The marriage equality plebiscite was blocked in the senate on November 7. This came after Labor announced plans to oppose the plebiscite in early October, having wavered for months.
With Greens, the Nick Xenophon Team and One Nation senators announcing their opposition much earlier, Labor were effectively handed the power to decide the plebiscite’s fate. The enabling legislation was beaten 33 votes to 29.
Pro-marriage equality groups that oppose the plebiscite have claimed a victory, however it is a Pyrrhic victory. By renewing the stalemate, the tactic of pushing to block the plebiscite has seen the leaders of the marriage equality campaign score an own goal.
Immediately after Labor announced they would block the plebiscite, the head of the homophobic Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) Lyle Shelton said “we now have more time to continue building our campaign. Bill Shorten… has unwittingly given our side of the debate the gift of time.”
Some believed the plebiscite was a conspiracy by the right to block marriage equality. However, Shelton’s comments show that they are happy the status-quo has been preserved and feel confident to push their homophobic agenda further.
Gay rights advocate Rodney Croome praised Bill Shorten for “putting the concerns of the LGBTI community at the center” of Labor’s drive against the plebiscite. But this is far from the truth.
Labor cynically appropriated arguments against the plebiscite merely to weaken Turnbull’s leadership and appear to have the moral high ground. In particular Labor focused on unsubstantiated claims that the plebiscite would increase LGBTIQ youth suicide rates, while offering no credible plan to tackle the already disproportionately high rates.
This is pure hypocrisy from a party that harbours groups of extreme homophobes – such as the right wing conservatives that lead the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA).
Had the plebiscite proceeded, a ‘yes’ vote was the most likely outcome. A study published in The Age showed only one electorate nationwide would have voted against marriage equality. This adds to years of polling indicating majority support for marriage equality.
A swift victory that relied on mass public participation could have emboldened LGBTIQ people and others to push for equality in other areas. A popular mandate would also have made it much more difficult to wind back the reform later.
Given this, conservative groups began shaping their LGBTIQ-phobic strategy beyond a marriage equality plebiscite victory. The ACL pressured Turnbull to allow celebrants and even florists and photographers to refuse to serve same-sex couples in their marriage equality framework. The government agreed, though limited the scope of who could discriminate.
During the plebiscite debate, shady far-right groups pulled stunts like posters calling for gays to be shot dead and made a bomb threat to LGBTIQ broadcaster Joy FM. But it was not the plebiscite debate that gave confidence to the homophobic right.
While support for the established parties reaches historic lows, the left has so far been unable to build a viable political alternative. The longer this continues, the longer the right will be afforded opportunities. There is a desperate need for a mass political force that fights on the issues that matter to young people, including opposing prejudice.
Because no such force exists, the capitalist media portrayed the anti-plebiscite position as the consensus of the entire LGBTIQ community. High-profile, professional LGBTIQ figures aired their views while the voices of young and working class LGBTIQ people were barely heard.
Labor and the Greens claim they can deliver marriage equality via Parliament through pressure on Turnbull and the Coalition. Labor Senator Katy Gallagher said “we should see same-sex marriage by the end of the year”. Greens Senator Nick McKim claimed “we have a chance now for the Prime Minister to give a free vote and – Happy Christmas – we’re going to have marriage equality this year.”
However, the right wing of the Liberal Party and the Nationals will not tolerate a free vote, with one National MP Andrew Broad threatening to withdraw support for the government. With a fragile one seat majority, Turnbull desperately needs to avoid destabilising moves.
He will do all he can to avoid a parliamentary vote as his leadership is on the line. With that being the case the campaign for marriage equality needs to focus on challenging the government as a whole.
We cannot rely on the parliamentary tactics of the Greens and ALP. Labor still refuses to bind their MPs to vote for marriage equality. After years of betrayal, they cannot be trusted. And while the Greens have been more consistent, it was not their moralist appeals that led to the majority of Australians supporting marriage equality. The crucial factor was the mass action of thousands of LGBTIQ people and supporters.
It was the thousands who marched in regular marriage equality rallies around Australia who made marriage equality an issue the major parties cannot ignore. We must continue those efforts by building a grassroots movement with young and working class LGBTIQ people at the fore.
The movement should not limit itself to marriage equality alone. Discrimination has other effects like housing insecurity, poor mental health and poverty. Our demands must broaden out to include these issues and to fight for quality jobs, homes and services for LGBTIQ people. Delaying this is the real threat to LGBTIQ lives.
A campaign of both mass rallies and targeted direct action could break the deadlock. The mass strike of women in Poland fighting for abortion rights is a model to look towards. A fighting movement for marriage equality would be a step towards building a new political force that can fight for the social change we desperately need.
By Ben Convey