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What Australia can learn from Ireland's successful marriage equality campaign

The campaign needs to be a positive one which addresses people’s concerns, Mark Govern writes.

Mark Govern

SINCE MOVING TO Sydney from Dublin in 2014, I have watched the evolution of the marriage equality debate here.

As momentum begins to gather and both sides start to put their pitches to the public, I am reminded of my involvement in the #HomeToVote initiative and the successful marriage equality campaign in Ireland – something that often comes up in debates in Australia.

Many members of the Irish community here are actively supporting the Yes vote. When I arrived in Sydney in 2014 I was lucky to discover a vibrant organisation called Sydney Queer Irish (SQI), of which I have since become an active member.

SQI was founded in 2010 by Irish-Australian Loretta Cosgrove to fill a gap she saw in the community. At the time, there was a large number of Irish people coming to Sydney and finding no network for them to link in with.

At a recent SQI meeting we decided to actively get behind Australian Marriage Equality and its Yes campaign led up by Irishman Tiernan Brady, who is being supported by fellow Irish campaigner Craig Dwyer.

Dwyer recently arrived in Sydney for one month to volunteer with the campaign. SQI has organised a workshop to prepare posters for a large support rally planned in Sydney this weekend, and is coordinating efforts by several Irish organisations to support the campaign.

Australian Marriage Equality is creating a support base which is a combination of politicians and non-political organisations including Qantas Airways – whose CEO is a Tallaght man, Alan Joyce.

The history of marriage equality in Australia includes its express prohibition by the government in 2004 and numerous subsequent attempts to legalise it, both in the courts and in parliament. As of 2017, all of these attempts have failed. That makes Australia one of the last western countries, alongside Northern Ireland, which does not offer the protection and benefits of civil marriage to same-sex families.

IMG_7722 SQI's float at the Sydney Mardi Gras, which celebrated marriage equality in Ireland Source: Mark Govern

A voluntary postal survey of Australian citizens will be held from September to November to assess public opinion on marriage equality. Yesterday, the High Court of Australia dismissed two legal challenges which claimed the postal vote was invalid.

The result of the vote, due to begin next week, will not be legally binding. However, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has said it could prompt a parliamentary vote to legalise same-sex marriage.

The Australian government has struggled to find a mechanism to introduce marriage equality that will not result in the collapse of the government, which is currently a coalition of two conservative parties who hold the parliamentary majority by just one seat.

This accommodation of a voluntary postal survey has been the approach finally decided. It allows all sides to have their say, however participation is not compulsory (unlike elections in Australia) and the result is not binding.

Parliament can still vote down marriage equality legislation even if the result of the postal survey is Yes. If the result is No, parliament will not have a vote on the issue. It doesn’t seem like we’re getting a lot for the $122 million (about €81.5 million) price tag, however it just might work.

There are many comparisons to draw between Ireland and Australia on the issue, but when it comes to some important aspects impacting the public debate there are differences that may result in the outcome in Australia being very different.

Lack of political consensus

One primary difference is the lack of political consensus on the topic. In Ireland, there needed to be a political consensus that transversed all political parties and made the topic non-party political – something that was achieved slowly over several decades.

In 2010, Ireland introduced legislation to allow civil partnerships. Ireland’s political journey was already well underway by the time of the referendum in 2015, allowing legislation and our constitution to catch up with new societal norms reflecting Ireland’s social revolution.

Political consensus on the other hand is absent in Australia. As of today, neither of the two main political parties are backing a Yes vote. The sole political voice supporting marriage equality is the Australian Greens. There has been little progress to allow a conscience vote but recent polls have indicated a majority of MPs will vote Yes if allowed to do so.

In Ireland, all of the political parties in Dáil Éireann supported the amendment to the constitution. In Australia, two former and influential prime ministers are leading the charge from the No side, supported by a number of MPs and various church leaders – hence making the debate in Australia a very different beast to that in Ireland. All this being said, what lessons can we share with Australia?

Firstly, the campaign needs to be a positive one which addresses people’s genuine concerns. It needs to be a campaign that will profoundly change some people’s attitudes and help transform public opinion. If these core objectives can be maintained, we can ensure same-sex families will feel they belong. The people will have said Yes.

The debate needs to be a series of conversations. ‘I am voting Yes, ask me why’ was a strong message from the Yes side in Ireland, along with messages of support from everyday people: mothers, fathers, grandparents. These conversations will help to address the concerns of people who are worried about marriage equality.

Another lesson we’ve learned is to encourage people to push back against their bias towards a traditional family to include the reality of all family types in 2017. Opinion polls show that people below 40 years of age in general support the change, while many people over 65 are against it and mostly immovable.

People aged 40-65 are generally positive towards marriage equality, but they can be easily moved from that position. This segment of society often tends to worry about societal change and so-called destabilisation. If these swing voters are persuaded to vote No, the Yes campaign is in trouble.

The message of equality needs to move people away from this worry and help answer their two key concerns. Firstly, religious marriage is not impacted, this only amends civil marriage. Secondly, same-sex couples can and always have been able to have children. This won’t change as a result of marriage equality. In fact, we are allowing greater protection to these families. Extending equality, not restricting it.

SQI is encouraging the Irish community in Australia to get behind the campaign – attend rallies, call your friends and write to local MPs. If you have a vote, use it and vote Yes.

Polls cannot be taken for granted and, given the profile of the No campaigners, there is a lot of work needed to ensure a positive campaign and outcome. Together we will remove the legislative barriers to equality in Australia and help shape the future.

Mark Govern has been living in Australia since 2014 and is a member of Sydney Queer Irish.

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Mark Govern

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