An Aboriginal Community Burned Their Marriage Survey Forms

Non-English speaking residents misunderstood the survey, thinking it would make same-sex marriage compulsory.

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04 October 2017, 11:43pm

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Highlighting the inadequacies of using a postal survey to determine public opinion on a nuanced issue in a country as vast as Australia, a remote community in Arnhem Land has burned some 50 same-sex marriage surveys after misunderstanding what the forms asked of them.

Residents of the Aboriginal community of Ramingining, where most people speak Djambarrpuyngu over English, believed the survey was asking them whether or not same-sex marriage should become compulsory for all men. Australian Bureau of Statistics deputy statistician Jonathan Palmer told the ABC that Ramingining residents subsequently burned all their forms, due to the misunderstanding.

The Northern Territory has a population of 245,048 according to the 2016 Census. About a third of those reported having Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander origins, and 90 percent of East Arnhem Land residents speak a language other than English at home. Djambarrpuyngu is one of the two most common languages spoken in the NT.

At least according to the ABS, residents of Ramingining had been provided some language support when surveys were initially distributed in the area. Palmer said translators were not present but that ABS staff were armed with audio recordings that explained the survey in 14 different local languages. "Our people are out there for between one to three days, and I think there's plenty of time for them to have the length of conversation required," Palmer told the ABC. "I'm very satisfied that we've got a pretty comprehensive program to get out and give as many people as possible a say in this matter."

The ABC report notes that when results of the same-sex marriage survey are released, the data will not be detailed enough to quantify which remote communities did and did not participate. The forms are distributed according to electorate, and the seat of Lingiari takes up the entire Northern Territory except for Darwin. So it will be impossible to tell which forms came from where within a vast geographic area made up of different remote communities.

A representative from the ABS confirmed to VICE that Ramingining residents had received clarification of the survey question, and new forms had been distributed within the area.

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