No love in Australia’s same-sex marriage debate

Polls signal a 60-40 divide in favour of Yes (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

Australia is in the middle of a colour war, but it has nothing to do with race. The rainbow has been making its appearance on city flagpoles and Facebook walls, signalling that the same-sex marriage debate has well and truly begun.

After a year of heated political debate, the Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, announced on August 8 the federal government’s decision to hold a voluntary postal plebiscite, fulfilling an election promise that will allow Australians to have their say on whether the Marriage Act (2004) should be amended to enable same-sex couples to get married.

In the lead-up, Australians are being asked to line up: Yes or No.

The Yes campaign, spearheaded by Australian Marriage Equality, has a strong array of supporters. This includes a network of more than 1,500 businesses; local government (Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra have each spent taxpayers’ money on the Yes campaign); professional bodies (the Australian Medical Association and the NSW Law Society controversially released statements of support without the consent of their members); and even Catholic institutions, notably the Edmund Rice Centre and two prestigious Jesuit schools, St Ignatius (Sydney) and Xavier College (Melbourne).

The biggest allies are the mainstream media which, despite internal memos reminding journalists to remain objective, have had trouble doing so.

Last week the Australian media giant Fairfax ran a front-page graphic of a Catholic priest’s Roman collar bleeding from white to rainbow. It ran across the Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne’s The Age. But the gold star of reporting bias goes to Channel Ten, which last month admitted to doctoring an image to vilify the No campaign. A spokesperson for the network said that it was an “oversight in briefing”, and no formal apology was issued.

Despite this, there has been a strong response from the No camp, led by the Australian Christian Lobby, the Coalition for Marriage (an umbrella organisation representing more than 100 groups) and public statements from the bishops of the Catholic and Anglican churches.

Opposition is not limited to Christians. The Australian National Imams Council released a statement upholding traditional marriage. Australia’s “most read columnist”, Andrew Bolt, is agnostic and against change, and Millie Fontana, an atheist raised by lesbian parents, is perhaps Australia’s strongest voice on the No campaign, upholding the “rights of the child” to have access to both biological parents.

In all this, it is hard to gauge for certain the mood of the Australian public. Opinion polls (which seem to signal a 60-40 divide in favour of the Yes camp) are notoriously inaccurate, and the vilification of No supporters means it is unlikely that many people will publicly admit their opposition. In this way, many have drawn parallels to Britain’s EU referendum and the election of Donald Trump. Tapping into this intuition, the tagline of the Coalition for Marriage is “We are the silent majority”.

Majority or not, the No supporters are being signalled to remain silent.

Last month the Coalition for Marriage released a 30-second advertisement on free-to-air television. It featured three mothers making the point that legalised same-sex marriage would have the consequence of legalised same-sex education in schools. The ad was denounced by opposition Labor Party leader Bill Shorten as “offensive and hateful” and within a week, a parody of the ad was aired on Channel Ten’s The Project.

In comparison, Tim Minchin’s song I Still Call Australia Homophobic – calling those who uphold traditional marriage “bigoted c—-” and advising them where they could “shove their cherrypicked Bible passages” – was praised by the Sydney Morning Herald as “pithy” and by as “hilarious”.

While many Yes campaigners have a commitment to respectful debate, notably including Malcolm Turnbull, the default Yes position is that merely saying “No” is an instance of violence and hatred. In this worldview, any articulation of the No position can be legitimately countered with violence and hatred.

This was shown to be the case two days ago, when a GetUp! campaign was launched against Dr Pansy Lai, one of the mothers from the Coalition’s ad. The petition called on the Australian Medical Association to “reconsider” her medical registration. Lev Lafayette, the creator of the campaign, defended his actions, saying: “Isn’t the denial of marriage equality a form of bullying?” Love might be love, but it is an eye for an eye in this economy.

Dr Lai has had to call police as she has been threatened that she will be shot “within the week”.

Lyle Shelton, managing director of the Australian Christian Lobby, reports that the the group’s headquarters and staff have endured threats from Yes campaigners for “12 months”, including a car bombing and six packets of “white powder” addressed to the head office in Canberra. In response, the Coalition for Marriage continues to offer the message to Australians: “It’s OK to say No”.

Unless the plebiscite is hindered by a review currently being conducted by the High Court, Australians will have the opportunity to say Yes or No within the week, as ballots arrive in mailboxes. The Australian Bureau of Statistics will announce the result on November 15.

The plebiscite’s results are non-binding, but the outcome will determine Parliament’s next step. A “50 per cent plus one” No vote will close the book for this election term, while a Yes vote will trigger an immediate conscience vote, held as early as December 7. Regardless of outcome, most agree with Greens MP Simon Copland that this is just one step in a “very, very long road”. Whether we land in Kansas is another matter.

Natasha Marsh is a freelance journalist based in Melbourne

This article first appeared in the September 8 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here