President urges Australians to engage in ‘fair’ debate on gay marriage vote

Higgins concerned social media does not offer same accountability as traditional media

President Michael D Higgins urged Australians to engage in "fair and even" debate on their same-sex marriage vote, noting Ireland "gained enormously" from a civil debate before the vote in 2015.

Speaking in Perth, Mr Higgins said that what was important from the Irish experience in the lead-up to the referendum vote on same-sex marriage in May 2015 was the quality of the discourse.

“In the Irish case when we had this consultation, the debate had those characteristics. I think the emphasis was around equality,” the President told reporters at the unveiling of a memorial on Monday.

Declining to offer an opinion on how Australians should vote, Mr Higgins wished voters well not only in the outcome of the vote but on the “quality of the debate”. Voters always have to bear in mind “what is the impact on people’s lives as they live their lives,” he told members of the Australian media.


Australians are being surveyed on their views on same-sex marriage in a postal vote that began on September 12th. Voters must return their survey forms by November 7th.

A result is expected on November 15th. Although the vote is not legally binding, the Australian government expected to act soon afterwards if the public vote for gay marriage.

On Tuesday the turnout in the Australian vote has passed that of the 2015 referendum in Ireland. The Australian Bureau of Statistics said on Tuesday that 62.5 per cent of Australians, about 10 million voters, had returned their survey forms by last Friday. The Irish turnout was 60.5 per cent.

Mr Higgins said he has spoken about the “necessary courtesies of discourse” and expressed concern that social media did not have the same level of accountability that traditional media has.

“One of the difficulties is that one can say anything and never take responsibility for the consequences of one’s words,” he said.

“That creates a real challenge. It means that those who are consuming social media have to bring a critical capacity to bear on it that is entirely different from the old structures.”

Tiernan Brady, the Donegal man who is executive director of the Equality Campaign pushing for same-sex marriage in Australia having been political director for the "Yes" side in Ireland, said the Australian campaign has been more vicious on the fringes of social media than the Irish campaign was.

“Ireland was in a pre-Brexit/Trump world and Australia is the post-one,” he said. “Unfortunately, one thing that it has changed in the last two years is that the level of disrespect has seeped into the fringes of society and there is no doubt that social media has provided a platform that has further amplified that.”

Mr Brady shared with The Irish Times a number of vulgar comments and insults posted to him on social media over his sexuality and nationality in response to his work campaigning in Australia.

The Yes side has tried to remain positive and respectful, he said, running campaign that focused on encouraging conversations rather than debates around dinner tables and in workplaces, he said.

“We wanted to be relentlessly positive and not to take the bait,” he said.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is News Editor of The Irish Times