The Marriage Equality Plebiscite (1)

What will the questions be?

Readers who wish to do so can search the Nurturing Justice archive for our view on previous attempts to legislate “gay marriage” and the current effort to have the Australian Federal Parliament endorse the global “marriage equality” initiative. Malcolm Turnbull’s Prime Ministership has seen his Liberal-National “side” united behind him, but it has been on the understanding that if re-elected there will be a plebiscite to put the issue of “marriage equality” to the Australian people.

So, what is the question that has to be resolved here? There is much talk about “marriage equality” and it seems to come down to an effort to redefine the definition of the Marriage Act to replace “a man and a woman” by “two persons”. There are deeper issues that indeed need to be opened-up to serious public debate. Polls may tell us, and Mr Turnbull and Mr Shorten are so very confident about it. They say that most Australians are in favour of “marriage equality”. But they have not been so very forthcoming about what that favouritism of equality means, nor what it might mean in law.

I pen this post on the evening at the time counting has just begun in our 2016 poll. The questions that I list below as the political contribution of Nurturing Justice to discussing this issue are either going to be answered by the people’s vote in a plebiscite if the Liberal-Coalition prevail, or will be implicitly answered by a conscience vote in Parliament should Labor gain a majority and form a Government.

Nurturing Justice takes very seriously the fears of some parliamentarians, and others, that a plebiscite might incite ugly debate. That being so the questions that are put to the Australian people need to be political questions and they need to be framed in such a way that does not allow people to feel they are being pushed into a corner as advocates of views that they do not hold. That being so, I am formulating the following two possible sets of questions to contribute to the necessary discussion that has to take place in order to ensure that such a plebiscite, if it is to be held, is worthwhile, allows maximum clarification of people’s views and contributes in a just way to public debate about public policy and the Government’s task which is to promote public justice. There are two distinct sets of questions put here that, I believe, could, if they were to be put to a plebiscite, could assist the Parliament in actually moving this discussion forward to the benefit of all.

The first set of two questions are about the citizen’s view of civil freedom and human rights.

  1. Do you believe that the distribution of public entitlements should be curtailed in any way so that same-sex couples who can demonstrate that they have joined together in permanent supportive relationships are to be treated differently from married or de facto couples? YES/NO
  2. Are you of the view that the Parliament should amend the Marriage Act in order to redefine marriage so that it will by definition of the term marriage include same-sex couples among those the law considers to be married? YES/NO

The two questions go together. By considering the first question first, people who are disposed to say “No” to the second question are able to signal their complete agreement that the civil rights of same-sex couples should not in any way be curtailed by the Marriage Act’s definition of lawful marriage as a male-female union. The problem with this complex debate is that those who oppose same-sex marriage – however small that minority may be – are “hung out to dry” by the implication that they are somehow unappreciative of the manner in which same-sex couples form their households. They are also subjected to the completely unfair equation that a “No” to “marriage equality” (whatever that pretentious term means) is simply a manifestation of “homophobia”.

The second set of questions is, in my opinion superior in a political sense, but it is more complex. Indeed the issue is complex and a plebiscite that was formed simply to signal YES or NO to “Marriage Equality” simply sweeps all the legal, political, institutional cultural, religious and historical issues under the carpet that will then have to be dealt with either in the Parliament when legislation is debated or it will simply come back as “unanticipated consequences” later on when those administering in the context of this legal mistake have to reckon with empirical reality. Our view is that these questions have to be dealt with sooner or later. This suggestion is put forward so that such questions are known well in advance of the voting day so voters can properly consider them and decide how to vote in whatever social responsibility domains people live and work out their “way of life”, whether as single, unmarried or married people,  as same-sex couples, members of households, churches, schools, hospitals, sporting teams, aged-care facilities, businesses and in civil society associations.

  1. Is it your personal and considered view that marriage is a civil right that should be available to all people who have reached the appropriate age whatever their gender and sexuality? YES/NO
  2. Do you believe that the Federal Marriage Act should be rewritten to confirm that marriage, in this jurisdiction, will be henceforth viewed in law as a civil right to be enjoyed by two persons whether male and female, male and male, female and female? YES/NO.
  3. Would you therefore be supportive of the Australian Government amending the Federal Marriage Act in the way described above, and then taking the case to the United Nations for adding marriage to the list of rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? YES/NO.

These are the kinds of questions that will be answered by any proposed plebiscite. The important issue is how the discussion is framed; how can it be framed in order to ensure that the discussion is in fact a genuine contribution to fomenting just political discourse in this society? In certain respects the second set of three questions certainly need further explication but they are the set of questions that are Nurturing Justice’s contribution to what questions should be asked in order to open up the public discussion in a positive and constructive way. (NJ, for instance, would vote NO, NO, NO, but in doing so would at least be able to explain NJ’s political perspective – NJ does not believe that marriage is a civil right but every argument for same-sex marriage and marriage equality that has been put forward in this country over the last decade has assumed that marriage is a civil right. Australian people at this time, we believe, have to be challenged on just that point.)

These are by no means the last word and certainly we have not been able to form the debate as it has run its course. The questions are set forth in the hope that citizens, particularly Christian citizens, will find a way to enter boldly into the public and political discussion without compromising their adherence to the teaching of Jesus Christ and the Apostles concerning marriage as the exclusive place for conjugal sexual love between a man and a woman.

Comments, of course, are most welcome.

BCW 2.7.2016 9pm


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