The LGBTI Case For A Marriage Equality Plebiscite Doesn’t Add Up


OPINION: Forcing the nation to undertake a non-binding vote will only drain time and resources from LGBTI communities. Grassroots campaigning is admirable, but a plebiscite would be fought with dollars rather than sense, writes Tony Pitman.

In a piece published on SBS’s new sexuality portal, Simon Copland argues the case in favour of a plebiscite on marriage equality, contending that it’s time to take the decision out of the politicians’ hands and “make it ours.” The battle will be won, he says, not through backroom lobbying in Canberra, but at the level of local communities.

He writes:

A plebiscite puts marriage onto the national agenda and makes it one we have to deal with street-by-street. It means we can put our energy into championing queer campaigners and allies in local communities, empowering people to be local advocates for change. It means we can organise to tackle homophobia and transphobia as it exists at a local level.

It sounds wonderful; a nationwide campaign not just to eliminate discrimination in marriage, but also to change hearts and minds and create a more humane and tolerant society.

There’s just one problem. Such a campaign would be very expensive. And I don’t mean the half a billion dollars of public funds that will be splashed on the ballot. I’m talking about the amount of time, effort and, above all, money that each side will have to spend to get its message out.

Recent experiences in the United States give us a pretty good idea of what we can expect in Australia and just how horrendously expensive these campaigns can become. As soon as a plebiscite is called, groups on both sides of the argument find their energies suddenly focused on one overwhelming priority; fundraising. The anti-equality groups run a scare campaign on prime-time television. The pro-equality side is then obliged to run ads of their own to try to counter the misinformation. The opposing side finds they’re losing in the polls and resorts to even more extreme tactics. The pro-equality side is forced to respond once again.

It rapidly turns into a funding arms race as each side tries to outdo the other, spending millions of dollars on advertising and pleading ever more desperately for donations from their supporters.

Although I have no doubt that Simon Copland intends to contribute to the pro-equality campaign in various ways, he’s not going to provide 100 per cent of the financing, nor is he going to go “street-by-street” to transform the nation all by himself. So by arguing for a plebiscite, Copland is essentially volunteering other people’s time and money. Effectively, what he’s saying is, ‘I want to help LGBTI people by forcing them to spend vast amounts of their own time and resources simply to achieve a basic civil right that they should already have’. For many supporters of equality, this type of argument is one that really sticks in the craw.

When and if the plebiscite is held, marriage equality will almost certainly win. (As will the corporate media, who will receive millions of dollars from advertising.) Yet it will all have been so unnecessary. We could have achieved the same result at no cost by a simple vote of the parliament.

If Copland and others wish to spend their time and money on “championing queer campaigners” and “empowering people to be local advocates,” they should absolutely go ahead. It’s an admirable goal. The world will certainly be a better place for their efforts.

But by arguing for a plebiscite, they’re potentially forcing thousands of others to dedicate their own time and money to a campaign that’s completely unnecessary.

So let’s stop the plebiscite. Let’s focus on achieving equality through a parliamentary vote. And let’s allow LGBTI people and their allies to pursue their own happiness, without forcing them to give up large amounts of their own resources simply to achieve what should rightfully be theirs anyway. That is surely the ultimate goal of any human rights movement; to allow people to get on with their lives without having to defend and justify themselves in order to do so.