The solution on offer is breathtakingly archaic: asking citizens instead of parliamentarians to decide how people should be treated by the law, and conducting what is essentially a voluntary survey by post.
This is a government which usually appears very willing and able to push through legislation to remove and deny rights, but when it comes to granting consenting adults the equal right to marry, it has instead decided to obfuscate its lawmaking responsibilities.
It is fitting that this is occurring on the 10th anniversary of Prime Minister John Howard’s suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act, which effectively removed the basic right of those people affected by the Northern Territory intervention in remote communities to challenge it on racially discriminatory grounds. Now in a distorted echo through time, Howard’s successors are refusing to amend a law to stop state-instituted discrimination against the LGBTI community.
At least Howard took ownership of his position. The current government and its leader are contorting themselves through every possible position to not only ensure there is a negligible chance of achieving marriage equality, but that they can blame somebody else for it. That, rather than democracy, is the true purpose of these plebiscites and postal votes.
When the plebiscite proposal fails in Parliament again, they will blame Labor and the cross-benchers for the lack of a free vote on the Coalition side of politics. When the postal vote gives rise to offensive and discriminatory campaigning by some in the community, it will be “freedom of speech”. No doubt it will also be the fault of the Labor Party and cross-benchers for not letting us have a plebiscite in the first place. And if the postal vote returns a majority “no” vote and there’s no free parliamentary vote on marriage equality, it will be the community’s fault.
When it was just the plebiscite, it appeared the government had simply divorced itself from its responsibilities. Now, by repeating the inevitably doomed plebiscite argument and adding the postal vote, the situation is much more sinister. Instead of taking responsibility for its own unreasonable stance on marriage equality (which, by the way, is becoming increasingly out of step with the rest of the world), this government is creating a system where it can refuse to provide equality to its citizens without actively purporting to do so.
First it was obfuscation, now it’s the outsourcing of responsibility. An abdication of sorts, no less.
It’s interesting to note that it was Turnbull himself who said:
“The voluntary postal voting method ... flies in the face of Australian democratic values… It is likely to ensure that not only will a minority of Australians vote, but also that large sections of the community will be disfranchised.”
The Prime Minister is known to be fond of quoting Thucydides, an ancient historian and general. Mr Turnbull will be well-served in reminding himself of one of the Athenian’s famous quotes that “self-respect is the chief element in courage”.
It’s time for some respect and courage, Prime Minister.
Alana Heffernan is a senior associate in employment and industrial law at Maurice Blackburn Lawyers.