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'Brutal' Marriage Plebiscite Should Be Scrapped, Warns Equality Veteran

The LGBTI community will 'bear the brunt' of a negative plebiscite campaign

24/08/2016 8:28 AM AEST | Updated August 24, 2016 10:37
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The debate over a same sex marrriage plebiscite is heating up in Australia

Federal politicians are being urged not not to go ahead with the proposed plebiscite on same sex marriage, with the risk of a "brutal" campaign like that experienced during the Irish equality referendum.

Dr Grainne Healy, the co-director of the Yes Equality campaign in the 2015 Irish marriage equality campaign, said Irish campaigners were "delighted that we were able to see our goal achieved", but she urged Australia against a non-binding plebiscite.

Healy sent the letter to parliamentarians amid increasing opposition to the plebiscite from Labor, the Greens and Nick Xenophon's NXT party, who argue same sex marriage can be achieved though a free vote in parliament. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull does not support a free vote.

Listening to the untruths and ill informed hate speech on radio or tv during the campaign was damaging and unforgettable for some

Last week Attorney-General George Brandis released a draft question for the plebiscite and said the $160 million ballot could be delayed until February next year, after the Australian Electoral Commission "strongly recommended" against a vote before the end of 2016.

Healy said a plebiscite will expose the LGBTI community to the brunt of the negative campaigning "and at best will lead to an experience of divisive, hurtful campaigning, with no guarantee of progressing marriage equality."

"Legislation to introduce marriage equality is what is needed in Australia and those who support marriage equality rights must move to see that legislation introduced as quickly as possible and the proposed divisive plebiscite should not take place," Healy said.

Healy said counselling was required for Yes Equality canvassers because of the prejudice they encountered going door to door.

Healy said it was the nature of plebiscites to allow negative hurtful images and comments to be published in the name of 'fair canvassing'.

"Likewise, listening to the untruths and ill informed hate speech on radio or TV during the campaign was damaging and unforgettable for some," she said.

Ivan Hinton-Teoh, spokesperson for LGBTI rights group, just.equal, said Healy's assessment of the Irish referendum reveals showed the final "yes" vote came at a serious human cost.

"In Australia we saw the rainbow flags being waved on Ireland's referendum day, but not the hidden damage to LGBTI people, our families and allies that Grainne Healy highlights."

"Dr Healy's message to Australia is to consider the cost of the Irish battle, not just the relief of the victory."

Some coalition MPs have declared they will never vote for same sex marriage, even if the non-binding plebiscite returns a majority yes vote.

Joining the Labor, The Greens and NXT in their criticism of the plebiscite, new Senator Derryn Hinch said this week Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull should have held a pre-election parliamentary vote to change the marriage laws.

Hinch pointed to the fact no plebiscite was needed when John Howard toughened the Marriage Act in 2004 by adding the words man and woman to it.

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Dr Grainne Healy, co-director of Ireland's Yes Equality campaign

He also compared the plebiscite to the unsuccessful, 1999 republic referendum.

"They will muddy the question and muddy the waters so much it will get a no vote," Hinch said.

In early August a coalition of LGBTI parents and children requested a meeting with the Prime Minister to discuss the impact of the plebiscite on families.

"We know what the impacts will be, both for our families and for vulnerable people in our community," aid Ashley Scott, Co­Chair of Rainbow Families, said at the time.

"We elect our politicians to be decisive and to act in the interests of all Australians ­a plebiscite is a political fix that will do harm and put lives at risk."

The group are yet to hear a response from the PM's office.

Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) national spokesperson, Shelley Argent, accused the government of cowardice and said it must allow a free vote in parliament.

"Our gay sons and lesbian daughters have endured twelve months of confusion, lack of progress, absence of detail and understandable anxiety about a plebiscite."

"The plebiscite has proven to be just what Tony Abbott intended, a device for delaying and frustrating marriage equality."

Healy's Letter To Australia's Politicians

Dear Sir or Madam:

I write as the Co-Director of the Yes Equality campaign in Ireland mindful of the 62% Yes vote of the binding referendum in May 2015 which gave constitutional protection to same-sex couples. As Chairwoman of Marriage Equality Ireland for over a decade we are delighted that we were able to see our goal achieved, however, a referendum campaign, even one as positive and successful as Yes Equality's was a brutal affair at times, for LGBT people, our families and even for our mobilised straight allies.

The No side posters which declared that 'every child deserves a mother and a father' were deeply hurtful and upsetting for LGBT headed families as they passed the posters on lamp posts and bill boards across the country - explaining to our children that they were ok and trying to hide the posters from them was awful for LGBT parenting families. The nature of plebiscites is that they allow negative hurtful images and comments to be published in the name of 'fair canvassing'. Likewise, listening to the untruths and ill informed hate speech on radio or tv during the campaign was damaging and unforgettable for some. Dr Glenda Russell (2000) has studied the damaging psychological impact that anti-lgbt actions have on the LGBT community.

For those canvassing for a Yes, knocking on doors and asking for a Yes vote was not always a positive experience. In fact, during the campaign canvass, we at Yes Equality HQ, made the decision to offer counselling supports to canvas teams - some of those most upset by the negative comments made to them about LGBT people were straight allies - they were appalled at the awful comments made and required psychological counselling. Likewise, some LGBT canvassers who were out asking for rights for themselves suffered greatly from the hateful comments they heard on doorsteps and in train or bus stations while canvassing.

For our friends in Australia, I would ask that you do not underestimate how horrible and damaging an experience canvassing in such a campaign can be - even in a campaign like ours which was predicated on positive messaging and upbeat imagery and hugely successful social media campaign with national champions for marriage equality coming out - it was a gruelling experience - at least we knew that at the end of it, if we won, we would have full constitutional equality for LGBT marriage rights. To hold a non-binding plebiscite seems to be at the least insensitive to the LGBT community who will bear the brunt of the negative campaigning and at best will lead to an experience of divisive, hurtful campaigning, with no guarantee of progressing marriage equality.

As a civil and human rights issue of equality, as a matter of family equality and as a matter of equality for our sons and daughters and our friends and workmates - legislation to introduce marriage equality is what is needed in Australia and those who support marriage equality rights must move to see that legislation introduced as quickly as possible and the proposed divisive plebiscite should not take place.

Yours Sincerely,

Dr Grainne Healy Co Director of Yes Equality Chairwoman Marriage Equality

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