MUNGO MacCALLUM. What silent majority?

Nov 21, 2017

The best thing about the same sex marriage survey (apart, of course, from the entirely predictable numbers) is that it finally and conclusively disproves the myth of the silent majority – the conservative fantasy that somehow, somewhere, there is a great mass of Australians who are against all progressive change but have never actually said so. 

The dwindling right wing rump has always assumed that it is and always will be the dominant paradigm, the custodians of the ideals of the real Australia – the reliable base from which campaigns against change can be launched in the certain knowledge that, even when they fail, they are still supported by the anonymous millions who make up those who may be a touch apathetic, but are still the true believers.

But last Wednesday this fragile illusion was blown away forever. The decisive majority vote for same sex marriage – an iconic issue if there ever was one – makes it incontrovertibly clear that the country is now firmly anchored in the centre, perhaps a little left of the centre.

The strength of the survey result was not just in its decisive win for the progressives, but in its uniformity – all states and territories came out with comfortable wins, and only 17 of the 150 federal electorate dissented. And those were far from those normally lauded  by the right: 12 of them were in Sydney’s western suburbs, swamped (as Pauline Hanson would no doubt say) by Asians of various origins and creeds – recent arrivals who have held to their former beliefs and had not really had time to become part of the culture their many predecessors have embraced. Two were in similar suburbs around Melbourne and the other three nay-sayers were in the backblocks of Queensland – perhaps this is where the right should take refuge.

So the mother all battles in the long-running culture wars has resulted in a devastating defeat for the less than 40 percent – the benchmark the warrior prince Tony Abbott set as a moral victory – who now claim the right to determine the real outcome in parliament. It brings back the fatuous remark of the hapless Liberal leader Billy Snedden who lost an election to Gough Whitlam in 1974: “We didn’t win, but we didn’t lose.”

Snedden was rightly mocked and derided at the time, but he went a lot closer than Abbott and his raggle-taggle crusaders managed, despite a campaign which deliberately tried to drag the yes-no question into a debate about the rights of the child, religious privilege, freedom of speech and political correctness.

In Abbott’s own electorate the yes vote was one of the highest in the nation, which does not look good for his prospects as a future proselytizer. And it does not look good for the religious right and its constant demands for special treatment over the rest – the majority – of voters.

Assuming Lyle Shelton and his congregation prayed for victory last week, their prayers were obviously answered, and the answer was resounding: “Piss off.” Their chosen deity flipped them the bird, and we’re not talking about the Paraclete here. Apart from the migrant surge, religion – and particularly aggressively evangelical religion – is on the decline: the Australian Bureau of Statistics confirms the trend in every census, and if there was any doubt the ABS nailed it down last week.

And attempts to salvage something from the ruin, such as the preposterous suggestion from James Paterson, a graduate from the secretive right wing paid lobby group, the Institute of Public Affairs, that the Commonwealth should legislate to override state anti-discrimination laws, is a measure of their desperation. As for the idea that the flower arrangers and cake decorators should claim to be conscientious objectors, to save them from eternal damnation if they offer a posy or a lamington to a same sex wedding, it defies parody.

But there is no doubt that the hardliners will hang on by their carefully filed fingernails to make the process of implementing the popular will as difficult as possible for as long as possible, before voting against it anyway. This, says one of them, Eric Abetz, is entirely as it should be: democrats must resist the tyranny of the majority. He is deeply concerned to reach out to the 38.4 percent of no voters; it is a pity he couldn’t care less about the 61.6 percent of yes voters over recent months, or for that matter the more substantial minority of 49.6 who voted Labor in 2016. Democracy, it appears, is a subjective idea.

But note: even Abetz has finally admitted that there is a majority against him and his fellow zealots – let’s face it, he could hardly do anything else. However it would have been more honest to have accepted the endless opinion polling that showed for years that around 60 percent or better favoured same sex marriage. In fact, the frenetic and divisive couple of years have changed exactly nothing. The only real vindication  for those who criticized the cowardly and dishonest manipulation of the plebiscite saga is that they have been proved right – it was all a monumental waste of time, money, and most importantly emotional energy.

But at least they won, and now they can celebrate. The losers will just have to suck it up, although they would probably prefer not to put it quite that way. Abbott himself appears to have gone quiet: he will not, he declaims virtuously, frustrate the will of the people. But as always there is a caveat: he has a few ideas to redraft the amending legislation as a kind of theocratic bill of rights. There is plenty of sniping, undermining and wrecking still to come.

But fortunately his humiliation – for that’s what it is – will probably be short-lived. His new career as an evangelist is proving satisfying and profitable.  His overseas tours to address conventions of English flat-earthers and American homophobes never fail to excite the noisy minority in the media, and isn’t that what it’s all about? And the fundamentalist Christians insist they will fight on: Lyle Shelton predicts a war of attrition lasting years – probably centuries if necessary, whatever it take to drag Australia back to the middle ages.

But the numbers tell the story: the hard line conservatives lost. When a somewhat tipsy Christopher Pyne boasted couple of months ago that the moderates were in the winners’ circle, there was much angst within the coalition. But if the sensible centre wasn’t in charge then, it certainly should be now. After all, the rest of the country is.

Mungo MacCallum is a veteran political journalist.

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