Some people are regretting we didn’t get a plebiscite on our equality: I’m not one of them. I do regret the way some of our advocates tried to force it on the LGBTI community.
Some say it was foolish to oppose it: “But we would have won” they yell, “the polls all say so.” Yeah, and the polls said Hillary Clinton would be US President, too. There is no certainty in polls, especially in the face of a mendacious and demonising opponent.
“But the campaign would have been safe and respectful,” they weep. Yeah, like the one Donald Trump ran with and won. Backed, let’s not forget, by hypocritical extremist Christians with links to the Australian Christian Lobby and a chunk of the Australian Liberal Party.
NO REGRETS – WORRIES
I am very relieved we won. I have no regrets about helping to kill the plebiscite off. Not only was it wrong in principle, it would have been a nightmare. What truly disturbs me is the extent to which some people supposed to be advocating for our equality seem to have misrepresented us to the government, something I didn’t fully realise till recently.
Unlike all you real political junkies not only was I not at Parliament to see the plebiscite voted down, I didn’t even watch it on Senate TV. So I missed the lachrymose blustering of George Brandis, as he made his last ditch speech to try to save it. But, Hansard to the rescue, there’s a transcript online.
Seating in the public gallery were the LGBTI advocates who killed the plebiscite off: Rodney Croome, Shelley Argent, Ivan Hinton-Teoh. Elsewhere about the place, but out of sight, leader of Australian Marriage Equality Alex Greenwich. He and his surrogate, Australians For Equality’s Tiernan Brady, had hitched their stars to the plebiscite wagon, and now the wheels were coming off.
Brandis’s speech on November 7 laid bare the case they had been selling to the government. This is what Brandis said:
“In the last few months, I have had quite a lot to do with Mr Tiernan Brady, who ran the campaign for the yes vote in Ireland and has come to Australia to run the campaign for marriage equality in this country. I have a great deal of time and respect for Mr Tiernan Brady. This is what Tiernan Brady, a gay man, said about the Irish experience:
“The referendum was an astounding and unifying moment for our country. In the Irish experience, a plebiscite is difficult, but our experience is that it also brought great rewards and it created a visibility of LGBT people and their families. It allowed the great cultural change in Ireland that flowed from the vote. It was a real moment of joy for the entire country.
“That was the evidence of Mr Tiernan Brady, who is in a better position than anyone else to know the nature of a plebiscite.”
Unfortunately that’s not quite true. There is at least one other person, Dr Grainne Healy, one of the Campaign Co-Directors** of the Yes Equality campaign, who knew every bit as much as Brady (the campaign’s Political Director), and told a very different story. In a letter she had sent to Brandis, along with all other Australian parliamentarians, the previous August, she said:
“For our friends in Australia, I would ask that you do not underestimate how horrible and damaging an experience canvassing in such a campaign can be – even in a campaign like ours which was predicated on positive messaging and upbeat imagery and hugely successful social media campaign with national champions for marriage equality coming out – it was a gruelling experience – at least we knew that at the end of it, if we won, we would have full constitutional equality for LGBT marriage rights. To hold a non-binding plebiscite seems to be at the least insensitive to the LGBT community who will bear the brunt of the negative campaigning and at best will lead to an experience of divisive, hurtful campaigning, with no guarantee of progressing marriage equality.”
(Scroll to the end of this post for the full text of her letter to all Australian parliamentarians.)
Healey’s take on events was backed up by none other than the Queen of Ireland, Panti Bliss, speaking during the Sydney Film Festival. Brandis, however, chose to ignore this evidence from one of the two leaders of the Irish campaign (Brian Heenan was the other), and its best-loved figurehead, in favour of Brady’s sunnier version. Brandis continued:
“If Mr Brady’s observations about the Irish experience are not to be taken seriously, hear the words of a former American ambassador, His Excellency John Berry, the first gay American ambassador to Australia. Mr Berry said:
‘I think Ireland is a great example to look at where they had recently a plebiscite that was conducted very respectfully … One of the LGBTI leaders from Ireland in fact is in Australia (this is a reference to Mr Brady) right now and made this very point that their plebiscite actually helped bring their country together on the issue. A plebiscite does not have to be a divisive technique.’”
What was a foreign ambassador doing, interfering in Australian domestic matters in this extraordinarily undiplomatic fashion? And in the second place, on whose information was he basing his opinion. Could this possibly be connected to the fact that he is a personal friend of the leader of Australian Marriage Equality Alex Greenwich? You be the judge.
To go on selling the plebiscite to the government in the face of the evidence that it would undoubtedly be damaging and dangerous was, to say the least, irresponsible. But pro-plebiscite LGBTI campaigners, for whatever reason, ignored a wealth of other evidence, too.
- The story, heavily pushed by the Murdoch press, that 70% of Australians wanted the plebiscite was shown to be a lie.
- A Galaxy poll found only 48% of Australians back a plebiscite, with that number dropping to 25% once respondents told the vote was expected to cost $160m.
- A large representative poll of LGBTI Australians found 85% opposed the plebiscite, with most opposed to the plebiscite even if the question were “fairly framed and has a good chance of success” (62.6%). This confirmed the evidence of straw polls conducted by bloggers including myself.
- A survey conducted by researchers from The University of Queensland (Dr Sharon Dane) and Victoria University (Dr Liz Short), with associate researcher Dr Grainne Healy from Ireland confirmed the harm the community suffered during the Irish referendum campaign
DEMOCRACY AT STAKE
My greatest fear, beyond that of the hate and fear that a plebiscite campaign would undoubtedly unleash, was the fear that parliament would abdicate its responsibility to legislate, in favour of government by opinion poll. This would set a very dangerous precedent. As Cam Hawker explained to the South China Morning Post, opposing a marriage equality plebiscite is consistent with liberal principles.
“The concept that one group of citizens rights should be dependent on the opinion of another group is not actually democratic but enforces a ‘tyranny of the majority.’ I felt strongly on this point as a member of the Liberal Party as it claims to be the party of John Stuart Mill who warned against this.”
Odd to find myself in agreement with out-gay Liberal Senator Dean Smith on this!
NEXT, BE OBNOXIOUS!
Have we, in destroying the plebiscite, delayed marriage equality? Undoubtedly. But for how long? That all depends of how hard the LGBTI community wants to work to get it through parliament.
I take heart from this question and answer between community activist Michael Barnett, and Jim Obergefell, whose victory before the Supreme Court ushered in equal marriage in America. Michael Barnett posted online
“During Q&A from the floor (at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne last night) I asked Jim Obergefell how we shame the Turnbull government into passing marriage equality. His response: ‘Be obnoxious.’”
If you want to help the campaigners who held the line and spared us the plebiscite, click here to keep on being obnoxious!
Healy’s Letter To Australia’s Politicians
Dear Sir or Madam:
I write as the Co-Director of the Yes Equality campaign in Ireland mindful of the 62% Yes vote of the binding referendum in May 2015 which gave constitutional protection to same-sex couples. As Chairwoman of Marriage Equality Ireland for over a decade we are delighted that we were able to see our goal achieved, however, a referendum campaign, even one as positive and successful as Yes Equality’s was a brutal affair at times, for LGBT people, our families and even for our mobilised straight allies.
The No side posters which declared that ‘every child deserves a mother and a father’ were deeply hurtful and upsetting for LGBT headed families as they passed the posters on lamp posts and bill boards across the country – explaining to our children that they were ok and trying to hide the posters from them was awful for LGBT parenting families. The nature of plebiscites is that they allow negative hurtful images and comments to be published in the name of ‘fair canvassing’. Likewise, listening to the untruths and ill informed hate speech on radio or tv during the campaign was damaging and unforgettable for some. Dr Glenda Russell (2000) has studied the damaging psychological impact that anti-lgbt actions have on the LGBT community.
For those canvassing for a Yes, knocking on doors and asking for a Yes vote was not always a positive experience. In fact, during the campaign canvass, we at Yes Equality HQ, made the decision to offer counselling supports to canvas teams – some of those most upset by the negative comments made to them about LGBT people were straight allies – they were appalled at the awful comments made and required psychological counselling. Likewise, some LGBT canvassers who were out asking for rights for themselves suffered greatly from the hateful comments they heard on doorsteps and in train or bus stations while canvassing.
For our friends in Australia, I would ask that you do not underestimate how horrible and damaging an experience canvassing in such a campaign can be – even in a campaign like ours which was predicated on positive messaging and upbeat imagery and hugely successful social media campaign with national champions for marriage equality coming out – it was a gruelling experience – at least we knew that at the end of it, if we won, we would have full constitutional equality for LGBT marriage rights. To hold a non-binding plebiscite seems to be at the least insensitive to the LGBT community who will bear the brunt of the negative campaigning and at best will lead to an experience of divisive, hurtful campaigning, with no guarantee of progressing marriage equality.
As a civil and human rights issue of equality, as a matter of family equality and as a matter of equality for our sons and daughters and our friends and workmates – legislation to introduce marriage equality is what is needed in Australia and those who support marriage equality rights must move to see that legislation introduced as quickly as possible and the proposed divisive plebiscite should not take place.
Dr Grainne Healy Co Director of Yes Equality Chairwoman Marriage Equality