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So, we're having a plebiscite. But what's the question?

By John de Meyrick - posted Wednesday, 30 March 2016


The Attorney-General, Senator George Brandis, has indicated that the question to be put to the public on gay marriage and the Bill to approve the forthcoming plebiscite, will not now be drafted until after the next election which is likely to take place on 2 July this year.

Whatever that question may eventually be, it is sure to displease many voters on either side of the debate.

A number of unofficial polls has already been conducted on this subject. But as professional pollsters know, one should always question the question, because a question can be formulated in a way that predisposes the answer.

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This occurs because questions, even in everyday conversation, can more often evoke ready responses based on mindless perception rather than on reasoned understanding of the issues involved.

So, despite the weight of privately-run polls in favour of gay marriage, the government is justified in conducting its own official plebiscite, the outcome of which no one should then doubt.

But how will the "official" question be put? How balanced will it be? And will it be left to a mind-jerk response or set out with arguments and debate for and against (as is the practice with referenda)?

Having regard to the various failed attempts to recognise gay marriage in federal legislation, the question will possibly be something like: "Do you agree to the alteration of the definition of 'marriage' in the Marriage Act 1961 to include same-sex unions?"

That may satisfy those who are fed up with the whole issue and who are ready to say "yes" to anything that will have it over and done with, but it is certain to be howled down by those who are already bracing for the fight.

The problem is, this issue cannot be answered by just one question. It is much more complex. It's an apples and oranges situation trying to be made into a new kind of 'fruit'.

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It can be taken that the proponents at the extreme ends of the issue on either side will be against whatever question is put. Nothing will satisfy them. At one end they see same-sex unions as immoral, indecent and an abomination. At the other they cannot see, and are unwilling to recognise, any difference between same-sex unions and traditional heterosexual unions.

To fair-minded thinking people in the middle, the real difficulty lies in the meaning and diverse use of the word "marriage".

In so far as marriage means the declaration of love and the commitment to live and to share life together, and to demonstrate that commitment by way of a solemn ceremony, with or without a celebration and a private time to enjoy the beginning of that undertaking, then who should deny such occasion to any two persons of whatever gender.

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About the Author

John de Meyrick is a barrister (ret’d), lecturer and writer on legal affairs.

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