Tag Archives: Plebiscite

The killing of the plebiscite

“For the first time we are seen not as an issue but as people.”

THERE has been no progress on marriage equality in Australia since long before former Prime Minister Tony Abbott tricked his moderate frontbenchers into a marathon joint party room meeting with the hard-right National Party in August 2015 and gave Australia a new word to debate at dinner parties.

Abbott got the idea about a public vote on same-sex marriage from his independent nemeses Tony Windsor and Rob Oakshott, who first uttered the P-Word during Julia Gillard’s prime ministership.

“It would lower the temperature of the political debate and would provide some back-up support to any politician who takes this thing on in future,” Oakshott said.

Despite voting against marriage for same-sex couples in parliament, Windsor started wavering in favour of relationship equality after attending a same-sex civil union. “If it came down to my vote [in Parliament] I’d have to have a really hard think about it. But that ceremony had an impact on me. I’d probably vote for it,” he said.

Yet he plumped for a public vote instead of just wielding his parliamentary power, a move which has set the tone for the conservative approach to marriage equality in this country ever since: why deal with the pesky issue of allowing gays to marry when it can be handed over to the people?

Even the Greens were up for a referendum in 2013, with Christine Milne wanting to take the debate away from former Prime Minister Julia Gillard and then opposition leader Abbott, labelling them both “on the wrong side of history”.

But what happened to the marriage equality plebiscite in the Senate late on November 7, 2016, is a ‘David and Goliath’ tale of how Australian LGBTI found our voice.

Ask the people

Abbott and the hard right must have rubbed their hands together on the night of August 11, 2015. With this strange-sounding, hard-to-spell latin word – plebiscite – they’d well and truly snookered marriage equality advocates and lobbyists with a matching slogan that would appeal to the lowest common denominator: “Ask the people,” usually thrown with a nifty kicker: “What are you afraid of?”.

Australia hadn’t experienced a plebiscite in more than a generation. The last came in 1974 under Gough Whitlam, and it asked Australian voters about our preferred national anthem. We selected ‘Advance Australia Fair’ over ‘God Save The Queen’, but Malcolm Fraser ignored what the people said and reinstated the old song. It wasn’t until Bob Hawke altered the song sheet for good in 1984 that our voice was respected by parliament.

But Abbott was pleased enough about his plan that he took his eye off key supporters, including Christopher Pyne, whose rage at being tied to the homophobic hard-right of the National Party was the last straw, and saw them oust the Prime Minister by September that year.

The cheers within many LGBTI households were loud the night Abbott was dumped, but just as many warned about the chance of betrayal. We’d been duped before by Julia Gillard, who’d presented as progressive but soon adopted an anti-equality mantra, and Turnbull disappointingly followed suit. His mantra was intoned differently, dictated by the National Party from the moment the new PM signed the nation’s most secret power pact – the Liberal Party-Coalition agreement. Clearly, a plebiscite was to be the only way forward under this regime.

What are you afraid of?

The question was so powerful it spread its tendrils throughout the Australian LGBTI community. A public vote sounded good. It sounded fair. Objections were hard to come up with once it had been embedded in the Liberal Party’s suite of election promises.

Only marriage equality lobbyists, it seemed, witnessed the way the rhetoric changed throughout the lengthy election campaign. In the final week, marriage equality barely left the news cycle, the plebiscite positioned as some progressive torch lit by true believers. But many of us asked how on earth a policy championed by Tony Abbott, dreamed up in rural heartlands by conservative thinkers, could be in any way beneficial to LGBTI?

Rodney Croome.

The problem was there was very little detail about how a plebiscite would be managed, and the Coalition was painfully shy about giving it, which generated credible reports that the Coalition might well make the outcome non-binding and require a majority of electorates to pass. The pressure was enough for Turnbull to come clean before the ballot: Coalition MPs could snub their noses at any plebiscite outcomes.

After the election, the diverse Senate and the return of Pauline Hanson captured most of the media’s attention. During the fallout, one of the highest-profile marriage equality activists in the county resigned from the organisation he’d created in 2004.

Rodney Croome’s move away from Australian Marriage Equality (AME) called to mind Ivan Hinton-Teoh’s in April. Croome’s explicitly anti-plebiscite stance sounded an alarm bell. Hinton-Teoh (who with his husband Chris was one of the first same-sex couples to wed in the ACT before the High Court quashed the law that allowed it) had started a new group just.equal.

Over its first decade, AME had become the peak marriage equality advocacy group in the country, so there was some explaining to do. Doug Pollard at The Stirrer managed to get AME’s Alex Greenwich (Independent NSW MP), on the record answering serious questions about why the group had not campaigned harder against Turnbull’s plebiscite during the election; but the marriage equality waters were muddied, and there weren’t too many clear answers to be found anywhere.

Plebiscite or nothing

The mantra from within the Coalition quickly evolved. It was now ‘accept the plebiscite or wait indefinitely’. On a sunny Sunday afternoon working the Brisbane Markets with my husband, Richard and I talked through what was at stake and agreed: if it came to a choice, we were prepared to wait for our New Zealand civil union to be recognised in our home country.

We also knew what it was to knock on doors asking for our human rights, having petitioned our region to gauge the mood. Our results showed the electorate of Bowman in South East Queensland was overwhelmingly behind marriage equality, but the process was painful. The question brought out the first homophobia either of us had been exposed to in more than a decade.

As we shared our story, friends in the lobby networks started to come out on the same page: the plebiscite was a great risk to mental health, and there was a sense that had AME campaigned harder against it during the election, Turnbull may not have won. We all reminded ourselves that Doug Pollard had called on AME to change its ways within a week of the election, even as Turnbull’s victory hung in the balance and everyone was speculating about the formation of the new Senate, which would stand as the last line of defence against the plebiscite.

Suddenly, things came into much sharper focus.

Just.equal was already match fit and spearheaded the push against plebiscite-or-nothing thinking, with Shelley Argent, national spokesperson for PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) and Croome. A poll was commissioned showing the true picture of support for a plebiscite, which had dropped to less than half of Australians when respondents were informed of the $160-million cost and the non-binding nature of the outcome. Another showed the overwhelming majority of Australian LGBTI would be prepared to wait for a parliamentary vote, not a public one.

Shelley Argent.

Several Coalition MPs relied on the positive outcome of the Irish marriage equality referendum, using mantras like ‘dancing in the streets’ and ‘bringing the nation together’. This was quickly countered by a study showing a different picture of the negative Irish experience.

The message was clear: the majority of people who would be impacted by marriage equality in Australia – that is, the LGBTI community – were prepared to wait for a parliamentary free vote on our human rights. We demanded the Parliament ditch the plebiscite.

Under any circumstances

AME and its new arm Australians For Equality (A4E) adopted strong anti-plebiscite language in response, and called for the nation’s LGBTI activist and advocacy groups to unite, but the devil was in the detail.

Once again it was Doug Pollard who covered the story: even though the majority of Australian LGBTI activist and advocacy groups were opposed to the plebiscite with AME and A4E, a smaller collective – just.equal, Shelley Argent, Rodney Croome and Rainbow Families (Victoria) – wanted to add three simple words to the anti-plebiscite declaration.

“Our position, and the position the LGBTI community wants us to advocate, is very simple: no plebiscite under any circumstances, just a free vote,” a statement issued by just.equal revealed.

Shove it

Miranda Devine can always be relied on to capture the moment. She went out early and hard and told the LGBTI community to take the “olive branch” offered by conservatives and “shove it where the sun don’t shine”. Classy dame, Miranda, but her vitriol, and where it was specifically aimed, showed savvy pundits knew the plebiscite was in its death throes, attacked not by Bill Shorten and Labor (the preferred chief suspects of the Coalition), but by us, the majority of the nation’s LGBTI community.

Rodney Croome recaptured the moment from Ms Devine: “For the first time at a federal level the voice of the LGBTI community has been the leading voice on an issue that affects us more than anyone else. For the first time our mental health in the face of prejudice and hate has been a primary consideration for many law makers. For the first time we are seen not as an issue but as people.”

The Liberals tried reviving the plebiscite with a compromise deal offered by Warren Entsch – an electronic online poll with a lower price tag. But while he remains a great supporter of marriage equality and has done much to raise awareness about the issue in the Liberal Party, Entsch still struggles with the reality that any vote that is not binding on Parliament is a dodo.

Turnbull and his team bravely flew the rainbow flag all the way from the House of Representatives to the Senate vote, repeating every old myth and mantra on the way; but after a short life, this unnecessary, expensive, divisive shit of a policy has been slain.

The Prime Minister can hardly be disappointed, since he was opposed to a public vote on human rights before he shoved Tony Abbott out of the top job, and today’s Senate vote rids the Upper House of even more residual Abbott stink.

Plan B

Ignore the naysayers, there is one. Head over to just.equal and get up to speed… they’re the ones who’ve really got plebiscite blood on their hands.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.

Divorced from reality: the Coalition’s marital problems

“The Coalition will just have to take care of itself, because the political wedge has finally hit its target.”

AFTER the Coalition’s narrow win, the plebiscite on Marriage Equality should be getting ready to kick off, yet the same election promise has been blamed for the major swing against Malcolm Turnbull.

And the paradox has all the hallmarks of failure. In one of his delayed post-victory interviews, Malcolm Turnbull conceded the plebiscite would have to be pushed ahead to 2017.

His reason: “My commitment to have it dealt with as soon as practicable is there, but we… have to obtain the support of the Senate,” Mr Turnbull told Leigh Sales on the ABC’s 7.30 program.

This rhetoric is in stark contrast to Mr Turnbull’s pre-election claim that a guaranteed ‘yes’ plebiscite result would “sail through the parliament” under his leadership. 

At the dawn of a more diverse Senate than the one Turnbull tried to shift with his double-dissolution election, another narrative swiftly emerged this week that throws even more doubt on the PM’s grasp of the reins.

A Galaxy poll commission by PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) conducted after the election indicates less than half of voters want a marriage equality plebiscite.

So the promise Mr Turnbull campaigned on – majority community support for asking the people by the end of 2016 – has fallen flat.

This is not a surprise. Equality campaigners not only saw it coming, we made it happen.

Marital problems

In my electorate – the division of Bowman in South East Queensland – a small team of us started door-knocking the neighbours of our federal MP Andrew Laming in March.

It proved to be a confronting process – knocking on doors asking for your human rights is not always fun – but we were already angry at how the mainstream media had given the Coalition’s Mr Laming a free kick in 2015.

Screen shot 2016-07-22 at 10.59.10 AM
LAMING’S PROJECT Federal Member for Bowman, Andrew Laming, interviewed by Waleed Aly.

When he appeared on Network Ten’s The Project Mr Laming claimed to be conducting a “scientific survey” of his constituents on Marriage Equality, and committed to vote in Canberra based on the results. Waleed Aly, Carrie Bickmore and the program’s producers let his claims go live to air completely un-analysed.

Mr Laming’s annual information-gathering session in his electorate gave voters one say per household on issues like live export and sand mining in addition to “gay marriage”, as though LGBTI want something special, like gay supermarkets, or gay sports fields. It came back – unsurprisingly – with 58 per cent against “gay marriage”.

So we sorely needed data of our own. Working with national lobby group Australian Marriage Equality, a unique petition was devised in which we offered a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ option to anyone registered to vote in this electorate who had a firm view either way on altering the Marriage Act to allow same-sex couple equal access.

Instead of Mr Laming’s claim that Marriage Equality was a 50-50, “red-hot issue” across our community, what we found after months of cold-calling voters in their homes, at public transport hubs, shopping and at local markets, was more like the national trend in support for marriage equality: that is, overwhelming support.

Our petition proved to be an incredible experience. On several occasions we had people lining up to sign ‘yes’ to Marriage Equality, and locals engaged in many conversations about their LGBTI family members. If there was anything ‘red hot’ it was their anger that it was way past time for reform to be put in place by our elected representatives.

On social media threads we dealt with all the usual naysayers, accusing us of only petitioning at ‘gay discos’, but most people got the message – we were open to anyone with a firm view either way, and our percentage of ‘no’ signatures became strangely validating.

COULDN'T CARE Andrew Laming's initial response to a marriage equality petition.
COULDN’T CARE Andrew Laming’s initial response to a marriage equality petition.

Fairfax Media picked up our data and put it to Mr Laming, who said he: “Couldn’t care less”, which ran as a headline for 24 hours until the MP’s office hosed it down and reclaimed his first response as off the record. He subsequently apologised to petitioners and professed to be in support of our work.

But when we delivered the petition results to Mr Laming at a meet-the-candidates event run by the local chamber of commerce, his rhetoric changed again.

For the first time, the federal Member for Bowman indicated he’d vote with the majority of this electorate’s result at a national Marriage Equality plebiscite.

Nowhere in Turnbull’s plebiscite enthusiasm had there ever been a hint that the national result could be impacted by a rogue electorate. There had been talk from Senators and MPs about ignoring the nation and voting against Marriage Equality despite the plebiscite outcome, but that was written off as simply the hard-right rabble. We’d sprung a backbencher toeing the same line.

On social media, other campaigners were reporting similar language at meet-the-candidates events across the country. The dots were connected and the Coalition’s new plan became clear: a marriage equality plebiscite would only pass a yes vote if it was carried by a majority of electorates.

Questions were put into the laps of journalists. A record number posed them, and Turnbull was forced to admit he had no control over how his MPs would vote on the issue.

The Coalition countered with its last-minute claim that there was majority support nationally for the plebiscite, but the media smelled a rat and hammered Turnbull and other MPs throughout the last week of the campaign.

If the PM was not being upfront about the plebiscite, what else was on the nose?

The stink nearly lost Turnbull the election.

Coalition in splitsville

So the timetable has altered and now there’s evidence that voters don’t like the idea, yet Turnbull is sticking to his plebiscite plan. 

“Marriage Equality activists are match fit and we’ve built an ongoing connection with Australian voters.”

But the election produced another result. The majority of federal MPs who support changing the Marriage Act to allow equal access to same-sex couples increased to a record majority.

If a parliamentary free vote was held now, it would easily pass. 

One of the best headlines of the election campaign described Malcolm Turnbull’s plebiscite deal with the National Party as a ‘Faustian pact’. Now the dust has settled, the Coalition’s betrothal on Marriage Equality will soon start to look more like the kind of stranglehold common in domestic violence.

If Turnbull approaches the Senate with the plebiscite, it’ll likely never pass. If he tries to seek refuge in a parliamentary free vote, he’s likely to be rolled by the man who foisted the plebiscite nonsense on the Coalition with his last captain’s pick: Tony Abbott.

The Coalition’s response is to lead people to think it’s a case of plebiscite or nothing, but despite some commentators suggesting campaigners just submit to the public vote for the Coalition’s sake – in case it breaks apart – we are capable of multi-tasking around any of the Coalition’s plans for our equality.

We’ve had plenty of practice. The Coalition will just have to take care of itself, because the political wedge hit its target regardless of the election result. Other parties and lobby groups have started driving it in.

For Malcolm Turnbull, there’s simply no more hiding from the albatross he voluntarily tied to his own neck; yet he expects to resolve the marital problems the Coalition has always had around LGBTI relationship equality with $160-million dollar pretty lies about ‘asking the people’.

Blaming campaigners is like pointing at your spouse’s best friend over your own divorce. Marriage Equality activists are match fit and we’ve built an ongoing connection with Australian voters by having the important conversations. Trigger a fairly posed, timely, compulsory, binding, public vote and we’ll be there.


Michael Burge’s book Questionable Deeds: Making a stand for equal love traces marriage equality in Australia through one man’s battle to maintain his rights in the wake of his same-sex partner’s death. It’s available to buy in paperback and eBook.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article also appears on NoFibs.

Christianity vs. LGBTI, an unnecessary war

“This is not a suffering competition for martyrs, it’s a legislative process taking place in a secular nation.”

THE Turnbull government has no firm plans for a public vote on marriage equality. We only know it’ll be ‘after the election’, an Abbott three-word slogan for ‘on the never-never’; and that it will be a non-binding, $160-million-dollar opinion poll that won’t be compulsory for any Australian voter or politician to participate in.

But that doesn’t really matter. While Malcolm Turnbull wasn’t watching, a war cabinet has been plotting against LGBTI dignity from the Coalition backbench, spilling from the party room into the media this week when the Safe Schools program came under attack.

Now is not the time to be under any illusions: Australians in every community are coming under pressure to take a position on whether Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex people (LGBTI) have the right to equal marriage and if the parliament should attempt to ensure LGBTI children are no longer alienated and bullied at school.

From many right-wing MPs and senators, and at least one on the left, this program generated hate speech that was about as unparliamentary and dishonourable as it gets, from representatives who bear the word ‘honourable’ in their formal titles.

The Safe Schools program was always going to come under unjustifiable attack. Every LGBTI project I have ever been involved with has become a target if it even hinted at the possibility of going anywhere near a school.

God forbid adults who have lived through the profound lack of in-school protection for LGBTIs seek to ensure young people receive a shred of information, before they start learning myths about diversity from those who would seek to indoctrinate their children against us and the LGBTI students and teachers among them.

Yet the multi-party state- and federally-funded program has revealed deep phobias, from the parliament to my neighbourhood and on social media. The reaction has been so strong it’s become hard to pick the real victims.

Quite rightly, LGBTI groups cited the National School Chaplaincy Program as meeting every one of the accusations levelled at Safe Schools.

12496322_10153958480562813_111425310789912770_oMemes showing the huge disparity between Safe Schools and School Chaplain funding left many people of faith feeling under fire.

I get why – it smarts when you’re made to feel you have to justify your existence.

But this is not a suffering competition for martyrs, it’s a legislative process taking place in a secular nation. While your repression might feel like my oppression, they are certainly far from the same phenomenon, and only one of us is being legislated against.

Whichever citizens can be bothered voting in the never-never plebiscite do not need the distraction of false victims when it comes to exactly who is being oppressed by inequality.

Coming so soon after the Australian Christian Lobby’s call to hit the pause button on anti-discrimination laws so they can hate their way through the marriage equality debate, we’ve woken up in the middle of a war: Christians versus LGBTI.

Bill Shorten called-out Cory Bernardi on his homophobia this week, while Malcolm Turnbull called for measured language, preferring to avoid labelling the hate that dare not speak its name.

I wish it wasn’t happening, I wish our parliament would simply vote on the matter, because in absolving itself of guiding a parliamentary free vote, the Coalition is leading this country to tear itself asunder.

“Bringing homophobia and transphobia into the light will be an ugly process for an ugly energy.”

The marriage equality plebiscite is already causing damage. The debate has become a base numbers game between LGBTI and Christians, so vociferous so early that many voters will simply stay away.

Once we see yes/no campaigns in communities, such as the small island where I live with my husband among a population of around 600, I predict the Coalition’s plan will cause great division.

Homophobia, in my experience, always polarises between two extremes. There are the unacceptable and illegal gay bashings and overt violence, while at the other end of the spectrum are the silent, insidious processes of exclusion that occur right under the nose and invariably go unchallenged.

Gradually, our friends have started to witness attempts to make us invisible in certain conversations, because it’s noticeable when a homophobe addresses someone we’re standing with, but not us.

When we were new to this place, few were aware of this subtle discrimination, but about a year ago, making new friends brought with it the realisation that some of the so-called ‘great people’ living here, who are also incredibly homophobic, would gradually make themselves apparent to anyone paying attention.

As the plebiscite approaches, all this covert behaviour is being forced into the open. Election campaigns in my part of the world take place on the road, where there’ll be no hiding for anyone.

Bringing homophobia and transphobia into the light will be an ugly process for an ugly energy, and where my husband and I might have flown under the radar in certain quarters of our community, we’ll be outed far more than we realise. It’s already started to happen, and we’ve been on the receiving end of verbal homophobia only a few steps from our front door since the Coalition’s plebiscite plan was announced, after not being the target of anything remotely homophobic for more than a decade.

I have never felt the wish to avoid witnessing my own times, but if I could safely opt out of this era, I probably would. I can’t afford a world cruise until marriage equality is delivered, so it’s time to stand visibly, primarily on the home front.

For a generation of LGBTI on the brink of coming out, this period in Australia’s history has the potential to create a similar level of confusion and despair as the AIDS crisis did for my generation, putting nails in closet doors, not removing them.

For that reason I will participate in a long and relentless yes campaign in my community, unapologetic and vocal. They’ll need to face plenty of questions and cut through some uncomfortable moments, but there is room on the yes team for moderate and progressive Christians and people of other faiths.

The reality of picketing the island’s only polling booth, handing out yes material with a bunch of naysayers across the driveway doesn’t fill me with pride, not yet, but at least the homophobes will be as out as the homosexuals in this community, and when we finally have marriage equality, years from today, we’ll know who to hold hands in front of as a reminder of exactly who the oppressed ones were.

Michael’s book Questionable Deeds: Making a stand for equal love is out now. This article was first published on NoFibs.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.