Australian Plebiscite is Itself Fundamentally Discriminatory

Malcolm Turnbull, SBS

In a tactic unworthy of the Prime Minister, who came to power a year ago on a wave of popular support that crossed the political divide, Malcolm Turnbull has sought to justify public funding for the plebiscite ‘campaigns’ by accusing the Leader of the Opposition of not trusting Australians to conduct a civil campaign:

“He [Shorten] is basically saying Australians are unable to have a civil discussion about a fundamental question…He demeans the people he claims to represent. He demeans their civility. He insults them. He disrespects them.”

Turnbull must have his fingers crossed behind his back. As a self-professed supporter of LGBTIQ rights, Turnbull will be acutely aware of the approach that the Australian Christian Lobby and others have taken on this issue for some time. That approach is to entangle marriage equality with a range of broader issues that they see as more intrinsically emotive, and therefore more likely to gain traction in the community.

Principal among these are the Safe Schools initiative, transgenderism (typically framed by the ACL in terms of parents changing gender), children’s rights to be raised by male and female parents, and even “unthinkable things…just as unthinkable things happened in Germany in the 1930s”.

These arguments have many things in common. A particularly concerning one is that they draw children into the ‘debate’, putting them at the centre of an argument about what is legitimate.

But these arguments also have something else in common — they are not about marriage equality. Same-sex parents and single parents are, of course, already raising families. Marriage equality (or lack thereof) will not change that. And gender affirmation has not only been happening for a very long time, but many gender diverse people are able to marry the partner of their choice under the current law.

Whether or not one regards these arguments as ‘civil’ must take into consideration the extensive impacts they have on members of the community, in particular LGBTIQ people and their families — including children. What is clear, though, is that they are not addressing the ‘fundamental question’ to which Turnbull refers.

Turnbull’s verbal contortions — in trying to maintain his progressive credentials while appeasing the Party right — go further, however. In the lead up to the Cabinet meeting that endorsed a $7.5M fillip to each ‘side’, Turnbull has insisted that both sides would be treated in a way that is “scupulously equal and fair”. True, of course, if the measure of equality extends only as far as writing the same number on both cheques. A bitter irony, however, for those seeking equality and fairness in marriage.

A fundamental question that Turnbull does need to answer for Australians is why this plebiscite, in and of itself, is not discriminatory. The country’s top legal minds have verified that it is unnecessary, and unprecedented. Former High Court justice Michael Kirby observes that there hasn’t been a plebiscite in 100 years, and that other social issues such as abolishing the White Australia Policy, advancing women’s rights and disability issues were not voted on by plebiscite. Why then, a plebiscite, this time?

This is a plebiscite that asks the country to judge whether human rights should be extended to a particular minority. One can imagine numerous scenarios where similar questions would be regarded as entirely unacceptable. It should be regarded as unacceptable here too.