Emphatic ‘yes’ and ‘no’ messages have been emblazoned on television screens, billboards, t-shirts and posters in shop windows, advocates from each side have delivered their message through graffiti art, it has even been written in the sky above the EducationHQ office.
But how is the issue playing out in schools?
Some schools, such as Melbourne’s Xavier College, have opened dialogue with parents and students on the issue.
Xavier College rector Father Chris Middleton, published an article in the school newsletter in August.
“As one who works in a school and who is charged with witnessing to our faith to the young, it is clear that the debate exposes a real disconnect between the Church’s public opposition to same-sex civil marriage and the attitudes of young people,” he points out.
“In my experience, there is almost total unanimity amongst the young in favour of same-sex marriage, and arguments against it have almost no impact on them.
“Whatever of the postal vote, the Church needs to reflect on why there is such strong support for same-sex marriage among the young,” Middleton continues.
“They are driven by a strong emotional commitment to equality, and this is surely something to respect and admire.
“They know the reality of homophobia, and the destructiveness that it, like racism and sexism, can have in the lives of people, and especially on the young.
“They are idealistic in the value they ascribe to love, the primary gospel value.
“Any argument against samesex- marriage must respectfully address these core values, or they will fail a basic test of credibility with our young. Such arguments must appeal to believer or nonbeliever alike.”
Middleton has chosen to recognise and explore his students’ strong feelings on this political issue and encourages discussion within the school community.
But not all school leaders believe politics have a place in the playground. Up in Sydney the head of independent Catholic school Waverley College, has explicitly asked teachers not to share their views on same-sex marriage with students.
According to The Australian newspaper, Waverley’s head of college Graham Leddie said to teachers in a staff meeting, despite what they “may think personally about the vote/topic, I ask you not to share your personal opinions with students”.
While same-sex marriage may be the hot topic at the moment, the reality is teachers are constantly fielding questions from curious young minds about the world around them, and the answers are not always black and white.
One particular shade of grey, comes from the fact that many educators may already have strong views on a particular issue.
So where does the teacher’s responsibility lie when their personal politics come into play?
This complexity was brought to the fore late last year, when special interest group Teachers for Refugees announced plans to wear protest t-shirts to work.
Federal Minister for Education, Simon Birmingham, was highly critical of the action.
“Parents and the community expect schools to impart skills and abilities upon children not political opinions,” he said in a strongly worded statement.
“Teachers are employed to go into a classroom and to teach our children, and to develop skills in those children; they are not employed to go into the classroom and proffer their own personal political views and to use Australian school children as a type of tool for a political campaign.”
While Birmingham’s views were somewhat predictable, given the issue at hand, he wasn’t alone in his reservations.
Jamila Rizvi, author, presenter and political commentator published her views on news.com.au in the lead up to the planned protest.
“I’m personally sympathetic to the political views of these education activists. Reports about the conditions on Nauru and Manus Island and the harms being perpetrated in Australia’s name are deeply distressing,” she wrote.
“And yet, I know I’d be alarmed if the issues teachers were campaigning on weren’t aligned with my own political views.”
Offering the example of a science teacher denying climate change or a primary school teacher wearing an anti-gay marriage badge to class, Rizvi makes the point that when teachers are permitted to make political statements in class, it opens students up to all manner of world views.
A teacher, she says, holds a unique position of power.
“A fair political fight requires the canvassing of different views and it’s hard for that to exist when one view — the teacher’s — carries so much more weight than the others.”
Ivan Mahoney is an acting network principal at St Joseph’s Flexible Learning Centre in North Melbourne, and a member of Teachers for Refugees.
He remembers all too well, the t-shirt uproar. For Mahoney, politics are part and parcel of humanity, and it’s hard to separate the two.
“It seems to be a bit of a misunderstanding about what education is,” he tells Australian Teacher Magazine.
“I mean, what we try to do, our tradition is part of the Catholic tradition, and a Christian understanding of the human being and the person, and it’s the whole person.
“And so, the whole person is a person that can engage reasonably and think through issues in the wider community, and I think that includes issues around asylum seekers.”
Mahoney works in a school where refugees form a large part of the student cohort.
For his students, there’s no escaping asylum seeker politics because many of them are living and breathing it.
“For us in the playground, we have individuals who have had some pretty horrific stories … they came on a boat or, survived a refugee camp or a war zone.
“So the issue is a very real thing for us, because of our young people in our cohort,” he explains.
“So, do the other Australian background students just ignore the background of their fellow students?
“Or do they seek to understand what they’ve actually gone through, where they are at the moment, and seek to support them?
“It’s a bit of a head in the sand approach if we’re making the demarkations between what we can and what we can’t teach because it doesn’t fit in with a particular philosophy.”
“What we’re trying to do is create individuals who can engage with wider society in a respectful way, and can also develop their own opinions about political issues.
“Whether it’s about asylum seekers, whether it’s about marriage equality, whether it’s about anything, [it’s important] that they can actually make informed decisions and think about things, and engage positively in a wider community, rather than just ignore that the issue exists…”
Interestingly, it seems teachers in Australia enjoy more political freedom than their peers in the UK.
In From Brexit to Trump: should teachers talk politics in the classroom?, an article on The Guardian Teacher Network, head teacher Andrew Jones reminds readers that sections 406 and 407 of the 1996 Education Act prohibit the promotion of partisan political views in schools.
“Headteachers, governors and education authorities are responsible for ensuring that teachers offer an objective presentation of opposing political views, and teachers need to be aware of their own biases.
“This is vital – if we expect students to think for themselves, we must teach them to do so rather than depending on the opinions of others,” he says.
Similarily Alan Singer, social studies educator from Hofstra University in the US, says there is a seldom enforced New York City regulation requiring teachers to remain politically neutral when performing official duties.
“In 2008, Mayor Michael Bloomberg ruled that public school teachers could not wear political buttons in the classroom.
“The teachers’ union challenged the ban but it was upheld by Federal District Court Judge Lewis Kaplan,” he writes for The Huffington Post.
Mahoney maintains however, that seeing their teachers as being politically active can only benefit students.
“From a student’s perspective I think they see that, number one, the staff are acting their beliefs, they have a concern for a part of our society and are seeking to make a statement on that," he says.
“But then, they’re also seeing that things can be practically done in the space, and it doesn’t need to be about agitation or anything like that.”
Mahoney doesn’t believe students felt obliged to agree or join their teachers in protest of the treatment of asylum seekers.
He says a teacher worth their salt can generate discussion which welcomes all views and values.
“The skilled teachers … create an environment where students can have input from different parts of the debate, where they do present with different points of view,” he says.
“I think as long as the staff are able to do that, and I believe most of our staff are able to do that, I think once again you’re teaching skills that are transferable.
“Clear thinking, being respectful in terms of debates, feeling as though they can have an impact on things that are around them, that they’re not just passive acceptors of things that they may identify as being unjust or untrue.”
With this in mind, as well as the Edmund Rice school’s touchstone of inclusivity, some of the St Joseph’s school community have made a visual commitment to the ‘Yes’ campaign.
“We’ve actually been a member of the Safe Schools Coalition (one of only two Catholic schools that have been),” he says.
“We actually have a support group in our school, for LGBQI young people and we have a number of young people that are same-sex attracted, or trans-identified, in our space.
“So what that group came up with was a commitment wall and so if you walk into our school, you can see a large wall on the left where a number of students and staff have put up a visual representation of their commitment to marriage equality. It might be considered a bold move for a Catholic school, but Mahoney says it’s a no-brainer.
“Now once again it’s about providing a space where people can have an opinion, and that opinion can be shared, but once again it’s a no-brainer for us, because we’re about inclusive community, we’re about respect for the individual.
“We’re not in the business of going against the Catholic understanding of sexuality, and that’s something we explain to our students as well.
“But, once again we encourage our young people to express themselves, and this is how they’ve done it at our school,” he says.