The Equal Marriage Debate Symbolises the Vacuum Within Turnbull’s Australia

In 2004, conservative then-Prime Minister John Howard rushed through an amendment to the Marriage Act to specifically state that it could only be between a man and a woman. Opinion polls now show that Australians want marriage equality. Instead of again voting in parliament, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is pandering to the hard right of the Liberal Party and holding a weird non-compulsory, non-binding postal vote run by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Their make-it-up-as-you-go-along, directionless approach to same sex marriage is symbolic of the state of Australian politics.

Mental health experts warned the government that the campaign could be extremely damaging to LGBTIQ+ people and would increase the risk of suicide, especially among young people. Following the successful Irish referendum, a study found that 80% of respondents were distressed by the No campaign’s messaging, and the majority would not go through with it again if they had the choice. 

Days after the postal vote was announced the Coalition for Marriage has launched its first TV ad, featuring mothers concerned that their children would be forced to role play being in a same sex relationship. In Sydney, flyers were distributed in describing homosexuality as a "tragedy." Because the postal vote is run by the Australian Bureau of Statistics it is not subject to conventional election regulations, which forbid the distribution of false and misleading material. The government is waiting until the outcome of the High Court Challenge into the survey's vote before it considers strengthening advertising restrictions

This blatant disregard for a group’s mental health is common practice for the government. Australia’s indefinite detention of asylum seekers who arrive by boat is a breach of the International Bill of Human Rights. People in detention centres have gone on hunger strikes, set themselves alight and ended their own lives. Doctors, nurses, social workers, lawyers have campaigned for change to these inhumane policies. Other actions include a Centrelink debt collection bungle which lead to trauma and at least one suicide, and the implementation of cashless welfare cards that are overwhelmingly targeting Aboriginal people.

in modern Australia the ‘fair go’ has become a myth

Few concepts have greater bipartisan support in Australia than the ‘fair go.’ It is frequently used on both sides of politics to justify everything from tax cuts to the National Disability Insurance Scheme. So you would think that in the land of the fair go, giving two consenting adults the right to have their primary relationship recognised by law regardless of sex would be a slam dunk.

Unfortunately in modern Australia the ‘fair go’ has become a myth. Currently 2.5 million Australians live in poverty. Even the great Australian dream of home ownership is inherently unfair, as property values continue to surge while wage growth has stagnated. On any given night, 105,000 people are homeless in Australia. Whilst we see growing inequality in many countries, the fact that ours is interfering with people’s ability to access housing - a basic human right - is particularly unfair. The government continues to entrench this inequality by providing tax incentives for investors in the housing market, which contributes to wealth concentration. The fair go, if it ever existed in Australia, is not the bedrock of our society that we once thought it was.

Abbott is using this political situation to generate fear and make people scared of change

The flip-flopping of the two major party leaders on same sex marriage is a reflection of the broader political instability that has led Australia to five Prime Ministers in the last decade. In 2016, Malcolm Turnbull said he opposed a plebiscite on the basis that it would be damaging and potentially unconstitutional (a challenge is before the High Court), favouring a vote in Parliament. In 2009, he lost the leadership of the Liberal Party to Tony Abbott due to his support for an emissions trading scheme. Now he is championing a $122m voluntary survey to be run by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, and approving a devastating coal mine that will lead to further destruction of the Great Barrier Reef. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has also backflipped on the issue of a plebiscite.

Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott is pushing the No vote with vigour, which he is entitled to do. However, he has also said that “...If you’re worried about religious freedom and freedom of speech, vote no, and if you don’t like political correctness, vote no because voting no will help to stop political correctness in its tracks.” Whether or not people have the right to marry has nothing to do with political correctness or freedom of speech. Abbott is using this political situation to generate fear and make people scared of change, which is inherently conservative behaviour. As the postal vote dominates the public discussion it diverts attention from issues that should be debated in public, for example the extent of the executive’s power in Australia.

Australian politics is floating, and we are crying out for political leadership. It is unclear what Malcolm Turnbull really stands for, making it difficult to understand where the country is headed.

Cat McGauran is a podcaster and writer based in Melbourne, Australia. She has over six years experience in broadcast journalism and not-for-profit communications. She writes primarily about social justice, the arts and dabbles in fiction. She can be found on Twitter @catmcgauran

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