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Plebiscites: why stop at one?

By Ben Debney - posted Tuesday, 21 November 2017


The same-sex marriage plebiscite is done, everyone had a chance to have their say and the verdict is in. The 'Yes' vote is elated and the 'No' vote is despondent. Prime Minister Turnbull has resolved the conflict between himself and his anti-SSM supporters within the Liberal Party, at the cost to the Australian taxpayer of $122 million. As far as marriage equality is concerned, the issue is settled, having been resolved in the affirmative.


But what of the exercise in direct democracy? Was there not a double victory? On the one hand, we had the vote for equality. But on the other, we had direct participation in the formation of policy. Was this not an equally significant exercise? A full 80% of Australians responded, an unusually high number for a voluntary plebiscite.

In the case of the same-sex marriage issue, the plebiscite went to a postal vote – so some speculated, to favour older Australians accustomed to snail mail who would also be more likely to vote in the negative. Despite the technologically wieldier options on the table, the government still managed to successfully collect the votes, count them and collate the data.

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It could just have just as easily been processed on the internet; go to a web address, enter your tax file, Centrelink or driver's license number, and vote. The plebiscite would have been easier on the internet; the system could have been set up to collect and tabulate the data automatically, as the ABS does during the Census (though attempting to avoid server overloads and the like).

For the speculative-minded, maybe there was another reason why the plebiscite over same-sex marriage was carried out via postal vote. Had the government gone to the trouble and expense of setting up an internet portal for the vote, this would have immediately begged the question as to why it could not be used for other issues.

Take the plight of the remaining men on Manus Island, for example. What if the Australian public was presented with a variety of options and given the opportunity to vote on the best avenue of recourse for ending their suffering? It would be best now of course just to bring them to Australia in line with our international refugee commitments, but what about similar scenarios in the future?

What about the extremely unpopular Carmichael coal mine, and the decision by our government to subsidize a rail link to a shipping port on the Great Barrier Reef to the tune of almost a billion dollars? Given the scale of the funds involved and the devastating effects of the mine on our global commitments to cutting carbon emissions, surely this would be an ideal issue to take to a direct vote.

If plebiscites are good enough for marriage equality, they're certainly good enough for issues affecting the long-term sustainability of our natural environment. The Great Barrier Reef is already being bleached out as it is.

What about other social issues, like the idea of a universal basic income? Imagine a public debate spread out over a couple of months with a direct vote at the end over whether or not to make sure every Australian is able to receive a livable income? If there is not so much concern over the fate of the most economically vulnerable in the community, there certainly is in the community. A direct vote would make that clear enough.

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But a plebiscite over an issue like the universal basic income would not just be a debate about that one policy issue, it would have the potential become a debate about values and the direction in which we as Australians and as a society wanted to go. Such a debate would be carried out on television, over radio, on social media, in schools, in the community.

In providing an avenue for regular people to become active participants in the moulding of specific outcomes, it would have an infinitely greater effect on political culture than the stage-managed campaigns that form the dreary stuff of the regular campaign cycle. If everyone felt they had a bit more of a say, it might even help to take the steam out of a lot of the angrier and more hateful political tendencies that thrive on negativity and destructive impulses.

But then perhaps we might be letting the genie out of the bottle, and having some participation in the development of specific policy outcomes would beg greater questions about the makeup of our political system. A taste of greater freedom and agency might become a powerful thing. The system of representative democracy was, after all, conceived of in the days when the height of communications technology was the carrier pigeon. In Australia, it was brought into being when the height of technology was the radio telegraph.

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About the Author

Ben Debney is a doctoral candidate in International Relations at Deakin University in Burwood, researching historical instances of moral panic and the extent to which these indicate patterns of crisis leveraging and politically-motivated scapegoating.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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