The Politics    Friday, September 22, 2017

This is not a horse race

By Sean Kelly

This is not a horse race
Supplied by ABC News
The way the marriage campaign is being analysed leaves a lot to be desired

As most of Australia knows by now, a man wearing a “Yes” badge yesterday called out to Tony Abbott, asking to shake his hand. When Abbott approached, the man allegedly headbutted him. Abbott sustained a “very, very slightly swollen lip”.

This is unacceptable. I don’t say that as a token acknowledgement, necessary before moving on to other matters. The intrusion of violence into public debate must always be admonished, universally and sharply, lest it creep further into the public square. Speech should never be met with physical force.

It’s important to add that my condemnation is just one of hundreds. Before most people would even have heard about the incident, many public figures – and pretty much any public figure involved with either side of the marriage campaign – had added their voice to a massive chorus of denunciation. It has been made abundantly clear to anyone paying the slightest skerrick of attention that nobody in the marriage debate is OK with violence.

Those are the two most important points to make. But I want to jump to a third, which is more complicated, but also has implications for how we think about this campaign, both now and afterwards, whatever the result. It’s been concerning me for a little while, but last night amped it up a long way.

After the wave of condemnations hit Twitter, another wave arrived: this, we were told by many, would hurt the Yes campaign. That may seem like an obvious statement of fact. And it may well be, and I may not have really noticed, except it’s the latest in a long line of such observations. And they’ve been troubling me for a while.

Every time anybody who wants a Yes result does anything deemed unacceptable (or actually unacceptable) – interrupting meetings, calling opponents “bigots”, starting misguided petitions, sometimes just being overly eager to criticise the other side – there is an immediate round of cries from commentators and journalists: “This is how to lose the vote!” “If the Yes side loses, incidents like this will be why.” Or the softer version: “This is not how to persuade people.”

You might well agree with all of that. That’s your right. There might even be truth in it. But let me take you through why I think the apparent need to point this out, constantly, is an issue.

The first, minor, point is the condescension in this – as though the organised Yes campaign, and the vast majority of Yes supporters, isn’t aware that threats, shouting, and violence isn’t the path to victory. If you had any doubts, look at the speed with which leading Yes figures condemned the Abbott incident.

The second more important point is that statements like these wrap the entire Yes campaign into one homogeneous whole – as though the people at the top are somehow responsible for every act, across the country, taken by anybody who supports the Yes side. (In the Abbott case, the alleged assailant has in fact said he was not motivated by marriage at all.)

This often comes from well-meaning people, and from excellent journalists in the form of otherwise good articles, and is achieved by a simple two-step. The first step is to explain why that person is voting Yes, or even that the Yes campaign can’t be held responsible for every campaigner in the country. In the next breath, we hear “but this isn’t the way to win it”. Or “but pull your people into line”. In other words: I know you’re not all really one group, but I’m going to talk now as if you are. Most of the time, you don’t even get this nuance, because the observation comes in the form of a 140-character tweet.

If you think that simplifications such as these are just par for the course in a political campaign, then I’d ask you to consider two points.

The first is that the same simplification is not really happening to the No side. There’s plenty of criticism of the arguments Lyle Shelton et al are running, yes. But when yet another aggressively homophobic flyer is distributed, or a Yes campaigner is assaulted, where are the crowds of talking heads saying this is how the No campaign will lose? Saying the No campaign will never persuade middle Australia with violence, or intolerant language?

After all, every poll shows the No campaign starts from a long way behind. Wouldn’t any reasonable political analysis start from the proposition that the No side has a lot of persuading to do?

Why, then, isn’t every such incident presented as a minor emergency for the No side? Why isn’t the No campaign lumped together in the same way as their counterparts? Instead, we often get the exact opposite. Many articles, on both sides of the debate, contain a paragraph with this important caveat: that not all No voters are homophobes. Many are people of faith. Some are inherently conservative. Etc., etc.

This is, arguably, a fair point. But the contrast here is important. The No side is constantly individualised. The Yes side is smoothed into one mass.

That this so neatly parallels what has happened to gay people across history does not mean the people making these rhetorical mistakes are homophobic. But nor is it a coincidence. We learn our habits of thought from what has gone before us.

Now, let’s say that the Yes side loses the vote. That will be terrible. But it won’t just be because of campaign tactics. It will be because large swathes of the country remain deeply resistant to the idea of actual equality. To suggest otherwise is a gross simplification.

Think about what the alternative conclusion means – this constant suggestion that if Yes loses it will be because of various undesirable incidents or the rhetoric used. It means that in a situation where the country votes to continue to deprive gay people of equality, we will have found a way to blame gay people for that.

Or to put it another way: LGBTQI people only really deserve these rights if they ask nicely. Here is comedian Zoe Coombs Marr recently on exactly this point: “I find myself feeling genuinely afraid my behaviour will affect the outcome. Held to ransom for rights as reward for being nice, polite gays. But this is not how rights work. Rights are not contingent on good behaviour. Nor are they up for debate. But here we are.”

LGBTQI people want equality. That doesn’t mean that each and every LGBTQI person wants an equality that depends entirely on the idea that it will only be granted if you ask really, really nicely.

To say this is not to condone the alleged attack on Abbott. It’s not to condone particular forms of protest, or abuse. I condemn violence and abuse in all its forms. It is merely an insistence that words matter, that arguments matter, and that how we discuss these things matters.

You can understand why this type of commentary emerges. Essentially, it’s election commentary. That’s the type of analysis that most political commentators, myself included, are accustomed to. How do these actions affect this side’s chances?

But – and this is crucial – this is not an election campaign. It is not a choice between two groups. In an election campaign, the character of each side – Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten, say, or the MPs in the parties they lead – is a legitimate factor in coming to a decision about how to vote. Here, it’s not.

I can imagine the response to this will be that the journalists themselves are not saying it is – they are merely analysing how the rest of Australia will see this. To which I’d say the following.

Political journalists (again, myself included) do not have a great recent record when it comes to judging what political communication works, and what doesn’t. Trump, Brexit etc. When it comes to judging an election campaign, that’s fine – by all means, tell political parties how to manage their affairs. That's our job, and we do it as best we can.

But in this case we’re talking about political journalists telling LGBTQI people how to argue that they should be given equal rights. If we’re going to put ourselves in the position of lecturing a minority on how to do something they’ve spent decades doing already – and really quite effectively – then wouldn’t we want a better success rate to point to?


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Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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