If the goal of the Adam Bandt’s successful motion last November regarding consultation on same-s-x marriage was to maintain momentum for full recognition of same-s-x unions and keep the pressure on Labor in the run-up to the December conference, it’s not at all clear it succeeded. As MP after MP rose yesterday to explain, in terms more or less truculent depending on the speaker, how they had consulted with their electorates and — more often than not — found widespread opposition to same-s-x marriage, all that really became clear was what we already knew, that on same-s-x marriage MPs significantly lag the community.

The lag isn’t as bad as on euthanasia, where there is a clear community consensus in favour of euthanasia, with nearly three-quarters of Australians supporting it. But polls from a range of sources consistently show that at least 50% of people support same-s-x marriage, and usually more, and 30%-40% oppose it. There are also some clear demographic divisions — women support it more than men, younger people support it much more than over-65s, Greens voters support it more than Labor voters who support more than Coalition voters, urban voters support it more than rural voters. Interestingly, though, Essential found in its polling that voters, while supportive of same-s-x marriage, didn’t view it as a particularly important issue.

Asking MPs to consult their electorates on the issue was never going to tell us more than these polling results, and as any number of MPs noted yesterday, they don’t need to be told to consult with voters in their constituencies. Any such consultation is likely to be entirely unscientific, and prone to campaigns by the likes of GetUp or Christian lobby groups to sway the result. North Queensland MP George Christensen said he’d checked on emails orchestrated by GetUp and found they were from people outside his electorate, or in one case from someone who had no idea their email address had been used. Christensen’s Queensland colleague Andrew Laming was a little more social media-oriented in his consultation. As a Crikey reader spotted, Laming garnered just 94 responses to his question about same-s-x marriage on his Facebook page.

Then there were the ones such as Paul Neville, who complained that Parliament had more important things to do than discuss same-s-x marriage, a view that invites the response that if Parliament sat more than 20 weeks a year and didn’t waste 90 minutes a day on the theatrics of question time, it might be able to cover a broader range of issues.

Nonetheless, like euthanasia, same-s-x marriage is the sort of issue that shines a bright light on the disconnection between voters and politicians. With the decline in mass political participation and other forms of  political activism such as trade unions, voters have increasingly outsourced public policy to a specific class of people prepared to commit, increasingly as an entire career rather than as an adjunct to another career, to public life. Politics, more than ever, is the self-selected preserve of those who can be bothered to go through the chore of participation and engagement, meaning they are more ideologically motivated than the rest of us. That’s why on same-s-x marriage or euthanasia , the Parliament looks quite different to the community — more polarised between those stridently for or against, unlike most voters, who tend to support both but aren’t particularly interested in the issues.

In the end, asking MPs to talk to voters about the issue simply means asking them to filter voters’ views through their own perceptions, no matter how scientifically they might try to “consult” with anyone.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey