Late on Wednesday night, while the High Court mulled over the marriage postal survey, Canberra hacks imbibed at their usual haunt in Manuka. Buoyed by liquor, the verdict was already in: not a single Labor staffer believed the challenge would succeed, and almost every Liberal (they were all moderates) hoped it would.
The plan B that no one really wanted has now come to fruition. And its outcome is impossible to predict, in large part because this survey is voluntary, and will present campaigners with a question unprecedented in Australian political history: how do you get out the vote?
At 91 per cent, turnout at last year’s federal election was the lowest since compulsory voting was introduced in 1925. That reflects a worldwide trend, according to the Australian Election Commission, and it’s particularly pronounced among voters under 40.
For decades, researchers at the Australian National University have asked Australians about this matter. In 2016, 80 per cent said they would still vote if it were voluntary – down from 88 per cent in 2007 – and only about three quarters of those would “definitely” vote, while a quarter would “probably”.
That’s in a federal election. No one can say how many people will bother to participate in an optional, mail-in survey on an issue that enjoys broad but not deep support. But there is at least one precedent. In 1997, Australians were asked to elect representatives to a “constitutional convention” on a possible future republic. The participation rate was 46.9 per cent – and only a third of 18- to 25-year-olds voted. The turnout peaked at about 60 per cent for those 55 and over.
“The standard thing around the world with voluntary voting is young people are least likely to vote,” says ABC election analyst Antony Green, who blogged about the figures last month.
That’s a dark background for the “yes” campaign, which is counting on the massive support for same-sex marriage among the young. This is no longer a campaign for hearts and minds – after years of agonising debate inside Parliament and out, most Australians have made up their minds.
As such, the “yes” side has switched gears into a full-blown, US-style “get out the vote” effort. But political hard-heads are openly worried about turnout and apathy. Senior Liberal operative Andrew Bragg, director of the “Libs and Nats for Yes” campaign, says voters need to plan their vote, down to the nitty gritty of what post box they will use.
“Complacency is a major concern,” he says. “A majority for ‘yes’ is no certainty at all, partly because of the manual postal method. Australia is not accustom to ‘get out the vote’ campaigns, and a detailed, tangible voting plan is our best bet.”
Hence the workmanlike television advertisement launched by the Equality Campaign this week, featuring a motley crew of neighbours striding purposefully towards their local post box. Strategists will ask people to turn voting into a shared activity with friends, family and colleagues. And in the City of Sydney, information kiosks will be set up near post boxes to help get ballots in the bag.
“If they don’t, we may not win,” says campaign co-chair Alex Greenwich. “This is certainly an uphill battle for us … this is completely uncharted territory. We will have a lot of work to do in terms of raising awareness.”
Though the campaign will drag on until the November 7 deadline, strategists know most of the action will be early on. They have learnt from the experience of unions, who regularly hold voluntary mail-in ballots, that huge numbers are returned in the first few days. Greenwich expects efforts to crescendo around the weekend of September 23 and 24, by which time most people will have received their forms.
Same-sex marriage opponents have a somewhat different task. On all polling, they start behind, which they have tried to fashion into underdog status. The slogan “it’s OK to say no” is a callout to the alleged silent majority inclined to oppose same-sex marriage but cowed into submission by the elites and polite society.
It is a slogan that appeals to any lingering uneasiness – or queasiness, perhaps – about changing the definition of marriage, and about gay relationships in general. And it has a collateral implication: if it’s OK to say “no”, it’s perfectly fine to abstain and not say “yes”. Minimising the turnout is not a stated goal of opponents, but it would not hurt. They won’t say it publicly, but they know they’re better off in a voluntary postal survey than a compulsory plebiscite.
The “no” campaign is a murkier beast, too. While Australian Christian Lobby director Lyle Shelton appears regularly on TV and radio, campaign HQ would not grant Fairfax Media a phone interview with any spokesperson on Friday. An unnamed operative requested questions be sent by email, which Fairfax Media refused, and then supplied a written response to questions that weren’t asked.
Several big players on the “no” side are current or former Liberal figures. One man who is back in the fray is Tio Faulker, former president of the ACT Liberal Party and ex-aide to senator Zed Seselja. Just weeks ago, Faulkner told Fairfax Media he had been living overseas for seven months and was “no longer employed in the campaign”. On Friday, his name appeared on a Coalition for Marriage mass mailout.
Faulker’s official title is National Director, Field Campaign Operations and Logistics. He said his campaign strategy “is not secret”, but also refused a phone interview. He is joined by Sophie York, a Liberal Party member and failed preselection candidate, and occasional spokeswoman Monica Doumit, a lawyer who runs the Catholic Talk lobby group.
It was Doumit whose words the Coalition for Marriage emailed to Fairfax Media on Friday, with a message strikingly similar to the “yes” campaign. They too said they had been inundated with support this week. They too encouraged all Australians to discuss the issue with family, friends and neighbours. And they too will hold rallies in major cities, like the “yes” rally taking place in Sydney on Sunday.
For many, including most government MPs, the end of this protracted, unorthodox process can’t come soon enough. And the kicker? Come November 15, the result will be announced by the star of the 2016 census debacle, chief statistician David Kalisch.
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