As an Australian-at-a-distance distracted by northern hemisphere stuff, I hadn’t fully absorbed the impact of the federal government’s Marriage Law Postal Survey. I mean, I knew it on an intellectual level, but not being surrounded by it day-to-day, it took exposure on social media to feel the full awfulness of it. Malcolm Turnbull has basically been prepared to put thousands of same-sex couples through months of agonising campaigning that strikes at the heart of their identity so that he can duck the responsibilities of power while maximising his chances of maintaining that power.
On TV and radio from September 10 to 17, the No campaign was mentioned in the Australian media almost four times as much as the Yes campaign. The predictable result has been an outbreak of homophobic violence and vandalism. Aussie legend Pauline Pantsdown has observed that “the level and language of public homophobic bile is like the mid-1970s, [my] teenage years”.
To put that into context, in the mid-1970s, sexual activity between men was illegal in every Australian state and territory other than South Australia and the ACT. In Victoria the penalty was up to 15 years in prison, in NSW 14 years. The states decriminalised same-sex sexual activity between men over the period 1975 to 1997 (it was never illegal for women); state and territory governments only started offering the possibility of registered partnerships in the 21st century, and Western Australia and the Northern Territory still haven’t.
Social media is full of wrenching stories:
In 1986, military law changed; it was no longer illegal to be homosexual and a serving member of the armed forces. It was, however, against Army policy to employ homosexuals. It meant that they couldn't sack me. The only way they could get me out was to force me to resign.
I’m not quite as old as Pauline Pantsdown, but was a teenager in Tasmania, which was years behind the curve, and remember that homophobic atmosphere of hateful, bullying, life-crushing bullshit. How unbelievably callous and stupid of the Liberals to drag it out of the darkness and back into the light of day. All they had to do was copy the one decent thing that David Cameron ever did and make it law, completely defusing the issue. (The UK same-sex marriage bill split the Tories down the middle, too, and Cameron still managed it; it got through with Labour support.)
Turnbull may have been concerned about getting rolled in the party room and about triggering Liberal preselection wars, but ultimately those are about perceived electability. He wouldn’t have suffered any electoral backlash: where are the bigot brigade going to go, to the ALP or the Greens? You’ve got preferential voting, you’d get their precious prejudiced votes anyway.
As the UK EU referendum showed, “non-binding” is the language of slippery operators who hope to pick and choose their response depending on the results; a binding referendum vote would have triggered Australia’s compulsory voting laws and, given the opinion polls, been guaranteed to get through. This cynical survey mechanism was a desperate sop to right-wingers in an attempt to defuse internal Liberal Party squabbles, which happens to have given those right-wingers their best chance of getting what they want, long shot though it is. Please, let them fail, and let Yes win.
Adapted from my Metafilter comments on the survey.