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Free Speech and Redefining Marriage

Article by Rick Lewers (Bishop of Armidale)

In a nation where all things in politics seem possible, some things still amaze me or perhaps the word should be ‘stagger” me.

Occasionally the foolish thoughts of politicians expressed in emotive and seemingly protective and manipulative rhetoric should be exposed. I want to respond to comments by the leader of the opposition, Bill Shorten, on the topic of a plebiscite. Now you may think that I am responding to ‘same sex marriage” which Christians and others have significant issue with and in part I am. However the comments by Mr Shorten suggesting a censorship of debate on something as important as marriage are far more significant and concerning for a nation of literate and intelligent people.

Perhaps the best way to address my concerns is to let Mr Shorten’s comments be heard.

In a recent press conference, Bill Shorten, who aspires to being the Prime Minister of our great democracy, said that he objects to an Australian plebiscite on gay marriage because the public debate leading up to a vote will give airtime to the ‘no ‘case?

Really! And that would be a bad thing?

Here is the reported quote by Mr Shorten:
“Just imagine for a moment the campaign – there’s a yes’ case and there will be a ‘no’ case. Do we really want to subject members of the LGBTI community to a ‘no’ case?

Do you really want to see government funded campaigns attacking the moral basis of same sex marriage and of your choices about your sexuality? ‘My concern about a plebiscite isn’t just the top-line issue, is it a good or bad idea to give people a say?’

Everyone agrees it’s always a good idea to give people a say – but can you imagine the ‘no’ case? l don’t want young people in regional Australia, who might already feel pressured and stigmatised, to have to subject to a TV campaign where they’re told that their sexuality and their choices are somehow not fit to be allowed to be married.

So we have reservations about a divisive debate which will cause a lot of harm, especially when we already have a thing called the Parliament and we make choices every day in Parliament.”

If Mr Shorten has been reported accurately, l find him to be insulting and unrepresentative of all Australian people. Firstly his comments seem to suggest that Australians cannot be trusted to consider all the facts and make intelligent moral responses. He asks if we really want to subject the LGBTI community to the ‘no’ case but I don’t remember anyone asking our communities if we wanted to be subjected to the ‘yes’ case that the LGBTI has thrust upon us and our children.

Mr Shorten argues that to hear the ‘no’ case will pressure and stigmatise some young people. But equally one could argue that to not allow the ‘no’ case will in fact pressure and stigmatise all who think differently to those who would put the ‘yes’ case.

lf this is the real issue perhaps we should not put the case at all and just take the same sex marriage idea off the table all together.

Considering parliamentary question time, I believe Australians are largely savvy enough to consider both sides of an argument while respecting people who disagree with them.

Perhaps that is one reason for a plebiscite. To protect parliament from stigmatising each other across the house. It might help some of our politicians to remember that we already have a thing called the Australian people.

Like Mr Shorten’s parliament, they make choices every day and are largely good at them. And while Mr Shorten is concerned to protect my tax dollars perhaps he could encourage the funding of the plebiscite from savings on tax funded travel for politicians.

I have to admit to being very suspicious of Mr Shorten’s responses. Does he hide behind his rhetoric the fear that a majority of Australians do not agree with him and therefore it is better to not let us have a say?

That is a frightening thought for our nation when it comes to democratic leadership. But it would be equal frightening should the current Prime Minister back flip and withdraw from a plebiscite. In that situation truth would be the loser and the nation would be led by all that is false.