The national vote on same sex marriage may be less determined by the pro v anti campaigns but by the gap between both campaigns and the public.
On the question of allowing same sex marriage and a national vote to decide it, polls showed that there is solid support for same sex marriage among supporters of all main parties, and for a binding national vote to decide it, with a binding vote supported by 53% of supporters of same sex marriage and 56% of those against it. So it would seem that the most popular combination of both was to support same sex marriage and a binding plebiscite to decide it.
Yet this particular position has been almost totally absent from the discussion in political and media circles. Why is that?
When the support for a binding vote is acknowledged by SSM supporters in the media it is usually to point that the poll is irrelevant as a binding vote has never been on offer. This is true. The idea of the referendum was less about the public having its “say”, than a beleaguered Liberal Prime Minister looking for a way out by placating the left wing of his party and carried on by a beleaguered Liberal Prime Minister looking for a way out by placating the right wing of his party.
But the follow on is never to argue that the vote should be binding and mean something. Instead it heads in the opposite direction and ends in a call for no vote at all – preferring instead to let the Coalition join Labor to vote as they see fit, guided by nothing but that most special thing, an MP’s “conscience”.
But just because a binding vote is not on offer does not mean the public’s support for it is irrelevant. It hints at a gap, especially on the pro SSM side, between the official campaign in politics and media, and the public. It’s not just that support for a binding vote is absent from the official pro-SSM campaign, it is absolutely anathema to it. To many in the media and in politics, a national vote is, as one journalist described it, “morally repugnant”. This suggests a significant disconnect between the official pro SSM campaign, and the pro SSM public which is supposed to be on the same side.
It may have something to do with differing attitudes to the public. The most vehement reason given in media/politics against a national debate is it would be conducted in a way that would hurtful to those already in same sex relationships. The public must clearly have a different view on its ability to conduct a debate. How else to explain the public’s position that would seem incomprehensible to many media commentators – tolerant enough of same sex relationships to allow them to marry but indifferent to the hurt a national debate would cause to the same people? Maybe those in the media and politics are simply more sensitive to the feelings of those in same sex relationships. Really.
This concern about the public probably also explains the fixation on Parliament by the pro SSM lobby. Other reasons aren’t obvious. Parliament is certainly not the most supportive place for same sex marriage. In fact, Parliament has shown vote after vote under both the Coalition and Labor that it is one of the least supportive forums for same sex marriage in the country, lagging approval from the public (and even its more religious sections) for well over a decade.
Nor can it be claimed to be the forum to go to for the most civilised discussion about it. These days it is hard to think of high profile public figures outside of Parliament getting away with linking same sex relations to bestiality and paedophilia as Bernardi and Christensen have within it. In fact it seems in this case that for the Yes campaign the one virtue of Parliament is that it is not the public, ironic given it is supposed to represent it.
This disconnect the Yes campaign has with the public over whether it should have a say leaves it vulnerable.
We have been here before. In 1999, the Yes campaign entered the republic with a stronger polling lead than the Yes campaign for SSM, but also with a major disconnect with the public that was supposed to be on the same side.
The difference then was between the official campaign wanting a President appointed by Parliament and the public’s preference for a direct election model. This difference stemmed from a differing view on what the republic was about. For the politicians in the campaign, it was a coronation and a pep up for political projects that had lost their rationale. For the public, a republic was more likely a way of by-passing the political class for much the same reason. The difference was exploited by Howard and the Monarchists to turn the debate from being about the republic, which they would have lost, to being about direct election v appointed model which split the republic vote and saw the republic campaign fail.
The disconnect this time between the pro-SSM campaign and the pro-SSM public is, if anything, even worse, since it seems to be about the public itself. It has already come up about whether the vote should be held, and is starting to come up in a differing view between the campaigns and the public on what the marriage debate is about.
The marriage vote should be about one thing, the public’s current definition of marriage. Since all the polls point to that now including same sex relations, that should suit the pro SSM supporters in politics and media to just go with the flow.
It is certainly proving a problem with the No campaign. They would like to pretend that being OK with same sex marriage is a project of the elites. The trouble is that the shift in society has already happened and so much of their argument falls flat. This especially relates to arguments about what it means for bringing up children given that same sex couples already have children. It was brought out in one encounter with WA Liberal MP and No campaigner Andrew Hastie, who after arguing that children should be brought up in a traditional marriage to provide stability for children, had no answer as to why it wouldn’t be better for same sex couples that already have children to get married to provide stability etc. etc.
The No campaign having trouble getting to grips with a changing society should not surprise. They are social conservatives after all. But what is very odd about this campaign, and must give the No campaign hope, is that the Yes campaign seems to have trouble with it as well.
To understand this we need to start with something that is so out of line with current political thinking that it will be forgotten by some as soon as they read it.
The decisive change in social attitudes to same sex marriage in Australia happened during the last term of the Howard government. When the Marriage Act amendment was passed by the Coalition and Labor in 2004 banning same sex marriage, public support for same sex marriage was just under 40%. By 2007, in Howard’s final year, it was a majority at just under 60%. It has drifted up over the last decade but now is not far off that level.
There has been surprisingly little discussion of what caused this historic and rapid shift in the space of a few years. It certainly wasn’t because of politicians. Both Labor and the Coalition were against it, and it would be hard to argue that a minor party like the Greens, that did support it then, had that much influence. Nor was there, as far as this blogger recalls, a major campaign by the parade of celebrities and media, sporting personalities that are campaigning for it now.
In fact, far from being an “elite project” as the No campaign would like to make it, the (ahem) “elite” in Australia have lagged behind the public, certainly in politics, and even the media and intellectuals have not exactly sparkled through their leadership. It is probably no wonder that this shift is rarely explained in such circles and when it is recognised, it just seemed to have happened.
Or kind of not, if you look at the Yes campaign. Given this shift happened over a decade ago and has remained fairly stable since, the Yes campaign should be easy – just make the marriage law reflect public attitudes. Er, that’s it.
But such a prominent role for the public seems to be intolerable for the sliver of it that dominates our media and political circles who seem more intent in talking about the public’s inability to debate it, let alone lead the way on it as they have. So instead we have what can best be described as a “political” campaign where the great and good appear to be trying to persuade a public that has already made up its mind in favour of the issue, long before many of the politicians leading the campaign did.
This not only adds an unnecessary (and undeserved) tone of sanctimony to the Yes campaign, but by treating it as a political campaign, it starts to diverge from how the public sees the issue.
If a campaign wants to argue that same sex relations should be treated equally before the law, then fine. But applying abstract political concepts of equality to marriage starts to run into problems and hands the No campaign the best opportunity they have to divide the Yes vote and win. It also points to a broader confusion politicos have these days between politics and society, and is especially a problem on the left that is supposed to be about social change.
At its core, marriage is a social institution not a political one. Marriage is about giving certain relationships a privileged status above others. This may be for religious or secular reasons, but they do not fit into normal political categories of equality. In pure political/legal terms, the privileged status given to marriage over non-married relationships is no more justifiable than the right to strike or a living wage. If such things exist in the political/legal sphere, even at conflict with basic political/legal concepts such as equality, employment contracts and free exchange of labour, it does so only because society has decided that they should.
In the past the left used to have a (rough) grasp of this distinction between the political and the social. There would at least be some recognition of the formal limited nature of political rights, that could still exist quite happily alongside social inequality and so make social change necessary. Such an attitude to social equality came from the left having some social weight and therefore able to do something about it.
That’s long been lost and these days the “political” left have joined the right in an ether of gestures, symbols, statues and history wars. As a result, the attitude to social change has undergone a profound transformation. It has gone from social change, and an appeal to the public to bring it about, to an Olympian admonishment of inequality and, given it is everywhere, an implicit admonishment of the public that live with it.
In the case of the marriage debate, seeing it just in terms of equality leaves it at odds with a public that not only doesn’t see marriage as “equal” to not being married, but doesn’t feel especially inclined to justify why. Perhaps the dramatic change in public attitude to same sex marriage in 2004-2007 really was due to a sudden thirst for equality. Really.
The No campaign is trying to take advantage of this by turning the debate into less about same sex relations but rather the Yes campaign’s general attitude to marriage as being a bit of a nothing. This is behind Abetz’s comment that it will mean anyone could marry, er, the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The ineptness of deeply unappealing right politicians relating to the public should not disguise that the Yes campaign has its problems in relating to the public as well.
This Olympian attitude is also not only evident in the belief that the political/media are better able to handle a debate about same sex marriage than the public, despite all evidence to the contrary, but that it will decide what this debate is about. It was summed up in a piece in the Guardian that proclaimed that it would refuse to cover any arguments from the anti-SSM side that were not about same sex marriage – reminiscent of HuffPo’s pompous response to Trump’s candidacy that it would cover it in the entertainment pages, then having to admit when Trump won it that America had gone “full fascist”.
The wish to control what this debate is about is understandable. There are a lot of political fortunes now riding on it. On the Yes side, unappealing politicians like Shorten, Dastyari and Hinch have latched on to a campaign that is more popular than they are, especially with the young, and is more likely to be doing them more good than the campaign they are supposed to be supporting. On the No side, Abbott has hitched it to a possible return to the leadership, so giving what may be prove to be its kiss of death.
The supreme irony is that a vote that was deliberately diminished in its social importance by both sides has become in the political world very important indeed. They are throwing themselves into the debate with a detachment from the public that is summed up by their inability to grasp a change in public attitude that happened over a decade ago. This opens the possibility the debate may not go the way they planned. Too bad. It is in the nature of public debates that it will end up being about whatever the public decides it is about.