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Sumra: Australia’s marriage referendum shows flaws of democracy

Eish Sumra, Columnist

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Last Tuesday evening, news broke that marriage equality had been given a resounding vote of approval in Australia. It came after a long, hard-fought campaign that saw ugly public battles between celebrities, politicians and citizens. Anti-gay graffiti was spray painted on buildings, and bitter words were exchanged in a campaign defined by its devisiveness. Despite the “Yes” camp winning a whopping 61.6 percent of the vote, the result shouldn’t just be seen as a step forward for the Australian people — it proves how their government failed the nation and how others continue to fail around the world.

The use of a referendum to solve this issue, which was shot down by previous prime ministers, was ridiculous. Referendums have been proven, especially in the last few years, to be divisive and unnecessary. They serve almost as a dictatorial tool, allowing powerful politicians to manipulate the public into voting in their interest instead of leaving it to the democratic processes to solve such debates. We don’t have to look very far to see bad outcomes of referendums. Take, for example, the United Kingdom’s 2016 Brexit vote, which pushed over half the country into believing a heavily skewed, misleading argument based on promises of a golden age of jobs and English nationalism. Or look at the referendum in Turkey earlier this year, which saw the power hungry Recep Tayyip Erdogan push for increased powers and a heavily streamlined government to take complete control of the nation. In Italy, an opportunity to make government more efficient and effective was dismissed by the voting public, leading to a crumbling administration and a virtual standstill in Rome. All of these instances saw rhetoric and dialogue that harmed the unity of a nation, forcing people to pick a side and believe their nation was more polarized than it actually was.

In Australia’s case, the marriage equality vote is, shockingly, non-binding. This means the government can do whatever it wants in the aftermath. Though most members of parliament want equal marriage, it doesn’t guarantee successful legislation, with competing ideas as to how it should be put into law. After all the blood, sweat and tears LGBTQ rights campaigners put into this campaign, the vote has no wider constitutional effect on Australia. All it does is force the nation’s parliament to follow through on something it already believed in but was too afraid to legislate itself. The democratic belief that all people should be represented in government has clearly been undermined in favor of division and collision between two very passionate sides. The Australian government should be ashamed it couldn’t do its job and protect and advance the rights of millions of its citizens, even though all the opportunities were there.

It begs the question, why were politicians unable to live up to their commitment to their constituents on this issue? In the process of strengthening equality in the nation, politicians ensured that the LGBTQ community was laid open to attack in the form of anti-gay vandalism and hateful messages posted in public. This vote also led to a spike in access of mental health services for LGBTQ people.

Yes, the result is heartening. A progressive western nation like Australia has finally caught up with other leading liberal countries. Or at least, we hope. However, the methods of achieving marriage equality were cowardly and inappropriately handled. Now the government will have to try and push this legislation through parliament, with a promise to complete this by the end of the year. And not only that — it will be forced to confront the reality that the long, drawn out public debate made this issue a bigger deal than it actually is. In a few years, the vote will be a distant memory, and Australians will (hopefully) look back on this time with appreciation. However, one can’t help but feel that while equality made a huge leap forward, the flaws of democracies were made ever more apparent.

Eish Sumra is a Medill senior. He can be contacted at eishsumra2018@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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