Up Front by Emma Hart


The Up Front Guide to Plebs

I like to take what I consider to be a healthy interest in other countries’ politics. In part, this offers a refreshing break from crying when people tweet about New Zealand electoral law.

I’m not ready to pay too much attention to the US presidential race, in the same way March is too early to pay attention to Super Rugby. There is, however, only so long you can spend watching Justin Trudeau cuddle baby pandas. (It’s a long time, mind, but a finite time.) Eventually, one has to glance across the Tasman and think. “Oh dear. What the fuck are yous doing?”

First it was the review of the Safe Schools Program, because Heaven Forefend children learn not to bully people because of their sexuality or gender identity. That’s indoctrination. And then there’s the same-sex marriage plebiscite.

Now, perhaps you’re wondering, WTF is a plebiscite? Why isn’t it a referendum? I’ve been doing quite a lot of reading, and while it’s very confusing, I think I may have some answers.

WTF is a plebiscite? How’s it different from a referendum?

In Australia, a referendum concerns the constitution, and is binding. A plebiscite is for non-constitutional law change, and isn’t binding.

So the Australian parliament can just ignore the result of the plebiscite?

Yes they can. But Turnbull has said they won’t.

But they can?


But they won’t?

Fuck knows. Some government MPs who are opposed to marriage equality have said they will consider themselves bound by the plebiscite, but they also expect it to be defeated.

Will it?

Will it fuck. Various polls put the Australian public’s support for same-sex marriage at 65-75%, with only 25% opposed – very similar to the numbers in New Zealand.

Okay, so what’s the question going to be? Who gets to decide the wording of the question? I mean, that stuff’s quite important, yeah?

Yes it is, officially the Prime Minister, and nobody knows yet.

So if we already know the result, and it’s not binding anyway, why have it? Why not just have a parliamentary vote like we did in New Zealand?

The plebiscite appears to be part of a deal Turnbull did with his conservative MPs. It’s a delaying tactic. It’s basically an extra, time-consuming hurdle for the law to get over.

Okay, so when will the plebiscite be?

The Attorney-General, George Brandis, said it would be after the election, but before the end of the year.

So, then?

Then Malcolm Turnbull said “Eh…” So probably not.

What happens if Labor wins the election instead?

They’ve promised to hold a parliamentary vote within their first 100 days.

Couldn’t they have done this under one of their Prime Ministers, though?

You might very well think that.

Well, it sounds like Australia is getting marriage equality next year no matter what. So what’s the problem with having a plebiscite? Isn’t this lovely cuddly democracy in action?

Well, let’s say we don’t care about the $160m it’ll cost. Democracy is expensive. What it means is that both sides of the argument will have extensive, largely unregulated campaigns on the issue.

Take a moment to imagine what that’s going to sound like.

A plebiscite would give anti-gay campaigners the biggest stage they have ever had. US research (Hatzenbuehler et al) has shown that the mental health of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people suffered significantly during referenda debates on marriage equality.

For LGBTI people who experienced a US state referendum on marriage equality there was;

-          a 37 per cent increase in mood disorders,

-          a 42 per cent increase in alcohol-use disorders, and

-          a 248 per cent in generalised anxiety disorders.

In states without such referenda, there was no increase.

This is why having referenda (or, okay, plebiscites) on human rights issues is inherently degrading. In this case, it means giving a platform for some people to be called child molesters, to be told they’re not fit to raise their children, that they are simply less human than other people.

But then there’s a party, right? And everyone sings Pokarekare Ana and cries.



Everyone who’s still standing.


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