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Good To Know: What actually is a 'Plebiscite'? And What Does This Mean for Marriage Equality in Australia?


What is a 'Plebiscite' and is it Different to a Referendum?
The Plebiscite and Marriage Equality in Australia
Why People Don't Want the Plebiscite
Why People Want the Plebiscite
Now What?


What is a 'Plebiscite' and is it Different to a Referendum?

  If you didn't know what on earth a 'plebiscite' was when media discussions flared up about one you are not alone. Australia has only ever had three national plebiscites, the last of which was in 1977, so despite the media throwing the word around like it's something we all frequently discuss over coffee we've actually had little to do with plebiscites, and subsequently had little need for explanations of them. Until now.

  In Australia plebiscites and referendums are similar in that they are used by the government to take the vote on a particular issue to the Australian people. The way in which the referendums and plebiscites differ is to do with the Australian Constitution. It's a 'referendum' when the vote is to do with changing the Constitution. As with federal, state and local elections voting is compulsory and the results of the vote determine the outcome.

  A 'plebiscite' takes the vote to the Australian people when the issue at hand is not regarding change to the Constitution, and a key difference is that the result of the vote is not binding. If the majority vote in favour the government do not have to do anything about it. A plebiscite can therefore be viewed as a mechanism used by the government to gauge public opinion on a matter without being bound to the public decision. You can read more about the technicalities here and here.
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The Plebiscite and Marriage Equality in Australia

  Same-sex marriage is not currently recognized in Australia. In 2004 then Prime Minister John Howard amended the Marriage Bill 1961 to define marriage as "a union of a man and a woman". After years of divisive discussions on the issue (you can see a timeline here) the government resorted to a plebiscite. The concept for it was introduced by then Prime Minister Tony Abbott in August 2015 and formalized 14th Sep 2016 when the Plebiscite (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill 2016 was put forward by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

  A plebiscite was chosen instead of a referendum largely because it was argued that the Australian government have the power to change the Marriage Act, an ability that has already been drafted into the Australian Constitution. Changing the Marriage Act itself was not a constitutional change and any results from a referendum would still leave the Australian government with those same legislative powers.
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Why People Don't Want the Plebiscite

  You may have noticed a media uproar when Turnbull introduced the bill for the plebiscite. The Greens are staunchly against it, some key independent senators oppose it, a Newspoll conducted by the Australian showed that the majority of Australians asked didn't want it, apolitical organizations like GetUp! and Amnesty International are fighting it, an inquiry by the Australian Human Rights Commission found it to be unnecessary, and actually the bill has still not been passed as the Labor Party, who are pegged to block it, have not yet put forward their position. The above links will take you to the respective sites highlighting the arguments of these parties in detail, broadly though these arguments include:

- The plebiscite will be damaging. The fact that Australia does not have marriage equality indicates a broader cultural attitude that marginalizes the LGBTI community. It denies them the simple right to express their love for someone through the binding commitment of marriage. It does not matter how well you deliver your argument, what religious reasoning you use, how well you package this up within the context of traditional values, it does not matter how articulate you are or how good a person you are, the 'no' campaign could very well be delivered through chorus sung by angels riding on the backs of unicorns and the message will still be the same; people who love each other can't marry. This reinforces the message that those in the LGBTI community are not considered worthy of the same basic right afforded to heterosexuals. And you may refute this, argue that no, that's not the message, of course LGBTI are equal, you just see marriage differently, but that's like telling someone you love them then punching them in the face. And it hurts. This report published by the National LGBTI Health Alliance shows a disproportionately high number within the Australian LGBTI community experience mental health and social anxiety issues compared to that of heterosexuals. Even if you can find a way to argue that social marginalization is not at least partly to blame for that, it can be conceded that a plebiscite full of marketing campaigns against marriage equality would add insult to injury.

- The plebiscite will be divisive. We have all seen debates between those who oppose same-sex marriage and those who are for it. Public 'yes' and 'no' campaigns will fuel tensions that already run hot on the matter and engender prejudices and bitterness.

- The plebiscite will be pointless. The outcome of the plebiscite is not binding. At the end of it the government will still be the ones making the final decision. So just go ahead already and make the final decision. And on that note...

- It is the role of a representative government to determine these issues. That is why the Australian government is a representative government of its people. John Howard didn't ask Australians when he amended the Marriage Act in 2004. In fact hardly any issues; tax cuts, health reforms, changes to education, decisions to go to war, have been taken to the Australian people to vote. So why this one?

- The plebiscite will be costly. The coalition have allocated over $170 million AUD to staging this plebiscite. Now it's easy for us with our regular human wages to look at that figure and freak out, but we are not economists. So I did a bit of research to see what that amount of money looks like within the context of an economy, just to be sure that it was a rational reaction to freak out at the prospect of spending $170 million on a damaging and divisive public vote that the government may choose to ignore anyway. I think it was. As an example check out this article highlighting how $160 million could improve Australia's health care system.

- And broadly, those who argue against the plebiscite are arguing for marriage equality. Because it is a fundamental human right that should be afforded to all Australians, disqualifying any need for social debate.
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Why People Want the Plebiscite

  The plebiscite came about because the government has been so deeply divided on this issue, even within parties, that no progress has been made for years. As such, the theme of Malcolm Turnbull's speech when delivering the bill was that the government was putting its faith in the Australian people. And some people agree. There are those in the Australian public who are tired of the government's inability to move forward on this issue, who want to have their say. Many believe that a plebiscite will bring about positive change and put the issue to rest, otherwise nothing might be done on the matter for another 3 - 4 years due to lack of "political will". They argue the plebiscite to be a catalyst for change.

  You can read an exhaustive list of arguments considering whether to opt for a referendum, plebiscite or parliamentary vote in this senate committee report.
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Now What?

  Next month the Labor party will hold a caucus where they will decide their position on the plebiscite. They have tried to negotiate with the coalition to amend the current approach to same-sex marriage but negotiations were unsuccessful, and so the Labor party's position is yet to be officially determined. If they opt for the plebiscite the bill will be passed and on 11th Feb 2017 Australia will vote on whether the law should allow same-sex couples to marry. If Labor block the bill they will argue for a free vote within the parliament. This may help or hinder progress. A parliamentary vote may proceed instead, in which case it is likely that legislation recognizing same-sex marriage will move through quickly, but given the government's previous record on trying to pass marriage equality this may take time again. Debate within the government may continue and many within the coalition warn that if the plebiscite does not go ahead the issue of marriage equality in Australia may drag on for years.


  I have included links for further research in the points above, and below are some key resources if you want to look into this further. As you consider all the points there are a few things I want to make clear. Though many who oppose the plebiscite do so because they believe same-sex marriage is a right that does not merit the need to be voted on, the one view does not necessarily imply the other. There are those who are for marriage equality who want the plebiscite, and likewise there are those who oppose same-sex marriage who don't want the plebiscite. While I am a staunch supporter of marriage equality I'd be against the plebiscite regardless. Given that the government still have to make the final decision I think spending $170 million dollars on a divisive campaign is a waste of resources and will have an unnecessary emotional cost on the Australian people. But that's my point of view. Yours might be different.

  The other point I want to make clear is that it does not help the discussion to stereotype whole social groups. The blocking of same-sex marriage in Australia is often attributed to Christians, but many within Islam, Judaism, other religions and 'traditionalists' who do not pertain to any religion, also argue against same-sex marriage. That said, and in the interest of not stereotyping, there are those within those communities who are for same-sex marriage. And there are those who aren't sure, who want to ask questions but who don't feel they are in a position to ask them, given the fierce climate within Australian debate that is not conducive to discussion. Those who oppose each other do so with such conviction that they do not tolerate 'fence sitters'. People who affiliate with a religious or ideological body may want to know more about LGBTI but can be made to feel guilty within their own communities for questioning fundamental teachings, and if they direct their questions to the LGBTI community they can often be boxed back into their religious stereotype and accused of being against human rights. Vice verse, the whole of the LGBTI community are not exclusively atheists. While many will steer clear of religion because yes, actually religion has been the major voice campaigning against LGBTI rights, there are those who do gravitate towards religious beliefs but feel they would not be accepted by that respective religious community.

  Between the two sides there is an enormous chasm that will never be bridged unless people start being allowed to talk without being accused of being or doing something terrible. Terrible things have happened to people on both sides of the argument, and there are those who have been victims who will passionately stand their ground, which we have to accept, be sensitive to and take responsibility for. But for those who are unsure, who want to learn, who ask questions, let them ask. And instead of ridiculing someone for their point of view or ex-communicating them because they don't automatically see things the way you do, answer their questions. Ask questions back. Make that okay. Facilitate an environment within which people from all sides of the argument are allowed to talk.

  The climate within the Australian government is reflective of the people it governs. The very reason they are considering a plebiscite is, because much like the Australian people, they are more inclined to argue their own point of view without listening to those who disagree with it. Listening to someone does not mean you agree with them, it does not mean you condone their views, but listening is more conducive to progression than arguing, and if we find ourselves voting in a plebiscite I hope we can show our government how it's done.
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- The Plebiscite (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill 2016

- Senate Committee Report - 'The Matter of a Popular Vote, in the Form of a Plebiscite or Referendum, on the Matter of Marriage Within Australia"

- Speech Delivered by Malcolm Turnbull Introducing the Bill

- Chronology of Same-Sex Marriage Bills Introduced into the Federal Parliament: A Quick Guide
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  1. Very informative and well presented. I didn't realized the difference between a referendum and a plebiscite. Given that a plebiscite is non binding on the governments final decision, it occurs to me that it is a calculated risk on the part of a conservative government, where they can have a win win situation. They can in effect wash their hands of a very contentious issue by leaving the decision to 'the people' without stating their leanings either way.

    1. Thank you! Yeah and that's if they even choose to go with the people's decision in that scenario. In keeping it as a plebiscite they can still make their own decision in the end! It's a very non-committal approach. But you're right, if the people vote for same-sex marriage the conservatives then have the ability to push it through without taking responsibility for it.