Will Australia Spring a November Surprise?


In a surprise move, the Australian Bureau of Statistics announced today that it will publish a running tally of same-sex marriage postal surveys it has received.

Why is the ABS taking this step? It seems highly unusual, to say the least. But then, the entire “voluntary postal survey” is highly unusual – a bowdlerised, half-arsed version of the actual plebiscite that Australian voters were promised at the last election.

One possible explanation is that, despite Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s confident assertions of a high turnout, the ABS – or, more likely, the government – is concerned that there is a very real possibility that many wavering voters have been turned off the survey altogether.

Or even that support for same-sex marriage is dropping off a cliff.

The “Yes” campaign, even though it has all-but-unanimous support from the elites of political, media and big-business, and rivers of gold pouring through its coffers, has so far been a debacle. Ranging, in its conduct, from tin-eared, to condescending, to just plain nasty, it reached its nadir (to date) last week with an unprovoked assault on former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, in Hobart.

While many of the left were beside themselves with glee that their old bogeyman had been tackled, however ineffectually, it also generated shockwaves across Australia and around the world. Elder statesman of Australian politics, John Howard, has also entered the fray for the “No” campaign, lending it an imprimatur of the gravitas he has acquired in retirement that none of the current gaggle of politicians, certainly not Turnbull, nor Opposition leader Bill Shorten, can hope to match.

In fact, Howard’s reappearance brings a sense of déjà vu to the campaign, in more ways than one: the whole same-sex marriage survey is beginning to resemble the 1999 Australian Republican Referendum.

In that vote, the Yes campaign was also overwhelmingly stacked by the political, media and big-business elite. There was the same smug assumption that theirs’ was a campaign just naturally destined to win, because, well, what kind of morons could possibly disagree with them?

Ensconced as they were in their tiny little bubbles of inner-city groupthink, the elites were shocked – shocked – when the results rolled in. Nearly 20 years later, one gets the impression that they still can’t quite believe it.

I well remember the shock, because I, too, voted for a Republic, and fully expected it to win. Yet, in retrospect, the signs should have been obvious. The Yes campaigners were all elites – politicians, celebs, millionaires – clubbing together in Canberra for their exclusive Constitutional Convention (the dreadfully named “Con-Con”), while the Nos were ordinary old Aussies: mums and dads, gathering at barbecues and RSLs, with their daggy old flags.

It was a preview of Brexit and Trump: most especially Brexit, with its visceral symbolism of the Thames battle, when a flotilla of Brexit fishing boats was ambushed by Remain millionaires in their swanky yachts. Or Hillary Clinton’s tin-eared “Basket of Deplorables” comment that, as Jonathan Haidt said, changed the world (and not as she’d hoped).

Political prognostication is a game I prefer not to play, as a rule. “Pundits” are usually just selective liars who cherry-pick their lucky guesses, and try to ignore their multitudes of failures.

How will the survey turn out? I honestly don’t know. Not long ago, I would have said that it was the Yes campaign’s to lose. Now, I wouldn’t bet much money on it. There’s a whiff in the breeze, a sense of change a-comin’ … but it might not be the one that was taken for granted.

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