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There’s a lot of talk about “respect” and “civility” at the moment. In case you were unaware, Australia’s federal parliament is trying to decide whether literally every Australian should get to vote on same-sex marriage. In Australian political discourse this kind of vote is called a plebiscite.

There’s something particularly emotive about the plebiscite. It feels like a public opinion poll on whether LGBTI people have a legitimate place in society, so it’s no wonder everyone is keen to appear polite and reasonable. The stakes are too high to be accused of foul play.

Earlier today I had a bit of at Twitter conversation with Josh Taylor from Crikey, about Dr David and Ros Phillips from FamilyVoice, who I know from the annual Australasian Religious Press Association (ARPA) conferences.

It’s true, they are unfailingly polite. They’re softly spoken, sweet and kind. Your heart warms to see them together because their love for each other is obvious. And yet they would eagerly throw me under the metaphorical bus in the continuation of their social agenda.

BuzzFeed reporter Lane Sainty experienced this too when she attended the launch of Dr David van Gend’s book, Stealing From A Child: The Injustice Of ‘Marriage Equality’. Her piece recounting the experience, published today, is well worth a read.

When introducing the enabling legislation for the plebiscite, the prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull said holding a plebiscite “respects [the Australian people’s] intelligence, their civility, their capacity to express and make a decision and above all, it respects the fact that each and every one of them can have a say.”

It’s as if regardless of what you say it is inherently worthy of respect so long as you are polite about it. Further, so long as you heed the pleasantries of regular face-to-face interaction, your actions appear to be irrelevant.

There’s no inherent connection between politeness and goodness, or that a civil discussion is really being conducted in good faith. It seems self-evident to me, but I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard “but they’re so nice!” used to excuse appalling behaviour elsewhere.

Niceness means nothing. What good is niceness if that person won’t stick up for vulnerable people when they really need it? Worse, what good is niceness if that person is going to actively work against your wellbeing?

It makes me think of the Parable of the Two Sons, in which a father asks his two sons to work in his vineyard that day. The first says no, but later thinks better of it and goes. The second says yes, but never gets around to it. Which one actually did what his father wanted? I think about this parable often.

Not that we should go out of our way to be abrasive or rude, but respectful dialogue and sweet words don’t necessarily produce outcomes. In fact, insincere platitudes mask apathetic and obstructive behaviour. I’m seeing a lot of this from our parliamentarians in this debate, and I’ve had enough.

Overlooking someone’s civility to point that out might not be nice, but it is necessary.