Gay Marriage Plebiscite— Bad for our Democracy?

How are we supposed to deal with the really hard issues like our ever increasing public debt, or the continual inequalities in rural Aboriginal communities, or how to sustainably fund key services like Medicare and education whilst maintaining quality and affordability, or how to ensure our place in the global marketplace of competitive labor in a landscape of continual dramatic disruption and contraction, or you know, the real moral challenge of our time: climate change. When the government can’t act like adults and vote on their collective conscience on a civil bill that only really effects ~5% of the population, it is clear we have a democratic problem.

The government has said, they can deal with multiple problems at once, and that is reasonable, however, so is getting rid of the easy problems first (the low hanging fruit), so more energy and focus can be put into the hard ones.

But the Government is happy to leave the low hanging fruit there and let it go rotten. It has taken a stance supporting a public plebiscite, effectively saying “this is too hard for us to handle, so you guys deal with it”. But this is a bad strategic move for both proponents and opponents of gay marriage and is bad for our democracy in general — and ill explain why.

But first i want to address the idea that the Government is relegated to the plebiscite because it has a “man date” for it. The whole concept of a mandate is a made up one. We vote in parliamentary representatives not their policies. The Government is not held accountable for everything they promised and since the Parliament (that makes decisions) is made up of more than just the majority governing party, it’s not expected that all promises will be met. Its only when the government meets none (or very little) of what they promised, are the people disapproving of performance.

Therefore, to insist that the Government has no choice, and is bound by mandate, is a fundamental misunderstanding of how government works. That this error is made by our Prime Minister, who has had plenty of experience in Parliament, is concerning. A mandate does not restrict his decision on whether to go to a plebiscite or to a conscience vote, only his courage (to rise above party politics) does.

Even if we do assume this idea of being bounded by mandates— a reasonable government would prioritise these mandates. Clearly in this election priority list of mandates, the promise to reign in spending was greater reaching and more important (for the majority) than that of a plebiscite for gay marriage. Therefore, for the government to choose to be bounded by a promise of a plebiscite means it is putting a lesser priority mandate before a greater priority mandate, at the cost of $160 million of hardworking taxpayer dollars. This is a fart of economical intelligence.

Now, returning to why a plebiscite is bad for both proponents and opponents…

Firstly, for proponents of gay marriage, a public plebiscite, if voted down, would mean most probably that a marriage equality (gay marriage) vote on a bill in parliament post-plebiscite would also be voted down, because the representatives would likely echo the public sentiment. Not only this, but a lost plebiscite would then-after be hard to ever recover from. This is evident in the wake of Turnbull’s own failed republican referendum vote in 1999: the idea is only now just resurfacing as a movement, some 15 years later, and even their main man, now PM wont make it happen. Thus is the fate of marriage equality if defeated by the people in a plebiscite.

On the other hand, if a conscience bill failed, this can be attributed to the specifics of the bill or the specific representative cohort at the time, and thus there is still hope that another bill, in another parliament, perhaps a few years later, could still pass. This is a nearer hope then that left from a failed plebiscite. This is before we even consider the other outcomes (that are the main subject of current discourse) such as on mental health of young gay people who will be forced to justify their want for lasting relationships, to not only their loved ones, but to the public in general; as well as be forced to take the hurtful hits from the other side. No matter how you spin it, a plebiscite is a bad strategy for proponents. Even if the public voted up, it would still need to pass in parliament at a later date.

Opponents, however, are loving the idea. It buys them time. Time to put out propaganda. “Gays cause AIDS!”. “It will lead to beastiality!”. “It is an abomination!”. And our PM has faith this will be a reasonable campaign? 
But the truth is that the public have already had a discussion over the last decade. They’ve seen other countries move to marriage equality. They know what it’s about. They’ve talked about it, or heard others talk about it on QandA and the Bolt Report or whatever news they consume. They’re already aware of the issues, and they’ve already chosen sides.

But a plebiscite is not all good for opponents, because it is not good for our democracy in general.

Several years ago, I was frustrated with the state of our politics and I was intent on creating an app where anyone could vote on any bill — a direct democratic vote. Not too different to DOS or FLUX. There are a few of them around now (at the time there weren’t any). But theoretically they could bypass representative democracy altogether. It’d work like this:

App: “Should we fund all of Gonski reforms?”. 
Public: “Yes” = 20 Million. “No” = 3 Million.“Gonski”, “Yes”);

Effectively, that code means that the decision to fund all the Gonski reforms has been relegated to the crowd. This is an efficient system. However, it is essentially mob rule. This was the major reason i decided to not make the app. What if 20 million voted that “ReligionX should be adopted as the major religion of the country?”, or indeed that, “Gays should be exterminated”. The point is that the mob (or the public) is not always the best repository of wisdom. This is because the general public isn’t always knowledgable about key positive advances in history, such as those that brought about concepts of human rights, those concerning the history of the gay rights movement, or to use some Australian examples, the concept of Native Title and the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Sure, some people have a good specific knowledge in one area, and some people have a broad but shallow general knowledge, but few are deeply informed on civil issues, unless perhaps if they’re very politically inclined, which is not the majority.

Likewise, there are various versions of knowledge with regard to human rights, some predicated on religion and some on secular philosophy and some on law and reason. In fact, a good democracy is one which does have a good education about issues. As Thomas Jefferson is oft quoted as saying “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” However this is not always how things turn out.

Whilst this argument for an educated populace, in itself, might be used to justify a pre-plebiscite debate period, it is limited by propaganda, as well as the methods used to educate. We have to be quite honest here: a religiously informed method of education is a less rational method than one instructed on secular reason and logic. I’m not drawing swords here (fully disclaimer, i’m an atheist). I’m quite willing to concede that i have a less spiritual education than the religious (on average), but only if they’re willing to concede that they have a less rational and logical education than mine (on average). Perhaps my language is testament to this, but you can decide.

At the end of the day, who wants to make governmental decisions based on our spirits as opposed to logic and reason? Or based on The Bible over reason and logic? Who amongst us is willing to say that ‘Jesus will tell us how to fund Gonski?’. Or that we should go to the tarot cards for answers?

The greater point i’m making, finally coming now to why the plebiscite is also bad for marriage equality opponents, is that a plebiscite, encourages more plebiscites, more referendums and more mob rule. It lays weight to justifying the above idea of direct democracy, and that is dangerous. Why not have a plebiscite on every single policy and bill? Why should i trust our representatives to make decisions if they are not capable to make this simple one? Also, the fact that a conscience vote cannot be decided, demonstrates quite literally, a deficiency of the collective conscience of our parliament.

Our democracy is premised on electing representatives to make decisions. This is why PM Malcolm Turnbull needs to understand, that a plebiscite is a bad idea for all of us and not just for proponents of marriage equality.

Liberalism at it’s core is meant to be based on equality and freedom of the individual. However, were talking within the context of a representative democracy and not a direct one. Therefore, supporting a conscience vote could even be a vote winner for the LNP.

How can the Prime Minister Turnbull not stand up for what i believe he really believes in: freedom of choice, freedom to choose the representatives of our democracy (with faith they can make decisions), and the freedom of an individual to choose who to spend the rest of their lives with, in a society which recognises that as a virtue.

Couple this with the potential for negative mental health impacts on vulnerable youth, how can the real Malcolm Turnbull not stand up?