The ‘Respectful Debate’

16 October 2017

The University of Melbourne’s Academic Board has issued a statement in support of marriage equality in Australia, after earlier emails from University staff encouraged a ‘respectful debate’ within the academic environment.

In early September, the governing body for academic affairs at the University passed a motion supporting marriage equality in Australia. The proposed motion included preambles reaffirming the University’s Appropriate Workplace Behaviour, Student Conduct and Student Charter policies. This includes “advancing the intellectual, cultural, economic and social welfare of communities” and “advocating and upholding fundamental human rights”.

“These values are consistent with the right of all members of the University, and of the wider community, to have their relationships treated equally under the law,” the motion reads. “To that end, the Academic Board proudly supports marriage equality.”

The motion was carried with three dissenting votes.

Senior figures have sent out emails to staff and students on the issue. Following the motion, President of the Academic Board, Nilss Olekalns, sent an email to staff acknowledging the possible difficulty for the LGBTI+ community during this time.

Prior to the passing of the motion, Vice Chancellor Glyn Davis acknowledged the range of opinions on the topic is essential to the functions of a university.

“A university campus should be a place where people can debate, bring evidence to an issue, and reflect on the principles involved, all without compromising the courtesy owed to others,” he said.

In a separate email sent to students in August, Provost Margaret Sheil provided similar sentiment.

“The question of marriage equality is one on which every student will have a view. This institution is committed to democratic values, and a campus provides an important setting for robust but respectful debate,” she says.

The ‘respectful debate’ rhetoric has been widely used in the greater discussion around same-sex marriage. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has repeatedly affirmed his confidence in the Australian public to approach this topic with civility.

Following the failed High Court case to block the postal survey, the Coalition leader said both sides should be treated respectfully.

“I encourage all Australians to engage in this debate, as we do in all debates, respectfully,” he told The Australian.

University of Melbourne Student Union Queer Officer, Blake Atmaja, said the Academic Board motion was ineffective and provided a platform for queerphobic views within the University community.

“The general consensus amongst the student population is a vehement ‘yes’ to marriage equality. By holding a vote of the Academic Board to motion for or against this issue, the University is placating those who resist change, much like the government and the current plebiscite itself,” he said.

“You cannot expect your side of the argument to be respected unless you respect the other side of the argument and the people who put it.”

LGBTI+ advocacy groups have strongly criticised the expectation of a respectful debate. Many have referenced the anti-same-sex marriage advertisements on television as evidence of disrespect and intentional harm. Material from the ‘no’ campaign claims that same-sex marriage will allow for consequences, such as polygamy. These claims have not been substantiated.

Queer student at the University, Claire Bostock, noted the potential mental health effects of the ‘no’ campaign on campus.

“Allowing for ‘respectful debate’ tells people that writing ‘it’s okay to vote no’ around campus is okay, when it jeopardises my safety, my mental health,” says Bostock.

The University has outwardly supported LGBTI+ Australians within and outside of the workplace setting. Staff and students at the University have participated twice in an organised contingent for the Midsumma pride march held annually. In February, a confidential paper outlining a diversity plan for LGBTI+ employees was tabled and discussed in Academic Board.

Despite efforts to provide equal opportunity for LGBTI+ members of the University community, Atmaja believes the recognition of multiple views it not in their best interest.

“The University of Melbourne can propose all it likes to having a ‘respectful debate’ around the issue of marriage equality, but allowing such public discrimination to occur doesn’t seem very respectful.”

The same-sex marriage postal survey commenced in mid-September and should be recieved by 27 October in order to be counted. The results of the survey will be published in November.

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