Yes-vote phone army bursts its bub­ble

Gay mar­riage vol­un­teers face anger and ap­a­thy at the end of the line, writes Steph Har­mon.

Sunday Star-Times - - WORLD - Septem­ber 24, 2017★ Yes cam­paign vol­un­teer Alyx Guardian News & Me­dia

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.

REUTERS, GETTY IMAGES

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.

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