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Monday 10 April 2017


Posted in: Comment
By Craig Young - 22nd July 2016

Opponents of marriage equality in New Zealand are strangely silent about the Australian marriage equality plebiscite. Why is this, and what brought on this change of mind?

It may be because the tide has turned when it comes to marriage equality referenda results. While they were anti-equality during the George W.Bush era, the new decade and election of President Obama saw a reversal of trajectory. In some states, positive marriage equality referenda results won. Then Ireland voted for marriage equality, leading former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott to follow suit and promise a plebiscite/referendum on the matter. When Malcolm Turnbull took over, he had to placate his party's religious social conservative wing and upheld the earlier decision, despite criticism from the Australian Labor Party and Australian Greens Opposition parties and the LGBT community. However, first, there has to be legislation that enables expenditure ($A 148 m) on the plebiscite and given that the Coalition still doesn't control the Australian Senate after its 'double dissolution' federal election. It will be difficult to get that through the upper house. Australians for Marriage Equality point out that many Liberal Party religious social conservative incumbents were unseated during the election and theoretically, advocates of marriage equality have a potential mandate for a free vote on the matter, resolving the issue once and for all. Once-ardent backers of a plebiscite such as Senator Cory Bernardi and Tasmanian MHR Eric Abetz are now cooling on the prospect. Turnbull has acknowledged that there may not be time to hold the plebiscite in 2016.

Australian LGBT media have also expressed concerns that there are moves afoot to gerrymander the plebiscite through showing bias toward the Australian Christian Lobby and the rest of the Australian Christian Right. Oddly, Fred Niles Christian Democratic Party is sounding a note of caution, urging its fellow antigay conservative Christians not to get carried away and spout extremist rhetoric, nervous that Australian LGBT media will spot it and publicise it. This happened here when defunctInvestigateeditor Ian Wishart did exactly that, which probably had some impact on already adverse public perceptions of New Zealand Christian Right opponents of marriage equality.

Referenda are supposed to promote 'participatory democracy' and 'citizen participation' within the political process, according to their apologists. It depends on what means by 'citizenship', however. Neoliberal centre-right governments like the Cameron/May administrations (United Kingdom) and Key administration in New Zealand may promote the facade of 'participation' through referenda while stifling more meaningful dimensions of social citizenship through public health, public education, social welfare and charitable organisation funding cutbacks. Thus, during the Key administration's three terms, we have had a third referendum on the electoral system (2011) and a flag referendum (2015), both of which upheld the existing New Zealand ensign and our current Mixed Member Proportional electoral system. Thankfully, the Key administration has desisted from holding referenda on substantive issues of human rights and civil liberties, which should be viewed as non-negotiable once legislative reform has occurred. In the United Kingdom, there has been a succession of referenda on issues like a choice between First Past the Post and Preferential Voting electoral systems, Scottish independence and British exit from the European Union. This is what referenda should focus upon, providing critical analysis and public consent to potential constitutional change. Given the closeness of the Brexit vote, the May administration should hold a third referendum on European Union membership to resolve the ambiguity around the issue of public consent, given the nearly fifty-fifty split in this context, however.

Oddly enough, a schism seems to be opening up within the New Zealand Christian Right over the sleeper issue of euthanasia law reform. Only, given that the Health select committee is hearing submissions on ACT MP David Seymour's proposed End of Life Choices Bill, the sleep period has ended. Sections of the conservative Catholic anti-euthanasia lobby fear what happened in Oregon and Washington state, which both introduced and endorsed physician assisted suicide through binding referenda, might be replicated elsewhere. In Switzerland, Zurich held two referenda which upheld the legality of physician assisted suicide, as well as access to it from overseas. Some conservative Catholics and their fundamentalist Protestant allies have turned against binding referenda for that reason. They argue that the marriage equality debate is 'lost' and that as matters stand now, the prospect of passage of euthanasia law reform through a binding referendum process is 'too dangerous'. If either a bipartisan social liberal parliamentary vote or positive plebiscite outcome introduce marriage equality, similar friction and debate may arise within conservative Catholic and fundamentalist Protestant factions of the Australian Christian Right. Family First can't pretend the elephant in the room is invisible forever. Does it really believe in binding referenda no matter what the issue? Even if the binding referendum results in an outcome antithetical to their own religious philosophy?

Craig Young - 22nd July 2016

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