Three things the 1967 Referendum tells us about a potential same-sex marriage plebiscite

It seems that the vast majority of Australian progressive opinion is against a plebiscite on same-sex marriage. It will be divisive, costly and give conservative forces like the Australian Christian Lobby and its handful of parliamentary backers significantly more air than they deserve. Many campaigners would have the government simply pass the changes through parliament, and avoid this mess.

And these are all legitimate concerns. Last week we saw the release of a pretty terrible little leaflet backed by a former Howard government MP, claiming amongst other things that it would be an infringement of Human Rights (that old chestnut) to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry. It is clear that opponents will rely on anything they can, and get whatever airtime they might be able to muster, to mount their poorly thought through ‘no’ campaign.

But, as a historian, this has gotten me thinking about 1967, when a similarly symbolic political decision was put to the Australian people. The 1967 referendum, as it is now popularly known, removed two discriminatory clauses from the Australian constitution: allowing for aboriginal people to be counted in the census, and for the federal government to make laws concerning Aboriginal people.

First off, I know that a plebiscite and a referendum are not the same thing. A referendum is binding, a plebiscite is not, alongside many other subtle differences. But the overall experience of either is the same – the Australian people are asked to make a decision on something of national importance. And, as such, I feel that there is reason to look back at the outcomes of 1967 and see if it can provide any insights.

  1. Symbolic changes muster widespread support

One of the key concerns around the holding of a plebiscite is that it will open a hell mouth of prejudice. It is interesting to note, however, that the 1967 referendum actual encountered very little opposition. Melbourne’s The Age could easily have been talking about same sex marriage when it described the 1967 referendum’s proposed changes as a “simple matter of humanity…[and] a test of Australia’s standing in the world.” And it is clear that all the mouthpieces of mainstream opinion will support the ‘yes’ case this time – even Murdoch’s Australian is now backing marriage equality.

So, the ACL and other anti-marriage equality forces will have to rely on their own steam to get their hateful message out. But, even as an organisation, they are actually significantly weaker than many progressives would like to admit. It’s hard to think of a policy they have actually influenced, and their views are very far away from those of actual Christians (a majority of whom now support same-sex marriage, as Charlie Pickering’s anti-plebiscite tirade noted last night).

  1. There isn’t much power in symbolism…

A second way the 1967 referendum shines light on a potential gay marriage plebiscite – or the granting of same sex marriage rights in general – speaks to the power (or lack thereof) of symbolic change at the level of law, act or decree. The 1967 referendum came about after significant work by groups like the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) which one voting and other ‘citizenship’ rights in Australian federal and state jurisdictions throughout the early-mid 1960s.

The referendum itself – contrary to popular remembrance – only consolidated pre-existing gains. As will the eventual (and inevitable) passage of same sex marriage laws, with many of the key rights that go along with marriage already available to same sex couples, owing to decades of activism.

Equally, what little substantive change the referendum brought about was very slowly uptaken by government. It took the election of the Whitlam Labor government in 1972 – five and a half years after the referendum’s passage – for the federal government to take seriously its mandate to make significant federal policy on aboriginal Australians. Much like with this proposed plebiscite, the government didn’t act until it was forced to.

  1. …but it might clear the way for something better

And I do think that this is an important point. It is activism on the streets – not through the government, or legal system – which has always created change. Indeed, it was the disappointment and frustration with the ineffectiveness of the 1967 referendum that led to a new generation of aboriginal activists – Paul Coe, Bobbie Sykes and Gary Foley amongst many others – to look to the United States and Africa for ideas of ‘black power’ which went beyond a liberal desire for piecemeal change. It was the very failure of 1967 and the concurrent upsurge in militant activism, including most famously the Tent Embassy in Canberra, which put Aboriginal rights high on Whitlam’s agenda.

As has been correctly pointed out by many commentators, there is nothing binding the government to do anything about a plebiscite – although it is worth noting that the famous WWI plebiscites that defeated conscription were adhered to by the conservative government, as was the only other plebiscite in Australian history (1977). Much as with the aftermath of the 1967 referendum, it is militant activism and debate which is going to make same sex marriage a practical reality. The plebiscite will add a popular mandate that a decision at the legislative level will not, but equally the process of convincing recalcitrant individuals, churches and conservative organisations will be ongoing – this could be described as the difference between a political and a social shift.

Equally, broader issues facing the LGBTIQ community – high rates of suicide, workplace and school discrimination and bullying alongside so many others – will not be addressed by the passing of marriage equality. Much like the aftermath of the 1967 referendum, the full constellation of continuing oppression will require continued and enlivened struggle by activists, such as those supporting the Safe Schools program, who see beyond the power of symbolism.

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