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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.

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