There’s a caution in entering the marriage equality plebiscite debate when you’re straight, white and male. You have no skin in the game like others and so it’s all a bit academic and theoretical. The benefits of dispassionate, analytical approaches shouldn’t be overstated, but they also shouldn’t be rejected entirely. There’s a role for them: giving us the language to express why we feel this way or that and letting us communicate with people who disagree with us.
I’ve long held that it’s not possible to be anti-marriage equality and not homophobic. The only place where that position might be on shaky ground is with radicals who oppose marriage generally (rather than same-sex marriage specifically). And I also think that a plebiscite is a waste of time but, if we are to have a plebiscite, it follows that both campaigns should receive public funding. The problem with the public debate is that it’s bogged down in special pleading: that there’s something unique about this topic that means general principles about how to hold plebiscites get thrown out the window.
Let’s start at the start. The plebiscite is a waste of time because we have an expectation that Parliament should sort this out. Indeed, we think that Parliament should sort most things out. We vote them in so that we don’t need to participate again for another three years. The plebiscite represents a failure of the parliamentary process.
I am surprised that the topic of holding a plebiscite hasn’t inspired much critical discussion, keeping instead with bellyfeel intuitions, Tumblr-quality opining, and consequentialist reasoning about this particular plebiscite. The worst of this was Bill Shorten’s frankly awful comment that we needed a guarantee that the plebiscite wouldn’t result in a single suicide. The plebiscite under this reading isn’t terrible because of some higher order principle, but because of the possibility that this might negatively impact individuals.
We know that corporate watchdogs have resulted in people committing suicide. We know that the family court system has resulted in people committing suicide. We know that there are a host of legitimate areas of public deliberation that impact fragile and/or vulnerable people negatively. But this doesn’t speak to the legitimacy of that public deliberation.
Shorten’s line tried to bind two ideas: that the plebiscite was unnecessary (which it is) and that the plebiscite could affect people negatively (which it could). But these are separate lines of inquiry, and Shorten — let’s face it — used the line for cheap political rhetoric.
We see similar rhetoric in the ‘But we’re discussing my human rights’ argument. It’s an argument that, somehow, marriage equality is beyond politics and founded in some transcendental fact. In a democracy, all rights are a function of the majority granting privileges to an individual. There’s no inherent claim to them in some magic cave that exists prior to a legal system. The same function occurs when we have public debates about welfare: we are discussing the rights of vulnerable people, but nobody (serious) seems to argue that this should be ‘above politics’. The point of democracy is that we get to collectively control, modify, and adapt our legal frameworks to suit us and not be dictated to from some external, incontestable authority.
Finally, we see the cost argument. Because it’s going to cost a small fortune to run, the plebiscite is bad. But the same people who make this argument seem also to agree (correctly) that, even if it were free, we shouldn’t hold a plebiscite. The cost is actually irrelevant.
My concern with the plebiscite is that it opens up conversations that I don’t want to entertain. If we’re having a plebiscite for marriage equality, why aren’t we having plebiscites to sanction going to war? Why aren’t we having plebiscites to approve entering into treaties? Why aren’t we having plebiscites for a whole host of legislative and executive exercises of power? The answer: because we employ a bunch of people and give them exorbitant salaries in order to make parliament do these things on our behalf.
But if we’re going to have a plebiscite, we need to do it properly. It’s not good enough to say that the plebiscite was fair, it needs to appear fair to both ‘sides’ of the question. The proposal is to establish two committees, both composed of parliamentarians and individuals, and give the funding to them to manage. This is wise because it allows greater control over expenditure (which you wouldn’t get if the funds were handed over to the Australian Christian Lobby).
We want the answer to be absolutely beyond reproach. When the result comes in as a resounding ‘yes’, we don’t want the recalcitrant homophobes to spread the word amongst themselves that the plebiscite was unfair and was funded by international advocacy groups and boohoohoohoohoo. It must be decisive. We gave them $7.5m, they lost, and they don’t speak for the silent majority.
But this also poses a threat to the ‘Yes’ advocates. The people they have appointed to the committee must be absolutely, entirely squeaky clean or they will become the face of the debate: Marxists who want to indoctrinate children, have argued to deindustrialise Australia, have seedy associations with porn companies, who were photographed back in the 1970s marching in political rallies that happen to have some notorious paedophile somewhere in the background. Ideally, they wouldn’t even identify as homosexual. Get a bunch of conservative business leaders who are all upstanding members of the Anglican Church on to the ‘Yes’ campaign. If you don’t make middle Australia in any way uncomfortable or challenge their views in any way shape or form, you can paint the ‘No’ campaign as a bunch of raving conspiracists all day and night.
Sure, it’s easy to say all of this when I have no skin in the game. We shouldn’t be in the position that we’re now in, but if we just keep everything calm and strategic, the ‘Yes’ campaign will win.