• Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at a Government Cabinet Meeting at Parliament Housein Canberra, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)Source: AAP Image/Mick Tsikas
“They’re late to the party, but hey, at least they showed up.”
Ben Winsor

1 Mar 2017 - 4:11 PM  UPDATED 30 May 2017 - 1:42 PM

Since the death of the plebiscite on the Senate floor in a late night sitting last year, marriage equality campaigners have switched their focus to convincing conservatives and rural voters to support same-sex marriage.

“If we're going to win this, we have to talk outside the bubble,” said Clint McGilvray with Australian Marriage Equality, “and we are.”

The campaign group has been hosting town halls around the country and fine-tuning their messaging to broaden their support base.

“This is not an Oxford Street issue, this is an issue that affects families and loved ones across the nation,” McGilvray said.

“When we go to these towns, these communities, they back it - and you know why? Because gay and lesbian people are a part of their lives.”

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“When he said those words I just burst into tears. I said to the celebrant that we need to stop, that this isn’t right.”

As part of the push, advocates are attempting to cajole Liberal and National Party politicians into backing same-sex marriage.

Earlier this month, AME and Twitter hosted a panel with Liberal MP Tim Wilson, Sydney Councillor Christine Forster and UK Conservative MP Nick Herbert.

All three said the key to convincing conservatives to support same-sex marriage was reframing the argument.

Instead of focusing on rights and equality – ideals which appeal to progressives – campaigners should focus on fairness, human stories and conservative values, the panel said.

“It doesn't make the equality argument wrong,” Nick Herbert said, “but I just take that as a given.”

People who were amenable to that argument would be supportive anyway, he said.

Tim Wilson agreed.

“If you want to lose an argument in Australia, you say it's my human right,” the former Human Rights Commissioner said.

“People think it's a drop mic moment – it ain't.”

Wilson faulted “bad tactics” by campaigners for a lack of progress – stories of the “human experience” of marriage discrimination were “scarily absent” he said.

“It's not just about rights,” he said, “it's actually about responsibility, it's actually about commitment as well as freedom.”

“If same-sex couples want to marry, it is the ultimate conservative victory.”

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Christine Forster, who was formerly married to a man, agreed with the repositioning of access to marriage as a conservative ideal.  

“I understand the strength of this tradition, how powerful it is,” she said. “It's the bedrock of our society, and that's why it is such a conservative tradition.”

"It really is what makes our whole lives work. And that's why it really is just a basic wrong that not everyone has access to that institution. "

Foster, the sister of former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, said that right-of-centre leaders need to show courage in the same-sex marriage debate.

“What has not happened in Australia - and I will not take any responsibility for this, my parents can take some - is we have not thrown up a leader with the courage that David Cameron had,” she said, referring to the former UK Conservative Prime Minister who ushered through same-sex marriage legislation.

Forster said that one of the key failings of activists was labeling their political opposites as bigots and homophobes.

“People do that to Tony all the time.”

Her brother makes his case in a respectful way, she said, noting that he was the first in her family who she came out to.

“It was difficult,” she admitted, “but I knew that even as a conservative, he would understand my situation.”

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Former UK Minister Nick Herbert said that some in his party deeply regretted voting against marriage equality, confessing to him that they had voted against their conscience.

“I had a young colleague in my office in tears,” he said.

Herbert said that it was important to push back against religious fears, saying that for too long the debate in the UK was dominated by religious organisations.

“The sky didn't fall in. The world didn't fall in around the world of people of faith,” he said

Tim Wilson said the same dynamic operates in Australia.

“For a lot of people, their concern is about a change in Australian society towards compulsory secularism,” he said.

Many conservatives feared religious schools and hospitals risked defunding if they held to their views, or were concerned that anti-discrimination laws could be weaponised.

“This doesn't do damage to religious freedom, but that doesn't change the fact that there are people who think it does,” Wilson said.

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The Liberal MP said that was one of the reasons conservatives should support the coalition legislating the reform, rather than left-of-centre parties with the influence of The Greens.

Wilson said his fellow coalition MPs were realising that the issue of same-sex marriage wasn’t going away.

“It's the sort of issue that I would have thought people want to deal with,” Wilson said.

Christine Forster blamed all sides for playing politics with the issue.

“Our side’s used it as a political football, Labor’s used it as a political football, and even the greens have used it as a political football,” she said.

“It's just been used as a way to wedge each other.”

But not everyone agrees.

“Their criticisms might be valid, but they don’t seem to appreciate the shit advocates went through to get us to this point – probably because they’ve only just joined the front lines,” one small-l-liberal in attendance said.

“They’re late to the party, but hey, at least they showed up.”

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