Let’s face it, a postal vote regarding same sex marriage is just a cheaper, non-compulsory version of a plebiscite that will therefore deliver inferior information.
Like its more expensive, mandatory predecessor, a postal vote will not result in a binding decision, but will simply enable a free vote to take place in Parliament. Determining the (not particularly reliable) ‘will of the public’ could therefore be a complete waste of time and money, if the Parliament votes the other way.
I would like to publicly address some common arguments in favour of a plebiscite/postal vote that I have been contesting lately in the comments sections of friends’ Facebook posts.
1. ‘Why let politicians vote on such an important issue and not voters?’
Because that’s what a democratically elected Parliament is for. I don’t consider myself a political expert, however I understand our system enough to appreciate that we freely elect individuals and parties (through, albeit, an imperfect process) to represent our views and interests. Our resulting Parliament keeps the ruling party to account through a range of checks and balances. If the public aren’t happy with their representation, they can use their vote to change things at the next election, or seek influence through other democratic methods – eg. protest, petition, appeal, meeting with or writing to a local member or Minister, or simple free speech via media or social media.
Our parliamentary system may not be perfect, but it does have a degree of accountability regarding its role in representing the populace, and generally has more access to information, evidence and stakeholder views than the general public. In my opinion Parliament is therefore better placed to make such a significant and sensitive decision as legalising same sex marriage.
2. ‘But plebiscites and referendums have been used before, so what’s the problem?’
Yes, plebiscites and referendums have been used in the past to make state and national decisions. However, to my knowledge, the only precedent for a plebiscite or referendum on such a sensitive social issue affecting an historically vulnerable population was the 1967 referendum on Aboriginal rights, which had some key differences. Firstly, constitutional changes require a referendum, so a national vote was a necessity, not a choice. Secondly, as far as I understand, it was more or less a formlity, as a landslide ‘Yes’ vote was expected.
Unnecessarily putting the decision regarding same sex marriage to a costly public vote indicates that everyday Australians should have the power to determine the basic civil rights of individuals who may have nothing to do with them. Simply put, this is an inappropriate use of such a tool.
3. ‘Denying a public vote prevents an open, public discussion about the issue’.
Actually, I think this topic has been discussed to death. News and social media have constantly addressed that full range of views on same sex marriage for a long time now, especially since the plan for plebiscite began. There have also been a number of polls establishing strong national support. What else could a postal vote, costing millions of dollars, really offer? I agree that open and respectful conversation is critical, however I don’t think a postal vote (or plebiscite) is necessary to gague and express public opinion. We have had enough opportunity to do this already.
4. ‘This Government was elected on the promise of a plebiscite. Don’t we always criticise governments for backing down on their promises? Why would we encourage them to do so in this case?’
Australian politicians (not only Australian ones, I’m guessing!) are well known to regularly break promises, especially election promises. As a result, the voting public has developed a healthy scepticism about any kind of promise, especially when it is made before an election. Obviously, this is not ideal, but it is a feature of our political system. On the one hand, politicians and parties with the best intentions can face a range financial and political pressures and changes while in government, along with competing demands and interests, and therefore be forced to back down from their promises. On the other (admittedly more cynical) hand, parties have to compete for voter support and will use their words strategically to gain or hold power. So broken promises are unavoidable, especially on a rapidly developing social issues like same sex marriage.
Finally, if you voted for the current Government on the basis of their promise to hold a plebiscite on this issue, it is certainly your prerogative to hold them to account. However, we are faced with imperfect choices come elections, and there will be many people who voted for this current Government but disagree on the plebiscite. Further, many more people explicitly voted against the current Government for this reason and/or another. Why should the latter two groups be expected to hold the Government to promises they never endorsed in the first place?