The High Court last week rejected a challenge to the Turnbull Government funding the $122 million same sex marriage voluntary postal plebiscite without parliamentary approval. This means that the Australian people will finally get their say on same sex marriage as they were promised at the election.
Labor, the Greens and same sex marriage advocates have fought the holding of this plebiscite every step of the way. First rejecting the legislation twice that would have enabled a compulsory attendance plebiscite to be conducted by the Australian Electoral Commission. Then after the Turnbull Government announced the postal plebiscite as their second option to fulfil their election promise they launched this High Court action.
Despite their obvious distain for the plebiscite and the concept of allowing more democracy in Australia they will still campaign for a yes vote. No major progressive organisation has advocated for a boycott which was rumoured for some time.
But now that they have lost all avenues to stop the plebiscite Labor and the Greens are ironically demanding legislative cooperation from the Turnbull Government to limit free speech and free debate during the plebiscite campaign. Bill Shorten held a press conference Friday morning stating his intention to work with Finance Minister Mathias Cormann to draft laws ensuring all campaign material is authorised and some limits are put on what can be said.
Of course, what does Shorten mean by limits on what is said? We have already seen his reaction to the first advertisement to the no campaign which featured concerned mothers stating that if same sex marriage becomes legal education programs like Safe Schools will get even worse. Bill Shorten labelled this ad “offensive and hurtful to LGBTI Australians and their families” and claimed Turnbull has given “the green light to this rubbish”.
We have seen that same sex marriage advocates pretty much believe any argument against same sex marriage is hate speech so any legislation that is proposed to limit what can be said in the same sex marriage debate is likely to disadvantage the no campaign and potentially see no campaigners dragged before the courts and threatened with large fines. How can we debate the issue properly if certain discussions surrounding it are banned by the government?
It is also worth asking is the attempt to limit the plebiscite debate a sign of things to come if it returns a yes vote? Bill Shorten wants to add a new commissioner to the Human Rights Commission to represent LGBT people who would crack down on alleged hate speech and discrimination against them. Labor is also considering expanding 18C to cover sexual orientation and gender identity.
As with speech in other areas of public debate free speech should not be limited because somebody is offended or triggered. If same sex marriage advocates want to dispute the claims made by no campaigners then do that using your own speech, as was done by Dr Kerryn Phelps in an advertisement responding to the first no ad. At time when many are worried about free speech being threatened, running to the government to pass laws to limit campaigning will not help the yes case.
Let us hope whatever legislation is agreed to between the government, Labor and the Greens regarding the plebiscite campaign it is only the same rules that would apply to general election campaigning. All views deserve to be aired during this debate and the people of Australia are smart enough to take all campaign material into consideration to cast an informed vote.
Tim Wilms is co-editor in chief of The Unshackled, where this piece also appears.
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