Sex, Fear and Faction: Australia's Bizarre Marriage Survey

Australia is currently in the midst of an official survey of opinion about who can get married.  It’s run by the national census office (the Australian Bureau of Statistics) - but it’s not a census.  It’s about a proposal for legal change - but it’s not a vote or referendum.  It’s about allowing lesbian and gay couples to get legally married - but lesbian and gay advocates opposed holding it.  It’s going to cost 122 million dollars - but the people who launched it will probably disregard its result.
A situation so bizarre must involve the Murdoch press and the new Right. And this one certainly does.  It comes out of a complicated series of manoevres in the national parliament, by which the hard-right faction in the ruling Liberal Party has tried to deny or delay marriage equality.
With support from the rural-conservative National Party and the Murdoch-owned media, this faction in recent years has been running a number of culture-war campaigns.  They are against climate science, against multiculturalism, and against sex education. Marriage equality joins the list.
A free vote in the national parliament would suffice to change the law. Public opinion now seems to support this. Therefore the hard-right faction has tried to prevent a vote in parliament.  One tactic was to propose a national referendum on the issue.  Other parties blocked this.
At which point the government came up with the ripe idea of holding an official postal survey, more exactly, a one-question postal opinion poll.  It could do this without new legislation, using funds supposed to be held for an unforeseen emergency (a move recently declared legal by the High Court).
No social scientist would think this is a sound way to find out what the nation thinks.  Postal surveys usually have a low response rate and many biases.  Individual opinion items have low reliability. Response patterns are strongly affected by the specific wording of poll items.
Nor would a lawyer be impressed.  The survey outcome will have no legal effect at all.  It doesn’t compel parliament to act, let alone follow the survey majority.  It’s clear that some parliamentarians will not be swayed whatever the result.
What the survey does achieve is to create a magnificent occasion for the far right to mobilize hatred and fear.  This is now happening.  The formal ‘No’ campaign has mostly tried to scare people with imaginary disasters for ‘the family’, for schools, for children, and for religious freedom, which are supposed to follow from marriage equality.  The logic is a trifle obscure, but the intent to raise fears is clear.  The informal campaign, the dog-whistling and hate speech, is where the underlying masculinity politics and homophobia surface.
This pattern is not original to Australia.  Though this is not discussed in the Australian media, for the past few years there has been a new kind of international backlash campaign against feminism, women’s sexual rights, gay rights, queer culture and transsexuality.  It is promoted by both Catholic militants and Protestant fundamentalists, who link these targets under the interesting name “gender theory”.
This movement has been particularly active in Latin America and Eastern Europe, though it has also been seen in France, the USA (remember the weird “bathroom bans” against trans people?), and elsewhere.  It surfaced in Australia in a highly abusive campaign in 2016 against the Safe Schools programme (an anti-bullying programme to reduce homophobia in schools).  It is now in full bore with the No campaign on marriage equality.
Because the No campaign can’t make a direct attack on human rights, to mobilize participants in the survey it relies mainly on creating fear among religious communities.  Some religious leaders are willing to help.  I heard one bishop on the radio making an awkward plea for a No vote on the grounds that the survey question didn’t specify protections for religious freedom.
I have known a number of bishops in my time, and most of them are competent professionals.  I sympathised with this gentleman, because if he is competent at being a bishop, he must know that marriage equality in other countries – including New Zealand next door – has not had the slightest effect on religious freedom.
This is a small example of a common problem.  Here’s another example.  In the No campaign we hear frequent claims that having gay parents is damaging for children.  There is adequate research on this question, and the claim is known to be false.
But denying the findings of systematic research is a feature of culture-wars campaigns.  What is claimed to be true is what the campaigners wish to be true.  I don’t think the campaigners are necessarily lying, in the sense of deliberate denial of the facts.  It’s more that the facts have ceased to hold much interest for them.  They construct a world via emotions of resentment, fear and hostility.
This is not so much post-truth politics as truth-free politics.  But curiously it always comes around to favouring the interests of rich, white, heterosexual men with shares in fossil fuel companies.  I wonder why that could be?

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