Did you know that the good citizens of Puerto Rico voted in a plebiscite whether to allow the island territory to become the 51st state of the USA? Despite a low voter turnout (23%), the $15 million non-binding plebiscite achieved a 97% yes vote for statehood. But now the fate of PR lies in the hands of the US government, which has no legal obligation to follow through.
The issue for Puerto Rico’s 3.42 million citizens is the country’s insupportable debt, worsening poverty and rapidly declining population. The Pew Research Centre says the childhood poverty level among Hispanics of Puerto Rican origin is 58%, the figure based on a median household income of $18, 626. Puerto Ricans living on the US mainland, meanwhile, have a household income of $33,000 (if born on the island) or $44,000 if born in the US. The childhood poverty level is 44% and 30% respectively. Little wonder almost half a million Puerto Ricans moved to the US between 2005 and 2015.
As you may have read (unless living under the proverbial rock), the Australian Government wants to hold a national plebiscite on same-sex marriage. Despite the Senate blocking draft legislation this week, the government aims to proceed with a $122 million postal ballot. This is so we can find out for sure if what the polls have been saying since 2011 are right – that more than 50% of the people want marriage equality.
But as per the outcome in Puerto Rico, there’s no guarantee a government will act on the result of a plebiscite, which, unlike a referendum, is not binding.
Australia has only ever held three plebiscites: two on conscription in 1916 and 1917 (the No vote prevailed), and a third in 1977 which offered a selection of mediocre tunes from which to select a national song. You will note here the bastardry of the choices, with Advance Australia Fair (which attracted 43.2% of the votes) distancing Waltzing Matilda (28.3%) and God Save the Queen (18.7%), which the Fraser government decided to keep as the official national anthem). Another 9.8% voted for Song of Australia (Caroline Carleton/Carl Linger). Close to 653,000 people voted for this song, but if you can hum me a few bars I’ll walk backwards to Conondale.
National songs aside (Bob Hawke reinstated Advance Australia Fair as the National Anthem in 1984), plebiscites are only ever held (in Australia) to decide issues which do not require a change to the constitution. Elsewhere in the world, as noted by election analyst Antony Green, the terms plebiscite and referenda are interchangeable. Some countries (New Zealand, even) hold citizen-initiated plebiscites to decide a range of issues, like whether to smack a child or not.
The prominent constitutional lawyer George Williams, explaining why plebiscites are so rare in Australia said: “They go against the grain of a system in which we elect parliamentarians to make decisions on our behalf”.
Professor Williams said referendums necessarily polarise debate, as happened in Ireland when a yes/no proposition was put to the community.
“As a result, even if the referendum did succeed, it may leave bitterness and division in its wake,” he wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald.
National University of Ireland lecturer Brian Tobin said the Irish experience showed that putting a human rights issue to a national vote is a crude means of legalising same-sex marriage. “It forces a historically oppressed minority to literally have to plead with the majority for access to marriage in the months prior to the vote. It also provides a platform for those opposed to misinform the public and air anti-gay views.”
Labor Senator Penny Wong spoke against the plebiscite proposal in Parliament this week, saying it will expose same-sex couples and their children to hatred. It’s a fair argument, given that Australia seems well behind the times when it comes to giving minorities a fair go.
Wake up, Australia!
So far, 23 countries have legalised same-sex marriage since the Netherlands took the first step in 2001. Only Ireland has put the question to a popular vote. As SBS News reporter Ben Winsor noted in June this year, there are now 670 million people living in countries where same-sex marriage is a legal right.
In 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States declared that the constitution protected the rights of citizens to marry, regardless of gender. It was the same year that Ireland voted 62% in support of same-sex marriage.
Nevertheless, Northern Ireland has not passed same-sex marriage legislation. The Church of England remains opposed to it, despite ongoing internal debate, and gay marriage has become a legal minefield in the aforementioned Puerto Rico.
The Australian government could resolve the issue simply and cheaply by holding a free ballot for members of parliament. This would cost the taxpayer precisely nothing and would avoid months of divisive debate.
Facebook’s Rainbow Warriors
Social media was aflame on Wednesday night as people ridiculed the costly notion of a (voluntary) plebiscite. Many people offered findings on what else $122 million could buy (chicken nuggets for all, said one post).
A cursory search by yours truly turned up another fascinating nugget: The cost of the same-sex marriage postal ballot is only $6 million more than the 2017-2018 Budget approved last month by Noosa Shire Council. The Shire covers 868.7 square kilometres and has a population of more than 52,000 residents.
But getting back to Puerto Rico, an unincorporated territory of the United States located in the northeast Caribbean Sea. Then White House press secretary Sean Spicer said of the June 11 vote, “now that the people have spoken on Puerto Rico, this is something that Congress has to address.” But Spicer is gone and Congress has an easy ‘out’ pointing to the low (23%) voter turnout. The key reason Puerto Rico wants Statehood is to be protected by US bankruptcy laws.
As Carlos Ivan Gorrin Peralta, a professor at the InterAmerican University of Puerto Rico told The Atlantic magazine, “To make a long story short, the prospects (of nationhood) are between zero and negative-10 percent.”
I’m not suggesting that Australians will boycott the (voluntary) postal ballot to that degree. But the Puerto Rican plebiscite shows what can happen when governments try to railroad people into something they do not want.
In 2011, then Opposition Leader Tony Abbott proposed a plebiscite to test Australians’ support for a carbon tax. This was variously described in the media as “junk politics” and “an expensive, bad idea”.
Moreover, Abbott said that if the plebiscite showed support for a carbon tax he would ignore it anyway.
If there’s a clear sign Aussies are fed up with the dicking about* over the same-sex marriage debate, it was reflected in the much-retweeted front page of the NT News.
The Murdoch-owned Northern Territory tabloid set aside its usual croc-shock/blood in the water approach. Instead its masthead was decked out in rainbow colours.
Under an image of two hands intertwined the NT News declared: “The legalisation of same sex-marriage is inevitable. It’s time to end this farce”.
Cool. Now can we have our chicken nuggets?
*dicking about’ – to do absolutely nothing constructive and be completely useless to the point where it can aggravate others. (Urban Dictionary).