By Craig Dwyer
It was 3am Irish time when I got a phonecall from Tiernan Brady, Executive Director of the Equality Campaign in Australia, and Donegal native, asking me to volunteer on the Yes campaign for marriage equality down under. Three days later I boarded a plane to Sydney, filled with both excitement and nerves, unsure of what lay ahead and what I was getting myself into… again.
I had worked alongside Tiernan during the Irish marriage equality referendum campaign and he subsequently has been leading the marriage equality movement there for the past 18 months.
The campaign for marriage equality in Australia has had a turbulent journey over the past two years, where a vote of the people was on the cards, then off the cards, then on again, then off again. However, in August 2017 despite all efforts from the campaign, opposition parties and other stakeholders to get legislation passed, the Government announced that they would be putting the question to 16 million Australians. This would be in the form of a non-compulsory, non-binding postal survey that would cost the taxpayer $122 million. The vote was going ahead!
The Equality Campaign had a core team who had been working tirelessly on the campaign for a year and a half. But now, faced with a continent-wide postal survey campaign, extra resources would be needed and fast! That’s when I got the call. The Digital team had in-place a robust structure and was steadily building grassroots momentum online to great effect, but efforts were now shifting to translate that online support to getting the vote out in order to achieve a majority Yes. Normally, it is compulsory for Australians to vote and they’re fined for failing to do so. Given that this vote is non-compulsory the Yes campaign has an additional hurdle to overcome, coupled with the fact that 18-24 year olds are the biggest supporters of marriage equality, but less likely to vote. This was going to require a Get Out the Vote campaign unlike any Australia had ever seen. As the Social Media Director for Yes Equality, the campaign for civil marriage equality in Ireland, I witnessed how online effort became a recruitment and deployment tool for offline activism and ultimately a driver of mobilisation to the polls. The Yes campaign in Australia was hoping to see the same.
I arrived to the campaign offices in Sydney nine days before 16 million people across Australia would begin receiving surveys in the mailbox that asked the question; “Should the law be changed to allow same sex couples to marry?” We used that time to raise as much awareness as possible about the upcoming process, with content on digital platforms urging people to pledge their vote, locate their nearest postbox, and perhaps most importantly, to talk to their friends and families about why they were voting yes. In homes, workplaces and communities in towns, villages and cities across the country, Australians were coming together for fairness and equality. Dedicated volunteers were making thousands of phonecalls every night, knocking on countless doors and doing their bit in so many ways to support the Yes vote. We were using digital and social media to amplify this, to demonstrate the breath of the campaign and how history was being made in the process.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics indicated that ballots would most likely begin arriving around September 18th, so when we began hearing reports from people who already got theirs in the mail five days before on the 13th, we needed to act quickly and capitalise on the moment. One of the key objectives of the campaign was to ensure that every Yes voter returned their surveys as soon as they arrived, to mitigate any risk of them being misplaced or forgotten about. I knew that we could use social media to help drive this. We needed to demonstrate to people that something big was happening, and you didn’t want to miss your chance to be a part of it. To achieve this, we sent an email to our engaged supporters and created content which encouraged Yes voters to take a selfie when they were returning their surveys and share it on their social media channels with the hashtag #PostYourYES. The idea being to create a situation where, upon seeing all their friends posting selfies, other Yes voters would want in on the action. The most effective way that campaigns can use digital and social media is to enable and empower supporters to create content that they can share with their peers to promote the campaign’s central message. What would make you stand up and take notice? A message from a campaigning organisation urging you to vote Yes or a number of your friends and family members sharing their #PostYourYES selfies and why a Yes vote is important to them?
Within a few hours #PostYourYES was trending on Twitter and over the coming days Instagram, Facebook and Twitter was flooded with the most heart-warming images of Australians across the country voting Yes for fairness and equality. Some of the ones that stood out for me include: 88-year-old Pat who was voting Yes because everyone deserves a fair go! The Lattimore family who voted together for their son, grandson and brother, Jack and 89-year-old Bob Spearritt from Toowoomba who voted Yes because “Everybody under the sun deserves the chance to marry the one he or she truly loves.” Bob subsequently became a local media star in his own right!
We were successfully using digital and social media to source these stories and share them with wider audiences. Because of its authenticity, this type of content helped change hearts and minds and encourage others to become involved. Perhaps the best example of this came from 65-year-old Tony, who only drinks VB (Australian beer) and is a true, blue Aussie bloke. In a video posted to social media by his daughter, Tony explains how he was lucky enough to experience love in his life with his wife and was voting Yes with “absolute joy and glee” so that gay and lesbian couples could enjoy the same opportunities. Acknowledging the power in Tony’s message to help speak to his peers, I asked could we share the video on the campaigns social media channels and, thankfully they enthusiastically agreed! Tony soon became a viral hit, with his story really striking a chord with hundreds of thousands of Australians. I was reliably informed after that Tony was delighted with his new found fame!
Without question, the most significant similarity between the campaign at home in Ireland and half way across the world in Australia was the power of personal stories. Despite perhaps a more vocal and prominent opposition down under, the Yes side remain focused and resilient, campaigning with respect and dignity and using personal stories to unite people around the Australian values of fairness and equality.
I’ve been asked a few times “why would you want to do this again?” and my response is always the same: Being a part of the referendum campaign team in Ireland was the best experience of my life and the opportunity to have played some small part in achieving a more equal and inclusive society is something that doesn’t come around too often. If there was a chance that I could help the campaign in Australia in any way, how could I possibly refuse?
Although my time volunteering has to come the end, the campaign is far from over. People have until October 27th to post back their surveys and the results will be announced on November 15th. If a majority Yes vote is returned, the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull has committed to allowing a free vote in Parliament on a Private Members Bill that when passed would allow same-sex couples to marry and it is expected that this would be achieved by Christmas.
So, is it going to pass? I certainly hope so! Polling to date is positive. The Australian Bureau of Statistics has said that 57% of Australians have already returned their surveys (as of Friday, Sept 29th). Polling from the Yes campaign suggests that turnout is already as high as 70% and a recent guardian poll found that of those who have voted, 64% have voted Yes.
Marriage equality in Australia by the end of the year would be the icing on-top of the Christmas cake!
Craig Dwyer is an experienced communications professional in the Irish NGO sector, previously working with the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN) to harness social media as a driver of communication and engagement with LGBT people and communities, and with the wider public. He was the Social Media Director for the Yes Equality campaign for civil marriage equality in Ireland. Craig is using his SCI Fellowship to examine and document this innovative and highly effective social media campaign.