• A gay couple kiss in Dublin Castle Square following Ireland's successful referendum on legalising same-sex marriage. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Could a public vote on same-sex marriage actually be beneficial to the cause? Simon Copland thinks so.
Simon Copland

28 Jan 2016 - 1:02 PM  UPDATED 28 Jan 2016 - 1:02 PM

The legitimacy of the proposed marriage equality plebiscite has again been called into question after government MPs Eric Abetz, Cory Bernardi and Bridget McKenzie declared they would not vote for same-sex marriage regardless of a public vote.

For many this highlighted the futility of the plebisicte, reinforcing the belief that it will be a waste of time, money and energy. In an email to supporters, Australian Marriage Equality wrote:

"If Eric and Cory are going to vote "no" regardless of the results of an extremely costly plebiscite, and couples are continuing to marry anyway, what's the hold up? It's well past time to end marriage discrimination, and our government has the ability to do that now."

We’ve heard the arguments against a plebiscite many times. People point out that it’s not needed, that it would be expensive and that, given it wont be binding, it would not necessarily result in change. More seriously, some are concerned it will lead to vicious anti-gay attacks, leaving many queer kids vulnerable. Others are insulted at the idea of the general public voting on ‘our rights’, saying it’s not up to the general population to decide these issues. I understand these concerns, but I believe a plebiscite would still be worth it. In fact, it is one of the best ways we can tackle anti-gay oppression. 

Call to scrap marriage plebiscite after senator's comments
Liberal senator Eric Abetz's suggestion that he would not be bound to vote in favour of same-sex marriage, despite the result of a plebiscite, has renewed calls for the expensive public vote to be scrapped.

Let’s start by looking at the most serious points against a public vote. Many are rightfully worried a vote will result in hideous attacks from opponents of LGBTI rights which could leave same-sex attracted youth in a vulnerable position. This is a genuine concern and one I share. But I ask whether a plebiscite is actually the catalyst for such a thing? Just last week for example stickers with the slogan ‘cure AIDS — kick a poofter to death’ appeared across Melbourne. Anti-gay attacks are occurring well outside a vote.

These sorts of events have been going on for years. They are the expected outcome from a growing movement that challenges the social order. Yet, they do not stop us. Instead they make us speak out, get stronger and build our movement. We don’t shy away from the homophobia, instead fighting it head on. Why would this be any different during a public vote?

This connects to the irk many feel at the idea of the public voting on ‘our rights’. I’ve always found this confusing. Why do we see a parliamentary vote so differently than a public vote? Aren’t politicians supposed to be a reflection of the general public? Aren’t we therefore already voting on same-sex marriage every three years, just through the proxy of national elections?

I think handing our rights over to politicians is actually far more insulting. Politicians have had countless opportunities to vote on this issue and have failed time and time again. This has occurred while the community is marching forward, now supporting marriage equality by a wide margin.

For some reason we keep placing our faith in our elected leaders — putting our lives into the hands of politicians who have proven themselves to be far more apprehensive than the general public. I think it’s time we change that — taking power away from them and give it to those who actually support us.  

Our focus sits in the wrong place. Instead of focusing on backroom lobbying we should be looking to our local communities.

It is in giving this power to the public I think we have the opportunity to create change that goes well beyond marriage. 

Over recent years the same-sex marriage movement in Australia has focused its energy on lobbying politicians. Just last year Australian Marriage Equality released its ‘new’ strategy, focusing its energies on shifting the eight votes needed to pass a bill in Parliament. These strategies continue to fail, largely because our focus sits in the wrong place. Instead of focusing on backroom lobbying we should be looking to our local communities.

This is the potential power of a plebiscite. A plebiscite puts marriage onto the national agenda and makes it one we have to deal with street-by-street. It means we can put our energy into championing queer campaigners and allies in local communities, empowering people to be local advocates for change. It means we can organise to tackle homophobia and transphobia as it exists at a local level — whether it is young kids facing discrimination in schools or trans people facing the threat of violence on the streets.

Most importantly it means that we can embarrass the government by showing them that our community does support our rights — and it does so with a huge margin. This will cut short the attacks of those such as Abetz and Bernardi, which will be quite important as we move forward with our agenda. I understand people’s concerns about the anti-gay hate that may come, but change is difficult and often painful. 

When she finally changed her mind on same-sex marriage, Julia Gillard came out swinging against a public vote, saying the “only foundation stone for the idea of a plebiscite or referendum is an appeal to the all-too-popular sentiment that politicians are inadequate, that their decision-making is somehow deficient”.

This is exactly the point. Our politicians are inadequate. They have failed and they continue to do so. It’s time to take the decision out of their hands and make it ours. The benefits will be huge.