At the Gaelic Club in Sydney’s Surry Hills on Wednesday night, more than two dozen Irish people hunkered over paint pots, rainbow-coloured paper, and glitter of silver and gold.
Sydney Queer Irish, an organisation set up in 2010 to support the Irish LGBTQI community in the city, had put a call out on social media via the local GAA clubs, the Irish Support Agency in Bondi, and Irish Radio Sydney, inviting people to the club to make posters ahead of a major marriage equality rally, which will make its way through the streets of the city on Sunday.
Among the posters to be proudly held aloft will be a green shamrock with a glittering “YES”, and another reading “C’mon Oz, join the club”.
Next Wednesday, letterboxes across Australia will fill with a postal survey ballot asking, "Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?"
It is the first time the Australian public has been asked to vote on an issue relating to citizenship rights and responsibilities since conscription in 1917 (these matters are usually decided by parliament). It is also the first time a voluntary postal survey has been used; usually, voting in Australia is done by compulsory plebiscite.
As the first country in the world to introduce same-sex marriage by public vote, Ireland has been an inspiration to same-sex marriage advocates in Australia. So when the marriage equality campaign went looking for a national director, there was one obvious candidate.
Shortly after the Irish referendum result in 2015, Yes Equality's political director Tiernan Brady, who had also helped to secure civil partnership in Ireland as policy director for the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (Glen), was invited to Sydney to speak to campaign groups there about the Irish experience.
One week into his trip, they asked him to take up the role of director of Australians for Equality. Brady went back to Dublin, packed his bags, and was on the next flight he could get back to Sydney.
“So many countries including Australia looked to the Irish experience as something really powerful,” says Brady, over the phone from Sydney. “When a campaign is run to unite people rather than divide them, you can have a real moment of national celebration, where a country can assert its values.”
To be a part of that all over again in Australia was an opportunity Brady couldn’t turn down.
When Brady took the helm in April 2016, it looked like Australia would be asked to vote on marriage equality by compulsory plebiscite. But a general election was called and a new government coalition of two conservative parties was formed, with the majority held by just one seat.
The government has struggled since to find a way to introduce same-sex marriage. Issues of citizenship are not usually voted on by the people, but a vote in parliament threatened to collapse the government, with political parties divided and high profile politicians on the No side, including former prime minister Tony Abbott.
Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull announced the postal survey on August 8th after his preferred plebiscite was blocked in the senate. The postal survey is non-binding, but if a public majority votes Yes, parliament will have to debate and vote on whether to legalise same-sex marriage.
Survey envelopes will go out next week following a ruling by Australia’s high court on Thursday, blocking a challenge brought by marriage equality advocates who claimed the public postal survey was unnecessary and illegal.
Over the past 18 months, Brady, who is originally from Bundoran in Co Donegal, has rallied a team stretching from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific, preparing for a vote of 16 million people on a country the size of a continent. He says the campaign now has support from 13,000 organisations including Qantas Airways, whose chief executive Alan Joyce hails from Tallaght in Dublin, plus a database of about 400,000 people.
Looking at the Australian Equality Campaign social media feeds, the Irish influence is clear. One of the most striking aspects of the Irish campaign was the powerful personal stories shared by LGBTQI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex) people and their family and friends. This has also become a cornerstone of the Australian efforts.
“Nothing is more important than people telling their own stories. When people realise that marriage equality is not a what but a who, that is when they become supporters,” Brady says.
“There is nothing a flashy national campaign can do that is more powerful than an individual telling their story to their family and friends and work colleagues.”
Social media is a vital part of that; enabling people to share their own stories, reaching an audience that might not otherwise engage, or who cannot be physically reached.
When he takes a call on Wednesday night from The Irish Times, 28-year-old Craig Dwyer is posting a #RingYourRellos call-out on Twitter, encouraging young gay people to call their relatives to talk about same-sex marriage. It's the Australian version of the #RingYourGranny campaign in Ireland, featuring a video of a young woman, Lisa, calling her grandmother to talk about her rights as a gay woman.
Dwyer, who worked alongside Brady as social media director for Yes Equality in Ireland, arrived in Sydney last weekend to volunteer for a month with the Australian campaign.
“I was watching the campaign from my office on Capel Street with a certain sense of nostalgia, but also wanting to be involved. I knew I could offer something from my experiences. We saw in Ireland the power social media can have in getting the vote out,” he says.
He got a phone call from Brady at 3am after the postal survey was announced. The campaign needed someone with his expertise and experience, and didn’t have time to recruit. Dwyer was on a flight to Sydney within three days.
“I am seeing similar trends here,” says Dwyer. “It is the personal stories that are resonating with people, of all ages and from all parts of Australia.”
While there were some nasty elements to the debate in Ireland, Brady believes the tone overall was respectful. Maintaining this in Australia has been more of a challenge.
“We are campaigning in a post-Trump, post-Brexit world and the freedom to say damaging things about people has become looser. The tone of some political debates can be angrier and we have to work doubly hard to make sure we are not provoked by that, and we do as we did in Ireland, maintain a steely dignity,” he says.
Rallying supporters to go out and knock on doors was a vital element of the Irish campaign’s success, but Brady quickly realised that no matter how big a team he could gather in Australia, they would never be able to roll into every town on a campaign bus. New ways were needed in order to reach people in remote areas.
A new piece of technology on the yes.org.au website allows people to sign in and make calls on behalf of the campaign from their own kitchen. In the first three days, more than 60,000 calls were made. The aim is to reach half a million over the next week.
Australia differs to Ireland not just because of the scale, but also because it is a country of many different religions. Just under a quarter of the population are Catholic, but there are large Anglican, Presbyterian, Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist communities too. More than a million people are not native English speakers, so the campaign literature has been published in eight different languages.
Since the postal survey was announced just four weeks ago, one million people have added their names to the register or added their details.
“That’s a great omen,” Brady says. “People are really switching on to this, they are ready to stand up for their friends. It is time. The Australian people made their mind up on marriage equality a long time ago, it is more than 10 years since a poll was against it. But unfortunately the world of politics has not been able to reflect that value. We will keep pushing this until the law reflects the value that the people already hold.”
Support from the Irish community
Brady says Irish people are getting involved in the campaign all over Australia.
“It is amazing to see how many people with Irish surnames turn up at the meetings around the country just to say how proud they were of their home country. They have a great story to tell Australians. They are powerful ambassadors.”
“Ireland is mentioned a lot here,” says 33-year-old Mark Govern, who has been working in finance in Sydney for three years. He spent thousands of euro to fly home from Australia to cast his vote in Tallaght in Dublin in the 2015 referendum, and wants to do everything he can to help it pass in Australia too, even though he doesn’t have a vote himself, as he is not a citizen.
“When I went home to vote, there was no mention of there being a vote publicly in Australia, but when I got back, it became a big topic politically. I think the Irish vote was a real instigator for the vote here. That makes me proud as an Irish person.
“It will impact me if I decide to stay in Australia and want to get married. But more broadly, it is important for the gay community here, and internationally – it would be another country to add to the list that has achieved this vital social progression. It is important we all get behind it, especially at a time when you see a rollback on gay rights in some parts of the world.”