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948 words

Careful what you wish for

12 September 2017

The Yes campaign needs to be wary of over-enthusiastic supporters

Right:

Rocky road ahead? Deputy opposition leader Tanya Plibersek and Labor senator Sam Dastyari pose for a photograph with a participant in a marriage equality rally in Sydney on 10 September. Danny Casey/AAP Image

Rocky road ahead? Deputy opposition leader Tanya Plibersek and Labor senator Sam Dastyari pose for a photograph with a participant in a marriage equality rally in Sydney on 10 September. Danny Casey/AAP Image


The postal marriage survey starts popping into letterboxes today, and if the deadline to return it were this Friday, or next, we know exactly what the result would be: an easy win for Yes.

Opinion polls tell us so. Polls can be wrong, but not by this amount. True, the marriage survey won’t be scientific; although the sample size will be massive (perhaps around ten million), the sampling error will be large and the result won’t be weighted.

But forget the surprisingly widespread meme that the huge Yes majorities showing up in poll after poll — at least a 40 per cent lead in the Ipsos survey in today’s Fairfax papers — could be undone by higher turnout among No than Yes voters. That’s all but a physical impossibility. What is needed for No to win is for millions of Australians to change their minds about legalising same-sex marriage, or favour it in principle but vote No to this “model” (because there is no legislation yet and much remains unanswered).

That last dynamic is most important. So far, opinion polls seem to be asking whether respondents support same-sex marriage, and how likely they are to participate in the mega-survey. We are meant to assume that those who answer in the affirmative will vote accordingly. If this vote is to go down then there will need to be a divergence between the two: in other words, a variation on the 1999 republic referendum, when many republicans voted No.

Election campaigns in Australia routinely operate in a swamp of emotion, fear, subliminal messaging and latent biases. “Asylum seekers” is the most obvious and regular theme; more benign (because the object of vilification is non-human) cases include “Mediscare” and the “carbon tax.” The reasons to vote No don’t have to make sense; they just need to pull the right levers. That’s why highly tangential issues such as Safe Schools and adoption are being brought into it. Think of the children!

And it’s why, of course, most LGBTIQ Australians didn’t want a plebiscite. They knew exactly who the “scare campaign” would be directed at.

But votes like this (as well as constitutional referendums and, in a way, by-elections) also differ from elections because there is so little at stake for most people — nothing as important as who will govern the country for three years. Minds are easily swayed. People can be convinced to vote about something else, to deliver a message to some group.

And because it starts so far ahead, the Yes side has everything to lose as these subterranean forces gather in the upcoming weeks.

Those big rallies in support are understandable and to be expected, but in clinical terms they are probably net negatives for the cause. They will convert few people to Yes while, depending on the images and slogans highlighted by the mainstream media, potentially driving more to No. And this is doubly, triply so if it all starts to look like a progressive love-in, with unions and Labor and Greens and GetUp! and what many Australians see as the usual suspects — students and dole bludgers, professional agitators — all lined up.

The No side talks of Trojan horses, inviting people to let their imaginations run wild. The word “paedophilia” is rarely uttered but subtly alluded to. The Yes side has chosen the slogans “equality” and “a fair go.” Australians like to believe these are our values, but is it necessarily so?

Neither side can control their hordes of supporters, the sometimes idiotic, over-enthusiastic and/or deranged who long to be part of history. Much more than usual, you don’t have to delve far into social media to find vile, rampaging homophobia. Online comment moderators in mainstream media must really be earning their salaries.

Some Yes supporters seem to think this a good time to denounce anyone who doesn’t support marriage equality as a bigot. Being against same-sex marriage is certainly discriminatory. You could call it textbook homophobia — even, maybe, bigotry. But perhaps these ruminations are best left until after the votes are in.

There is no equivalence between the two types of abuse we’re seeing — from homophobes and from their foes — but the latter is potentially more damaging to the cause. Every instance can be magnified by sections of the media and send voters to the other side.

Grandstanding journalists who obsess daily about current affairs and consider themselves tough interlocutors, but who now ludicrously claim they’ve been pushed into the No camp by horrid people on Twitter, are one thing. Much more important are the bulk of Australians, disengaged politically, who instinctively favour same-sex marriage when questioned but don’t feel strongly about it, and can easily be turned off by a stray comment, a tone, an inflection.

The Yes campaign, evidently considering this a turnout game, is planning to call five million Australians. That means a hell of a lot of volunteers, untrained, unpolished and (worryingly) highly motivated. The vetting is no doubt rigorous, but all it can take is a hint of condescension to turn a Yes into something else. If only it were all going to be over in a week.

Still, it could be worse. If participation were compulsory, many people who will shift from tentative Yes to Not Sure in the coming weeks would, if dragged to the ballot box, end up — to be on the safe side, and perhaps to express annoyance at having been put in this position at all — opting for No. As it is, their forms are more likely to simply go into the bin.

Optionality has turned out to be the glittering silver lining for the Yes case. •

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Right:

Sitiveni Rabuka talks to journalists after declaring himself head of state on 1 October 1987. Steve Holland/AP Photo

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