If you spent the weekend on Facebook or Twitter, you’d be forgiven for thinking the same-sex marriage survey has descended into a slanging match about anarchist protesters, a headbutting DJ, and, depending on how you look at it, a “Vote Yes” text that was disastrously invasive or entirely reasonable.
But on the streets, it was a different story. Over 2000 volunteers assembled in various parts of Australia to pound the pavement and knock 100,000 doors — trying to turn out a “yes” vote.
Edwina Carr-Lyall and her 13-year-old daughter Sarah, from Glebe, were two of the 50-odd campaigners that turned up at War Memorial Park in the inner-city suburb of Leichhardt.
Carr-Lyall laughed when BuzzFeed News asked if they had been involved in any political campaigning before.
“No!” she said. First-time activists.
“It’s shameful and embarrassing that Australia has to do it this way,” Carr-Lyall said. “Even now there’s a possibility it might not happen. It’s not binding.”
She sighed with frustration: “It’s a non-political, basic human right that’s been handled really badly. It got us out of home, on the streets, wanting to do something.”
The group of volunteers included many other first-timers, working alongside seasoned political campaigners from Labor, the Greens and various unions.
The strategy of the doorknock was clear: don’t convince, just get people to fill out and post the survey.
“We’re not asking people to change their vote,” an Equality Campaign staff member told a group of volunteers during a 10-minute training session. “At this stage, we feel like most people have made up their minds on this issue.”
A conversation flow chart handed to all volunteers outlined how to best conduct the conversation with someone who answered the door. It was accompanied in the clipboard by a list of addresses — with checkboxes for “not at home”, “voted yes” and so on — and a list of tips.
If the answer to the question, “Do you support marriage equality for all Australians” was “no”, volunteers were instructed to say, “Thanks, have a nice day”, and move on.
If it was a “yes”, volunteers were to move through the chart, ultimately trying to confirm that the person had voted, or would be voting. They could ask people if they wanted to hand over their envelopes and have the volunteers post it for them — but were warned not to push it if the person declined.
The information sheet was starkly different from that of leading “no” group the Coalition for Marriage, which encouraged volunteers to warn people who say they are voting “yes” about “gay sex education” and dangers to freedom of speech.
The difference is by design — the “yes” campaign is focused on turning out a solid majority formed by years of marriage equality advocacy, whereas for “no”, the survey was a last-ditch attempt to turn the country against a looming social change.
On ABC TV’s Insiders on Sunday deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek warned the “yes” vote against becoming apathetic.
“I think that the biggest threat to the yes campaign’s success is people assuming that this is in the bag, because they know that a majority of Australians support marriage equality, and they think, ‘Well, my vote won’t matter, you know, everybody else will post back their yes vote’,” she said.
In the park, Equality Campaign staff distributed t-shirts while volunteers stood around discussing what to expect. Many had been to phone calling events in the previous weeks, but this was their first doorknock.
Sixty-four-year-old Peter Newcombe, from Stanmore, told BuzzFeed News he thought the nightly calling was less than ideal, but was keen to knock on some doors.
“Calling at night when people don’t really want to be disturbed, trying to elicit from them whether they support marriage equality or not, whether they voted yes or not. I found it a bit confronting for most people.
“Even if they did vote ‘yes’, some people are reluctant to say how they voted. They’re just protecting their own privacy. Doorknocking is less difficult because it’s face to face.”
Alana Scherr, a 32-year-old woman from Redfern, said she was volunteering because “if you can do something to help someone’s else’s life be better, you should do it”.
“I’m not nervous,” she said. “I’m chatty. I’m cool with rejection. I think it’s also good to put a face to people and actually have those conversations, so we’re not just a voice, we’re not just a picture.”
BuzzFeed News followed four volunteers as they tackled the streets of Leichhardt on Sunday afternoon.
About half of all doors knocked were not answered. A couple of people offered excuses for why they couldn’t talk right now — “I’m just having a nap”, “I’ve got a splitting headache” — while one or two just straight up said “Not interested” and closed the door.
One man told the knockers he was an Irish citizen and couldn’t vote. “But I would vote ‘yes’ if I had the chance!” he assured the volunteers.
Of the people who actually answered the door and were Australian citizens, the vast majority said they had either already voted “yes”, or that they planned to.
One woman answered the question “We were just wondering how you had voted?” with “Oh, what do you think? ‘Yes’!”
She declined a “yes” flyer to hang on her doorknob, saying there were some homophobic people on the street.
But two doors down, another woman offered a contrasting opinion: “I think everyone around here’s a ‘yes’.”
At one house, two bleary-eyed young men answered the door and assured the volunteers that their whole share house had voted “yes”.
One man told volunteers that he had been a “yes” until he witnessed all the nonsense of the campaign. “It’s not a gay thing, it’s a politics thing,” he advised the volunteers.
Another man said he was boycotting the vote because he felt the government has stuffed up and should have dealt with it themselves. “But I hope ‘yes’ gets up,” he added encouragingly.
One of the houses scheduled for doorknocking had been demolished. At another, the only person home was Dave the cat, who declined to indicate a preference either way.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), all survey forms have been sent out and people should have them by now. If your survey form hasn’t arrived, you should contact the ABS and it can issue a replacement.
The online voting period for Australians living overseas, in remote areas, or who have a disability that makes paper voting impossible, also begins today. People have to obtain a secure access code from the ABS in order to cast a vote on the website or over the phone.
Last week, experienced union campaigners told BuzzFeed News that if industrial postal ballots were anything to go by, the peak time for voting has likely already passed.
The turn-out-the-vote effort in Leichhardt seemed to have gone well, with most of the people who answered the door saying they had voted, or would vote.
But how the campaign is faring outside of the inner-city is another question. BuzzFeed News had requested to accompany volunteers in the Parramatta doorknock, but the campaign declined.
As for Edwina Carr-Lyall and Sarah, their first foray into activism was rewarding. They had been paired with a seasoned campaigner from the Greens.
Carr-Lyall said she had expected a lot of “yes” support in Leichhardt.
“Someone described it as preaching to the converted, but it was about making sure they actually did the vote. I thought that was really worthwhile.
“I didn’t do any talking, but I had pamphlets,” Sarah told BuzzFeed News. “It was fun, and it was good to be doing something to support something you believe in.”
She said she had “lots of friends” who were affected by the ban on same-sex marriage — but that’s not the only reason she wanted to help.
“This is just such a basic thing that everyone should have a right to,” she said. “You don’t need to know someone to know this is important.”
Lane Sainty is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney, Australia.
Contact Lane Sainty at [email protected].
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.