Plebiscite – the over-politicised media mess of 2016.
Over the last few years’ gay marriage has been a hot button topic all over the world. In the last two years, both the USA and Ireland have delivered marriage equality, with major media outlets showing support for these decisions. We’re at a pivotal point on the gay marriage movement. Gay marriage has obtained overwhelming support from the Australian public, and has the backing from big businesses. Writing this article, I was even hard-pressed to find an article which was completely against marriage equality. However, the most interesting part about the whole debate, and probably most annoying, is how marriage equality seems to have taken a backseat to the political nightmare this is causing for both major parties.
Before examining some articles, and how they portray the politicization of marriage equality, it is worth looking at some of these headlines that have featured media over these last few months. The positivity to marriage equality is on show through all of these headlines, the negativity is pointed at the political process.
Former High Court judge Michael Kirby wrote a piece for The Australian titled ‘Same-sex marriage: Parliament is the proper place for enacting laws’. Well, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out where he’s heading with this one. Michael Kirby, an openly gay man, asks readers by way of an evaluative argument, to consider his ten reasons as to why the Australian public should reject the plebiscite.
Kirby was a judge for over 40 years, so it is no surprise his article mostly deals in facts over baseless opinion.
“Complex, sensitive, issues are better decided after debate in parliament, not in the heat of public division and emotional campaigns in the community. If a plebiscite is held, it could become a bad precedent to be copied when other controversial questions come before parliament. This would further weaken our governmental institutions at a time when they need strengthening, not weakening.”
Kirby’s use of “complex” and “sensitive” in his description of marriage equality is a recurring theme in media’s depiction of the plebiscite. This is to appeal to people’s emotions as he continues to call it an “emotional campaign” spurring “public division”.
Although Kirby strays from fact throughout some of his points with mentions about how parliament might “weaken” if a plebiscite were used to decide this issue. He also furthers this point by saying that this could lead to more plebiscites in the future about any sensitive issue. This is a slippery slope argument and isn’t justified by any reasonable fact but is used to have the reader question the legitimacy of holding a plebiscite when the decision should be made by politicians in parliament following an election.
Statements the plebiscite on marriage equality is “sure to be carried” are doubtful in light of Brexit and Australia’s record on national constitutional referendums when these are required.
Another statement made by Kirby, brings about the same idea that came up quite a bit in my research of other articles. Namely, its comparison to the Brexit result and the false analogy associated with how both could carry the same verdict. The media seems to be obsessed with comparing any public vote with Brexit at the moment, while similar in the fact that they are both public votes, neither hold the same context and different variations of public support.
Where Kirby is successful in convincing the reader to come on board is how he effectively breaks down every argument against the plebiscite. He quotes how Ireland is often noted as a healthy comparison to us also having a similar vote on the issue. Although reinforces how Ireland actually had to legally hold a referendum to change their constitution whereas Australia does not legally have to have one.
He also notes how plebiscites have proven to be difficult for other countries, with “23 countries whose legal systems approximate that of Australia” have been defeated in marriage equality. Kirby believes this would delay marriage equality reform for decades.
Kirby ends the article where he began, with his central claim, stating ‘there is no constitutional reason for a plebiscite.’
While Kirby spoke about why the plebiscite shouldn’t be used, news journalism seems to have moved away from the actual issue of the plebiscite and more onto how politicized this whole situation has become.
Josh Butler, in his piece in the Huffington post “WTF Is Actually Going On With The Marriage Equality Plebiscite?” is written to a younger demographic, calling out the Prime Minister for shifting the blame of the failed plebiscite over to the Labor Party. Butler seems to be writing this to a left-leaning demographic who are Greens/Labor swing voters.
In the image Butler included of Turnbull, it depicts him as confused and paints a Prime Minister who is in turmoil. This is in contrast to the photo he shows of Shorten who is seems resolute and strong.
The CEO of QANTAS, Alan Joyce wrote an article in September for the Guardian titled “The Marriage equality plebiscite message: our parliament can’t do it’s job”. Joyce isn’t a human rights activist, nor a politician, nor a journalist for that matter, but his position on gay marriage reflects a longstanding support for marriage equality from QANTAS.
“From giving women the vote to repealing the White Australia Policy, the Australian parliament has an amazing history of taking the transformative decisions that make this country so great today.
On issues like economic reform and gun control, Australia was well ahead of its time and we’re still seen as a global leader.”
Like Kirby, Joyce is attempting to convince the reader that the vote should be held in parliament because decisions as controversial such as the White Australia policy and giving women the vote have not needed to go to such extreme lengths such as a plebiscite.
Joyce represents big business in Australia, as the CEO of QANTAS, his opinion echoes many other business’ in Australia coming out in support of marriage equality. QANTAS have been involved in the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras for years, so for him to go against the popular opinion would be unwise. He has also been highly commented on in mainstream media on this issue with SMH, The Daily Telegraph, The Australian and other major media outlets quoting the CEO on his views.
Josh Butler, writing for the Huffington Post delivered the most thought provoking opening line to an article “Australia is the last English-speaking developed country in the world to not allow same-sex marriage” this was presented in his piece titled “WTF Is Actually Going On With The Marriage Equality Plebiscite?”. This is an alarming yet factual piece of information, Butler makes this weighted statement at the beginning of his article to define the ridiculousness of why the discussion is still going on. Butlers aim is to appeal to younger readers with his ‘text speak’ title in “WTF” and the title is presented similar to that of ‘Buzzfeed’ like journalism.
He then continues in the article to speak about the ‘blame game’ that is being played in Australian politics over this issue. He is well balanced in both his quotes of Turnbull and Shorten and provides an understanding of how politicized this issue has become.
Turnbull has put the pressure back on Labor. “What we’ve said is if you have something to put to us, we’ll listen carefully and consider it,” he said on Monday, of the Brisbane meeting.
“The ball is in Labor’s court on this issue. We’ve set out a plan.” Shorten has, in turn, taken aim at Turnbull, and said he will be pushing for significant changes to the plebiscite before agreeing to it. “We want to see if the Government is prepared to make concessions at all in the process. They want Labor to vote in the measure but they present a take it or leave it approach. It is the height of arrogance,” Shorten said on Monday.
This piece is a clear reflection on how politicized the issue of marriage equality has become. Both leaders pointing the finger at each other for halting the process.
Paul Kelly for his piece for The Australian “same-sex marriage plebiscite politics turns dangerous” believes the politics of “same-sex is marriage is now dangerous and unpredictable” if the Labor government doesn’t support the plebiscite. Kelly also states that Malcolm Turnbull and the LNP won the mandate at the election so should be able to dictate how the issue is presented to the public. While this is in part true, it is overlooking the nature of parliament and the slim majority that the LNP holds. Kelly is showing bias to the Liberal Party here by overlooking the actual issue of gay marriage and focusing on how the process should play out.
“If the same-sex marriage champions kill off the plebiscite then they are responsible for the consequences, not Turnbull, not the Coalition.”
Kelly’s political bias is on display here as he ridicules same-sex marriage supporters as being responsible for their own defeat on the issue that they support. Kelly’s political bias is extremely apparent in this quote as he contradicts himself, he suggests that same-sex marriage supporters will be to blame if the plebiscite is not realized although earlier in the article he supports the view that the government won the mandate to control the way in which this issue is presented to the public. He either supports that the government is responsible for all decisions made or not, it can’t be both ways.
Kelly then presents opinions from Former High Court judge Michael Kirby, he summises that opinions by Kirby are a “minority position”. There is no factual basis to this claim and is only seen to sway the reader to discredit Kirby’s opinion.
“Claims the plebiscite is useless because Turnbull has not got iron clad pledges from all his MPs to honour the vote are pure propaganda and media fabrication. The entire cabinet knows the plebiscite will be honoured and the ideological conservatives cannot summon the numbers to halt that.”
Kelly attempts to counter-claim that the plebiscite, even though not legally binding, will be honoured by the cabinet to appease the Australian public. While this may be true, this is too much of an assumption and if the Brexit comparisons are to be taken seriously it would evolve into more of a political mess if given the time to grow.
Lastly, the images that are depicted throughout all of these articles are that of what the public have become accustomed to when discussing gay marriage. The pride flag. Two men kissing. A rainbow.. etc.. These images are overused stereotypical images of how we perceive the gay community.
Marriage Equality in the media in 2016 has seemed to lose sight of the foundations of the movement. At the very heart of the campaign is two people of the same-sex who would like to have equal rights, just as two people of the opposing sex have with each other. The fact that politicians have over politicised the issue devalues the core message and is why it is portrayed in the media in this way.