A PUBLIC vote on marriage equality is delivering what some Australians have craved for years: an excuse to publicly trash LGBTIQ dignity.
The usual pundits are hailing the Coalition’s survey as a victorious tipping point for the fortunes of the Turnbull Government, but at best it’s a hand-holding exercise for the prime minister.
“A sad, embarrassing uncle – let’s call him Malcolm – is trying to get us to pull his cracker; but we know what’s coming.”
Because when the 122-million-dollar show comes to an end – and regardless of the result – if he wants to harness the voice of the people Mr Turnbull will still need to stand on his own two feet, walk into parliament and vote on a bill with his colleagues.
Not one outside voice, recorded at great cost to the Australian taxpayer, will echo in that chamber.
It happened that way five years ago this month when the parliament last voted on legalising marriage between any two Australians regardless of their gender. The Prime Minister was Julia Gillard, who crossed the floor and sat with then opposition leader Tony Abbott to vote the reform down 98 votes to 42.
In 2017, the numbers are a lot tighter thanks to a monumental campaign on multiple fronts, but it’s a very brave pundit who would predict the outcome.
If parliament votes on marriage equality – and there is nothing about the Coalition’s survey that binds it to vote on the result – the leadership vacuum may well see the status quo maintained.
Turnbull assures the country he and Lucy will vote yes… but remember, Mal, Lucy doesn’t get a vote where it really matters.
LGBTIQ Australians are in for a turbulent patch, and whenever our detractors pause from labelling us as dangerous to society they’ll be busy playing the victim, set to lose their freedom of speech and religious rights.
The display is already astonishingly vile, and when same-sex-attracted Australians and our supporters crack the shits and bite back, I support them, because it’s just not possible to debate human rights respectfully.
This survey is akin to a family Christmas where the LGBTIQ community has been seated on folding chairs at the wobbly card table, inches lower than the ‘adults’. It’s just assumed we’ll listen to the ignorant windbags sitting at the other end and consume whatever gets served up.
A sad, embarrassing uncle – let’s call him Malcolm – is trying to get us to pull his cracker; but we know what’s coming… a dumb joke and a cheap trinket.
It’s just another opinion poll, this survey. I’ll vote yes just like I’d wear Uncle Mal’s silly hat… for the sake of appearances, not because I’m having a great time.
His techniques include publishing running tallies on Facebook, thousands of ‘lost’ forms, unscrutinised counting and only one vote per household. Unsurprisingly, Mr Laming has never announced a result that wasn’t a fervent no to marriage equality.
It was also petitioned in 2016 and the result was overwhelmingly in favour of equality for same-sex couples.
For all of his ‘ask the people’ cleverness and claims of giving voice to democracy, none of Laming’s surveys ever united this electorate or resolved the issue once and for all, and it will be the same nationally.
Whatever the outcome of this misguided moment in the long game, creating legislation with the result will take a prime minister who leads the nation from the front.
There’s absolutely no guarantee that will be Uncle Mal.
His reason: “My commitment to have it dealt with as soon as practicable is there, but we… have to obtain the support of the Senate,” Mr Turnbull told Leigh Sales on the ABC’s 7.30 program.
This rhetoric is in stark contrast to Mr Turnbull’s pre-election claim that a guaranteed ‘yes’ plebiscite result would “sail through the parliament” under his leadership.
At the dawn of a more diverse Senate than the one Turnbull tried to shift with his double-dissolution election, another narrative swiftly emerged this week that throws even more doubt on the PM’s grasp of the reins.
A Galaxy poll commission by PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) conducted after the election indicates less than half of voters want a marriage equality plebiscite.
So the promise Mr Turnbull campaigned on – majority community support for asking the people by the end of 2016 – has fallen flat.
This is not a surprise. Equality campaigners not only saw it coming, we made it happen.
It proved to be a confronting process – knocking on doors asking for your human rights is not always fun – but we were already angry at how the mainstream media had given the Coalition’s Mr Laming a free kick in 2015.
When he appeared on Network Ten’s The Project Mr Laming claimed to be conducting a “scientific survey” of his constituents on Marriage Equality, and committed to vote in Canberra based on the results. Waleed Aly, Carrie Bickmore and the program’s producers let his claims go live to air completely un-analysed.
Mr Laming’s annual information-gathering session in his electorategave voters one say per household on issues like live export and sand mining in addition to “gay marriage”, as though LGBTI want something special, like gay supermarkets, or gay sports fields. It came back – unsurprisingly – with 58 per cent against “gay marriage”.
So we sorely needed data of our own. Working with national lobby group Australian Marriage Equality, a unique petition was devised in which we offered a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ option to anyone registered to vote in this electorate who had a firm view either way on altering the Marriage Act to allow same-sex couple equal access.
Instead of Mr Laming’s claim that Marriage Equality was a 50-50, “red-hot issue” across our community, what we found after months of cold-calling voters in their homes, at public transport hubs, shopping and at local markets, was more like the national trend in support for marriage equality: that is, overwhelming support.
Our petition proved to be an incredible experience. On several occasions we had people lining up to sign ‘yes’ to Marriage Equality, and locals engaged in many conversations about their LGBTI family members. If there was anything ‘red hot’ it was their anger that it was way past time for reform to be put in place by our elected representatives.
On social media threads we dealt with all the usual naysayers, accusing us of only petitioning at ‘gay discos’, but most people got the message – we were open to anyone with a firm view either way, and our percentage of ‘no’ signatures became strangely validating.
Fairfax Media picked up our data and put it to Mr Laming, who said he: “Couldn’t care less”, which ran as a headline for 24 hours until the MP’s office hosed it down and reclaimed his first response as off the record. He subsequently apologised to petitioners and professed to be in support of our work.
But when we delivered the petition results to Mr Laming at a meet-the-candidates event run by the local chamber of commerce, his rhetoric changed again.
For the first time, the federal Member for Bowman indicated he’d vote with the majority of this electorate’s result at a national Marriage Equality plebiscite.
Nowhere in Turnbull’s plebiscite enthusiasm had there ever been a hint that the national result could be impacted by a rogue electorate. There had been talk from Senators and MPs about ignoring the nation and voting against Marriage Equality despite the plebiscite outcome, but that was written off as simply the hard-right rabble. We’d sprung a backbencher towing the same line.
On social media, other campaigners were reporting similar language at meet-the-candidates events across the country. The dots were connected and the Coalition’s new plan became clear: a marriage equality plebiscite would only pass a yes vote if it was carried by a majority of electorates.
If the PM was not being upfront about the plebiscite, what else was on the nose?
The stink nearly lost Turnbull the election.
Coalition in splitsville
So the timetable has altered and now there’s evidence that voters don’t like the idea, yet Turnbull is sticking to his plebiscite plan.
“Marriage Equality activists are match fit and we’ve built an ongoing connection with Australian voters.”
But the election produced another result. The majority of federal MPs who support changing the Marriage Act to allow equal access to same-sex couples increased to a record majority.
If a parliamentary free vote was held now, it would easily pass.
One of the best headlines of the election campaign described Malcolm Turnbull’s plebiscite deal with the National Party as a ‘Faustian pact’. Now the dust has settled, the Coalition’s betrothal on Marriage Equality will soon start to look more like the kind of stranglehold common in domestic violence.
If Turnbull approaches the Senate with the plebiscite, it’ll likely never pass. If he tries to seek refuge in a parliamentary free vote, he’s likely to be rolled by the man who foisted the plebiscite nonsense on the Coalition with his last captain’s pick: Tony Abbott.
The Coalition’s response is to lead people to think it’s a case of plebiscite or nothing, but despite some commentators suggesting campaigners just submit to the public vote for the Coalition’s sake – in case it breaks apart – we are capable of multi-tasking around any of the Coalition’s plans for our equality.
We’ve had plenty of practice. The Coalition will just have to take care of itself, because the political wedge hit its target regardless of the election result. Other parties and lobby groups have started driving it in.
For Malcolm Turnbull, there’s simply no more hiding from the albatross he voluntarily tied to his own neck; yet he expects to resolve the marital problems the Coalition has always had around LGBTI relationship equality with $160-million dollar pretty lies about ‘asking the people’.
Blaming campaigners is like pointing at your spouse’s best friend over your own divorce. Marriage Equality activists are match fit and we’ve built an ongoing connection with Australian voters by having the important conversations. Trigger a fairly posed, timely, compulsory, binding, public vote and we’ll be there.
TONY Abbott has knocked Australian progressives and moderate Liberals into motionless disappointment on marriage equality.
The biggest political football of his government has been booted around by parliament again. There’ll be a few free kicks when the cross-party marriage equality bill comes before parliament, but Abbott’s moved the goalposts already, so none of the players will score.
The Australian with the highest hope for the Liberals on this issue – and at the greatest risk of being disappointed by her party – is Tony’s sister Christine Forster, a Liberal councillor for the City of Sydney.
She optimistically submits to interviews whenever she feels we are approaching a breakthrough. She’s also good-natured enough to engage in jokes about her brother, yet not hide her disappointment.
“It’s clear marriage equality will remain just a high hope.”
But it was Christopher Pyne who was this week’s highest-profile and most confident Liberal when it came to marriage equality, although his hopes for a free vote blinded him to a classic Abbott battle manoeuvre.
When the Prime Minister opened the discussion to the entire Coalition party room, including a wall of National Party MPs whose homophobia was guaranteed to bring out the same in everyone but moderate Liberals, Pyne’s reported response was shock. He then dashed through the media with the kind of sibilant schoolboy anger that often stereotypes him as gay.
As the dust settles, it’s clear marriage equality will remain just a high hope on the never never, that place where Australians know nothing will change in the short term.
I could analyse the chances of any of the dangling carrots – referendum, plebiscite, binding or free votes – but that would be to engage in the kind of hope Tony Abbott wants from me.
Only one person per household could fill it out, and it didn’t mention marriage equality, just it’s poor cousin so beloved of right-wing religious Liberals – ‘gay marriage’ – which presupposes same-sex attracted people want something special, like ‘gay supermarkets’ or ‘gay sports ovals’.
I treated it as harmless until national media outlets started calling it a same-sex marriage survey. Long-term Bowman resident and LGBTQI activist Adele Fisher also had mixed opinions.
“I was aware, in previous years, people had reported not receiving the survey and had questioned both the statistical significance and accuracy of the results,” she said.
“A couple of friends and I decided to encourage as many people as possible in Bowman to complete Andrew’s survey and return it. We started a Facebook page. We contacted Andrew and continued to speak with him during the lead up to the survey being released and throughout it being distributed and returned.
“We organised a rally which was well attended and had some fantastic speakers, including community members, clergy and politicians. Unfortunately, Andrew’s schedule changed and he was unable to attend, however, he did provide a statement that was read out on the day.
“The rally was fortunately held the morning after marriage equality was achieved in all 50 states of the USA, and with a quick media release that morning we had a number of media outlets contact us on the day,” she said.
“With the assistance of Australian Marriage Equality we were able to run a full-page advertisement in the local newspaper and received other excellent support from them. We attended markets and spoke with hundreds of people in the Bowman electorate.”
I felt the same wave of hope across the region. My husband filled out Laming’s survey and duly posted it off, which meant our household was only half represented, but after the leaks about Warren Entsch and Terri Butler’s cross-party marriage equality bill, there was a sense that moves were afoot to deliver marriage equality by the year’s end, so my omission didn’t seem to matter.
Laming fuelled the hope by predicting he could be given a conscience vote on the bill as soon as parliament returned, but he did not bend over backwards to get his constituents to vote in the survey he promised would decide his vote.
“Unlike his fellow MPs such as Natasha Griggs (Liberal MP for Solomon, Northern Territory) and Ann Sudmalis (Liberal MP for Gilmore, NSW), Andrew did not offer an online option, an email option, a phone option or even a photocopy of the form for people to express their individual views,” Adele said.
“Questions have been raised regarding the validity of the survey process used. There are a large number of the electorate who are reporting that they did not receive the survey in the mail.”
According to Adele, Laming announced that people who had not received a survey could attend his office on one business day – August 6 – show their identification, and cast a vote.
Crunch time came so swiftly by August 11 that even the social media had trouble keeping up with events.
Not accustomed to being consulted on anything, even issues important to their rural electorates, like CSG, mining and native vegetation laws, National Party MPs may well have been stunned at being asked to have a say on marriage equality at a six-hour special Coalition meeting.
Late in the evening, when Tony Abbott made his captain’s call that there would be no free vote for Coalition MPs on marriage equality, Laming’s survey – and his support for a free vote – were rendered instantly redundant.
When he announced the results on August 12, they barely registered.
According to Laming, 58 per cent of respondents disagreed with gay marriage. To put that result in context, only 23pc of individuals in Bowman households responded.
“I have followed Andrew’s statements on marriage equality for in excess of five years,” Adele said, “since first attending a forum he held in Bowman, and have attempted to engage with him many times on the topic of marriage equality, in person, online and via email. Unfortunately, I cannot say that these have been productive.”
Adele and I have similar hopes on the future of marriage equality campaign.
“I think the events of this week were anticipated in part by many involved in the marriage equality campaign,” she said.
“Further plans and contingencies are in place for all of us who are campaigning for marriage equality. It has been a long journey so far and it doesn’t stop here. The campaign will continue and I’m confident will go from strength to strength.
“People are hurting though, and I have seen an outpouring of support for those people impacted by the decisions this week. Let’s never forget at the heart of the matter are real people, children, youth, adults and elderly.
“I think it is extremely important no-one loses sight of this.”
“Laming’s survey managed to get him squarely back in his leader’s good books.”
Even though the likes of Abbott and Laming say they understand there are strong feelings in the community on both sides, marriage equality supporters are too easily written off as attention seekers and bleeding hearts. This is the first week in years I have been labelled a deviant.
Some say the increase in vitriol means change is imminent, but I completely disagree. Without someone in the Liberal party rolling Abbott, or the electorate caring enough about the issue to vote him out, marriage equality is now years away.
And Laming’s survey managed to get him squarely back in his leader’s good books after February’s backbench revolt. Conservatives tend to do that sort of things while progressives hope.