Yes vote offers opportunity for leadership: CSU expert

Wednesday 15 Nov 2017

Today's same-sex marriage survey result provides Malcolm Turnbull with the decisive leadership opportunity that has so far eluded his Prime Ministership, according to Charles Sturt University (CSU) School of Humanities and Social Sciences Associate Professor of political science, Dominic O'Sullivan.

"The survey result is not binding on members of parliament and some on the 'No' side of the argument remain committed to delaying or de-stabilising the reform for which Australians have voted clearly, though not decisively," Professor O'Sullivan said.

"Mr Turnbull's leadership is vulnerable and a prolonged debate against voters' wishes will entrench that vulnerability.

"The Prime Minister says he wants the law changed by the end of the year. If that can be achieved the Prime Minister will have brought some authority back to his leadership and cleared political space to focus on the government's election year priorities."

Associate Professor Dominic O'SullivanProfessor O'Sullivan (pictured left) said that the survey has complicated, and brought tension to, an issue that was always more properly the role of the Federal Parliament to decide.

"Agitation for the survey from Turnbull's opponents within the Coalition was always intended to undermine his leadership," Professor O'Sullivan said.

"It has done that to a large extent, and the possibility that the debate could be drawn out to protect the ability of bakers and dressmakers to refuse service to same sex weddings' is a leadership test that the Prime Minister desperately needs to pass."

Dr Bede Harris, senior lecturer in law at CSU says that of particular concern in the wake of the victory of the 'Yes' campaign in the same-sex marriage plebiscite are attempts by conservative elements within the Coalition to over-ride State and Territory anti-discrimination statutes.

The proposed statute would allow businesses to discriminate against same-sex couples, supposedly on grounds of protecting freedom of religion.

"Conservatives know full-well that freedom of religion is already protected by s 116 of the Commonwealth Constitution, which would invalidate any law, Commonwealth, State or Territory, which prohibited people from engaging in genuine exercise of religion," Dr Harris said.

"The problem, from the conservatives' point of view, is that the activities they are seeking to protect have nothing to do with freedom of religion."

Dr Harris said that selling a wedding cake, for example, is not a religious act, and that there is no evidence that any religion in Australia requires its adherents not to engage in dealings with lesbian or gay people. 

"The conservatives' real motivation is to allow people to engage in homophobic discrimination, including allowing businesses to put up signs saying that gays would not be served – something which was not denied on ABC News 24 this morning by Senator Eric Abetz, who has formerly said that gay people can 'turn straight'.  

"Such notices would be reminiscent of those displayed in the United States in the pre-civil rights era, when operators of restaurants, motels and bus stations claimed that their political belief in racial segregation entitled them to refuse service to African Americans."

Dr Harris went on to say, "It's important to distinguish between the private and public realms, and that whereas religions are private associations which have a right to decide who they will marry in accordance with their tenets, businesses operate in the public realm, offering services to the public at large.

"The reason why businesses are not permitted to discriminate on grounds such as race, religion or sexual orientation under current law is that such discrimination would be highly offensive and would constitute an impairment of customers' human dignity, and that for this reason the law should remain as it is."


Media contact: Holly Manning, 0418 654 226

Media Note:

For interviews with Associate Professor Dominic O'Sullivan and Dr Bede Harris, both based in Canberra, contact CSU Media.