Thursday, November 30, 2017

A tale of two plebiscites

A couple of weeks ago Australia held a plebiscite on whether the laws of the country should be changed to allow same sex couples to be legally married.

It was a venture into the unknown for two reasons: Voting papers were delivered by mail, rather than people turning up at a polling station, and there was no compulsion to return the papers (voting in general elections and referendums has been compulsory in Australia since 1924).

Even so, almost 80 per cent of the electorate duly returned their ballots with the result being 61.6 per cent in favour of the marriage law change and 38.4 per cent against.

By any description this was a landslide, and ‘Yes’ supporters were celebrating well into the night.

But at that point, the vote had changed nothing.

The result was advisory. It is up to Parliament to pass the legislation that enables the will of the people. This it has set about doing.

However, the emphasis has now switched to how far the views and rights of the more than one third of people who voted ‘No’ should be respected and protected.

Under debate are exemptions for religious bodies that to not want to vary from their long-held rituals and traditions; whether marriage celebrants should be able to refuse a same sex couple if they feel it compromises their beliefs.

Even whether businesses can legally refuse to provide services (such as making a wedding cake) for a same sex ceremony.  

These and other questions are before the House of Representatives, with legislation expected before Christmas, but the point is the minority is being considered and where possible, accommodated.

Contrast this with last year’s United Kingdom referendum to leave the European Union, which got up by a margin of 51.9 per cent to 48.1 per cent on a 72.2 per cent turnout.

This was no landslide. The margin for Brexit was paper thin, and yet what attempt has there been to even consider the concerns of this substantial minority, some of whom fear losing the right to do business, or pursue careers, to live or travel freely within Europe that they once took for granted?

What has occurred since has been an endless round of triumphalism on the part of the victors, urged on by jingoistic declarations in the largely foreign-owned press.

People who expressed their concerns or who dared to suggest the vote was close enough to warrant a second referendum when the full consequences of leaving the EU where known, have been labelled unpatriotic, even traitors.

The prevailing attitude has been – you lost get used to it. Civilised debate, even over issues which have surfaced since the referendum, is simply shouted down.

When an attempt to railroad Brexit through without Parliamentary oversight was overturned in the High Court, the judges were labelled “enemies of the people” in one especially rabid pro-Brexit newspaper.

The fact that two areas of the United Kingdom — Scotland and Northern Ireland (and let’s not forget little Gibraltar) — voted solidly to remain in the EU have been ignored, even reviled.

In the Britain of Theresa May and David Davis the voters of Boston and Castle Point are what matter. Bathgate and Ballymena can go hang.

The prevailing wisdom in Australia is that we inherited our traditions of fairness and equality from the Mother Country and for that we should be grateful.

If it was ever the case then in the 21st century the pupil has far outstripped the master.       

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