We may have ten days before the ballots for the postal survey on same-sex marriage find their way to our mailboxes – and almost two months before the actual outcome of the quasi-plebiscite, but Australia is already a changed nation because of it. It changed on Thursday 24 August, when the deadline for voters to register ended. According to the Australian Electoral Commission, there has been a very impressive turnout.
“Over 3.3 million people visited the AEC website in the two weeks leading up to the close of rolls compared to an average fortnight of around 90,000 visitors.” This means that people are interested in the process, even more so than when it comes to actual elections: “Between 8 and 24 August the AEC processed a total of 933,592 enrolment transactions. This compares to approximately 687,000 enrolment transactions during the close of rolls period at the 2016 federal election. The majority of enrolment transactions (87 per cent) were enrolment changes or updates.
Changes to an existing enrolment and re-enrolments were mostly associated with electors aged 25-39 years. There are over 98,000 people added to the roll, of which 65,000 are electors aged 18-24. And this is the major change on the face of Australia – these 98,000 new voters, these 65,000 young people eager to take a stand. No-one can predict how these people will vote; despite all public opinion polls (and common knowledge) stating that young people are in general not opposed to same-sex marriage and are more prone to inclusion and tolerance, it should not be taken for granted that they are ‘yes’ voters. No-one can claim them, at this stage. And this is precisely the point.
Any addition to the electorate signals a shift, however minor that might be, to an uncharted territory. It is a reminder that voters are a dynamic group, one that can never really be labelled and pinpointed. In essence, this has nothing to do with marriage equality and the mandate of this non-binding, absurd, already divisive postal survey. But it has a lot to do with what comes after 15 November, in the lead-up to the next federal election.
A million Australians have reaffirmed their engagement in the voting process, they have already committed to participate in future elections. Any future campaign should have them in mind.
We know, by now, that it is these new entries, the unpredictable voters who call the election outcome. It happened in the US, first when Barack Obama motivated young people to enrol and vote, now when the disenfranchised responded to Donald Trump’s populism.
It happened in Greece, when the frequent elections of recent years resulted in more young voters entering the electorate, largely adding to the rise of Syriza. Even if most of them may be disillusioned today, there’s still no telling how the next wave of new voters will influence the next elections, which direction will the electorate shift to.
The same is bound to happen in Australia. New voters and young voters will need to be addressed. It is their concerns and priorities that will influence the next elections mandate. Sixty-five thousand people may not account but for a small percentage of the electorate, but it’s still enough to push forward into the political agenda all these issues that are of concern to the younger generation: job insecurity, difficulty to enter the property market, student debt, university fund cuts, having to work more in order to make less.
The Coalition would better start getting answers ready, or else they are bound to regret going the postal survey route. By choosing this option, the Coalition government practically undermined itself and its future prospects.
If ‘yes’ wins, it will be a victory that even the pro-marriage equality Liberals will not be able to claim; it will signify a voter shift to the more progressive side of the spectrum. If ‘no’ wins, then the conservatives in the government party will have won – further continuing the division and undeclared war between factions, ideologies, and individuals.
In either case, the same-sex marriage debate will not be an issue anymore, leaving them with the obligation to start coming up with policy ideas to tackle the real issues at hand.