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The VICE Guide to the Postal Plebiscite

Boycotting the Plebiscite Isn't Protesting: it's Voting 'No'

Why a non-vote plays into the hands of people you dislike.

by Royce Kurmelovs
15 August 2017, 3:53am

Image via Wiki Commons

The same-sex marriage plebiscite is happening next month. If you're planning on voting, take a minute to choose from the below:

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Any other questions? Go here.

Ever since it was announced Australia would hold a national, non-binding, voluntary poll on whether or not to legalise same-sex marriage, there has been talk about the potential for a boycott based on the fact the whole exercise is stupid and discriminatory.

It's a feeling that makes sense up to a point, but only if you see the poll as just a moral or civil rights issue, when in fact the plebiscite also functions (perhaps unintentionally) as a ballot on the nation's leadership.

Traditionally people don't think of the Liberal Party as having factions, but if you've been paying attention to politics, you'll know that the division between moderates—lead by Malcolm Turnbull, and conservatives, for whom Tony Abbott is still their savant—has been on full public show for the last few months. These tensions came to a head last month when Turnbull slapped Abbott down during a speech where he gave a pointed history lesson on how "Liberal Party" wasn't named the "Conservative Party" for a reason. As far as political signals go, it was the equivalent of flipping off Abbott and dropping the mic.

This is the backdrop against which the vote on same-sex marriage has been called, but it also explains why the plebiscite has little bearing on morality for those who are pushing it. Because in the words of former Liberal Party Senator Amanda Vanstone: "it's always been about Tony."

And Vanstone should know. Back in John Howard's government, Abbott served as her parliamentary secretary while Vanstone was Minister for Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs, making her editorial in The Age explaining why she was voting for same-sex marriage another savage burn on Abbott, on top of the one Vanstone already delivered back in March where she called Abbott a "narcissist."

But the superficial populism of the vote and the constant free press Abbott will receive only goes so far in explaining why the Liberal Party's hard right faction have pushed so hard for a voluntary plebiscite in the first place.

Related: listen to a young man's experience with gay conversion therapy in Australia.

The answer to that question came when the ABC's Antony Green crunched the numbers on the last time Australia ran a voluntary postal vote, which was to elect candidates for a Constitutional Convention on becoming a Republic back in 1997. And as it turns outs, the whole process is essentially an exercise in voter disenfranchisement, simply because postal votes stack the odds against the young and anyone living outside a major city, where services are patchy.

Green's numbers showed that during the 1997 vote, voter participation stood at 46.9 nine percent, meaning that one in two people, or half the population, didn't take part. Breaking down the result by age, only a third of those under 25 cast a vote, while only two in every five voted between the ages of 26 to 35. This was far fewer than the nearly two-thirds who voted in the 56 to 65 and over 65 brackets.

This matters because generally politics doesn't work in the interests of young people at the best of times. It's partly why you're not buying a house any time soon, and why the Australian Council of Social Services' numbers shows 30.4 per cent of people below the age of 24 are living in poverty. That's nearly one in three compared to one in 10 of those over the age of 65.

And the running trend through all past polling is that same-sex marriage is a strong issue among young people, a demographic who are less likely to vote and, when they do, generally don't vote for the Liberal party.

So while the plebiscite may end up costing us $122 million, may be vulnerable to vote tampering and may unleash a post-truth scare campaign, the reality is that it was never really a vote that was intended to be easy anyway.

Instead, it is a way of acting like something is being done about the issue while loading the dice heavily against a yes vote. Built into the design is the assumption that young people, and those in favour of same-sex marriage more generally, are too lazy, too stupid, too busy, or too purist to cast a vote, which Liberal MP Andrew Laming more or less confirmed when he spoke to his local paper.

"Get ready for a surprise result as the interminable phone polls and online petitions are replaced by the cold hard methodology of collecting a form, filling it out, and putting it in a box, in this case a post box," Laming said.

All of which is why boycotting the vote is stupid, misguided and potentially dangerous. Boycotts, as far as they go, only make sense when they send a clear message, but Tony Abbott, Peter Dutton and up-and-comers like Laming don't really care if people abstain. In fact, it's what they're counting on.

So if a national poll about same-sex marriage is going to happen at all, the best approach is to nail these guys to the floor with it. If not, you can be sure that the moment those who oppose same-sex marriage get a whiff the result is known and has fallen into the negative, they'll be howling to the moon about some great victory for conservatism, or populism, or whatever it is they care about right now.

And then nothing will change because it's these men who will be calling the shots.

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