A Referendum for Disaster


Dead sheep,by Axel Kristinsson

Independent MP Tony Windsor has floated the notion of a referendum on gay marriage.

The idea has been floating around for some time.  It suits politicians who want to pose as supporters, but fear electoral consequences if they actually do something for us. A referendum might get them off the hook – as Tony Windsor pointed out. But it’s a cowardly way out.

 “I would vote for it, but my local party…..”

“I would vote for it, but then I’d probably never get a shadow ministry . . .”

“I would vote for it, but the union that sponsors me …..”

“I would leave her in a flash, darling, only the house is in her name . . . . can’t we just go on as we are?’

No, we can’t. Politicians can’t prevaricate any longer. Marriage equality is like cutting emissions. They all know it has to be done – they just want the other guy to do it for them and wear the backlash.

At first sight a referendum is the perfect, simple solution – and for that reason alone should be approached with extreme caution. It appears to be democratic (I’ll get to that in a moment). It means pollies don’t have to educate their constituency party, or union, re electorate. For all their high minded talk about accountability, it’s a Get Out Of Jail Free card.

As to the argument that it’s democratic, well, not really. Because democracy is NOT, despite what many people think, about the will of the majority always riding roughshod over the rights and needs of the minority. It is about balancing the wishes of the majority with the rights and needs of minorities, so that everyone, not just the majority, gets a fair deal.

Pure democracy is just dictatorship exercised by a group instead of an individual. Like they used to have in Russia, and we know how well that went.

“Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote.”
Benjamin Franklin, 1759

A referendum would kick off a very long, bitter and divisive campaign. An embattled Catholic church has already exploited and widened a massive rift in French society over equal marriage. Can you imagine the consequences here of years of vicious, ignorant Catholic propaganda, amped up by the Murdoch/Reinhart press? And don’t give me that bilge about journalistic independence.

“There is no such thing . . . . as an independent press. You know it and I know it. There is not one of you who dares to write your honest opinions, and if you did, you know beforehand that it would never appear in print. I am paid weekly for keeping my honest opinions out of the paper . . . . If I allowed my honest opinions to appear in one issue of my paper, before twenty-four hours my occupation would be gone. We are the tools and vassals of the rich men behind the scenes. We are the jumping jacks, they pull the strings and we dance. Our talents, our possibilities and our lives are all the property of other men. We are intellectual prostitutes.”
John Swinton, former Chief of Staff at the New York Times, New York Press Club, 1953

Of course, the churches, in particular the Catholic church (which desperately needs to divert attention from its child-molesting crimes), the Australian Christian Lobby, and extremist Muslims and Jews will all love the idea, for one simple reason. Referendums almost always fail.

In order to pass a referendum, the bill must ordinarily achieve a double majority: a majority of those voting throughout the country, as well as separate majorities in each of a majority of states (4 of 6). In certain circumstances, where any state or states are affected by a referendum then a majority of voters in those states must also agree to the change. Only 8 out of 44 referendums since 1906 have been carried. [Wikipedia]

A ‘Yes’ vote, if it could be achieved, would write marriage equality into the constitution. That’s definitely something we should look at doing after Parliament passes a same-sex marriage bill, in order to make the change as near-permanent as possible. But to try now would be to put the cart before the horse.

The alternative is a plebiscite: basically, a massive national opinion poll. That would be quicker, and cost a vast amount of money, for a result the government of the day could decide to ignore.

Both would lead to lengthy, bitter, divisive campaigns, with considerable potential for violence against gays and lesbians, as we have seen in France.

No, sorry Mr Windsor, a referendum or plebiscite is not the answer. The answer is for you guys to do the hard yards, do the job you were elected to do, vote for what is right, and take the consequences.

Windsor has categorically denied he himself wants a referendum on gay marriage. He says it’s something the public should push for, not pollies.

If he wants it off the election agenda, then the simplest thing you can do is pass the Greens equal marriage bill now. As my dad used to say, the time has come to shit or get off the pot.

About the author

Veteran gay writer and speaker, Doug was one of the founders of the UKs pioneering GLBTI newspaper Gay News (1972) , and of the second, Gay Week, and is a former Features Editor of Him International. He presented news and current affairs on JOY 94.9 FM Melbourne for more than ten years. "Doug is revered, feared and reviled in equal quantities, at times dividing people with his journalistic wrath. Yet there is no doubt this grandpa-esque bear keeps everyone abreast of anything and everything LGBT across the globe." (Daniel Witthaus, "Beyond Priscilla", Clouds of Magellan, Melbourne, 2014)