The public

Monday, 4 September 2017 

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. It’s almost as though 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, 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.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 4 September 2017.

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20 responses to “The public”

  1. Moz of Yarramulla on 4th September 2017 1:28 pm

    The public I’ve been exposed to mostly seem to want a binding vote to shut the chattering classes up, so they can get on with things that actually matter.

    Sure, it’s important to some people, but importantly *other* people. Yeah, whatever, Siouxsie at daycare has two dads, but geez, have you seen the state of the economy/footy/property market?

    For the politically aware, there’s also the question of people who can’t fill out simple paperwork somehow staying in parliament. Try that one with Centrelink and see how you go.

  2. F on 4th September 2017 4:08 pm

    I’m very much in the Yes camp, and the attitude of many of my fellow Yes camp dwellers has been nothing short of ridiculous. We should have seized the initiative from the get go. Yes has a very good story to tell, it is positive and optimistic. The No camp is toxic, and we should have been doing everything in our power to highlight this to the Australian public.

    Ireland was a fantastic example. Their SSM campaign gave the end result enormous legitimacy in what is/was a fairly homophobic society. Australia is also homophobic, there is no use pretending otherwise. A proper SSM campaign would have flushed this out for all to see, that yes even in 21st century Australia there are still violently homophobic people who wish to hurt and denigrate LGBT Australians. The whole process would have been difficult, but cathartic.

    I grew up gay in regional Australia, and it was awful. I’m in my early 30’s, so this isn’t ancient history. Gay bashing and assaults were common, verbal abuse an everyday occurrence. Even in Inner West Sydney I’ve suffered homophobic abuse, and seen it all too often. I find it strange that those who are pro-SSM, but anti plebiscite, would somehow think that a SSM marriage campaign could make this situation worse, would bring out the homophobia. The homophobia in Australia is already “out and proud”, it isn’t hiding. At the very least a SSM campaign would have allowed us to confront this problem head on and in the stark glare of public scrutiny.

  3. Mercurial on 4th September 2017 6:17 pm

    How can a voluntary postal survey have any ‘official campaign’ either for or against?

  4. The Piping Shrike on 5th September 2017 8:55 am

    Maybe “perma-lobby” is a better word.

    F, all seems sensible what you say.

    I guess the media only recognise things happen when it’s in the media.

  5. M on 5th September 2017 12:32 pm

    What’s missing is any acknowledgment that for a lot of LGBTI people putting their ability to marry to a public vote is in itself insulting and offensive. We have to ‘come out’ as though we’re confessing to a crime and second-guess what every person we meet might think of us for what we are. How do you expect us to feel about the prospect of that being played out on a national scale?

  6. The Piping Shrike on 5th September 2017 4:07 pm

    Don’t think this has ever been about that. If it was, same sex marriage would have been introduced a decade ago. I’m amazed that some think that their feelings have now been a consideration in what is happening.

  7. M on 5th September 2017 8:13 pm

    Frankly, that’s bordering on obtuse: our “feelings” that a plebiscite / survey whatever impugn our human dignity somehow don’t inform our response to it?

  8. The Piping Shrike on 5th September 2017 8:54 pm

    Of course it does. I’m saying it has been irrelevant to why politicians (and a good few others) oppose the vote.

  9. M on 5th September 2017 9:11 pm

    Fair enough. But so what? Politicians gonna politick. LGBTI people are the very objects of this vote. You can’t divorce the Yes campaign from it — let alone blame them for their ambivalence about it.
    By the way, the analogy with the republic referendum’s false. Back then No won by splitting the Yes vote, specifically by suggesting that you could still have a republic — the one you wanted, and soon! — by voting No. I still remember the lines: ‘vote No to *this* republic’. And the tunes: those ads with James Blundell singing ‘we’ll vote No in November / let the people have their say’.

  10. The Piping Shrike on 5th September 2017 9:43 pm

    I can’t see that conflicting on what I said on the Republic.

    I’m obviously not blaming LGBTI for anything. I’m saying the issue has been used as a political football for years and the anti-plebiscite angle is for many of those pushing it the more of the same.

    What I do blame are the tactics of AME, who obsessed themselves with internal Labor politics while Labor was in government and achieved nothing, and are now delaying what could have been a clear victory in a normal vote and it would be in by now. If they have their way it’ll be left having to wait for what has only happened three times in 70 years, Labor getting back into power.

    A decade of public support and it still hasn’t happened. The results speak for themselves.

  11. M on 5th September 2017 10:00 pm

    It doesn’t “conflict”. What I’m saying is that your analysis of why the republic referendum went down is deficient in a respect that means it can’t be applied by analogy to the plebi-survey. There’s no similar (much less plausible) ‘have your cake and eat it’ option this time.
    As for AME, I don’t carry a torch for them. But again, the idea that they’re unaffected by — or shouldn’t take into account — what LGBTI people actually think about the plebi-survey is bizarre.
    As for what’s happened or not in the last decade — for a Marxist, you have a touchingly innocent faith in the ability of institutions to respond to changes in puboic opinion.

  12. The Piping Shrike on 6th September 2017 12:02 am

    I’m not the one advocating over a decade to just wait for Parliament to do something. Which was kind of the point.

  13. Moz of Yarramulla on 6th September 2017 6:46 am

    “What I do blame are the tactics of AME, who obsessed themselves with internal Labor politics while Labor was in government”

    There was a wholehearted outbreak of cowardice from the parliamentary Labour party on marriage, climate change, and abortion when they were in power. Their left-ish wing had already conceded refugees and land rights before they got in.

    From listening to an advisor, there was a huge focus on colluding with the Liberals to get compromises rather than getting a temporary majority that would get trumped once they lost power. Which we indeed saw with Abbott, he spent considerable time vindictively rolling back anything that looked like a symbol of Labour power.

    I still think they should have legislated while they could. There’s a difference between not changing the law, and making the Liberals explicitly re-criminalise abortion or retrospectively annulling marriages.

  14. The Piping Shrike on 6th September 2017 7:38 am

    I don’t think the policy adopted by Labor during that period was a problem of “cowardice”. It was a deliberate policy stemming from the defeats of the Howard Years that Labor had lost touch with its “base”. Its main proponents were Latham and Gillard and led to Penny Wong putting on her unhappy face as she explained why she was against same sex marriage.

    Ironically, although this was seen as terribly right wing, it was actually based on a left wing prejudice of how the working class think. It is a prejudice and fear of the public that remains embedded in the rad left today.

  15. Kevin on 6th September 2017 10:52 pm

    This is an excellent analysis. I particularly like how you show that both official sides are locked in a debate that the public has long overcome. Thank you and keep it coming!

  16. Snorky on 9th September 2017 1:37 pm

    Shrike, I don’t think you make enough of the fact that the poll you link to shows 50% support for a binding national vote, but only 9% for a non-binding vote followed by a conscience vote in Parliament. Of course, what we now have is the option favoured by only 9%. Note too that the original plebiscite that was voted down by the Senate was also not binding, as has been made clear by Abetz and several other government members who said they’d be voting against the measure in Parliament regardless of the outcome of the plebiscite. In effect, 50% of the poll respondents favour an outcome that was never on the table and never can or will be. Whatever form of national vote we might have, the matter can only ever bee resolved by a vote in Parliament.

    Another irrefutable reason to oppose any form of a public vote, in addition to those advanced very convincingly by M above.

  17. The Piping Shrike on 9th September 2017 4:46 pm

    I think I did address that. The issue is not so much whether a binding vote was (or could be) on offer but why the public (including supporters of SSM) wanted a binding vote but the pro SSM campaign in politics and the media thought it “repugnant”. It indicates a gap, I think an important one, between the two.

  18. M on 10th September 2017 9:59 am

    And what I’ve been trying to say is that the ‘gap’ — at least so far as the Yes campaign is concerned — arises because for LGBTI people the idea of a vote is something they cannot help but take personally. Having been forced into a position where we have to campaign for our human rights, we now find ourselves assailed for doing it all wrong — or doing it at all! It’s an invidious position to say the least. And it feels to calculated to that end.

  19. Snorky on 10th September 2017 11:34 am

    OK Shrike, I take your point about the ‘gap’, but I think in this case we need to conclude that those members of the public who said they wanted a binding vote were at best ill-informed. Hence I don’t understand why you give so much weight to their wishes. We don’t always need to respect the views of sections the community since, self-evidently, they often get things wrong. Polls tell us that most people still the liberals are the superior economic managers when clearly they are not, and haven’t been for some time.

  20. Alan McGregor on 10th September 2017 8:38 pm

    Marriage, itself, is discriminatory between those who are married and those who aren’t. For example, married and de facto couples have difficulty with CentreLink over their combined incomes where other family relations don’t. Marriage, as perceived by many of my gay friends, came out of the church and state regulating sexual relationships. The term ‘significant others’ has not been used much in the media lately. Relationships do not have to be of a sexual nature, yet people may want someone from overseas in their life, but not have to get married. Adoption was a way where people could have a legal next-of-kin connection and not say ‘we are having a sexual relationship’. Equality to me is when the word ‘marriage’ is not regulated by the government. My mother was adopted with several other girls in Belgium, and the two women who did this did not have to be married, but presumably would have had to show that they could provide a good environment and care for the 14 girls. The issue has been polarising as are many topics giving only a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ ‘choice’. No one seems to be discussing what ‘marriage’ is about and why it should be registered, and whether there’s other issues involved. Marriage and family are seen differently from outside the Anglo-Saxon or nuclear family paradigms.

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