Comment: Is the plebiscite on marriage equality about to join the bin of forgotten political ideas?


This morning, Nick Xenophon announced that he and his MPs will vote against any attempt by the government to pass legislation mandating a plebiscite on marriage equality.

Following on the heels of similar statements from Labor, the Greens and Senator Derryn Hinch, the news all but confirms that the plebiscite is set to join Julia Gillard’s “citizen’s assembly” on climate change, Kevin Rudd’s Fuelwatch scheme and basically everything Tony Abbott ever did in the bin of forgotten, unmourned political ideas that weren’t worth the gin-soaked napkins they were scribbled on.


Unsurprisingly, Liberal politicians are reacting badly to the death of their half-assed cop-out of a policy, even the ones who should know better. Newly-elected Liberal MP for Goldstein Tim Wilson, only the second openly gay lower house Parliamentarian in Australia’s history, took to Twitter to accuse everyone who shot the plebiscite down of torpedoing LGBT rights.


Wilson claimed a few days ago that by opposing the plebiscite, the Greens had “betrayed the people they claim to support”. Earlier today he also called openly gay Labor Senator Penny Wong a “hypocrite”, alleging that she had lectured same-sex couples that marriage “wasn’t for them” back when Labor opposed marriage equality.


Leaving aside Wilson’s own hypocrisy in accusing anybody of undermining the fight for marriage equality when the party he belongs to is the only real obstacle left in its way, the plebiscite debate (and the marriage equality saga more broadly) is a fascinating example of something much bigger. One of the tragedies of Australia’s political culture is how it forces intelligent, hardworking, well-intentioned people to put their talents and energies to use promoting and defending policies they secretly despise.


Obviously, that’s true of politics everywhere to an extent — almost everybody in elected office finds their principles butting up against political limitations sooner or later. But in Australia, the rigidity of political parties in dictating how their members vote has turned the surrender of ideals for political gain into a mini-industry.


It’s one of those things we rarely think about it because we’re so used to it, but the extent to which politicians’ votes are controlled by the party they belong to is pretty astounding. In Labor and the Greens, pollies who vote against party policy are instantly expelled. While the Liberals and the Nationals don’t quite go that far, when it comes to marriage equality they’ve bound their MPs to vote in accordance with their party’s official position, presumably with a threat of punishment for anyone who disobeys.


Most of the time, that’s not a problem — people who join political parties do so because their beliefs largely align with the party they pick. But when it does come up, it forces politicians into illogical, blatantly dishonest and heartbreaking positions.


Take Penny Wong. For almost a decade, Labor’s opposition to marriage equality forced her to make a fairly hideous choice: either vote, campaign and publicly argue against equal rights for herself and her family, or state her support for marriage equality and get kicked out of the political party she’s devoted her professional life to. She chose the former so she could fight to change Labor’s stance from the inside, and she deserves plenty of credit for Labor’s evolution on the issue. But the regularity with which she was wheeled out to argue against her own equality and that of her partner and their two kids was sickening, and pitted marriage equality advocates against each other instead of working toward their common goal.


"Now Liberals like Wilson, fellow gay MP Trent Zimmerman and Turnbull himself are in the same bind — personally desiring to vote for marriage equality, but compelled by their party to vote against it.


Now Liberals like Wilson, fellow gay MP Trent Zimmerman and Turnbull himself are in the same bind — personally desiring to vote for marriage equality, but compelled by their party to vote against it. A lot of the transparently ridiculous arguments so many of Australia’s politicians routinely trot out, forced to contort their personal beliefs into shapes their parties will find acceptable, stem from similar circumstances.


You can see it in Anthony Albanese being forced to spruik Labor’s support for turning back asylum seeker boats, despite indications he finds doing so morally abhorrent. Or Peter Garrett, a lifelong warrior against uranium mining, becoming the federal Environment Minister only to start approving uranium mines. Or Malcolm Turnbull overseeing the introduction of a metadata retention scheme during his tenure as Communications Minister, despite long being on record as a vocal opponent of government intrusion into people’s digital privacy.


Clearly, this isn’t the way democracy’s meant to be done. In most democratic legislatures overseas, Parliamentarians have much more leeway when it comes to voting the party line, enabling them to vote the interests of their constituents or their consciences above whatever short-term political consideration their party is pushing on them and raise important issues the party leadership might find inconvenient.


In the United States, Senator Bernie Sanders routinely criticised and voted against official Democratic Party positions throughout his political career. Not only was he allowed to caucus with the party, he was permitted to run as the Democratic candidate for President. In 2003, 121 British Labour MPs voted against their own leader’s decision to go to war in Iraq. If Britain and the US had the same culture of silencing MP’s consciences that Australia does, these important democratic exercises would have never taken place.


In Australia, we don’t often get fully-fledged debates like that — only the appearance of them. So long as Parliamentarians are stifled by the parties that pick them, we can only wonder what we’re missing out on.

Alex McKinnon is a journalist based in Sydney. Most recently he served as political and opinion editor of pop-culture website Junkee and editor of the Star Observer, Australia's longest-running LGBTI newspaper. 


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