Plebiscite or bust: A Coalition folly

By | | comments |
(Screenshot via abc.net.au)

“What is the disaster that will unfold … what is it that would be so terrible if we just passed it as legislation?” ~ Magda Szubanski

SOMEONE needs to tell the Coalition what a “mandate” is and what it is not.

It is not hanging on to power by a thread and bandying the term ”mandate” around as though you won in a landslide.

It is not being humiliated by the electorate and both houses of parliament but insisting on the same policies that led to said humiliation in the first place.

It is not overthrowing Caesar (AKA Abbott) so as to copy his agenda. ‘I come to bury Caesar not to praise him’ — remember?!

But Turnbull’s Coalition Government has forgotten how to govern.

How else do you explain spending $160 million for a plebiscite on an issue the Australian public (with the exception of a few nut job politicians and their disciples) are already happy to implement?

A plebiscite is a confusing thing really, because it is not a referendum. It is a non-event with no legal consequence.

The Australian Electoral Commission defines it as:

‘An issue put to the vote which does not affect the Constitution is called a plebiscite. A plebiscite is not defined in the Australian Constitution, the Electoral Act or the Referendum Act.’

A referendum on the other hand, is used when governments wish to pass laws on matters which require constitutional change (emphasis added):

The federal Parliament can make laws only on certain matters. These include: international and inter-State trade; foreign affairs; defence; immigration; taxation; banking; insurance; marriage and divorce; currency and weights and measures; post and telecommunications; and invalid and old age pensions. (Source: aph.gov.au.)

This is why John Howard was able to change the Marriage Act to include a definition of marriage as:

‘ … the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.’

Howard explained his draconian 2004 decision without apology (emphasis added):

We've decided to insert this into the Marriage Act to make it very plain that is our view of a marriage and to also make it very plain that the definition of a marriage is something that should rest in the hands ultimately of the parliament of the nation.

… it is something that ought to be expressed through the elected representatives of the country.

Presumably, when Howard and his cohorts took it upon themselves to change the Marriage Act without a plebiscite, they believed they had a “mandate” to represent their constituents.

Though we can argue about the extent of this Government's "mandate", Malcolm Turnbull and the hard right Abbott disciples of the Liberal Party clearly do not believe they have one. Why else would they put on such a performance at our expense?

“What is the disaster that will unfold … what is it that would be so terrible if we just passed it as legislation?”

A perfectly logical question asked by Magda Szubanski on Q&A on Monday night.

Basically, a plebiscite is an obscenely expensive opinion poll that has no legal ramifications.

It’s a bit like the wait staff in a restaurant asking what you would like to eat and then insisting you first do a short survey, the privilege of which you have to pay for, only to serve you an entirely different pre-determined dish. Confusing isn’t it? Why couldn’t they just bring what you ordered?

Why indeed. Why do we have to pay for something we don’t need with money we apparently don’t have, to be fed a result we don’t want?

Turnbull's cringeworthy lectures on why we suddenly need a plebiscite completely contradict his own so-called "beliefs" and every national opinion poll. This is the man who lectured the country on the right of everyone to marry whom they choose — where did that guy go?

Now "dripping with hypocrisy", perhaps?

Plebiscites are used for life or death problems, like conscription in wartime! Or, for issues of national identity. They are not intended to be used to ask the public a question, about which they have been surveyed many times, on something which is a personal decision.

There have only been three so far:

  • 1916: military service conscription (defeated)
  • 1917: reinforcement of the Australian Imperial Force overseas (defeated)
  • 1977: choice of Australia’s national anthem ('Advance Australia Fair' preferred.)

Same sex marriage is not like war. Everyone doesn’t need to marry a gay person the way everyone could be conscripted to go to Syria or Afghanistan. Should we have a plebiscite on whether we should get a tertiary education or choose to run away with the circus? Maybe a plebiscite on whether we should use contraception, or have sex except when intending to procreate?

On the other hand, a plebiscite would have been a great idea when the government decided to make changes to metadata retention — an infringement on our privacy about which we were never consulted.

A plebiscite would have been handy before we decided to lock up innocent people indefinitely for the crime of fleeing war zones.

Similarly, a plebiscite would have been a good idea before the laws were changed in the Northern Territory to allow the torture of children in detention.

On marriage equality, however, 72 per cent of Australians are in favour. If this dysfuntional Coalition Government supported the public view and our right to express it in a secular society, why don't they heed our views?

It is also a sad and recognised fact that a public discussion on whether "gay" marriage is equal to "normal" marriage will have a hugely detrimental and divisive effect on the LGTBI community and children who hail from families that are not "normal" as defined by people such as George Christensen and Cory Bernardi.

Somewhere along the way, the interpretation of democratic language such as “mandate”, “plebiscite” and “rights” has been hijacked and it seems to me that our freedoms and our rights are constantly being manipulated.

Certainly, this is so in the case of this expensive, divisive and legally inconsequential plebiscite.

You can follow deputy editor Michelle Pini on Twitter @vmp9 or check out her blog here.


Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

Monthly Donation


Single Donation


Support equality. Subscribe to IA for just $5 (or less).

Recent articles by Michelle Pini
Mark Dreyfus’ exclusive media diversity club

Following the Coalition's example, News Corp and Nine have been prioritised over ...  
EDITORIAL: Mark Dreyfus’ exclusive media diversity club

When Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus announced a national media roundtable to discuss ...  
The 'canonisation' of George Pell

​​​​​​​The groundwork has begun in earnest for the canonisation of ...  
Join the conversation
comments powered by Disqus

Support IAIndependent Australia

Subscribe to IA and investigate Australia today.

Close Subscribe Donate