Social conservatism, as an international political movement, may have just scored one of its greatest-ever own goals.
Here in Australia — like in many parts of the world — social conservatives have long argued that they speak for the silent majority, for people silenced by “political correctness.” But on gay marriage in Australia, the silent majority was firmly on the side of inclusion. In the coming weeks, the Australian Parliament will finally legislate in favor of same-sex marriage — but only after a process which traumatised many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Australians, sent shock waves through families, and cost a small fortune.
Australians were asked to complete voluntary surveys — in which they had to tick a box on a ballot marked either “Yes” or “No” on gay marriage. They then had to mail the ballot back to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. The snail-mail process was not chosen for any rational or traditional reason. It was all part of an effort on the part of social conservatives to delay a parliamentary vote and to shore up divisions on their own side of politics.
And yet, for all that, the result of the ballot last week — an empathetic “yes” — has provided an electrifying moment. Just shy of 80 percent of eligible voters participated in the voluntary survey — a level of democratic engagement which is hard to match in any country. The “yes” vote was 61.6 percent. In every state and territory, the majority voted for marriage equality. Of the 150 electorates, only 17 had a majority for “no.”
Strikingly, some of the electorates with the highest number of “yes” votes were recorded in the affluent, suburban areas represented by the social conservatives who had done the most to try to impede change. One example: The electorate of Warringah in Sydney, which is the seat of of Conservative former prime minister Tony Abbott, recorded a “yes” vote of 75 percent.
On the day of the vote, I asked for talk-back calls on my Sydney radio show. The common-thread: people — straight and gay alike — taken aback by how moved they were by the outcome of the vote. Australia’s shadow minister for Foreign Affairs, the normally restrained Penny Wong, broke down in tears as the figures were read out. Talking of her female partner and their two children, she later thanked the Australian people “for standing up for our families.”
Some believe the vote — given the turnout and the result — could now prove a turning point for other issues.
Throughout his period as prime minister, the personally-progressive Malcolm Turnbull has been stymied by a need to placate the right-wing of his own party. The faction has thrown him out as leader once before — Turnbull has appeared keen to never give them reason to do so again. It has resulted in an authenticity problem for Turnbull: The public knows his own beliefs don’t always match his actions on a number issues including gay marriage, the need for a proper climate change policy, or the question of whether Australia should dump its connection to the queen and embrace a republic.
His stalking horse in all these matters has been Abbott, with whom Turnbull has tussled with for years. Both men, at various times, have lost the leadership to the other. Thus the question: Is Abbott’s power finally extinguished? Does his claim to represent Australia’s silent heartland now look shallow? And will the same-sex vote finally give Turnbull the authority to stare down the right-wing of his party and become a more authentic, center-right leader?
After all, a fresh picture of Australia has emerged from the survey results. Parts of Australia thought to be bastions of social conservatism — the “frontier” states of Queensland and West Australia — voted strongly in favour of change. In rural Australia, the yes vote was equally strong. The only opposition came from a slender band of poorer electorates in Sydney and Melbourne with high migrant populations.
Past stereotypes have been challenged. Much of the parliamentary ground-work on gay marriage was done by Warren Entsch, a gruff, plain-speaking, heterosexual parliamentarian from far northern Queensland. Entsch, at the cost of some of his parliamentary ambitions, has pushed the issue for more than a decade. Meanwhile, the bill awaiting a parliamentary vote was put forward by Dean Smith, a staunchly conservative, devout Christian from Western Australia who is openly gay. In presenting his bill to the parliament, on the day after the vote, the quiet-spoken Smith was overtaken by emotion. “I never believed,” he said, “the day would come when my relationship would be judged by my country to be as meaningful and valued as any other. The Australian people have proven me wrong.”
Socially, the postal survey was a painful process. Would we have been better off with a parliamentary vote (which the LGBT community advocated for) rather than a long, publicly divisive campaign? I’m not alone in knowing at least one gay Australian with a sibling or parent who voted “no” — creating wounds in family relationships. There were homophobic posters and TV advertising campaigns which implied that a “yes” vote would lead to homosexuality being actively promoted in Australian schools. The day after the vote, one Queensland senator, Murray Watt, spoke of watching “yes” volunteers call potential voters: “I will never forget the look of rejection and shame they felt every time they struck a voter who was intending to vote “no” against their own equality and against their own worth as an individual.”
It seems bittersweet to celebrate a victory that has involved so much pain. And yet the pain and the pleasure have been wrapped together. The strange method of putting the vote to a mail survey, chosen for all the worst reasons, has delivered a result so emphatic, and so widely embraced, that it may be a tipping point in Australian politics.
Americans, at this point, might quote Martin Luther King Jr: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
We Australians might put it more laconically: The “fair go,” that defining principle of Australian values, is suddenly back on top.
Richard Glover is an Australian talk radio presenter, journalist and author.