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How to have a better conversation about marriage equality: a summit, not a plebiscite

Sunday, 2 October 2016  | 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.


Bruce Wearne
October 4, 2016, 11:39AM
Well suggested Gordon and Angus:

I'm gratified that this has been an ABC Religion and Ethics contribution and is now further distributed via Engage Mail. It is a suggestion that certainly deserves further consideration, not least by Ethos readers.

But then I suspect that "further consideration" by those who have entrenched themselves as major political players in this matter (e.g the political parties, mass media, large public corporations) will also needs "further careful and respectful consideration that does not pull any punches." To confine myself to major political blocks (leaving commercial interests to one side), I guess they will have to find a new depth of political courage to even consider it, let alone move to support its implementation. It challenges their respective attempts to “appeal” to public opinion.

Why? Because if such a conversation is to do what you and Angus envisage then the parties will have to allow themselves to enter into a public forum where they will be made accountable for what many will come to see as their respective neglect of public political education and “all of Government” policies WRT “marriage, family and household” as well as the controversies over sexuality for decades … how are they now to justify such public education neglect as being a necessary sacrifice they have had to make in order to maintain civic harmony and public justice? At least that is how I read the more prominent comments made about the "dangers" of the plebiscite. Do we really need to be told of the "dangers" of public debate as if this only emerged in recent times? But these appeals sound too convenient and very much like ducking for cover using the vulnerable as "shields" because these powerful players stand on the cusp of being exposed for policy and political-educational neglect - we might call it political fraud.

They might try to support your creative proposal but they won’t be able to do it without publicly acknowledging that IN POLITICAL FACT such a “conversation” puts them, AS PARTIES, on the brink of a public judgment that they are no longer qualified to hold the seats in the country’s parliaments that they now so desperately hold. That might sound extreme but how can the issue be properly considered as it should be without inviting variant and dissenting interpretations of Australia’s political history (since 1975-6 and 1981), of our judicial system (of statements in the High Court's 2013 judgment), exploring the strategic “switch” from "same-sex marriage” to “marriage equality”, as well as identifying international dimensions of this global movement for a neo-liberal “advancement of human rights”? Just how is it to be explained to our Australian populace that the Marriage Law has to be changed to contravene our national adherence to Article 16 of the UDHR?

So good suggestion; but such a summit will be very difficult to convene; and the resulting “conversation” will perhaps be even more difficult.

The article says "A final outcome would rest with the Federal Parliament.” You are quite to say “a” because then it is not being dubbed “the”, and leaves room for a commitment to an open democracy. And after an ongoing Christian political contribution about marriage is to be expected after such a summit, or plebiscite let alone legislation. It has been already been expected of us since civil government was established to form this polity.
Roslyn Loader
October 4, 2016, 2:08PM
I know you have been engaged, and I attended such a format and the rules held reasonably well, though it takes a lot of expertise and strength to keep such control.

My concern is: how do you assure a wide enough spread of people to attend and who would be willing to sign up in such a way? Who would prepare format, rules and pre-publications?

A huge task.

Thanks. I have the same concerns and already we have seen the intolerances.


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