly linked to discrimination and marginalisation. In particular, it has been shown that the younger the age group, the more likely a LGBTI person will suffer from psychological illnesses compared to their non-LGBTI counterparts. This makes children and youth particularly vulnerable to the debate that will precede a plebiscite.

  8. It’s just a delay tactic

    The idea of a plebiscite was first mooted by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott in August 2015. The earliest a plebiscite is likely to be held is 2017. And then who knows how long it will be before legislation is enacted to give effect to the outcome of the plebiscite? Having an expensive and unnecessary plebiscite appears to be a tactic by opponents of marriage equality to just delay the inevitable for as long as possible.

  9. Haven’t we got more important things to focus on?

    Whilst denying same-sex couples the right to marry is a breach of human rights, there are many other human rights violations that can be easily ignored while attention is focused on the marriage equality debate. There is an urgent need to address homelessness, Indigenous disadvantage, racism, the plight of asylum seekers and refugees and family violence, to name just some of the pressing human rights issues facing Australia. Dealing with marriage equality in a timely and efficient manner would free up resources to address these other human rights concerns.

  10. It’s embarrassing
    Australia stands alone as the only English speaking developed country to still deny same-sex couples the right to wed. It is embarrassing that countries as diverse as Spain, South Africa and Columbia have all found a way to legalise marriage for same-sex couples ahead of Australia. It is time for Australia to enter the twenty-first century and embrace marriage equality, so that we can truthfully claim to be a country that respects the rights of LGBTI people.

Keep up to date with Professor Gerber's work and follow her on Twitter (@DrPaulaGerber).