Deadly Marriage Gamble

noIt would have been a huge gamble: holding a plebiscite, knowing failure was a real possibility. Thankfully, it never happened.

That excellent journo, Samuel Leighton-Dore, writing on the SameSame website Why We Would Have Lost The Marriage Equality Plebiscite, reports:

“Focus groups held on the subject of marriage equality displayed with no uncertainty that a firm majority of Australians were in favour or indifferent to the idea. However, once subjected to anti-equality advertisements featuring young children, a significant percentage of support dropped off.”

Curious, I went in search of this focus group research. Who commissioned it? When was it conducted? What exactly did it show? Unfortunately I cannot give you definitive answers since, as is often the case, people are leery of going on the record. What I have managed to discover so far is, however, very suggestive:

  • it was conducted months ago, well before the plebiscite was finally killed off at the beginning of November
  • it was commissioned by an LGBTI organization: obviously, one with plenty of money, because this kind of qualitative market research does not come cheap
  • the organisation was and is keen to suppress the results, asking journalists who have seen them to keep them confidential (they have kept their word)
  • the results show the outcome of a plebiscite was far from certain
  • the danger of negative advertising driving a NO vote was high
  • anti-equality groups conducted similar research, which also showed the NO side could win
  • the research was not done for PFLAG, just.equal or any of the campaigners opposed to a plebiscite.

So, a major LGBTI organization campaigning for marriage equality had in their hands, for months before the Senate finally killed it off, evidence that a plebiscite was a very risky proposition. The LGBTI community could well have lost the vote. It goes without saying that if the NO vote had prevailed, it would have pushed equal marriage far into the future. Almost certainly beyond my lifetime.

Thankfully the same-sex marriage plebiscite was voted down in the Senate on November 7th, after an unyielding campaign led by Shelley Argent of Parents & Friends of Lesbians & Gays (PFLAG), the former National Director of Australian Marriage Equality (AME) Rodney Croome, and former Co-director Ivan Hinton-Teoh, who now runs just.equal. Argent spent over $200k of her own money:

  • to build and run the Make It Law website and campaign
  • to finance polls showing that a majority of LGBTI people didn’t want a plebiscite and nor did most Australians.
  • contributed towards the costs of research showing that the Irish campaign had been a bruising and damaging experience for LGBTI people (Irish research chiefly funded by University of Queensland (researcher: Sharon Dane) and Victoria University (researcher: Liz Short)

Tiernan Brady, former political director of the campaign for marriage equality during the Irish referendum, and director of Australians 4 Equality (A4E) told the Saturday Paper in mid-September:

“What the ‘No’ side know is that Australians are strongly in favour of marriage equality, and so they can’t win a public vote about marriage equality. So they have to make the public vote about something else.

“It’s dishonest and it’s misleading and it’s deliberate fearmongering. We see it with Safe Schools, we see it with surrogacy, we see it with transgender people and whether they are allowed to go to a public bathroom.”

Exactly. So why was AME/A4E so fixated on getting a plebiscite (while publicly claiming to be against it), almost until the 11th hour? AME/A4E seem to have favoured any compromise that would get a plebiscite passed by parliament, when the evidence now suggests they knew it would be a huge gamble: the vote would be close, and the NO vote might win.

An outcome that in hindsight looks all the more likely in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, Donald Trump’s election, and the ‘revolt against elites’, for whom marriage equality is a signature issue.

It was AME/A4E’s determination to pursue a plebiscite at all costs that drove Croome and Hinton-Teoh out of AME, and Argent to part company with them. Thank goodness they did.

You can help support their ongoing work here.

AME/A4E were approached for comment, but at the time of writing have not responded.

About the author

Veteran gay writer and speaker, Doug was one of the founders of the UKs pioneering GLBTI newspaper Gay News (1972) , and of the second, Gay Week, and is a former Features Editor of Him International. He presented news and current affairs on JOY 94.9 FM Melbourne for more than ten years. "Doug is revered, feared and reviled in equal quantities, at times dividing people with his journalistic wrath. Yet there is no doubt this grandpa-esque bear keeps everyone abreast of anything and everything LGBT across the globe." (Daniel Witthaus, "Beyond Priscilla", Clouds of Magellan, Melbourne, 2014)