The Problem with a Plebiscite: Why a Poll on Marriage Equality Can Only Cause Harm

By Lily Neilson

As part of this year’s Federal Budget, the Turnbull government announced a nation-wide plebiscite will be held on marriage equality later this year. Australians will be asked to vote ‘yes’ if they are in favour of broadening the Marriage Act 1961 (Cth) to include non-heterosexual couples, or ‘no’ if they believe the union should remain between a man and a woman. This unnecessary vote would place members of the LGBTIAQ+ community at risk, as the lead-up campaigns would legitimise discriminatory views, which are outlawed under existing anti-discrimination legislation.

Despite numerous polls suggesting the vast majority of Australians already support an amendment, the government will make its decision based on a national poll with binary options: yes or no. In doing so, the minority position (‘no’) is afforded a 50 per cent stake in the discussion – a stake which promotes discrimination.

Australians must choose between keeping a law that is discriminatory towards the LGBTIAQ+ community, or overhauling it to make marriage inclusive of non-heterosexual couples. In the lead up to the vote, campaigns for both sides must run. However, the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) makes it an offence to discriminate against a person or people based on their sexual orientation, which would make arguing a ‘no’ position rather difficult.

In light of this, managing director of the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL), Lyle Shelton, has called for the government to override anti-discrimination legislation in the lead up to the plebiscite. He states current laws have a ‘low threshold’ for what constitutes discrimination and so hinders the ability of those on the ‘no’ campaign to adequately argue their position. Personal opinions aside, Shelton’s comments make logical sense; in arguing against an amendment to the Marriage Act, the ACL and other ‘no’ campaigners would be forced to make discriminatory arguments, which they cannot legally do.

As a means of settling an issue of discrimination, therefore, a plebiscite cannot logically be used. Discriminatory and therefore illegal arguments must be made for one side to argue their point.

If, in the unlikely event the government were to act on Shelton’s suggestions and override anti-discrimination legislation, the LGBTIAQ+ community would be left extremely vulnerable. Australia has introduced a plethora of anti-discrimination laws over the past fifty years. As awareness of minorities and the inherent bias in the legal system are exposed, laws develop and become more comprehensive. Anti-discrimination legislation has been invaluable in keeping offensive and potentially harmful political discourse to a minimum.

Despite this, discrimination is still prevalent in Australia. The foundational research for the Safe Schools Program, conducted by La Trobe University, found that that 79 per cent of LGBTIAQ+ youth had experienced verbal or physical abuse because of their sexual identity, which led to high numbers of students self-harming. By overriding existing anti-discrimination, these statistics could only increase.

While the government has pledged $160 million for the plebiscite, a recent report by consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates the actual cost to Australian taxpayers will be upwards of $525 million. Alarmingly, but not surprisingly, this estimate includes $20 million in counseling and psychological bills for those who will be mentally harmed by the campaigns, a figure that would undoubtedly increase were anti-discrimination laws tlifted.

Along with the recent ‘gutting’ of the Safe Schools program, stripping back legal protections afforded by anti-discrimination would risk reversing the strides that have been made in protecting vulnerable people on the road to an equal society. If this is the fall out from running a plebiscite, then perhaps the government should reconsider their method for deciding an amendment that should already be in place.

Lily Neilson is currently studying a Bachelor of Laws/Bachelor of Arts at La Trobe University.

La Trobe