The Australia gay marriage survey – it was an ugly birth and an even uglier baby.
In 2015 there was global momentum to legalise same-sex marriage. Tony Abbott, Prime Minister and midwife-in-charge, was under sustained pressure to follow suit. The UK, USA, New Zealand, Ireland, Canada, all culturally aligned countries, had said I Do. Public opinion in Australia was becoming more favourable to the idea.
Tony and his fellow dinosaurs, the Liberal Party’s Christian Right, had to come up with new, creative ways to block social progress. They would use all means necessary to preserve their fictional 1950s-family-values version of Australia.
And so it was, in August 2015, in his bloody midwifery robes, Tony emerged from the party room. A unified position had been agreed, he said. In Australia gay marriage would be decided a by a plebiscite.
The stated rationale?
Marriage Equality is an issue of such importance, of such constitutional significance, the public must have their say.
The unstated rationale?
A delay. Time for the pressure to pass. Kicking the issue into the long grass, political commentators called it. Enacting a Plebiscite would take time.
Tony’s superpower, we’re told, is sensing the mood of the silent conservative majority. Tone was confident. A public vote would kill the issue stone dead.
A survey not a plebiscite?
Fast forward 2 years (Tony got the delay he wanted, but also lost the Prime Ministership). The Plebiscite failed to get through the Senate. To much derision, a Plan B was unveiled. Australia gay marriage would be decided by a non-compulsory, non-binding public survey. Price tag $120m.
The survey was a bad idea for many reasons (emboldening bigots etc). But it went ahead anyway. The result showed Australians are better, fairer, kinder people than the politicians that represent them. They voted emphatically in favour of allowing gay people to marry the person they love – every state and territory voted Yes. Australia gay marriage was finally a reality.
The result, I guess, would have been different had the survey been conducted a decade ago. But why? What’s changed?
I suggest the following 8 reasons, in no particular order:
1. Greater tolerance
Society is now more accepting. Gay people are visible. To use a biblical metaphor, the ghetto walls have come tumbling down. Demonizing strangers is easy. Demonising your gay friends, workmates and family members is not. The claims of the religious right no longer resonate. The public know gay people. They see they want the same things as them; good friends, a career, to be loved and to find the perfect avocado.
To scare the pants off the nation, the religious right rolled out tired old doomsday scenarios we‘ve heard before. Marriage Equality is the thin end of the wedge. Terrible, societal changes are afoot. And the always popular, and always spurious, ‘but won’t you think of the children?!’
Australians saw this for what it was – hypocritical twaddle. The Catholic Church, historically an institutional enabler of child sex abuse, claiming moral authority over the welfare of children? This betrayed an astonishing lack of self-reflection. They just don’t get it. Arrogantly, senior Catholic clergy trotted out the same old porky pies. As if the Royal Commission had never happened.
2. Gay celebrities and other allies supporting Australia gay marriage
George Clooney is the face of Nespresso because, to varying degrees, celebrities attract attention and influence public opinion. The support of likeable, high profile celebrities, gay and straight, helped to create a positive, feel-good aura around the Yes campaign.
Actress, author and national treasure, Magda Szubanski, was a potent weapon. Her authentic, articulate, and deeply personal appearances on The Project and Q&A moved the country (but not, I assume, Margaret Court – see below).
To my knowledge, not a single celebrity publicly supported the No campaign (except Margaret Court – again, see below).
3. Sheer bloody frustration (at Parliament)
Both sides of the debate were sick and tired of hearing about Marriage Equality. Tony Abott is to blame for this. He kicked the can down the road.
The large turnout for the survey was a clear message to Parliament – if you won’t sort this out we will. Now get on and do your job.
Margaret Court. Winner of grand slams, national hero, devout Christian, diehard anachronist, also opted for scaremongering. Australia gay marriage, she claimed, will mean ‘… no more Christmas, Easter, Mothers Day, or Fathers Day…’. What? Oh Margaret, if you’re attempting to scare the nation at least come up with something faintly plausible.
Margaret seemed unaware that same-sex-Marriage has existed in other countries for quite some time. Real, bonafide evidence is available. But that’s not what’s needed here. Common sense tells us her claims are baloney. Mothers in New Zealand, the UK, the USA are still spoiled on Mother’s Day. There was no tumble into a moral abyss.
Interestingly, there were press claims that poor Margaret was bullied by the Yes campaign. ‘She’s entitled to her opinion’ they said. The crucial point here is that Margaret, a public figure, chose to express her opinion through a letter to a newspaper and followed that up with radio interviews. The government wanted a public debate so the public has a right to reply (to Margaret). That’s the way these things work.
5. Not a fair go
The gay community has suffered at the hands of conniving, hypocritical, politicians. Australians have bared witness to a minority denied that most basic Aussie right – a fair go. They used their vote to right that wrong.
6. The character of the campaigns
The Australia gay marriage Yes campaign was creative, positive and witty.
The No campaign, by contrast, was negative, doom-laden and, sometimes, absurd. At the launch, Tony Abbott was up to his old tricks. Muddying the waters. ‘A No vote will stop political correctness in its tracks’ he said. Public reaction? Well, not much actually. Tony has become irrelevant. White noise.
7. Non-celebrity power
Engaging, articulate campaigners emerged. Their power lay, with the greatest respect, in their ordinariness. Good people you’d happily chat to at the pub. Prepared to put themselves out there for the cause. My old work buddy Nathan and his dad, Geoff, for example. Geoff confronted PM Tony Abbott on the ABC’s Q&A program. Describing his personal journey from intolerance to acceptance of his gay son. Concluding with the question: ‘I overcame my prejudices Mr Abbott. When will you?’ Abbott paused, gave his customary I’m looking into the middle distance to convey sincerity look, then dodged the question. It didn’t matter. Geoff had skillfully skewered him before he even opened his mouth.
Geoff is passionate about equal rights for his son. He’s been a high profile campaigner for years. Recently he branded his blue ute with Yes campaign slogans to travel the country. To have as many Marriage Equality conversations as possible.
8. The silent conservative majority
Abbott’s spidey senses failed him. Big time. He misjudged the mood of the nation. He even misjudged the mood of his own electorate. The national Yes vote was 61%. The Yes vote in Abbott’s own electorate of Warringah was a whopping 75%. A huge miscalculation. Quite a shock for him I imagine.
There were other surprising results too. Traditionally conservative Queensland voted Yes (60.7%) in higher numbers than New South Wales (57.8).
What do you think?
The 8 reasons above are my personal thoughts only. I’d like to hear what you think. Use the comments below.
Is the country becoming more liberal? Or is pick n mix the new brand of politics? Whereby voters remain staunchly conservative on some issues but nudging liberal on others?
Tony Abbott mural: http://www.news.com.au/
Magda Szubanski on Q&A: http://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/
I think those voting percentages are fabulous.
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Me too Jennifer 🙂
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