Public vote cannot settle gay marriage

The legalization of gay marriage in Australia is currently facing debate as a result of outrage expressed by citizenry.

Over the last couple of years, many world powers took the initiative to legalize same-sex marriage. It is imperative to recognize that the laws for same-sex marriages are changing for the better, albeit slowly. The United States and Colombia legalized gay marriage in 2015 and 2016, respectively. Other countries, such as Belgium, Canada and the Netherlands, legalized this crucial right over a decade ago.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull leads the conservative Liberal Party—the coalition government that is deciding whether to hold a public vote on the issue in February 2017. The entire country will vote on whether to amend their constitution to reflect the legalization of gay marriage.

Giving every citizen a direct vote does not sound particularly extreme or groundbreaking, but it is important to take into account the fact that Australia has only ever launched three plebiscites to test public opinion, two of which have failed. There is obviously something wrong with this form of polling.

It is certainly true that a plebiscite acts as a non-binding referendum and that the government does not actually have to go through with the results. However, plebiscites are incredibly problematic because they come with a lot of hassle.

According to The Economist, two-thirds of the population believe in legalizing gay marriage. Only 39 percent of Australians, however, approve of holding a plebiscite, even though they would potentially get what they want if they do hold a public vote.

The people of Australia, many of whom are supporters of same-sex marriage, feel that the plebiscite would open the door to an increase in “homophobic rhetoric,” a term coined by BBC that describes hatred toward the gay community. In other words, the few people who do oppose it might get all fired up over the issue and take it out on the LGBT community and its supporters. The situation may escalate to violence.

Plebiscites cost taxpayers a lot of money; taxes collected for the vote would amount to the Australian equivalent of $120 million.

If the majority of the public votes in favor of keeping same-sex marriage illegal, the progressive legislation could be set back by years. If it comes down to this, approximately 34,000 same-sex couples in Australia will have to wait even longer to get the rights they deserve.

Opponents of the plebiscite want legislators to vote on the issue, rather than leaving the decision to the general public. That way, the change would be swiftly instituted without the extra expenses or disruption.

This is not unlike the United States’ method, where citizens elect representatives and senators to vote on their behalf. Most laws in Australia are passed this way. It is strange that Turnbull believes that the plebiscite is a good idea, especially since simply raising the idea of a vote has caused major conflicts between the different parties. It may be difficult to leave such a crucual decision up to the public, especially considering the most recent example of the decision to end the drug war in Colombia.

The LGBT community has been vocal about its opposition to the plebiscite. Australian Marriage Equality, a major equal rights group in the country, stated its lack of support for the plan in a joint-group statement.

“Our shared goal is simple—we want marriage equality as soon as possible at the lowest cost. The most efficient and effective way of achieving marriage equality is a vote in Parliament, a power confirmed by the High Court in 2013. Marriage equality is about people, not politics,” the statement read.

The Sydney Morning Herald also reports that nearly 200 doctors who treat members of the LGBT community have banded together to show their opposition. The article stated that “individuals and groups who are opposed to same-sex marriage on ideological grounds could attempt to stigmatize Australians with diverse sexuality and gender identity during a publicly funded plebiscite campaign, including misrepresentation of the positive health and happiness outcomes of children of same-sex couples.”

The political impact is alarming. In the same article, former High Court Justice Michael Kirby said, “A plebiscite on same-sex marriage will create a dangerous political precedent in Australia where MPs avoid making decisions on controversial issues, instead opting for unnecessary and expensive popular votes.”

Thankfully, Australia’s Labor Party has decided to oppose the plebiscite, which makes the vote unlikely to happen. Nonetheless, it might be time to do away with harmful plebiscites altogether.