VIEWS JOURNALISM 2 – Final Assessment
The Plebiscite, creating ‘division’ or ‘unity’?
By: Ashlee Barnes
Today, in Australia the statistics reveal that 1 in 3 marriage will ultimately end in divorce, with the number consistently on the rise, leaving many to question why non-heterosexual couples want to join in on the fun, but as Karen Brooks says “this is not the point”. With a Gallop poll in August stating that 61 per cent of Australians support same-sex marriage it seems inevitable that the bill will be passed in the near future. The question now moves onto how?
With the sanctity of marriage in question and Australia’s potential plebiscite upon us we have seen a number of people come from the woodwork to broadcast their opinions on the topic. Instead of allowing the debate to be about equal rights I think there has been a shift, moving away from the core argument and one to the positions of politicians. We as the Australian public have been bombarded with views on the matter, whether it is on daytime TV, political debate shows or print media it would be hard-pressed to find someone who wasn’t aware of the issue at hand. This fuels the argument that people are aware of both sides of the argument, now lets see what the public really think through a plebiscite vote. Whether your stance on the matter is cemented or malleable, it would be impossible for you to have not considered the arguments of both the opposition and the advancers of the issue. The media coverage has been relentless with a number of new issues facing the plebiscite being brought to the public’s attention everyday.
I would suggest that whether majority of Australians are ready for same-sex marriage is now not the question that needs to be answered, but instead it is how the government are to make sure this becomes a reality, and reflected in the applicable legislation. Recently, writers have been transitioning into discussing the implications of an enforced plebiscite for Australians, what are the social effects of such a vote will it creating harmony or further division, on what has been a rather controversial subject matter.
Of course there a lot of layers to this debate, its not simply should same-sex couples be allowed to be married or not, or at least this is how it is being framed by those who are inherently opposed. But what exactly is at stake with the plebiscite, is it a hate-fuelled campaign targeted at the LGBTQI community that could follow with its implementation?
For the purpose of this paper I have chosen to base my conclusions of how the plebiscite on same-sex marriage is being framed to the Australian public through a number of views journalism articles. And through the framing of the plebiscite I will argue that it is not necessarily a representation of how same-sex marriage is viewed within the public sphere.
Lets first address Joel Meares’ article “Winning the marriage equality plebiscite would have been cathartic, but at what cost?” published in The Sydney Morning Herald. Meares asserts himself as a supporter of the same-sex marriage cause by stating ‘the majority of us in the LGBTQI community and our supporters’, creating a feeling of inclusivity amongst readers sharing these same values. He further goes onto declare his disdain for the ‘plebiscite’.
Meares’ argument is sharp, he immediately positions the reader to associate the plebiscite with ‘hate’ by labelling it “an expensive and non-binding vote, born of seedy and self-serving backroom shadow-puppetry”, with a purpose merely to pass judgment on each other. He leaves little room for any positive implications of the plebiscite being passed by the Labor Party and clearly states that “we can wait”. His argument is based on the claim that we are a society that should agree to equal rights for all its citizens, and make sure this happens without hate being directed toward the LGBTQI community.
The link between the plebiscite and ‘self-serving’ politicians appears to be at the core of why Meares takes such a negative stance towards the bill. To progress his argument he positions the reader to think that the plebiscite is merely a politicians way to advance their own careers rather than act for the greater good. By framing the politicians as ‘villains’ he further makes this a debate about what is right and wrong.
Meares also appeals to emotion as he appeals to readers to understand the damage to that could be caused through the commitment to a plebiscite on the matter.
“There are so many more vulnerable than I am today, less fully-formed and fully sure of who they are, for whom the kinds of hatred we could mine during a plebiscite could be irrevocably damaging.”
He asks readers to look at those who are younger, are not as comfortable with themselves and appeals to negative consequences by asking readers to understand the potential damage that it can cause their self-esteem and mental health. Is this worth it to simply allow Malcolm Turnbull to carry through what he went into the election claiming to be able to achieve on behalf of the community, Meares does not think so.
He does however attempt to personalise the debate.
“I am a secure, grown-up, mentally healthy gay man who has taken advantage of more progressive laws overseas to marry the man I love. I’m doing fine. And I can probably handle a bit of a war. I might even enjoy it. But this would not have been the case when I was 15. Or nine.”
He attempts to give a face to those that are affected by using himself and further educating the reader on that this is affecting a younger generation too and to not just consider how the decision will affect them as individuals but the potential implications of this commitment to people perhaps separate from their prospective lives. He labels these people ‘vulnerable’, in need of support and ultimately calling upon the nation to ‘wait’, ‘for them’ and make this decision the ‘right’ way.
Meares makes his stance clear, whilst coming from an obvious world-view and taking personal interest in the topic, he is able to provide compelling arguments to support the view that the plebiscite is something that must ‘wait’.
Another example of a commentator discussing the possible negative ramifications of a plebiscite is Dr Liz and Dr Sharon Dane for The Sydney Morning Herald’.
“Why a plebiscite on same-sex marriage is dangerous and divisive”
The doctors firstly provide a different perspective as psychologists rather than just social commentators. However they have made their stance clear from the headline, that they are against a plebiscite on the matter, labelling it both ‘dangerous’ and ‘divisive’. Their use of a red love heart as imagery, further cements their stance that this is matter of love and further one of “human rights and equal opportunity” to be dealt with as a conscience vote, to minimise damage to the LGBTIQ community and their families.
They make comparative analysis to Ireland, stating that prior to the vote in the European country,
“People and their family were exposed to negative media, and false and belittling commentary”.
By drawing on comparison from the Ireland it gives readers evidence to how campaigns can and ultimately will be dealt with if put into the hands of the people. They further appeal to authority by quoting a psychologist from Ireland who commented on the oppositions stance during their vote, claiming the offences, “ranged from being spat at, threatened, name-called, called sinners, evil, spawn of the devil – you name it, it gave permission for hatred”.
With the comparison made to Ireland it gives the reader a factual, existent example of what these campaigns can cause a community in the lead up to a plebiscite vote. They further emphasis this statement with scientific references drawing on research done by The Australian Psychological Society (APS), who stated,
“A public vote is likely to present significant risks to the psychological health and wellbeing of those most affected”.
Further going on to warn of risks to two particular groups being ‘gay and lesbian’ people themselves as well as those whose parents are gay or lesbian, reporting,
“…studies confirm that the process of putting marriage equality to a public vote can be harmful to the psychological health of gender and sexual minorities…who not only have to content with the possibility of having rights to marriage denied through a public vote but also the stress associated with the campaign itself”.
Here the Doctors are appealing to negative consequences, I would suggest they have chosen to reference the APS to give a scientific explanation into how the plebiscite will harm a minority community. In an attempt to persuade readers that the conscience vote is the only way to minimise damage to the LGBTIQ community they use their own expertise and the expertise of others. Assuming that value by readers is put on scientific research,
Whilst they are able to recognise that a plebiscite “would result in marriage equality”, they also realise that a win “via a plebiscite would not undo the harm done along the way”. And simply calls upon the Turnbull government to looks at the health reasons not to hold a plebiscite, and listen to the warnings by expert psychologists.
They highlight ‘false’ comments that will potentially be made and makes reference to Liberal MP Chris Miles who made the claim that “social outcomes for children of same-sex parents are ‘unemployment’, ‘sexually transmitted diseases’ and ‘drug use/abuse’. Further asserting the idea that a government funded ‘hate’ campaign will merely be paying for a banquet of lies by the opposition to be served to the public, on the taxpayer’s dime.
However their use of ‘exposed’ suggests that if the plebiscite doesn’t get passed they wont be faced with ‘prejudice or discrimination’, this seems to be a contrasting opinion to other social commentators like Frank Brennan, and perhaps not accurate.
Interestingly, Frank Brennanm takes an opposing stance on the decision, suggesting that the damage that could be done is no different to that, which is to come in the next couple of years, if the debate continues. His argument appears to be that the plebiscite is a resolution to the debate and should be done now.
“My hunch, for what little it is worth, is that the hurt and insult would have been no more than what will continue…while the matter remains needlessly unresolved”.
His use of “unresolved” suggest that the plebiscite was a solution to the ongoing debate, a solution that was to put the entire topic to rest once and for all. I would suggest that it is not that simple when it comes to the same-sex marriage debate. It further implies that there will be no possible solution in the foreseeable future, and therefor thinks their best bet was to go ahead with the plebiscite in February. He attempts to make light of the potential damages that could have occurred during the campaigns to its employment.
“I would have opted for the plebiscite in February…To those of my fellow citizens who feared they would suffer hurt and insult during a plebiscite campaign over the Australian Summer whilst most of the media were at the beach”.
It is quite apparent that Brennan does not possess a personal stake in the matter as a clear contrast in emotive language directed towards the issue is evident. He continually states “but it’s not my call”, further suggesting that whilst writing about the issue he does not have a personal stake in its ultimate outcome. He trivialises the topic by making a comedic remark by saying if we had of gotten it ‘over’ with in the summer the media would have been at the ‘beach’. I think it is clear that Brennan considering his position, as what I would assume to be a heterosexual male, he does not think that the plebiscite would have had the same affect that perhaps one with a personal investment would.
If I use this same framework, I would say that Graeme Orr, Professor of Law, who writes “Why Australians should say ‘Yes’ to the same-sex marriage plebiscite”, similarly does not have a personal stake in the matter. His position is clear from the beginning, his argument simply is that whilst this opportunity is in our hands we should take it.
“We don’t have to love a process or think it ideal to make the most of it…but sometimes when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade – sweet and sour though it will be”.
This argument stems from the warrant that people just want the debate to be over and a resolution to be definitively decided. His viewpoint is clear from the beginning it’s not ideal, but perhaps it’s the only way in the foreseeable future. The use of comparison to ‘lemonade’ like Brennan, trivialises the seriousness of such a vote. Further, giving the reader the impression that he is not personally attached to the outcome. He takes a rational, approach to the plebiscite, ultimately deciding that it is not ‘ideal’ but necessary at this stage in the debate.
The warrant he continually emphasises through a repeated use of ‘resolved’ or ‘resolving’.
“And ‘Yes’ to whether that question should be resolved by a direct vote of the electorate’.
“The longer we put off resolving it, the longer we are stuck on symbolic roundabout”
“What cant we rely on old-fashioned representative government to resolve this issue?”
The frequent use of ‘resolve’ facilitates my argument that he has no personal stake in the matter, as he fails to recognise the social complexities a matter like legalising same-sex marriage encompasses for the community. He argues that the plebiscite will ‘resolve’ and simply put an end to the entire concept of equality, for gay or lesbian people, when this isn’t the case. There are a number of socially embedded issues that need to be solved alongside legalising marriage for same-sex couples, and these need to be done with or without the implementation of a plebiscite. Simply put the plebiscite will not ‘resolve’ these issues despite what Orr may propose in his article.
Orr further goes on to state that we should have faith in the ‘old-fashioned’ representative government to solve this issue. He makes an appeal to authority that the government are the superiors who should have the power to dictate the course of action of legalisation, and if that is a plebiscite we should oblige. However taking an ‘old-fashion’ approach and following “our tradition” is exactly what the same-sex couples, hope to eliminate. The idea that tradition should rule over the progress of human rights in our country would be going against the issue in its entirety.
Quite clearly his aim is to convince opposed readers that the plebiscite, will end in a win for the LGBTIQ community and we should consider making an unideal situation into a positive outcome, “However imperfect, lets embrace this plebiscite, whether he has been able to make this argument effectively, I am not so sure. He seems to make this argument without taking into consideration the potential damages a plebiscite and its opposition through the campaigns will cause.
It is quite evident that through this limited selection of opinion pieces two different stances have been taken on whether the plebiscite is something that will create division or unity. All articles have stated their belief that the Marriage Act needs to be reformed, but have not agreed on the process to which that should happen. On one hand, as stated by the first two articles examined, the campaigns that will be government funded if a plebiscite is to go ahead will only create ‘division’ and ostracise an already ‘discriminated’ minority. Whereas, Brennan and Orr take the viewpoint that we must make the best of a bad situation and go ahead with the plebiscite, they make this judgment without acknowledging the potential harm caused to the LGBTIQ community. Ultimately it leaves readers with the question, is there a solution as suggested in the second two articles or is this an ongoing debate without a foreseeable resolution.
Meares, J, 17 October 2016. Winning the marriage equality plebiscite would have been cathartic, but at what cost? The Sydney Morning Herald, accessed 30 October 2016-10-30
Brennan, F, 15 October 2016. Marriage Equality supporters’ hope for a free conscience vote, Eureka Street, accessed 1 November 2016
Short, S and Dane, S, 16 April 2016. Why a plebiscite on same-sex marriage is dangerous and divisive, The Sydney Morning Herald, accessed 31 October http://www.smh.com.au/comment/why-a-plebiscite-on-samesex-marriage-is-dangerous-and-divisive-20160414-go63vs.html
Orr, G, 15 September 2016, Why Australians should say ‘Yes’ to the same-sex marriage plebiscite, The Conversation, accessed 28 October 2016
Jain, S, 2008. Lifetime Marriage and Divorce Trends, Australian Bureau of Statistics, accessed 2 November 2016