What is it about ‘no’ that straight politicians don’t understand?

Photo: SBS

The Australian Labour Party caucus is set to reach a formal position on a marriage equality plebiscite tomorrow. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten is likely to argue against the plebiscite, stating that he has “struggled to find anyone [among those directly affected] who thinks its a good idea”.

With little time left to find a compromise that would allow plebiscite legislation through parliament, Coalition MPs are increasingly ramping up the pressure on LGBTI groups to accept a plebiscite.

The same-sex marriage plebiscite first appeared as a compromise solution, after a contentious Coalition party-room meeting in August 2015, under the leadership of then Prime Minister, Tony Abbott.

The plebiscite was widely viewed as a tactic for ‘kicking the can down the road’ — a delaying tactic that would prevent a free vote by Coalition MPs for the remainder of that term of government.

As part of a deal needed to roll Tony Abbott and take the top job in September 2105, Turnbull reportedly gave party members assurances that he would maintain two of Abbott’s policies: one the Direct Action policy on climate change, and the other the marriage equality plebiscite. Following a whisker thin victory in the July election, the Coalition claimed a mandate for the plebiscite.

LGBTI Australians have consistently argued against a plebiscite, which is expensive, non-binding, and not required under the Australian constitution. Concerns have been raised that the debate will be divisive, and potentially damaging to members of the LGBTI community.

Coalition MPs, both for and against marriage equality, have repeatedly told the LGBTI community that the plebiscite is their only chance to achieve marriage equality in this term of parliament. On Thursday, the Attorney General, George Brandis, reportedly told a teleconference meeting of approximately 20 representatives of LGBTI groups that they were “fools” if they think marriage reform is inevitable.

Coalition MP Warren Entsch, an advocate of marriage equality who’s private member’s bill to legalise same-sex marriage was intrumental in bringing about the Coalition’s policy, has criticised opponents who are prepared to “sit back and wait”, urging them to look at the “outcome we’re trying to achieve”.

These arguments consistently fail to understand what is important to members of the LGBTI community. Marriage equality is a normaliser — it seeks to provide the same rights to all Australians. The debate that will precede a plebiscite will have the opposite effect, reinforcing the categorisation of LGBTI Australians as ‘other’. It is one step forward, for two steps back.

When the LGBTI community says ‘no’ to a plebiscite, it is not because they don’t understand that it may delay the introduction of marriage equality, possibly for years. It is because the alternative, of a divisive plebiscite, is worse.