Why A Same Sex Marriage Plebiscite Might Do More Harm Than Good

Words by: Anthony Worrall

Yesterday, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull confirmed that Australia will be having a public vote on the legal right for people of the same sex to marry, which has marked the end of months of speculation over when it will be held, or even if it would be held at all. While the end of tedious political speculation is always nice, in the next few months up until February 2017, public discourse around the amendment to the Marriage Act is set to take a much darker turn, which will mar the probable victory of the ‘Yes’ vote through how it will impact the lives of those it affects most.

Firstly, it is important to define the process of a plebiscite. Traditionally, a plebiscite functions as a solution to a publicly and politically divisive subject, where consensus can only be achieved via a public vote. However it is important to note that in no situation is a plebiscite actually mandatory to have – it’s just a way for the government to establish a clear mandate to legislate on the topic. Unlike a referendum to alter the Australian Constitution, the result of any plebiscite is not binding, meaning that the government can choose not to enact the vote into legislation.

It would be logical then, to conclude that a plebiscite on a topic would be entirely unnecessary if broad consensus on the matter already existed. If this consensus in opinion existed in both Parliament and broader society, it would be the desired circumstance in a pluralist democracy for the opinions of Members of Parliament and the electorates they represent, on the whole, to mirror each other. In an ideal democracy, views and values of MPs would be completely representative of their electorates, however due to this cheeky thing called politics and the divisions in opinion that exist on most areas of public policy, one MP cannot possibly entirely reflect and represent the views of their electorate. So, when majority opinion in Parliament & society achieve parity, the passing of legislation concerned by this is clean modern democracy in action.

However, in depressing contrast, this brings us back to the same-sex marriage plebiscite. Data gathered by the ABC’s Vote Compass survey in the build-up to the election this July revealed that roughly 56% of Australians support marriage between same-sex couples, in addition to several Galaxy Polls in recent years that have shown majority support all around the area of 60%. Furthermore, one poll in 2011 found that three-quarters of Australians believed that same-sex marriage was inevitable in Australia. Another poll in 2014 by Marriage Equality Australia conducted by respected political analyst Lynton Crosby suggested that roughly 70% of Australians would support the notion, along with – arguably more importantly – the majority of those identifying as religious in favour of same-sex marriage too. Furthermore, over three-quarters of respondents agreed that MPs should be granted a conscience vote in Parliament to pass legislation on the matter. Furthermore, a recent report done by Buzzfeed News has shown that a clear majority of 84 MPs in the new Parliament would support the legalisation of same-sex marriage.

So, based on this evidence, the government would have the will of the people behind them if they were to draft legislation allowing same-sex couples to get married. Adding insult to injury, PwC accounting have estimated that the cost of a plebiscite on same-sex marriage would cost upwards of half a billion Australian dollars, due to multiple factors such as ‘lost productivity’, and most importantly, funding both sides of the vote, which would cost a reported $33 million each, although Australian Marriage Equality have petitioned against funding either side. This means that, in just a few months’ time, there will be a tax-payer-funded campaign against the right of same-sex couples to legally entrench their love for one another. Perhaps ominously, PwC’s financial estimations for the plebiscite also allocate $20 million – roughly two-thirds of the cost of one campaign for the vote – to “the impact on the mental health and wellbeing of the gay and lesbian community”.

While based on public opinion, the ‘Yes’ to same-sex marriage vote appears to be the most likely winner of the options, the plebiscite will bring a significant amount of mental turmoil to those who it seeks to benefit the most. This is outright dangerous – according to BeyondBlue, the mental health of LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and/or intersex people) is amongst “the poorest in Australia”. Roughly a quarter of gay, lesbian & bisexual people, and over a third of transsexual people in Australia met BB’s criteria for experiencing a major depressive episode, compared to 6.8% of the general population, meaning that LGBTI people experience such episodes roughly 5 times more than the general population. In addition to this, it was also found that same-sex-attracted Australians were around 14 times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. More evidence for how these already grim statistics are likely to inflate can be found in Ireland’s public referendum on same-sex marriage last year, with the main ‘Against’ campaign vigorously stating that “children deserve a mother and a father”, and more or less arguing that same-sex marriage threatened to normalise a behaviour that was essentially biologically degenerate. With mental illness so prevalent amongst the often difficult experiences of LGBTI people in Australia already, imagine the further impact on your mental health after being told that what you feel for the love of your life is biologically inferior and objectively less important to how any straight person loves theirs. The plebiscite will give both funding and a platform to such bigoted views.

This becomes even more dangerous when you consider who is rumoured to be spearheading the ‘Against’ campaign: John fucking Howard. This causes one to question the statistically likely success of the ‘Yes’ vote, for as the colossal cluster fuck of Brexit has shown, the power and charisma of a campaign leader can have an enormous impact of the result of a public vote, compared to initial predictions. Regardless of how much of a terrible human being he is, Howard is one of the most popular Australian Prime Ministers of the last half-century, as evidenced in part to the length of his tenure as leader, and perhaps also how much of a hot seat the Prime Ministership has become since he lost the 2007 election, compared to the relative stability his period in charge brought. Funnily enough, his government actually introduced the Marriage Amendment Act in 2004, which would be removed under a successful ‘Yes’ vote. Not only would his endorsement of the ‘No’ campaign alone win votes, the impact of such a respected political figure telling LGBTI people they don’t deserve the legal recognition of their love will make the whole experience far more harmful than it already will be.

Ultimately, in the discourse around the plebiscite, there won’t be a ‘debate’. As supported by the Australian Christian Lobby’s request for the government to suspend anti-discrimination laws for the campaign period, the plebiscite will simply legalise and normalise hate speech. Imagine if instead of drafting the Racial Discrimination Act through Parliament in 1975, the Whitlam government opted to hold a plebiscite on the matter, where a campaign defending one’s right to racially abuse or insult someone would be given public exposure and a platform. This is no different – hazardous discourse that will directly impact the already at-risk mental health of the LGBTI community will be given a public platform, and all for an entirely unnecessary plebiscite.