Lessons From Brexit


Michail Kirkov

Let’s glance over our shoulders at what happens when you hold a plebiscite in a country with no strong tradition of public voting on crucial issues, but a long tradition of prejudice directed at the minority being voted about. Let’s look at what happened when they had a plebiscite in the UK just now (I know they called it a referendum, but it was a plebiscite, OK?). And then look at our proposed plebiscite through that lens.

  • Purely advisory
  • The result has to be enacted by Parliament, leaving lots of wriggle room for public opinion to be massaged back to “stay.”
  • It was about a widely resented and often despised minority, “foreigners.”

It unleashed some very nasty demons. What will a plebiscite do to us in Australia?

Recently I conducted a purely personal and unscientific straw poll: the vast majority of Australian LGBTI people who read my blog, tweets and Facebook page – admittedly only a few thousand, and entirely self-selected – don’t want a public vote with 90+% saying “No”.

Alastair Lawrie is conducting a more detailed and nuanced survey here asking what do we want to happen next? Please let him know. Should we:

  1. Have the opposition parties try to block it, even though it may take the issue of the agenda for years
  2. Reluctantly accept it and fight like crazy to win
  3. Not sure, let’s see the details first.

Let’s look at 3. Or rather, try to. There is so much we do not yet know.

  • We don’t know the question the plebiscite will ask
  • We don’t have a timetable except “early next year”
  • We don’t know the length of the campaign: pro-equality campaigners are asking for one month, anti-equality for six months
  • We don’t know the form of voting compulsory or voluntary
  • We don’t know if it’s global or seat by seat
  • We don’t know how the debate will be corralled into civility
  • We don’t know about the funding for the campaign
  • We don’t know about religious exemptions: we need fewer of them, not more, and certainly no secular ‘conscience’ exemptions
  • It isn’t binding on MPs (when this is explained, people want a binding vote), so how will the government guarantee its passage through both houses, given that MPs on all sides will have a free vote.
  • One way this might be done is to pass a Marriage Equality Bill which does not come into effect until triggered by a “Yes” vote in a plebiscite

The Enabling Bill

Let’s assume, that a marriage bill brought into force by a plebiscite is a non-starter. Instead, we get an enabling bill. Lots of opportunities for fights over all the above points.

The Campaign

Next, the campaign itself. If the PM can get legislation through before the end of the year, we would probably have an official campaign of at least two months. In reality it’s already under way. It will continue to ramp up at each stage. And if the “no” side think they are losing, each stage will be nastier. We already had a taste of that during the uproar over Safe Schools.

During the recent election more anti-safe schools leaflets were dumped in letterboxes, from groups such as the Australian Christian Lobby and its various front organisations such as Australian Marriage/Family Forum/Values/Alliance (pick’n’mix) etc. etc.

Erosion of support

We would start with a reported 70-30 level of support. We can expect this to erode significantly. By the time the actual vote happens, I doubt we would manage any better than 55-45. Still a win, and still a reasonable margin, from my point of view, but not enough. Not enough to create the “unity” that Alex Greenwich talks of.

Unless we win with a crushing majority, the plebiscite risks exposing divisions, empowering prejudices, and creating festering wounds. As Brexit has done in the UK.

Once the result was in, the UK did not quietly say, ‘Oh well, that’s that, let’s get on with it.’ Instead 4 million people signed a petition asking parliament to ignore the result, and demanded a rerun. Many thousands took to the streets, especially in London. Let’s transpose this to our own Australian plebiscite.

  • suppose we get over the line, that the vote is yes to equal marriage, but
  • it’s a margin of 10% or less.
  • a lot of harsh and damaging lies and prejudices have been let loose, and believed
  • we have only won over half the Australian population
  • anti-LGBTI forces are emboldened; “We almost won!”  “People didn’t really understand what they were voting for”

Well-funded spin doctors and religious types would spread the idea that the result is perhaps ‘too close’ to ‘take the risk’ of such ‘profoundly damaging’ legislation. It will be said that ‘the country needs more time’ to heal the divisions that have been exposed. They will say that we must ensure that this does not lead to the teaching of homosexuality in schools, forced gay marriages in cathedrals, bakers forced to cater gay weddings etc. etc. etc.

Meanwhile, the second bill, to legalise marriage equality, must now pass parliament. How many MPs and Senators will declare that they cannot in good conscience vote for it, regardless of the plebiscite result? How many others would spread their hands and say, “I’d love to, but my electors say no.” The Bill might not pass. Or it may emerge neutered, laden down with caveats and exemptions about parenting, surrogacy, cakes and flowers, which would not be equality at all.

Either way, we would have to fight on.

That’s a lot of pain and effort for very little return. The damage to vulnerable G.A.Y. people, especially children, the young, and the old, would be substantial. And given the fanatic nature of our opponents, especially among the religious Christians, Muslims and Jews, no matter how resounding our victory, the campaign to take away whatever we won would begin at once. And never end. Like the fight to recriminalize abortion.

I can hear them now.

“People voted to give them marriage, but they didn’t understand that the consequences would include [insert trigger of choice]. We can vote again to take it away. Give us another plebiscite. The people demand to speak.”

For now, I’m all for blocking the plebiscite and continuing the fight for a free vote. That may change as we learn more. Hang on tight, because from here it’s going to get nasty.

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)