J acob White is the ACT field director for the marriage equality campaign. His efforts in promoting the love between two people and the hardships he faced while campaigning helped Australia make history in 2017 with 62% of voters saying “Yes” in the national plebiscite.

It has been five months since the Same-sex marriage bill passed in Parliament and Jacob sat down with Lewis O’Keefe to share his opinions about the postal survey and his experiences while campaigning.

Photo credit: Jacob White

Q: What were some campaign techniques that you utilised?

A: “We understood across the population that there was already broad support for this matter, somewhere between 60%-70%. What distinguished this from a normal election was that it wasn’t compulsory so everything we tried to do was aimed at participation and making sure as many people cast a ballot. There was a lot less focus on persuasion and much more focus on making sure people cast their ballot.”

 

Q: What difficulties did you face when you were campaigning?

A: “One of the biggest difficulties, particular with issues like this, is there doesn’t tend to be an overarching representative body. So you are starting from nothing and having to pull a whole range of diverse groups together from the AIDS Action Council to political parties, sexual health groups and parents of gay and lesbian kids. So that was one of the first problems bringing that broad spectrum of groups under one united banner.”

“There were other issues around the people who were forced to do the work on this and often they were people most directly impacted. The people who had the most interest in the matter were the ones who had to go out and speak to No campaigners and the people who didn’t think they deserved equal rights.”

Q: Did you find the opposition campaigning distressing?

A: “Definitely, the formal campaign a bit less so it was difficult to come back at their misinformation and mistruths. They almost never talked about marriage or love, they talked about safe schools, polygamy, transsexuals and they are all issues by themselves but they weren’t really related to the question we were talking about. So it’s difficult to combat that but thankfully most people saw through that and understood what it was about.”

“What was more acutely difficult was the people who would yell out nasty things to our volunteers; things you would hear in high school yard. Things like jokes about AIDS, jokes about people dying, sometimes it was oddly racist and it would just be yelled out to us on the street before we would do a door-knock.”

Q: Do you think identity politics played a role in the survey?

A: “It was definitely involved; I think the fact that we ultimately had such a high turnout rate of Australian citizens participating and such a high yes vote shows it went above and beyond identity politics. It broke out of those narrow confines and became a much more bread and butter issue. It certainly started as an identity politics issue, however, one of the key goals of the Yes campaign that I worked for, was to make it about love and about two people and less about the identity politics side.”

Q: What was your opinion on the Survey?

A: “Well I work for a politician as my day job and my biggest concern is that it sets this terrible precedent about how we should adjudicate and decide the rights of minorities. I mean there is no way anyone would think this is an acceptable way to deal with questions about Jewish people or questions about black people, no one would tolerate that. So I think the worst thing about the survey is that it creates this precedent for ways we can deal with issues that really our politicians should be able to deal with.”

Q: Why do you think it was okay to deal with this minority group in this particular fashion?

A: “I think if you look back at the history of how we got to the Survey it makes a lot of sense. The Labor party had said no [to legalising gay marriage] for a lot of internal reasons and then they fell out of government. Then the Liberals and Nationals came into power and made it very clear internally that there would not be a vote for it in parliament. Malcolm Turnbull said many times throughout 2016 and 2017 that there would not be a plebiscite until after the next election; he then backtracked on that because of internal pressure. So I think we got the Survey because of a lot of political reasons and it all came down to politicians trying to kick this can down the road and not wanting to deal with it. I think that now we have this precedent established that we could deal with these tricky issues, which is really outsourcing the responsibility from our parliamentarians. I think it’s a dangerous precedent and we may well see more of it in the future, I certainly hope not though because it was a lot more divisive and harmful then it ever needed to be.”

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