Marriage Equality – the communications contest

By Anna Whitlam

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Framing the Debate

Out of the blocks, leaders on both sides identified that defining the battle ground was critical in determining the outcome. While the Yes forces spent the first weeks of the campaign embroiled in the (very legitimate) debate about whether the postal survey could be legally upheld before the High Court, the No forces nailed their messaging on day one. The Hon. Member for Warringa, unofficial spokesperson of the No campaign, pitched: “…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.”

This is the best strategy of divisive No-campaigns of the past - clumping together as many issues as possible to draw on the widest array of negative feeling among voters. Connecting marriage equality to religious freedom and political correctness allows voters to articulate their underlying uncertainty or apathy in the context of a grab bag of discontents. We have since seen this strategy flow through totally absurd ‘flood gates’ type arguments and claims that marriage equality will impact childhood adoption laws and open the way for gender-fluid safe school type education programs.

The Yes campaign gets it too, even if they have been a little less effective in neutralising the No approach thus far. The term “marriage equality” itself reflects old research that “same sex marriage”, specifically the word “sex”, activates the worst instincts in the electorate. By shifting the debate to “marriage equality”, the Yes campaign is elevating the narrative to the level of other civil rights campaigns of the past.

Following the High Court’s decision that the postal survey was legitimate, the Yes-campaign has strengthened their messaging with a proper focus on marriage equality and the rights of all citizens to equal treatment under law. And they are responding tactically to individual claims connecting the vote to childhood adoption, education, employment, religious freedom and political correctness more broadly. The mainstream media appears to be an ally in these efforts for the most part.

In order to effectively frame the debate, the Yes campaign has to neutralise the No’s grab bag of grievances, refine its focus on extending a simple legal right, and do so without ignoring the underlying passion and emotion of its base. This creates a dual focus for the Yes campaign which may be difficult to manage:

  • Get Out The Vote - among young people who already tend to support marriage equality but may not be enrolled to vote; and
  • Speak To The Middle - who are already enrolled, probably comfortable with marriage equality but probably too apathetic to respond to the survey in huge numbers without prompting.

Get out the vote

Based on current polling, if marriage equality were a compulsory vote, the Yes campaign would win easily. But a non-compulsory postal survey means the only ones guaranteed to vote are people who both really care and are enrolled. And the largest passionate Yes group outside the LGTBI community are young people who were probably not enrolled when the survey model was announced.

To get these people activated, the Yes campaign has run an extensive social media campaign drawing on positive campaigns around the world, including the successful referendum in Ireland in 2015 (incidentally, the Yes-campaign has hired Tiernan Brady, director of the Irish Yes-campaign). We’ve all seen the social media response of both private citizens and corporate Australia across Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram - with people adopting banners and other means to show their public support for marriage equality. Many of these methods have gone beyond pure symbolism to include enrolment links and reminders. In parallel, corporate leaders such as Allan Joyce, Anthony Pratt and Andy Vessey have taken strong public positions in favour of marriage equality. Whether or not the advocacy of high profile business leaders and influencers will successfully shift opinion remains to be seen. At the very least, it reinforces the notion that thinking people support marriage equality.

For people who are in favour of marriage equality but not passionate enough to be relied on to engage, this bubbling sense of public momentum is probably a positive in pushing them to check their enrolment and fill in the forms when they arrive. To date, the Yes campaign’s Get Out The Vote strategy seems to have been a success, with almost a million new voter transactions on the rolls since the postal survey was announced. This has left conservative political operators lamenting that the postal plebiscite called for by No campaigners has not only attracted almost a 100,000 new voters who will likely vote Yes, its attracted a 100,000 new voters who will likely vote Green or Labor at the 2019 election.

Exactly what impact this early strategic success will have remains to be seem – but it bodes very well for the Yes campaign.

Speak to the middle

For the people in the middle however, including lukewarm Yes-ers, undecideds and lukewarm No-s, both campaigns are on risky ground. In a Get Out The Vote-type campaign, all sides of politics are attracted to extremes. The calculation is that it is easier to move a committed person to the polling booth by riling them up, than it is to turn an undecided or a lukewarm voter. 

The problem is that this calculation tends to draw campaigns toward the extreme end of the debate, often bringing out the worst instincts of the people running both campaigns - and it risks pushing the middle to the other side. We’ve already seen plenty of mistakes on this front. From anonymous vitriol plastered on city bollards, to threats to sack people for getting married, the No campaign is constantly at risk of letting its dog whistle become too shrill for the masses. And, from the beginning, the Yes campaign’s argument against the legitimacy of the postal survey has suggested that people simply cannot be trusted to have a voice in this debate.

The perennial threat of all Yes campaigns is that they become so convinced of the righteousness of their position that they disdain the process itself, claim the battle ground is illegitimate, and vacate the field to the No campaign. The perennial risk of No campaigns is that their shameless clumping of fears and grievances fails to paper over their underlying reactionary views, which emerge in increasingly brutal, inflationary targeted messages to their base, and to the exclusion of the middle.

So who wins?

With almost a million new voter enrolment transactions it looks like the Yes campaign will replicate the Irish outcome. And we emphatically hope this to be the case. But this is an emotionally charged campaign, and one that we’re now seeing is fraught with its own procedural complications (including theft of survey forms from private letterboxes and tampering with already completed forms) which will no doubt impact the final result.

While the statistics show that the Yes campaign would be won were this a compulsory vote, in this voluntary vote scenario it may be that many individual citizens (who would typically define ‘the middle’) simply put their voting papers in a drawer and honestly forget about them. As it stands, the Yes campaign may just have found the right formula for getting out the vote, engaging its base and, at least in part, speaking to the middle. If the Yes team can maintain its disciplined civil rights focus, respect the process (as imperfect as it is) and avoid its “basket of deplorables” moment, the campaign should be theirs.

It will be an important and fascinating couple of months ahead.

 

* An earlier version of this article included incorrect data regarding new voter registrations. This error has since been corrected.

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