Should there be a referendum or plebiscite on same-sex marriage?

What type of people’s vote should determine the outcome of the same-sex marriage debate? And will that be the end of it?

Australians awaited a decision by the Coalition on whether there will be a plebiscite or referendum on the issue of redefining marriage. Fairfax media reports that a Coalition cabinet meeting on Monday night delayed the decision for several weeks, but that there would be “no change to the Marriage Act in this term of Parliament.” Whether a referendum or plebiscite, a “people’s vote” is expected to be held after the next election.

A plebiscite is used to decide a national question that does not affect the Constitution. Voting is not compulsory. There have only been three plebiscites held in Australia: in 1916 and 1917 on issues relating to conscription in World War I, and in 1977 to seek Australia’s choice for its national anthem.

A referendum is the only way to amend the Australian Constitution, and when held, voting is compulsory for all Australian citizens. There have been 55 proposals to amend the Constitution since Federation, and only 8 have been approved.

Eternity asked Christian commentators who have been vocal on the issue of same-sex marriage what ‘people’s vote’ mechanism they thought was best, and whether the outcome would draw a line under the marriage debate.

We asked:

  • Lyle Shelton, Australian Christian Lobby managing director
  • Peter Catt, founder of Progressive Christian Voice and Dean of Brisbane’s St John’s Cathedral
  • Bill Meuhlenberg, Conservative Christian commentator and blogger
  • Nathan Campbell, Queensland Presbyterian minister and St Eutychus blogger
  • Bob Day, Senator for South Australia and member for Family First
  • John McLean, Presbyterian Minister and Vice Principal of Christ College Sydney
  • Rob Buckingham, Pastor of Bayside Church Melbourne
  • Dr David Sandifer, NSW Director of Family Voice Australia
  • Sydney Anglican Archbishop Glenn Davies

Australian Christian Lobby managing director, Lyle Shelton

Referendum or Plebiscite?
I don’t have a strong preference, so long as there’s a fair people’s vote that allows the pro-marriage side of the argument input, allowed to put their view in the public square where words like ‘bigot’ and ‘homophobe’ are not part of the discussion.

So there’s freedom. In one sense, the mechanism isn’t that much of a concern. But it is important that there’s equal funding for both sides, and a ban on overseas donations, which really did help skew the Irish vote.

I think this will draw a line under the debate. I think it will give a very clear indication of the people’s will on this. I think it will settle the issue for a long time. In politics, you can never say never, of course. We live in a democracy where we’re free to open up any issue for debate but I do think that a referendum or a plebiscite on this issue will settle this for a very long time.

And I think that’s a good thing: it does need to be settled. But it needs to be done in a way where there’s complete fairness for our side of the debate. It’s very much one-way traffic in the media, and I think we need to see some more equal reporting of both sides of the argument.

People must have the opportunity to know the consequences of changing the institution of marriage; the consequences for children and what we’re saying about family structure and how parents can be optional for a child; and what it means for freedom of speech, particularly if marriage does change and it becomes bigotry for those of us who hold the man/woman view. If it becomes bigotry for someone to hold that view then that’s a terrible thing and I think people need to know that that’s what they’d be voting for, if they vote in favour of the changes to the definition of marriage.

Do you think Christians will abide by the decision of a plebiscite or referendum?
You have to abide by any decision that’s made law, but we live in a democracy. I think abortion is very bad law, so we continue to fight against that. We’ll continue to fight against government decisions to be ungenerous with our overseas aid. So just because a government decision’s been made that we don’t agree with, doesn’t mean we don’t keep campaigning in a participatory democracy to try and persuade fellow citizens and policy makers for change.

We will always campaign for the truth about marriage, regardless of the decision, the same way we campaign for the truth about the unborn and the dignity of the poor, which don’t get a good enough look in under current government policy as well.

Peter Catt, founder of Progressive Christian Voice and Dean of Brisbane’s St John’s Cathedral

Referendum or Plebiscite?
I cannot see the need for a plebiscite. The whole point of having a Parliament with a people whom we call Representatives is for them to make such decisions on our behalf. That is what we pay them to do. A plebiscite will not yield any more information than that available through polling organisations. In fact polling provides more information than a plebiscite because polling has the capacity to ask people multiple questions. And to conduct research over time. So members of parliament will not receive any more information than they already have, which is that polling consistently points to a significant majority of the population being in favour of marriage equality.

I guess some may suggest that the build up to a plebiscite would provide an opportunity to educate people about the issue. I would counter that most political advertising is based on simplistic messaging, which is often fear-based. I can’t see how such a process would offer any value to the process of determining the way forward. In fact I think pushing the issue into that type of realm will only cause a large number of people a lot of pain without any gain either to them or the wider community.

The final issue worth noting is that in the end, the decision will come down to members of parliament having to vote one way or the other.

A plebiscite is a non-binding mechanism and so would not help with determining the outcome. The current parliament is knowingly acting contrary to the desire of the majority of the people. A plebiscite would not do anything to make the outcome any more certain.

Conservative Christian commentator and blogger Bill Muehlenberg

Referendum or Plebiscite?
We probably need to step back and ask a bigger question: why we should be debating something like this at all? It’s like debating something like “Should we eat’ or “Should we breathe”? It’s so bizarre. Throughout all of human history marriage was accepted by everybody as between a man and a woman and now we’re actually debating whether we should redefine marriage out of existence. That’s the real question, it seems to me.

If your question is whether we should have a referendum or plebiscite, as opposed to a decision by parliament or via judicial activism, well I certainly don’t like judicial activism. Every single country except one that has accepted [same-sex marriage] has done it via unelected, unrepresentative judges declaring they’re going to change marriage.

But for Australia … I’d go with either plebiscite or referendum. There are technical differences between the two: one is more binding and onerous (the referendum), as opposed to a less restrictive plebiscite. But the core debate here isn’t which of those two – that’ll be determined by our politicians as to what is more appropriate. That seems more like a technical legal question.

The question that needs to be asked by Christians is how did we get here in the first place, and now that we’re here, what do we do now?

Do you think Christians will abide by the decision of a plebiscite or referendum?
It will certainly not stop the debate. That’s to minimise or underestimate what the other side (those advocating for same-sex marriage) is on about. You’ve got to bear in mind, we’ve had about 16 bills in the last 12 years now pushing to redefine marriage. The other side is not going to give up. In fact, that’s why they don’t want a referendum or plebiscite: they know they will lose. It’s why the activists are dead-set against it, and why they’re trying to rush [the decision] through parliament, hoping they can sneak it through that way.

So while it may, and it should, draw the line and put an end to things, that’s naïve. The other side won’t stop until they get their way.

I don’t think the other side is going to win, but if they did … I, for one, will never stop standing up for marriage and family. They’re God’s institutions, which precede the state. It’s something we jettison at our own peril.

I’d hope there’d be others wouldn’t stop, too. But there are Christians now putting up the white flag of surrender, saying we should go with the flow, saying it’s the Christian thing to do. So there’ll be “compromise Christians” who go in that direction, but we need to affirm the word of God as opposed to trends of men.

But what will we do? Do we get to a point of civil disobedience? The Presbyterians of NSW are thinking ahead about this, willing to live with a two-tiered marriage system. That’s one option that I’m not sure I’m quite happy with, but we have to start thinking. A decision [on changing or not changing the definition of marriage] will have a lot of repercussions, whether it goes either way, that’s for sure.

Queensland Presbyterian minister and St Eutychus blogger, Nathan Campbell

Referendum or Plebiscite?
A plebiscite seems like a good idea because it might rob special interest or lobby groups of their power – some would say undue influence – over the votes of the few, our elected decision makers.

But I don’t think it’s the ideal approach to decision making. The ideal would be a truly tolerant public conversation, and decision making process where many views of human flourishing and the ‘good’ are put forward to be considered and accommodated, so that our democratic government actually governs for and protects minorities as well as the majority. So long as politics is framed as ‘majority wins’ or ‘majority rules’ we’ve got a sort of tyranny of the popular. I’m not sure this will be a good thing for our country even if the definition of marriage I believe is the basis of human flourishing wins out in a plebiscite.

Do you think Christians will abide by the decision of a plebiscite or referendum?
The danger of a plebiscite in our current social landscape is that however carefully its framed, whoever wins (and the special interest groups who feel a sense of victory) will be left with a mandate to crush the vanquished, rather than figuring out what it means for us to live in a truly tolerant society that actually allows conversations about what goodness, virtue, and flourishing looks like, and invites people to consider multiple opinions.

It could polarise the two camps even more. The Yes/No will give a clear indication of who the majority is. I suspect if Christians won, there’d be groups that said the conversation is now closed. But if a plebiscite means majority rules, then whoever loses will be forced to keep campaigning.

I don’t know if the mechanism worries me so much. It’s more the art of a compromise. I don’t know exactly what that looks like but it definitely involves a scenario where both sides feel they’ve been listened to, and that there are protections for people who disagree with the majority.

I’m not sure that a plebiscite will see the minority feeling represented by their government.

Bob Day, Senator for South Australia and member for Family First

Referendum or Plebiscite?
For sure, I’d want a referendum. It’s official, it’s compulsory, people understand what it means, it’s got longevity, it’s committed to writing.

A plebiscite is just a glorified opinion poll. We use it for issues like what our national anthem should be. It sounds fancy, but it’s just a questionnaire. It’s not compulsory, so only half of the country will turn up to vote.

In Ireland, their referendum was not compulsory on same-sex marriage. So only half of people showed up, and half of them said yes to SSM. [Editors Note: 61% of Irish constituents turned out to vote in the country’s referendum on gay marriage, and the 62% of those who voted, voted ‘yes’].

For us, what if only 50 per cent came to vote in the plebiscite? And say 55 per cent of them vote for same-sex marriage. That’s only, what 27 per cent of the population responsible for changing an important institution. There’s no legitimacy there. It’s such a small percentage.

Do you think Christians will abide by the decision of a plebiscite or referendum?
No, a plebiscite won’t draw a line under this. It’s not official.

A referendum, though, would deal with this for the next 20 years. It’s binding, a plebiscite is not. A referendum is compulsory, a plebiscite is not. A referendum is formal. A plebiscite is casual.

I don’t think Christians would accept a ‘Yes’ win for same-sex marriage in a plebiscite, just as proponents of same-sex wouldn’t accept a ‘No’. They’d be back again with their arguments the very next week.

The only way to deal with this is via a referendum, and to have inserted into the constitution what marriage means.

I think that the Prime Minister will put to the people whether they want the people or politicians to decide on this issue, and the people will say that they want to decide.

So, it will come down to who wins the next election.

If the Coalition wins, I believe the people will decide via a referendum. If the Coalition loses, Labor will sort of agree to go to a people’s vote, but it will be a plebiscite. And that leaves the issue open. Same sex marriage proponents will not take ‘No’ for an answer.

Presbyterian Minister and Vice Principal of Christ College Sydney, John McLean

Referendum or Plebiscite?
Either would be good because it would give the whole population an opportunity to have a say on a very profound social issue. I can see why people who are opposed to marriage redefinition would prefer for it to be a referendum, but I’m not sure the case is completely there for that. It may be fairer to do a plebiscite rather than a referendum.

Do you think Christians will abide by the decision of a plebiscite or referendum?
Yes [we’ll abide by it], but I’m not sure what abiding would mean. No one is going to be forced to have a same sex marriage or conduct a same sex marriage. The Presbyterian Church’s position is that we’d be disappointed if that change happened. We are on record as opposed to marriage redefinition because we don’t think it’ll be good for society.

We’re in a process of talking about what [abiding by the decision] will look like. I don’t know what it would look like. It will depend on what is suggested and what form the legislation takes if it is approved.

Pastor of Bayside Church Melbourne, Rob Buckingham

Referendum or Plebiscite?
I think a plebiscite because it’s cheaper. It will do just as good a job in gauging public opinion in Australia.

Do you think Christians will abide by the decision of a plebiscite or referendum?
I would respect the outcome either way it goes. It is an opportunity where the people get to speak. Obviously in any referendum or plebiscite there is going to be some people who are happy, and some who are unhappy. If the decision goes towards legalising same sex marriage there needs to be kindness and respect by all people, in both directions. Christian compassion asks us to put ourselves in the shoes of other people.

Respect for a decision does not equal agreement. In any legislation I’m told there will be clauses that will exempt people proving a service on grounds of conscience. That needs to be respected as well. There needs to be respect for the consciences of all people.

Dr David Sandifer, NSW Director of Family Voice Australia

Referendum or Plebiscite?
I feel strongly that the referendum would be the better way, for two reasons. First of all because you get much greater participation, all people are required to vote. It’s more representative. Secondly, because it’s binding. A plebiscite is potentially just an empty poll, but a referendum would bind the hands of government. I think that would be the better option by far.

Do you think Christians will abide by the decision of a plebiscite or referendum?
A lot depends on the details of that. Right now, it’s all a bit vague. We don’t know if it’s a plebiscite or a referendum, we don’t know the wording or how it’d be framed. In principle we feel like the popular vote has a lot of merit. But it’s all in the details.

A plebiscite would clearly not settle the debate, because it’s not binding. Parliament would still have to take steps to pass laws or not pass laws. A plebiscite could be useful, depending on the wording. A referendum would be much more useful.

We’re quite hopeful that the argument can be won, we think there’s a very solid natural law common sense argument. But we think that waiting until after the next election would be the better course as well, to give time for the issue to be played out.

There hasn’t been a very healthy and informed public debate about this. Our hope would be that if [a plebiscite or referendum] goes ahead, that that will allow that to happen in some way in the future.

In terms of the politics of this, what’s interesting is that the argument in favour of same sex marriage has been all along that it’s the popular will; that public opinion is strongly in favour of it. What’s interesting is that now the idea of a plebiscite has been put forward, many [advocates of same sex marriage] are opposing that way of doing things, which is interesting. If they’re so confident that popular opinion is in public support then why oppose a popular vote?

Sydney Anglican Archbishop Glenn Davies

The Archbishop of Sydney, Dr Glenn Davies, has congratulated the Prime Minister and the Coalition for backing a plebiscite on same-sex marriage.

In a statement released on Friday, the Archbishop said  “I believe that marriage is a foundational concept to our society and indeed to human civilisation as a whole, in accordance with God’s own plan for all people, and it is intrinsic to the continuation of the human race as the bedrock of the family from which succeeding generations are born.”

“Despite the relentless campaign by some sections of the community, it is only now that other views are starting to be heard in the media, not only from the churches. The discussion must include the implications for children and the family unit, not just sloganeering.”

“Mr Abbott has been consistent and forthright on this issue, and it is clear he recognises the national importance of a debate about the definition of marriage as well as the strength of feeling on both sides. Yet the debate has been unhelpfully politicised, which is why it should be decided by the people directly. If the majority of Australians desire a change to the time-honoured understanding of marriage, then so be it. The Prime Minister is graciously offering this option so that we, the people, may have our say on the future of marriage in Australia,” Dr Davies said.