It was inevitable that this would be the outcome. There were no good reasons to discriminate between people based on sexual identity, and now the law reflects community values.
That should be the end of the matter, and yet it isn’t. The path that we took to the inevitable deserves critique, not least because we took the pathway that did the greatest possible damage to the Australian community. We should also ask ourselves if this is the way we want democratic society to work, or whether democratic styles are being used to cloak antisocial behaviours.
We could start with the result. When the result was announced, people celebrated and congratulated the people behind the Yes campaign. I was disturbed at how low the support was. Over the past ten years, support for marriage equality was on the rise. We should have seen a result up at about 80%. Instead, it was a little over 60%.
The Yes campaigners have been far too quick to shrug this off. First, they claim that younger people (who were more likely to vote Yes) were disadvantaged due to lack of knowledge of the postal system. This is, of course, absurd and overlooks that rural voters (who were more likely to vote No) have extremely poor access to postal services. If you wanted to vote No in rural or regional Australia, you had to go to an amazing effort. Despite this, it was areas with the greatest access to postal services (Western Sydney) that were more likely to vote No.
The Yes campaign made a lot of frustrating mistakes, demonstrating that a lot of the professional campaigners that lurk behind progressive campaigns really should consider handing the reigns to more talented people. If you’re in a country that had a national debate about how much they hate cold calling and created a taxpayer-funded ‘Do Not Call’ register, don’t cold call people. If you know that educated voters are more likely to vote Yes, have a strategy for engaging the wider population. Even ‘explainers’ on how to talk to your homophobic family completely misunderstood potential No voters. The Yes campaign persistently refused to engage with undecided or weak-No voters. Its message was overwhelmingly white and asserted as brute fact issues that were in contention. For all the extremely good sledging of Tony Abbott’s three-word slogans, the Yes campaign rarely got beyond ‘Love Is Love’, completely avoiding the undecided and the weak-No queries about whether people could love each other without being married, and weren’t civil unions ‘good enough’.
The problem with this line of argument is that it groups two very different groups together. The small group of professionals who managed the Yes campaign were baffling numpties, but this should not extend to the much larger group of our LGB community who were simply making a claim for equal treatment under the law. It’s wrong to subject them to a Survey and then blame that larger group for the outcome.
And it’s this last point that reveals probably the most galling part of this whole legislative process: after subjecting LGB Australians to offence, insult, humiliation and intimidation, the No campaign then demanded the terms of their defeat by seeking concessions in the marriage equality legislation.
There need to be consequences for picking fights and losing. In ages gone by, if you wanted to disrupt society with antisocial behaviour and lost, you were imprisoned and/or sentenced to death. Now, there are no consequences at all. A small group of extremely horrible people used the power of the State to subject the Australian community to a horrible, damaging process, and none of them bore any consequences for losing. Abbott should have resigned from Parliament immediately upon losing, and anybody who put their name behind the Plebiscite should have resigned with him. If there are no consequences for losing, then there is no disincentive for people to attack the community.
My personal view is that we would probably have tolerated more concessions to religious freedoms in the marriage equality legislation if the people agitating for those concessions had not deliberately attacked Australian society.
As it stands, I don’t think we’ve gone far enough. If you’re going to attack LGB Australians and lose, then we should appoint an LGB Commissioner to the Australian Human Rights Commission, and create a provision similar to ss 18C and 18D of the Racial Discrimination Act to cover sexuality and gender identity. There must be consequences for losing, and the people who suffered the most from your actions ought to be compensated.
Further, we have now thoroughly established that the mainstream conservative voices in Australia are entirely without any sense of shame. Edmund Burke said that fear and shame were, next to conscience, the guardians of virtue. As right wing writers are increasingly shameless, they demonstrate fewer and fewer virtues. The utter worst of this was the constant attacks on the queer community before embracing a Nazi-endorsing, pedophilia-apologising troll in Parliament House. At some point, we have to say that enough is enough and ask why mainstream conservative commentary is so broken and disgraceful.
Finally, we have to wonder what effect it is having on Australian political discourse that our most homophobic State has a near monopoly on the our media. Both Melbourne and Canberra — which are both more rational, civilised, and better places — should do more to promote growth of media and political culture away from the toxic cesspit of Sydney.
We should celebrate the outcome, but we should mourn the process we took to get here.