Features Australia

A fishy Price tag

Can an expensive firm of accountants really tell us the true value of our democratic rights?

26 March 2016

9:00 AM

26 March 2016

9:00 AM

Nowadays, moral argument can only get you so far, it seems. In order to convince you of the real merits of a cause, the clincher is no longer whether it’s right or wrong — something we may never agree about in any case — but whether it’s cost-effective. After all, surely it’s hard to argue with the numbers.

Efficiency is the new morality, and it’s a technique being road-tested on the issue of same-sex marriage. Having long plumbed the depths of the politics of moral embarrassment and social ostracism, progressives have now taken to bean-counting as a tactic for neutralising objections to their radical social policies.

Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott promised to settle the question of marriage equality democratically by allowing we, the people, to state our views in a national plebiscite later this year. Malcolm Turnbull has committed to honour that promise — unless he is intimidated into silencing the Australian people, and scuppers the plebiscite plan altogether.

Intimidation by public shaming has, up until now, been the favoured way of shutting down opponents of same-sex marriage. Branding reasonable people as ignorant and hate-filled worked well for a time. But progressives no longer seem to think shaming is effective enough. Perhaps our resistance to being shamed is growing, rather like an auto-immune response, and after so much shame has been heaped upon us we no longer much care. Hence the recent tactical switch from outrage to arithmetic.

A recent report from consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers, called Marriage Equality in Australia: The cost of holding a plebiscite, put a price tag on each of the options for consulting the people of Australia on the future of one of our society’s fundamental institutions. Leaving it to the pollies is the cheapest option — $17 million according to PwC. And a stand-alone plebiscite with a compulsory vote on same-sex marriage is the most expensive at $525 million.

It will be bad for the budget, says Bill Shorten — who appears suddenly to have woken up to the idea of fiscal responsibility and says he’s worried about the nation’s low-growth economy. It will be bad for business, says PwC, along with other companies who are paid-up supporters of workplace diversity programs but who seem to have little regard for the views of the very people to whom they try and sell their services during the year.

And it will be bad for our mental health, says Australian Marriage Equality’s Rodney Croome, who used to insist the Australian people were on his side all along but is obviously not so sure now. For people from the LGBTI community already more susceptible to mental health issues as a result of discrimination, says PwC, ‘the discussion of marriage equality opponents’ opinions may further exacerbate health outcomes.’

If it looks like fish and smells like fish, it probably is fish. And the report from PwC definitely has a fishy pong to it — especially when you add in that estimated $20 million bill for mental health costs likely to be rung up as a result of allowing the public even to talk about marriage equality

Same-sex marriage advocates are using these new bookkeeping scare tactics because they are desperate to keep the issue well away from the voters. Suddenly a plebiscite is said to be a waste of time and money, and the entire practice of democracy a likely drain on the moral and emotional resources of the Australian people. ‘It’s a sign of maturity and strength to change your mind in the face new information,’ Croome says. But the only minds that have changed so far belong to the ardent advocates of marriage equality.

72% of Australians support marriage equality, according to Australian Marriage Equality’s own website. But if that is true, why worry about letting them have their say? It’s not to save money that the advocates want to shut down public debate about changing the meaning of marriage. It’s because they’re worried they might lose a plebiscite vote. So rather than trust the integrity and decency of the Australian public, advocates insist our minds are simply too darkened by bigotry, religious zealotry and homophobia. It’s all just too expensive and too risky to let the people decide for themselves about same-sex marriage. The advocates would rather leave it to the elites to stitch up a deal.

Yet neither major party went to the 2013 election with a platform for changing the meaning of marriage. Nor did the progressives in the governments of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard ever stir themselves over same-sex marriage when they had the chance to. Any change now to the Marriage Act must have democratic legitimacy, and not simply be a political stitch-up.

PwC goes to comical lengths in its report in an attempt to distract us from the significance of the right to cast our vote. ‘The time taken to vote is the opportunity cost to the community as a result of taking time out of their work day or leisure time to vote,’ PwC declares in all seriousness. PwC has calculated the opportunity cost on the assumption that the plebiscite is not held in conjunction with an election, but why stop there?

Once we start to question the opportunity costs of exercising our democratic rights, the bean-counters will have us believe all elections are just too costly and troublesome, and that when you realise just how much money we’d save, you’ll agree we might be best off without them altogether.

Imagine if less democratically inclined leaders such as North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un were to get his hands on the report and read how PwC frets about all the costs of liberal, democratic government. The tubby tyrant — whose official title is ‘the Great Successor’ — would feel only a confident glow as he learned how a major western multinational capitalist corporation actually endorsed the Hermit Kingdom’s business model as economically and morally responsible.

Here in Australia, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull needs to dig his heels in and hold fast to his promise of a plebiscite. Democracy has a price well worth paying; in fact, it’s a price we must always be prepared to pay regardless of the monetary and opportunity costs.

Marriage equality advocates may well be on the side of the angels with justice on their side. But unless they place their trust in the hands of the Australian voters and allow the people to decide on marriage equality, the advocates will never quite dispel the stench of a fishy fix-up.

Peter Kurti is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies

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