The Student Voice on Australia's same-sex marriage plebiscite


The Australian Labor Party has promised to legalise same-sex marriage within 100 days of being elected. The Coalition on the other hand has promised a plebiscite on the matter. The difference between legalising same-sex marriage and holding a plebiscite is that the former will actually change the law, whereas the latter will not necessarily do so.

A plebiscite is a national vote that is held to gauge public opinion on a particular topic. While this may be useful to determine what the public thinks of same-sex marriage, a plebiscite will not necessitate any practical outcome. Instead, it would shift the discussion of same-sex marriage – and therefore the responsibility of equality – onto the public. This is problematic for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it contradicts the very premise of our representative democracy. Important deliberations on social values are to be made by those elected to lead. Those elected also need to be held accountable for their decisions, and by shifting social responsibility to the public, the plebiscite would arm the Coalition with a ‘you asked for it’ defence.

A plebiscite could also effectively license hate speech. According to Senator Wong,[1] Australia’s most prominent openly gay politician, a plebiscite would cause her ‘relationship, [her] family, to be the subject of inquiry, of censure, of condemnation, by others’. Wong says no straight politician advocating a plebiscite on marriage equality can ever understand ‘what it is like to live with the casual and deliberate prejudice that some still harbour’. For Bill Shorten, the plebiscite would be a ‘taxpayer-funded platform for homophobia’. Accordingly, Shorten has promised that his first Bill will be on same-sex marriage.[2]

The Liberal Government has budgeted $160 million for the nationwide vote. Yet, the public’s view already seems clear-cut. Countless news stations and public figureheads now advocate for same-sex marriage, and same-sex marriage is now recognised in many parts of the world, such as the United States, Britain, New Zealand, Argentina, Mexico and South Africa. Even if a plebiscite will help formally clarify the Australian perspective, some Liberal Members of Parliament have already asserted that they will not support same-sex marriage, regardless of the public’s verdict. It appears that the plebiscite would not only waste $160 million of taxpayers’ money, but would allow the Coalition to sidestep any real progress towards same-sex marriage.

Same-sex marriage will not only grant homosexuals the right to marry. More importantly, same-sex marriage will bring the LGBTIQ community one step closer to equality. It will finally grant LGBTIQ couples with the same rights and entitlements of their heterosexual counterparts. These rights touch upon many aspects of an individual’s life, including inheritance, tax, employment, medical and housing rights. In denying same-sex marriage we are denying equality on almost every level.

Over the weekend the Federal election was held, but the situation is still very much in flux. Australia has spoken, but with a hung Parliament looming, we don’t know what they’ve said yet.