When I was a girl, my mother used to say she didn’t like standing on the moral high ground because she didn’t have a head for heights.
News that a significant percentage of those who support same-sex marriage plan to boycott the postal plebiscite (or survey, or opinion poll, or ‘plebishite’ as my partner calls it) has even reached Blighty. It represents a concerted attempt to climb a particular moral hill and then die on it. I have no desire to die on this particular hill and am becoming rather tired of campaigners purporting to represent my interests making the perfect the enemy of the good.
Yes, it’s true that a popular vote of any sort is not how we make legal change in Westminster systems – a point LNP Senator Dean Smith makes eloquently. I get that. Yes, voting on other people’s rights in any sort of liberal democracy – even when constitutional arrangements permit it – is improper. There is a reason women were not enfranchised in otherwise liberal Switzerland until 1971. Yes, responding to the Senate’s intransigence in blocking a compulsory plebiscite by disrespecting the institution itself is pretty pitiful. To borrow an Americanism, there should be no end runs around the Constitution. They do no-one any credit. And the campaign – even at this early stage – is already showing all the bits of Australia not for export. However, boycotts – like their near relative, trade sanctions – harm those they are meant to help. Handing a thumping win to the ‘no’ vote by dint of one will make marriage equality dependent on a Labor victory at the next general election. Majorities, even in non-compulsory voting systems, are hard to shift. One only has to look at last year’s Brexit vote for a telling example.
It also has the potential to disfigure Australia’s party system for years to come by entrenching the power of socially conservative religion within the Coalition. Christian conservatism will have the Liberals in particular by the throat. Quite frankly, I’d prefer it if they all left and joined Senator Cory Bernardi’s new party. It’s important in this context to be aware that conservative religiosity is not a marked part of Australia’s political tradition; the country is as irreligious as France. The outsized presence of people with those views in the Liberals is thanks to deliberate and long-term entryism worthy of the Trots who once swiped Liverpool Council out from under Labour’s nose over here. I have friends who left the Liberal Party and joined the Liberal Democrats as their local branches were colonised by people deeply unrepresentative not only of the general Australian polity but also right-leaning Australian voters in particular. This was particularly bad in the ACT, something bemusing to the Liberals chased out of their own party in a region noted for its social liberalism. We do not want a ‘moral majority’ in Australia: you can guarantee it will be neither.
Quite apart from moral grandstanding on the boycotting issue, the hectoring, accusations of bigotry, and demands for automatic LGBT acceptance laid at the feet of conservative Christians (and to a lesser extent Muslims) has to stop. This particularly applies to repeated campaigns to get people sacked when it emerges they are opposed to same-sex marriage, or hold other socially conservative views (on ‘Safe Schools’, for example). Some of this behaviour is borne of Australian unfamiliarity with non-compulsory voting systems: the trick now is to get those who will never vote ‘yes’ not to vote at all. Enraging them so much they turn out and vote ‘no’ simply to bathe in ‘lefty tears’ is, ahem, counterproductive.
Very often, the best members of a minority can hope for is tolerance. To be left alone. The local Evangelical church or Deobandi mosque is not going to accept LGBT folk. They’re going to continue to think we’ll all burn or freeze in Hell. A significant minority of Christians and a majority of Muslims believe – at least on a theological level – that we’re all committing a crime. A belief that gay sex should be criminalised is widely held among Australian Muslims, something Malcolm Turnbull learnt to his embarrassment last year at Parliament’s Iftar supper. The social bargain both they and we have to accept – the price we all pay for living in a liberal democracy – is coexisting side by side with people who do not necessarily like us, while making sure no one does anyone any harm. It is tolerance, and not acceptance, at the core of liberal democracy.
It does not matter who or what you are: you cannot make people love and accept you. Most people recall how authoritarian attempts by teachers in the schoolyard to make children ‘kiss and make up’ or ‘shake hands and be friends’ never worked because acceptance emerges from the same instinct that says we have the right to choose our friends. Those with whom we are not friends, by contrast, are merely tolerated. You can make people leave each other alone. That’s it. The end.
I suspect lacking a head for moral heights is true not only of my mother. If you think this particular high ground is worth dying on, think again.
Helen Dale is a writer and lawyer. She read law at Oxford and was previously Senator David Leyonhjelm’s Senior Adviser. She won the Miles Franklin Award for her first novel, The Hand that Signed the Paper. Her second novel, Kingdom of the Wicked, will be published jointly by Wilkinson & Ligature in October. She lives in London.