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Wednesday 09 November 2016

Plebiscite Lost?

Posted in: Comment, Features
By Craig Young - 11th October 2016

We've had comparatively few referenda in New Zealand under the Citizens Initiated Referenda Act 1993. Given that the ALP Opposition and allies have shot down the aborted Australian marriage equality plebiscite, what is the historical context of Australian referenda?

Or, rather, cases, given that both the Commonwealth, and its constituent states and territories can hold them? The federal Commonwealth government is required to ask the national electorate for permission every time it wants to amend Australia's skeletal constitution. Most of the time, the general public has been reticent about giving the federal government excessive power and has answered negatively. There have been some exceptions to this, involving Australian Senate elections (1906), whether the federal government should pay debts for its individual states (1910,1928), expanded federal social services provision (1946), the enfranchisement of Koorie and Murrie (Aborigine) Australians (1967) and Senate casual vacancies, referenda, the retirement of judges and the selection of "Advance Australia Fair" as the Australian national anthem (1977). Sometimes, the outcomes were positive when it came to human rights and civil liberties- in 1951, the Menzies Liberal Government went off the civil libertarian deep end and tried to ban both the Communist Party of Australia and communist political discourse itself. Thankfully, it narrowly failed. Unfortunately, the same has applied to positive constitutional change such as a proposed federal Australian Bill of Rights (1988) and the Australian republic referendum (1999). Oddly enough, most of the referenda that have been introduced, debated and passed or refused have been matters of commercial, fiscal or industrial policy, with the solitary exceptions of alcohol prohibition, military conscription, Communist civil liberties and freedom of expression, the enfranchisement of Australian Aborigines and the Bill of Rights and Republic referenda. Individual states and territories have voted on matters such as daylight saving, casino licensing, state or territory legislature duration and matters of state formation from existing states or territories.

From this perspective, then, LGBTI Australians may have some cause for hope. It would seem that when it came to issues like the planned prohibition of Communist civil liberties and freedom of expression on the one hand, and the enfranchisement of Aborigines on the other, common sense and democratic pluralism prevailed- although against this, the Australian electorate voted down a proposed Bill of Rights in 1988 which would have enhanced human rights and civil liberties. Would LGBT Australians win any such plebiscite/referendum if it had been held? Australian history seems to suggest so.

Or would it? Looking back at the 1951 anti-communism referendum, it is chilling how close the Australian general public came to revoking the civil liberties and human rights of a minority political and social movement because an incumbent government had little respect for civil liberties and freedom of expression or speech. Indeed, according to analysis of voter returns, the rural and mining dominated states of Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania all voted for the passage of such draconian measures and there was only a fifty thousand vote gap or so between opponents and supporters of the anti-communist referendum.

That said, the Aboriginal enfranchisement referendum result was dramatically one-sided- nearly ninety percent of the white electorate voted to enfranchise Koorie and Murrie Australians in 1967, a mandate for change by about four million votes compared to ten percent who opposed this change. However, the 1988 Australian Bill of Rights referendum was a stinging rebuke for proponents of constitutional reform- seventy percent of the electorate opposed the introduction of an Australian Bill of Rights within the Australian Constitution, although the result was rather closer when it came to the republicanism referendum held in 1999.

Of course, it could be argued that the problems with the Bill of Rights and republicanism debates was that they were viewed as abstract, irrelevant and formalistic constitutional change, whereas the anti-communism and Aboriginal enfranchisement referenda both affected identifiable, real groups of people. From this perspective, it might be argued to be the case that humanist solidarity prevails when 'real' and identifiable individuals can be seen to be affected by specific public policies or their absence. People voted against the prohibition of communism and attacks on the civil liberties and free speech of Australian communists because in the case of members of working class communities and trade unions, they knew communist individuals within their social networks. In the case of Australian aboriginals, that might have also been the case when it came to some Queensland, Western Australian and Northern Territory individuals, but an awareness of ethnic minority inclusiveness and historic injustices done to the ancestors of identifiable individuals may have been involved. Would there have been a Yes vote if the plebiscite had gone ahead, in the context of LGBTI friends and relatives?

But if it had gone ahead, the results could have been traumatic for LGBTI individuals, families and their loved ones. An Irish-Australian academic paper,Swimming With Sharks,describes the emotional toll that the Irish marriage equality referendum took on LGBTI Irishpeople, even despite its conclusion in overwhelming victory for the Yes campaign. It sampled 1657 people, eighty seven percent of whom self-identified as LGBT, while the remaining thirteen percent identified as straight but allied or related to LGBTI loved ones. Older LGBTI individuals felt angry and upset, while LGBTI adolescents felt anxious and afraid. Fifty five percent said that it wasn't an experience they'd care to repeat, thirty percent were affirmative about their experiences, while fifteen percent were undecided. It was especially hard on young children of LGBTI parents and estranged LGBTI family members from anti-LGBTI parents, grandparents, siblings or offspring.

However, now that the Australian Labor Party has chosen to shoot down the plebiscite plan, this will now never eventuate. While marriage equality will now be put to a parliamentary vote when the Australian Labor Party next wins power, at least the principle that human rights should never be exposed to the vagaries and prejudices of extremist groups has been safeguarded across the Tasman. The question now is- if the Coalition really wants to decisively and positively resolve this impasse, why can't it concede that the plebiscite gambit failed and that the best way forward is through the avenue of a parliamentary vote?


Referendums in Australia: Referendums_in_Australia

Australian Referendum 1951: Australian_ referendum,_1951

Australian Referendum, 1967: Australian_referendum,_1967-( Aboriginals)

Adam Norton"Just one electorate opposed to same-sex marriage"Melbourne Age: 25.09.2016:http://www.theage. political-news/just-one- electorate-opposed-to-samesex- marriage-20160923-grn2mq

Paul Karp: "Same-sex marriage: Irish campaign had negative effect on most LGBT people"Guardian:08.10.2016:https://www. news/2016/oct/08/same-sex- marriage-irish-campaign-had- negative-effect-on-most-lgbti- people

Michael Koziol: "Same sex marriage plebiscite dead after Labor caucus agreed to block legislation" Sydney Morning Herald: 11.10.2016:http://www.smh. political-news/samesex- marriage-plebiscite-dead- after-labor-caucus-agreed-to- block-legislation-20161010- grzdkj.html

Craig Young - 11th October 2016

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