Volume 3, Issue 9, (Originally Published on Monday 6 May 2013)
Over the last week the media has been abuzz with responses to independent federal MP Tony Windsor’s suggestion that the marriage equality debate be taken out of the hands of ‘you idiots’ (his fellow politicians) and put to the public via a referendum. A quick survey of opinion suggests that it is a bad idea, and here’s why:
Firstly, just because it is popular doesn’t mean it would be passed. The requirement of a double majority (majority of states and a majority of voters nationally) means referenda in Australia are difficult to carry. Historically, Australians have been reluctant to vote yes – the success rate is only 8 of 44.
Secondly, it would be expensive. The referendum would be an unnecessary expense for the government, but more importantly, would require both sides of the ‘debate’ to fund enormous educational campaigns. For groups advocating marriage equality the task would prove a heavy burden on already limited funds. Conversely, those opposed have a lot more money to spend and may use the opportunity to mount a damaging, homophobic advertising campaign (as they did in some US states).
Finally, it seems like a bit of a cop-out (to me at least). Politicians can’t just run a referendum every time they face a challenging decision, and rights and equality should not be made into a popularity contest. As far as I can tell, no one has outlined what the change would be; presumably it would involve amending s 51(xxi) (the marriage power) to include couples of any/all genders and sexes. The thing is, we don’t actually need to do this. Section 51(xxi) is broad enough to give the Commonwealth Parliament the power to amend the Marriage Act without any Constitutional change, and they would have to do this even if a referendum was passed.
As Australia falls further and further behind in the move towards Marriage Equality, it is easy to see why people are looking for alternatives to political lobbying – especially in the current climate of political uncertainty. And yes, a successful referendum would be a tremendous statement of public support for marriage equality, but it’s probably not worth the risk, expense and damage that might be caused – especially given there is a cheap and efficient alternative that just required a bit of political courage.
If you’re interested in this and other issues related to gender, sexuality and the law, come along to ‘Sex Talk: Bodies, Identity, and the Law’ on Tuesday, May 14 in room 920 for panel discussions and individual presentations by MLS students. Topics include, but are in no means limited to, marriage equity, prostitution and sex trafficking, and the legal recognition of ‘alternative genders’.
Light refreshments will be provided.