Who could have guessed? Putting civil rights up to a popular vote isn’t just a bad idea; it also plays out even worse than anyone could have predicted. The Australian survey on marriage equality is turning into a colossal disaster.
Lack of Leadership
Of course, the entire project was a mess from the start. Australia lags far behind other developed nations in terms of civil rights, with legislators dragging their heels for years on the legalization of marriage. For a time, leadership claimed they couldn’t possibly pass marriage legislation without holding a nationwide referendum on the subject. That might have been a believable stalling tactic by scared politicians a few years ago, but since then public opinion has climbed sharply in support for the freedom to marry, so holding off at this point is simply bizarre.
And yet those politicians clung to their earlier excuses, all too afraid to be the first to stand up in favor of marriage. The problem, of course, is that a popular vote on marriage would be incredibly expensive — as much as a half-billion dollars, by some estimates — as well as harmful to the mental health of people whose rights were being voted on.
And so a postal vote seemed like a healthy compromise. Rather than requiring all Australians to vote, there would be an optional mail-in vote. But it was organized so hastily that the rules around it are a bit of a mess.
For example, campaigners aren’t held to the same standards of accuracy as they would be in most elections. As a result, there’s been a surge in misinformation and flat-out deceit. Legislators are now scrambling to implement new hate-crime laws to stop the misleading, hurtful claims.
And even though the survey is a bit more modest than the full vote would have been, the negative effects on mental health are still being felt. Crisis lines have registered an increase in calls relating to the vote, according to Buzzfeed.
And to top it all off, support for marriage equality, previously rising steadily into the 60 and 70 percentiles, is now on the decline. The surge in misinformation is having an impact, just as it did when religious groups led by the Mormon Church got involved in the Proposition 8 campaign in California. According to one survey, Australian support for the freedom to marry is down to just 58%, a drop of 6% in just two weeks.
And the real gut-punch of the vote is that no matter how it winds up going, it’s non-binding. So even if LGBTQ people are able to push for a “yes” vote as hard as they can, and even if in the best-case scenario the result is a strong endorsement of same-sex marriage, legislators aren’t actually required to do act on that.
Of course, there’s one very simple solution to the whole situation: Lawmakers could simply pass the marriage bill that’s been waiting for their vote. But that would require actual leadership.
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