On the Plebiscite: Beyond Defeatism, Moralism and the Politics of Scarcity

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Photo: Curve Mag

Australia recently joined the international push to remove discrimination of same-sex relationships in its marriage law. A 13-year campaign for marriage equality culminated in the current Coalition government (an alliance between The Nationals, a right-wing conservative agricultural/regional party, and the neoliberal Liberal Party) backing a voluntary, non-binding postal plebiscite. Plebiscites are used to gauge public opinion on issues that do not affect the constitution. To a frustrated population, this looked like a stalling tactic to halt momentum in the campaign, driven by the conservatives in government. Less confidently identified, was that the plebiscite emerged from a destabilising and ongoing tension within the Liberal Party’s ranks, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s ‘moderates’ desperate for a win to sure up his unstable leadership.

The opposition Australian Labor Party (ALP), a traditional social democratic party with a decades-long embrace of economic rationalism, focused on exposing the Coalition’s divisions, opposing the plebiscite from the outset as expensive and divisive. Unfortunately, this defensive position was largely adopted by the Yes campaign and as such, it failed to place any pressure on the ALP’s short-term opportunism. After a slow start out of the gates, the Yes campaign was successful with 7.8 million votes (61.6% of all responses) over the No’s 4.9 million (38.4%)— a result that reflected approximately the same support demonstrated in years of polling on the issue.

To build a strong and independent movement for political, economic and social change, progressives must become serious about organisational strategies and the outcomes reached of organising efforts. Australia’s marriage equality campaign is a good start as the first long-term campaign to break our people-moving malaise, reaching the national agenda. While we need to celebrate wins, in the spirit of owning our strategies we must recognise organisational efforts also fell short.

This piece considers what happened when Australia’s marriage equality campaign breached mainstream political debate and how it emerged out of the national plebiscite. It considers what the plebiscite revealed about the state of independent organisation and its ideas base in Australia. It considers (1) how an anti-plebiscite position was a compromised one, and reflected a lack of confidence in mobilising people, particularly youth who were transformed from protagonists to victims throughout the campaign; (2) the dominant role played by a politics of scarcity (i.e. in a time with finite resources, the plebiscite should be opposed because it is expensive); and (3) how the campaign sparked some positive developments in union organisation.

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