The No campaign on same-sex marriage is taking cues from Brexit -- and could get over the line

Supporters of same sex marriage carry banners and shout slogans as they march in Sydney on August 6, 2017. Photo: Peter Parks / AFP / Getty Images.

A poll published earlier this week found a quarter of Britons who voted for the UK to leave the European Union last year now believe they were misled by the Brexit campaign.

One of the central sources of disappointment was revealed as the Brexiteers’ claim that leaving the EU would free up an extra £350 million in funding for the National Health Service. The Conservative government ditched that promise during the general election campaign which saw Theresa May scrape back into 10 Downing Street.

But there were other factors at play in the Brexit vote which will need careful management by the Yes campaign in Australia’s upcoming plebiscite on same-sex marriage.

The Leave campaign skilfully managed to broaden the suite of issues at play in voters’ minds. Beyond the core issues of sovereignty and control over public infrastructure and immigration, the far right UKIP combined with the mainstream right of the Conservative Party to make Brexit also about the broad culture of political correctness and being told what to think and do by perceived “elites” in London and Brussels.

There are obvious parallels in Donald Trump’s campaign. Challenged in one of the debates during the campaign last August about disparaging remarks he had made about women, Trump replied: “I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct.”

He added: “I’ve been challenged by so many people, and I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time either. This country is in big trouble. We don’t win anymore. We lose to China. We lose to Mexico both in trade and at the border. We lose to everybody.”

It may be shocking that he can start talking about trade policy when asked if he’s a misogynist, but that doesn’t make it politically ineffective.

This playbook — broadening the debate and focusing on your own issues that you know resonate with people — led to the two political shocks that reverberated around the world last year and is now being applied in Australia’s plebiscite on marriage equality by the No campaign.

For the avoidance of doubt, here’s Lyle Shelton, MD of the Australian Christian Lobby and one of the prominent No campaigners, in a tweet earlier this week:

See? Broadening the issues. The marriage debate is not about marriage.

Shelton’s argument is much less loony than the claims of Liberal Senator Eric Abetz that legalising gay marriage may result in someone being able to marry the Sydney Harbour Bridge. He argues it is about “forever changing the way children are understanding what it means to be a boy and a girl.”

Tony Abbott, too, went directly to the strategy of encouraging people to vote No as a protest against other issues when he was one of the first politicians to call for people to vote No earlier this month:

And I say to you if you don’t like same-sex marriage, vote ‘No,’. If you’re worried about religious freedom and freedom of speech, vote ‘No’, and if you don’t like political correctness, vote ‘No’ because voting ‘No’ will help to stop political correctness in its tracks.

Many on the Yes side have already argued that the campaign should really only be about the issue of marriage equality and nothing else. It’s fine to argue that, but there is an inescapable reality that individual voters will ultimately make their own minds up what the issues are at stake for them when they cast their vote. Campaigners, journalists and politicians don’t get to decide what the vote is about for voters. Voters retain that right for themselves.

With the strategy clear and having proved so effective elsewhere, could it produce a similar shock result Australia on same-sex marriage?

Right now, it remains an unlikely outcome, but remains distinctly possible. There are three important factors that help the No camp:

1. Voting is voluntary, and postal. A compulsory vote would practically guarantee a win for Yes, but that’s not what’s happening. Australia’ system of compulsory voting has many merits but the voluntary nature of the vote creates a giant blind spot for the Yes campaign: turnout. Australian political machines have practically no experience with this at a national level.

The last time there was a voluntary postal vote in Australia was in 1997, on the Constitutional Convention. Turnout was just 47% and only one in three young voters participated, with the participation rate being just under 60% for voters 55 and older. With younger voters overwhelmingly supporting same-sex marriage, a turnout failure among young voters who forget, lose their ballot paper, think that everyone else will vote anyway, or simply don’t care, would be a disaster for the Yes camp.

2. Strong poll support for Yes creates a sense of inevitability. This is a formidable enemy for the Yes campaign. Published polls show around two-thirds of the country support marriage equality – an overwhelming majority, to be sure. But in 2013 the Leave campaign in the UK was polling around 36%, and Remain was shown up to four points ahead in the final days of the campaign. Similarly, Hillary Clinton had a yawning lead over Donald Trump in the final polls of the 2016 US presidential campaign, and led by 10 points in some polls during the year. This enhances the turnout complacency risk of for the Yes campaign for Australia. It would take a lot of would-be Yes voters to decide everyone else will do the work for them in order for the vote to fail, but it’s a possibility.

Similarly, betting markets are priced heavily in favour of a win for same-sex marriage. This was also the case with the Brexit vote, and there was widespread publicity on the moves in betting markets and how the odds were heavily in favour of a win for Leave. It’s worth noting that, as we reported last week, Sportsbet’s odds on a win for No have shortened after a rush of bets that voters will reject marriage equality in the plebiscite.

3. Finally, general political conditions are perfect for a No campaign trying to tap anti-establishment sentiment. The citizenship crisis has Canberra in complete chaos, feeding broad community disillusionment with the political establishment. The approval ratings of both prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and opposition leader Bill Shorten are weak, and some voters will rightly feel they don’t need to listen to political leaders on anything when they can’t even get their basic paperwork in order for their own jobs.

One other factor is the backlash against people who either:

  • have an honestly-held believe marriage should only be between two people of the opposite sex, or
  • aren’t quite convinced or ready to make a change.

During the Brexit campaign, Leave supporters were regularly branded as racists and bigots by their political opponents. Without question, some fringe elements of the anti-establishment movements in the US and UK are racists – Nazis, even – but these are a tiny minority. More than 17 million people voted for Leave, from a broad spectrum of cultural and economic backgrounds. They weren’t all racists or bigots.

The allegations from some of the Yes campaigners that anyone who supported Brexit was a racist helped to underline the anti-PC element of the Brexiteers’ message.

The prime minister is alert to this risk and jumped on it in a radio interview with 2Day FM’s Em Rusciano this week. Here’s a short excerpt of the transcript (emphasis added):

Rusciano: I don’t think you’re being fair. Do you think we should be debating equality, do you think equality is a debate? Is that something to be debated?

Turnbull: Em, you cannot, simply because you don’t like the argument, simply because you believe in something –

Rusciano: But is it an argument?

Turnbull: Now Em, you’ve got to let me finish a sentence. Simply because you believe in marriage equality – and you believe in it and I support it too – doesn’t mean that people are not entitled to disagree with you. We have a democracy, this is a legitimate debate. Believe me, you know –

Rusciano: Is it legitimate though? Prime Minister I don’t believe you believe it’s legitimate. I don’t believe in your heart you do. I don’t think saying someone isn’t equal to me because of who they love is a debate, or is a legitimate argument. I think it’s denying someone their rights.

Turnbull: Em look… let me give a tip. What you’re saying there is undermining the case for marriage equality. A key thing is, you cannot ask for respect from the ‘no’ case … if you’re not prepared to give respect to the ‘no’ case.

Now, the vast majority of people who do not agree with same-sex marriage, who have, you know, what you would regard perhaps as very conservative views, they are not homophobic. They don’t denigrate gay people. They have a view about marriage and they believe it should remain between a man and a woman. You know social change takes time. It takes debate and discussion.

The Yes campaign needs to strike a balance here. On one hand it needs an energised, enthusiastic campaign that will deliver turnout; on the other, it needs to be mindful of playing into the hands of the No camp by feeding the sense that society is consumed by political correctness. That’s exactly what the No campaigners would like to see.

With all that said, in favour of the Yes campaign and in contrast to the US presidential election and the Brexit question, marriage equality is not a matter of national sovereignty or rocking the political establishment.

Voters may well be wiping down their baseball bats for their chance to take out their frustrations on the political establishment, but a vote on individual rights and a matter of basic social justice is not the most effective route for channelling that frustration. This is not a national issue of sovereignty like European rules reaching into people’s lives in Britain, or trade deals and cheap immigrant labour undercutting vast swathes of the existing workforce, as was the case in the US.

As a result, it may well be harder for the No camp to harness broader disillusionment with Canberra and unhappiness about political correctness and direct it towards their campaign goals in Australia.

But we can expect some of the lessons of recent global political shocks to be applied with vigour by the No campaign here in Australia over the coming weeks. Those tactics have proven their effectiveness – if the No campaign is learning from them, the Yes side needs to do that too.

This is an opinion column.

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