COVER STORY Shorten takes low road to defeat marriage plebiscite
by Peter Westmore
News Weekly, September 24, 2016
In the first week of Federal Parliament, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten introduced his own bill for a federal parliamentary vote on same-sex marriage, to defeat the Government’s promised plebiscite, which would engage the entire adult population.
The Shorten bill, if adopted by Parliament, would amend the Marriage Act, “to allow couples to marry, and to have their marriages recognised, regardless of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.”
The Shorten bill therefore goes far beyond an attempt to assist homosexual and lesbian couples to marry: it is specifically aimed at legalising intersex and transgender marriages. No wonder the detail of what he is proposing has been so completely hidden!
Shorten digs in.
And no wonder he does not want the people of Australia to vote on this proposition, instead restricting the vote on this important question to Members of Parliament.
Of equal concern is the argument he is using to justify his position: the assertion that a community debate about marriage will cause suicides among vulnerable young people.
If this were the case, one would expect that when the Marriage Act was amended in 2004, there would have been an upsurge in suicides. In fact, there was no such thing.
Since then, supporters of same-sex marriage have repeatedly raised the issue in public debate. For years, there have been debates at ALP conferences, in state and federal parliaments, and throughout the media.
There has never been any link drawn between these debates and suicide. Now, however, Mr Shorten tells us that a plebiscite on marriage will cause an upsurge in suicides.
It is now a well-known fact that public discussion of suicide causes vulnerable people to consider it as a way out of their difficulties. For this reason, the media rarely if ever reports on suicide attempts, regardless of their outcomes. In order to minimise the psychological trauma suffered by vulnerable people, television programs or news reports dealing with trauma usually add a notice to advise people adversely affected to seek professional advice from one of the agencies established to help affected people.
Mr Shorten’s reckless assertion that a public debate on marriage will cause suicide is going to do exactly what Mr Shorten claims he wants to avert.
Mr Shorten’s tactics are even more obnoxious. He has described those who want to uphold the definition of marriage as “haters and homophobes”, and blames them for the anticipated upsurge of suicides!
In other words, for utterly opportunistic purposes he has claimed that a debate on marriage will cause vulnerable young people to contemplate suicide, to justify his demand for a parliamentary vote. He then blames his opponents as the causes of suicides that his own words have encouraged.
Mr Shorten’s tactics are cynical and recklessly irresponsible, and he should be held to account for them.
At a church service for the opening of the new parliamentary session in Canberra, an Anglican priest raised this very issue with the Opposition Leader. The Rev Ian Powell approached Mr Shorten after the traditional church service to mark the opening of Parliament.
He said: “You described people who weren’t in favour of changing the definition of marriage as ‘haters who come out from under rocks’. Can I ask you not to speak like that? Because I know lots of people like that,” the Canberra priest told Mr Shorten.
“Please don’t speak like that about other Australians, so we can have a civil and tolerant discussion rather than the hate that’s been coming.”
Mr Shorten merely responded that Rev Powell should quote him accurately.
Deplorable as Shorten’s remarks are, they are not original.
They mirror the comments of leading gay activist Rodney Croome, who urged parliamentarians, in The Guardian, “to consider how they will feel when the first gay teen dies because of the hate they voted to unleash”.
As Joe Carolan from the Australian Family Association has pointed out: “This is emotional blackmail pure and simple; but what is even more concerning is the exceptionally dangerous message that he is sending to vulnerable young people. It is effectively a call for martyrs.”
In The Guardian on August 2, Croome made clear that he believed that the government could by shamed into having a parliamentary vote. He said: “I genuinely believe a plebiscite can be stopped and marriage equality can be passed through Parliament.
“… if enabling legislation is blocked in the Senate, the landscape changes. If a free vote isn’t allowed there’s still the possibility of Liberals heeding public opinion and crossing the floor.
“We only need four or five of them to swing behind a bill and the issue that has dogged Australian politics for years will finally be over.”
The exploitation of vulnerable young people is nothing more than a cruel and cynical attempt to achieve this political objective.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.