Green Agenda co-editor, Simon Copland, responds to Hayley Conway and Mary Tomsic 

In Voting on the Rights of Others Hayley Conway argued against public votes on the rights of others as “a vote affirming the rights of a minority doesn’t lead to systemic change.” She continued:

“Systemic change is needed to end discrimination. Winning the ‘yes’ vote in the postal survey will not end homophobia and the campaign itself has given great licence for public homophobia, abuse, and misinformation.”

I think Conway has created a straw man with this argument, refuting something that no one has ever claimed about the postal survey on marriage equality, or the use of the public votes on rights in general.

No one, as far as I’m aware, has ever claimed that the postal survey on marriage equality will result in systemic change that will end all homophobia. That is simply not part of the debate.

Yet, I want to argue that even if a public vote doesn’t create systemic change it can have huge value anyway.

Systemic change requires a range of techniques and campaigns. Public engagement in the discussion of rights is an essential part of that process. As a form of mass public engagement public votes have the potential to be part of a process to end systemic discrimination.

As a form of mass public engagement public votes have the potential to be part of a process to end systemic discrimination.

Public votes such as the current postal survey on marriage equality have many potential positive impacts.

Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Firstly, as Mary Tomsic argued in the debate, they give us a sense of the state of play around particular issues in our society. The postal survey on marriage equality for example has flushed out a range of homophobic sentiments that still exist in our society. It has shown where a number of people, particularly those in the highest offices of our land, still stand on these issues. This makes the case that we need to continue to tackle homophobia easier to make, particularly in a time when many in our community consider that homophobia doesn’t really exist anymore.

Secondly, and potentially more importantly, I think public votes such as this also flush out our community, and our supporters. The marriage equality postal survey has brought people from all walks of life out in support. The campaign in support of a yes vote has been huge and varied, with every corner in the country being covered in rainbows.

This has huge benefits. While acknowledging that support for marriage equality is only one measure, it shows that at least on this issue support for queer people does not just sit in our city centres, but is widespread amongst the community. For many that could not be more important. While there has been much concern about young queer isolated people in this debate, this sort of support could be huge. Many queer kids probably already knew about those who were homophobic in their community. What they may not have known is that there were also many who were entirely supportive. Even if that is just one person, that person may be more than many kids had in the first place.

There is also one final benefit that comes from public votes on issues. I have often been critical that the campaign for marriage equality has been too focused on the halls of Parliament, and not enough on mobilising people in the streets. Public votes change that. It forces campaigns on to the streets. This is how we create systematic change, by talking to people one-to-one and convincing them to change their mind. It is exactly what has been proven to be the best way to end homophobia.

I have often been critical that the campaign for marriage equality has been too focused on the halls of Parliament and not enough on mobilising people in the streets. Public votes change that.

Potentially more importantly a campaign such as this is an important way to create community. This campaign is bringing queer people together, creating resilience amongst ourselves in times of attacks. In a time when gay spaces and gay culture are increasingly being degraded, this is a potentially important outcome.

The final point I’d like to make is regarding the continued references to the constitutional referendum on indigenous voting rights in 1967. Conway and Tomsic are both right that the referendum did not end racism in Australia. That is very clear. Yet at the same time this vote was also a huge victory, and I feel we should not downplay that. At the most basic level it changed the most unjust part of the Australian constitution, and with a huge public mandate. The vote was also followed by significant changes for Aboriginal people within the next decade. By 1969 for example all Australian states had repealed legislation allowing for the removal of Aboriginal children under the policy of ‘protection’, and in 1975 Gough Whitlam handed the Wave Hill station in the Northern Territory back to the Gurindji people, starting the process for Aboriginal land rights in Australia.

I acknowledge of course that neither of these measures were perfect, not by a long shot. Aboriginal children are still taken away from their families in massive numbers, just under a different guise. Our land right system is deeply flawed, resulting in the continued dispossession of the vast majority of Aboriginal people. Systematic racism remains very real in Australia. Yet at the same time these were still important steps and it’s very unlikely they would have occurred if the 1967 referendum went a different way. Even for a brief moment the referendum was part of some momentum regarding Aboriginal rights, changing things for the better as it did.

Gay Pride

The challenge now for marriage equality advocates will be to consolidate a similar momentum that will likely come from the postal survey into something that is more enduring. If we want an example of this closer to our timeline we only need to look at the Irish referendum on marriage equality. While advocates in Australia were keen to trash the Irish vote, it was also a huge victory, and one that created significant momentum. Evidence has shown a wave of young Irish people who have come out since the vote, suddenly feeling a lot more comfortable in a country that was far more socially progressive than many thought. Ireland has since passed anti-discrimination legislation and will be moving to a vote to legalise abortion within 2018.  Again, while these measures won’t end all homophobia in the country, they are extremely positive, and it seems clear the positive vote on marriage equality played a huge role in them happening.

I appreciate that this vote is hard for many people. The debate has certainly been hard. But creating social change is extremely hard, and it always will be. It takes grunt work at a street by street level. While clearly not the whole solution, public votes can give us some space to engage in that work. That is why they have value.