As I write my first article for this journal, I’m watching the ferries meander around Sydney’s Circular Quay and considering how a loose-lipped drag queen ended up prompting my latest visit down under.
In early 2014, Rory O’Neill (aka Panti Bliss) laid into members of the Iona Institute for being homophobic on Brendan O’Connor’s television show. The opening salvos in Ireland’s same sex marriage referendum had been fired and the tactic of painting anyone who supported traditional marriage as being homophobic was laid bare. A few weeks later Irish Times writer Una Mullally followed up with a column equating those opposed to redefining marriage with gay bashers and stated that she’d never been met with an argument against gay marriage that wasn’t rooted in homophobia. As an out and proud gay man who had supported and lobbied for civil partnerships, but who opposed same sex marriage, I was conflicted. Should I stick with the gay herd or stand up and speak out for my beliefs? Never one to be silenced on issues that I thought important, I chose the path of most resistance and early in 2015 I wrote a column for the Sunday Independent stating my reasons for voting “No” in the referendum.
With all political parties enforcing a strict whip to silence the dozens of TDs and Senators who supported traditional marriage, it fell on the shoulders of a few civic minded civilians to unite behind a key support for the family and society. Mothers & Fathers Matter became the lead organisation in the No campaign and being a gay man opposed to same sex marriage, I, along with the similarly minded Paddy Manning, was thrust into the front line of a battle that seemed unwinnable.
With all the political parties actively working for a Yes vote, the long cherished political neutrality of An Garda Síochána was cast aside. Taxpayer funded charities, local authorities, and celebrities were all but unanimous in their support for abandoning the traditional view of marriage in favour of “equality”. Marriage had become nothing more than a milestone on the LGBT lobby’s roadmap.
The only thing the No side had going for it was legally required equal coverage in the broadcast media. While outspending the No side by around twenty to one, the Yes side’s previously imminent landslide victory was suddenly not as certain as before. When people listened to the arguments an initially small shift in public opinion began.
In the end the Yes side triumphed by 62% to 38%, but given that the No side had struggled to get over 20% for most of the campaign, the forecast landslide had not happened. Indeed with a 60% turnout, the end result was more complex. In a representative sample of 30 voters, 12 had decided not to vote, 11 voted to redefine marriage and 7 chose to protect traditional marriage.
The coverage of the result in the international media suggested that Ireland would become the first of many countries to put same sex marriage to a popular vote, but two and half years later, things have turned out very differently.
Referenda in countries from Slovenia to Bermuda, Slovakia to Croatia have seen people voting to protect traditional marriage. Italy, once thought likely to follow Ireland’s referendum precedent instead opted for civil partnerships. Indeed in countries that did choose to redefine marriage, like Germany and the USA, it was politicians and judges rather than the public who made the decision, often against the demonstrated will of the people.
Same sex marriage has become a political football in Australia. In 2013 Labor’s opposition leader Bill Shorten committed to a referendum. However in the run-up to 2016’s election he did a U-turn, saying it was a decision for parliament. Outgoing Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull made a commitment to a referendum if returned to government. When Turnbull was re-elected but without sufficient support in Australia’s senate, it looked like the public would be denied a say. However in something of a political sleight of hand, Turnbull found a way of circumventing the senate by having a non-binding postal survey of voters. The Yes campaign tried to deny people a vote through a High Court challenge which failed.
In a country with compulsory voting and very limited experience with referenda, a non-compulsory postal survey is something of a novelty and with several weeks for voters to return survey forms, the campaign has turned into a political marathon. As one of a handful of combatants in both countries I see several similarities but also significant differences between the Irish and Australian campaigns.
Once again the odds are stacked in favour of the Yes side. Both Turnbull and Shorten have come out for a Yes vote. Indeed Shorten’s Labor party has followed the Irish example, making same sex marriage party policy and not allowing its political representatives to campaign in favour of traditional marriage. Shorten has also said that he will ignore the result of the vote and move to redefine marriage if elected in 2019. By contrast Turnbull has said that if the people vote No, then same sex marriage is off the political agenda for the foreseeable future.
While nothing like the imbalance seen in Ireland, it is clear that the Yes side are far better funded and without the limits on personal donations that we have in Ireland millionaires like Irish born Qantas CEO Alan Joyce are pumping millions into the Yes side. Once again local authorities are using tax and ratepayers’ monies to promote only the Yes side and the media are also generally lined up behind redefining marriage. When I arrived in Sydney’s CBD, I thought I had entered a gay version of North Korea such was the size of the rainbow coloured “vote yes” banners, all funded by the city’s ratepayers.
My involvement has been primarily a speaking tour for launches of the No campaign in Sydney, Adelaide, Perth, Brisbane and Melbourne, before returning to Sydney for some interviews. I speak about the Irish campaign and help undo some of the misinformation that has reached these shores. While my contribution has been small, the welcome I have received has been huge as people appreciate how the bullying of people who support traditional marriage is a global feature of this debate and that it is even worse in Australia than it was in Ireland.
Here the No campaign focuses on the consequences of redefining marriage; the impact on the rights of parents and children in a country where the state schooling system is trying to spread gender theory without parental consent, and the restrictions on freedom of speech and religious freedoms that would follow a Yes vote.
Opinion polls still show a relatively easy Yes victory, but in Ireland we know how unreliable polls on this subject are and the lengthy voting period makes things even more unpredictable. However, unlike in Ireland, the No campaign was able to tap into some first-hand overseas experience to help level the playing pitch. The result will be known on November 15th.