You probably thought, as I did, that last week’s same sex marriage referendum in Ireland was carried by an overwhelming 62 per cent vote majority in support of changing the constitution.
In fact, only 34 per cent of the adult population voted in support of the measure. There are 3.52 million Irish citizens of voting age, and 66 per cent of them did not vote “yes”. Two-thirds of the adult population either voted “no”, or did not vote, or did not register to vote.
I did not see that mentioned in any of the media’s coverage. The reporting, I think, deliberately created the impression that almost two-thirds of the Irish voted in support of gay marriage, when in fact two-thirds did not vote in support of gay marriage.
While there was a clear majority in support for change among those who did bother to vote, the failure to even acknowledge that this was only a third of the adult population reflects what I think has become the media’s obsessive front-running, cheerleading and push-polling around this issue.
Voting is not compulsory in Ireland. Almost 40 per cent of the electorate did not vote in the referendum, another 300,000 adults were unregistered, and voter participation last weekend was much lower than the average for general elections over the past 60 years.
This is an issue dominated by a passionate minority and it has become an increasingly hectoring minority, with a loyalty test that you must pass if you wish to maintain social acceptability. A similar “group think” fever took hold in the media’s coverage of the executions of two Australian citizens in Indonesia earlier this year.
The gap between advocacy and reportage disintegrated, and it is happening again. Last week, on a panel on Sky News, I was discussing same sex marriage when a co-panellist who said anyone who did not support gay marriage was “brain dead”. That pretty well sums up the gathering orthodoxy.
This new orthodoxy is devoid of irony about intolerance in the name of tolerance, or contempt for the religious beliefs of a millions of people, or treating a millennium of cultural tradition as if it were suddenly a discredited, narrow-minded blight on social justice.
Like most people in Ireland, and most people I encounter in Australia, I do not hold a strong view on this matter. I can see the obvious merits of change but also some problems. I will be comfortable with the decision of the people, whichever way the vote goes.
But that’s the problem, the people may not get a vote. To not follow the example of Ireland, and hold a referendum, would be a missed opportunity.
The issue is important, it has gravitas, it transcends party politics, and it should be resolved in a spirit of bipartisanship. This is the direction Prime Minister Tony Abbott is attempting to take.
It is not the path chosen by the Opposition leader, Bill Shorten. He has decided to personalise the debate, and seek to make political capital. Last week, in announcing he would sponsor a bill supporting same sex marriage, he packaged his announcement with the phrase “It’s time”, seeking to revive the old slogan Labor used as it emerged from the wilderness in 1972.
Shorten also took the low road of personal denigration: “Tony Abbott is holding Australia back by preventing his MPs from voting for marriage equality.”
Shorten was educated at Xavier College in Melbourne, which means he was educated, like Abbott, by the Jesuits. While Abbott is attempting to respect his Catholic beliefs while paving the way for a vote that the church would oppose, no such delicacy inhibits Shorten’s opportunism.
Shorten’s opportunism has become his trademark, and is reflected in his failure to gain the trust of the electorate. It is exactly what the same sex marriage issue does not need.
Rather than politicians seeking to make capital over the definition of marriage, Australia would do well to follow the Irish example, and hold a referendum. Let the collective wisdom of the Australian public be the deciding factor. Let the people decide.
By Paul Sheehan