One of the issues currently dominating the political discourse of Australia is whether or not the country should legalise same-sex marriage. The actual substance behind this discussion is not the question in most people’s minds, as poll after poll has shown a healthy majority of Australians in support of marriage equality. Indeed, in recent weeks the case has become even more overwhelming as, although opponents of equality often cite their sincerely held religious beliefs, a poll by Galaxy Research found that a majority of Christians in Australia supported equal marriage. Rather than policy substance, the debate has shifted to how equality is introduced. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has said that there will be a non-binding postal vote plebiscite on the issue and some have since argued that such a vote should be boycotted. I would strongly recommend not to do that.
Around a year ago I wrote a piece about how I opposed a plebiscite on this issue primarily on the grounds that it would not actually be legally binding. I placed myself firmly of the side of the Labor Party and others who argued that it would be much quicker and easier to just vote on it in Parliament, especially as a majority of lawmakers support marriage equality. Turnbull has remained steadfast in his commitment to a plebiscite despite the opposition of many MPs and Senators, and these protestations for as loudly and as long as possible.
If a plebiscite is to happen, however, I would argue against a boycott for a number of different reasons. Firstly would be that an overwhelming ‘Yes’ vote would box in Coalition MPs who are sticking to the party line about marriage equality but not legislating on the matter. There are some more liberal Coalition MPs who have said that they would vote for marriage equality if there was a vote in parliament but there are others who have stood behind Turnbull’s insistence of a plebiscite. This would essentially tie the hands of MPs who wanted to avoid a public position on the issue so that they had to vote for equal marriage.
Furthermore, any resultant vote in Parliament to resolve the issue would expose conservative Coalition MPs with more liberally-minded constituencies. If these MPs were previously not on the record as opposing equal marriage, they may opt to vote with the conscience rather than represent their constituents’ wishes, thus prompting an electoral reaction in the near future. Parties to the Coalition’s left could then claim the mantle of pro-LGBT equality and leave the Coalition shunned by the LGBT community in Australia for years to come.
One other reason would be that such a vote would permanently end any chance of Tony Abbott’s return to front-line politics. As Bob Brown, the former leader of the Australian Greens, said in a recent Guardian article:
“Abbott wasn’t so fast out of the blocks in advocating a no vote against equal marriage because this is the biggest issue of his career. Wresting the prime ministership off Turnbull is the biggest issue of his career. He is staking everything on this postal vote going no to vault him back into that plum position.”
If Brown’s analysis is correct then this tantalizing prospect is too good to miss. Tony Abbott and his ilk have been an outspoken critics of the LGBT rights movement for a number of years. If this, albeit non-binding, vote goes against Abbott, who has styled himself as a leading light of the anti-equality campaign, he will continue to be at the periphery of Australian politics and denied momentum to retake control of his party. Indeed polling out today reported in The Guardian shows that he may be at risk of losing his seat as a majority of his constituents overwhelmingly support equal marriage. To see Abbott forced out of politics would be a wonderful by-product of a ‘Yes’ vote and a boycott that resulted in a ‘No’ vote wouldn’t highlight this discrepancy in opinion.
The final thing I would add about a potential plebiscite is that Australian citizens living overseas can actually vote, so if you’re Australian or know somebody is then tell them to get registered so that their gay and bisexual brothers and sisters can get married if they so wish. Polls and surveys about this issue only ask Australians who live in Australia what they think so if the Yes campaign was boosted by people living overseas the political mandate for legislation would be overwhelming.
I remain of the opinion that a plebiscite is the wrong approach as it is non-binding, it will cost the government thousands if not millions of dollars in order to facilitate, and the campaign may well be damaging to LGBT people in less accepting of equality. However, if the government does proceed with the plebiscite then these arguments would have failed to convince those in power and will go ahead irrespective of these objections. Although I’m not against the idea of boycotting a vote every now and then, I would strongly oppose it in this case.
A ‘Yes’ vote in the plebiscite would put pressure on the government and hand left-wing opponents a political opportunity to claim the Coalition are out of step with Australian public opinion. Furthermore it would consign the likes of Tony Abbott to the dustbin of history. If the efforts to vote on the matter in Parliament are rejected, make the vote in favour of equality so overwhelming that it is politically binding as those conservative Coalition MPs and Senators in marginal seats would be then be forced into a decision that may irrevocably damage their reputations. Again, what a shame it would be to boycott a chance to humiliate and forever marginalise these politicians.