Never let it be said that Australia has lost its will to be an innovator in democracy. By quite a way, the same-sex marriage postal plebiscite must count as one of the most baroque, convoluted, ad hoc responses to this social issue. To change by parliament (UK and elsewhere), court (US) and referendum (Ireland), we have added a non-binding vote using an archaic communications method, run through regulations on executive authority, and that might yet be thrown out by the High Court. Truly, we are a laboratory for democracy, but it’s the laboratory in the film The Fly. Remember the half-man, half-fly’s plaintive cry at the end of that? “Kill me … kill me … kill me …” In a small voice. We’ll all be saying that in a few weeks.

But now that it’s on, it presents the same-sex marriage movement with a challenge. They are going to have to dive in and try to win it, comprehensively and decisively. But marshalling the troops for that may prove difficult, as so much of the campaign around the plebiscite was about presenting it as illegitimate and unfair. That makes it difficult to pivot quickly to a “yes” campaign, and it may be that many among the leadership of the same-sex marriage movement will find it difficult to turn their full will and energy to an uncompromising “vote yes” campaign.

Should that prove the case, the marriage equality movement is in some trouble, for several reasons. The first is that the recently polled 60% support for marriage equality may be an outlier, a few points above earlier polling of around 52-55%. The second problem is that this figure, whatever it is, may have an unknowable degree of “softness” about it, a degree of “sure, why not?” to polling responses. With an enthusiastic and full-throttle “no” campaign underway, a section of that “yes” could yield to a full battery of argument and propaganda fair and foul, for the “no” case. The “no” case isn’t hamstrung by endless procedural arguments. They have got exactly what they wanted.

[Turnbull has a peculiar talent for pretending to love things he hates, including the postal plebiscite]

They have got something more than what they wanted, indeed. For the obvious advantage of a postal plebiscite is that it will skew old, towards people for whom physical mail remains the principal mode of communication. And age appears to be the main differentiator of yes/no support, with older voters skewing strongly to “no”, “hells no”, and “this is an abomination”. I doubt that the anti-SSM movement planned a postal vote by executive order all along — but hey, who knows? Whatever the case, they have strong home ground advantage.

For the same-sex marriage movement, there might be some temptation to boycott the process altogether. But this will be difficult, because there is no sole and clear marriage equality campaign leadership to decide on a boycott and then try to enforce it. Boycott campaigns always have some leakage, even the best-run. A disorganised boycott would split the pro-SSM campaign down the middle, and make achieving a majority all the more precarious.

The LGBT communities campaigned to reject a plebiscite, on the grounds that the social dissension and hostility it would create would tear a rip in their lives, make their children targets and other nasty effects. There seems no doubt that this will happen to some degree, and given the near-unanimity of the LGBT communities in regard to a plebiscite, it seemed impossible to gainsay. But that opposition to a plebiscite has come with a cost, demobilising many with regard to the vote that will now be held anyway.

This was a point some of us made at the time when a plebiscite was first in the offing: that it’s civil rights 101 that, to quote the old American movement song, you “keep your eyes on the prize”. Demand for equality is a full demand for recognition by right, an absolute demand for justice made by a people on the polity. The absoluteness of the demand is reinforced by a refusal to get involved in procedural matters. That throws the tendency to quibble back on the resistant party. Martin Luther King Jr and the movement didn’t suggest specific ways to enact civil rights. They made the demand and left LBJ and others to get it through Congress. Ditto for any number of organisations.

[A postal plebiscite is a bad idea — just ask Malcolm Turnbull]

Politically, the same-sex marriage movement would have done better, when the plebiscite was first suggested, by saying “bring it on. Vote, Parliament, plebiscite, we’ll win it.” Whether the plebiscite had gone through or not, it would have kept the movement unified, focused and match-fit, projected a sense of confidence and right, made the anti-SSM group the whining, petitioning “other”. As Jeff Sparrow noted at the time, a decisive “yes” vote in a plebiscite would have been a stunning blow against a certain type of reactionary cultural politics in Australia, showing the notion of a “natural conservatism” to be a lie.

That did not happen, and one can see the legitimate reasons for not wanting the plebiscite. But now that there is one, the marriage equality movement is going to have to pivot, and pivot fast, and pivot as one, to winning the damn thing. They will have to act on the presumption that Andrew Wilkie’s High Court challenge will fail, and that this thing is really going to happen. There is now no choice. To lose the postal plebiscite in a disorganised fashion, to continue with the language of emotionality, hurt and betrayal — as Michael Kirby has done this morning — is going to deliver a disaster, and play into archaic stereotypes as an anti-bonus.

Gay liberation victories in the ’70s and ’80s were won in the streets, with militancy and determination. If some of that has been missing, it’s because the mainstreaming of LGBT life has been such a success. Beyond the concerns about revived persecution and homophobia, some of the resistance to a plebiscite fight had come from the fact that so many of the community were now laced into an establishment, and they had no desire to once again define themselves as a campaigning force. Now they have to, and their leadership will have to find the one loud and single voice to do so. Conservatives are treating this struggle as their Thermopylae. If they can hold it off here, they reason, at this narrow opening in the rock, they can start to beat back the empire of progressivism. They’re right — if the postal vote is lost, Labor is in a sticky position as regards a parliamentary vote, should it win power. One can see in Tony Abbott’s long, saurian stare the conception that this is a fight God sent him to win. He won’t be the only one. Battle is joined, and for the marriage equality movement the only path is forward.

Peter Fray

Get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for $12.

Without subscribers, Crikey can’t do what it does. Fortunately, our support base is growing.

Every day, Crikey aims to bring new and challenging insights into politics, business, national affairs, media and society. We lift up the rocks that other news media largely ignore. Without your support, more of those rocks – and the secrets beneath them — will remain lodged in the dirt.

Join today and get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for just $12.


Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey