The meaning of YES… and NO

The Australian "postal survey" said YES to marriage equality, and in doing so rejected a number of false or misleading claims by opponents. As the Senate returns this week to resume debate on the  Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017, Jamie Gardiner examines the implications of the survey outcome for future reforms in addition to equal marriage.

credit: Adelaide Advertiser

credit: Adelaide Advertiser

Australians said YES.

The 61.6% YES margin revealed on 15 November 2017 was bigger than any federal election winner’s 2PP vote. This emphatic success is a cause for great celebration—but what happens next? What does it mean?

There is a lot more to be gleaned from the success of the YES voters—“survey respondents”—than simply the command to Parliament to legislate for genuine marriage equality. Why? Because the NO campaign claimed time and again that the survey was about many things other than marriage equality, and the Australian people, by this emphatic majority, have rejected those claims, each and every one.

The public saw through the lies, misrepresentations and red herrings of the NO campaign. Some were distracted or scared off, of course, by its deceitful claims, meaning the majority was smaller than it might have been. The postal survey was itself designed to minimise the YES voice, after all. So we can be even prouder of its resounding success.

First of all it was postal, to bias against young voters, among whom support for marriage equality is much higher than among the elderly. Second, it was voluntary, to add to the bias against young voters, and to maximise the number of those for whom the issue was not particularly relevant and who could therefore be discouraged from voting. Third, the very question was framed by anti-equality politicians, not statisticians, so it used language that pollsters know subtly biases toward the negative, such as “change the law,” and using “same sex” rather than “equal”. (Not to mention that “same sex” makes transgender and intersex people invisible.)

Indeed, the whole point of the original Abbott Government plebiscite idea, and again in its morphing into a postal survey, was to delay or frustrate the public desire for equality in the marriage law.

The public, however, overcame these biases and pressed through these headwinds and showed just how strong the quintessential Australian value of the fair go remains.

Most of the NO case was misleading, mendacious and unrelated to the actual issue of marriage equality (which they studiously avoided, knowing they had long ago lost the argument). Yet it did reveal one surprising truth. Right-wing NO warrior Tony Abbott announced that the vote was about more than marriage—and in stating as much he made it so.

While the YES campaign stuck to the only issue, the need for a fair go in the marriage law so that people could marry the person they loved regardless of sex or gender, Abbott and company wanted the people to make their vote about a raft of other things. Abbott said: “if you don’t like same-sex marriage, vote no. If you’re worried about religious freedom and freedom of speech, vote no, and if you don’t like political correctness, vote no because voting no will help to stop political correctness in its tracks.”[1] Other leaders of the NO campaign put other red herrings up for the public to accept.

So, taking them at their word, the people did indeed vote on those other things. They rejected, emphatically, the claim that marriage equality would harm children. They rejected, emphatically, the attacks on safe schools,[2] the unwinding of anti-discrimination laws, the pretence that freedom of expression means the right to hurt the vulnerable and vilify less powerful minorities. They saw through the lazy invocation of “political correctness”, the sneering term that Abbott and his ilk use to disguise their contempt for common decency, human rights: the fair go. In emphatically saying YES the Australian public condemned the NO campaign’s wanton disregard for the wellbeing of LGBTI people.  It rejected the poisonous attacks on LGBTI families and young people.

Yes, the people’s opinion authorizes, nay demands, Parliament’s immediate removal of Marriage Act discrimination against LGBTI folk. But not only this: it demands more.

The people’s opinion empowers this Parliament, and future governments, to strengthen anti-discrimination laws, to regulate harmful speech and the vilification of the vulnerable, to curtail the unjustifiable special privileges of religious institutions to discriminate in the public sphere. Religious bodies must not be exempt from the ordinary laws, and the strong majority in this postal survey have clearly rejected their claim to such exemptions. This claim was perhaps the main plank of the NO campaign, and it was rejected. Emphatically.

The NO campaign wanted this survey to reveal the public’s opinion on many other things than marriage equality. So it did. The NOs wanted to “give the people a say,” reckless as to the harms that authorising prejudice and hate speech would cause—and did, despite the warnings. The people did have their say: they rejected the NO campaign’s claims, unswayed by the lies they told and the fantastical futures they tried to frighten people with.

Those who sought the popular opinion now don’t like it, despite doing their best to stack the process against a majority for equality. They now have the gall to say they will ignore the people’s opinion, and want to load the Marriage Act with precisely the nonsense the people have rejected. They must not be pandered to. Equality triumphed.


[1] Tony Abbott: “Obviously I will be voting no but in the end this is not about the politicians, this is about the people – it’s about your view. “And I say to you if you don’t like same-sex marriage, vote no. If you’re worried about religious freedom and freedom of speech, vote no, and if you don’t like political correctness, vote no because voting no will help to stop political correctness in its tracks.”

[2] Rachel Baxendale, The Australian, 26/9/2017, ”A Yes result in the same-sex marriage postal survey would represent an endorsement of the controversial Safe Schools gender and sexuality education program, according to Australian Christian Lobby head Lyle Shelton.”

Jamie Gardiner is a long-time LGBTI activist, and human rights campaigner generally. He is a Vice-President of Liberty Victoria, a Board member of the Human Rights Law Centre, secretary of the Victorian ALP’s LGBTI Affairs policy committee, and in 2015 was appointed to the Victorian Government’s LGBTI Taskforce.

Posted by Jason Rostant (@jrostant)