Australia’s Same-Sex Postal Vote: a rocky path to marriage equality

A visiting student reflects on the Australian and Irish experiences of voting for marriage equality

The Australian Prime Minister personally supports same-sex marriage. Our previous Prime Minister does not (he was recently head-butted in the street by a same-sex marriage supporter). The Liberals – the incumbent political party – have a bizarre stance on same-sex marriage legality. This has ultimately resulted in our AUD$122 million (€81 million) postal survey on the question.

Unlike Ireland, the legality of marriage is not referred to in the Australian Constitution. This means that any form of public vote via a referendum, plebiscite or postal-survey is in no way necessary to achieve same-sex marriage in Australia – it is capable of being passed by law through the Australian Parliament. Our politicians have just failed to do so.

Whilst many are referring to the postal vote on same-sex marriage as a referendum or plebiscite, it unfortunately holds much less legal impact than either of those legal processes. The vote currently underway is voluntary; being conducted by post, and technically non-binding on the Australian Parliament. Despite the bizarre process, the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigns are both vigorously underway.

Many believe the result will be muddied by the tactics of both sides. As the postal survey is not being conducted by our independent electoral commission, but rather by our Bureau of Statistics (a legal loophole used by the government to conduct the vote), the campaigns have at times lacked oversight by electoral commissions to monitor fair campaigning.

The ‘No’ campaign has received an enormous amount of financial funding, particularly from religious bodies. Planes have been hired to sky-write ‘No’ above major Australian cities. Commercials have been playing on major Australian TV networks constantly throughout the campaign, focusing on the threat to the nuclear family and children’s’ education. Posters and flyers have been appearing with downright derogatory and discriminative words against LGBTQI communities.

Perhaps most damaging has been the argument that allowing same-sex marriage will put childrens’ upbringing at risk, or that children will no longer be safe at school due to ‘liberal’ teaching policies. The ‘Freedom Team’ app was also launched by the ‘No’ Campaign, allowing anti-same-sex marriage supporters to use government GPS data to locate undecided voters and door knock.

This is not to say the ‘Yes’ campaign has been played completely fairly either. The Australia Marriage Equality Group was recently caught in controversy for using a randomised computer generator to send thousands of text messages to Australians encouraging them to vote ‘yes’ (the ‘No’ campaign’s own text message shortly followed). The receipt of these text messages terrified the public about how the group may have breached individual’s privacy to access their mobile numbers. Some now wonder whether this tactic may backfire on the ‘yes’ campaign. And, as already mentioned, a pro-same-sex marriage supporter head-butted our previous Prime Minister in the street, screaming “he deserved it” as he ran away. ‘Yes’ campaigners have also been victims of physical violence, including a former Prime Minister’s godson being assaulted at a rally, and Qantas’ (Australia’s largest airline) CEO being attacked with a pie.

Focus has also been drawn to the fact that the ‘yes’ campaign has potentially both whitewashed and gender-focused their campaigns on white well-to-do men in homely relationships in order to win over potential swing votes. This has subsequently drawn attention to the unique experiences of our Indigenous people who identify as LGBTQI, who have experienced intense discrimination on both sexuality and race. Unlike other areas of the LGBTQI community, no research has been done on suicide rates on Indigenous LGBTQI people.

Despite all the above issues, what I have found to be the most potentially infuriating issue is the simplification of the campaign debate, particularly by some pro-same-sex marriage supporters.

A common argument that has been pushed by that side is that when people are considering their vote, they should not consider how the vote will affect any other facet of family life or the development of society. They should only consider that it is a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question – do you want to allow same-sex couples to marry?

The premise of this argument is that by voting ‘yes’, the only people affected will be same-sex couples, and their right to marry. The argument, at face value, makes sense. The argument may convince voters sitting on the fence, possibly thinking that a ‘yes’ result may somehow negatively impact how their children are educated, or how children are adopted, or how the institution of marriage will change for heterosexuals.

This argument may win over some fence-sitting voters, as they believe nothing will change, other than just that the gay couple across the road will be allowed to have a marriage certificate. However, I think that winning on these terms is dangerous. I believe that a ‘yes’ vote should fundamentally change how the LGBTQI community is perceived and treated in Australia. Young LGBTQI people, whether they identify or not, are at staggeringly higher risks of mental health issues and suicide. In order to counter these issues, there needs to be a move towards normalising an LGBTQI identity in Australian society.

Marriage equality will be one big step, showing young people that same-sex couples are an accepted and normal part of society. However, the community extends far beyond same-sex couples (as the acronym clearly identifies). If there is a ‘yes’ result, and our Parliament does the right thing to pass a law legalising same-sex marriage, it shouldn’t be just the ability for same-sex couples to access a piece of paper.

It should be seen as a major step towards confirming that the family unit is no longer just the heterosexual norm; that sexual orientation and gender identity is not binary; and that young people have the right to self-expression and discovery of their gender and sexuality without fear of a negative response from Australian society.

Political commentators and analysts are noting that the particularly aggressive and invasive nature of the campaign has stemmed from voluntary voting and a drawn out voting period – two highly unprecedented factors in an Australia-wide vote. Both campaigns must work much harder to earn the vote of an undecided voter. They are doing just that, albeit with both unethical and illegal tactics.

The survey results are due on 15 November 2017, with currently 67.5% (10.8 million) of enrolled Australian voters having responded to the survey as of 13 October 2017. The sample surveys and polls on what the result may be are skewed, with many calling a ‘yes’ result.

Getting ahead of ourselves for a positive result is constantly turning out to be a risky conversation to have, as we have seen with Brexit and Trump. We can only hope that this result will be nowhere near as divisive of communities as these other votes have been; that the LGBTQI community is not set back after decades of unifying work; and that young LGBTQI people reach out for support where they can.

Miles Tuckfield is a visiting law student from the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia