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The Marriage Plebiscite—Questioning the Question

“To be or not to be—that is the question.” As Shakespeare’s Hamlet reflected on his own mortality, he had two options—Being or not being. His question was simple, clear and to the point. Within the next year, if the marriage plebiscite goes ahead, Australians will be facing their own question. But what will it be? One year after the Coalition declared its commitment to a plebiscite, we still can’t say with Hamlet, “That is the question.” *

What is the Question?

The exact wording and framing of the plebiscite question is of interest to all sides of the debate. After the Coalition's announcement a year ago, the founder and former national director of Australian Marriage Equality, Rodney Croome said “A plebiscite is not our favoured option but if there is to be a plebiscite it has to be a fair question and a proper process so it can’t be hijacked by the opponents of marriage equality.” A week later, Dr David Sandifer, NSW Director of Family Voice Australia, told Eternity Magazine, “Right now, it’s all a bit vague. We don’t know if it’s a plebiscite or a referendum, we don’t know the wording or how it’d be framed. In principle we feel like the popular vote has a lot of merit. But it’s all in the details… A plebiscite could be useful, depending on the wording.”

Well, a year has passed and we’re all still in the dark about what the plebiscite question might be. Recently though, the Australian Attorney-General, George Brandis, has stated that he will ask cabinet to decide on the wording of the plebiscite question within the next few weeks. When asked about his personal views on how the question should be phrased, he told the ABC’s Insiders: “My strong view—and having spoken to stakeholders who represent both the ‘Yes’ and the ‘No’ side of the argument, I think this is commonly accepted—the question should be as simple and as self-explanatory as possible.”

Advocates on both sides of the debate know the power of a loaded question. The way a question is asked can greatly shape the outcome of the answer.

A Loaded Question

There is so much interest in the actual wording of the plebiscite question because advocates on both sides of the debate know the power of a loaded question. The way a question is asked can greatly shape the outcome of the answer. For example, if I was conducting a survey on the topic of abortion and I asked the loaded question, “Do you think that pregnant women should be forced by the government to carry their pregnancy to term?” as opposed to the equally loaded question, “Do you think we should allow babies in the womb to be murdered?”, you can imagine how the average person on the street might give two very different responses. Each of those questions may seem completely valid depending on which side of the debate you are on. But that is the danger. We are often blind to our own bias. We may not be conscious of this, but often when we ask these sorts of questions, we don’t simply want an honest answer—we also want to persuade people to agree with us. Consequently, our bias can easily lead us to justify asking people loaded and suggestive questions.

A historical example of this is the 2009 citizen-initiated referendum in New Zealand on the topic of whether smacking should be legal. The actual question that was put to the people was, “Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?” Now, no matter what your view is on smacking, with a question like that it’s no surprise that the result was that 87.4% voted “no”. The wording of the question was widely criticised as being both leading and misleading, with the New Zealand Prime Minister, John Key, even saying that the question was “ridiculous” and "could have been written by Dr Seuss.”

Simple and Self-Explanatory

In regard to the marriage plebiscite, you can see why the danger of a loaded question is of concern for both sides of the debate. No one wants, as Rodney Croome described it, for the process to be “hijacked”. But how do we prevent that from happening? Antony Green, ABC’s election analyst, reflected on this dilemma in his blog, writing, “Specifying the question could be controversial. Should the question ask about restricting marriage to opposite sexes, or specify that same-sex marriage be allowed? Should it ask a de-gendered question such as whether marriage should be between two persons? How about marriage should be restricted to its traditional meaning between a man and a woman?  Even the horrible ‘Do you agree to an act to amend the definition of Marriage?’ There is much scope for using the words to tilt the result one way or the other.” 

It seems that the best way to ensure the fairness of the plebiscite is to follow the Attorney-General’s suggestion that the wording of the question “should be as simple and as self-explanatory as possible.” This means loaded terms such as the conservative-favourite “traditional marriage” and the highly emotive and overly-used “marriage equality” should be avoided.

The wording of the question should be as simple and as self-explanatory as possible: “traditional marriage” and “marriage equality” should be avoided.

Same-Sex Marriage is Not Illegal

Even the seemingly innocent question: “Should same-sex marriage be legalised?” is quite misleading. Using the term “legalised” may suggest that “same-sex marriage” is a type of relationship that exists but is presently illegal. This isn’t the case. 

Same-sex marriage is not like marijuana—which exists but is not legalised. For recreational marijuana use to be legalised, the government would not have to change anything about the way the law defines marijuana. Marriage is quite different. The current definition of marriage under Australian law, is “the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.” In the eyes of the law, this is what marriage is. Consequently, “same sex marriage” is not illegal—it is legally non-existent. This is why when a gay couple comes to Australia with a marriage certificate from another country, they are not arrested or fined. Australia simply does not recognise their “marriage” as valid. Our Marriage Act states that marriage is between a man and a woman, and so by definition, in Australia, they aren’t actually married.

Now I recognise, this is what the “yes” side is wanting to change, but it is misleading to suggest that to make this change happen “same-sex marriage” needs to be “legalised”. Before same-sex marriage can become a legal reality, something quite significant has to happen. The legal definition of marriage itself has to be changed. This may seem a small matter to some, but to others this is at the very heart of their objection. This is why asking something like, “Should gay couples be allowed to marry?” or “Should same sex marriage be legalised?” would be playing into one side of the debate. It would be a misleading and loaded question.

Questioning the Question

Choosing the exact words of the plebiscite question could be a very difficult task.

Fortunately it seems there may be light at the end of the tunnel. God willing, the plebiscite question will be announced in the next few weeks. When it is, no matter which side of this debate you are on, you should question the question. Listen out for those phrases that might sway the plebiscite to give one side an unfair advantage. If it is particularly loaded, some may feel it is important to lobby our parliamentarians to have it changed. At the very least, our awareness of this bias should inform our conversations with family and friends. When discussing how we might vote, we may have to deconstruct the question itself before we express our position on it.

No matter which side of this debate you are on, you should question the question. Listen out for those phrases that might sway the plebiscite to give one side an unfair advantage.

These sort of conversations about semantics and the loaded nature of words can feel wasteful. We’d all rather discuss the issues at the heart of this debate rather than the wording of the question, but it may be necessary if the discussion is going to be productive. As much as Christians are committed to God’s good definition of marriage, we should also be committed to fair play and honest dealings. God has always stated his condemnation for dodgy deals: “Unequal weights are an abomination to the Lord, and false scales are not good.” (Proverbs 20:23). 

Others may seek to do everything in their power to sway this plebiscite in their direction, but our goal should not be to rig things in our favour. We shouldn’t feel the need to. Our confidence in the sovereign goodness of God should give us the freedom to want the plebiscite question—and indeed the whole process leading up to the plebiscite—to be as clear, fair and unbiased as possible.


 
*POSTCRIPT

In the time that this article was written, NewsCorp has reported that the plebiscite question has been decided upon. Apparently, voters will be asked: “Do you approve of a law to permit people of the same-sex to marry?”

If this report is correct, now is the time to question the question. 

Do you think there are words or phrases in this question that favour one side or the other? Seriously consider both sides of the debate and the issues they care about (which I understand is an exceptionally difficult feat of generosity for some). Which side of the debate would be most pleased about this question’s wording? In the end, if this does end up being the plebiscite question, does it have the potential to sway the result?

I hope to write a follow-up article, but in the meantime, let us think hard and discuss it’s implications, because if the reports are accurate, we can now finally say with Hamlet… that is the question.

Simon Camilleri is the coordinator of Elephant Room - a ministry that aims to provide gospel-focussed resources and support to help Christians find freedom from pornography and satisfaction in Christ.

Simon has been actively involved at Bundoora Presbyterian Church since 2001 and serves there with his wife Cat, and daughter. Simon loves excellent public bible reading, discussing the gospel, inventing board games and learning magic tricks. You can follow his blog at: simoncamilleri.com.

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