The Australian, Caroline Overington
It’s beginning to feel a lot like Brexit, with “noes” in every home …
Or maybe the same-sex marriage campaign is starting to feel a lot like the republic? You’ll remember that campaign: the yes team was headed by a rather more energetic Malcolm Turnbull. They had all the money, all the hepcat supporters, and history on their side. Also, cool T-shirts.
And they went down in a screaming heap, losing a majority of votes in a majority of states and a majority overall.
The campaign for same-sex marriage has the same feel. Everyone you know thinks it is going to go through. In certain circles — media, public relations, advertising, entertainment — no one knows anyone who is voting no.
Yet we know that some people are voting no because the anonymous opinion polls tell us so, which in turn suggests that it has become risky to speak freely against same-sex marriage, and we all know where that road leads. Hell, it has become risky to speak out in favour of same-sex marriage, lest you do it the wrong way.
Let’s take a look at what happened to Mia Freedman. She has more than a million followers on social media and for years has been a staunch supporter of same-sex marriage, which is why the Australian Marriage Equality people went to ask if she would campaign for them on behalf of the white, straight, married brigade. They wanted Mia to say: We’re with you. We, the married, want you to be able to get married, too.
Freedman couldn’t have been more enthusiastic, posting a beaming photograph of herself and her wedding ring on Twitter, saying words to the effect: “Let’s do this.”
And she got completely shredded. Totally smashed. Why? Because she was, get this, flaunting her privilege. Showing off her ring when other people can’t have one. Lust-for-blood commentators wrote her up in an ugly way, holding her feet to the fire for being “tone deaf”.
Freedman told The Australian she was shaken by “the vicious trolling I received” and now believes “there are many, many, many people in the community and people in the public eye who have the ability to influence people to vote yes who saw what happened to me, who are now terrified to say anything lest they be similarly attacked for doing it ‘wrong’.”
She’s still going to campaign for same-sex marriage, obviously. She believes in it with her whole heart. But as journalist and Sky News presenter Caroline Marcus pointed out in The Daily Telegraph this week, plenty of people who may feel some sympathy for the cause are wavering because of bullying.
Marcus describes herself in the column as “someone who is ready to tear up the dance floor at the weddings of my gay friends”. But, she says, the moral unctuousness of the yes activists is “almost certain to push many like me into the negative column”.
Smash, bang, wallop.
A war of words immediately broke out. Some say Marcus started it since she had cited the ABC’s Lateline host Emma Alberici as “one of the worst” offenders because Alberici had started one of her questions to Finance Minister Mathias Cormann with an anecdote about a gay 15-year-old who got thrown out of home when he tried to tell his parents.
For what it’s worth, I thought Alberici’s question was great: passionate and unexpected, which is what we need in these days of heavily scripted answers and well-rehearsed sound bites. Yet the incident set off a tremendous spat between Marcus and Alberici, with supporters on both sides giving us a bitter taste of what’s to come.
Unless, of course, the no side gets totally censored. That is certainly in danger of happening over at Guardian Australia. Editor Lenore Taylor says she will “not be giving equal time or attention” to any “spurious arguments” against gay marriage.
And who decides whether an argument is spurious?
Haughty Lenore, of course.
Taylor explained her position in a column, saying: “If there was a reasonable argument to say ‘no’, we’d certainly discuss it. I just haven’t heard it yet.” She went on to list the arguments she doesn’t like, including “that it’s about political correctness”.
But support for same-sex marriage is politically correct. If you don’t believe that, try speaking out against it and see how you go.
Taylor’s position was all very high and mighty — and that is, of course, the problem: people hate high and mighty. They also hate being told what to do and what to think, and how to vote.
They like to have the debate. They want to hear the arguments. They don’t like being told the result is inevitable. The republican debate was like that: nobody who was voting yes knew anyone who was voting no except constitutional monarchist David Flint, who — like, say, Tony Abbott — wasn’t to be taken seriously because who was he anyway? Just some fuddy-duddy with a pocket square and cocked pinkie and a plummy accent.
The yes campaigners had all the cool supporters then, and they have all the cool supporters now: Qantas and H&M and the Ten Network and Virgin and even Ellen DeGeneres, who entered the debate this week by reflecting warmly on her nine-year-marriage to former Geelong girl Portia de Rossi, saying: “We are all equal.”
The other side — the no voters — have no glamour and no money. It seems like a race between a whiz-bang Tesla and your dad’s old Falcon 500, and if Australia doesn’t have a tradition of the underdog bringing it home, I don’t know who does.
Which brings us to the next thing people hate, the idea that anyone voting against the tide is evil.
Remember those blissful days before the postal survey was announced, when everyone was worried about was how ugly the no campaign was going to be? We’ve since been treated to the contribution of entertainer Tim Minchin, who entered the same-sex marriage debate with an expletive-ridden song in which he referred to the no-case people as “c..ts”.
There was huge support for Minchin on his own Facebook page, but also some disquiet, with one commentator saying: “Tim, you are not doing the ‘yes’ campaign any favours. You’re just alienating and angering people with this song of yours.” To which one of his supporters replied: “Go hump ya fist.” Charming.
But what was going on outside the echo chamber? When The Australian posted Minchin’s clip, it attracted an immediate response from readers, many of whom were deeply offended, with some saying: “Well, that’s it, I was on the fence, but I’m now voting no.”
It doesn’t pay to abuse people.
But surely it’s still going to be OK? Every poll says so!
Except that polls are often wrong, sometimes laughably so. In New York, they favoured Hillary Clinton to the point where The New York Times had the likelihood of a Clinton presidency on election day at a touch more than 90 per cent.
Good morning, President Trump.
If all that were not enough, there is yet another problem on the horizon: the yes vote for a republic was lost, in part, because supporters — not opponents — were split. Some republicans voted no instead of yes because they didn’t like the model.
The yes campaign for same-sex marriage is likewise split. Some gay people just don’t get why anyone would want to get married, what with marriage being an outdated, hugely sexist, patriarchal construct designed to control women, property and sexual behaviour.
That camp still may vote yes, but then you’ve also got those such as former High Court judge Michael Kirby who are flat-out opposed to the postal survey and are therefore sitting it out.
Then you’ve got Marriage Equality — the umbrella group for so many of the supporters — which for 18 months campaigned against a plebiscite. It is now completely pretzelled, running on one hand a campaign to encourage people to take part while also running a High Court challenge against the postal vote.
If that sounds like a mess, it is.
Last but not least, for many — maybe even most Australians — the same-sex marriage debate isn’t even very important. It’s niche. They just don’t care, or else they think the nation has bigger fish to fry, like getting the price of electricity down. Yet it’s the same-sex debate that is sucking up all the oxygen.
And where has all the noise got us? In writing to staff this week, the ABC’s editorial policy manager Mark Maley claimed that “approximately 40 per cent of Australians oppose changing the country’s marriage laws”. Forty per cent. That’s after 18 months of campaigning and nearly 40 years of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, and it may well be enough to torpedo this thing.
As with the US election, much will depend on how many people turn up to vote, and from which side, which is why the ABC is encouraging its journalists not to get carried away.
This is not a done deal.
It never is.