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Marriage equality postal vote further erodes democracy



The marriage equality postal survey might be the only option in sight for progress on the issue, but have we lost sight of the bigger picture? Are there costs in participating in a fundamentally undemocratic process?

Australia Post boxThe intended postal plebiscite is profoundly undemocratic. It will be conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in the hope that it will be considered a 'gathering of statistics', not an electoral matter requiring oversight by the Australian Electoral Commission and an appropriation of funds by the parliament. The federal government is circumventing the will of the parliament.

This is part of a broader trend to attack, undermine, defund, and erode the democratic institutions we rely on. The Human Rights Law Centre has calculated that over 200 new laws with the specific intent of limiting protest, lessening the oversight of government including by the courts, and reducing the freedom of the press, have been passed since September 2001.

The constant attacks on Gillian Triggs as president of the Human Rights Commission coupled with slashes to the Commission's funding were part of a concerted campaign to delegitimise the institution. Peak bodies and not-for-profits have reported funding reductions if they speak out against government policy, while environmental organisations were threatened with the removal of their tax-deductible-gift status.

Every one of these actions is designed to make it harder to hold government to account, to make sure that it is acting legally. A postal plebiscite to dictate the agenda of the parliament is just one more step in that direction.

Seen in this light, the postal plebiscite is about much more than marriage equality. Our democratic institutions are at stake. Consider what we already know, or don't know, about it. This postal survey will deny the franchise to remote communities in, at least, the Northern Territory. Voters with vision impairment or those overseas will all be denied the basic right of a private ballot, delegating their voice to a 'trusted friend'.

This is not an activity being conducted in good faith to genuinely understand the will of the people. It is an activity designed to undermine the Senate as a check on government, to limit the potential of a High Court challenge, and fundamentally undermine the legitimacy of our institutions. Winning marriage equality and simultaneously engaging in the active delegitimising of our democracy is not a victory. It makes us complicit.

A victory in the postal survey won't actually create marriage equality. It will, at some point, facilitate the discussion of a private member's bill in the House of Representatives. But what will be in that bill? How many exemptions will it contain? Will it be Senator Dean Smith's bill that broadly reflects the consensus of a Senate inquiry, or will it be something drafted by Eric Abtez, Kevin Andrews and Tony Abbott?


"Our children and LGBTIQ people deserve more than marriage equality. They deserve a robust and functioning democracy with strong institutions that protect the human rights of all Australians."


Many people have said that a strong 'yes' vote justifies participating in this sham process, because marriage equality will protect kids in LGBT families, and validate LGBTIQ people's right to exist. So, despite a growing apathy toward elections, a record number of people have enrolled to participate in the postal survey, in the hope that maybe they can force the government to act. And, at this point, unless the High Court challenges are successful, we don't have a choice but to participate and win.

But our children and LGBTIQ people deserve more than marriage equality. They deserve a robust and functioning democracy with strong institutions that protect the human rights of all Australians. By running headlong into this farce process, at a time when the prospect of any kind of victory feels like a huge step forward, we have lost the chance to stand up for our democracy. We cannot now say, loudly and collectively, that this process is not legitimate and we won't validate it.

The alternative would have been to mobilise around a boycott — an option that was dismissed as ineffective and apathetic. But boycotts are not passive, they demand outcomes and actions. This can be economic sanction or the refusal to participate or engage in actions that provide legitimacy to a government or institution. When we participate in illegitimate institutions and activities, we give them legitimacy. We give them power.

If the High Court challenge fails and all we have is a campaign for a 'yes' vote, then for goodness sake vote yes. But don't let this disgraceful government tactic distract you. The postal plebiscite is not an aberration; it's the next step in eroding the institutions that underpin our democracy.

We will win marriage equality; we know that at the very latest a change of government will give us this. But what cost are we prepared to pay along the way? It's a conversation we need to have.



Hayley ConwayHayley Conway is a former campaign manager for global LGBT rights organisation, All Out, where she campaigned on five successful marriage equality campaigns, including three plebiscites in the USA.

Topic tags: Hayley Conway, marriage equality



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Existing comments

Presumably Hayley you will be boycotting this voluntary vote in accord with your belief that it is deliberately designed to erode our democracy and your fear fearful that our democratic institutions are at stake.

an unbeliever | 01 September 2017  

Hayley raises a very important issue in Australian democracy and that is the growing tendency of the executive to ride roughshod over the legislature, the judiciary, and the civil service. The worst example of this in recent times was when Joe reigned supreme in Queensland. More recently, we've seen periods when Labor governments in NSW tried to do the same. In the Federal sphere, it began with Abbott and his attitude to the Senate. Next came secrecy - not really for 'operational' reasons, but rather to avoid real-time scrutiny; then unprecedented extensions of ministerial decision-making without judicial oversight. Now we have Ministers attacking the courts and the law profession. Now is not the time for ordinary people to disengage from politics, rather it is the time for us all to become much more involved.

Ginger Meggs | 01 September 2017  

You have made yourself perfectly clear, Hayley, I am just a bit gobsmacked that this article appeared not in a LBGTIQ organ, nor an overtly political one, but in Eureka Street, which has some affiliation with the Roman Catholic Church through Jesuit Publications. There was an excellent previous article in ES by a young same sex attracted woman in which she said that she was just concerned with getting a 'Yes' vote for same sex marriage and did not necessarily wish to associate it anything else. When I said on another ES thread that I didn't believe the sky would fall in if same sex marriage came in, I was challenged by 'John' who said that SSM was the first step in an LBGTIQ agenda. I don't think you have outlined a LBGTIQ agenda but I am a little concerned that you seem prepared to make what I do not consider a political issue, but something to do basically with young people's mental health, a political one. It is the young people who the Australian Psychological Society says may have real mental health problems if the 'No' vote is successful I am concerned with.

Edward Fido | 01 September 2017  

“A postal plebiscite to dictate the agenda of the parliament….” Don’t elections ‘dictate’ the agenda of the parliament? “Are there costs in participating in a fundamentally undemocratic process?” Do we need to look further than the ALP rule that federal parliamentarians, after the next election, will be compelled to support SSM? Courtesy of the Left, democracy is removed from the floor. “We will win marriage equality; we know that at the very latest a change of government will give us this.” Even when a postal vote goes ‘No’? Isn’t that a ‘fundamentally undemocratic’ thing to say? Given the ALP (and Green) rule, any post-election victory will bear the taint of a kind of gerrymandering. Speaking statistics, an election or a referendum is a poll of a population. That’s very democratic. This plebiscite is either a poll of a population or that of a sample, but the largeness of the number polled suggests it’s a poll of at least a good sample. A ‘free’ vote of parliamentarians, many compelled to vote for SSM by their ALP/Green party overlords, is a poll of a very dubious sample. Which of the three mechanisms will best produce a result consistent with freedom of conscience?

Roy Chen Yee | 02 September 2017  

Same Sex Marriage, which I thought was primarily a social issue, but being conducted in the political arena, seems to have morphed into a political octopus, whose tentacles reach far and wide. I refer to the unilateral pulling of the Dads4Kids Father's Day ads by Free TV Australia on the grounds that they 'likely contained political matter' relevant to the current SSM poll. This unilateral action has been condemned by Tim Wilson, who is a former Human Rights Commissioner as well as being a parliamentarian in favour of SSM. I was puzzled, Hayley, by the frequent reference in your article to the Human Rights Commission and what you describe as attempts to limit its power. That was until I read the article by Angela Shanahan in the Commentary section of the Weekend Australian of September 2, 3 2017 entitled 'Yes side ignores the implications for curbs on freedom'. She refers to the actions of similar bodies to our HRC in countries where SSM has become Law and makes some very valid points about that.

Edward Fido | 03 September 2017  

So Roy, how does the scenario you outlined differ from the current position where Labor and the Greens have a free vote and the Coalition has opposed previous Marriage Equality bills? Any talk of Liberal and Nat overlords? Consistency is good and Hayley raises genuine concerns about this unnecessary and costly process. The spin by the naysayers has already started.

Brett | 03 September 2017  

Among all the threads being woven around this issue of SSM, the notion that it is to do with young people only is amazing. At what age do we cease to be "young" and so beyond the relevance of this issue?

Janet | 04 September 2017  

Democracy , as an ideal sounds fine. But in practice, if it means that one uninformed, biased vote is equal to that of a thoughtful equitable one, it leaves much to be desired. Votes on marriage equality are not as simple as "Yes or No," just as "Love is Love" is not that simple. Sexual attraction is not one of the higher forms of human love, though it may well be included in its embrace. A lot more light needs to be shed on many of these matters before meaningful votes can be cast. Perhaps a boycott would force the Government to do its job.

Robert Liddy | 04 September 2017  

This plebiscite in effect gives support to the notion that the rights of minority groups should be dictated by the opinion of the majority. This goes completely against all principles of human rights and is totally perverse and dare I say straight out of the Bronze Age.

Kenneth Cooke | 04 September 2017  

I have another concern. My mailing address differs from my residential and electoral address. This could be true for many rural voters but does not seem to have been mentioned.

Pat Sheahan | 04 September 2017  

Roy, rather than engage with your arguments, which frankly I find difficult to follow, may I simply refer you to the words of George Williams, an expert in constitutional law. You will find them at < www.theage.com.au/comment/legally-dubious-why-you-shouldnt-bet-on-the-postal-vote-going-ahead-20170904-gya5fi.html >

Ginger Meggs | 04 September 2017  

Robert Liddy: “Democracy, as an ideal sounds fine. But in practice, if it means that one uninformed, biased vote is equal to that of a thoughtful equitable one, it leaves much to be desired. Votes on marriage equality are not as simple as "Yes or No," just as "Love is Love" is not that simple. Sexual attraction is not one of the higher forms of human love, though it may well be included in its embrace. A lot more light needs to be shed on many of these matters before meaningful votes can be cast. Perhaps a boycott would force the Government to do its job.” Are you implying that the government, like Kevin Rudd some years ago, should set up a People’s Convention to canvass the issue, allowing uncensored thinking aloud by the various respected members of the community who will be on the convention? By “more light needs to be shed on these matters”, are you suggesting that federal parliamentarians, not being experts on SS Attraction issues, should open the debate to the wider community?

Roy Chen Yee | 04 September 2017  

Roy, re you response to Robert, this article is about the proposed postal vote and democracy, not about Marriage Equality and democracy. The proposed postal 'survey' would be an affront to our parliamentary democracy no matter what it was about. The executive is attempting to spend $120 million on something that the legislature has not approved, on the pretext that there is an urgent unforeseen need (think natural disaster relief), and is seeking to use a statutory body for a purpose for which it was not set up.

Ginger Meggs | 05 September 2017  

Roy Chen Yee 04 September 2017 The point I am trying to make is that the bulk of the community are no more informed than I am on the ideals of Love and the role sexual attraction plays in it, and we should not be put in a situation of voting on these matters without expert views (if there are any available ), being expressed for our consideration.

Robert Liddy | 06 September 2017  

I think, if everyone were to reach the level of perfection Robert Liddy seems to expect of them to cast an informed vote, we are stuck with the oligarchic model of rule championed by Plato and so ably demolished by the late Karl Popper in 'The Open Society and its Enemies' . There seem to be a number of people out there who mistrust the general Australian populace to make the 'right' decision when they vote in the postal plebiscite on SSM. Obviously the 'right' decision is the one these people are urging for: it's a bit like the barrackers at the Cordner-Eggleston 1st XVIII annual trophy match between MGS and Scotch. This is a bit more than political football. I must confess I am a 'minimalist' as far as the SSM plebiscite goes. I support the 'Yes' case without 'common cause linkage'. As Alan Joyce said on the 7.30 report on 5-9-17, there are vocal extremists on both sides. We need to ignore them.

Edward Fido | 06 September 2017  

Robert Liddy: I think CS Lewis has made a pretty worthwhile and enduring contribution on what love is with his work The Four Loves.

John | 07 September 2017  

I agree, and the tactics used by influential corporates, oligarchs and ideologues are about by-passing, grid locking and/or demeaning parliamentary democracy, aka ALEC in the US https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Legislative_Exchange_Council Seems about an amalgam of conservatism, evangelical Christianity, and nativism to raise emotions in society and electorates; precludes any grounded policies social, economic or otherwise.

Andrew Smith | 07 September 2017  

The most democratic thing is for all people to have a say on SSM. Something Hayley has campaigned against. Why does ES consistently give so much space for views that oppose Bible and Catholic teaching? If only poor Ignatius could see what the Jesuits have become.

Joe | 07 September 2017  

Thanks Hayley for defending a minority segment of the community, young and older, suffering ongoing vilification as deemed second-class citizens undeserving of explicit clarification of their human rights in terms of right to marry persons of the same sex. Article 16(1-3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights acknowledges marriage as a human right which does not exclude same-sex marriage and which does not specify which types of family combinations should be denied those rights. http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr. The kick-off post of 1/9 undermines the reasonable premise that the state of democracy and government accountability is sub-optimal, by implying that the premise is based on unfounded “fear” in the same category I presume as the fear that suggests the sky is likely to fall in if and when the Marriage Act is amended to provide equality to those wishing to have same-sex marriage legally validated. It is justifiable to air these issues in a number of arenas addressing different audiences. I disagree with the position that this polite and inoffensive article on issues crucial to the postal opinion poll and broader issues would have been better placed somewhere else. The editor published it, so here we are. More follows.

Madeleine Kingston | 10 September 2017  

I proffer general points re my understanding of the process for this voluntary non-binding postal opinion poll that seeks an opinion for enrolled voters on whether SS couples should be granted their human rights. The ABS has admitted to capability issues in short timeframe. It will not be able to implement its usual quality assurance standards in examining demographics in detail other than age and gender and electoral base. I believe that the government has directed the ABS to bypass such anyway and to collect this limited data, presumably to decide where electoral vulnerabilities lie. Some limitations are explained in articles in Fairfax media by Jack Waterford and by Peter Martin links: John Waterford (2017) “The ABS is prostituting its reputation in same-sex postal survey? Fairfax Media 11 August 2017 http://www.smh.com.au/comment/the-abs-is-prostituting-its-reputation-with-samesex-marriage-survey-20170811 and Peter Martin (2017) “Same-sex marriage: there is one good thing about the postal plebiscite” The Age 16 August 2017. See also John Lord AIMN John Lord (2017) “A dangerous precedent, Australian Independent Media Network (AIMN) 11 August 2017 http://www.theaimn.com/day-day-politics-dangerous-precedent/ and views of Anna Brown HRLC re process https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/aug/07/tony-abbott-questions-postal-plebiscite-legality-ahead-of-marriage-equality-debate. Conscience vote means: according to personal beliefs; Party Platform; or wishes of electorate.

Madeleine Kingston | 10 September 2017  

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