Sunday, August 05, 2012

The people DO decide

It sounds so simple, so innocent, almost wholesome, even: Let the people vote in a referendum on marriage equality—let the people decide. Gosh, who could be against that?

Everyone should be against that.

It is offensive in the extreme to ever put minority rights up for majority vote. If the minority didn’t face people who disliked them—as well as, sadly, some who actually felt hatred, bigotry or prejudice—then there would never be a controversy in the first place and no one would insist on a referendum. Instead, it’s precisely because a minority is, at least, disliked by many that some politicians want to put a minority’s rights up for a vote.

Some of New Zealand’s opponents of marriage equality have argued that the question of allowing loving same-gender couples to have the same commitment in marriage as opposite-gender couples have is “too important” to allow mere politicians to decide, and instead the people should decide directly. That’s deliberately deceptive and those politicians and activists know it: The people already decide.

Who elects Members of Parliament? The people. Who do Members of Parliament serve? The people. Who are Members of Parliament answerable to? The people. The whole point of representative democracy is that we elect people to act on our behalf—all of us, the popular and the unpopular alike. In exchange for a reasonably generous salary, we expect MPs do to the jobs we’ve given them, and to make the hard decisions.

Whenever MPs do something we don’t like, we fire them by defeating them for re-election. We do that all the time, for all sorts of reasons, big and small. However, the advocates of a referendum on this one issue know that MPs won’t be voted out for supporting marriage equality because a majority of New Zealanders support it.

Aside from elections, there’s another way in which the people have a voice: Through submissions. This is always used when a Member’s Bill (like the marriage equality bill is) passes its First Reading, and it’s often used even for Government bills, too. If people have a persuasive enough argument, their submission to Parliament may sway MPs’ votes. And, because this is a democracy, all sides and views will be considered. This is the mechanism through which the people of New Zealand can express their opinions on pending legislation directly to Parliament, and they can use it nearly all the time, not just on this one issue.

For this issue, however, there’s a third way for the people to be heard: Direct lobbying of Members of Parliament. The vote on marriage equality will be a “conscience vote,” that is, nearly all MPs will be free to vote as their consciences dictate, without having to vote the way their party caucus decides. So, people are free to write to Members of Parliament expressing their opinion on the bill, and the MPs will take voters’ opinions into account. Some MPs may even meet with their local constituents to hear their views, whether individually or in public meetings. This kind of personal interaction between the people and Members of Parliament on a particular issue doesn’t usually happen—there’s not usually any point in personal lobbying apart from on bills with “conscience votes”, like this one issue.

So, the people DO decide, and we all have a voice: We decide, first, who represents us in Parliament; if we don’t like what they do, we vote them out. Second, when Parliament considers a bill like this, we can make a submission on it to express our opinions directly to all the Members of Parliament. Third, because this will be a “conscience vote”, we can also lobby Members of Parliament directly on the issue, which is usually pointless. Add it all up and this one issue allows for far more public say than usual.

Because the people of New Zealand DO decide, we know that the call for a referendum can’t actually be about democracy—and it’s not. Sadly, it’s all about crass politics: Some politicians and rightwing activists want a referendum to help them recruit supporters and financial contributions. Others think they can manipulate a referendum campaign to get the results they could never get through the normal democratic legislative process (this has happened several times in the United States, for example). So the backers of a referendum aren’t really backing one for the sake of democracy or the people, but rather only for themselves and their own self-interest.

The next time politicians puffs out their chests and declare, “the people should decide!” simply remind them: We already do!

Previous posts in this series:

Marriage is not being ‘redefined’
Why civil unions aren’t enough
There is no ‘slippery slope’

Next up: Religious and personal freedom alike

1 comment:

Roger Owen Green said...

I've said it before, but I still believe that if interracial marriage was decided by plebiscite in the US, there would STILL be states where it was illegal in 2012. BTW, there was a story in the past 30 days where a white minister refused to marry a black couple who were congregants, though not members, because no black couple had been married there and he was afraid the church members would object.