Just Vote: why the plebiscite marks a generation coming of age

Politics have typically been easy for Australian millennials. Most of us follow the opinions of our parents or friends. Others vote against a particular leader, but not necessarily for a new candidate. And up until August of this year – when the gay marriage plebiscite was announced – 254,432 Australians between 18-24 years old had never used their vote before¹. In typical Australian style we bring a laid-back, yet cutting, sarcastic attitude to the topic of who’s in charge of our country.

It struck me the other day – somewhere in between paying share house rent, despairing about graduate job prospects and the other issues that we have prioritised above future political stability – that our generation is in the process of making history. Whether we realise it or not, our decision will dictate the future of our country, and the rights that its people have in the future. Underneath the humorous but thinly-veiled façade of memes, rainbow-splashed marches and #VoteYes Instagram posts, we must all have an understanding of what this means. On a global scale, Australia’s political situation is largely unknown. Some of our international friends are still unsure if we have a President, or a Prime Minister, or is it a Queen? We aren’t known for our outlandish political stance, other than our treatment of refugees and neglect of the Great Barrier Reef.

Normally, not making a controversial political splash would be good news. This time, it will change what kids get taught at school two or three generations from now. Think about that for a second: a year ten history class in 2045, are told to Google (assuming technology hasn’t progressed even further) ‘Australian Gay Marriage Plebiscite’. Will they see the anti-LGBTQ posters that were plastered around Melbourne CBD? Will they see footage of the violent clash between churchgoers and protesters in Brisbane? They’ll have to memorise the dates of when the postal vote was approved, which Prime Minister ordered the plebiscite, and when the votes were collected and counted. And then they’ll have to recite these facts for an end-of-semester exam.

They’ll come home and ask us, their parents or maybe even their grandparents, what it was like to live through the plebiscite. They’ll ask us what happened and how it happened and maybe even if we thought the outcome was fair. We’ll try and think back to when we were young and what we were thinking. We’ll think back to the precise time in our lives that we are in right now.

I understand that this isn’t a millennials-only vote. The fact that Australia’s population is aging probably means that by majority, it’s not our vote at all. Yet the 17,000 enrolment detail updates from Australians within a single week following the announcement of the vote suggest that many of us feel responsible for this outcome². Both Yes and No voters feel responsible for what is about to happen and how it will reflect on our generation. Those who previously didn’t cast a vote for the individual in charge of our nation have now put up their hand to have a say in this decision.

Amidst the outpouring of propaganda from both sides of the debate, we have an overwhelming sense of needing to act.

Why? Because it’s the very definition of coming of age. We are beginning to understand that the world is infinitely bigger than our own lives and that it will continue on after we are gone.

The difference for Australian millennials is that we’ve never been faced with such a responsibility before. As kids or teenagers, we laughed nervously at Tony Abbott in budgie smugglers, considered briefly who it was that raised Pauline Hanson, and still now as young adults, we desperately try to ignore Malcolm Turnbull’s shortcomings over long-distance phone calls.

Never in this generation have we been given the power to change things, or had to consider the fact that history depends on us. Obviously, it could be argued that many actions, if not all, are capable of changing the world. Yet this upcoming vote has seen the most passion and engagement from the latest generation to come of age. Now all of a sudden, we are faced with what is essentially a human rights decision. A decision that places our country in a new world order.

The conservative Australian government already knows this. You can tell just by looking at the convoluted and motivated method for how this vote came about, and the fact that it isn’t even compulsory. Not to mention that it is being distributed by an underused and unreliable method, and that we only had a five-week window in which to update our details to have the chance to vote at all.

Nevertheless, it is approved. It is happening and this may be the only chance we get to make history.

Millennials are criticised every day for being out of touch with reality; for casting aside traditional values of owning a home and starting a family; for not wanting to work hard. Yet somehow, it is in our generation that this vote has occurred.

By all accounts it’s rare that such opportunities arise, and many people haven’t yet grasped the enormity of it. The question now is: are we intimidated by this responsibility, or passionate enough to use our voice?

So far, the predicted outcome for the decision of whether to legalise gay marriage has bounced between two extremes. Federal Attorney-General George Brandis – a supporter of gay marriage – predicts that it will be legal by Christmas³. A controversial decision by the company Sportsbet to open a market on the outcome of the postal vote showed that the No vote was running three to one odds against the Yes outcome⁴.

And unbelievably, even after the expected $122 million expense from the postal vote, the government MPs of Australia still have the authority to deny the democracy.

You only have to scroll through the comments section of any opinion piece on the upcoming vote to see both sides are in turmoil. Just the other day, I saw a rally of horrified commenters on Facebook trying to convince a Yes voter to not put glitter in their ballot envelope as it may void their vote, and a Melbourne commuter recounting how he was spat on for wearing an equality badge on a public tram.

If 2017 has shown us anything, it’s that no matter how many expert opinions are given, or polls taken, we can never know the outcome of a decision. We can never know what messages have gotten through to people, or how people will decide to vote. We can’t become complacent and trust that the future of our country will work itself out.

If a former television personality can become elected leader of the free world, and one of the oldest and most established nations in the world can withdraw from the privileges of the European Union, then the vote for gay marriage in Australia can, and might, still fail.

Think about yourself in the year 2045. What will you say?

Jess Mackay is a creative writing and journalism graduate from QUT, who currently works as a freelance writer in Melbourne. She was most recently an intern for Meanjin Quarterly and hopes to pursue literary editing and publishing in the future. You can find some of her work here: jessmackaywriter.wordpress.com


  1. Shalailah Medhora, ‘How to have your say in the same-sex marriage postal vote.’ Hack, 9 Aug, 2017, http://www.abc.net.au/triplej/programs/hack/how-to-have-your-say-on-ssm/8790718.
  2. Joe Kelly, ‘17,000 new voters enrol in past week for postal ballot.’ The Australian, 16 Aug, 2017, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/17000-new-voters-enrol-in-past-week-for-postal-ballot/news-story/7a286d362eabeb35edc53c3ef59a99fb
  3. Louise Yaxley and Jane Norman, ‘Same-sex marriage will be legal by Christmas predicts Brandis, as date set for postal vote.’ ABC News, 8 Aug 2017,
  4. Paul Colgan, ‘Betting markets are increasingly pointing to a shock “No” result in Australia’s vote on same-sex marriage.’ Business Insider Australia, 15 Aug, 2017, https://www.businessinsider.com.au/same-sex-marriage-australia-betting-odds-2017-8

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