Marriage Plebiscite crumbling under light weight arguments!

In an interview on ABC’s Lateline, Friday night, Michael Kirby (former Justice of the High Court) was interviewed on the topic of the marriage plebiscite. During an engaging interview, Justice Kirby articulated his concerns over the broad debate on marriage, including his reasoning for not supporting a plebiscite.

I was immediately struck by one of his arguments, of how the plebiscite may set a “very bad precedent”. It is important to think through the ramifications for future decision making processes, and what we are communicating about our democracy by setting this path of a public vote. I was persuaded, until I discovered that plebiscites and referendums are not as rare in our history as we might think.

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’.

So, the bad precedent argument doesn’t work. What of Michael Kirby’s other compelling argument against the plebiscite?

“I don’t think we should draw any inferences about what would happen in a plebiscite, especially a plebiscite of compulsory voting in this country. I think we would draw better inferences from our history on constitutional referendums: and on that matter, we have a record of 44 proposals that have been put to the people at a referendum and only eight have succeeded. Australians vote “no” when they get a chance.”

Did Michael Kirby suggest that we shouldn’t hold a plebiscite on same-sex marriage because Australians will probably vote against it?

It certainly sounded so. Emma Alberici certainly thought so, because she followed up with this question, “Because you firmly believe it would be defeated? The “no” vote would win?”

Justice Kirby obviously had a change of mind, for this time he said, “No, I don’t think it would be defeated. I think it may well be passed. But this is a bad way of going about it. It’s not the Australian way.”

By the ‘Australian way’, Kirby then repeated his argument about setting a bad precedent.

Interestingly, on Insiders today, it was revealed that the Labor Party Room has been briefed by pollsters who are saying the plebiscite won’t succeed, and thus adding weight to Labor backing away from supporting a plebiscite.

Malcolm Turnbull responded,

“the worst argument, the absolutely worst argument against a plebiscite is to say that it wouldn’t be passed. So if Labor is seriously saying that, if they are saying, ‘Don’t consult the Australian people because they won’t give you the answer you want,’ it is the most anti-democratic argument.”

I don’t always agree with the Prime Minister, but I think he has a valid point.

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I am not questioning Michael Kirby’s commitment to the LGBTI community, nor his convictions about marriage. Neither am I arguing for the plebiscite here,  but I am simply making the point, if you don’t want a plebiscite, you need to make a case with more substantive reasons than these.

Daniel Andrews’ plebiscite letter to Malcolm Turnbull

I’m beginning to suspect that our Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews, needs a new media advisor, someone who can help him tone down the rhetoric he is continually spraying at millions of fellow Australians.

In an open letter address to Malcolm Turnbull, Mr Andrews has called for Government to drop the plebiscite on marriage, and instead present a bi-partisan Bill to Parliament within the next 100 days.

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In the letter, he writes,

“It will legitimise a hateful debate which will subject LGBTI Australians to publicly-funded slurs and denigration.”

“In Victoria equality is not negotiable. On behalf of my state, I urge you to accept there is no need for a costly and divisive plebiscite and agree to produce a bipartisan Bill to amend the Marriage Act within the next 100 days.”

And apparently members of Parliament who don’t share Mr Andrews’ views, “do not represent a fair and modern country.”

Clearly, the Victorian Premier doesn’t trust the Australian people to conduct a civilised discussion on marriage, and he is also fearful of the possibility that Australians will not support change to the Marriage Act.

I believe there are arguments for and against this plebiscite, and it is undoubtedly an unusual course of action, but it is a valid democratic pathway, and one that was determined months ago.

Given this fact, would it not be wise for our political leaders to encourage Australians to discuss this issue with grace and respect, rather than the unhelpful name-calling Mr Andrews’ seems unable to avoid? This letter is certainly not as offensive as many of his comments which usually include the words, bigot and homophobe, but it still derogatory.  

Let us not pretend otherwise, changing the definition of marriage is no small thing. 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. Does not the significance of this issue deserve the voice of the Australian people?

As someone who has a voice in the community, albeit a small one, I will gladly stand alongside Mr Andrews’ and affirm that hateful speech and actions against LGBTI people is unacceptable. A marriage plebiscite does not justify spite or slander toward those who wish to change the Marriage Act, nor toward those who believe the Act should remain unaltered.

As important as this plebiscite is, there is something of greater consequence, and that is the good of others. I have no desire to sacrifice people for the sake of a vote. I do not wish harm on any homosexual and lesbian Aussies. But 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 is not to hate, and by thinking as such Mr Andrews’ risks undermining the foundation of democracy.

It is possible, indeed desirable, to show kindness in disagreement. I realise that kindness like marriage is a disappearing norm in Australia today, but showing gentleness and respect toward those with whom there is a different view ought to be basic to our humanity. Is this not one of the reasons why Donald Trump leaves us shuddering?

Mr Andrews’, I appreciate your concerns about the plebiscite, but rather than demeaning those Australians who have a different opinion, will you stand with us in modelling and encouraging a constructive conversation about marriage?

‘Vive La Australia’: Freedom of Speech in Australia

Last night while Melbourne suffered through the Great Snowstorm of 2016 and the rest of the world chased Pokemons, Mentone gathered for quite an extraordinary evening.

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The topic of conversation was ‘Freedom of Speech in Australia’, and we were privileged to have speaking, Mr Tim Wilson MHR, and Rev Dr Michael Bird. Present in the audience were members of various political parties (and of none), and people reflecting a variety of religious and non-religious world views, including of course members from Mentone Baptist Church.

The first thing I learnt last night is that the Federal seat of Goldstein, whom Tim Wilson now represents, is not pronounced Goldstein but rather, Goldstein! In other words, the ein is pronounced as mine, not bean. Apologies to everyone living in Beaumaris, Hampton, Brighton, and so on!

Electoral names aside, both Wilson and Bird presented a case for free speech in Australia that was erudite, thoughtful, and engaging. And this was followed by a time of QandA with the audience.

Tim Wilson spoke first. He offered an historical overview of Australia’s anti-discrimination laws, and articulated how ‘good law’, that which related to work place harassment, has been abused by being applied universally to public speech. A case in point is the now infamous and inexplicable Section 17 of the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act.

In a defence of free speech, Wilson asked, “is it really right, just, that to exercise our most basic right we have to question whether we are going to be held in contempt of the law and then going have to pay significant legal bills to defend ourselves”

While not the topic at hand, it is difficult to speak on Freedom of Speech in 2016 without commenting on the current marriage debate. Wilson shared some of his own experiences growing up as a homosexual and of him favouring changes to the Marriage Act. Most importantly, in light of his views on marriage, Wilson said,

“I don’t think we can have a constructive conversation around the marriage of same-sex couples until both sides can say what they truly think.”

He then pushed further, pointing out, “the hypocritical nature of so many people today, when they don’t want to hear a particular argument, they declare it to be bigoted or hate speech.” Wilson then referred to Bill Shorten and Penny Wong, noting that only a few short years ago they spoke against changes to the Marriage Act, but now they can’t desist from calling opponents of same-sex marriage, bigots and hate filled.

At the other end of the spectrum, Tim Wilson offered a timely admonition to religious organisations, who though themselves call for a higher standard of morality, they have been exposed, especially in the area of sexual abuse.

As a Christian leader I affirm his rebuke, and would add that men (or women) who commit abhorrent acts on children behind clerical vestments and institutions are not representative of the Christ whom they claim to worship, but are the very manifestation of anti-Christ, for the deny him by their deeds. And yet, we need to understand that the public do not also differentiate between authentic Christians and dress-up Christians. Tim Wilson was spot on to call out Christian leaders to work harder on this.

Mike Bird employed his familiar array of jocose analogies and allusions, while driving home some pertinent truths for Australian society, as well as for Churches.

‘The future is French’, Mike asserted, in relation to where Australian religion and politics is heading. Either we will take the path of Vive la différence or that of the less desirable, Laïcité.

“I like to think our Constitution is robust enough to protect basic freedoms, and our political parties will seek to do right by all. However, people of faith can expect to receive a hard time from progressive activists and parties in the forseeable future. Religion may be sanitised from the public square.”

How should Churches respond to this paradigm cultural and political shift? Bird proposed that the future will either be Swedish or Chinese!

The reproach was overlooked by many last night, but Bird was calling out ‘liberal’ churches, suggesting they suffered from Stockholm syndrome. That is, they have lost their identity by tinkering with the tenets of the Christian faith in order to ensure religion is palatable to the powers that be.

Instead, Bird exhorted Christians to learn from Christianity in China, where it exists on the margins of society. Yet despite the oppression of Christians in China for many decades,  it has witnessed exponential growth, and all without the privileges of political and public freedoms, which we currently enjoy in this country.

Michael Bird also lauded Tim Wilson’s work last year in organising the Religious Freedom Roundtable, and he suggested that we need more forums such like that.

If I were to offer any criticisms, they would be minor:

At one point Tim spoke of certain religious groups who have tried to impose their morality onto other minorities. I do not disagree that historically there have been religious groups who’ve behaved as such, but the key word here is ‘impose’. There is an essential difference between imposition and influence, or pressure and persuasion. Mike said it well, when he exhorted Christians to “persuasive and compassionate discourse.”

In a crescendo of rhetoric Mike declared that, ’Christendom is over’. I would push back on this point and argue that Christendom in Australia never was. There is no doubt that Christianity has significantly influenced Australian culture and life, but it has been tolerated rather than happily embraced, sitting there in a position of begrudged prominence.

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The content of each presentation was winsome and helpful, but for me the highlight of the evening was the manner in which the conversation was conducted, including  participation from the audience. The tone was respectful but not innocuous; certain hypocrisies were called out, and serious challenges were proposed, but all without the immature name-calling and shout downs that are becoming all to common in the public square.

Last night demythologised the rhetoric of some social progressives, that civil dialogue can’t be had on issues relating to sexuality and marriage. Can an heterosexual Evangelical Anglican clergyman discuss issues of national importance with an agnostic gay politician? The answer is, yes. Indeed, despite obvious differences, they shared much in common. And can a room full of people, representing a spectrum of political and religious ideologies, enjoy a robust night of conversation? Yes, and in fact, people stayed and talked so late into the evening I was tempted to begin turning off the lights.

Finally, as a poignant way to close the evening, while answering a question on how to raise children to preserve and properly practice free speech, Mike Bird responded, ‘Love God, love your neighbour.’

Of course, these words comes from the lips of Jesus, who in turn was affirming the Old Testament Scriptures, and they remain the model for how Christians relate to others in society. I cannot speak for those of other world views, but this is how Christians must participate in both public and private. This Golden Rule does not build a staircase to Heaven as is sometimes believed, but rather, it is the life response of a person who has been captivated by the grace and mercy of God in Christ Jesus. It was fitting way to end such a rewarding night, “Love your neighbour as yourself”.

The talks an be downloaded here and the QandA here

What price should we attach to marriage?

The media has been abuzz with the announcement made by accounting firm Price Waterhouse Coopers (PwC), that the proposed marriage plebiscite will cost Australians $525 million.

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The cost attached to the plebiscite itself is $158 million. Another $30 million has been estimated to deal with mental health issues that may arise for LGBTI people from potential hate-speech and acts, $66 million set aside for the yes/no campaigns, and it is estimated that while we duck off to the polling venue on a Saturday afternoon to vote, there will be productivity loss around the nation to the sum of $280 million.

It needs to be said that despite how some media outlets are reporting the PwC modelling, this figure is not factual, but is an educated opinion, and one which is already being disputed. It is also important to note PwC is not acting as an impartial third party, but they are a strong supporter of same-sex marriage and of the group Australian Marriage Equality.

Despite these qualifications, let’s assume the sum is accurate. Given all those factors I would call myself a reluctant supporter of the plebiscite.

Bill Shorten has said of the plebiscite, “what a waste”. I sympathise with this view, for I can see how the money could be used to assist any number of important social concerns: mental health, housing for indigenous Australians, addressing domestic violence, and refugee assistance are just a few of a hundred issues requiring attention and support. Having said that, the notion of changing the definition of marriage is no small thing, and it is naive for anyone to suggest so.

The proposal is not 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:

Last year, 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.

Yes, $525 million is a lot of money, but when one breaks down the cost per capita, it comes to $21.88 for each Australian. For the cost of little more than a movie ticket, I can have a say in deciding the direction Australia will take on the most fundamental social unit

A separate concern surrounding the plebiscite has been raised by various advocates for marriage change, including Rodney Croome who said,

“The damage an ugly and divisive campaign will do to vulnerable members of the LGBTI community, their families, and youth will have far-reaching consequences that cannot be quantified,”

As someone who has a voice in the community, albeit a small one, should the plebiscite be presented to the nation, I want to state publicly that hateful speech and actions against LGBTI people are unacceptable. A marriage plebiscite 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.

“A marriage plebiscite does not justify spite or slander toward those who wish to change the Marriage Act”

As important as this plebiscite is, there is something of greater consequence, and that is the good of others. I have no desire to sacrifice people for the sake of a vote. I do not wish harm on any homosexual and lesbian Aussies, and will gladly speak against such behaviour. But 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 is not to hate, and to think that it is risks undermining the foundation of democracy.

The logical terminus of Croome’s argument is a prohibition on disagreement; that is not healthy for democracy and would set a bind on the conscience of those who disagree with the change to the marriage law. A society that forbids the public articulation of civilly expressed views that come out of a long, thoughtful and widespread tradition is on the road to becoming the very thing it claims to stand against.

It is possible, indeed desirable, to show kindness in disagreement. I realise that kindness like marriage is a disappearing norm in Australia today, but showing gentleness and respect toward those with whom there is a different view ought to be basic to our humanity. Is this not one of the reasons why Donald Trump leaves us shuddering?

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.”

While bullish and malicious behaviour toward same-sex marriage advocates is rightly called out, I wonder whether those leading the charge for marriage change insist that their supporters don’t resort to hate speech toward those who believe marriage can only be between a man and a woman?

Will they pledge to publicly denounce individuals who disparage the millions of Australians who do not support same sex marriage?

Will they call out public figures who time and time again call people homophobes and bigots for believing only in heterosexual marriage?

Australians are increasingly recognising that this decision is of major consequence, not only for the way we build society, but this may have enormous implications for ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘freedom of religion’. We only have to look at Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom to see how same-sex marriage introduces a wave of intellectual and moral oppression on those who cannot for reason of conscience affirm it.

The Labor Party have made it abundantly clear that they will not allow their members to vote against same-sex marriage. This is hardly the stuff of a dynamic democracy. Only two weeks ago, Labor Senator Joe Bullock was forced to retire because of his Party’s unwillingness to allow a conscience vote on this issue. Such political censorship has given cause for the public to doubt that a fair vote can take place in Parliament.

I share concerns over the cost of a plebiscite, but given what is at stake the Australian public ought to have their voice. If John Howard believed in taking the GST to an election, how much more should the question of marriage, which is insurmountably more important, be given a say by the people.