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There’s Reason To Be Both Hopeful And Cautious About The Latest Move Towards Marriage Equality

We don't want same-sex marriage if it means old forms of discrimination are replaced with new ones.

12/07/2017 3:36 PM AEST | Updated 12/07/2017 3:36 PM AEST
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It's true that public support for a plebiscite has increased in the past few months. However, the latest Newspoll shows support has only gone up 7 percent and is still under 50 percent.

Senator Dean Smith has said he will introduce a marriage equality bill sometime in the next session of Parliament. This matters because it gives marriage equality supporters in the Government's ranks the best chance they've had of prompting their party to revisit its position on the issue.

In August 2015, the Liberals and Nationals emerged from a six-hour meeting with the policy of a plebiscite. They've stuck to that despite it declining in popularity, and despite it being defeated in the Senate.

It's true that public support for a plebiscite has increased in the past few months. However, the latest Newspoll shows support has only gone up 7 percent and is still under 50 percent.

Meanwhile, a Galaxy poll conducted in June showed that when voters were reminded of how costly a plebiscite will be, and the fact it isn't binding on politicians, support plummeted to 27 percent.

Polling also shows that support for politicians being able to vote according to their individual conscience remains very high. Indeed, the June Galaxy poll found that 26 percent of Coalition voters would consider voting for another party if their own party doesn't resolve marriage equality before the election through a free vote in Parliament.

Even if only a fraction of these voters defect, the Turnbull Government will lose seats and government.

Obviously, it's a big step to vote against your party, but it's not unprecedented, and Liberal backbenchers are explicitly given this right within the party's principle of individual freedom.

This brings me to the second reason Dean Smith's bill matters:

If Government MPs don't dump a plebiscite and support a free vote, Liberals who support marriage equality may have to save their party from itself.

Only a handful of backbench Liberals would need to cross the floor for Dean Smith's bill to be debated and passed.

Obviously, it's a big step to vote against your party, but it's not unprecedented, and Liberal backbenchers are explicitly given this right within the party's principle of individual freedom.

Given the damage the Coalition will suffer at the next election if it fails to resolve marriage equality, Liberal politicians who cross the floor should be hailed by rank and file Liberals as heroes rather than villains.

So is marriage equality a fait accompli? Not at all.

One danger is that Government members who oppose marriage equality could head off the push for a free vote in parliament with a new proposal for a public vote.

That could either be Peter Dutton's idea of a voluntary postal vote, or a voluntary plebiscite held at the same time as the next election. Both are watered down versions of the compulsory plebiscite the Government proposed last year.

They will be cheaper than last year's proposal, reducing criticism that a public vote is unduly costly. And, because they are voluntary they won't require legislation and can't be blocked in the Senate.

The other advantage of a postal vote or an election day vote, at least for opponents of marriage equality, is that they will be skewed towards a 'no' vote.

Voluntary participation means that the 30 percent of voters who support marriage equality, but not very strongly, will be less likely to participate. Thus, the priority for marriage equality advocates will switch from persuading people to vote 'yes', to persuading them to vote at all.

The other advantage for the 'no' side is that the Government sets the terms of conditions for the vote, including the question, without any parliamentary oversight.

In short, a postal vote or an election-day plebiscite will be rigged against marriage equality.

Not surprisingly, the public is even more sceptical about these proposals than about last year's plebiscite proposal, with support hovering around 13 percent for each, according to Galaxy.

As if a renewed push for a public vote isn't bad enough, there is also a danger Coalition conservatives will only agree to a free vote if Dean Smith's bill is weighed down with so many religious exemptions allowing discrimination against same-sex couples that it will be unacceptable to the LGBTI community, Labor and the Greens.

MORE ON THE BLOG:

Marriage Equality Can't Be Avoided Any Longer

In America, a new 'religious freedom' movement has arisen in response to the achievement of marriage equality. It seeks to punch holes in discrimination laws to allow wedding service providers, including government employees and business owners, to turn same-sex couples away if they have a religious or conscientious objection to same-sex relationships.

This movement, which we should really call a 'movement to give religious views legal privilege', is quickly metastasising. In some states, "religious freedom" has been the rallying cry for legislators who have allowed discrimination against divorced partners, interracial couples and people with disabilities.

If that seems unlikely to happen here, remember that last year's plebiscite bill was accompanied by a draft bill for same-sex marriage that allowed discrimination against same-sex couples in a range of wedding services.

Meanwhile, Australian groups like FamilyVoice have called for discrimination to be allowed against other minorities in the name of "religious freedom".

The answer to all these challenges is very simple. Supporters of marriage equality must keep on reminding the Australian public that, when all is said and done, this is about equality.

We don't want same-sex marriage if it means we have to go through an unnecessary, divisive and hate-filled public vote.

We don't want same-sex marriage if it means old forms of discrimination are replaced with new ones.

Equal rights through an equal process: that's a pretty simple message.

Let's get it out there now.

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