26/09/2016 6:29 AM AEST | Updated 26/09/2016 9:57 AM AEST

The Plebiscite Offers A Chance For Robust Debate

The Left Doesn't Have A Mortgage On Compassion

Getty Images/iStockphoto

What is more important for Australians –- the process for achieving a policy outcome or delivering the outcome itself? I had cause to reflect on this point last week when I spoke in favour of the proposed same sex marriage plebiscite.

Australian citizens in our responsible system of government elect members and senators to Federal Parliament to represent them and make decisions on a wide range of issues on their behalf. As elected representatives we base these decisions on our own values, the values we believe exist in our communities and of course, on our election policies and party philosophies. Very occasionally there are social issues that Australians are passionately divided on -- just as their elected representatives are. Rather than shy away from community debate and a decision on these issues we should embrace it and seek a resolution but we should do this calmly and respectfully.

Last year, this is what the Liberal Party and the National Party did in an historic seven-hour joint party room meeting to discuss the issue of same sex marriage. Our debate was robust but it was also respectful and our views represented the range of strongly held community values. As a result of that marathon discussion we agreed to take this issue to the Australian people through a plebiscite. This is the position we took to the election and are now implementing along with critically important economic and security reforms.

National plebiscites, while not common, serve an important function in Australia in that they allow citizens to decide on issues of great national and social significance. We have had three national plebiscites -- to decide on military conscription in 1916, the reinforcement of the Australian Imperial Force overseas in 1917 and the choice of Australia's national anthem in 1977. There have also been 32 plebiscites held by state governments. We are now asking that Australians make a decision on an important social issue -- that is, marriage equality.

At this point it is worth noting that our constitutional 'founding fathers' deliberately did not create a bill of rights as the Americans had done. Instead they understood that societal values and norms change over time and once codified, are difficult if not impossible to change in step with society. Our founding fathers had great faith that the Australian people would ensure that laws and judgements represented the majority of contemporary community expectations and beliefs. As MPs it is our responsibility to represent those who elect us and make decisions on their behalf but we can only do that if we have a clear majority view from the community. Our founding fathers did not foresee a time when Australian citizens became so complacent and disengaged from public debate that they completely delegated this responsibility to those they elected to represent them.

Critics of the plebiscite have argued that debate would lead to hate speech. Sadly this is already a reality. I believe by having a robust and factual debate we will reduce hate -- not elevate it. I have great faith in Australians' ability to have a sensible discussion, particularly after seeing my own party's robust and respectful debate I am astounded by this view. Where there is hate we should counter it to ensure the good ideas -- such as full legal equality -- rise to the top. What we must not do is disengage from those who don't share our views simply because those views might make us feel uncomfortable. Unfortunately, by resisting the plebiscite, these critics are putting their own cause in jeopardy. They risk winning the fight against a plebiscite only to lose the fight for full legal recognition for every Australian.

My colleagues on the left would have Australians believe they have a mortgage on compassion but the simple truth is that none of us do. In Parliament we share a common desire to leave the next generation stronger and more prosperous than the nation we inherited. Our real differences lie in how we believe we should get there. So what is more important – achieving full legal rights for all Australians or fighting over whose proposal is adopted? Compromise in politics is essential to achieve outcomes. My party has put forward a way to achieve legal equality. Let's not quibble about the process -- because if we do we all lose.

Let's have faith in Australians, that they are up for the discussion and decision. I have no doubt they are.