‘Don’t’ and ‘Panic’.

Those two words should feature heavily in any response to the softening opinion polls about equal marriage.

Newspoll puts the percentage of voters supporting same-sex marriage at 57%, down from 63% in August and 62% in September 2016.

That might be a fall but the margin for ‘yes’ remains huge, particularly given how many people have already voted. As Per Capita’s Tim Lyons explained to BuzzFeed News last week, most voters participate in postal surveys only during a very narrow window. He continued:

The experience of past postal votes is that anybody who doesn’t vote within the first few days of receiving the paper, usually doesn’t. After a few days the chances of them still even having it are pretty minor.

With the ABS saying all the ballots have been mailed, the No side’s almost certainly left any run too late to make a difference. Note, too, the Guardian’s claim that 72% of those who’ve already sent back their ballots supported Yes.

Still, we shouldn’t be complacent.

What might be done to address the weakening polls?

One suggestion would be to cease the signal boosting of every homophobic provocation.

Last month, for instance, someone posted a photo of a vile flyer allegedly spotted in Melbourne’s Heffernan Lane. The image was shared widely across social media, and was then republished, broadcast or discussed by almost every media outlet throughout the country.

The Daily Mail duly reported that ‘horrific homophobic posters showing men holding rainbow nooses [had appeared] in laneways as the country prepares for gay marriage postal vote.’

But that wasn’t true at all.

In reality, rainbow posters dominate the laneways of Melbourne’s CBD (much as they do every major city). You can’t walk into an inner city café without encounter Vote Yes material – and you’ll rarely see even an official No flyer.

Media Watch contacted the City of Melbourne. No-one knew anything about the posters. Officers uncovered none when they searched. A Channel Ten crew sent to Heffernan Lane also came up empty-handed – but then bodged up a phony poster on Photoshop to show on the evening news.

The graphic circulating on social media originated with a fascist site, the handiwork of a tiny Nazi groupuscle. By sending the image viral, progressive social media gave the fascists publicity beyond their wildest dreams – and created a demoralising (and totally erroneous) impression that bigots owned Melbourne’s streets.

We saw something similar with the so-called ‘Straight Lives Matter Rally’ in Sydney last week.

That event was put together by far-right activist Nick Folkes. The man’s a crank, more flop than fuhrer, a serial pest given to staging tiny Islamophobic stunts.

Yet from the attention he received on social media and elsewhere, you’d be excused for thinking that homophobes were flocking to his banner.

In the real world, the grassroots campaigning has been overwhelmingly on the Yes side. Equality campaigners have led huge rallies in cities across the nation: 20,000 in Melbourne, 30,000 in Sydney and so on.

By contrast, Nick Folkes managed, well, here’s a picture.

SLM rally

Obviously, we can’t control the attention lavished by the media on fringe misfits. But we can – and should – maintain some perspective ourselves. It’s important to monitor the fascists; it’s necessary to call out homophobia. But it’s inaccurate and demobilising to portray the homophobes on the far right as gaining ground.

Our side’s pulling big crowds. Their side isn’t — and that matters.

The disproportionate attention paid to isolated instances of homophobic extremism or fascist graffiti makes sense in the context of widespread opposition to Turnbull’s postal survey, with the hashtag #respectfuldebate used to make an implicit (or explicit) argument that the plebiscite shouldn’t be happening at all.

But that ship has sailed. The postal survey is underway. For better or for worse, we’re in the middle of a fight and most people have accepted the need to win.

And we don’t win a poll by arguing that it shouldn’t be taking place. If activists tell people, again and again, that the survey’s unnecessary or divisive or meaningless, people are not going to be motivated to fill in their forms, to find a post box or to call the ABS to chase up a missing ballot.

In a struggle that depends on mobilising people to vote, rhetoric about the survey being expensive or unwarranted should be put on hold. We want to encourage every voter – and we can best do that by insisting that the contest matters.

It’s not a hard argument to make. The mass enthusiasm we’ve already seen for the Yes side has transformed this into a campaign about much more than marriage. Quite simply, we’re currently in the midst of the biggest public demonstration of support for same-sex rights at any time in Australian history.

The embrace of equal marriage by unions, churches, sporting clubs, businesses, community groups, celebrities and millions of ordinary people means that we’re watching, before our eyes, overt homophobia become more like racial prejudice: a form of bigotry no longer acceptable for mainstream politicians to express, other than through dog whistling or sly insinuation. Even Tony Abbott must now preface his remarks about marriage with an insistence that he opposes discrimination, something he never would have bothered to do even a few years back.

A Yes victory will, for that reason, have profound political consequences, with the great majority of Australia’s social conservatives attaching themselves to an unpopular project that’s almost certainly going to be publicly rejected by voters.

Think about the role played in recent years by the Australian Christian Lobby, a group that’s somehow managed to induce politicians of both parties to bend their knees to its theological agenda.

That’s now over. Julia Gillard and Bill Shorten pandered to the ACL on the basis that it represented the Christian mainstream. We now know that the vast majority of believers back equal marriage, something that the plebiscite will publicly demonstrate (unless all the polls are terribly wrong).

A Yes victory survey will, in other words, pull back the curtain behind which Lyle Shelton and Archbishop Pell and all the other socially conservative Wizards of Oz have sheltered for so long, revealing them as scared little men with no power even over their own supposed followers.

The Right knows it, too. No politician with any future wanted to taint themselves by association with the anti-equality campaign, which accordingly relies on three of the most unpopular figures in the nation: John Howard, Cory Bernardi and Tony Abbott.

Howard, of course, couldn’t even hold his own seat at his final election.

Cory Bernardi recently demonstrated the esteem in which he’s held through his recent attempt to monster Craigburn Primary School over a fundraiser for girls’ education in Africa. The senator’s attack on ‘gender morphing’ led to a flood of donations, with, at last count, people willing to piss him off to the astonishing tune of $271,839.

As for Tony Abbott, well, what can you say?

The anarchist DJ known as Astro Labe didn’t do the Yes side any favours with his drunken attempt to head-butt the ex-PM. Yet his description of Abbott as a ‘fucking worm’ encapsulates the sentiment of most Australians, who now – thanks to Abbott’s determination to put himself at the centre of the plebiscite – have a perfect, non-violent opportunity to, as Mr Labe put it, ‘nut the cunt’ with their vote.

We need to encourage as many of them as possible to take it.


Image: Paree

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

More by Jeff Sparrow ›

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  1. I don’t know how the writer can get the idea that the “vast majority of believers back equal marriage” when probably the only church backing is Quakers, and the ABC has to look for non-main stream Christian lecturers to write an article to back up the “Yes” campaign. To say Christians should endorse the removal of gender difference in marriage is to downgrade love to accept everything one does, i.e. “cheap grace”

  2. It is misrepresentative to pick out two instances of homophobia – the ‘stop the fags’ posters and the ‘straight lives matter’ rally – and to ignore every other manifestation. But also, the left does not produce the No campaign by giving attention to their homophobia – the postal vote itself has produced this attention by legitimising the idea that LGBTI rights can be debated with two ‘respectful’ sides. ‘No’ has consolidated and been given unprecedented airtime. You have ignored reports from mental health institutions reporting they are receiving escalating requests for support from LGBTI people amidst this survey. By legitimising the vote, you can only legitimise the idea that people’s lives and existence should be up for debate. This experience has been incredibly distressing and personal for all LGBTI people – because it raises the question of whether people support them everywhere, everyday, over the course of a dozen weeks. Not only that, but you say there is enthusiasm beyond ‘Yes’ – there’s absolutely nothing in the mainstream campaigning that raises any issue at all other than marriage. This is quite deliberate. They are merely focused on reminding people to vote and reassuring No voters that this is just about marriage, nothing else. It was a mistake to legitimise the survey and it is a mistake to lower our expectations to winning a Yes vote. Homophobia is real, it runs deep, and it has been given a massive signal boost – not by LGBTI people and the Yes campaign but by Turnbull and the postal survey.

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