Plebiscites, Referenda, Enemies & Friends

imageCome out @JulieBishopMP,take @TurnbullMalcolm by the hand & lead 10 pro #MarriageEquality cabinet members #CrossTheFloor Monday #auspol #LGBTI

That was the tweet/post I put on Facebook on Saturday. I have no great hopes that anyone will take any notice, but we must try. The very last thing we should be doing is having any truck with, or granting any legitimacy to, any plebiscite or referendum on our rights. And I urge our supporters in both House of Parliament to do likewise.

It’s still not clear if Warren Entsch’s cross party marriage equality bill will go to a vote Monday. Abbott has expressed a clear wish for the bill to die so he can hold either a plebiscite or a referendum first, sometime after the next election. But he may let the bill go to a vote to see if he can flush out anyone he needs to sack, or at least keep a close eye on. A thousand flowers bloom, and all that.

Meanwhile, let’s have a look at the pros and antis, plus a brief primer on the differences between a plebiscite and a referendum, and why they’re both toxic.

The Antis

Scott Morrison and Joe Hockey want a referendum to enshrine one-man-one-woman in the constitution, some unspecified time after the next election. They are backed to a greater or lesser degree by Mathias Cormann, Peter Dutton, Michaelia Cash, Eric Abetz, Kevin Andrews and Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, all strongly opposed to equal marriage.

The Pros

George Brandis and Christopher Pyne both hit out publicly at Morrisson, and rubbished the suggestion of a referendum. Malcolm Turnbull doesn’t want either a plebiscite or a referendum, but if it’s to be a plebiscite, he wants it held before the election. Or alternatively, a bill now, which would not come into force unless endorsed by a post-election plebiscite. Or something.

(The antis, both in cabinet and the wider party, are hoping to force Turnbull to cross the floor, and thus consign him to the back bench.)

The Backstreet Boys

Concerned that the anti-marriage tracks were not getting enough play in the par-tay, Sukkar and ACT senator Zed Seselja have hooked up with similar godly MPs, including Corey Bernardi and Matt Canavan to formulate a counterattack.

The Woman in White

Or is it Black? Who knows. She’s keeping her cards so close to her chest she has trouble getting her bra on in the morning. Best guess is that she’s waiting to see which side is clearly winning before she makes a move.

Plebiscite v Referendum

A referendum changes the Constitution. To pass, the question must be passed by a majority of all Australians nationwide, plus a majority in at least 4 of the 6 states. Voting is compulsory.

A lot depends on the question and how it is framed (remember the republic mess). The result is binding on the government. So it’s very hard to win a referendum, and even harder to undo one, too. It also takes a long, long time.  We do not, under any circumstances want a referendum. The end.

A plebiscite is simpler. It’s basically just a huge opinion poll. The same comments re how the question is framed apply. It only needs a majority of all Australians nationwide to pass. Voting need not be compulsory – a special Act has to be passed for each plebiscite which specifies how, when, what the question is, whether it’s compulsory or not, etc etc.

The result is not binding, merely advisory, so it can be ignored if it’s distasteful to the government of the day. The plebiscite to choose a new national anthem, selecting Advance Australia Fair, passed in 1977. Politicians delayed acting on that a while. God Save The Queen was finally dropped in 1984.

Either would cost somewhere north of $100 -$150 million.

Nothing About Us Without Us

The major problem is that in either case our enemies will control all the variables, from the wording of the question to be put, to when it is asked, to who is funded to campaign and how, even down to the colour and design of the ballot paper. They make all the rules. We cannot allow that.

Well here’s a good rule: no decisions about us, without us. If we are to compromise and acquiesce in a totally unnecessary plebiscite, WE, and not Abbott and friends, must have final veto over every aspect of the process. Wording of the question, design of the ballot paper, the date of the vote, the wording of the enabling bill. At every step of the way, we must have representatives involved, funded by the federal government.

And do think they will agree to this? Give up a skerrick of control? No, of course not. But unless they agree to those terms, we should have nothing whatever to do with the plebiscite. Because it would be totally rigged against us.

One way round this problem would be for Labor, Greens & the cross benchers to pass a Senate bill for a plebiscite, drafted by LGBTI representatives, and challenge Abbott to support it in the lower house.

Chamberlain or Churchill

Which brings me back to my tweet/post at the head of this article.

The big problem we have is that our enemies are prepared to lose power rather than cede one inch of ground. They are fanatically determined to die in a ditch rather than see me marry my husband of the last 23 years (Happy Anniversary Today Darling!). They are ruthless, determined and unprincipled. If they get their referendum or plebiscite they will unleash such a torrent of anti gay propaganda as we have never seen, with incalculable consequences for our people.

Whereas our parliamentary troops are – how shall I put this? Nice. Too nice. So far they have shown no inclination to die in a ditch for LGBTI equality, and that is the level of commitment that is required to for us to win. This is a high stakes game.

Niceness, fairness and charm don’t cut it. You don’t send a diplomat to war, and a war is what this now is. We need a Churchill, not a Chamberlain.

And if a plebiscite if forced on us regardless, we must campaign against it with everything we have, but not participate it in any way. Deny its legitimacy. Destroy the voting papers. Boycott the process. And at the election, campaign relentlessly against any MP who has voted for it, or participated in it. The time for niceness is over.

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)