Christine Forster: Yes vote can underline mutual respect and a fair go

I’ll be voting yes — which is the fair thing to do.

There is no doubt the question of whether Australia should allow same-sex couples to be part of the wonderful institution of marriage is polarising. But rather than dividing political parties, communities, families and friends, it has the capacity to bring them together. It’s simplistic and inaccurate to label those who back same-sex marriage a “politically correct minor­ity”. Many of us come from the conservative side of politics and on all other issues are derided as reprehensible dinosaurs by those who embrace political correctness.

But we support the change because it would recognise that dedicated and enduring relationships are the bedrock of our society. It also would acknowledge that we are all subject to not only the same rights but the responsibilities that come with them. Nor do we necessarily disparage the concept of a plebiscite as a fair way to decide the issue.

In 2015, those who sought to delay or destroy the push for same-sex marriage were at the forefront of championing the plebiscite in the Coalition partyroom, winning the support of the majority of their colleagues and eventually a mandate with last year’s election victory.

Those parliamentarians, having committed to the plebiscite as the most equitable and indisputable way to make the decision, should now feel morally bound to honour the people’s yes vote, if that is the outcome.

And they should be comfortable in that because a yes vote will mean that the many who are yet to be convinced that the change will be positive have been won over.

Our elected members and everyone they represent could then feel confident that we can finally and incontrovertibly put this issue behind us and move forward in as close to national unity as is possible in a healthy Western democracy.

Those parliamentarians are also responsible for guaranteeing protections for freedom of religion and speech should the yes case prevail, a crucial concern that did appear to be comprehensibly addressed in the draft legislation prepared by senator Dean Smith. After all, if a government has decided to ask the people a question, it also has the responsibility to ensure everyone knows the ramifications of their answer.

Suggesting that people should vote no because the government has not met its obligations on this is nothing more than blurring the rules. It is also simply obfuscation to claim that one side or the other is dragging down the tone of the discussion. When opposing views are so deeply held, there will always be passionate discourse that unfortunately but realistically sometimes descends into vitriol.

The challenge for all of us is to acknowledge there will be fault on both sides and to refrain from pointing the finger at only our opponents. Calling each other — depending on which side you sit — bullies or bigots is never going to be constructive and it will never win over the people the respective proponents seek to convince.

That is particularly true when you consider that once all the politicking, posturing and name-calling is pared back, both sides are arguing the same point: the special nature of marriage.

When we discuss marriage in Australia we are not addressing a religious issue but a relationship between two people, exalted and protected under federal legislation. That legislation was enacted in 1961 and has since been amended 20 times.

Notwithstanding the legislation, all of us intrinsically know that marriage bestows a legitimacy on our personal and intimate relationships that is above all else. Most of us who have experienced committed and long-term unions that have been “married” or “not married” know that outsiders have an innate sense that the former is superior to the latter.

It’s unfair to argue that de facto same-sex relationships are not lesser than opposite-sex ones when only one category of couple has the right to access the higher recognition afforded under the law of the land, our Marriage Act.

It’s also a misrepresentation to claim that a declining marriage rate in New Zealand since 2013 shows that broadening access to the institution weakens marriage. Figures from Statistics New Zealand show that marriage rates there were on a steady decline between 1999 and 2012 but there was an upturn in 2013. Only since then has the long-term downward trend, dominated by heterosexuals, resumed.

Semantics aside the plebiscite, assuming it proceeds, will require all Australians to examine their own consciences on what they think is reasonable for everyone. It gives us pause to consider the good consequences of our own mar­riages, and to talk respectfully about what that means with family, friends, colleagues and neighbours, gay and straight.

It is an opportunity for Australia to make a yes vote our statement that we truly value mutual respect and a fair go for all, whatever our differences. It’s a chance for us to embrace our shared future as an even more unified, compassionate and proud nation.

Christine Forster is a councillor for the City of Sydney.