Finally we had something to celebrate in Australian politics last week – and more than that, it was cause for celebration in broader Australian society, period. Finally, Australians voted ‘yes’ to recognising same-sex marriage at law. Obviously this is not a great outcome if you sit on the ‘no’ side of the fence, but it emphatically proves that the bulk of Australians applaud a progressive, diverse and inclusive society where equal rights are recognised, no matter who you love. It was a big day for civil rights and the exercise of our democratic freedoms, and really was a day to be proud of those who stood up and voted.
However, it also begs the questions – what took so long for this to happen, and why couldn’t the Government of the day take the lead and champion legislation into parliament? Why couldn’t the Government back itself and back its MPs to make a sound decision by allowing them a conscience vote on the matter? Well, understanding the slightly farcical state Australian politics has got itself into lately helps answer those questions.
Sydney Town Hall - the day the referendum result was announced. Photo - Jessica Podzebenko
The upshot is that our Prime Minister is hamstrung by a few minority conservative MPs within the Coalition Government, which is reducing this Government to political inertia. Malcolm Turnbull gets boxed into a corner it seems on any significant policy which has huge human cost and meaning, and the result is inaction. Climate change is a prime example where the demands of a few antagonists appear to be controlling the direction of our climate. The refugee question is another human rights disaster where a true leader would, I hope, be able to fess up and say ‘we got this wrong, let’s act with dignity and respect.’
Against this backdrop, the only other political action I see happening at great speed is that all the MPs seem to be in a race to see who will be the last true blue Australian standing in parliament, as all the dual citizens are being flushed out left, right and centre.
So while there was euphoria last week at Australia slowly regaining a foothold in modern, progressive politics by saying ‘Yes’ to same-sex marriage, in some ways it is tainted by the fact we had to resort to a referendum in the first place. If the Government doesn’t have the spine or gumption to back legislation on its own accord and trust MPs to make a sound conscience vote, and instead sends the decision to the people, then is this a slippery slope to governing more issues by referendum?
The Government was not elected to deflect hard decisions to the public - it was elected to make those very decisions on behalf of the public, based on the policies it advocates and the fact that it should reflect the will of the majority of citizens.
On the flipside, perhaps calling a referendum wasn’t necessarily a bad thing – people were given the chance to take democracy into their hands, rather than relying on the games and bartering that often goes on in politics and between MPs. In passing the decision to the people, it exemplified the power of a true democracy and turned out to deliver a decision that truly reflects the majority of Australians. And maybe Turnbull should be applauded for his quiet confidence and faith in the people that they would deliver what he believed all along. The referendum gave the Government what it lacked itself - a mandate. It now has that mandate to make effective change and must not let internal politics get in the way or water that mandate down.
Photo - Wix
If this is seen as a good way of determining really divisive issues, then adopting the floodgates argument – what other thorny issues could a Government pass to the people to decide? What question is just too complicated to work through in a somewhat defective parliamentary system?
Are matters of personal conscience - or matters of one’s morals and values those that should be decided by referendum? Do we trust politicians with making decisions about things like assisted human reproduction, euthanasia, surrogacy, love? Currently many of these moral, ethical or religious issues are given a ‘conscience vote’ in parliament - take for example, the recent, and successful voluntary euthanasia bill in the Australian State of Victoria. They are pretty big ticket, contentious items not necessarily aligned to a political party’s official line. They are different questions to deciding the tax rate, what bridges to build, how to regulate electricity or which school gets more money. These matters are financial or administrative, and require a bit of expert knowledge, number crunching and economics. Love doesn’t need economic analysis - nor does asserting one’s right to bear a child or end one’s life.
I don’t have the answers – and if you compiled a list of what was ‘referendum’ worthy as opposed to that which should be determined by parliament or the Government, that in itself would generate as much debate as the issue itself.
Hopefully this little success will be the kick up the behind Turnbull needs to be reminded that he can read the people of Australia well, and that he needs to make principled decisions based on the will of those very people the bulk of his party represents.
A successful government makes the hard decisions and sticks by them – but equally knowing when to trust the people of the country you lead.