The ALP, the Plebiscite, and Marriage Equality

A couple of years ago I wrote a piece about Kevin Rudd’s support of marriage equality. It was, frankly, over-dramatic and painfully self-righteous and looking back on it I cringe a little. I’m leaving it up, instead of hiding the old shame, because although my presentation was awful, the argument itself I fully stand by.

The message was simple; if the duplicitous attitude of Kevin Rudd is what we need to get marriage equality to be a thing that happens in this country, then I’m A-OK with it. The sentiment is best captured by this quote from the movie Lincoln:

Thaddeus Stevens: “I’m sorry you’re nauseous, Asa. That must be unpleasant. I want the amendment to pass, so that the constitution’s first and only mention of slavery is its absolute prohibition. For this amendment, for which I have worked all my life and for which countless coloured men and women have fought and died and now hundreds of thousands of soldiers [pause] no, sir, no, it seems there’s very nearly nothing I won’t say.”

We can extend this to the entire Labor Party. If the opportunism of the ALP, anxious to capitalise on an issue that is wildly popular – to the tune of 72% (±3%) in favour (Cox 2014) – is what it takes to get marriage equality up in this country, then I’m perfectly OK with that. I’m not going to demand that every MP or Senator voting for it be squeaky-clean on this issue, or that they come from a party that has supported it from the word go.

Pointing fingers and awarding medals can happen when the fight is won; to do so before then is just a waste of energy and effort. Do you think, even for a moment, that the opponents of marriage equality are engaging in such petty infighting? If they are, they’ve done a good job of keeping quiet about it; there’s the occasional snipe at the Australian Christian Lobby, and that’s it. Point being that the opponents of marriage equality aren’t jockeying for credit; they’re busy lobbying parliamentarians. So please, take a leaf out of their book and do try to keep your eye on the ball.

“But what about the plebiscite?”

What about it? We’ve had exactly three in the history of this country. Three. Here they are:

  • 1916: military service conscription (defeated)
  • 1917: reinforcement of the Australian Imperial Force overseas (which was just conscription again) (defeated)
  • 1977: choice of Australia’s national anthem (Advance Australia Fair preferred)

(Holmes 2011)

We didn’t have one when we abolished the death penalty – a literal matter of life and death. We didn’t have one when we changed how divorces happen, or during the numerous times we’ve changed how marriage works (can you rape your wife? No? That change was made in 1992). We didn’t have one when we introduced conscription for the Vietnam War (Department of Veterans’ Affairs, Australian Government 2016). There isn’t a peep of having one over the Trans-Pacific Partnership. There wasn’t one over the Australia-US Free Trade Agreement. We have never had one on actually going to war – or on ratifying a treaty that would require us to go to war. And we didn’t have one in 2004 when the Marriage Act was amended to specifically exclude same-sex couples.

But for some reason passing understanding, it’s absolutely vital now that we have one to allow two people of the same sex in a loving and committed relationship to get married.

What a load of tosh. Let’s call it what it is; at best it’s a $160 million (Doran 2015) glorified opinion poll, but far more likely it’s just a horrendously expensive delaying tactic. Plebiscites are not binding. Don’t believe me? Here’s the Parliamentary Library (Holmes op cit.):

Before a national plebiscite can take place, an enabling bill proposing the plebiscite and setting out its purpose must be passed by parliament. The bill thereby becomes an Act enabling a vote to be conducted by the Australian Electoral Commission. The enabling legislation may or may not specify any actions expected of the government as a result of the plebiscite. In the case of a carbon tax plebiscite that simply asked whether electors are in favour of a carbon tax or not, the government could ignore the plebiscite result and pursue its own preferred outcome through the Parliament. Indeed, Mr Abbott himself said that if a plebiscite favoured a carbon tax he would ignore the result (Hudson 2011).

Even if the enabling legislation specifies that something must be done, it isn’t binding. It’s not a constitutional referendum; Parliament can simply ignore it. Indeed, both Senators Abetz (Taylor 2016) and Bernardi (Kenny and Knot 2016) have already said they would defy the result of the plebiscite if it was in favour of same-sex marriage. And we haven’t even touched on the Prime Minister’s suddenly tepid feet (Hutchens and Hasham 2016).

So if you come to me and say that you think a yes vote on the plebiscite will result in same-sex marriage in this country, then this is my response to you. You can’t say that this will lead to that; you can say it may lead to that, but even then the causative relationship is shaky on a good day.

At most this waste of taxpayer money that could have gone to schools or helping victims of violence will provide a handy fig-leaf for some politicians severely lacking in testicular fortitude. Frankly, if a US Republican was able to find the guts to vote in favour of equality back in 2012 (Friedersdorf 2012), then those of our polity who favour it and are too timid to vote for it without setting millions of taxpayer dollars on fire don’t deserve to be in the House.

On a side note, seeing as the Australian Christian Lobby has already said they want to be exempted from provisions of law that restrict hate speech (Ireland 2016a), Blind Freddy can see exactly what kind of discussion we can expect from that side while $160m is pissed into the wind. I’m sure that it will do wonders for the legion of same-sex attracted youth already at a higher risk of depression and suicide because of the crap they already cop. That move is, hilariously, completely unnecessary (Ireland 2016b), but I suppose we should thank them for making it clear that the only way you can argue against marriage equality is through hatred and denigration of gay people.

The plebiscite isn’t even a referendum; the High Court has already said that the Federal Parliament has the power to legislate same-sex marriage into existence (ABC Fact Check 2013). No referendum needed. All the plebiscite would do gauge national opinion on the matter. Crosby-Textor or Galaxy can do the exact same thing to within a few percentage points for a fraction of the cost, without a nationwide hate campaign being launched against gay people by a bunch of retrograde mammoths – and they’ve done so a great many times (Australian Marriage Equality 2015).

Let’s be honest with each other; the marriage plebiscite is nothing more than a stalling tactic pushed in a bid to allow national apathy to take hold and reinforce the status quo. Anyone who says otherwise is either a liar or a naïve fool. Anyone who actually believes otherwise is the sort of person willing to wire their life savings to a deposed Nigerian Prince.

Oh, don’t get me wrong; if we absolutely have to go through with this ridiculous charade then I’ll do what I can to secure a “yes” vote.

But frankly I think that the opportunism of members of a Shorten Government seeking to capitalise on the issue is a much better bet – and it will spare us a great deal of the hateful shit that will pour forth from the mouths of the homophobes (and save you, the taxpayer, $160m – think of what else could be done with that money).

And if that’s what it takes to get us equality before the law, then yes, I’m OK with it. As I said above, I’m not going to require that every single “yea” vote come from an MP or Senator, or from a party, that has had pure principles on this matter from its inception – and the reason I’m not going to require that is twofold.

First, I’m an adult. I understand that people change their positions, that political parties cheerfully screw people over and then change their stance when the public mood shifts to win votes, and that the good guys weren’t always good, and may have been very bad in the past. It’s called the real world. If you want a world where the good guys were always good and that stuff doesn’t happen, I suggest you stick to the Saturday morning cartoons.

Second, it’s bullshit cosmetics. Yes, the ALP have been unscrupulous bastards in the past, but they’re here now and that’s what matters; the health and well-being of same-sex attracted people (Australian Marriage Equality 2011) (which includes myself) is more important than requiring that the parliamentary supporters of marriage equality be morally pure on the issue. I even welcome the “yea” votes of the Coalition on this; because we need them.

Stop poking around in the gift horse’s mouth already; you don’t have to ride it very far. If you can’t restrain yourself, then fine, go ahead and whine about the duplicity of the ALP on this topic, but please do it quietly, because the grown-ups have work to do.

Addendum, 15 March 2016

So now I’m reading that PwC has found that whole preposterous exercise will cost us over half a billion dollars:

the plebiscite itself would cost $158 million to stage, not counting the extra $66 million in public funding likely to be committed to promote both the “yes” and “no” arguments. The modelling suggests there would be another $281 million surrendered from the national economy from lost production as people take the time to vote. That is, around $525 million all up. (Kenny 2016)

So half a billion dollars will be pissed away in a pathetic attempt to delay what about two-thirds of the people of Australia want to see happen (Essential Media 2016) – and if the result is a “yes”, then a number of politicians will ignore it anyway. This is, to put it in the nicest possible way, fucking stupid.


ABC Fact Check. 2013. ‘Fact File: High Court Decision on ACT Same-Sex Marriage Laws’. Text. ABC News. December 13.

Australian Marriage Equality. 2011. ‘In Sickness and in Health; How Marriage Equality Means a Healthier Community’. Australian Marriage Equality.

———. 2015. ‘Public Opinion: Nationally’. Australian Marriage Equality.

Cox, Lisa. 2014. ‘Poll Shows Growing Support for Same-Sex Marriage’. The Sydney Morning Herald, July 15.

Department of Veterans’ Affairs, Australian Government. 2016. ‘Australia and the Vietnam War | Conscription’.

Doran, Matthew. 2015. ‘Same-Sex Marriage: Government Will Legislate Result of Plebiscite, Warren Entsch Says’. Text. ABC News. September 7.

Essential Media. 2016. ‘Same Sex Marriage’. The Essential Report. Essential Media.

Friedersdorf, Conor. 2012. ‘A Lonely Widow’s Conscience Helped Gay Marriage Pass in Washington’. The Atlantic, February 9.

Holmes, Brenton. 2011. ‘A Quick Guide to Plebiscites in Australia’. Flagpost. Parliamentary Library of Australia.

Hudson, Phillip. 2011. ‘Tony Abbott Admits He Won’t Accept a Yes Vote on Carbon Tax’. Herald Sun, June 20.

Hutchens, Greg, and Nicole Hasham. 2016. ‘PM Puts the Brakes on Same-Sex Marriage Pledge’. The Sydney Morning Herald, March 6.

Ireland, Judith. 2016a. ‘Christian Lobby Seeks Anti-Discrimination “Override” for Plebiscite Campaign’. The Sydney Morning Herald, February 16.

———. 2016b. ‘Call to Suspend Hate Laws “Disgraceful”: Gillian Triggs’. The Sydney Morning Herald, February 17.

Kenny, Mark. 2016. ‘Revealed: Divisive Marriage Equality Plebiscite to Cost Australia More than $500 Million’. The Sydney Morning Herald, March 13.

Kenny, Mark, and Matthew Knot. 2016. ‘Same-Sex Marriage Threatens Coalition Unity’. The Sydney Morning Herald, January 27.

Taylor, Lenore. 2016. ‘Eric Abetz: Coalition MPs Will Not Be Bound by Plebiscite on Marriage Equality’. The Guardian, January 27, sec. Australia news.