We live in strange days: When a Government breaks an election promise, the public is rightly critical and opposition Parties are justified to call them out. Even if we disagree with their political choices, there is an issue of integrity that the populace expect of our politicians.
Last night however, social commentators and some members of Parliament were outraged (again) that a Government has determined to keep its promise to electorate: to bring a plebiscite question on marriage to the Australian people. Is it not somewhat disingenuous to call Governments to account for broken promises one day, and then call them names the next day because they’re keeping their word?
I personally think there are arguments for and against a plebiscite. The pathway is a decision that needs to be made by the Government of the day.
There is precedence for a plebiscite
Since Federation in 1901, at the Federal level Australia has held 44 referendums and 3 plebiscites. The States however, have conducted many more plebiscites, covering a wide range of issues including the establishment of Wrest Point Casino (Tas, 1986), closing hours for alcohol selling establishments, extending shopping hours (WA, 2005), and daylight savings.
In other words, on no fewer than 60 occasions, Australian Governments have taken an issue to the people and asked for their opinion. That is one referendum or plebiscite every two years; meaning we’re overdue.
In 1977 a plebiscite was conducted to decide our national anthem. Now, maybe I’m not as patriotic as other Aussies, but in my view, marriage is significantly more important than choosing to sing ‘Advance Australia Fair’.
The issue warrants Australia’s input
While 94% of the Australian population don’t see this issue as very important, I am persuaded that it is of grave significance.
We are not talking about a tiny amendment to the law, but the radical and complete alteration of society’s most basic building block: from marriage comes the family unit, and from family communities are formed, and with communities a society and nation is shaped. Marriage is not everything, but it is an important thing and it is one which has held an almost universally accepted definition since history began. Until recently very few societies would even consider the question, and today the vast majority of nations remain opposed to same-sex marriage. Let us understand that no one is quibbling over a few words, at stake is rebooting the very notion of marriage. There are already community voices arguing that this rewrite is simply a steppingstone to further changes and even the eradication of marriage altogether:
In 2015, Simon Copland, a columnist with the Sydney Star Observer, argued that equal marriage might unfortunately limit expressions of sexuality, saying that ‘while monogamous marriage still works for many, our society is increasingly questioning whether it should remain as the only option’.
At the 2012 Sydney Writers’ festival, Dennis Altman, was among a number of speakers who declared their hope that the Marriage Act would be eventually repealed altogether.
The point is, it is not hyperbole to suggest that should marriage redefinition take place, it will be considered a watershed event in Australia’s history, one which will have inevitable and enormous repercussions for society.
Australians are not choosing whether to adopt a new tax or funding more schools or creating the NBN, as important as such things may be; we are deciding how Australia will view what is the most essential and basic unit of every society on earth, marriage.
While the primary issue relates to what is marriage, there are significant corollary issues that Australians need to be made aware of. There are real consequences relating to freedom of religion and freedom of speech, and there are genuine questions relating to the rights of children having a mum and dad, and to the issue of surrogacy and assisted reproduction. It is simply naive for us Australians to assume that nothing will change.
One of the largest problems facing is that, as soon as the law changes, anyone opposing the law will find themselves on the wrong side of the law, and thus exposing themselves to all manner of litigation. Law Associate Professor Neil Foster has written an important article outlining the very real threats to individual and organisation freedoms, should same-sex marriage become law in Australia.
How to conduct ourselves through this national debate
One of the 6 Liberal MPs who forwarded the proposed legislation last night, is a local member for many members of my church. I have a lot of respect for Tim Wilson, and I think it’s positive that members of the Liberal Party were able to bring forward an idea to their colleagues and to discuss its merits, even though it turned out that something like 80-90% of the caucus were not in agreement with them.
It remains to be seen whether there will be a plebiscite or not. It is doubtful that a free vote in Parliament would have the numbers for changing the Marriage Act, and it is also likely that the numbers among the Australian public are tighter than polling suggests. Whichever steps are taken in coming weeks, I am asking the Christian community to be wise and gracious in our speech. Most Christians don’t need reminding, but there are always a few who ignore the words of the Bible.
Public discussion on this issue does not justify spite or slander toward those who wish to change the Marriage Act. Throwing bile at another human being is detestable, whether it is done in person or on twitter.
Indeed, the essence of Christianity is Jesus Christ showing kindness to a world that had no room for his beliefs,
“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
The Bible gives us very clear instruction on how to treat people around us, even those who disagree with us.
“14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:17-21)
As important as this national conversation is, there is something of greater consequence, and that is how we conduct ourselves. Predictably although sadly, already this morning social media is alight with unhelpful and untrue rhetoric from politicians and television presenters, making assumptions about ‘equality’ and imputing all manner of malevolent motives on those who believe in classical marriage. To them, I say, please do not erroneously fuse disagreement with hate as though there is an inextricable link between the two, for this is not the case. To disagree civilly with gay marriage is not hate, and to claim such risks undermining the foundations of democracy and a free society.