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The Government Has Divorced Itself From Responsibility on Same-Sex Marriage

It further exposes a fundamental lack of courage on the part of our elected parliamentarians.

27/09/2016 5:51 AM AEST | Updated 27/09/2016 5:51 AM AEST
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Nup, not my decision.

The current debate around a same sex marriage plebiscite is a breathtaking exercise in hypocrisy from the Federal Government.

Indeed it has laid bare that while the Federal Government has not previously lacked the will to readily use the Parliament to usher through legislation critical to basic human rights -- including many pieces of legislation that removed rights -– it now seems incapable of doing so when faced with the question of deciding if a right afforded to one part of our population should equally be afforded to all.

A quick and simple search reveals that there are many, repeated examples of this hypocrisy, where the Federal Government has happily and easily legislated with respect to basic rights, using the Parliament.

In 2007, the Howard Government suspended the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) during its intervention in the Northern Territory through the passage of legislation. This in effect removed the basic right of those people affected to challenge on racially discriminatory grounds.

Likewise, the police-like powers granted to the Department of Immigration by the Australian Borderforce Act 2015 were not achieved by a public vote but rather through a vote in the Parliament, despite taking away important freedoms of speech and whistle blower rights for detention centre workers.

The basic rights affecting us in our working lives were also not beyond the reach of a Parliamentary vote. WorkChoices significantly limited and removed workers' rights in a number of key areas, including the important right to be protected from unfair dismissal, yet there was no public vote there either.

But probably the most telling example of this hypocrisy was the previous amendment of the Marriage Act without a public vote. Indeed 12 years ago the Howard Government rushed through legislation defining marriage as a 'voluntary entered-into union of a man and a woman to exclusion of all others'. The Act was amended one hour after the proposal to amend was announced. At the time, the Act did not provide a definition of marriage, but Mr Howard did provide a motive for his actions when addressing reporters:

"We've decided to insert this into the Marriage Act to make it very plain that that is our view of a marriage and to also make it very plain that the definition of a marriage is something that should rest in the hands ultimately of the parliament of the nation".

This begs some serious questions. Why, if Parliament has always enjoyed the power and the duty to define marriage and to make critical decisions on rights in the past, does it suddenly feel the need to outsource this responsibility now?

What is the motivation for an expensive and divisive opinion poll this time around, that didn't exist 12 years ago? Will we now have to have a plebiscite on all changes that affect our rights in the future?

Notwithstanding the very real and serious psychological risks of a plebiscite, as well as the financial and political costs, the Government's actions are clearly out of step with history, most notably its own.

And in my view, there is no question that a plebiscite on same sex marriage also represents a dangerous and expensive precedent of obfuscation and an avoidance of responsibility.

It further exposes a fundamental lack of courage on the part of our elected parliamentarians -– many of whom in the past have been so quick to legislate to take rights away, but now seem incapable of having a debate in our Parliament, as is appropriate, to determine if the right to marriage should be made available to all Australians.

Despite the constant rhetoric from governments on needing to take tough decisions, it seems that sadly this decision -– where the lives and wellbeing of so many Australians could genuinely be at stake over a simple question of if we should all have the right to be treated equally with respect to marriage -- is just too tough for our Federal Government.

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