We Could Lose The Marriage Equality Vote

It’s very easy when contemplating the upcoming same-sex marriage postal vote to feel pretty confident.

Sure, the method is less than ideal, and – assuming it isn’t struck down by the High Court – puts the conservatives in government in the best position they possibly can be. But polling consistently shows that a strong majority of Aussies support marriage equality – so as long as we ensure young people especially are on the electoral roll, all should be well.

There’s a danger here of becoming very complacent about the looming threat from this country’s conservative base. When Tony Abbott stood up and offered his take, most people immediately dismissed it as a Abbott-esque culture war salvo signifying very little. Of course Tony was going to reject marriage equality, as he has done for his entire political career.

But in his statement, Abbott signposted an angle which no doubt will play a large part in conservative messaging around this vote:

Obviously I will be voting no. But in the end this is not about the politicians, this is about the people, it’s about your view. And I say to you if you don’t like same-sex marriage, vote no. If you’re worried about religious freedom and freedom of speech, vote no, and if you don’t like political correctness, vote no because voting no will help to stop political correctness in its tracks.

There’s little doubt that the majority of Australians support same-sex marriage. But by framing the postal vote as a referendum on political correctness, Abbott is ditching the traditional evangelical approach to the marriage debate in favour of something far more insidious. He wants to make this postal vote Australia‘s answer to Brexit or the election of Donald Trump – insofar as either of those things was a rejection of ‘elite’ liberal values by an energised conservative base.

There’s a real possibility that such an angle might work. There are no doubt many conservatives and libertarians – especially younger ones – in the Australian electorate who either support marriage equality or don’t give a shit what people do, but will be compelled to vote No if it’s perceived as a rejection of political correctness.

And, by the same token, we’d do well not to ignore Lyle Shelton and his band of merry men. It’s easy to dismiss him as a moron – and his single-minded media messaging does very little to counter that perception. But Shelton is a pretty shrewd operator, and the Australian Christian Lobby are pretty fucking good at organising a base.

Shelton’s confused messaging on marriage equality – where he muddies the waters with discussion on gender identity and the Safe Schools program – is very deliberate. Of course these issues are distinct. But if Shelton can convince the electorate that a vote for marriage equality is also a vote for Safe Schools, then that’s a victory for him.

(Obviously, a more progressive gender discourse and the Safe Schools program are both good things, but Shelton and his ilk are counting on the fact that not all Australians will agree.)

The belief that the future belongs to progressives by writ, and will be handed to us on a silver platter, is a bit of a blind spot for the left. The discourse over the past decade has been that digital organising and new media is a space that lefties dominate, and that the inherently liberalising force of the internet will project us towards a more egalitarian future. It’s easy to remain convinced of this when you look at the Liberal Party‘s absolutely abysmal attempt at a news platform, The Fair Go, which reads like a pensioner sitting on a chair backwards rhapsodising to The Yoof about how ‘bogus’ penalty rates are.

The past year or so has done quite a lot to shatter the illusion, but it bears mentioning: conservatives are better organised and more militant than ever. They’ve carved out their own space online for corralling their troops, and they’re going to take this postal vote head on.

It’s also a numbers game. Michael Pascoe makes a strong point in his editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald today: the postal vote is not pitting those who support same-sex marriage against those who don’t. Its extremely optional nature means that it’ll be a battle between those who are passionate enough about marriage equality to mail in their vote, and those who hate it enough to do the same.

There’s no reliable polling as to what these ‘core’ constituencies look like, but Pascoe gave it a crack via the answers on ABC‘s Vote Compass:

Leaving aside those who only “somewhat” agreed or disagreed with the proposal that “marriage should only be between a man and a woman”, the Vote Compass participants scored 44 per cent “strongly” disagreeing and 25 per cent “strongly” agreeing.   Pick a figure to adjust for the participants tending to be better educated, younger, computer literate, disproportionately Green and Labor voters – all groups skewing in favour of marriage equality – and the margin for the core vote is likely to be nowhere near the overall two-to-one.

I don’t totally agree with the methodology here, but it makes a general point worth contemplating: this will be a much closer fight than people imagine.

This is compounded by the LGBTQ+ Australians who will boycott the postal vote. I’d wager on an anecdotal basis that the number of boycotters has probably steeply dropped since it became clear that this thing is probably happening whether we like it or not – and they absolutely have the right to not vote if they so wish – but it’s a factor nonetheless.

The situation isn’t hopeless. But it’ll take some classic get-out-and-vote tactics to make this work. You need to convince your friends and parents – who might be mildly in favour of marriage equality, but not enough to actually fill out their postal vote – to actually vote. This will be the focus of campaigns from Australian Marriage Equality and GetUp, but if you care about this you’ll help do some of the legwork too.

This will be won or lost by the people who might otherwise let their postal vote collect dust on the counter because they’ve got a million other things worth doing in their life. These are the people we’ve got to inspire enough to put pen to paper and walk it down to their postbox – and if we do it, we’ll win.

It’s a pretty shithouse situation, and a difficult one for the LGBTQ+ community who fought so hard against having to experience the hellishness of a plebiscite campaign. But if we organise, we will win.