Can equality ever be attained through popular polling? Jean Kite Taylor looks at why a postal vote was the wrong way to advance same-sex marriage in Australia.
Several years ago, when New Zealand was debating a bill to allow same-sex civil unions, I was part of a group of students who lobbied for the law change.
I spoke on behalf of the group to a select committee; not about how I felt it was right, but about my personal story. I talked about my mother and her female partner, who had lived with me since I was a child and helped raise me. I also spoke about how this woman I recognised as a parent was not afforded the same status and recognition as a male partner of my mother.
While I waited my turn, I listened to others speak about the terrible consequences for the children of same-sex couples. How children from homes like mine grow up damaged and emotionally scarred. When I got up to speak I talked about the loving, nurturing home I grew up in and the well-rounded adult I had become.
Pride before prejudice
The comments I heard that day were cruel and shocking but symptomatic of the conservatism that rippled through the debate in New Zealand. Unfounded fear and prejudice from a vocal minority captured media attention. I am not convinced that, had there been a referendum, the Civil Union Bill would have passed.
Equality should never be subject to popular vote. Major human rights issues such as the abolition of the death penalty and indigenous rights have never been progressed this way.
Thankfully, in New Zealand, the decision was not made by the masses. The Bill was passed by elected members of parliament. These are people we rely on to make decisions that put the interest of a fair and equal society above the interests of a comfortable majority.
The same is not true in Australia. There, despite pressure to have a free vote, the Government chose to conduct a divisive postal survey, the results of which are due this week.
Equality at the mercy of public opinion
Marriage equality advocates were fearful a plebiscite would give a platform for hate speech. They warned that LGBTI activists would be targeted during the campaign and vulnerable people would be at risk.
Their fears were well-founded. The eight-week campaign saw families divided and a spike in people accessing mental health services. For many in the LGBTI community, it has opened old wounds and shone an intrusive spotlight on their private lives. Many feel it was unfair, unjust and completely unnecessary. Especially when popular polls have shown for years that most Australians are in favour of marriage equality.
Love is a human right
Marriage is fundamental human right, protected in the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Australia is currently out of step with many Western nations by dragging its heels on this issue.
When votes are counted this week it looks likely the “Yes” campaign will succeed. But there are concerns the Bill to enact the decision is going to be challenged. This could allow for further discrimination and prejudice.
It is time for the Australian Government set aside concern for electoral cycles and popularity and pass legislation that protects and enhances the rights of all LGBTI individuals, families and young people.
By Jean Kite Taylor – Jean is Kiwi copywriter and busy mum of two young girls. As well as writing, blogging and toddler-wrangling she teaches adults and helps out at her local Playcentre.