Image for Rodney Croome: this is personal – why I can’t resign myself to a plebiscite

Rodney Croome quits Australian Marriage Equality to oppose plebiscite ‘If a gay kid dies at his own hand because of a hate-mongering plebiscite, I have to be able to look at myself in the mirror and know I did everything to stop it.’

Don’t believe what you read in the media, there is no “split” in the marriage equality movement. There is a spectrum of different approaches to a very difficult situation.

The difficult situation is that the government says there’s only one path to marriage equality – a costly, divisive and unnecessary plebiscite.

At one end of the spectrum of responses are those who don’t accept the government’s ultimatum and are putting their energies into stopping a plebiscite and securing a free vote in parliament. This includes Pflag, Rainbow Families, and the new national LGBTI advocacy group just.equal.

At the other end are people who reluctantly accept the ultimatum and are putting their energies into preparing to win a plebiscite. This includes the group Australians 4 Equality and Irish referendum campaigner, Tiernan Brady.

In between are groups carefully balancing both approaches, including trying to obtain the best terms possible for a plebiscite.

This includes Australian Marriage Equality.

Each approach is a reasonable, necessary and legitimate response. They can easily fit together and need not be in conflict. In fact, I’d be worried if the marriage equality movement wasn’t working on all these fronts at once.

It’s a sign of the maturity of that movement that it can accommodate groups with differing priorities. The diverse voices of the marriage equality movement have always been its strength, no less now than in the past.

Rest assured these different approaches will not weaken a “yes” campaign if there is a plebiscite.

If a plebiscite is finally called, the networks and resources mobilised to stop a plebiscite will swing behind winning it, giving the “yes” campaign extra muscle. We will all unite to win a plebiscite if one becomes inevitable.

In recent times my place on the marriage equality spectrum has shifted.

I am now working closely with groups such as PFLAG and just.equal to stop a plebiscite. This is because I genuinely believe a plebiscite can be stopped and marriage equality can be passed through parliament.

This is based on my near-30 year experience of advocating for LGBTI human rights, and on my conversations with Liberals and Nationals who support marriage equality.

They are currently locked in behind a plebiscite but if enabling legislation is blocked in the Senate, the landscape changes.

The public spotlight will swing on to the government’s failure to allow a free vote, especially now the numbers are there to pass marriage equality if MPs are freed from the straightjacket of party policy.

If a free vote isn’t allowed there’s still the possibility of Liberals heeding public opinion and crossing the floor.

We only need a four or five of them to swing behind a bill and the issue that has dogged Australian politics for years will finally be over.

Those who believe a plebiscite is inevitable and a successful parliamentary vote impossible betray a lack of political imagination. The history of marriage equality shows how quickly and unexpectedly the political situation can improve and there’s every reason to think such change is possible in the future.

In the current situation we aren’t sure how the plebiscite legislation will be framed or how the Senate will react to that legislation.

It’s not the case that “we have to play the cards we’ve been dealt” because no cards have been dealt yet.

A good comparison to the plebiscite proposal is the national civil union scheme that was proposed by some politicians a few years ago. Like a plebiscite, civil unions were proposed as a path to marriage equality when in fact they were all about holding it back.

As with a plebiscite, politicians said civil unions were the only way forward.

Marriage equality advocates said “no” to that ultimatum and the momentum for civil unions slowly faded away while the issue of marriage equality stayed front and centre.

It will be the same with a plebiscite.

The other reason I have shifted to work against a plebiscite is deeply personal.

In the mid 1990s, at the height of the bitter and divisive debate about decriminalising homosexuality in Tasmania, a young gay man, Nick Donovan, found himself in a quandary.

Nick had bought a one-way ticket to Melbourne because he could no longer bear the anti-gay hate. But neither could he leave his family, his friends and the place that gave his life meaning.

The night before he was due to leave he took his own life.

We know what he was thinking because he wrote about it in his suicide note.

At the time, I was busy trying to move decriminalisation forward by making submissions to the United Nations, lobbying state MPs, advocating in the media and speaking to community groups. There is a part of me that will always fear I was too distracted by all this lobbying and advocacy, and that I didn’t do enough to protect vulnerable people such as Nick.

He is a splinter in my bloodstream that has finally reached my heart.

If there is a plebiscite, and when the first gay kid dies at his own hand because of the hate and fear-mongering, I have to be able to look at myself in the mirror and know I did everything I could to stop it … everything.

Sadly, that includes giving up my role at Australian Marriage Equality.

My work against a plebiscite places the organisation in an impossible position.

AME is the group that will have to negotiate the best possible terms for a plebiscite should one occur. Having me advocating against the government’s plan for a plebiscite makes it harder for AME to engage constructively with the government.

I am grateful AME has been patient about my growing anti-plebiscite advocacy. It is a small but significant sign of the co-operative spirit that prevails in the marriage equality movement.

But now we must be free to go down the different roads history has assigned us.

It has been difficult for me to decide to leave. I founded the organisation and have been its spokesperson and national director for many years. I particularly enjoyed the grassroots organising I did with AME. Through AME I made many good friends and learnt a lot.

But I don’t feel I am abandoning it.

AME’s agreement with Australians 4 Equality ensures it has access to some of the best PR, IT and community organising specialists in Australia.

Meanwhile, I will be finding new ways to take AME’s stated opposition to a plebiscite to the next level.

I will continue to advocate for marriage equality itself. It is key to society’s recognition of the equal citizenship and full human dignity of LGBTI people.

But because a plebiscite compromises both those outcomes – because it is an inequitable and undignified process – I cannot resign myself to it and will campaign as hard as I can to stop it and all the damage it will cause.

*Rodney Croome is the former national director of Australian Marriage Equality. He has left to fight a marriage equality plebiscite and remains a campaigner for LGBTI rights

• Bob Hawkins in Comments: I don’t approve of the institution of marriage in any way, but, if we have to burdened with one, it should be equal for everyone. On Turnbull’s record since he knocked off Abbott, he has vacillated hither and yon on endless issues. If only he had the guts to stare down his captors and make a captain’s call to abandon the plebiscite course and give a conscience vote to parliament, he would put his parties’ loony religious/bigoted members where they belong — as a misguided, outrageously empowered, but, in reality, an intellectually atrophied rump on the Liberal/National political beast.

• Michael in Comments: The problem with a costly plebiscite is that you are asking a majority to vote on something that only affects a minority. How does letting two same-sex people marry affect my heterosexual marriage or yours? Why should I have a say in other people’s relationships. It should be a simple matter of our politicians looking at the issue, realising there is no logical region not to allow same sex marriage and simply voting for it. ‘Tradition’ is not a reason to exclude people from marrying who they choose. If ‘tradition’ is an issue for people then perhaps we should be lobbying for the removal of voting rights for women and placing aboriginal people back on the flora and fauna list.