You might have heard there’s an election this weekend (if you haven’t heard, congratulations). And shaping up to be one of the big election issues is marriage equality.

If elected, the Labor Party is promising to bring a parliamentary vote on the issue within 100 days of being elected. It sounds nice, and is a real reason to vote that way. But there’s one catch: Labor hasn’t ‘bound’ on the issue yet, and won’t until 2019, which means Labor MPs will be free to vote with their conscience, rather than with the party policy (which is pro-marriage equality).

The Liberals are currently still officially against marriage equality, but some prominent MPs within the party support it and are pushing for a conscience vote (Malcolm Turnbull, Julie Bishop and Chris Pyne are a few supporters). If the ALP wins, it’s quite possible that the Liberals will keep their stance against marriage equality, effectively ensuring the parliamentary vote will fail, as a way to gain leverage for future elections.

If the Liberals win the election, their promised plebiscite will go ahead, possibly before the year is even out. There are so many things wrong with this.

Firstly, there are effectively no rules around plebiscites. Apart from the 1977 vote over a new national anthem, we haven’t had one in a century (and that was about conscription during World War One). This means the Liberals can run it however they like. They can word the question in a really awkward way to make the ballot confusing, they can tip the favour of the vote by counting it differently, and they don’t even need to legislate on the outcome.

Cory Bernardi has called the plebiscite a “glorified opinion poll”, and he’s kind of right. Turnbull appears to promise he’ll legislate on the outcome, but we’ve all seen how weak the PM can be at the hands of his conservative backbenchers.

It’s unclear how the plebiscite will be counted. A simple count would indicate that, according to ABC’s Vote Compass, 56 per cent of Australians support marriage equality. Other polls put that number higher. Yet the government can frame the counting in a way to ensure it fails. Seeing as official party policy is against marriage equality, it wouldn’t be surprising if it did this.

If, for example, the Liberals chose to count the plebiscite votes electorate by electorate, it would almost certainly fail. It would also mean that places like Newtown, where there is a high concentration of LGBT people (and thus where the people it actually affects live), would have the same amount of sway on the vote as, say, the Mid North Coast of New South Wales, which I deliberately moved away from because of how hetero it was, or Frenchs Forest, where last year the SMH ran a story on the only gay couple listed in that suburb on the census.

Polling this way takes the result even further out of the hands of LGBT people, and into mainstream Australia’s. Let me make this clear: the plebiscite, no matter how it’s counted, is essentially a vote where straight Australia gets to decide the future of gay Australia. Is that fair? Malcolm seems to think so.

All of this is without even considering campaigning. If there’s a plebiscite, there will be both ‘for’ and ‘against’ campaigns. There will be billboards urging people to treat LGBT people as second-class citizens. And the worst thing is that these billboards won’t be in Newtown or Darlinghurst. They’ll be in Mount Druitt, Port Macquarie, Albury, Wagga Wagga – they’ll be in places where queer kids are growing up in isolation, having already been told via the Safe Schools debate that they deserve to be bullied, and now they’ll be told they don’t deserve the right to a relationship under the law.

The LGBT people in Newtown and Darlinghurst are resilient: we have our community around us to fight back. But those people in less friendly areas don’t have that community. They’ll be isolated among a sea of anti-marriage-equality campaigns.

If you care about the rights or sanity of LGBT people at all, please, put the Liberals last on your ballot paper this weekend.

[Photo courtesy Richard Potts/Flickr]

This week:

If you don’t have an election party to get to, head to Unicornsat The Red Rattler on Saturday July 2. It’s always a good time, filled with nudity, body paint and glitter, as well as Brendan Maclean [below], Astrix Little, Gay Cliché, Amsen, Hoax Trinket and a bunch of performers doing contortion, aerial dancing, burlesque and cabaret. Don’t miss it!

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