As you may now know, a nationwide plebiscite on marriage equality will be held on the 11th of February 2017, but did you also know that the federal government has the power to enact marriage equality more promptly than a national poll due to a highly criticized High Court constitutional decision in 2013?
So… if we were to actually have this plebiscite, how might it play out? Some believe it will be harmful to many LGBT individuals, others believe a vote is required to gauge the opinions of all Australian citizens, and others are more concerned about the significant amount of money (over $160 mill) being used towards a plebiscite and its yes and no campaigns rather than for public education, community services, and healthcare.
So before you turn to the person next to you and argue that a plebiscite is the only way to go, let’s take a look at the 3 previous plebiscites in Australian history and how they turned out…
Our first plebiscite on conscription took place a century ago in 1916-17. It’s remembered as awfully dividing families and communities, with people also suffering verbal abuse and being attacked for not supporting conscription. Unhealthy amounts of propaganda was also involved, with the government using their inflated wartime power to arrest opponents of conscription.
What happened next? Well in 1917 many large rallies and public meetings took place across Australia, including 60,000 women promoted by the United Women’s No-Conscription Committee who gathered in Melbourne’s Swanston Street and blocked roads for an hour.
In the end, the pro-conscription vote was only narrowly defeated (51.61%). Not only that, but the Prime Minister Billy Hughes’ cabinet imploded, resulting in him leaving the Labour Party and forming a coalition of conservatives, which is known today as the Nationalist party of Australia.
If the dissolution of a political party following a decisive plebiscite doesn’t deter Malcolm Turnbull from implementing a similar poll himself… then what will?
In 1977 the application of plebiscites moved from sending young boys into senseless, life-threatening fights on the Western Front to ‘What’s your favourite song?’ The national anthem up until this point was God Save the Queen, however, there was a debate to replace it with a more ‘Australian’ song.
As a result, the nation was, you guessed it… divided. Some wanted Advance Australia Fair, other preferred the Song of Australia (that no one really knows apart from South Australia) and others wanted Banjo Patterson’s Waltzing Matilda. There was also debate over whether Waltzing Matilda’s lyrics about robbery and suicide was appropriate for a national anthem. Not only this, but the much loved song was copyrighted by Banjo Patterson’s family, and a five-figure sum was the cost for the government to buy the song outright!
Soon after, the plebiscite was held, with the majority of the nation voting for Advance Australia fair, (South Australia mainly voted for the Song of Australia (surprise!), and the ACT largely voted for a suicidal hobo who evaded cops).
Many State Governments, RSL’s and other organizations also argued that “a national anthem is suppose to be a symbol of national unity; in Australia, it has become a focus for division, discord and dissent.”
There was also rumours that the government attempted to stitch up the result by planning to provide $150,000 towards the advertising of God Save the Queen and placing this song on the top of the ballot paper.
Despite the large majority supporting Advance Australia Fair, it still took another seven years before the government actually implemented it as the national anthem!
So why don’t we use plebiscites? Because people remember the controversies of previous polls, the violence and hate that stemmed from it, as well as the long period it takes the government to actually implement the result once a the poll has been conducted.
Division, discord and dissent is not the Australian way, and as Dr Stephan Petrow has said; “You don’t use a plebicite on emotional issues because you’ll only divide and upset the community.”
And this firey debate on same-sex marriage is anything but emotionless. So make sure you help Australia towards a free parliament vote, not another plebiscite! Click here for more.