The thought of voting in a plebiscite to determine whether or not Australia amends the Marriage Act warms my soul like a cup of soup on a rainy winter’s morning. It’s invigorating. There is something captivating about democracy in motion, to witness the wheels churn down the road of change, reaching a bifurcation and moving down the path we, the people, decide. And the thought of losing inspires an equal rapture as the thought of winning. As with anything worth having or keeping, the prospect of losing should always be kept in mind. It fortifies our character and develops our coping mechanisms to deal with what, especially if you have a sociology degree in gender studies, will likely be a lifetime filled with more failures than victories.
After a rancorous decade of Australians demanding the right to decide for themselves whether the institution of marriage should be redefined to permit the inclusion of same-sex couples, it seemed we were on the cusp of achieving this democratic right. The decision wouldn’t be left to an elitist group of lobbyists or washed-up celebrities looking to reinvigorate their careers, nor to politicians whom the majority routinely make obvious they neither trust nor endorse, but rather the decision would befall our very selves; we would build the pillars of our democracy to support what we supported. Like Ireland only a few years before us, we had the opportunity to decide for ourselves what we wanted.
But after years of toiling away for this very opportunity, suddenly the pro-amendment lobby discarded this privilege when we gave it to them and instead demanded a less inclusive one: legislate change without consulting us.
Now, I am not advocating either support or opposition to the change. Frankly, I see the change as inevitable. But I would prefer to maintain the rights of all to have a say in our country’s decision-making process than to concede to inevitabilities. To do otherwise would be pouring water down a slippery slope that serves only to erode our liberty and freedom of choice. But despite this inevitability, unlike the Left lobby, I don’t view the plebiscite as pointless. I see it as fruitful. It offers the only opportunity to expose ourselves to exactly what we as a country truly want.
Proponents of change such as Australian Marriage Equality routinely cite innumerable polls declaring up to 64 per cent of Australians support an amendment to the Marriage Act to allow same-sex couples the right to wed. They say it’s senseless to vote on the issue because the result is already decided; we would only be corroborating what is obvious. “If not now, then eventually,” they say. Well, if that’s the case, we may as well never vote—for anything. Perhaps we could allow opinion polls to decide who forms government. After all, we’re all far too busy to give up twenty minutes on a Saturday every three years. Let the few thousand who are unfortunate enough to be polled over the phone during dinnertime decide.
Limited and skewed sample sizes aside, just because survey results suggest 64 per cent of Australians support amendments to the Marriage Act now, does not mean these results will be reflected on voting day. Look at Brexit for instance. In September 2015 the Remain campaign held a 14 per cent lead over Leave, with 11 per cent undecided. Nine months later Britain voted to leave the EU. Even if all of the 11 per cent decided to leave, according to the polls that still would have left a 3 per cent victory margin for the Remain camp. So why did Britain vote to leave the EU with a 4 per cent margin?
Because things change. People change, and so do their opinions. Time and time again, predicted political landslide victories end up being far closer than expected. Because when it comes time to vote, you aren’t answering a polling officer on the phone, you aren’t answering the person handing out fliers on the street, you don’t even have to answer your friends or family. You answer to yourself.
And this is why a vote is paramount to ensuring the voices of all Australians are heard: so they can say what they want, free from persecution. I am not arguing that those who oppose gay marriage have in any way historically suffered the same persecution as gay people, but the current paradigm of online liberalist elitism does foster scorn towards those holding different opinions, which is often why those who oppose issues extolled by the social-justice-warrior class choose to remain silent, or feel pressured into agreeing publicly with things they patently do not. However, I’ll leave the Left’s totalitarianism for another time.
But on the day of the plebiscite, when you stand at that booth with pencil (an instrument emblematic of the possibility of change) in hand, surrounded by cardboard partitions that ensure the anonymity and secrecy of your vote, you can vote exactly as you want without justification. You won’t be threatened with being labelled a bigot. You won’t be ostracised. You won’t be hung out to dry by the media. And afterwards you can say you voted the other way and nobody will be able to prove otherwise.
After such a prolonged fight for changes to the Marriage Act, the extremist bandwagon Left (not to be confused with their more consistent Left peers) with hair as bright and variegated as lights on a Christmas tree, having got what they wanted all along, must have for the first time thought about the implications of a popular vote and concluded: we might lose. Especially after the fractious fallout over the Safe Schools program demonstrated that it had many detractors, not singular acclaim as had once been supposed. Suddenly the twitterati were presented with the idea that all they support was not universal, that they might have a fight on their hands after all.
This fear of losing and of having to do something to achieve what they want caused them to abandon all rational thought and willingness for debate and instead give in to puerility. Rather than calmly advocate reasons for the masses to support their view, many fell back on that all-too-familiar crutch: labelling all those opposing them as bigoted.
People do change their minds. After all, Labor’s Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Penny Wong, who identifies as gay, opposed changes to the Marriage Act in July 2010, only to change her stance later. Did that make her bigoted for the first forty-one years and eight months of her life?
I agree that the plebiscite has the possibility of being harmful. Unfortunately at present almost every debate on any issue attracts derision and grandstanding from both unknown and prominent figures. And it is possible that some opportunistic media commentators might relish the opportunity to belittle and degrade a portion of the community.
But most of those who oppose the change have proved more than capable of arguing their point with decorum and due consideration. The debate need not be cruel. On the other hand, though they view themselves as too “progressive” to admit it, the largely Left twitterati are far more likely to personally attack their opposition and drag the debate into the gutter.
There are those such as comedian Hannah Gadsby who wrote an impassioned plea on social media about the harmful debate over the legalisation of homosexuality in Tasmania between 1994 and 1997 and the impact the conversation had on her self-esteem. She, along with others, believes a plebiscite would do more harm than good: that it may “dehumanise” the gay community further.
Would there be adverse comments from both sides of the argument? Likely, yes. To the same extent as the aforementioned Tasmanian debates? Almost certainly not. For times have changed since then with the advent of the internet activist.
Few now would oppose so virulently an amendment to allow same-sex couples the right to marry, let alone callously chastise individuals for being gay. People are crucified for much less these days. Whenever anything has the possibility of being taken out of context, accusations of hate speech by the outrage industry are so rampant that most who have misgivings about the progressive agenda feel scared or forced into silence. One only has to look at the tiny numbers of Sonia Kruger’s public supporters a few weeks ago to realise this. Which is why I believe Gadsby’s fear of “an open season for hate” is largely unfounded. Few would be willing to risk it. Those that were would effectively be tying a noose around their own necks.
If it does surface, however, a few in both the gay community and the religious community will likely fling their own soiled invective at each other and, briefly, increase the divide between opposing schools of thought; but that moment will pass and soon be looked back on as childish. And gays would not be the only victims of hatred. Those who thrive on creating victims will suddenly have them on each side, since calling a gay youth a “vile faggot” and a young Catholic a “child-raping bible-basher” will be hurtful to both.
However, all things considered, surely we are collectively smart and tough enough to ignore the more incendiary opinions and keep the dirt outside from muddying our thoughts.
Will the pro-amendment community have a fight on their hands? Absolutely—as will those opposed. But nothing worth having comes without a struggle. And it is only appropriate that all Australians, and not a select few who represent them, handle this fight. It’s the only way to sort the damn thing out honestly. For it is regressive, not progressive, to silence those we disagree with.
Yet, if we venture down the other path and allow a parliamentary vote to affirm or deny the amendment of the Marriage Act, it is naive to assume that those more vocal will sit down and take it lightly. The pro-amendment community will blame the factional divides within the major parties and the influence of right-wing think-tanks for pulling strings in the shadows. Those opposing the change will always believe they had been let down by politicians who compromised their principles and gave in to the grievance lobby to boost their approval ratings, which will only fortify their belief—rightly or wrongly—that the majority of Australians were in their corner. In this case whoever loses will feel hard done by and will not accept the change—because it’s hard to accept losing a fight if you never had the chance to step inside the ring.
A plebiscite is the only way to galvanise true change and extinguish the alleged flames of hatred towards the gay community, or douse the concerns of the few so fearful of it, because if, and likely when, the amendment passes, though a few will voice their evanescent concern, the majority who voted against the change, no doubt disappointed, will shrug their shoulders, let out a sigh, and say, “Well, I guess that’s that then. We lost,” and move on with maturity—a maturity I doubt the Left will demonstrate if the result isn’t in their favour (perhaps they’ll whine and demand a second vote like the credulous youths of the Remain brigade). As John Muscat noted in Quadrant, by allowing a plebiscite, “at least a vigorous ‘No’ campaign will expose the public to a range of arguments they haven’t considered”.
But if you deny this right to those who oppose the change, there will always be a smouldering resentment among them. And the flames may one day flare up again.
C.J. Ryan is a Melbourne journalism graduate.