A plebiscite on same sex marriage? Turnbull hasn’t got my vote


Shortly after becoming Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull committed to put the issue of same sex marriage to a plebiscite. A plebiscite is a national vote with no automatic legal consequence. Unlike a referendum where a positive vote from the electorate enacts a constitutional change, a plebiscite is not a vote that has a tangible outcome. The idea appears to be that because same sex marriage evokes dissimilar responses from members of the community, some clear majority opinion is the safest way to proceed.  

Starting a culture where it is acceptable for the parliament to defer to the people when deciding if and how to legislate on issues of basic human rights and equality is problematic. This search for a power in numbers – the ability of the parliament to authoritatively say ‘most of you asked for this’ – is misguided. Of course, the alertness to public opinion by politicians is encouraged. However, public opinion should not determine whether to recognise rights that are fundamental and so closely linked to issues of dignity.

The Australian democratic system is based on the idea that the majority of electors (who are compelled to vote) elect the representatives who best represent them to inform legislative and policy developments. It is members of parliament, not electors, who ultimately adopt legislation. It is for the parliament to make these decisions and to take responsibility for them. Navigating difficult social issues for the benefit of society is the role of the parliament. Politicians may not like it, but shifting the responsibility to negotiate difficult issues of social values to the people is unacceptable.

Fundamentally, asking people what they think about questions of human rights devalues the issue itself. While a plebiscite is a significant political event, it is just that: political. It is essentially asking the people of Australia how they feel about a certain issue – an issue that strikes at the heart of equality. The potentially hurtful experience that politicians would be subjecting the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Intersex and Queer community as it watches other Australians being asked whether their unions should be treated as equal by the law is not negated by any genuine intentions of the Prime Minister to consult and connect with his constituency. Questions of the recognition of rights are just too important, and should be determined by those elected to lead. 


The author, Katerina Jovanovska, was the AJHR student intern for semester two, 2016. Her article forms part of a series, The Student Voice. To read more articles by our students, click here.


Photo credit: Let Freedom Ring by Robert Couse-Baker