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Marriage Equality: Referenda Roulette?

Wed 28 Nov 2012 In: Comment View at Wayback View at NDHA

The Christian Right may have paused in its usual blind advocacy of binding citizens' referenda, but it's still not 'participatory democracy' or a 'popular mandate.' Even if three US referenda resulted in affirmative outcomes for marriage equality several weeks ago? Maine, Maryland and Washington state bucked the trend and actually supported the introduction of marriage equality through referenda. In Minnesota, voters refused to sanction an anti-equality constitutional amendment within an anti-SSM ban referendum. However, thirty US states still prohibit marriage equality, whether through statutes or state constitutional amendments. Some versions go further and rule out civil unions as well. In New Zealand, the Christian Right's fundamentalist segment still tends to view binding citizens referenda as a panacea for all social ills, but increasingly, conservative Catholics are unsure about whether or not to support them. Euthanasia law reform is moving up their political agenda and they are concerned that in Switzerland and the United States, binding citizens’ referenda have been used to either introduce or maintain access to either voluntary euthanasia or physician assisted suicide. The US Christian Right had a narrow escape in Masschusetts, where an anti-euthanasia coalition narrowly averted the introduction of physician assisted suicide in that state through Question 2. Nor will 'anti-drug' social conservatives welcome passage of libertarian referenda results in Colorado and Washington state that sanction decriminalisation of recreational cannabis access. However, there are some dissenting voices on the right. Prime Minister Key has rejected binding citizens’ referenda on fiscal responsibility grounds, arguing that the first responsibility of a centre-right government is to provide access to public health, education and social services. It is obvious that Christian Right zealots have never had to grapple with tangible questions of public office like allocation of public finance and other resources to health, education and welfare provision. In California, anti-tax referenda addiction spiralled out of control, and bankrupted the state economy. Within New Zealand, New Zealand First and the Conservative Party appear to be alone amongst major political parties (and microparties) in their enthusiasm for the adoption of binding referenda. One wonders if New Zealand First's elderly supporters have thought the matter through. Presumably, they would be more intent on using such tactics to preserve their existing standard of living and access to social services than against us, although Louisa Wall is correct that many opponents of marriage equality are somewhat older than the rest of the population. It's easy to see why the fundamentalist Protestant sector of the Christian Right support the idea of binding citizens referenda. They believe that the existing system of proportional representation minimises social conservative parliamentary presence and encourage "too much" deliberation, whereas referenda encourage participation from undereducated populists and demagogues and simplify public debate down to the level of sound bites and media marketing campaigns. No doubt the New Zealand Christian Right hopes that the US Christian Right will send them money so that they can mount a lavish anti-equality campaign of their own, although given Obama's re-election and Democrat control of the US Senate and several state legislatures, that may not be forthcoming. If I were Family First and the Conservative Party, I'd abandon their dogmatic insistence on binding citizens referenda now, before they start to experience accelerating loss of conservative Catholic support over libertarian referenda results when it comes to euthanasia law reform, or face cannabis decriminalisation referenda in our own context. They need to start asking themselves whether it is worth using referenda to target marriage equality, without any guarantee of a social conservative outcome, if it also leads to 'undesirable' outcomes and political defeat on emergent issues? Craig Young - 28th November 2012    

Credit: Craig Young

First published: Wednesday, 28th November 2012 - 12:01pm

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