Malcolm Turnbull has announced his intention to hold a plebiscite on marriage equality. If he can muster the numbers in the Senate it will take place in February 2017. Current polls show more than two thirds of Australians support same-sex marriage.
A recent editorial in The Age called on Turnbull not to run a plebiscite but to allow a free vote in parliament. This reflects the capitalist’s fear that the plebiscite risks further exposing their politicians as out of touch with the mood in society.
This is why Labor are considering a private members bill, to avoid being shown up by ordinary people. It also shows why fears that the plebiscite will not be binding are misplaced.
An already-weak government is unlikely to risk defying a public vote, given it would spur on further mass LGBTIQ protests. A ‘yes’ vote could easily win, striking a blow for equal rights against the backwards elite, and finally ending the political stalemate. Despite this, some marriage equality groups are opposing the plebiscite instead of building a strong ‘yes’ campaign.
They say the rights of a minority should never be put to a popular vote, that even waiting longer for a free vote in parliament is preferable to allowing the public to decide.
This flows from a misplaced fear of the working class majority. Incredibly, it suggests that, for social change, we must turn to the very political class who outlawed gay and lesbian marriage to begin with.
Others worry the plebiscite will lead to increased homophobia and a spike in LGBTIQ youth suicides. Marriage equality advocate Rodney Croome said “when the first gay kid dies at his own hand because of the hate and fear-mongering, I have to be able to look at myself in the mirror and know I did everything I could to stop it.”
It is preferable to avoid a hateful campaign. Socialists will oppose any move to hand public funding to ‘no’ campaigners. But this view is unnecessarily pessimistic.
In Ireland, marriage equality was won by popular vote because activists waged a stronger campaign than the bigots. They mobilised the majority – including most working class voters – to resoundingly reject the bullying and fear-mongering of the reactionary elite. The inspiring victory has emboldened equality activists to push for more reforms, like abortion rights for women.
If it was possible in Ireland where conservative forces – especially the church – hold a much stronger grip on politics and the state than Australia, it is possible here.
Opponents of the plebiscite say it will ‘open up a public debate’ on LGBTIQ rights, but that happened long ago. Before the 1970s, this debate barely reached the majority of same-sex attracted people, and did little to effect change.
Then a mass movement emerged, making the debate very public. The argument was rapidly won as a wave of struggle swept away the dark age of capitalist institutions that openly treated homosexuality as a sin, a crime and a mental illness.
But capitalists thrive on keeping us divided and squabbling amongst ourselves instead of fighting them and their system. To this end, LGBTIQ equality was wound back by John Howard’s archaic gay marriage ban in 2004 – backed by Labor.
Since then the elite have worked to keep debate within narrow parameters. The media amplified the voices of hate groups with no significant social base, like the Australian Christian Lobby, while politicians blamed working class voters for a decision made entirely by the political elite.
All this gave the waning homophobic attitudes of the past greater legitimacy, dampening people’s expectations for social progress.
But despite the reactionary moves by the establishment, most Australians have moved in the opposite direction. LGBTIQ activists have repeatedly staged mass rallies and convinced the majority to support marriage equality.
There have long been conservative voices who dismiss collective action, preferring to implore our elites to show ‘leadership’. But history shows the political class do not lead, they follow. It is fitting that the public should decide on this question and not the unrepresentative parliament.
All of society’s major advances – including today’s widespread support for marriage equality and Labor’s opportunistic about-face – were won through mass action.
Though the media will give disproportionate coverage, only a reactionary minority will campaign for ‘no’. Socialists will fight for the biggest possible ‘yes’ vote. This will strike a resounding blow for equality against the hate groups and the backwards capitalist establishment. It could raise the hopes of millions by demonstrating that the majority, not the rotten elite minority, will bring about the social change we need.
By Ben Convey