procrastination, heresy, and navel-gazing.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The long read: Same Sex Marriage

To plebiscite or not to plebiscite?

This election has been spruiked as a once in a lifetime election because of one issue: Same Sex Marriage (hereafter SSM). This is one issue that, if carried by parliament, will irreparably change Australian society forever more. Of the four major parties, there is a spectrum of opinions. The Liberal Party have a mixed opinion, with the member for Bennelong, John Alexander, remaining undeclared, and a mixture of supporters and dissenters among the Liberal Senate candidates. The official position of the Liberal party is that there would be a national plebiscite by the end of 2016, whereafter parliamentarians would be free to vote according to their conscience, which would mean either what they think, what their electorate thinks, or what the nation as a whole thinks. The National party, while in coalition with the Liberals, is mostly opposed to both the plebiscite as well as the idea of SSM, so would most likely vote against it in any instance. The Labor party currently have a conscience vote, although at their national conference last year, support of SSM from 2017  became a principle of membership. The member for Parramatta is listed as a supporter of SSM, and her party has pledged to bring about a parliamentary vote (with no plebiscite) within the first 100 days in office. Currently the Labor senators are mixed, but as mentioned above that will change from next year. The fourth largest party, the Greens, are not in favour of a plebiscite, but are in favour of SSM. It is worth mentioning in passing the Christian Democrats, who are unlikely to gain any members in the House of Representatives but may gain (or retain) a senator and thus be part of the cross-bench in the Senate who may be able to vote against changes in the marriage act.

Likely Vote
Mostly No
Mostly Yes

What is still unclear is what the plebiscite would ask, what action would come from it, and what rights to a conscience vote members would have in light of the outcome. This is not a constitutional matter, so the plebiscite is simply a way of indicating our preference, as there is no legal compulsion upon parliamentarians to respond in any particular way. There is, for example, nothing to stop a theoretically defeated ALP or any private member entering legislation before the plebiscite and having it passed through into law. All of this raises the question of why the plebiscite was originally agreed upon. It seems it was former PM Abbott's attempt to kick the ball out of play for a little while without having to do anything. Part of the problem is you can't vote to not vote - you can't pass legislation to say you're not allowed to revisit the marriage act down the track. There have been numerous failed attempts to introduce SSM legislation, but the momentum in the media and inside parliament has been building to the point where one of the two major parties needs to do something about it. So perhaps a plebiscite was Abbott's hope of enabling a conversation about the societal outcomes of normalising SSM. Unfortunately such hopes cannot have been based on reality, as where such debates have happened, dissent has been put down, such as in the Irish referendum where people were reported choosing to don a 'Yes' badge despite intending to vote 'No' as anyone questioning SSM is inevitably labelled a bigot and homophobe. We have been discussing SSM for years now in Australia - I don't see the debate being at all clarified. All we have is extremes from both ends with the sane middle not getting a word in.

When I talk about the sane middle (and of course I include myself in this group!) I mean those who truly see the merits of the other side. For those pro SSM, it means understanding the novelty and untestedness of this change and the strong history of traditional marriage. It also means acknowledging this isn't really a push for 'marriage equality'; I hear no one advocating polygamy/polyandry, I hear no one advocating normalising and recognising incestuous relationships nor pederasty. This is not marriage equality, this is SSM. Using the term 'equality' is simply a political decision which implies dissenters desire inequality and are thus to be equated with those who endorsed slave trading and disallowed inter-racial marriage. Being in the sane middle from the SSM side means acknowledging as much. Being in the sane middle from the traditional marriage side means having genuine sympathy for the historic and ongoing hurts of people in same-sex relationships, or indeed anyone who does not fit neatly in the heterosexual box. There is genuine discrimination, there is all too real abuse, there are higher rates of suicide and self-harm among these people. To affirm traditional marriage at the expense of SSM without recognising the genuine felt needs of people to have relationships validated when so much of their life has been attacked from all sides is a great insult and continues hurt. I think this means there will be some who disagree with SSM who will nonetheless decide to vote Yes for the sake of their suffering neighbour; so too will there be those who vote No even though they themselves have suffered. People unable to recognise this will be forced to continue the yelling match from the poles, but hopefully there will be a more rational and generous debate in the centre.

The question is, will a plebiscite enable such debate between the sane middle, or will it be drowned out by the shouting from the sidelines?

One issue or several?
As I began, the push from several Christian groups has been to maximise this issue without reference to the other issues. This issue is a once in a lifetime vote, or votes, as it will mean voting first for the LNP and then voting No in a plebiscite. The thing that troubles me is the issues which generally determine my vote are not reflected at all by the LNP. I am in favour of supporting Medicare (the Liberals have said they will freeze indexation of rebates). I am in favour of treating refugees humanely (neither LNP nor ALP are willing to depart from the boat turnback, indefinite detention, offshore detention policy in place since Abbott). I am in favour of real action on climate change (LNP and ALP continue to support coal mining and penalising protesters). I believe in generous foreign aid (the LNP has both cut this aid and spitefully reappropriated funds into our punitive detention centres for refugees). I think electoral funding needs reform (silence from the two major parties). As I look through the advertising in our letterbox, as I scroll through policies, I can see maybe a tenth of the LNP policies I support, two fifths of ALP, one tenth of CDP, but four fifths of the Greens. What do I do with this? Of course, not all issues are equal. Is the possibility of a marriage plebiscite (the very plebiscite, let alone the result, being dependent on passing both houses of parliament!) enough to force me to vote against my love of neighbour and pursuit of justice with mercy on the other nine tenths? Or does the vehemence with which I disagree with the one fifth of Greens policies mean I should not vote for the four fifths of things I do agree with them on, where they brazenly stand apart from the LNP and ALP?

I could weight all the issues and work them out mathematically I suppose. I could also think about the numbers of people affected: if  say 3% of the population is same-sex attracted, of that work out how many are in long-term stable relationships and then how many both approve of the institution at all (hello, Marxists!) and also desire to be married? We are left with quite a small number, but then again, this will normalise adoption rights and there will be children without access to a traditional family - although, unless a surrogate baby - they would be without any parents as is. And then I balance that with the number of people being subjected to physical, sexual, medical and psychological abuse at our hands in offshore detention centres, those who are preferring self-immolation to further hopeless waiting. To that I could add the short-term thinking of fossil fuel extraction for surprisingly small gains and devastatingly long-term consequences. I think for me these two are of at least equal value with the marriage plebiscite. 

Of course I could complicate things with the NBN and foreign aid and safe schools and electoral funding etc etc etc. But those are my three: refugees, climate and marriage, and I think they are all worthy of consideration in my vote. For you, you need to do your own maths. Work out what are your biggest issues and how important they are and who best represents your concern. And then vote. But don't just vote, advocate. Tell your local member who you voted for why you did and/or why you didn't. Try to find out their views and speak sympathetically to that where you differ. If they agree with you encourage  them, and if they disagree explain why you do with respect. 

Because even if SSM does become legalised in Australia, what follows will in part depend on how we uphold ourselves now. If vitriol and hyperbole and apocalyptic language becomes our norm, then who could blame anyone for wanting to even the scores when they're in the ascendancy. We can remain part of the conversation or be fringe outsiders. Now, that day may of course come, but while we have the possibility of speaking truth with grace and love I think we should continue to do so.

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