Rejoice for Australia! But referendums on social issues must not be the new normal

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The majority of Australians have backed equal marriage in a postal vote survey: 61.5% of Aussies endorsed the rights of LGBT+ citizens. It is now over to the Australian parliament to implement the will of the people.

LGBT+ Aussies and allies rejoice after a deserved victory. But it is sad that this referendum had to happen at all.

I realise that to most, holding the referendum was just sensible politics and a civilised means to settle a debate in a democracy. But this vote really was petty: someone’s private relationship is neither a political or democratic concern. It’s not something to be deliberated on by the masses; you’re dealing with people’s profound personal identities and relationships – things that are fundamental to their lives.  Someone’s basic right to exist as themselves in society is not another ‘issue of the day’.

It is completely mad that an anonymous same-sex couple living somewhere in Australia who want to get married had to consult the entire voting population of the country.

With referendums on social issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion, the mass electorate are being given the power to decide how much freedom individuals from minority groups can enjoy; essentially granting them permission to be equal citizens. Imagine a heterosexual relationship where the two individuals wanted to commit to each other for the long-term, but first they needed the approval of the majority of voters.

Nonetheless it’s understandable why Australia’s referendum took place; it’s the principle of it that’s frustrating. The referendum was held to help ensure the law passes through Australia’s parliament as, if successful, all politicians would feel obliged to respect the will of the people.

However few people will really appreciate that it was a dangerous game to play.

It seems as though the only way the vote could have worked out positively for Australia’s LGBT+ community is with an overwhelming vote in favour of same-sex marriage.  A close vote in favour would have resulted in a victory, but it would then be set in stone that a near majority of the electorate are not in favour of the happiness and fulfilment of LGBT+ individuals.  The campaign and debate can be kept as constructive as possible but inevitably it will mobilise bigots and homophobes – these people should not be given any pretext to spout their bile.  It also gives odious religious groups one last-ditch attempt to be relevant in the 21st century; sensible people will tolerate their ramblings only out of politeness.

The LGBT+ community used the vote as a means of empowerment and to display strength and hope, encouraging all allies to join in their campaign.  But the referendum will have the effect of making some LGBT+ individuals feel self-conscious, even unsafe.  It will be hard for some people in the broader public to actually contemplate the damage a no vote could have done to individuals and the community.

Try to imagine what it would feel like to have your own country democratically reject you.

Past the fray and the vitriol and the debates, most social issues boil down to an old mantra: live and let live.  It’s a shame that people can’t collectively understand this and opt for careless and divisive referendums. All arguments against same-sex marriage eventually whittle down to prejudice or irrelevance.  We have to now accept that there can be no debate that every individual is equal and entitled to a life of peace, freedom, and individuality.  By legalising same-sex marriage without a referendum, governments have the opportunity to lead by example and set an agenda of tolerance.

Now, the world will be watching Ireland as it debates the issue of abortion ahead of a referendum in 2018 asking the people if they think it should be legalised. Necessary for progressive change, perhaps; but my heart is with the women who take up the cause and have to fight for their most basic rights. In many respects more contentious than equal marriage, this debate will be fraught with difficulty. Private and personal lives will be scrutinised and debated in a cruel public and political arena – it should never have come to this.

* Chris Park took an MLitt in Media and Communication in Glasgow and is a member of the Liberal Democrats

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  • paul barker 19th Nov '17 - 3:57pm

    Referenda have been the traditional tool of Tyrants & would-be tyrants but in this case its to provide cover for cowardly Politicians & Judges.
    Its apity that in some ways we have gone backwards or, at least sideways. Parliaments & Courts in the recent past had the courage to do the right thing on violently divisive Issues like Segregation, Gay sex & Capital Punishment in the reasonably certain knowledge that most of the Public disagreed.

  • Laurence Cox 19th Nov '17 - 5:14pm

    @Chris Park @Paul Barker
    You may find the following post from UCL’s The Constitution Unit relevant:

    Your arguments are based on a single referendum in Australia that isn’t necessarily relevant to the UK’s experience. Closer to home, Switzerland makes extensive use of referenda but no-one would allege that country was a tyranny (or even a would-be tyranny).

  • Graham Evans 20th Nov '17 - 8:40am

    [email protected] , Laurence Cox Thank you for drawing attention to the link on referendums. Interesting though it is, it really doesn’t address the problem that referendums always present a binary choice. It tries to deal with by coming up with ideas as when when referendums are inappropriate, but apart from the vagueness of some of its suggestions, it undermines its own ideas on when referendums are appropriate by putting forward the concept of requiring more than a simple majority, or arbitrarily excluding certain topics. Moreover the mere fact that it quotes different countries as having different rules implies that the use of referendums by a country is more as a result of historical developments or political expediency than as being based on a coherent approach to the topic. Moreover, it fails to address the issue that more often than not referendums are used to slow down change, particularly social change. The fact that sometimes referendums have occasionally enabled a log jam to be broken in which a small group of politicians have been able to block change, as in Australia, does not alter this general truth. Just because a country’s constitution requires referendums to take place on certain issues, as in Ireland, does not in itself justify this method of overriding representative democracy, which, for all its short comings, is still the best way of running a diverse and multifaceted democracy.

  • Peter Hirst 20th Nov '17 - 2:17pm

    We live in a democracy where the majority win. I accept fundamental rights are a key part of that system. I do think that a fair referendum is a legitimate tool to allow representative democracies decide on important social issues.

  • Where no harm can be demonstrated to others, there is no justification.

    That’s what liberals think, sure — but not everyone is a liberal, and some people are liberals on some issues but not on others. How can you decide, democratically, whether the government ought to be liberal on an issue or not, other than by having a vote on it?

  • Laurence Cox 20th Nov '17 - 5:43pm

    @Graham Evans
    As the article linked to makes clear, it is background research that forms an input to the Independent Commission on Referendums, not the considered views of the Commission, so I would expect views like yours to be considered by the Commission alongside it.

    A social issue that we might want to put to a referendum is long-term care. The attempt by the Tories to adopt the same approach to care in one’s own home as to care in a residential home was branded as a “dementia tax” by both the Lib Dems and Labour, effectively killing it. Now Norman Lamb is co-leading a cross-party call to look at social care again. A referendum could be used to give a mandate to the Government to fund this either by increased taxes on income or by taxes on fixed assets (houses), whichever option received most popular support. This would make it more difficult for an irresponsible opposition to block it through smears without any attempt to propose alternative funding sources.

  • Graham Evans 20th Nov '17 - 11:10pm

    @ Lawrence Cox I think the last think we need is a referendum on how we fund social care. As the Brexit referendum demonstrated, because a majority vote a particular way, given a binary choice, does not in itself legitimise the detailed legislation which is needed to implement the result. Moreover, unless opposition parties actively campaign for the Government proposal the outcome of the referendum might be more a reflection on the popularity of the Government than on the virtue of the proposal itself. Suppose too a majority rejected the Government’s proposal, how then should the Government proceed? The likelihood is that the issue would be kicked into the long grass indefinitely. The way to deal with these issues is for the Government to actively work with opposition parties to produce a consensus. This requires give and take by Government and Opposition, which is admittedly somewhat alien to Britain’s political structures. But better to change these structures than resort to the referendum mechanism which seeks to reduce complexes issues to an apparent simple binary choice.

  • Tony Greaves 21st Nov '17 - 9:42pm

    Interesting that some people here “go for the man and not the ball”, WHETHER THE MAN IN

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