Yes-vote phone army bursts its bubble
Gay marriage volunteers face anger and apathy at the end of the line, writes Steph Harmon.
On Saturday afternoon, in a park in Sydney’s inner west, 30 young people gathered in the sun to debrief about the past hour they had spent cold calling for the yes campaign for marriage equality.
‘‘It was heaps harder than I thought it would be,’’ one woman said, to murmurs of deflated agreement.
‘‘But I had some good calls!’’ said another.
Since 23 August, the yes campaign coalition – which is led by the Equality Campaign and includes GetUp and Australian Marriage Equality – have been hosting calling parties, using an automated phone tool connecting volunteers to presumed yes voters around the country.
From these official events, grassroots phone banks have sprung up organised by unions, churches, businesses, clubs and groups of friends, using the same tool. The campaign estimates 305 registered calling events have taken place so far, with more than 200 others planned.
The calls are dialling a purchased database of commercially available phone numbers held by people who, based on demographic indicators including gender and age, are considered likely to vote yes. (According to the campaign’s data, 80 per cent of young women under 25 support marriage equality, for instance, and while young men also support it, they are less likely to be sure they will vote.)
The goal is to activate yes voters to not only return their ballot but to take action themselves: to talk to friends and family, post on social media, or even volunteer.
For those making the calls, the process has been eye-opening, offering first-hand access to a divisiveness that many – often in a bubble of their own – might not otherwise have encountered.
On Tuesday, the Guardian Essential poll found support for marriage equality has fallen 4 per cent in a fortnight and now sits at 55 per cent to 34 per cent of those opposed (up 3 per cent ), with yes voters more likely to vote. A yes vote is by no means a done deal and the campaign believes these conversations will be crucial to its success.
But, for the volunteers, they’re not all easy.
One man, Alex, estimates he has made around 150 calls so far, 80 per cent of which went straight to voicemail. Of the remainders, 50 per cent were a hard ‘‘yes’’, 20 per cent a soft ‘‘yes’’ and 20 per cent wanted to be left alone. The rest were ‘‘no’’.
‘‘There are two kinds of negative calls I’ve run into: the hard, ‘F--off, I don’t want to talk to you about this’ ... and the definite no voters who are – in the main – reasonably pleasant in how they blow you off,’’ he said. ‘‘That said, maybe five to 10 of the calls I’ve made, the person on the other end has been vitriolic and aggressive. Calling me a ‘faggot’, telling me they’re disappointed in Australia, that I’m ruining Australia, that I’m a paedophile. These calls are why I’ve made sure to be in a group when I’m calling – they’re super hard to recover from and respond to.’’
Over a few weeks of calling, Alex said, he has noticed ‘‘more angry hang-ups’’ and ‘‘more frustration that the conversation is occurring and taking up so much time’’ – but each time he calls a hard ‘‘yes’’, his spirits are bolstered.
‘‘They’re usually super vocal about their support. It feels like a really significant community spirit has built around the yes campaign.’’
Sally Rugg, the marriage equality director at GetUp who has made around 100 calls herself, agrees: ‘‘I’ve been working on this campaign for nearly five years and I have never seen this level of public enthusiasm and unrelenting energy.’’
After the postal votes were mailed out on September 12, the campaign’s provided script for the calls changed from encouraging people to vote yes as soon as they My fear is that if they, or someone they love, isn’t directly affected, they just won’t bother voting. received their letter, to reminding them to mail back their votes immediately and urging them to talk to their loved ones.
Ben took part in a phone bank on September 9 and another the following weekend. He said negativity had increased between the weekends. ‘‘It was troubling because it bolsters two claims made by the no campaign: that people feel pressured into silence and that there’s a big mass of no voters who aren’t vocal about it.’’
People who had taken part in phone banks over two or three weeks noticed that they seemed to be reaching more men and older people last weekend. It seemed that the calls were getting harder. ‘‘I thought there were more waverers, more emboldened ‘no’s, or upset people,’’ a volunteer, James, said. Another volunteer, Bryony, said she worried that the campaign could backfire with some voters. Following the script last weekend, she called a woman who said she supported marriage equality: ‘‘Then I got to the bit where I said, ‘When you get your ballot, tick yes, pop it in the envelope and mail it ASAP.’
‘‘‘DID YOU JUST TELL ME TO TICK YES?!’ she said. ‘I can’t believe you’re calling people and telling them how to vote. You know that it’s human nature to do the opposite of what you’ve been told. If you call people and tell them to tick yes, they’re going to tick no. I can’t believe you would say that’.’’
James reported speaking to one woman who was ‘‘furious about the waste’’ of resources – ‘‘I think she thought taxpayer money was being spent on the call, which I didn’t get a chance to correct’’ – and other people who were ‘‘very cagey about even being asked ‘such a personal question’.’’
One volunteer, Alyx, thinks the biggest threat to the yes campaign is apathy. ‘‘While there have been really beautiful moments, making calls has made me slightly less confident about the result of the postal vote. People have busy lives. They live in their own worlds. My fear is that if they, or someone they love, isn’t directly affected, they just won’t bother voting.’’
On Monday, GetUp said the campaign had made 300,000 phone calls so far; 40,000 reached voters and 19,000 had resulted in ‘‘meaningful conversations’’.
Alex said that, of the 150 calls he has made, the most meaningful he had was with his father – a lifelong conservative voter but, it turned out, a yes voter.
‘‘Until that conversation, I’d been pretty worried about the bubble I was in convincing me that we’re headed for a yes ... when the actual sentiment of broader Australia could be a no,’’ Alex said.
Marriage equality’s yes campaign has been loud, proud and colourful throughout Australia, but those working the phones to convince people to vote, below, have sometimes struggled with how divisive the issue has been.