Our Say: Don’t let words become sticks and stones

Not long after the Coalition government stalled the push for same-sex marriage by opting to run a postal survey, early signs suggested the debate about to consume the nation risked taking a destructive turn.

Former PM Tony Abbott, generous with praise for the postal plebiscite, was less kind to the LGBTI community when he urged people to vote 'no' to same-sex marriage if they wanted to stop 'political correctness'. 

The comment was a dog whistle and its meaning clear. 'Political correctness' has become a byword for so many things in our public debate its meaning is conveniently unclear. Outwardly, it points to a restraint on free speech by liberals and left-leaning media. On a hidden level, it condones a wish to speak abusively of minority groups without being chastised.

They were carefully chosen words by Mr Abbott, and his covert appeal to homophobia and prejudice degraded debate over the vote in its infancy. Already, the motives of the Liberal Party's hard right in pushing the plebiscite were clear. Some want to use any tactic necessary to stop same-sex marriage, no matter the personal cost for those the laws will affect most, LGBTI people.

Words are an undervalued commodity in today's politics, and politicians have come to carelessly disregard their destructive power. The US president sprays invective on Twitter at his opponents without thought of its repercussions. Here, politicians ape his verbal bludgeons, railing against 'fake news' from the media without considering the authoritarian intent behind the term. 

The hung parliament in 2010 combined with Mr Abbott's ruthless tactics darkened political debate, and made its language more odious as protesters pressed to 'ditch the witch', while Alan Jones said former PM Julia Gillard's father 'died of shame' - a phrase echoed shortly after by Mr Abbott.

This is all good reason to fear the lead-up to a postal vote will inspire those hostile to LGBTI people to voice their prejudice in even more destructive ways. It will be up to all actors in the debate to set a tone that's long been missing. It's not too hard an ask. Without decency or respect, these arguments will harm many vulnerable people. 

Words shouldn't come cheap. They have an awesome power, amplified for those who wield them through the megaphone of the media. History will judge the government harshly for its absurd decision to push for a postal survey. It will be scathing of those who use it to hurt and destroy.

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