What the ‘no’ case borrows from Trump

Patricia Karvelas is hosting RN Breakfast this week and this morning she interviewed two Liberal party officials about the forthcoming postal survey on legalising marriage for consenting adults regardless of gender.*

The guests were Christine Forster, Sydney City councillor for the Liberal party, lesbian advocate for equality and sister of former PM Tony Abbott, and Karina Okotel, Vice-President of both the Federal and Victorian Liberal parties.

It helped me crystallise my thoughts about how the ‘no’ case has been argued. In particular, the way it borrows tactics from the Trump and Brexit campaigns.

First of all, the ‘no’ campaign seeks to catalyse a groundswell of prejudice. This has a couple of effects: just as it did for Trump, it works as an informal ‘get out the vote’ campaign.

And it does that by provoking strong emotions among its primary audience by linking the marriage proposal to the campaign against Safe Schools — just as Trump did by linking Hillary (and indeed the Washington mainstream) to the industrial consequences of NAFTA and the economic ascendancy of China.

In its secondary audience, i.e. its opponents, the groundswell of prejudice stirred up by the ‘no’ case has translated into a distributed campaign of homophobic abuse — which is also intended to provoke strong emotions of anger and distress that wear down (and ultimately silence) advocates for the ‘yes’ case.

Finally, and this is what worries me the most: the ‘no’ case have clearly spent some time with strategic communications experts to develop a clear and simple, action-focused message: ‘it’s okay to say no’. This is the equivalent of Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan.

There is clearly a digital media astroturf campaign underway, with social media accounts that are recently created and only have a couple of friends/followers repeating variations of the linkage and the message in the comments of any article published about the postal survey.

The message functions in a couple of ways: it provides language to people who have feelings but don’t have clearly articulated arguments against the proposal; it models a particular affective stance of feeling ‘bullied’ by people who are advocating for their own rights.

It borrows the language of consent from initiatives to prevent child abuse and sexual assault — a semantic move we call ‘dog-whistling’ in Australia and that communications researchers call ‘priming’, one that, in this case, links homosexuality with paedophilia. I have written about this move before.

But it’s the simplicity of the message that has the greatest effect, given the ‘yes’ case is being run by a coalition of groups with no clear leader and no single message.

I attended the Sydney rally/march on the weekend. The crowd was absolutely massive, filling the Town Hall Square and squeezing past the light rail works on George Street to fill the intersection to the edges of QVB and the Galeries. I was standing with my sister in line of sight to the speakers’ platform, but the sound system didn’t reach us. So the vast majority of that crowd stood there for two hours of speeches they couldn’t hear, before marching to Circular Quay.

That’s a metaphor — it suggests the small-L gay liberals are running the show, and they just don’t have experience of organising social change movements, because they imagine social change happens via deliberative democracy. Christine Forster tried to dismiss Karina Okotel’s fear-mongering about the ‘overseas experience’ as ‘isolated examples driven by activists.

Media advocacy isn’t a polite, rational discussion, though; it’s a blood sport, and right now, we’re bleeding.

Daniel Reeders is a PhD student in regulation and governance who analyses the role of culture in the regulation of health.


* MCARG for short. I have queer politics that cause me to choke on the words ‘marriage equality’ — marriage is a profoundly exclusive social institution — while ‘same sex marriage’ throws my trans and nonbinary friends under the bus. (‘Same sex marriage’ is the wording that will be used on the survey form.)

Author: Daniel Reeders

I study the cultural dimensions of the social governance of health.