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Comment: Tony Abbott's No vote can win the same sex marriage debate

The Age logo The Age 13/08/2017 Michael Pascoe

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If there ever was an excellent case made for compulsory voting, it's the election of Donald Trump. Boris Johnson's Brexit vote is another example, whereby it was possible to thwart the will of the majority.

The optional nature of the Liberal Party's Mickey Mouse postal survey, let alone the gaps in registration, is why Tony Abbott's No vote can win.

And that is why the social conservative tail wagging the government dog pushed the idea, why the economic ministers, Scott Morrison and Mathias Cormann, are happy to blow $122 million on an inaccurate survey when a rolled-gold, best-of-breed, much-more-accurate, professional opinion poll could be had for 1/122th of the price.    

Perversely, it's a negative for the marriage equality Yes campaign that it is clearly ahead in the polls. As was Hillary Clinton. As was the Remain campaign. 

The indication from various polling is marriage equality is ahead by as much as two-to-one. With a voluntary vote, the hardcore believers on both sides will make the effort to find a letter box – or at least the older ones with stable addresses to receive the survey will.

For those who are not strongly committed, there's another envelope amongst the junk mail, a form that has to be read, to be filled out, to be posted (what's that?) on time. This for Australians who mostly can't be bothered to save scores of thousands of dollars by just asking their banks and energy companies for a discount.

If there's reliable recent polling that indicates the size of the two cores, I haven't seen it. The indication from various polls is that marriage equality wins two-to-one over the status quo. That sounds like a very comfortable lead, a lead big enough to leave the effort to everybody else to vote – but it's not that simple.

Only a little more than a quarter of American adults voted for Donald Trump – a horse's arse helped into the White House by how fast a horse could move its behind in 1848. 

Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott claims people in favour of free speech, opposed to political correctness, should vote no. © AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott claims people in favour of free speech, opposed to political correctness, should vote no. The ABC's Vote Compass turned up some interesting figures before the last election, figures that need to be adjusted for selection bias if you buy even part of the conservatives' claim that the ABC audience is predominantly a bunch of lefty latte-sippers.

Leaving aside those who only "somewhat" agreed or disagreed with the proposal that "marriage should only be between a man and a woman", the Vote Compass participants scored 44 per cent "strongly" disagreeing and 25 per cent "strongly" agreeing.   Pick a figure to adjust for the participants tending to be better educated, younger, computer literate, disproportionately Green and Labor voters – all groups skewing in favour of marriage equality – and the margin for the core vote is likely to be nowhere near the overall two-to-one.

The next spanner in the Yes vote works is that its supporters are already fracturing, with Michael Kirby's  calls to boycott the tawdry postal process on principle. That demonstrates a failure to learn from the splintering of the pro-republic vote in the 1999 referendum. The man who helped run the republic Yes campaign, Greg Barns, reckons the marriage equality side could face a crushing defeat if it is not unified and organised.  

Knock another couple of percentage points off for the early disarray – and this is before the inevitably outrageous No campaign hits its stride to swing the "somewhats" and "don't knows" to their side.That campaign has already started with no better example than the Constant Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, claiming people in favour of free speech, opposed to political correctness, should vote no. I'm only being a little facetious in suggesting Abbott's next claim will be: "People opposed to pineapple on pizza should vote no. People opposed to people opposed to pineapple on pizza should vote no."

As Greg Barns has warned: "Disunity and an inability to counter these misleading claims Abbott is throwing around will defeat what should be a no-brainer".

Australians are not used to a "get out the vote" campaign. That's effectively what we're about to experience. The failure of the Democrats to get out the vote in the states where it mattered was one of the things that cost Clinton the election despite being ahead in the polls.

And we're yet to see exactly what the question will be. The possibility exists that the government's reactionaries will seek something as potentially divisive as John Howard's republic referendum question, to vote yes or no to:

"A proposed law: To alter the Constitution to establish the Commonwealth of Australia as a republic with the Queen and Governor-General being replaced by a President appointed by a two-thirds majority of the members of the Commonwealth Parliament."

The republic yes-or-no water was further muddied by adding a second  question: "A proposed law: To alter the Constitution to insert a preamble."

The contents of the preamble opened up the possibility of much more confusion.

Twitter satirist @TheKennyDivine has the plebiscite question to be: Is there any way that you would not object to SSM not being made legal? Yes/No"

And we could take the opportunity to salvage something out of this colossal waste of money by adding a second question to settle another burning issue: "Should pineapple on pizza be made a criminal offence?"

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