Why We Could Lose The Postal Survey


Words || Cameron Colwell

For me, it has become impossible to escape the marriage equality postal survey. The other day, I woke up to ‘Vote No’ emblazoned upon the sky, in Ubers on my way to work I hear reports about it on the radio, at my home I have had ‘No’ campaigners door-knocking, and whenever I open my phone I see the latest in the media deluge of takes on the issue. Not all of it has been bad, and I enjoy seeing reminders of the ‘Vote Yes’ campaign, but not since high school have I felt my sexuality as a queer man to be under so much scrutiny and discussion. Suddenly, it has become everybody’s business how people like me conduct our romantic and sexual lives. Past all this strain, though, there’s this fear: Having queer people, young and old, learn that half or more of the adults in this nation do not think their relationships should be equal in the eyes of the law. The impact would be devastating, and I don’t think it is exaggeration to say, for teenagers working out their sexuality, a denial to marriage equality would be traumatising.

Ultimately, the enemy is complacency. Polls from the last decade or so have indicated that the general public is in favour of marriage equality, falling though they might now be. There’s a belief that progress is something that will happen as a result of time passing, rather than as the result of the active hard work of queer people and our allies.

Because the postal survey is non-compulsory, it could be tempting for people who do not think they are not invested to pass on sending through their vote forms. I’m not even sure I would put much faith at all into polling, anyway: If Brexit and Trump have showed us anything, it’s that votes (and, of course, non-compulsory non-binding surveys) are extremely difficult to predict.

This is part of the reason why I do not think us queer people and our allies can afford to assume anything. I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about how the ‘Yes’ vote could lose, and, after a fair amount of research and observation, managed to come up with three pretty big factors behind a potential defeat:

1) Because the ‘No’ campaign feels no shame about outright lying to people

 The head body of the ‘No’ campaign, the Coalition for Marriage, is led by Lyle Shelton, head of the Australian Christian Lobby. This is the man who stoked so much furore over Safe Schools, whose lies about the programs were so calculated and palatable for the click-seeking mainstream media (The Australian published over 90,000 words on the subject), that the public’s perception warped and the program was eventually defunded by the government. The Coalition for Marriage’s training materials for campaigners are a study in stoking up paranoia. Chief among their tactics is that, apparently conceding Australians are generally supportive of homosexuals, they have linked marriage equality to the growing acceptance of transgender people, and weaponised the transphobic backlash to a horrendous degree. Consider this excerpt from those training materials I mentioned:

Even though Safe Schools was a program originally designed for training teachers in high school (primary schools could request resources) , The Gender Fairy was not compulsory reading but a suggested resource for supporting transgender children, the same-sex role-play was a simple thought exercise, the Safe Schools program was found appropriate by independent review, and that wild thing about two virginities was about a bisexual girl talking about her personal relationship with her own virginity (It’s on page ten of this), the Coalition for Marriage is not known to let facts get in the way of a good moral panic.

Many Australians do not understand transgender people, and the ACL has latched onto the fear of the unknown — did anyone else notice that, in the infamous ‘No’ campaign ad, we were warned about boys being told they could wear dresses, with very little actually said about marriage? The ‘No’ campaign’s chief tools are widespread confusion and the idea of giving the status quo the benefit of the doubt: “If you’re not sure about how changing the definition of marriage will affect what your children and grandchildren are learning in school, vote No,” reads another excerpt from the training materials. I’ve talked often about how damaging the postal survey is for queer people at large, but it’s transgender people who have borne the brunt of the abuse in the media: the broader community cannot allow itself to repeat the continual mistakes of the cisgender members of the queer movement since the 1960’s by throwing trans people under the bus, especially when the ACL’s propaganda machine has so openly demonised them.

2) Because it’s a logistical hot garbage fire

 It’s actually very impressive that our leaders have so much faith in the postal survey considering previous logistical failures in gathering information from a large amount of people, like the census. And it’s done through the mail – in 2017. Various cases of people rummaging through others’ mail in order to take votes have emerged, people are getting the postal survey forms of people who have long moved residence, the ABS is now sheepishly advertising to people that they can re-order their postal survey forms (You can do so here) if they’ve gone missing, not turned up, or if they’ve changed their mind. Apparently better at necromancy than they are at organising a census, the ABS has also been sending postal survey forms to dead people.

We always knew that this would be a slap to the face to queer people all around the country, but the lack of care and thought put into this $122 million-dollar exercise really rubs salt into the wound. It’s tempting to say that the government would prefer a low amount of responses and have had the postal survey designed for inaccessibility, but I think that would be putting too much belief in their forethought and not enough in their awe-inspiring incompetence and continued refusal to fund vital services.

It’s hardly a scientific study. People will be left out, and, considering young people are more likely to move and less likely to be enrolled, the results could skew to older, generally more conservative Australians. There’s really very little to be done about this, beyond ensuring you and the people around you ensure you receive your form correctly, request a replacement if the original goes missing, and send it off on time.

3) Because of insularity

At this stage, people are not going to become swayed by liberal celebrities or politicians chiming in and giving their support. People’s minds will change not because they’ve been lectured a sufficient amount of times, but because they have engaged with the people most affected by the result of the survey. The Coalition for Marriage’s materials reflect a certain horror of recognising queer people as actual human beings rather than the big scary spectre boogeyman that will corrupt the youth and arrest the straights en masse on the grounds of thought crime. Again, I refer to their training materials:

It’s very telling that nowhere in this advice is their consideration for what happens if campaigners meet actual queer people: we remain in the abstract, as the friends who the 18-25 demographic feel compassion for, and as the children of the 35-45 demographic. (Sidenote: Wild that they completely unironically cite compassion as an obstacle and still think they’re on the right side.) They’re counting on keeping us in the imaginations of those who are unsure about marriage equality. Now is the time, for queer people and allies alike, to remind cishet people that queer people exist, and defeat for the ‘Yes’ campaign would be devastating on an existential level. It’s not enough to keep up our leftie echo chambers. We have to be prepared to have conversations with people who might disagree with us.

 I think it’s pretty obvious that seeing a ‘Yes’ result to the marriage equality plebiscite non-compulsory non-binding postal survey is of deep importance to me. Since it was announced and the Queer Collective kicked off its enrolment campaign, imagining a ‘No’ result has been a source of stress for me that has permeated into all areas of my life. Misplaced guilt about being gay I thought was gone with my teen years, anxieties about the safety of being affectionate with my boyfriend in public, and exhaustion from engaging with people who would rather I be invisible have become features of my day-to-day emotional landscape. Still, I imagine it would be worse had I not the relatively thick skin and support network of friends and family I have gained since my teenage years, which were mired in turmoil due to the homophobia I faced. For this reason, for the teenagers who cannot vote but are being discussed in the media every day, I urge people to do their best to engage with their communities and put effort into not only securing a victory for the ‘Yes’ side, but a landslide that shows young queer people that they are not less than, but rather that they are supported and loved.