In Australia, a national plebiscite has a very specific definition. The plebiscite is a referendum of voters on any issue of national interest that does not concern the Australian constitution (Holmes, 2011). Plebiscites are typically advisory in nature, and the results do not compel the government to take action. It can be used to solicit the opinions of electorates on a topic that is likely to impact the country, such as the selection of a new flag for Australia or military conscription. In August 2015, the Abbott government decided to carry out a plebiscite in a bid to find out whether Australia needs to enact marriage equality. But what exactly led to the government to choose to carry out a plebiscite in order to determine whether to change the laws pertaining to same-sex marriages, in fact, when clearly there were much more equitable alternatives such as parliament debating and voting on behalf of the citizens. The Australian government under the leadership of Abbott decided to hold a plebiscite to decide whether to change the same-sex marriage laws instead of pursuing other equitable options since this issue was of great salience in addition to affecting much the target groups such as LGBT and touching on policy entrepreneurs.
Salience of the Same-sex Marriage Issue
The marriage equality state has for so long been a political debate in Australia that has often attracted mixed sentiments from various people. For instance, Karp (2017) as notes the Liberals in collaboration with Christian-valued Nationals for many decades have opposed any suggested amendments to the Marriage Act 1961 that restricted marriage to the union of a woman and a man. Thus, in the year 2004, same-sex marriage issue crept into the social debate and the Liberal government of John Howard introduced the 2004 marriage amendment bill, which altered marriage definition in the 1961 Marriage Act. The House of Representatives passed in the bill by 38 to 6, specifying that marriage implied a union of a woman and a man voluntarily entering matrimony for life with the exclusion of all the others (Stilinovic, 2017). This basically implied that marriage was to be recognized only when it is between a man and a woman as opposed to a man and a man or a woman and another woman. To a large extent, it meant that certain unions will not constitute marriages. The union solemnized in the foreign country or nation between a man and his fellow man or a woman and her fellow woman ought not to be legally recognized in Australia as marriage. However, as Maley (2016) observes the High Court, in the year 2013, determined that in the constitution marriage includes marriage between individuals of the same gender and that in the constitution and under the federal law, whether the same-sex marriage ought to be provided for by the law became a matter for Australia`s federal parliament. It, therefore, became clear that the federal government possessed the power of enacting marriage equality. Nonetheless, due to divisions within the federal parliament, same-sex marriages were not recognized even though the Australian High Court pronounced itself on the same (Neilsen, 2018).
The divisions were fueled by foreign influences following the passage of legislation legalizing gay marriages in many English-speaking nations. In fact, there was a considerable part of the coalition which believed that marriage only ought to ever be allowed between a woman and a man. Many other members of parliament, including those from the Greens, the Labor held the view that Australia required to legalize the same-sex marriages (McAllister and Snagovsky, 2018). This is the rationale that made the issue to be subjected to the plebiscite since it now became a matter of national importance that required the view of all the electors of Australia. Thusly, the publicity was necessary so as to collect the views of the citizens to guide the voting process by the federal parliament. Voting in the federal parliament was likely to reflect the wishes of the majority of the electorates in Australia if the plebiscite was administered to the public to collect the views. This is the reason Mr. Turnbull in the year 2015 publicly remarked that he assured that the plebiscite could sail through parliament provided that the citizens voted in its favor. However, if the citizens of Australia voted against it, then it was to be cumbersome to sail through parliament since parliament is made of the representatives of Australia and will want to reflect this will of the people by voting according to how they voted in the plebiscite. This is a further proof that a plebiscite was relatively necessary for portraying the views of the electorates compared to other equitable options.
Due to the weight of same-sex marriage, the Australian government saw it prudent to engage the people of Australia to offer their views on this issue through direct democracy. It should be borne in the mind that the constitution of Australia establishes a representative type of government whereby parliamentarians are voted for so as to represent the electorate. These parliamentarians normally thrash through details pertaining to the type of laws to be passed, under what terms and conditions, with what consequences and trade-offs. Provided the complexity of the contemporary society, any other system, essentially would be untenable. Nevertheless, there is the element of the direct democracy which the constitution introduces under section 128 that it can be amended only by the majority of the voters in the majority of the states. Therefore, if the parliamentarians desired to introduce a change to certain crucial issues that affect the society such as change of laws regarding the same-sex marriages, they require to seek the Australian people`s permission via the referendum or the plebiscite. In fact, this is the rationale which the government based its decision to engage the public in the collection of views as this was the only way in which direct democracy could be exercised.
Similarly, the government of Australia opted to use the plebiscite instead of other much more equitable alternatives since it wanted to decrease not only voter apathy but also disenchantment with the traditional democracy forms. With the plebiscite, direct democracy is enhanced and it helps in engaging the voters with democracy and politics that affect them. Carolyn, Provost and Evans ( n.d.) asserts that plebiscite which offers the opportunity of exercising direct democracy can be utilized in resolving political problems. Thusly, in this case, the Australian government wanted to use plebiscite to solve the complex issue of same-sex marriages. Also, by the fact that the Australian government was divided concerning the changes to the same-sex marriage laws, the only option available that could help in resolving this political issue was plebiscite as it helped to prevent the splitting of the government. It is imperative to note that the parliamentarians were divided on the issue of same-sex marriages since there were those supporting the recognition of same-sex marriages while there were those who opposed it. Furthermore, by the fact that governments require a particular popular mandate to carry out any transcendental changes which did not constitute original platform where they campaigned, the government wanted to seek directly the viewpoints of the electorate before making changes to the laws pertaining to same-sex marriages.
Besides the salience nature of the same-sex issue that prompted the government to administer a plebiscite to collect the views of the citizens, the target groups in Australia also played a role in influencing the government to consider a plebiscite. Target groups like the LGBT have opposed the plebiscite based on the fact that it will devalue their LGBT status by separately treating them from the regular votes of parliamentarians. They also opposed the plebiscite on the ground that it will subject LGBT individuals to homophobia and harassment from the other electorates during and after campaigns (Karp, 2016). Moreover, the LGBT groups had a belief that the parliamentarians were to be influenced in their voting by the outcomes of the plebiscite. Therefore, it was to be unfair to involve the whole public in deciding whether to change same-sex laws or not. However, since the Australian government is built on democracy, it saw it wise to involve all the people in deciding whether to change the same-sex laws or not by carrying out a nationwide vote. Additionally, the government wanted to offer an ample chance to the LGBT groups to reach out to the masses and educate them on the need to have same-sex marriages legalized in Australia.
The religious groups, especially the Christians fraternity were also opposing the recognition of same-sex marriages based on the Biblical teachings. According to Christianity, marriage should only be permitted between people of opposite sex since the teachings of the Bible pinpoint that God created a woman for a man and not a man for a man or woman for the woman (VAN ACKER, 2018). Thus, the viewpoint of Christianity was based on this fact that it is only a man and a woman who can form a union to create a marriage. These divergent views precipitated the Australian government to consider offering an equal opportunity of all the Australians to decide on the same-sex marriage issue by collecting the views of the majority through a plebiscite. In fact, this was the only fair way of permitting everyone a chance to take part in matters of national interest and touch on morality.
The Australian government chose to conduct a nationwide publicity plebiscite in order to change same-sex marriage laws instead of choosing other more equitable options as it was influenced by the policy entrepreneurs. The government of Australia wanted to offer the policy entrepreneurs a good opportunity to educate the public on the policies governing same-sex marriages since the policy entrepreneurs have the expertise of spearheading the education of the masses. As per Mintrom and Vergari (1996), the policy entrepreneurs serve the purpose of bringing new policy ideas to the good currency. They can help the government in selling policy ideas and by so doing they espouse the dynamic change of policy. Actually, the policy entrepreneurs can use different activities in promoting the ideas including identification of problems, shaping of the terms of the policy debates, building coalitions as well as networking in the policy cycles.
Basically, the policy entrepreneurs mostly define the policy problems in the manner that can attract the decision makers’ attention in addition to indicating appropriate policy responses which the decision makers can emulate or follow. The policy entrepreneurs in seeking the support of their policy ideas face choices concerning the type of issues which they require to push forward and how they can push them. In this case, the policy entrepreneurs in Australia wanted to use plebiscite as a means to sell their ideas concerning same-sex marriages. Therefore, they lobbied the Australian government to pursue the idea of collecting views from the public through plebiscite so that they can take advantage of it to sell the ideas. In fact, the policy entrepreneurs used this chance to educate the masses pertaining to the changes that were proposed to the same-sex marriage laws and this greatly impacted majority of the citizens to vote either yes or no.
In summation, it is abundantly clear that the government of Australia opted to use national plebiscite in changing the laws pertaining to the same-sex marriages instead of the more equitable options because the same-sex marriage issue was of great significance to the nation. Accordingly, it wanted to engage the public on this issue through direct democracy. Similarly, the Australian government in making its decision to use the nationwide plebiscite was influenced by the target groups such as LGBT groups and religious groups. Likewise, policy entrepreneurs played a pivotal role in the decision as they made they swayed the government to use the plebiscite in changing the same-sex marriage laws so that they can have a chance of selling their ideas pertaining to this issue of national importance to the public.
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