It happened late at night, surprising everyone.
Last week, Labor MPs in South Australia rushed a vote on a new bill that would have allowed people to change their gender identity on their birth certificate without needing surgery. With several MPs - including the Premier Jay Weatherill - out of the chamber at the time, the bill was narrowly defeated. While Weatherill defended his colleagues it is almost certain Labor's Right used his absence to ensure the legislation’s defeat, even though it has the support of the majority of the Parliament, and likely the general population.
This — right wing MPs defeating generally popular legislation regarding queer people — is a growing trend in Australian politics. In South Australia it was Labor MPs defeating a gender identity bill, while nationally it has been hard-right Coalition MPs forcing delays on marriage equality and gutting Safe Schools. The same occurs in many other social issues — Labor MPs defeating abortion reform in Queensland, or politicians around the country refusing to advance any debate on euthanasia. Time and time again, the elites in our Parliament are using whatever tactics available to defeat popular social programs and legislation.
Look at the much of the language of many LGBTI groups, however, and you would not see this reality. While politicians and their right wing friends are working extra hard to defeat our agenda, many queers are turning their ire instead to the general population. We’re increasingly placing more faith in the political elite, seeing them as the ones who need to protect us from the “homophobic masses”.
The plebiscite is the most obvious example of this. When Malcolm Turnbull introduced the legislation for the plebiscite he stated that "the argument against the plebiscite that we hear today is that Australians cannot be trusted to have a civil conversation, that the Australian public are so immature, so unbridled, so reckless that they cannot be trusted to have a debate and make a decision on this issue.” Turnbull was instantly derided, with queers pointing out awful incidences of homophobia as evidence against the idea that the general population should ever have a say on the issue.
This has been a trend that has run through the debate. While there are genuine arguments against a public vote — primarily that it is simply not needed — campaigns instead have focused around a complete distrust in the general population. “Homophobes in the street” should have not be able to have a say on “our rights”, with that privilege only being made afforded to homophobes in our Parliament instead. Debate must stay wholly within the confines of the halls of Parliament with any involvement from the community being seen as insulting.
This “dark view of the electorate” taps into growing anti-populist sentiment “expressed in cases like the rise of the One Nation vote in Australia, the unexpected popularity of Donald Trump, and the victory of ‘Leave’ in the UK’s EU referendum". With these political events, many progressives are turning against the general population and against the idea of participatory democracy itself. Turning against the general population, queers and other progressives are increasingly focusing our agenda on nicely asking the elite to create safe spaces to protect us from these masses. Again, marriage is the perfect example. Queers have bemoaned that fact that Malcolm Turnbull will not set ‘rules’ for a ‘civil debate’, giving the Prime Minister all the authority to decide what should and should not be said (as if we could ever trust him on that).
This approach is extremely concerning.
The most obvious problem is that these ideals are extremely anti-democratic. While we may like to say that ‘no one should ever be able to vote on the rights of others’ that is exactly how any democratic system runs. No rights are inalienable, and there is not a single right in the world that has not been fought for, or against, at some point in our past. This is part of the democratic process, whether we like it or not, and it is one we should embrace instead of reacting against.
More importantly, though, queers have actually done an amazing job at engaging the general population in the past, something that is highlighted time and time again in research on our issues. Just last week, polls showed that only one electorate in Australia is opposed to same-sex marriage, suggesting any plebiscite would pass with flying colours. These numbers have stayed extremely stable despite the homophobic attacks that have come from the elite is past months. The population is clearly not listening to the conservatives on this issue.
The general population is more in favour of marriage equality and other queer issues than our political elite. In fact, they have been far more in favour of our rights for many years. While of course there are many homophobes in the general population, percentage-wise there appear to be many more in the halls of our Parliament.
One has to question where is it that we’re putting our faith. It’s not the general population who are holding back queer rights, it’s the elite in our Parliaments, and their right wing friends, and South Australia is a prime example of this. It is not the general population who are perpetuating homophobic debates, or who are holding back our agenda. It is the political elite.
On the flip side, it is the general population who are the best to rally to defeat this elite. It has been, at least in part, amazing engagement with the population that has gotten the queer agenda this far. It will only be engagement with the population that will continue to defeat conservatives in our Parliament. This is why I think the plebiscite has such value — it is an opportunity to forcibly show our politicians how out of sync they are with the rest of the community.
There are certainly forces moving against us, but those forces do not exist as much in the streets of our cities as they do in the halls of our Parliament. Whether it’s gender identity in South Australia, Safe Schools or Marriage Equality, it is politicians who are threatening our agenda. We must stop placing such faith in them.