Voting in Australia is usually compulsory, but the national postal survey on marriage equality currently under way is voluntary. Nevertheless, Australians have been keen to have their say. With barely three weeks left (votes must be received by 7 November) a higher proportion have already returned their ballots than voted in last year’s presidential election.
The process itself is controversial – the ballot has no legal clout. A yes vote will inform, but not bind, politicians when they consider a change to the law. The debate has been more divisive still.
The question being posed is simple: “Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?” But the no campaign has sought to reframe it around what it says will be “broader consequences” – for example, anti-bullying and gender awareness programmes taught in schools, or the alleged impact on children of same-sex couples, a claim contradicted by numerous studies. It has even sought to tap the generalised voter discontent roused by “political correctness”.
Tony Abbott, former prime minister and staunch marriage equality opponent, leapt on the tactic right at the start. “If you don’t like same-sex marriage, vote no. If you’re worried about religious freedom, and freedom of speech, vote no. If you don’t like political correctness, vote no – because voting no will help to stop political correctness in its tracks.”
Perhaps anticipating the charge that yes voters are a “bullying elite” imposing their view on a silent “majority”, the yes campaign has been for the most part grassroots and low-key, heavy on door knocking, phone banking and community functions, and light on celebrity endorsements. Even so, the support for yes from businesses, professional organisations and sporting codes has been overwhelming.
It’s never wise to take a result for granted, but the Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that 67.5% of surveys have already been returned, and polls suggest a yes majority, broadly in line with what Australians have been telling pollsters for years.
This survey began as a means of delay. Mr Abbott seized on the idea of a popular vote in 2015, when still prime minister, and the Australian Christian Lobby boasted that it was a tactic to “kick the issue into the long grass” and “blunt” the momentum that the marriage equality lobby was gaining after the Irish voted yes in 2015.
The next hurdle, and possible means of delay, will be the debate about “religious freedoms” – the extent to which the new laws should provide an exemption for discrimination on the basis of religious views.
It is broadly accepted that some discrimination should be permissible – that ministers of religion and other celebrants should be able to refuse to wed same-sex couples in line with their religious beliefs. A conservative backbencher’s proposed bill also provides that “bodies established for religious purposes” will be able to refuse to provide goods and services, but that the exemption should not extend to every baker, musician or florist who could conceivably be asked to cater for a wedding. Opponents want these exemptions to go far further, and have not yet said exactly how far.
A sizeable minority of Australians will vote no because of their religious belief, concerns about broader consequences, or simply because they believe the traditional or historic definition of marriage should not change despite changing societal views.
We believe the case for a yes vote is overwhelming.
We support yes because we believe all Australians should be equal under the law and should have the legal right to marry the person they love.
We support yes because a legal, public declaration of love and commitment strengthens relationships and families, including same-sex families who are already loving and raising children, and those who will have children in the future, regardless of this survey result.
And we support yes because we think LGBTI Australians should not have had to justify the legitimacy of their relationships or endure a national interrogation of their right to legal equality.
In a film we made with the directors of the award-winning Gayby Baby film, a child from a same-sex family was asked whether there was anything different about his family. He replied: “Well, there is one thing that is different. The families that have a mum and a dad, they don’t get asked lots of questions.”
If yes does win, the size of that victory is important. A decisive victory will help to quickly resolve the debate about the appropriate religious freedoms, and finally get to the parliamentary vote that Australia could and should have had in the first place.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics is encouraging Australians to return their surveys by 27 October, although they will be accepted until 7 November, ahead of the announcement of the result on 15 November. That means survey papers still sitting on kitchen benches need to be posted this week.
Even though the yes vote seems to be ahead, we urge readers who have a vote to post their survey with the yes box ticked.
A strong yes vote should speed progress towards the day when LGBTI Australians don’t have to endure the validity of their loving relationships, their parenting and their families being debated on the news and by their neighbours, and Australia finally gets this done.