Don’t boycott the postal survey, build a mass Yes campaign

August 12, 2017

Despite widespread community opposition and the Senate's repeated rejection of a plebiscite the Malcolm Turnbull government is persisting with a non-binding postal survey on the question of removing the current definition of marriage from the Marriage Act and replacing it with an unspecified definition that will provide for marriage equality in some unspecified form.

At least one court challenge has already been announced and among members of the LGBTQI community a debate has opened as to whether supporters of marriage equality should boycott the survey.

The call for a boycott reflects justified anger and frustration at the government’s continued refusal to follow public opinion and pass legislation to provide for marriage equality, as well as a rejection of the legitimacy of the proposed process.

The most prominent advocate for a boycott was former High Court Justice Michael Kirby who called the postal ballot “irregular, unscientific — I’ll take no part in it” and told Radio National on August 10 “I feel as a citizen I’m being treated as a second-class citizen”. He has since reversed his position and now says he will participate.

Is a boycott the best approach in the present situation?

It is important to note that the question of boycotting a vote, or in this case a survey, is a tactical question, not a strategic question. A decision around the tactic may flow from your strategy, but it should also flow from questions such as the balance of forces, the likely support for a boycott and where your campaign will flow following a boycott or participation in the process.

While it is important to note that the plebiscite and survey are unnecessary and cynical moves aimed at delaying any vote on a marriage equality bill, this is irrelevant to whether the survey should be boycotted.

Also irrelevant is the fact that the survey is illegitimate and the abusive intentions behind the survey. These factors are relevant to whether the survey is necessary prior to any vote on legislation occurring or whether it should go ahead, but they aren't relevant to how we respond to an actual process.

We should also not be under any illusion that if the government were to announce tomorrow that it would introduce legislation to parliament and allow a free vote from its members, that this would somehow avoid a toxic homophobic campaign by the right.

In France, before the 2013 vote on equal marriage, the right mobilised millions of people against marriage equality, and they continued to mobilise large numbers against marriage equality even after it became law. These mobilisations have helped contribute to an increasingly homophobic atmosphere in France over the past four years.

Happily, on this occasion Australia is not France and the right wing in this country is not as vigorous or capable of mobilising. But as anyone involved in reproductive rights campaigning knows, the Australian right can still mobilise in toxic and obnoxious ways.

A decision by supporters of marriage equality to not participate in the survey process will not stop homophobic and transphobic attacks by the right; if anything a boycott campaign would encourage the right’s antics and rhetoric.

The key question as to how to engage with and respond to the survey is what will strengthen the campaign for marriage equality and for the broader rights of the LGBTQI community.

There is no doubt that boycotts can be effective mechanisms through which to undermine attempts by governments to legitimise their actions and to buttress their position. But, equally, boycott campaigns can backfire. This is because:

  • Successful boycotts are difficult to achieve
  • Abstentions can be difficult to interpret as to whether they reflect disinterest and apathy, or are a consequence of the boycott
  • Boycotts can also result in inflating the apparent support of the other side as they are unlikely to boycott.

An additional problem is that the ability of governments to carry out their agenda is not necessarily connected to the popularity of their actions or the electoral votes they receive. Even governments with razor thin majorities and limited electoral support can still carry out attacks.

So, a successful boycott could delegitimise the outcome of the survey, but the government is not binding itself to the outcome so this is unlikely to pressure the government to bring forward legislation for marriage equality.

The government's resistance to legislating for marriage equality and its unwillingness to commit to the process being binding, means that they don't care if the survey falls over. Any opposition to marriage equality will be embraced and support will be dismissed — a boycott will potentially make this easier.

To contemplate a boycott, we would need to have enough support for the boycott across the spectrum of supporters of marriage equality — which seems unlikely — to have little or no participation in the survey from the movement and the broader supporters of marriage equality.

In addition we would need a viable strategy of turning the boycott into a concerted push to force the government's hand to bring a bill to parliament and allow its members to vote freely. This is something we do not currently have, which is why things are at the current impasse.

It is important to support any efforts to legally block the survey. But if it does go ahead building a united public campaign for a Yes vote will create the best opportunity to combat any hate campaign against the LGBTQI community by reactionary forces and limit the space the Turnbull government will have to manoeuvre on marriage equality.

It will be important that the campaign takes clear positions on other LGBTQI rights issues. The right will seek to mobilise fears around these issues. Failing to defend those communities will reinforce fears in the community of support for the broader rights of LGBTQI community being dropped once marriage equality has been achieved.

The benefits of taking this approach can be seen in the experience in Chile during the 1988 national plebiscite on whether dictator General Augusto Pinochet would receive a further eight-year term as president. The anti-dictatorship forces ran a No campaign despite concerns the vote was unfair, that participation in the plebiscite would give the dictatorship legitimacy and that the Junta would simply ignore a No vote.

This fear was backed up by archives that showed Pinochet had intended to ignore the No vote but the rest of the Junta refused to support this in the face of both the strength of the vote and the danger of increased international isolation. Despite these fears, the opposition saw the plebiscite as an opportunity to publicly campaign, albeit with extreme restrictions, against the dictatorship with the possibility that the vote would result in ending the dictatorship — something they ultimately achieved.  

While the stakes in Australia are very different to Chile in 1988, and we would prefer the quicker and easier path of a direct vote now, this is not the reality we face. Instead, the survey, if it goes ahead, is the reality we live with. As such, participation in building the strongest possible Yes vote is a clear path to forcing a vote and giving Turnbull and the reactionaries in the Coalition and the Australian Christian Lobby a bloody nose.

As part of maximising the vote and to build pressure to force the government to recognise any Yes majority, we need to support public mobilisations for marriage equality and aim to make them as large as possible, both in the lead up and after the survey.

[Lisbeth Latham is a member of the Socialist Alliance.]

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