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How to Have a Better Conversation about Marriage Equality: A Summit, not a Plebiscite

Monday, 1 January 0001  | Angus McLeay and Gordon Preece

We are two citizens, people of faith and Christian ministers who sit on either side of the marriage equality issue. Despite our differences we share concerns as to whether a plebiscite will achieve the kind of respectful and substantive conversation hoped for by many.

A climate of uncertainty, anxiety and contention has beset a plebiscite since inception, and continues notwithstanding the election result. Whatever the political future of a plebiscite, we believe another way is not only possible but necessary. Civil society could lead a better conversation in the form of a national summit.

A civil society summit could inject fresh air to a stale and stalled debate. A summit would be intentionally designed to engender respectful, serious and personal interaction between people holding opposing positions.

A plebiscite is a politically turbo-charged win/lose process where campaigns, social media and politics are likely to predominate. A summit offers a place where participants can be slow to speak and quick to listen, and in which participants commit to generous and open dialogue.

Above all, a summit provides a place for civil society stakeholders from across the spectrum to gather in one place and listen carefully. It would differ from events and social media channels which are little more than echo chambers for the like-minded to reinforce already held views. A summit would provide a structured process to challenge, to hear directly from a diverse range of participants, whose media or political profile may be non-existent. Led by civil society, rather than political leaders, the partisanship will be minimised.

A summit must be a safe space for honest dialogue. Norms should be agreed to and impartial counsellors empowered to monitor standards and provide support for all. Skilled, independent facilitators would assist participants to stay on track yet guide participants in wrestling with vexed issues. A summit program would provide a balance between structured input and informal interaction. Advice would be available to the summit from best-in-their-field experts. Creative program design would give space for participants to express themselves through a variety of mediums (sometimes words are inadequate) while workshops and group discussion would tease out discussion and foster new perspectives.

A somewhat radical idea is that a summit might best achieve its aims as a social media free occasion.

We do not suggest that a summit would resolve the fundamental differences between the two sides. (A final outcome would rest with the Federal Parliament.) However, a summit may clarify previously obscured points of common ground. Some might react sceptically that after such a long debate any common ground exists. But we think it exists, for instance, in the way the debate should be held, in respect for all loving, committed relationships and on the protection of religious freedom.

Summit discussion may lead to new ways of conceptualising issues and it may, crucially, build understanding between those with different points of view. This may enrich a debate that has often devolved into cliches and stereotypes.

These outcomes, and others we haven't imagined, can also be recorded for ongoing public discussion. A summit diary could be kept. Politicians could be invited to receive and respond to summit outcomes. Proposals can be taken forward by bodies and groups represented by participants. Its gains need not, and should not, be forgotten in whatever parliamentary and public debate that follows.

Political partisanship and community division cloud the path ahead on the debate over marriage. A summit that facilitated genuine, personal conversation offers a model of civil society conversation that we desperately need. If civil society takes the initiative, we might find a new horizon opens up.

Rev. Angus McLeay is an Anglican minister based in Melbourne. He is completing a postgraduate degree in public and international law at the University of Melbourne.

Rev. Dr Gordon Preece is the minister of Yarraville Anglican Parish, the Director of Ethos and Chair of the Social Responsibilities Committee of the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne.

This article was first published by
ABC Religion and Ethics on 16th September 2016. Reproduced with permission.

The views in this article are those of the authors, and do not represent the views of their employers.

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