A plebiscite always seemed like the worst way to resolve Australia's same-sex marriage question, promising to be expensive, divisive, and ultimately pointless given its non-binding nature. Which is why the Senate rejected the whole idea earlier this year, and again this week, to the relief of marriage equality advocates.
And yet here we are.
Turns out there is something worse than a same-sex marriage plebiscite: a non-compulsory one, run via the postal system. Australians have only 14 days during which they can enrol to vote or update their details, with ballots distributed by the ABS during September and a result announced on November 25.
It's a mess. Still, there's an opportunity here. Even though a plebiscite won't legally compel MPs to vote for same-sex marriage, a positive result sure might point them in the direction of doing so.
So how can same-sex marriage advocates make a "Yes" result happen? Tempting as it is to steal all the ballot forms in your neighbourhood and mail them back with a "Yes" vote, there are smarter ways to game the plebiscite. The key lies in understanding its many weaknesses and being prepared to counteract them.
We Already Know What the Result Should Be
It's nice that the Federal Government wants to make absolutely sure how the Australian people it represents feel about same-sex marriage before voting for it on their behalf. Or it would be, if the Federal Government didn't already have an incredible wealth of such information at its disposal.
Fact is, we know exactly how Australians feel about same-sex marriage. They want it legalised. They've wanted it legalised for years. The latest Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia survey found that most Australians want same-sex marriage rights. An ANU study from 2016 found overwhelming support for same-sex marriage. Opinion polls run by major newspapers have, time and time again, indicated the same thing.
All this makes the prospect of a postal plebiscite feel extra pointless, with that frustration compounded by the fact the process will be incredibly expensive. $122 million? That's like, 122 modest apartments in outer-suburban Sydney. In theory, the plebiscite should be met with an overwhelming "Yes" response, which would be immediately followed by same-sex marriage legislation being passed easily through both houses of parliament.
If only things were that simple.
A Postal Plebiscite Won't Be Representative
Maybe the most irritating aspect of the postal plebiscite is that the government has no precedent to implement it. The most immediately comparable scenario occurred in 1974 when the ABS conducted a phone poll about what the national anthem should be. Only 60,000 people were surveyed, and in the end the song they voted for wasn't even selected.
There's a reason why we don't do this often—or, as the case may be, ever. Because a postal plebiscite has vast potential to exclude large sections of the population from having their opinions heard. Don't believe me? You may be persuaded by Malcolm Turnbull, who wrote a compelling essay against postal voting in 1997:
"The voluntary postal voting method … flies in the face of Australian democratic values… It is likely to ensure that not only will a minority of Australians vote, but also that large sections of the community will be disfranchised."
He continued: "A postal ballot of necessity will only reach voters who are living at the address recorded on the electoral roll … not unless they ring up and make a special request, and who will get around to doing that?
"This will particularly hurt young people, many of them students, who move more often than older people settled in families. It will also disfranchise Aborigines from remote communities who are often highly mobile."
Speaking to VICE, University of Melbourne mathematician and polling expert Adrian Beaumont says the lack of precedent is a problem and makes predicting an outcome for the postal plebiscite much more difficult than it would otherwise be.
"As a voluntary postal plebiscite has never been conducted before in Australia, I don't know how it will impact turnout. Turnout will undoubtedly be much lower than at a general election, but how low will it be? Will young people vote by post?"
Crucially, major marriage equality advocacy organisations have been reluctant to support the plebiscite. The official stance of Australian Marriage Equality, the leading campaigning body for gay marriage in Australia, is to challenge the plebiscite rather than embrace it. They're currently seeking an injunction to stop the vote. "If it gets past [the High Court challenge] the question is what marriage equality supporters will advocate in the plebiscite. If they advocate a boycott, turnout could be very low," says Beaumont.
While you can't blame marriage equality advocates for rallying against the plebiscite, a "Yes" outcome seems more unlikely if they don't start campaigning for one immediately. Especially given that the Australian Christian Lobby and other conservative groups have already started.
If the plebiscite goes ahead, and it sure does seem like that's happening, same-sex marriage supporters should vote, and encourage everyone they know to do the same.
The ABS Isn't Prepared
Remember the 2016 Census? Would you trust the same organisation that cooked something it had five years to organise to do it all again, within the space of two weeks? Maybe you would, but the CPSU—the public sector union representing the ABS—has raised serious concerns about the Federal Government's decision to hand control of the plebiscite over to the Bureau.
In a statement on Thursday, CPSU Deputy Secretary Melissa Donnelly said the CPSU has "serious concerns about the capacity of the ABS to run a postal plebiscite":
"This is an agency already under massive pressure and struggling with its core functions after two rounds of job cuts, as has been shown in recent times by Census fail and also some issues with employment and other economic data," she said.
"The CPSU has been contacted by a number of ABS staff who are deeply worried about this decision. They're not just concerned about the ABS's ability to conduct a plebiscite, given how different it is to their regular work and the capacity constraints they face, but that such a highly political process will undermine the independence of the agency."
As with the Census, there isn't much that members of the general public can do other than cross fingers and trust public servants to do their jobs. But it's worth keeping in mind that issues could arise—so make sure you receive that ballot paper, and return it on time.
It Will Fuel Hatred and Division
Labor Senator Penny Wong has passionately told the Senate that children will be "exposed to hatred" as a result of the postal plebiscite and the campaigning around it. So far, we have little reason to respect she's wrong.
We've already seen examples of this: Tony Abbott has, predictably, equated gay marriage with political correctness gone wrong. On live television, Bronwyn Bishop linked it with bestiality and polygamy. You just know that things are going to get more heated from here on in.
An advantage of an ordinary, compulsory plebiscite is that "Yes" and "No" campaigns would be forced to comply with Australian electoral laws and regulations around hate speech. With a postal plebiscite, all this goes out the window. There's no authorisation requirement for campaign materials, which means no one has to put their name to what they say.
As Tasmanian academic Dr Kevin Bonham writes in this useful blog post, the postal plebiscite is unregulated to the extent that "there would seem to be no legal authorisation requirements, no laws against misleading electors about the electoral process, no obvious law against vote-buying (to which postal voting is more readily prone than booth voting), and no legal process to challenge the accuracy of the result."
Expect a lot of ugliness, and support your LGBTQI friends. Perhaps the only upside to the ad hoc way the postal plebiscite has been organised is that the whole thing will be over relatively quickly.
Nothing Means Anything
A postal plebiscite, if it goes ahead, seems likely-ish to show majority support for same-sex marriage. But, for the reasons outlined above, voter participation could be minimised and skewed to the extent that MPs see no reason to follow the advice of the people when they vote for or against it in parliament. And they won't have to, because the plebiscite isn't legally binding.
With Labor and the Greens both promising to keep pressing the issue, the good and bad news is that all roads lead to same-sex marriage becoming legal in Australia, eventually.
If only our politicians hadn't chosen the most expensive and embarrassing one to slowly and painfully walk down.
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