Forever Hold Your Peace

By Satyajeet Marar

Why conservatives refusing to respect the public’s verdict on same sex marriage is unconservative.

Marriage equality, same-sex marriage, whatever you call it – chances are you’ve got an opinion and it’s strong. Labor, facing steadily dismal polling numbers in the lead-up to this year’s election, elected to change the former Labor government’s position on the issue.

This much has become clear. In a world where both parties and both sides of the issue claim to speak for the will and values of the people, it is best left to the actual will and values of the people. Leaving it politicised has turned it into a trophy contest for either side and both parties. This is an issue of conscience with long-term implications for society and ought to be decided as a contest of ideas and values and not based on the team that one is batting for, but rather the strength of either team’s arguments.

Tony Abbott, a staunch supporter of traditional marriage, recognised this as Prime Minister. He advocated for a decision by national plebiscite that the Turnbull government has agreed to take forward. He is supported by the Australian Christian Lobby who believe that “kicking the issue into the long grass” is the best way to resolve it, whereby a vote with the people’s authority would conclusively blunt the momentum of the marriage equality movement.

Which is why it being strange to hear comments from conservative senators Eric Abetz and Cory Bernardi that they would vote on the issue their way regardless of a plebiscite’s result. Their stance makes some sense, after all these are men of strong convictions with loyal conservative support bases expected to be on the dissenting side of a hypothetically successful plebiscite. They wouldn’t go down without a fight. But is this the right way to fight it?

A plebiscite would cost the nation 160 million dollars. It would leave open to the public, both engaged and as yet disengaged individuals, to be convinced or moved by either side. It would raise questions about the meaning of rights, the family and marriage as an institution for every Australian. But to be practically effective or meaningful, the contest must produce an effective result. It must send the message that our parliament respects and reflects the people’s will and not their own or those of niche interests alone.

The current stance of the senators does not reflect this and more importantly, would mean that the $160 million would effectively be a waste – an expenditure easily avoided by taking the issue to a parliamentarian conscience vote. A costly waste given the right wing’s criticism of irresponsible public spending and the need to set an example that our government is committed to ensuring fruitful rather than wasteful expense.

The battle of ideas will be the true test for both sides, allowing as much objectivity as practicable in a debate that has provoked strong emotions. For a side to convince the people and to claim to speak for them, albeit under the premise that their decision does not matter either way, is self-defeating and unpersuasive. I would urge all conservatives of parliament to adopt Tony Abbott’s stance and to fight the battle to win over the people, and not merely the politics.

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