The next time a politician talks about listening to their electorate and representing the will of the people, you might want to go back and check this amazing ABC breakdown of the 150 electorates involved in today’s same-sex marriage survey result.
Just 17 returned a majority no vote, with 133 saying yes. All states voted in favour, with support for SSM highest in the ACT, with a 74-26 yes-no split, while NSW was the lowest, at 58-42.
Overall, 61.6% of the 79.5% of eligible voters who responded said yes. The national result was just a few hundred thousand votes short (62.5%) of an absolute majority of all Australian voters.
Yes supporters will point to prominent no campaigner Tony Abbott’s seat of Warringah, on Sydney’s northern beaches, where just one in every four voters said no. An astonishing 75% of people in Warringah said yes.
But the results should also prompt a sobering look at the wider issue of the country’s cultural divide.
Ultimately, NSW dragged down the national average for the yes response, led by western Sydney, an area of wide ethnic diversity, where the population has a strong religious bent and is socially conservative, despite voting overwhelmingly for Labor in the last federal election. Western Sydney was a sea of no that stands out against the rest of the country.
Critics of the survey will perhaps try to portray the result as a win for the inner-city elites. Yes, Sydney, held by Labor’s Tanya Plibersek, and Melbourne, held by Greens MP Adam Bandt, topped the yes response at 84%, but the result appears to offer something of a challenge to social conservatives who are often also railing against multiculturalism and Islam.
Of the 17 “no” electorates, 12 were clustered around western Sydney, including Bennelong, the seat where ousted Liberal MP John Alexander (he resigned over concerns of being a dual national in breach of the Constitution) is re-contesting on December 16 against Labor’s Kristina Keneally.
Bennelong had the narrowest no margin at 49.2% yes to 50.2% no.
Of the western Sydney dozen, just three are Liberal: Bennelong; Banks, held by David Coleman, and Mitchell, held by Alex Hawke. The seven strongest no votes came directly from Labor’s heartland.
The biggest no response was in Blaxland, held by shadow minister Jason Clare. It is one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse electorates in Australia – suburbs such as Bankstown, Villawood, Auburn and Fairfield – with nearly half the population born overseas and more than 90% identifying as religious. Around 20% of Blaxland is Muslim.
Given the region – which was once referred to as the home of Howard’s battlers – is crucial to forming government, the question is how long voters will remember how their MP voted and whether they will hold it against them.
The Centre for Western Sydney described the region thus:
Western Sydney is the focus of Australia’s migration intake. When migration in Australia increases, as it has since 2007, this drives Western Sydney’s population growth. In turn, this growth driver makes Western Sydney the most diverse large urban area in Australia: the number of Western Sydney residents born overseas outstrips the national average of 24.6% at 35%.
Residents born overseas come from a diverse array of cultural and language backgrounds — though Western Sydney residents born in the Commonwealth countries, when combined, are still the predominant group. Nearly 39% of Western Sydney’s population use a language other than English at home. The Australian average is around 18%.
That snapshot paints a picture of devout, hardworking people who are socially conservative. You can safely assume the cultural mores of their birthplace remain powerful. And a strong Christian evangelical cohort into the mix and it’s unsurprising the region is a stronghold for the no vote.
It was also a matter of strategy for the competing sides. While the yes campaign chased its support base – and yes, it’s middle-class progressive – to make sure they were motivated to vote, the no side worked harder and relentlessly to target migrant communities with a multi-lingual campaign.
That said, the Labor MPs whose seats had a majority no vote had known for years that would be the result.
As the same-sex marriage debate ground slowly towards its finale, Tony Burke was among a number of Labor MPs who changed their mind on same-sex marriage and said they’d support the yes side, declaring in 2015 that his electorate of Watson was out of step with national opinion.
Today Burke said: “I went to the last election with a commitment to vote yes. That doesn’t change. My community knows that if they are treated with prejudice, vilified, or marginalised in any way I will stand up for them regardless of polls. The same applies to this issue.”
Watson had the second highest no vote at 70%, while Chris Bowen in McMahon had a 65% no vote, followed by Werriwa – once held by Gough Whitlam, the man many regard as the architect of Australian multiculturalism – had the fourth highest no vote at 64%.
Just three Queensland seats including Kennedy, home of Maverick independent Bob Katter, who once notoriously declared he’d walk backwards to Bourke if there were any gay people in his electorate, delivered a majority no vote. Katter’s far north Queensland seat was 53-47 against marriage equality.
Bruce and Calwell in Victoria make up the remaining two “no” seats. They are both held by Labor.
Bruce, on Melbourne’s southeastern fringe and including Dandenong, has the nation’s highest level of overseas born residents – more than 50% – with more than 80% identifying as religious. It fits the pattern of Sydney’s ethnic diversity and delivered a 53% no vote. Calwell, on the capital’s northwestern edge, has the highest proportion of Muslims outside of Sydney, and ranks 5th out of 150 electorates in terms of religious belief. It voted 57% no.
The irony for the “no” side, is that prominent social conservatives such as treasurer Scott Morrison and Queensland LNP MP George Christensen, had a 55% yes vote in their electorates. New England, the NSW seat Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce is hoping to get back at a by-election on December 2, was 53% in favour.
Tasmania, where senator Eric Abetz is another prominent no campaigner, delivered a 64% yes vote, well above the national average — astonishing, considering male homosexuality was only decriminalised in the state 20 years ago. In South Australia, where Liberal defector Cory Bernardi also ran a fierce campaign against yes, the yes vote also beat the national average at 62%.
The lesson from this is Coalition voters are overwhelmingly yes voters, so Malcolm Turnbull has the backing of his party’s constituency to push ahead and legalise same-sex marriage, despite the protestations of the party’s conservative rump. It could be argued that Labor is the side ignoring what its voters want – but to align Bill Shorten with the likes of Bernardi and Christensen would be the embodiment of the old maxim that politics makes for strange bedfellows.
Tony Abbott was almost magnanimous in conceding defeat today, saying “the parliament should respect the result”.
But the fight is not yet over, because the shape of the legislation is the next battleground for conservatives, at senator James Patterson’s alternative bill – which wants to give people the right to refuse to do business with people seeking a gay wedding based on “religious or conscientious belief” – a demonstration of how far the debate has to run.
Abbott flagged what’s ahead, saying: “I look forward to a parliamentary process that improves on the Dean Smith bill to implement same sex marriage with freedom of conscience for all, not just the churches”.
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