On Friday 8 December, 2017 the Governor-General of Australia gave royal assent to the Marriage Equality Bill, officially legalising same-sex marriage and making Australia the 26th country to do so.
Enabling marriage equality is not a new concept. The Dutch allowed same-sex marriages almost a decade ago, passing a bill in December 2000. Belgium followed suit in 2003, Canada and Spain in 2005, and South Africa (still the only African nation to legalise gay marriage) in 2006. Our Commonwealth cousins in New Zealand, England and Wales came onboard in 2013, and even the predominantly Catholic countries of Ireland and Malta made the decision before Australia or rather our parliament could.
Given there had been 22 unsuccessful attempts to legalise same-sex marriage since 2004, it’s not surprising that our leaders looked to the Australian public to inform their decision
Of the 26 countries that have legalised same-sex marriage, 21 made the change via a parliamentary vote; court rulings prompted the change in five countries, and a referendum was legally required to change the law in Ireland. Australia is the only country to have held a non-binding postal survey before making a parliamentary change. Given there had been 22 unsuccessful attempts in Australian Parliament to legalise same-sex marriage since 2004, it’s not surprising that our leaders looked to the Australian public to help inform their decision. However, the voluntary, non-binding ‘expression of opinion’ cost the Australian taxpayers A$100 million. By comparison, the 1999 referendum for Australia becoming a republic cost A$66.8 million.
This all begs the question, ‘How can our leaders better engage with citizens to reflect their wants, and the progressive and changing needs of society?’
The Institute of Public Affairs at the London School of Economics (LSE) – considered one of the most prestigious and selective universities in the world – had the audacious idea to crowdsource a written, codified constitution for the United Kingdom (UK). The trailblazing project known as ConstitutionUK was held over two years and invited members of the British public to participate in, offer advice on and eventually to draft a new constitution. The end product was a new codified constitution for the UK, which was unveiled to coincide with the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta or ‘The Great Charter’. The Magna Carta is the UK’s most famous constitutional document, signed in 1215 by King John of England in response to a revolt by medieval barons.
The People’s Constitution is a reminder that we all matter, in return for which we have an obligation to think about the organisation of the world we find ourselves in
Professor Conor Gearty, Director, Institute of Public Affairs, LSE, said, “Magna Carta’s 800th anniversary is a reminder to us all that the responsibility for proper governance rests with each of us. The issue is moral as well as constitutional. The People’s Constitution offered here is a reminder that we all matter, in return for which we have an obligation – each of us – to think about the organisation of the world we find ourselves in.”
Back in Australia, a group of volunteers is redesigning democracy. Melbourne-based innovators, MiVote – an app-based democratic platform – launched their concept for a redesigned democracy in February 2017. MiVote presents people with fact-based information, free from special interest influence, media bias and party spin, lets them vote via the MiVote app, then intends to represent their majority view in parliament via elected MiVote senators.
“True Democracy is enacting the informed will of the people. How can you enact the people’s will if you never ask them what they want?” Adam Jacoby, MiVote Founder and Chief Steward.
Effective democracy requires an engaged and informed electorate, free from party ideology, corporate influence, and media bias – one focused on long-term outcomes. MiVote enables this through, what they describe as, ‘issue-based education’; expert researchers from around the world package information on topics – for example, housing, asylum seekers, energy supply – presenting a range of simple, objective perspectives through an app for comparison. MiVote then provides objective, evidence-based views outlining the pros and cons of each relevant perspective. MiVote is underpinned by blockchain to ensure privacy, security and accountability.
MiVote is a not-for-profit democratic movement, comprising mostly volunteers. They intend to register as a political party before the next federal election and run MiVote candidates for the Senate. MiVote Senators will be bound by their constitution to represent the majority position as voted by members through the app. Jacoby believes that’s how we can get the will of the people back into the decisions parliament makes about our country – democracy without the politics.
Australia’s Parliament voted overwhelmingly to legalise same-sex marriage, undoing the last major piece of discrimination against gay and lesbian Australians and overcoming years of conservative resistance to enact change that the public had made clear that it wanted. While the process to achieve marriage equality in Australia may have been an expensive, and emotional exercise, it demonstrated the power of public opinion. And like the LSE and MiVote platforms, it presents the need to enable and facilitate more meaningful civic engagement, and to elevate more informed discussions and decision-making on issues that affect us.