As she walked down a Canberra street on a sunny October day, Robyn Lewis was ecstatic. Rainbow flags hung from houses; “Vote Yes” signs adorned lawns and shop windows.
“I’m 21,” Lewis, an Australian National University (ANU) student, told The Politic. “And I have not seen this level of community engagement with a campaign before.”
For the first time, Australia may join English-speaking allies in Canada, the UK, and the U.S. in recognizing same-sex marriage. The fate of one of the nation’s most significant LGBTI rights initiatives will be decided this month (LGBTI is the term widely used in Australia). The question rests largely in the hands of the citizens—and young people have something to say about it.
By November 7, every registered voter in Australia will have received a survey in the mail from the government, asking: “Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?”
This massive poll takes the form of a non-binding, non-compulsory plebiscite: a direct vote on changing federal law intended to serve as a gauge of public opinion for lawmakers. In this special case, unlike in federal elections, voting is not required by law and, once the results are in, Parliament is not technically obligated to act in response.
The plebiscite idea began as an alternative to a free vote in Parliament, a substitute proposed by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott. When Abbott was ousted as leader of the Liberal Party—which, despite its name, is relatively conservative—current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull agreed to continue supporting the proposal to appease all factions of his party.
“They’ve been trying to stall this for yonks,” Jasper Lindell, an editor at ANU’s student publication Woroni, told The Politic. Turnbull needed the support of right-wing Liberals, whose champion had been Abbott, to retain his governing majority.
The original Liberal campaign commitment was to conduct a proper plebiscite on same-sex marriage legalization, where registered voters would be required to turn out at ballot boxes.
“That was voted down in Parliament,” Lindell said, “so what they’ve done is authorize this postal thing with ministerial power.” What started as a political maneuver to avoid intra-partisan strife has now grown into one of Australia’s largest public issues.
“It’s completely abnormal for the way Westminster parliamentary systems work,” said University of Melbourne student Daniel Beratis, but “it’s dominating the agenda.”
Despite the unusual form of the vote, citizens on both sides are determined to participate, according to Dean of the University of Melbourne Law School Carolyn Evans. As the closing deadline for ballot submission approaches, both “Yes” and “No” campaign groups race to encourage voter participation. University campuses are no exception to the spike in activism.
Evans noted in an email to The Politic that, in her experience, most faculty and students tend to lean in favor of marriage equality. According to Lewis, Beratis, and Lindell, student engagement has become a key issue for the movement.
“We’ve been holding events every week,” said Lewis, who is heavily involved in organizing at ANU and for the National Union of Students. “It’s been a massive mobilization, which is really fantastic.”
Many young adults were not enrolled in the voting registry prior to the plebiscite, which would have handicapped the demographic’s ability to influence the results.
“Every election, there is always a big campaign to get young people to enroll to vote. [For] this one, there was a remarkable surge in young people enrolling,” commented Lindell. “That was the focus of the ‘Yes’ campaign.”
On university campuses, student activists have taken part in door-knocking, phone banking, and “all that sort of boots-on-the-ground stuff,” Lindell said. Campus groups have organized events like “voting parties” to ensure that students—many of whom may not have much experience using the postal system—are actually able to submit the survey once enrolled. Organizers aim to make the voting process as accessible and effortless as possible.
“They stick on a barbecue in the common area on campus, you bring in your form, tick ‘Yes,’ and put it in a secure ballot box that will be taken to the post office,” Lindell said.
Most university communities across Australia are strongly in favor of the resolution. Even the schools’ administrations are taking a stand. The Academic Board at the University of Melbourne officially resolved in mid-September to support marriage equality. According to Beratis, this decision was an important milestone for the school in supporting people of all backgrounds and identities.
Still, Evans pointed out that such a heated debate can take a toll on invested students.
“Unfortunately, there have been some ugly campaigns around the vote which have had an impact on student wellbeing,” he explained.
In September, The Guardian reported that a “No” protest and a “Yes” counter-protest at the University of Sydney had escalated and police were called to the scene. While Beratis had not witnessed any abnormally hostile student politics in Melbourne, the Sydney altercation surprised him. He knew “in the abstract” that people on both sides of the issue were passionate. Even so, learning about the intensity of the confrontation was a serious realization for him.
In interviews with The Politic, the three students were confident that their universities were generally supportive atmospheres for LGBTI students.
“Every corkboard on campus has got a ‘Yes’ campaign [sign], and the academics are behind it, too,” Lindell said of ANU. “But the University of Sydney is known for that sort of confrontational politics, which isn’t replicated here.”
Beratis conceded that, as a progressive campus in a progressive city and state, the University of Melbourne is an ideological bubble. Because the plebiscite is voluntary, student activists at the University of Melbourne focused on participation.
“We’re not campaigning to ‘No’ voters,” Beratis said. “We’re campaigning to ‘Yes’ voters who haven’t filled out their ballots yet.”
He also noted that some of the “No” campaign’s rhetoric could be painful, particularly for LGBTI and questioning students.
“To some people, it’s quite distressing to see the level of homophobia in our community,” Lewis said. At the same time, she noted that the issue served as a powerful community builder.
“There are people who are really energized by [the debate],” she explained.
Beratis also expressed sympathy for people who lacked support networks during a time in which anti-equality rhetoric was particularly loud.
“The arguments against marriage equality to my eyes don’t have a basis,” he said. “And they can be quite harmful and quite hurtful.”
Much of the “No” movement’s opposition to the measure, according to Lindell, is centered on freedom of speech and freedom of religion. One of the campaign’s major slogans, plastered on billboards and televised messaging, reads, “It’s okay to say no.”
“The ‘No’ campaign likes to pull out, ‘We’re being silenced,’” Lindell said. Citing another analysis by The Guardian Australia, he noted that the “No” campaign has reportedly been mentioned in newspapers more frequently than the “Yes” movement. He shrugged.
Most projections predict a clear “Yes” victory when the Australian Bureau of Statistics releases the official results on November 15. Evans noted that the Bureau has already seen a remarkably high number of responses, partly due to engagement from young people—a testament to the work of youth outreach campaigns like those in Melbourne and Canberra. According to the Australian Electoral Commission, two thirds of all new voter registrations in the weeks leading up to the enrollment deadline came from Australians between the ages of 18 and 24.
“Most people think this survey is awfully ridiculous and that Parliament should just walk into the chamber tomorrow and legislate it, which they could do,” Lindell said. “If everyone walked in and voted on their conscience, it would be legislated. Both Malcolm Turnbull, the prime minister, and Bill Shorten, the opposition leader, support marriage equality.”
Assuming Parliament waits for the result of the survey, which the government has spent 120 million dollars to operate, it will then face the introduction of legislation this winter to reform the law on marriage. Parliamentarians are not legally required to heed the outcome of the plebiscite, but there will likely be strong pressure from their constituents to do so.
“I think that if it does go through, it would be politically suicidal [for parliamentarians] not to vote ‘Yes,’” Lindell said. “And I think representatives are acutely aware of that.”
Beratis agrees that the stakes are high, even though the survey is non-binding.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “I don’t think [the non-binding nature of the survey] is going to matter.”
As the likelihood of a “Yes” majority gradually becomes more certain, Liberal policymakers have indicated a focus on protecting religious freedoms if the legislation becomes reality. To Evans, who studies the relationship between law and religion, these concerns don’t have much standing.
“Same-sex marriage will make relatively little difference to religious freedom, particularly if religious organisations are exempted from having to conduct religious marriages for same-sex couples,” she wrote in an email.
Australian law already prohibits indirect service providers (such as florists and bakeries) from discriminating against same-sex couples. Evans said that there are drawbacks to the plebiscite.
“A popular vote is not the place to have detailed discussions about the way in which conflicting rights would be resolved,” she explained.
She added that the argument over how to accommodate all citizens’ constitutional rights has detracted from the substance of the vote itself. Lindell, too, said that the “No” campaign has emphasized the defense of conservative Australians’ civil rights.
“The ‘No’ campaign has certainly tried to use that as a reason not to vote ‘Yes,’” Lindell wrote. “I don’t think they’ve done that very successfully, but that’s certainly been something that they’ve held onto to avoid confronting [the direct issue]…And so the ‘Yes’ campaign has said, ‘Well, actually, that’s not important; what we’re voting on is this.”
Whatever the result, Lewis, Beratis, and Lindell voiced their enthusiasm for the postal survey’s unique effectiveness in mobilizing young people to register to vote and develop an active voice in Australian politics.
“Most of [the new enrollments] would have been young people who would be more likely to vote progressively,” Beratis said. “Since voting is compulsory, even though people may not get their ballots in for this postal survey, at the next election they are going to have to vote and that’s going to have…an impact on elections to come.”
At ANU, the survey is catalyzing student action across the board.
“So many people who were not politically involved previously now are, and they’re really standing in support,” Lewis said. “Activism has started seeping into other parts of university life…I think maybe this tells us that our conservative politicians need to watch out, especially on social issues. I don’t think young people are going to stand for it anymore.”
Lindell also recognized the value of such an “experience of the power of democracy” at the beginning of a young adult’s political life.
“This is their first engagement in voting in anything in Australia,” he remarked. “They sort of see this as a real positive change that they could be a part of, a positive moment in history.”