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Clive Palmer, hero of the average Joe

Two Plebiscites, Alike in Indignity

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In the foyer of Trades Hall, when you walk in from green and stony Lygon Street, two pieces of history adorn the walls to the left and the right. Or, more accurately, several pieces of history adorn the walls, but there are two in particular that tell the story of the great building and the movement that calls it home.

The first honour guard you walk beneath are plaques of bronze which display, for all time, the results of the 1916 and 1917 plebiscites on conscription for World War One. The Death Ballot, as it became known. It was defeated, and it was defeated by the efforts of working men and women who resoundingly told the Commonwealth that they would not send their sons to die for the interests of the ruling class.

A union congress representing three hundred thousand workers resolved:

That this congress records its uncompromising hostility to conscription of life and labor [sic], and, on behalf of the industrially organised workers of Australia, resolutely declares against attempt to foist conscription on the people.

The proposition put to the Australian people was similarly defeated, twice. 

Next, further into the entranceway, hangs a much newer but no less hallowed plaque. It displays for all time the result of the 2017 postal plebiscite on marriage equality. 7,817,247 votes (61.6%) for a clear and proud YES. A Death Ballot itself in some ways, considering the marginalisation and persecution of LGBTIQ+ people causing untold harm to a community for decades and even centuries. A campaign, backed by the full strength of Trades Hall and the union movement, was successful in sending another message to the Commonwealth: we will not abandon our brothers and sisters to further torment and discrimination. As a result of the strength of Australia's union movement, we became the only democracy in the world that did not introduce conscription during World War One. 

A Death Ballot itself in some ways, considering the marginalisation and persecution of LGBTIQ+ people causing untold harm to a community for decades.

These reminders rightly hang alongside each other, two parts of the same great story of collectivism, justice and workers’ struggle. One hundred years separates them but they hang in equal stead, watching over the work of today's unionists of all ages.

Last week, the relatively new installations were highlighted by the Australian Queer Archives in their History of LGBTIQ+ Victoria in 100 Places and Objects

Despite their similarities, however, they are both very much a reflection of the prevailing unionism of their times.

One sought to preserve the status quo, suspicious of change and the prospect of losing what had been gained through class struggle. In the case of conscription, the asking of a question was not just about the answer that may be given, but the act of asking in itself.

The National Executive decreed: “Because, when the proclamation of conscription is made, the hour is past, the democracy is too late, its lips are sealed, it can speak no more.”

The Marriage Equality campaign, by contrast, sought to tear down the status quo, to breach yet another barrier that had stood in place for too long. Importantly, it had to answer a question that did not want to be asked. For those affected and their loved ones, it would have been preferable to seal the lips of democracy and have it speak no more. Enough speaking had been done, and it often said hurtful things. It called into question things that should not have to be prosecuted and re-prosecuted. LGBTIQ+ people did not wantthis plebiscite. They wanted elected representatives to just get it done. 

Trades Hall was not originally intended to be the centre of the campaign in Victoria. It only became so when it became apparent that there was a huge blind spot in the campaign in its early days. 

Nadia Montague, one of the organisers at Trades Hall at the time, explains that prior to the union movement's involvement, the campaign was shaping up to be nothing more than TV ads and corporate declarations of support. It was going to be an "air war" as such campaigns are known to those in the business. But union organisers and grassroots campaigners know that these don't always work. What the YES campaign needed was a ground strategy. 

Australia's history of compulsory voting means we don't ever really have to run "Get Out The Vote" style campaigns like they do the USA, for example. Elections here are all about persuasion. This plebiscite, on the other hand, wasn't compulsory, which meant it wasn't enough to convince people on an intellectual or moral level. By 2017 it seemed like the community at large was in favour of Marriage Equality, but it was more prevalent in some people's minds than others. You have to physically get people to remember to fill in ballots and mail them. TV ads and corporations aren't great for that. You need a smiling face on your doorstep, politely asking if you've remembered this very important thing you need to do today

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You might have seen the hundreds of mailboxes that Trades Hall purchased in order to collect ballots. Organisers and volunteers went door to door with these boxes in hand, physically collecting people's ballots so they didn't forget them or lose them. Every single one was important. Bags and bags of filled-in ballots were being dropped off at the local post office daily, each once contributing to the eventual result that saw all Australians being able to marry the ones they loved. 

In collaboration with Marriage Equality Australia, Equal Love, GetUp! and other community organisations, there were nightly phonebanks. There were fundraisers. There were community rallies. And behind all of it was every bit of strength Trades Hall and the union movement could muster. (There was also a victory party that is generally accepted to be among the most epic in Melbourne's history, but that is a tale for another time.)

The result, now immortalised, speaks for itself. But it will stand as a reminder of more than just the result. It is a testament to the work of a campaign, and a reminder that workers and unions have a kind of power that other groups and bodies simply don't. It's the power to get things done, in a very practical sense. 

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