It’s been 13 days since the ABS began sending out marriage equality postal survey forms — and there’s 43 days to go until the survey closes, another eight on top of that until we will know the result.
The latest Newspoll numbers don’t look good for the Yes campaign. Support for changing the law to allow same-sex couples to marry has dropped from 63% to 57%, with opposition moving from 30% to 34%. These numbers are similar to those found by Essential Research. Interestingly, however, the Essential poll found that 36% of respondents said they had already sent their forms back, while just 15% of Newspoll’s respondents said they had.
They came after a weekend where the headlines were filled with backlash over text messages sent by the Equality Campaign, former PM Tony Abbott linking an alleged assault on him with the Yes case, and a house in Brisbane was attacked with rocks and homophobic slurs.
Are events like this endangering the success of the Yes campaign, even though polling over many years indicates that Australians broadly accept and want marriage equality?
Do the numbers and the headlines mean it’s time to change campaign tactics?
The answer is no, says Victorian Trades Hall Council campaigns officer Wil Stracke, who is also the Victorian Field Director for the Equality Campaign.
“My view is no — polls come and go, our job right now is to ensure everyone who supports marriage equality remembers to get that survey back,” she told Crikey. “All the rest really is noise from our point of view, background noise, our job is just to make sure everyone who says yes actually goes that next step and gets their survey back.”
The Yes campaign has so far focused on getting out the vote, reminding people to return their forms quickly after they have received them. While the Victorian union movement has previously run successful campaigns around the Victorian and federal elections in recent years, Stracke says the nature and scale of the postal survey means campaigners are in “uncharted territory”.
“Because we’ve never done it before we don’t know what to expect … it’s an unknown, we just keep plugging away on getting people understanding why it’s important that they participate.”
An ABS spokesperson said the agency has not started counting forms that have arrived back, and is not currently releasing data on how many forms have been returned.
Stracke says the campaign isn’t keeping data on whether people say they have returned their forms or not, but that from the phone calls and door knocks they have done, many people have said they have already returned their forms. The reaction on the ground is also much more positive and polite than the media suggests, she says.
“When you ask people to campaign and to effectively choose a side it’s always going to be that people who disagree with you are going to be unhappy that you campaign with a different position, so that is certainly why I as a lesbian and a member of the LGBTI community didn’t think that doing it this way (the postal survey instead of a parliamentary vote) was a good thing to do.”
Stephen Mills, honourary senior lecturer at the University of Sydney’s School of Social and Political Sciences, and an expert in political campaigning, says the Yes campaign’s challenge is getting out the vote.
“Getting out the vote is also a campaign that is not part of the Australian political tradition, with this appalling survey one of the most dreadful things is that it’s non-compulsory. If they’ve [the Yes campaign] got 60-40 support in opinion polls, they have to make sure they can turn that into a 60-40 vote, which is bloody hard.”
In campaigning terms though, Mills says the Yes campaign needs to actively refute the claims made by the No side, including those that aren’t actually about marriage between two people of the same gender.
The No campaign has also been effective through its use of one major spokesperson, and its slogan “it’s OK to say no”, Mills says. “They have a slogan that I think the Yes campaign does not, the ‘it’s OK to say no’ is quite an effective and persuasive slogan and it has a call to action in it. It’s a neat summary, as all good political slogans should be, of the bizarrely wide range of concerns.”
He pointed to Jennifer Westacott’s decision to call out claims made by former PM John Howard on the ABC last week as an example of using a particular point and refuting it.
There are many elements of the postal survey that make campaigning a different task from the elections that Australians are used to. “It is the unusual combination of optional and early voting, we’re getting a bit used to pre-poll voting, but there’s a starting point as opposed to a finishing point.”
Crikey also attempted to speak to GetUp’s Sally Rugg and the Equality Campaign’s Tiernan Brady for this article, but did not hear back by deadline.