Is Australia mature enough for a plebiscite on same sex marriage?

Many of my Christian friends are insisting the Australian parliament go ahead with a proposed plebiscite on same-sex marriage.  

But is Australia really mature enough for a plebiscite on this matter?

This week the Mercure hotel at Sydney Airport was forced to cancel an event arranged by the Australian Christian Lobby due to threats being made against their staff by pro same-sex marriage advocates.

A gay lobby group waged a ferocious social media campaign against the Accor Hotel Group (owner of the Sydney Airport Mercure), which, according to some reports included making phone threats against hotel staff.

On the other hand, News Corp recently published an article titled, “Why I don’t have faith in Australians ahead of the same-sex marriage plebiscite,” in which the author reports on a conversation with a woman at an anti-same sex marriage rally who referred to intersex people as “abortions of Satan” sent to confuse “good Christians”.

While at a rally in support of the Safe Schools Program, the same author was accused of “protecting paedos” and called “scum”.

If this is this the kind of “debate” we’re going to get during the campaign leading up to a plebiscite I’m not sure I’m ready for it.

And before you say these are just extreme examples, have you ever followed the snarky and condescending Twitter feed scrolling across the screen during the ABC’s Q&A program?

Face it, Australians fight dirty.


My mature, kind-hearted Christian friends might think we’re all capable of a respectful, measured discussion, and that the Australian public will carefully weigh the facts before making their decision. But that’s because they think all Aussies are mature and kind-hearted like them.

Clearly, we’re not.

The criticism of the plebiscite by some is that it’s just a really expensive opinion poll, but I’d be happy if it was just an opinion poll. It’s the $15 million information campaign that scares me.

I’m inclined to agree with former High Court justice Michael Kirby when he says, “This is going to be, if it goes ahead … running out the old issues of hatreds and animosities, abominations and all the old arguments against gay people”.

But I’d add, “and Christians.”

Are Australians capable of debating this matter without descending into a cruel and divisive fight about intensely personal matters like people’s religious views and their sexuality? I very much doubt it.



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30 thoughts on “Is Australia mature enough for a plebiscite on same sex marriage?

  1. I totally agree.
    I’m continually dismayed at our apparent lack of grace and inability to come together with an attitude of mutual respect. Of all people, surely Christ’s followers are the ones who could manage this.
    I think it’s a symptom of our theology, which has been fed by a liturgy that focuses primarily on our guilt before a Holy God and need for redemption (an important aspect of Christianity to be sure) but neglects our responsibility and necessity as followers of Christ to be grace filled and hospitable, lovers of mercy, full of humility etc.
    I think it was Hauerwas who noted, “Bad liturgy leads to bad theology” and that is never more true than now. Our neglect of these liturgical necessities – necessities because they remind us of our common humanity, and hopefully of the image of God in others – has allowed many in the church to accept a fear based view of the other and a ‘justified’ arrogance in our “right position”. As soon as we can demonise those we don’t agree with, we’ll easily justify any response to their position.
    I pray that there are at least a few Christ followers who manage to exemplify the way of mercy and grace.
    Ps – you’ve most likely seen this, but a bit of Wendell never goes astray.

    1. Always love a little Wendell.

  2. I think the Americans fight dirtier. The capacity for civil discourse has all but disappeared.

    1. Maybe we’re all as bad as each other on matters like religion, politics and sex.

      1. Hi Mike. Thanks for an excellent article. While I favour a plebiscite I agree wholeheartedly with you about the fact that we as a society have lost our capacity to discuss and debate important issues in a civil and respectful way. This has concerned me for some time, especially in the life of the church. I remember playing devil’s advocate on an issue in my church one evening (the folks knew my real position) but one lady just could not cope-basically she branded me as unbiblical and dishonouring God. I can cope with that-what I don’t like is the way Christians quickly resort to thes sorts of tactics the minute an idea we don’t like is presented to us. I know I have been guilty of it myself in the past but the journey for me has been one of learning to love people more deeply and well-even the ones we violently disagree with. Thanks again for a thoughtful post.

      2. Original sin knows no boundaries. Conversations like Deb leads on this are streams in the desert

  3. So forgive a Canadian for butting in. But our Parliament to its eternal credit dealt with this.
    I wonder about the wisdom of submitting a minority rights issue to a majority vote. If that’s the case then what other minority rights could be decided in this manner? Is this a precedent that should be set?

    1. You’re dead right, Christopher. Constitutional lawyers are arguing it’s a very dangerous precedent. It’s come about because our conservative government is deeply divided on the issue and the Prime Minister is afraid to split his party over it.

      1. Interesting. It was a Conservative Majority government that passed this with the support of the other parties. They were clear that they were fiscal conservatives and not social conservatives. Mind you the issue of a revised sex ed curriculum continues to be an issue here in Ontario.

  4. One of the reasons both ‘sides’ are ugly, is that they both see themselves as marginalised, wounded ‘victims’ in the narrative. That allows them to be defensive and harsh because they are defending themselves and their friends. What should counteract that, for us Jesus-followers, at least?

    1. Great question, Naomi. Everyone is operating out of fear, but the real fears are rarely articulated in the public ‘discussion’.

  5. The ACL represent only a small proportion of Christians. Many, many Christians don’t want a plebicite for just reasons you are talking about. Also, it is not necessary and a huge unnecessary expenditure of public moneys.

  6. Great article. Thank you.
    I have a feeling that the folks included to vent their opinion on the subject will generally be those who are a little more inclined to believe that their view the the correct one and any others are evil or bigoted. (Both sides I mean). I don’t know if it’s the media, social media of if it’s always been the case but it feels like we now have permission to attack rather than discuss, to judge rather than understand and to hate rather than love. As I understand it the definition was changed by parliament so it probably stands to reason that it can be changed again. Whatever the case I’m not sure the question is Dan Australia have the debate so much as can those with a set position be willing to change. Dunno.

  7. Thank you for this well framed article, balance & honest. Came across this somewhat similar article in The Australian. How do we move forward as a diverse culture with dignity & respect while being allowed to speak from differing points of view?

  8. If we always shy away from tough debates because they may get dirty, will we ever get better as a society at debating maturely?
    How do we promote maturity among the populace?
    I don’t know, but a plebiscite doesn’t seem like such a bad thing to me. An appeal from leaders and pollies from all points of view to show respect and play the ball rather than the ‘man’ would help.
    I think that would be better than saying ‘people might commit suicide’ – the power of suggestion is real, unfortunately.

  9. Love your work Mike, thanks for adding your thoughts to the public discourse.

    A couple of questions (both for you and others):

    – Is public debate really more ferocious than it’s been in the past? If so, what has caused this? If not, why do some feel it has? My guess is it’s mostly our rose-coloured view of past society that leads us to this conclusion. Obviously the debate in the online, anonymous world is brutal…

    – Isn’t the debate happening now, regardless of whether we end up having a plebicite? I don’t think anyone is going to say anything that hasn’t already been said.

    – Why can’t people on both sides of the debate cope with a little questioning of their beliefs? Too often we isolate ourselves in communities that reinforce our own beliefs without letting them be questioned.

    However, I’m certainly not suggesting a plebiscite is a necessary part of any of this. It is clearly a political solution to a political problem.

  10. Thanks for the article. I really want Malcolm Turnbull to simply put marriage equality to a free vote in Parliament. I was a Baptist Pastor and GiA missionary, but I am gay, medically proven in my case. I was put through electronic shock therapy organized by the President of the Baptist Union. It didn’t work but the Dr who did it in Sydney confirmed it did prove I was born gay. I was told I was not welcome to turn up for a working bee, be in the cleaning roster or to help take up the offering. I was also told I was a & a p..ft.r who was not welcome to even attend church. Another Baptist Pastor also said I needed to repent just for being gay.

    I saw that Dr who was President of BUQ for 16 years and paid him a fortune. The entire medical profession declassified homosexuality as an illness 44 years ago this year, and that period covered the entire 16 years I saw that President of BUQ. Not happy! So he put me through very intense physical pain as a “legitimate” expression of his own homophobia. (Happy to explain the proof if you want).

    I am still married to my wife after 45 years. But that is a long time to pretend to be someone I am not. God created me gay and I am now proud of it. But the Baptist Church no longer forms any part of my life, and that is permanent. Enough is enough.

    Are we capable of having a civil debate on the issue of same sex marriage? No way!

    I strongly support same sex marriage because loving committed monogamous marriage for life is not condemned in Scripture anywhere. Celibacy is not mandated in scripture anywhere.
    Please take time to get to know us as gay Christians. You will find that the same Lord who you love and serve can also be found in us.

    1. Ron reading what you went through breaks my heart and I am typing this reply with tears streaming down my face. Although not as extreme as what you have been through, brother, I hear and feel the pain of this total rejection from my past. It meant I lived full of shame at who I was until very recently. Im almost 40. And my heart cries for those who are still living in shame of whk they are, and angry at how we have been treated. Much love from a sister.

  11. I totally agree as they have been my sediments and within the Christian church there so much diversity exist that all are claiming they are right and you are wrong. How can the church offered advice when there are these tension exist within the Christian community?
    I believe it is far easier not to be a Christian than secular in voicing ones vote. To be secular the answer is yes but to be Christian with assurance of the Scripture is correct in its translation from original language, one does depend on the Church for guidance but when diversity of theological thought amongst biblical academics and religious practitioners. How can the Church move forward?

  12. I agree we do not generally know how to do conflict well interpersonally or as a society. Conflict is regarded as aggressive and an attack rather than a normal part of exploring and seeking to resolve issues with each other.

  13. I have no idea if Australia is mature enough as I have never been there but much of what you have written here resonates with our experience in Ireland. Last year we became the first country to introduce same-sex marriage via popular vote. I was running a project bringing evangelical leaders and LGBT Christians into dialogue which ran across the time of our referendum. There is loads I could write about that time but some things stand out:
    1) The reason the campaign was awful (and why many Irish activists are currently in Australia advocating against a plebiscite) was not so much to do with a lack of civility as it was to do with a complete failure to acknowledge an intention-impact gap in what was being communicated. Pretty much every attempt to communicate on the referendum by Christians centred on talking about rather than with the LGBTI community. The concept that LGBTI Christians would be part of the New Testament “one-anothering” that might engender a healthy debate never entered the radar of leaders. The idea that passing tens of posters (we love our lamp-post referendum poster in Ireland) on your way to work each day that question whether you are an appropriate presence to children rarely struck Christian leaders as being out of place. Facebook shares were one of the biggest culprits as seemingly intelligent articles were posted with little concern for the reader. It was excarnation in action. We have a law that says that all media communication has to be balanced during a referendum campaign. But this information level ground was and is not matched by a social level ground that impacts evenly. Essentially the referendum campaign gave a new public platform for straight privilege which both exposed and accentuated it.
    2) The final days leading up to the vote were intense and exhausting. In the week leading up to the referendum churches started to hold “discussion evenings” (that almost never featured LGBTI Christians – power remained at the centre) and emails started to be circulated calling for a No vote. Members of the LGBTI community who had not been in contact with Christian friends for decades, through any medium, suddenly received these emails that stated their relationships were threatening the health of our nation.
    3) The days immediately following the vote also carried importance. We voted on a Friday and the result was on a Saturday. On Sunday there were stories (albeit rare) of Christians being asked to stand in church if they voted Yes. While some churches had not called on their members to vote No (acknowledging that some would vote Yes), the consistent report from morning services was that the atmosphere was funereal as some level of public mourning occured. Meanwhile those who wished to rejoice with those who were rejoicing would find no space to do so. In the weeks that followed, life went on. The sky didn’t fall in and gay couples got married. Having raised thier heads briefly, Christians returned to their positions on sexuality that are largely marked by silence and fear. Did Christians voting No also experience hostility? Well maybe a little but the official Yes campaign were ruthless in stamping it out when they could. They knew that such hostility would quickly lose them votes. In addition after the vote the most high profile Yes campaigner was asked what they would say to the 39% who voted No. The reply was sincere as they acknowledged that they too were part of the future of our country. There was no gloating or boasting, all the energy of Yes supporters was used up on relief and joy. I came across this quote by Mary Clare recently. It sums up so much of what I remember from that time:
    “Good intentions reside at the intersection of privilege and sincere concern for human well-being. I have good intentions. You have them, too. And we who are most fortunate have the option of walking away. We don’t walk away – not always but we can, and that makes the intentions quite distinct from having no option but to be on the receiving end of disrespect and unfairness. Privilege makes it possible to not to see the oppression in our practices… and when we do see them, we have the option of acting as if we don’t. Those of us who do not walk away have known our own measure of being on the receiving end of injustice. Still we can walk away and that is our privilege. “

    1. Thank you for your comment. That is so instructive. It’s often touted here in Australia by Christian leaders that the Irish experience was a largely positive one. I really appreciate your more informed view on this. And that final quote… wow.

  14. Thanks Mike. Very helpful. I agree. The one point I can’t get past is JWH made the changes through parliament why cant’t we have a free vote by parliament again by our elected representatives.

  15. Bring it on, I say. The view you put forth is considered and reasonable; it’s also very Anglo-centric. That is, we have a propensity to be nice and well-mannered publicly. In other cultures robust, even angry, discussion and debate is the norm.
    I would also note the ministry of the prophets and Christ in the Bible: hardly examples of avoidance of making waves or softening discourse in order not to offend.
    Unfortunately wariness of “offence” has become the primary prism through which we communicate now socially, and it is regressing us into infantile imbeciles unable to speak with conviction, truth and passion.
    Sure, the plebiscite process will bring out fringe and unsavoury elements on both sides, but so what? As the old Hebrew proverb puts it: “Better open rebuke than hidden love.” Who knows, maybe we will be drawn closer and grow deeper through difficult and edgy engagement. We can be sure that silence and acquiescence wont tear us apart, but we will remain distant, aloof and in our safe tribal zones. Take the risk, bring it on.

    1. I agree, except this plebiscite is non-binding. If we vote, then politicians do what they would have anyway, what is the point of the public vote? Shouldn’t the politicians just vote without us voting?

      Regardless of which way the public vote goes, Turnbull, Shorton & Di Natale will all vote in favour of gay marriage.

    2. “Sure, the plebiscite process will bring out fringe and unsavoury elements on both sides, but so what?” SO WHAT?? Imagine being a young Christian who’s struggling with their sexual identity? Or what about those LGBTQI Christians who are trying to remain engaged in their churches? Nicolas, this isn’t a debate about some obtuse doctrine or some difference of opinion on our political priorities. we’re talking about people’s identities! “SO WHAT??” How could you be so insensitive?

      1. I agree my comment was written in haste and on reflection is insensitive. For the record, I care deeply that LGBTQI people are not vilified or hurt through any debate on this issue. I will never support or condone language or behaviour that would do so.
        My point in the midst of my insensitivity is that I believe adults, both LGBTQI and those with trad/classical views on marriage, can and should openly discuss and debate this issue. We could grow closer together as we seek to understand the other. Again, no public debate will guarantee no one will be hurt; but it will also deny us the opportunity to seek to understand and listen to each other- a prospect that could deepen trust and build bridges.

        1. You made an insensitive off-the-cuff comment (which you apologized for, I acknowledge) and then you tell me you think we’re capable of having a sensitive, measured debate. Can you see how you’re proving the opposite of what you’re saying? If even in small off-the-cuff comments people can’t help but be insensitive what would a national debate look like. I shudder to imagine.

          1. And yet Mike, Nick Tuohy may have just learned and grown through this conversation and now be more sensitive in the conversation going forward. Don’t we have to go through this ‘tunnel of chaos’ sooner or later?
            Should we pass up an opportunity to show grace and humility and gain understanding because there is a risk of the opposite?

  16. I see your point, Lucas. And if I had more confidence that Australians could take this on as “an opportunity to show grace and humility and gain understanding” (a noble goal, indeed) I’d be cheering it on. But as I mention in the blog post, I have serious doubts. And fragile people (both Christians, the LGBTQI community and LGBTQI Christians) will be the collateral damage.

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