In the wake of the survey on same-sex marriage, the notion of a silent majority has been disproved and conservative battlelines are being redrawn. By Mike Seccombe.

How the ‘Yes’ vote changes politics

No doubt it came as a surprise to Treasurer Scott Morrison’s fellow evangelical Christians to see it suggested this week that he was aiding in the Islamisation of Australia.

More surprising still was the identity of the accuser: a fellow member of the government’s right wing, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton.

And yet there it was in The Australian newspaper on Tuesday, under the headline: “Warning over sharia law in push for religious freedom.” Dutton was dumping on the Christian right’s plan to load up the pending same-sex marriage legislation with a raft of amendments intended to entrench the right to discriminate, in the cause of what they called “religious freedom”.

The ill-considered rush to amend the legislation, Dutton said, risked the unintended consequence of creating religious enclaves shielded by law. Non-Christian enclaves.

“There’s no way I’ll be supporting a process that gives rise to a push for sharia law,” he said.

He didn’t mention names, but Morrison clearly had no doubt the spray was directed at him.

“I’m for religious freedom,” he protested repeatedly in subsequent media appearances, “not religious extremism.”

But although he was stung by Dutton’s words, Morrison was not backing off. He and his fellow travellers would continue to argue for their discriminatory amendments.

Which is exactly what Malcolm Turnbull and other senior members of the government, Dutton included, do not want. They just want the whole same-sex marriage issue out of the way, dealt with by Christmas. And they want to kick the can on so-called religious freedoms down the road.

Ahead of the outcome of the postal survey, both Morrison and Dutton had announced they would be voting “No”. Towards the end of the long process, however, as it became clear that Australians had voted in large numbers, and as all the polls predicted a strong “Yes”, Dutton committed to acting in accordance with the will of the people and supporting marriage equality legislation in parliament. Morrison did not. He said his vote would depend on the shape of the legislation.

Within days of the formal announcement, things were quickly getting ugly between the two right-wing heavyweights and their respective followers. In the ever more Balkanised Turnbull government, the split was no longer just between “Yes” and “No” advocates, or between moderates and conservatives, but between those conservatives keen to put the marriage equality issue to bed, such as Dutton and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, and those who want to fight on. 

On Wednesday morning, the Prime Minister’s Office issued a media release announcing that former immigration minister and attorney-general Philip Ruddock had been appointed to “examine whether Australian law adequately protects the human right to religious freedom”.

Ruddock will be assisted by a panel consisting of the president of the Human Rights Commission, Rosalind Croucher, retired judge Annabelle Bennett, and lawyer and Jesuit priest Frank Brennan. They are to report by the end of March.

The media release continued: “The impending legalisation of same-sex marriage has seen a variety of proposals for legislative reform to protect freedom of religion. Many of these proposals go beyond the immediate issue of marriage.”

It went on to warn of “a huge risk of unintended consequences”, although there was no mention of sharia. The particular concern, Turnbull said, was that hasty legislation might produce “generally worded Bill of Rights-style declarations”. And conservatives have long hated the idea of a bill of rights.

Morrison offered a grudging response to the announcement, saying the establishment of the Ruddock committee was a “positive move”, but insisting: “It doesn’t replace what many of us believe we need to do in the senate and the house now…”

These are ominous words. They suggest that notwithstanding all efforts to pull the Morrison mob into line, there will be a protracted stoush on the floor of parliament as they press on with scores of amendments in an attempt to entrench the right to discriminate. Ugly as things are already – and it’s pretty ugly when one side invokes the fear of Islamic terrorism to slap down the other – it’s going to get a lot worse in the senate this coming week, and probably worse still in the house the week after that.

Following the postal survey – which was Peter Dutton’s bright idea back in July, after the government could not get plans for a proper referendum through parliament – any semblance of discipline within the Turnbull government has disappeared. And not only within the government, but across the broader right-wing political landscape. The culture wars long pursued by the political right have devolved into a messy civil war.

Now we have conservative MPs threatening to support opposition calls for an inquiry into the banks, as retribution for the same-sex marriage bill. We have other anonymous MPs threatening, via the media, to quit the party unless Turnbull is dumped. We have all manner of leadership speculation. Even the right-wing media is riven, with some commentators saying it would be suicide to dump Turnbull, others seeing Morrison’s same-sex marriage intransigence as “dramatically resuscitating his leadership credentials”, and others still noting Julie Bishop’s popularity in the public opinion polls. One News Corp columnist even suggested drafting John Howard back to the leadership – not entirely seriously, to be fair. It has devolved into the political equivalent of fantasy football, as people make up their dream teams: Bishop and Morrison or Dutton and Hunt or John Howard with the ghost of Sir Robert Menzies.

On Thursday, Niki Savva, a former press secretary to Peter Costello, voiced “real fear the Liberal Party will split in opposition”.

It was “not too far-fetched”, she wrote, to imagine a future in which Andrew Hastie, the devoutly religious ex-SAS soldier and marriage equality opponent, leads one half of the former Liberal Party, and Tim Wilson, the gay, libertarian, Institute of Public Affairs alumnus, leads the other.

Such are the tensions within Liberal Party politics. They’ve been growing for a long time, as reactionary elements have increasingly asserted themselves and as the party’s base became increasingly estranged from its broader constituency, particularly on social issues.

The irony is that by turning the marriage equality issue over to the electors, that estrangement has been put on public display.

As a whole, Australians voted in favour of marriage equality by a margin of 61.6 to 38.4. But in Liberal-held seats, the margin was even higher: averaging 63.3 per cent in favour. In Warringah, held by the man who first came up with the idea of a referendum, Tony Abbott, the “Yes” vote was 75 per cent.

Not surprisingly, those who supported same-sex marriage, and who opposed the postal survey as a divisive delaying tactic, are relishing the fight within the government.

“This has exposed the far-right elements of this government as never before,” says Sally Rugg, the marriage equality campaign director for the progressive activist group GetUp!

“Their attempts at further delay and amendment are not going unnoticed. Thirteen million people took part in this thing and they are now paying attention.”

Unnecessary and painful though the survey was for the queer community, Rugg says, it has been of some benefit to the progressive side of politics.

“As a result of this process, we now have a whole new cohort of thousands and thousands of people who would never have considered themselves activists before, who have now been to a rally, or joined a phone bank.

“The postal survey has deepened the activism of our volunteers. We have campaigned on this issue for a long time, but the plebiscite pushed people up what we call the ladder of engagement. Perhaps they signed a petition before, but this time they have joined a phone bank, for example.

“I think a lot of these people, having participated in this thing and won, now have a new sense of collective power.

“My sense as a campaigner is that when we look to engage the electorate at the next election there will be a whole lot more people who understand that making the phone calls or volunteering their time in some way, they can make a difference.”

Let’s take a case study: Peter Dutton’s Brisbane electorate of Dickson. 

Before the 2016 election, he held it by a margin of nearly 7 per cent.

During that election, GetUp! ran a well-organised campaign against Dutton and he suffered a swing of more than 5 per cent. Since then, an electoral redistribution has lifted his margin from 1.6 to a notional 3 per cent, but Dickson remains very marginal.

Unless the government’s standing in the polls improves dramatically before the next election, Dutton will likely fail to return to the parliament.

No wonder he wants to get same-sex marriage off the political agenda. In the lead-up to the marriage equality survey, almost 900 mostly young people got themselves onto the electoral roll in Dickson. That was well above the national average. And when the votes were counted, Dickson electors had voted 65 to 35 in favour of same-sex marriage, also above the national average.

No wonder he is feeling pretty savage about Scott Morrison, who held his Sydney seat of Cook, with its strong religious conservative constituency, with 65 per cent of the vote at the last election. Even though the electors of Cook voted “Yes” to marriage equality, 55–45, Morrison runs no risk of losing his seat.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the postal vote, says independent pollster John Stirton, was that so many conservatives appeared surprised by the result.

“They thought it would never happen, that it was an illusion created by the polls,” he says.

Those conservatives hoped that the polls here were missing something, as was the case with the Brexit vote in Britain, or the Trump vote in the United States, and that maybe “No” voters were simply shy about expressing their views, he says.

The fact is that the polls did underestimate the “No” vote among the ethnic and religious communities of western Sydney in particular, simply because, Stirton says, “you can’t do a robopoll, or even a live interview poll, with people who can’t speak English”.

But the overall result was never in doubt, says Stirton. The margins the surveys were picking up were just too big. Even if they were out by a few per cent, a “Yes” vote was always a certainty.

“As the ‘Yes’ campaign so successfully characterised it, this was about a fair go and equality and not much else,” he says.

Had the right wing of the government been less deluded and the moderate wing less willing to appease them, suggests Rebecca Huntley, director of research for Essential Media, the government would probably not be in nearly as much trouble as it now is.

“Somebody asked me the other day if this would give Malcolm a bump, because he’s presided over a process that delivered a result,” Huntley says.

“The answer is no. People are shitty that he spent so much time and cost and effort on a process that gave a result exactly as all the polls predicted.

“People are going to punish Turnbull, because they feel, ‘You made us do your job.’ ”

It doesn’t matter that he personally supported the issue, she says. The process itself showed him not to have the courage of his convictions.

The postal vote outcome, Huntley says, simply feeds into a “general sentiment” evident in the qualitative research she does with voters “that Turnbull was given licence to do a range of things, and hasn’t done them”.

“It also says something much larger about the health of our democracy and the willingness of Australian voters to step up, given the opportunity,” she says.

“They mostly saw the proposition for what it was. There might have been a component of the ‘No’ vote that was about Safe Schools or political correctness, more broadly, but most people didn’t use it to register a protest vote on other issues, which is what the ‘No’ campaign wanted. They voted on the issue before them and didn’t allow anything to distract from that view.”

And in so doing, they debunked a myth: that there was in the community a “silent majority” of people whose conservative views could be easily mobilised.

“This,” Huntley says, “was an absolute repudiation of the notion of the power of this really right-wing, conservative religious group in the Liberal Party. They have far more power in the party than they have representation in the community.”

Tim Gartrell, a former national secretary of the Labor Party, campaign director for the “Yes” case, market researcher and advocate for various progressive causes, agrees with both Huntley and Stirton that the postal survey has debunked the notion that the silent majority is inherently conservative and that young people are politically disengaged.

“That doesn’t mean that the public has gone all leftie. But the assumption by conservatives that they had a blocking silent majority on anything vaguely like progress has been knocked over,” he says.

“Look at Howard’s intervention during the plebiscite. It had no impact. None. Didn’t shift the dial at all.”

Likewise, Tony Abbott’s call to turn the postal vote into a referendum of political correctness had negligible impact.

Politics, Gartrell says, has fundamentally shifted since Howard led the right-wing shift more than a decade ago. The “stranglehold” on public opinion by right-wing media has loosened with the rise of social media.

There are other factors at work, too, as noted by Professor Ian McAllister, political scientist at the Australian National University.

Fifty years ago, 72 per cent of electors always voted for the same party. As of last year, it was just 40 per cent.

“The decline is driven by distrust in politics,” he says. “Distrust in politicians is higher than at any time in 50 years. And that distrust has become much more pronounced since 2007 and even more since 2013.

“I think what recent events have shown is that it’s relatively easy to knock people off the rock they are glued to, because the glue is a lot weaker than it used to be.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 24, 2017 as "How the ‘Yes’ vote changes politics".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

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