By now you’ve probably heard that the government is planning a postal plebiscite on marriage equality as soon as September. This means the whole country is supposed to vote on whether gay marriage is going to be accepted into Australian law. The decision has raised a high court challenge, as well as a few eyebrows and a lot of questions. What even is a plebiscite? Doesn’t everyone already support gay marriage anyway? Why do we need to vote on it?

Let’s break it down for the people.

What even is a plebiscite?

A plebiscite is a vote where every single person in the country gets the chance to have their say on a particular issue. It’s similar to referendum, except that a referendum is specifically designed to decide whether to change the constitution, whereas a plebiscite is just to gauge public opinion on an issue. In this case, the issue is whether same-sex couples will have the right to marry each other. It might not sound too controversial, but…

Why is it controversial? 

Well, it’s controversial for a lot of reasons. Here are some of the most obvious ones. 

  1. It’s going to be expensive.

It’s going to cost $122 million of taxpayers’ coin, which is pretty bloody expenno. Especially when you consider that, according to polling by the ABC, we’ve already figured out that at least 66% of the population wants same-sex couples to have the right to marry. Stats from elsewhere suggest that this is a conservative estimate and in fact more than 70% of people support marriage equality. So basically, the government already knows that the people broadly support the issue and the result will be obvious, won’t it? Well, not necessarily, because…

  1. Not everyone will participate.

Australia has a system of compulsory voting, which means that if you don’t rock up on polling day, you cop a fine. However, voting in a plebiscite is not compulsory and this plebiscite is going to be delivered by post. Yep, like literally, the old-school way, with paper and envelopes and postage stamps and everything. This means that a lot of people probably won’t bother going through the effort, so the results might not be full representation of the public opinion. But that doesn’t necessarily matter because… 

  1. It’s non-binding anyway.

In the case of an election, the results come into effect almost immediately. For example, when Malcolm Turnbull won the election, he got to make his speech and then start working as the Prime Minister. This isn’t the case with a plebiscite. Even if 99% of people came out and voted “yes” to marriage equality, the government could still refuse to implement it as law. That’s because this plebiscite is “non-binding”, which makes people even more inclined to ask, What’s the point, then?

  1. It’s going to hurt LGBTI+ people.

Leading into a plebiscite, there will be advertising campaigns from both sides of the debate. You’ll be likely to see campaigns from groups like Australian Marriage Equality, encouraging people to register to vote to make marriage equality happen. But then, on the side against marriage equality, you’ll see ads about how gay people are evil, inadequate and unsuitable for parenting. These kinds of ads have been shown to increase mental and physical health issues for LGBTI+ people.

According to the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, “Evidence shows that discrimination and marginalisation experienced by the LGBTI population increases the risk of developing mental health issues.”

And as Brian Tobin, an Irish academic put it, “It forces a historically oppressed minority to literally have to plead with the majority for access to marriage in the months prior to the vote.”

So, what happens now?

On September 5 and 6, marriage equality advocate groups will present their objection to the plebiscite at the High Court. They argue that the plebiscite is unconstitutional and would prefer that the matter be settled with a free vote in parliament. If they succeed, the plebiscite may be rejected.

But scores of young people have already been registering to vote. If you want to have your say in a plebiscite, you’ll need to enrol with the Australian Electoral Commission before August 24. Here’s the link.

photo cred: birk thomassen

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