Malcolm Turnbull’s shilly-shallying before deciding to go ahead with the gay “marriage” plebiscite is what we have come to expect from a prime minister whose bumbling, if it continues, will soon deserve the epithet Gillardian, but worse than that it was anti-democratic. We need more plebiscites and referendums, not fewer.
Democracy, said Winston Churchill in 1947, is the worst form of government except for all the others. Leftists and other authoritarians tend not to like it because it gets in the way of their social engineering schemes and “world action” on climate change. But the real problem with democracy has always been how to include the entire demos. We can’t all fit into parliament.
It was hard enough in the Greek city-states. When Anglosphere democracy evolved in the thirteenth century it was still only democracy of a sort. The propertied classes sent one of their number to London to represent their interests in a leisurely sort of way, not minding much whether he lined his own pockets in the process. The unpropertied didn’t get a say until Australia led the way in the nineteenth century, but the enfranchisement of the whole adult population was not universal even here until 1962. Yet still now, under what the Soviets used to sneer at as our “two-party dictatorship”, not every voter who cares about an issue will necessarily have his opinions represented in parliament. Until recently there was nothing that could be done about that. Democracy was imperfect. But now we do have a way.
The difficulty with referendums and plebiscites in the past has been that they were cumbersome to organise and costly to implement. Information technology shows that they need no longer be. With social media you know overnight what large numbers of people think on any public issue, without the taxpayer spending a cent. Is it beyond the wit of man to adapt this technology to the process of voting in a referendum? In a sense a start has already been made with the collection of census information online. That this was hardly a spectacular success is no refutation of the principle.
But aren’t decisions on national or state policy what we elect parliaments to take? Of course they are, and it would be chaotic to delegate all the minutiae of decision-making to a technological public consultation. But referendums and plebiscites have traditionally been reserved for issues of such moment that elected representatives themselves feel that the whole electorate should make a decision, not they alone as its delegates. Conscription, the republic, constitutional change and now something as fundamental to civilisation as the nature and definition of marriage - these are decisions not for MPs who are here today and will be gone tomorrow but for the whole nation that will have to live with the consequences.
The nation is not only people who are interested in politics. Here is another flaw in parliamentary democracy. People elected to parliament tend to be people who like playing politics. They like the sound of their own voice, they were good at debating at school and in university political clubs, they enjoyed the scheming and intrigue of backroom union and party deals, of jockeying for influence and power, of pushing themselves ahead. Naturally, they do it with the noblest of motives and probably persuade themselves that their ascent to parliament is an unalloyed benefit bestowed on their fellow-citizens. But they are interested in politics, as people are interested in stamps or the novels of Jane Austen; politics with a large or small p is their pastime in a way that it is not for the vast majority they aspire to represent.
Generally, this majority can live or put up with, even be unaware of, the decisions taken in parliament by the politicophiles. But certain issues will affect them more than others and it is to decide on these that true democracy demands that the unpoliticised should be roused from their indifference. Referendums and plebiscites take the temperature of a nation in a way that transcends party politics.
The fact that there is such strident opposition to the same-sex marriage plebiscite from one side confirms the democratic desirability of going ahead with it. The gay and lesbian lobby wants to deny a voice to anyone who disagrees. The plebiscite will give them one. This is essential because the Left-liberal media, which increasingly means the commercial media and not just Fairfax and the ABC, don’t give much space to the arguments against same-sex marriage, choosing instead to babble on about equality and justice. They were just as unashamedly one-sided before the republic referendum, cheering for a republic as though there were no intellectually respectable arguments against one. It turned out that the nation at large, whose opinion would never have been known without a referendum, thought differently.
The real reason for opposition to the plebiscite is that the proponents of gay marriage fear they will lose it. All the talk about the pre-plebiscite campaign becoming a forum for “hate speech” and of adolescent gays committing suicide because of the shocking things they will hear said about themselves by the “No” campaign is humbug. Judging by public and social-media utterances already made, the really vile nasty things will be said by gay-marriage supporters about their opponents.
A second reason gay-marriage activists oppose the plebiscite is because they know it would be much less troublesome to have the change enacted in parliament. They could easily have the legislation rammed through on a conscience vote by browbeating wavering MPs and threatening to denounce them as “homophobic” or worse. Even middle-of-the-road Coalition MPs are sensitive to that sort of accusation. But put the decision to the whole nation and the outcome is less certain. Anecdotal evidence suggests the proposal will pass, but that’s no guarantee. Anecdotal evidence convinced David Cameron that Britain would vote to stay in the European Union, otherwise he wouldn’t have called the referendum; no serious commentator expected the Leave side to win, neither did the polls. It could be the same with gay marriage. The same-sexers’ worst fears about the plebiscite might actually be confirmed.
Of course a “No” vote would be received with the usual ill grace but at least the plebiscite is to be held. It is in the interests of widening participation in democracy that it should be. Having at last taken one contentious decision, the federal government might now invest some time and effort into working out how the nation as a whole can be given a say, efficiently and cheaply, on a wider range of divisive issues.
17 September 2016
Published in The Spectator Australia