Why we need a plebiscite

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In his campaign launch speech last Saturday the leader of the Federal Opposition, the Hon. Bill Shorten, has politicised the same-sex marriage plebiscite, making it a key point of differentiation between Labor and the Coalition.  Mr Shorten affirmed Labor’s commitment to introduce same-sex marriage legislation if elected on July 2, and claimed that the Coalition promise of a plebiscite to allow Australians to have their say on this important social change would be a “taxpayer-funded platform for homophobia”.

This follows Mr Shorten’s claim in the leaders’ debate on Friday that a plebiscite would encourage the “haters” to “come out from under a rock”. Mr Shorten’s campaign speech also implies that those who do not support same-sex marriage are “sitting in judgment” on others.

Ironically, Mr Shorten’s recent comments demonstrate why it is critical for Australia to have a plebiscite on this issue.  A recent poll conducted by the Centre for Governance and Public Policy at Griffith University has found that 70% of Australians support holding a national plebiscite on the question.   Yet, according to Mr Shorten, it is unacceptable to listen to the will of the majority and have a national conversation about this. Those who choose to support what is (at least at present) the law of our land – that marriage is between a man and woman – cannot be allowed to express that view in public debate.

Mr Shorten’s comments are a foretaste of inevitable restrictions on freedom of thought, conscience and religion that the implementation of same-sex marriage in Australia will necessarily entail. If it is not permissible to argue for the present legal definition of marriage now, how much less will it be acceptable when the definition of marriage is changed? This has been the repeated experience in countries overseas which have recognised same-sex marriage, where public dissent from same-sex marriage has been muted via punitive legislation.

The proposal for a plebiscite should not be silenced by vague and unsubstantiated accusations that the plebiscite debate will be dominated by hate. The public debate in recent years has been marked by respectful disagreement, not hate speech. We have not yet seen the anonymous “haters” who are presently hiding under the rocks. If indeed these “haters” were to come out in the plebiscite debate, their views would be unacceptable to Australian on both sides of the argument, and their opinion would get little traction or airtime. 

Australia needs to have a plebiscite on this issue because those holding to the present definition of marriage or opposed to a change to marriage are not inherently homophobic or "haters”.

Australia needs to have a plebiscite on this issue so that we can have an intelligent debate and then make an informed choice about whether it is necessary to redefine marriage to provide legal equality to same-sex couples.

Australia needs to have a plebiscite on this issue, while it is still possible to have a public discussion on this issue. If we are going to restrict freedom of thought, conscience and religion in this way, it is important for us to realise the consequences of doing so.

 
Bishop Michael Stead is chair of the Religious Freedom Reference Group for Sydney Diocese

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