Plebiscites, Popular Votes, Principles, Presumptions and Pragmatics

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See, I can do alliteration like the best of them. Buckle yourself in, this may be a slightly longer ride.

This weekend has seen a remarkable exchange in the media between the two main political parties here in Australia over the question of the upcoming plebiscite on redefining marriage. In a fascinating turnaround Labor party briefers let it be known that their internal polling suggested that they may yet lose the plebiscite. Bill Shorten’s answer was to suggest that the plebiscite should therefore not be held which led to this response from Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (who is personally in favour of changing the definition of marriage).

The absolutely worst argument against a plebiscite is to say that it wouldn’t be passed … it is the most anti-democratic argument.

Can’t really argue with that. But what it does do is expose the underlying presumptions that are flavouring this entire debate. For Shorten, what he calls “marriage equality” is such an axiomatic thing (despite less than 5 years ago holding a different position) that it simply must be legislated. To Shorten we can add other “heavyweights” who have spoken out in recent days.

Justice Michael Kirby, interviewed on Friday night’s Lateline, puts it this way:

I don’t think we should draw any inferences about what would happen in a plebiscite, especially a plebiscite of compulsory voting in this country. I think we would draw better inferences from our history on constitutional referendums: and on that matter, we have a record of 44 proposals that have been put to the people at a referendum and only eight have succeeded. Australians vote “no” when they get a chance.

And I therefore think it’s very problematic to suggest that we will follow Ireland.

Same argument. When you put a vote like this to the Australian public they tend to vote “no” and we can’t have the proles telling us what to do. Kirby also claimed that plebiscites were very rare tools in Australia, a claim which Murray Campbell has helpfully dismantled.

AC Grayling got himself on the telly the same evening to make a similar claim; this simply cannot be opposed:

Now what is happening here?

Increasingly we’re seeing those in favour of redefining marriage act as though the question is already settled and no reasonable intelligent person could ever think otherwise. So, A.C. Grayling in the video clip above:

This particular matter of gay marriage, it really is a human rights issue, it’s a matter of principle.

But that is surely to beg the question, to assume the answer before you even properly ask the question. When (according to the alleged Labor Party polling) more than half the population don’t agree with the fundamental presumption then perhaps it’s not really that clear cut? Yes, our politicians are elected to represent the people but should they then not actually represent the people? If there really were a super-majority of Australians in favour then it would be hard for anyone to argue against just getting on with the legislation, but the Labor Party have themselves now torpedoed their own flagship on this from the inside.

The irony is that there is actually enormous agreement on a few basic things here. First, this is a hugely important question. Both sides think so for slightly different reasons but we do agree that getting marriage right is a massive deal which will impact our community in significant ways, perhaps more significantly than anything else legislated in the coming term. Second it’s becoming increasingly clear to both sides that the vote may yet be fairly close. So what is the response that they then bring?

Well those we might label as the conservatives, who want the definition of marriage left unchanged in the Marriage Act, have settled for better or for worse upon a plebiscite to determine the matter, albeit with some reservations about how the debate will be handled and concerns about the implication for freedom of speech following a potential “yes” vote. But the progressives in our public life, those who are arguing for change, don’t want the plebiscite, and they want it even less now that they fear they may lose.

So who are the democrats here? And do note that what we’re seeing here is simple a repeat of what has already occurred in the other two main anglophone democracies. In the States an arrogant political class that increasingly looks unrepresentative has ended up with one (and almost two) “fringe” candidates for the Presidential election. In the UK we had the Brexit vote. Each of these happened despite the confident presumption that the people would not vote that way, that no intelligent person could vote that way, even that a vote that way was an immoral use of the ballot. And on each occasion after the result those who voted against what was meant to be the consensus often spoke of pushing back against the arrogance of our leaders assuming to tell us how to think right. This is not, of course, to defend either Trump or Brexit but simply to point out how we got here. I take great delight at the moment in telling people I think Trump might get elected President and hearing the common response, “that couldn’t possibly happen, people couldn’t be that stupid” to which I reply, “and that answer is exactly why it will happen”. Well here we are again with Australia quite possibly totally failing to learn from their cousins overseas.

While I have you I want to raise one more issue that hadn’t really occurred to me until an enjoyable twitter conversation yesterday (click through to read the whole thread, well worth it I think)…

David Entwistle raises an intriguing question: does participation in the plebiscite (notwithstanding the fact that it will be compulsory) itself concede too much, i.e. the notion that government can define marriage? On the underlying presumption I actually agree with him, if the government were to end up legislating a change in the Marriage Act we would be faced with an enormous question of conscience since many of us simply cannot recognise a same-sex union as a marriage. Just because you change the law the fundamental underlying reality does not change; the voice of the people is not the voice of God when God has already spoken. Jesus has stated a clear word on the subject, which Christian would disagree? So should we therefore boycott the vote? It is a fairly attractive idea because, if you think about it, many of those who are going to vote “no” to a change really don’t believe that the government has the right to make the change in the first place. Are we not just shooting ourselves in the foot when we mark our ballot papers?

Such a move would, of course, lead to the plebiscite leading to a “yes” vote. But that’s often the outcome of principles, we maintain our integrity while we lose the vote. Is it just pragmatism to vote “no” even if our underlying principle and presumption is that the whole notion of the vote is wrong?

I don’t think so, because there’s another aspect of government that is actually fundamental to this whole issue; that of approval. At this point I’m going to argue we ought to be pragmatic on a principle! I don’t actually believe that it’s the government’s job to approve of love (and how can that be really done anyway), but it is their role to communicate approval and disapproval of actions more generally. This much is clear from the Scriptures:

Rom. 13:3-4 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.

Interesting. Paul does not write “do what is right and you will be left alone” but “and you will be commended” (so also 1Peter 2:14). There is a sense in which a government is there to tell us what is good and what is not, what is right and what is wrong. Again, on this we agree in part with the other side who, at times, appear desperate for legislated approval. We are often told that the government has no right to tell us who we can or cannot love. But of course at the moment any homosexual person is free to love whoever they want, that simply isn’t the question. The question is whether that relationship should be described as “marriage”. It’s not even a question of legal “rights” since those can be conferred by other means (such as endowing them in a recognised “civil union” (or whatever other term is used). What this is really all about, then, is a demand for state-mandated approval.

Which does rather line up with what the Apostles write, doesn’t it? I think that means that a Christian can, in good conscience, vote in the plebiscite if only on the basis that it’s about approval. Can we vote for the government giving what will be understood to be moral approval to something that we think is fundamentally immoral? I think we can vote “no” to that, even if we don’t think the government has the right to define marriage. Yes, that’s slightly pragmatic but it’s the pragmatic choice to fall back on another principle.

Whatever we decide to do, I think the events of this weekend have made it clear that we need to be involved in some way or another. With the question and it’s result so finely balanced there is a real need for proper and full public involvement. It’s hard to think of a more fundamental question to be addressed and perhaps the unique nature of our compulsory voting system in Australia may yet lead to an historic result. If we actually get a “no” to change from the electorate then I can only imagine the howls of outrage. They will make the post-Trump/Brexit protest seem tame in their arrogant dismissal of the mind of the people. And perhaps that is the greatest reason of all to vote “no” because the principles and presumptions involved actually go far beyond the question being asked.

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This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Glenno

    So the strayan publics can’t be trusted to vote on something. Leaving aside that the rhetoric is contradictory, namely that a majority of strayans supposedly want this thing yet will vote against it so they mustn’t vote, what else can we extend this magisterial oversight? Perhaps to the appointment of state governments? How about federal governments? We seem to botch that every few years. So let’s streamline the process and do away with it. Then we can be a leading people’s democracy without burdening the taxpayer with the cost of elections and without allowing this stupid voter to vote stupidly.

  2. Andrew Reid

    Hi David,
    I support the Biblical view of marriage but I oppose the plebiscite on the following grounds:
    – Australia has a system of parliamentary rather than direct democracy. I don’t agree that Murray’s article defeats this argument and have submitted a comment on his page to that effect. Essentially, referenda are completely different. They are binding polls on changing the consitution whereas plebiscites are non-binding polls on general policy.
    – We shouldn’t support a plebiscite just because we think it will fail, just as same sex marriage advocates shouldn’t oppose it for the same reason. We should support the right process whatever the outcome. Throughout Australia’s history, matters of conscience have been decided by a conscience vote in the parliament.
    – Both major parties went to the last election with a clear policy on same sex marriage. We had the opportunity to express our opinion at that election. Of course, we had to take all their policies into account, not just same sex marriage.

    1. David Ould

      Hi Andrew.
      I get the logic of your first two points. I don’t agree with the first, mainly because I hold a higher view of a plebiscite that you do. Personally, I think do think that this matter is so significant it ought to be a referendum but I understand why it’s not; it’s not currently an issue in the constitution.
      On the second point, I don’t think that those in support of the plebiscite do so because they think they’ll get a no vote. I certainly didn’t – I’ve supported it for a while now even while suspecting that the vote will be “yes”. Of course the weekend’s news is welcome.
      I’m not sure I understand your third point. The LNP policy was to hold a plebiscite. Didn’t we express our opinion on that?

      1. Andrew Reid

        Yes, on reflection my third point doesn’t make sense. People may have voted for the coalition in order to get a plebiscite. I was thinking back to the previous election where they had said there wouldn’t be same sex marriage.
        I don’t think it’s possible to argue for a plebiscite on this issue without arguing that other questions of conscience should also go to a plebiscite (e.g. stem cell research, euthanasia). If you want to argue that, that’s fine, but I point out that historically Australia has decided these questions by a conscience vote in the parliament. I agree with you that this issue is a few orders of magnitude bigger than IR reform or tax cuts, but I think our democracy functions better when political parties put out all their policies before an election and we vote based on that package. If their policy is to hold a plebiscite and they win, then fair enough.
        While you may support the plebiscite regardless of the outcome, I’m not sure that others do. Certainly in terms of the political context, most of those who oppose same sex marriage in the Federal parliament support the plebiscite as a delaying or confusing tactic rather than a genuine belief in the plebiscite. I haven’t heard church leaders support a plebiscite for other issues of conscience in the past.

  3. Costa K

    As someone nce said, “If you don’t get the leader you want, next time vote in a new population…”

  4. Ralph Horner

    Hi David, thanks for your article. I think you covered the issues very well. This is certainly an issue that we think alike on. I have noticed in recent months a much greater emphasis on labelling this issue ‘redefining marriage’ (which it really is). We have been bombarded for so long with the emotional term ‘marriage equality’ that I believe many people will vote yes simply because the idea of inequality has been raised in their minds (and to be ‘fair’ you always vote for the underdog – right!)

    I find it difficult to understand how a supposedly intelligent person (like A.C. Grayling) can be fooled into thinking this is a ‘human rights issue’. He has obviously bought into the false notion that some people are born homosexual and form a unique sub-group of humans. One of my concerns is, will this assumption colour the forming of the question asked in the plebiscite?

    The point that this issue is really a matter of reality versus opinion is, I think, the major one. One could say that we all live in delusion to the extent that we do not understand and live according to God’s way, but this is an instance of mandating delusion for an entire population. Redefining a word may be seen as a simple change – words change their meaning all the time – some words have done a 180 degree shift over time. This proposal however is presenting two uniquely different and opposing concepts (complementary-sex relationships and same-sex relationships) as the same or equal. It’s a contradiction and hence a delusion. The flow-on effect to other terms like husband and wife etc. is mind-boggling.

    I don’t know if you’ll agree with this but one of my ideas is that when God can’t get through to people with reason and common sense (I think that we’ve moved beyond the simple but effective ‘though shalt not’s’ of the OT – most people now want to know why), He permits this sort of foolishness so that those who hanker after it can experience first hand the results of their waywardness, realise that it is not bringing (and will never bring) them the happiness they thought it would, and make the personal choice to return to wisdom (God’s way). Jesus’ story of the ‘Prodigal Son’ would be an example of this.

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