The marriage equality ‘yes’ and ‘no’ camps are establishing their campaign narratives. If the ‘yes’ campaign is to win, it’s important that they understand what the ‘no’ camp is doing, and fight back against their strategy at every opportunity.
No political campaign can offer everything to everyone, so messaging must be targeted towards specific groups at the most relevant times. There are three groups that the ‘yes’ campaign need to be aware of. As per Essential Media’s latest poll, there are the ‘committed yes’ group, which make up 57% of the population. Then there are the ‘committed nos’ at 32%. And the ‘don’t knows’ at 11%.
The ‘yes’ camp has speedily mobilised an impressive grass roots campaign to get voters on the electoral roll. The narrative of this enrol campaign is spot on to encourage those in the ‘committed yes’ group who weren’t previously on the roll, or who needed to update their details, to make sure they can place the yes vote they are clearly committed to placing. Correctly, the narrative of this campaign is to invite the ‘committed yes’ voters to be part of something big, to stand up for equality, to do the right thing and to feel good about the part they have played in a big outcome. It is entirely appropriate that this narrative expand the question of marriage equality to the larger issue of standing up for human rights, and for valuing love above all else.
However, now that the enrolment deadline has passed, as much as it might go against the yes camp’s natural affinity with this enlarged ‘this is a big deal’ narrative, it’s time to turn attention away from the ‘committed yes’, and focus on the 11% of ‘don’t knows’. In order to target this group effectively, the yes narrative needs to reduce the issue of marriage equality to a smaller, less momentous decision, rather than make it the earth-changing story that the yes camp has been using in the enrolment period.
The yes camp should understand the game plan the ‘no’ camp are using, and why they’re using it. They are not targeting the ‘committed nos’, because they already have them in the bag. If people are voting no because of religious beliefs, or because of a range of ideological beliefs; everything from intolerance of diversity, to bigotry, homophobia, to conservative views of marriage, a fear of the ‘slippery slope’ outcome and unisex toilets, the no camp would be wasting their dollars preaching to the choir, and the yes camp would be wasting their effort trying to change their stuck-in-the-mud minds. The no camp, instead, have latched onto the understanding that human beings fear uncertainty. They are therefore trying to scare the ‘don’t knows’ over into the ‘committed nos’ group by expanding the question of marriage equality into an ever-growing list of scary, threatening, uncertain outcomes. That way, if people aren’t sure what the outcome of a ‘yes’ vote would be, they will be sucked into the ‘no’ narrative, believing that marriage equality will somehow threaten their mixed-gender marriages, threaten Australian values, threaten their family, threaten their right to religious freedom, to free speech, will threaten the children of gay parents, and will get its scary tentacles into a range of never-properly-explained-vague-threats to every aspect of the community. The more uncertain the no camp can make the outcome of marriage equality, the more likely the ‘I don’t knows’ will tend towards ticking ‘no’, out of a fear of not understanding what a ‘yes’ vote will mean.
This is why the yes camp need to avoid expanding the outcome of marriage equality into a bigger moment for the country than simply allowing LGBTI people to get married. I understand why some campaigners in the yes camp will find this a difficult suggestion; many of them have been fighting their whole lives to have the right to marry their beloved partner, and for them it is a huge outcome to finally be allowed to do that. For them it means acceptance, normalcy, the end of out-dated discrimination and it means being able to legally join in union with their partner. It’s an outcome as big as their whole world. But even so, the ‘don’t knows’ need to be convinced back from the ‘no’ dark side with the narrative of certainty. And this certainty needs to reduce the magnitude of the decision to its literal outcome: that everyone in the community, no matter their sexuality and gender orientation, is free to get married. A situation which will have zero impact on anyone but the people able to get married, and of course their loved ones who can celebrate with them. In fact, the more every-day, common-sense the yes camp can make this outcome, the better. So, perhaps an advertisement that shows a gay couple negotiating difficult pre-wedding plans, such as where to seat crazy aunt Linda and deciding who gets to choose which cars they arrive in. The narrative here is: we are just like you, and you are allowed to get married, so why shouldn’t we have the chance too?
This yes narrative can also be used to fight back against the tentacles-in-every-aspect-of-your-lives threat from the no camp through the simple statement of: ‘no, marriage equality is not going to change everything. It actually has a very certain outcome. All it means is that everyone can get married, just like you can’. This means not getting into debates with no campaigners about free speech, about freedom of religion, about the impact of gay marriage on the children of gay parents. It means being firm and repetitive with the promise that marriage equality impacts no one but those who currently can’t get married. Just like the mistake climate change activists have been making for years (including me) in trying to argue with deniers, by arguing with the garbage from the no campaign, you give their position legitimacy and imbed the idea that there are uncertain outcomes from marriage equality. Instead, keep it simple. Keep it small. Rinse and repeat. Celebrate when the yes vote wins. And then the battle begins to get the yes vote through parliament.