Marriage campaign lessons

The Australian 20 November 2017

The debate on same sex marriage is over. Australia will become the 27th nation to legalise marriage for all. We will join the Anglosphere and Catholic Spain and Argentina in clearly separating civil and religious marriage by allowing every citizen to participate in civil marriage.

In a few weeks, Parliament will pass the 21st set of amendments to Menzies’ 1961 Marriage Act.

Great institutions evolve and marriage is no different. Before we move on, there are three lessons from the campaign.

Firstly, you can win with a positive campaign. The Yes camp stuck to three pronged message of ‘families, fairness and getting it done”.

Families naturally takes the focus onto brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, friends and colleagues. 

This resonated because everyone knows someone who is gay or they are close to someone who is gay.

On fairness, the lack of recognition same sex relationships suffer was a strong point for the Yes camp.

Simple social recognition of relationships was a touchstone. Social recognition outshone denial of equal de facto and next of kin rights which marriage confers on a straight couple - the legal basis of unfairness.

Support for fair and equal recognition of relationships drew upon a “live and let live” vibe.

Proposals to call marriage between same sex couples names other than marriage such as “garriage” fell on deaf ears.

As Northern Territory Senator Nigel Scullion said at the Parliamentary launch of Liberals & Nationals for Yes in September, “you can’t have two forms of equal”.

“Getting it done” simply referred to the long time period Australians had to decide on same sex marriage. People had made up their minds. The final result of 61 per cent is largely consistent with published polls over the past few years.

Second, conflation tactics did not work. There were red herrings galore and people didn’t buy it. There was no rerun of Mediscare.

This issue was about who can and who can’t get married which is exactly what Liberal Party Federal President and our Patron Nick Greiner said in these pages in late August:

“The deliberate conflating of issues only happens when people know they cannot win an argument on its merits. Conflation should be called out for what it is, a debating device.”

The no camp tried to make it about two other things: schools and religion.

Schools was probably the least effective part of the No campaign.

While many Australians are right to be concerned about some elements of Safe Schools, there is simply no link between the nation’s marriage laws and school education.

A Yes or No vote would not improve or worsen school curriculum including Safe Schools.

The other attempted scare was that gay marriage would restrict religious beliefs of schools, churches, temples and synagogues that marriage is between a man and a woman.

This was most ineffective because almost every Australian has been to both civil and religious weddings.

Civil and religious weddings are different events held in different places with different words.

A wedding in church is not compelled to read out the monitom that “marriage, according to law in Australia, is the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life."

It is obviously different to a civil wedding, where for the next few weeks, those words must be read out aloud by every civil celebrant in Australia.

After the Dean Smith Bill passes in some form, solemisation and teaching of religious marriage within these institutions will continue as it does today.

No one wants to change what the church thinks about marriage. It is essential every religious institution’s view on marriage is protected.

Thirdly, proposals to change institutions should not automatically be viewed as attacks that must be resisted. This is the path to reactionary politics which would make the Coalition unelectable.

71 of 76 Coalition seats voted yes and there is not much of a country / city divide.

The strongest nine seats against change are all Labor seats – mainly in Western Sydney.

While Wentworth and Warringah seats voted 80 and 75 per cent in favour of marriage for all, 15 of 16 National seats voted Yes.

Many did so strongly – country seats in every state voted in big numbers such as Corangamite at 71 per cent, Calare with 60 per cent, Wannan 61 per cent, Grey 53 per cent, Forde 60 per cent and Canning 60 per cent.

It means as social issues arise, we conservatives should not instinctively seek to block every change.

Change which moves institutions forward should not be seen as threats to institutions.

The institution of marriage is an evolving institution which will now be stronger thanks to universal access.

Tony Abbott’s speechwriter Paul Ritchie made this point when he wrote the book on the conservative case for same sex marriage in 2016.

If only he’d written it a decade before, the long debate on marriage could have been avoided.

Stopping people from joining the conservative institution of marriage always seemed a contorted conservative position.

71 of 76 Coalition seats voting Yes shows that it was.

Andrew Bragg is national director of Liberals & Nationals for Yes.