If we are to have an expensive, unnecessary plebiscite on marriage equality, there are some things Labor — or other marriage equality advocates who vote for the plebiscite in the Senate — can do to make it less damaging to the LGBTI community, and make it more than just an expensive opinion poll.
Consider this the devil’s advocate position. The plebiscite remains the least palatable option for achieving marriage equality, but if it is to happen, this is how to turn it back on those who want it most.
1. Make it binding
There is only one way to force the Cory Bernardis and Eric Abetzes of the world to respect the outcome of the plebiscite, and that is to legislate the outcome before the plebiscite is even held. Basically, the result (same-sex marriage) would be locked and loaded, legislatively speaking, ahead of the plebiscite, and a majority yes vote would then pull the trigger, making the change permanent. Several legal experts Crikey has spoken to have said that this is the only way to make a plebiscite outcome have a binding impact.
[Are marriage equality supporters shifting focus from a free vote to the plebiscite?]
For example, part of the plebiscite legislation could change the Marriage Act to remove the 2004 Howard addition immediately, with a trigger that would allow the change to come into effect if a majority of Australians vote yes in the plebiscite. This would also take care of the thorny issue of the question. Voters could see exactly how the law will be changed, and it would make it less likely that misleading arguments about how the law would change surrogacy laws would hold any weight during the debate.
2. No public money
The Australian Christian Lobby will likely hate this, but in these financially straitened times, there is no reason public funding should be used to allow either side run rampant on whatever ads they want without government oversight. Big business, the unions and grassroots groups like GetUp will likely have sufficient funding for the Yes side. The No side will likely have some funding from the churches (Hillsong probably has a few million spare). The only government funding for ads should go to informational government ads about the plebiscite.
3. Money for mental health services for LGBTI youth
Labor, the Greens and others opposed to the plebiscite have consistently pointed out that for LGBTI youth coming to grips with their sexuality or gender identity hearing the sorts of arguments that will be run — like that their relationships are lesser than heterosexuals’, not worthy of recognition, or the more hateful arguments comparing homosexuality to bestiality — will be damaging to them. If we have to have a plebiscite, make available, and promote, mental health services for LGBTI youth and others affected by the plebiscite debate.
4. Follow Ireland’s lead
Conservatives, who last year were quick to shoot down the idea of following Ireland’s lead, now suddenly love the Irish model of delivering marriage equality. So perhaps we should adopt two of the best parts of the Irish referendum.
Firstly, have a fact-checking unit. Ireland had a site set up to correct some of the misleading statements put out during the referendum debate. There’s no reason the Australian government couldn’t have a similar one. The ACL will hate this too, because shockingly, it will point out that, no, allowing same-sex marriage has nothing to do with Safe Schools or surrogacy or anything else they try to claim it does.
The second is to have Turnbull publicly campaign for marriage equality — this one will not be able to be part of the legislation — but Irish PM Enda Kenny publicly pushed for the change himself. Turnbull is in favour of marriage equality, so he too should be making the case for the change in the plebiscite he wants so badly. Will he step up, or still be beholden to the extreme right of his party?
5. Make it quick
Just get it over with. If February is the absolute earliest it can happen, make it happen in February. The longer this debate is dragged out (which is one of the few reasons to support the plebiscite), the longer the hate campaign continues.
Late February would be ideal, as most people are back from holidays, it’s the end of summer, and it lines up well with the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. It’ll be a perfect celebration that even the Prime Minister can attend (again). Fred Nile hates that idea, so it’s definitely a winner.
These changes are possible, and in this situation, Labor holds all the cards. Crikey understands that Labor is open to at least the notion of a trigger-style plebiscite. If negotiations between Labor and the Coalition fail on proposed changes, they can be forced through Senate amendments with support of minor parties. If the amendments go through in the Senate, and then upon returning to the House of Representatives, it is unpalatable for the Coalition, then the Prime Minister will effectively be killing off the plebiscite he has continually argued needs to be held. And then we can go back to just simply having a free vote.