I well recall standing all day at a polling station for the Australian Republican Movement when the country was asked in a referendum vote on 6 November 1999 if it should break away from the monarchy and become a fully-fledged republic.
What might strike non-Australian readers as odd is that the leader of the Republican Movement was one Malcolm Turnbull. The same Malcolm Turnbull who is now prime minister, at the head of a distinctly small-c conservative, right-of-centre coalition, whose not very liberal Liberal party has traditionally been seen as a bastion of Australian monarchism.
Polls in the years and months leading up to the vote had started with strong support for the republican cause. In the end a hopelessly divided Yes case was marred inescapably by the failure of Turnbull to carry popular support.
Instead he presided over the frittering away of backing for a botched model that allowed the united No case of the monarchists to comfortably win. He still carries that scar, if not the self-awareness of his own culpability for that result.
18 years later we are no closer to being a republic and I now hold the very same fear on the issue of marriage equality.
The prime minister’s hamfisted attempt to get marriage equality decided by parliament before the end of the year shows he has learnt little, if anything, since his last involvement in a plebiscite.
Let’s be clear what his convoluted plan involves. The prime minister intends to deny the current parliament a free, ‘conscience’, vote on the issue today, instead spend $122m on a postal ballot of the whole country – one that is voluntary – and, depending on that result, allow the same parliamentarians he is denying a vote today to cast a ‘free’ vote in 14 weeks’ time.
Only someone of Malcolm Turnbull’s towering political skill could concoct such a plan.
In an appalling capitulation to the conservative right of his party, and in a desperate attempt to preserve his leadership, he has acquiesced to this plan – one that he has previously spoken against.
This plan will expose all Australians to a vile and disdainful campaign of homophobia and abuse from No supporters. It has already started on TV, on billboards and through the letterbox.
The prime minister has so abrogated his responsibility as a parliamentarian and leader that he would subject us all to this process in order he might exercise a ‘free’ vote that is within his power to employ today.
The LGBT+ community has every right to fear the campaign of abuse and slander that will entail.
And how do we know this? Because leading No proponents like the Australian Christian Lobby already peddle this filth in their literature on a daily basis – equating same sex parenting with child abuse. To gift them a national stage and to endorse a platform upon which this messaging can be given mainstream national media coverage is appalling. This is Malcolm Turnbull-sanctioned homophobia.
What about all the children living in Australia without even an opportunity to vote who will be recipients of this unwanted and vile advice from ACL or equally homophobic groups given a platform through this process?
The Yes case is running a high court challenge to the process in the hope of blocking the vote, given it is not legally binding and may well be unconstitutional. Clearly there is a chance that the legal challenge may succeed and that parliament will simply vote on this issue, avoiding this expensive and non-binding public polling exercise.
However if they fail, the No case will be at full throttle by the time ballot papers are mailed. The Yes campaign will no doubt also be organised, but their message will be hampered by the distraction a legal challenge that, at its core, questions the legitimacy of the process and of any result.
The big fear is that there could, especially in such a voluntary vote, be a large turnout for No – comprised of those who already oppose marriage equality as well as those spurred on by hatred of the LGBT+ community. Current published polls put support for the Yes case at around 60%, but this hasn’t accounted for the voluntary nature of the ballot, which differentiates the referendum from Australia’s normal compulsory voting environment. In addition to these obstacles, the Yes campaign will also be working both against traditional voter inertia and a potential boycott by those supportive of marriage equality but not of the postal poll.
The Labor party, which advocates a simple parliamentary vote to guarantee marriage equality, has criticised the process, but will regardless campaign strongly for a Yes result as the next best way to ensure Australia has equal marriage by the end of this year.
The last and most worrying detail of the process is that the votes will be collated nationally and by lower house electorate (the geographic areas on which seats in the house of representatives are based). This will no doubt be used by the No campaign to show that, even if the Yes vote wins a national majority, sufficient lower house electorates, particularly those held by the conservative Liberal or National parties voted against the change. So many individual parliamentarians will be further pressured to have anything but a ‘free’ vote in 14 weeks’ time.
This is because the strongest Yes vote is concentrated in urban, mainly Labor held electorates while the conservative Liberal MPs who are needed to pass the legislation generally represent more socially conservative and rural electorates, who are more likely to return a No vote. To pass the legislation through parliament with their current numbers, Labor will have to ally itself with a number of Liberal and National party MPs. Not least because a number of socially conservative Labor MPs will likely vote against marriage equality. This method of collating the results reeks of being designed to divide rather than unite the community.
So is a mess like this really the best a supposed supporter of marriage equality can deliver? Malcolm Turnbull set back the republican cause by two decades. My genuine concern is that he will now do the same for the issue of marriage equality.