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The Australian Marriage ‘Postal Survey’

In 2016, it was announced Australia would have a plebiscite on Same-Sex marriage: now in 2017, it’s now a “postal survey”. What does this mean?

Added to Features, Focus, on 12 August, 2017

The Australian Marriage ‘Postal Survey’

Quite frankly, you’d be forgiven for being slightly confused over the Same-Sex marriage plebiscite in Australia. Hot on the heels of the Republic of Ireland’s well-received referendum on Same-Sex marriage, the pressure on the Australian Government to deliver the goods by the people of Australia hit an all-time high. But a plebiscite isn’t like a referendum – and here, we’ll explain why.

Australians can check and enrol to vote at www.aec.gov.au

A history of Same-Sex marriage in Australia

Wait? Australia doesn’t have same-sex marriage? Is this the same Australia that has the infamous Sydney Mardi Gras?! No, they don’t, and yes, the same country. And a lot of people are as surprised/annoyed/angry when they hear that, especially considering its close neighbour and ally, and post-colonially – a “sibling country” – does. Australia has had a tempestuous relationship with Same-Sex marriage you see.

Marriage was considered ‘state business’ – that is, individual states and territories were allowed to make their own laws in regards to marriage: as a result, different states currently have different ways of recognising same-sex relationships, either as de facto or as registered or unregistered civil partnerships. It also varies from state to state in regards to the recognition of same-sex marriages performed overseas.

Oxford Street, Sydney, NSW, Australia

Things took a slightly more sinister turn in 2004, when Philip Ruddock – the Attorney-General at the time, and serving under the governing Liberal/National Party coalition – introduced the Marriage Amendment Act 2004, which specifically defined marriage as being between a man and a woman, effectively ruling out same-sex marriage nationally.

It didn’t stop the Australian Capital Territory – ironically, home of the State Capital and Federal Government – from having a crack. In 2013, they legalised Same-Sex marriage, only to be overruled by the High Court who ruled it ‘constitutionally invalid’ due to the Marriage Amendment Act of 2004. There have been numerous bills put forward to legalise Same-Sex marriage, but despite public support, the issue has become a political football, tossed around from goal to goal to the advantage (or disadvantage) of each party.

In mid 2017, it was announced that a voluntary, non-binding postal plebiscite would take place in November.

I thought the current Prime MinisterĀ  supported Same-Sex marriage?

So did many others! Which is why when Malcolm Turnbull – who had previously spoken in favour of it – took over as leader of the Liberal Party – and therefore the governing Liberal/National Party coalition – that in his role as Prime Minister we would see a painless transition to marriage equality. It wasn’t to be, however. When his predecessor, the notoriously anti-Marriage Equality (and increasingly unpopular) Tony Abbott (yes, the one with the lesbian sister who wants to get married) was deposed in a party leadership coup, it seems Malcolm Turnbull had to make a few dirty-handshakes with the right-leaning, anti-marriage equality members of his party – and it seems there were quite a few he had to convince to back him.

So, Australia’s having a referendum, right?

Not quite. It’s having a plebiscite. What’s the difference? Well, it’s slightly arduous and confusing to explain – but let’s have a go.

A referendum is there to amend the Australian Constitution, and is the only way the Constitution can be amended, requiring a double majority – that is, a majority of all voters across the nation, and the majority of the states. Referenda is binding – the Government must act on the vote of the people.

A plebiscite is non-binding – regardless of the outcome, the Government isn’t obliged to act upon it (although, in most cases, would be foolish not to). Plebiscites also do not deal with Constitutional questions, but rather, on issues on which government seeks approval – hence their nickname of ‘advisory referenda’.

Put simply, the upcoming plebiscite is a very expensive question that the polls already seem to answer, which despite a majority vote in favour of Marriage Equality might not result in legislation.

marriage

Why are people against the plebiscite?

There are various reasons for this on both sides of the debate. Firstly, it is expensive. Given that the majority of polls show a clear majority in favour of same-sex marriage, this would simply ask a question to the public that has been asked a thousand times, and would be nothing more than an official question with an official answer – one that the Government has no obligation at all to act upon.

Instead, many are calling on the Government to create legislation – as they do with most other things – and to have it passed through the House of Representatives and the Senate without any fuss or extra cost; although this presumes that it would have the full support of both Houses of Parliament.

It was also expected – and, to an extent, this has been proved true – that the debate around Same-Sex marriage would step-up a gear and become particularly nasty. And it has. As well as scare-campaign politics around Marriage Equality (‘won’t somebody think of the children?!’), we’ve also had references to the Holocaust/Nazi Germany from the Australian Christian Lobby’s Lyle Shelton, an assault on the State of Victoria’s Safe Schools program (a program designed to educate students on LGBTQ+ issues, and to provide support to LGBTQ+ students), nasty leaflets blaming and insinuating all sorts of ‘social evils’ on the Queer community (such as child abuse, drug abuse, STIs), and of course, the ill-conceived quip that ‘every child has a right to a mother and a father’.

While on the one hand we should quite rightly champion free-speech – the debate has become a direct assault on existing same-sex parented families, and becomes a source of invalidation and hurt for the children of these families.

So what is this postal plebiscite stuff?

When the idea of a plebiscite was once again rejected, a quite frankly desperate government decided to have a voluntary postal plebiscite. Essentially a postal opinion poll, conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Everyone on the electoral roll will post a vote to state whether or not they support same-sex marriage. Whether or not the Government will take the results to form policy is another matter entirely, with many commentators stating that it seems as if a majority vote for ‘yes’ will mean nothing, whereas a majority vote for ‘no’ will form policy.

The estimated cost is $122 million, although the cost of the damage it will do to Queer Australians will be much higher: this apparent ‘respectful debate’ has already seen damaging, homophobic/transphobic rhetoric used – not least, that Queer Australians are a threat to children and families. Of course, this is entirely false.

The “postal plebiscite” is now little more than an voluntary postal survey on the issue, open only to those on the electoral roll. A very expensive postal survey.

What will be the outcome?

All recent polls have suggested a win for the ‘Yes’ campaign; however, there has been a sense of caution trusting polls following Brexit and Trump. Over 77% of the Australian people have voted. The gap between “Yes” and “No” continued to decline during the postal survey campaign. Conservative MPs are aligning to create alternative marriage bills and amendments in order to relax discrimination laws regarding Queer Australians.

The ‘No’ campaign’s material had a strong focus on ‘freedom of religion’, ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘political correctness’, as well as conflating the marriage equality laws with the inclusion of the ‘Safe Schools’ program in education. The ‘Safe Schools’ program is a resource for schools to tackle anti-gay and anti-trans bullying, as well as a resource for understanding LGBTQIA+ people, is available to download on its website.

The ‘No’ campaign cherry-picked parts of the resource out of context and made spurious claims regarding its appropriateness for schools – despite it being approved as such. The Archbishop of Sydney donated $1 million to the campaign, which included television adverts featuring four (very) conservative women, and featured the infamous line, ‘they told my son he could wear a dress’ [at his school].

Despite this, the ‘Yes’ campaign enjoyed gatherings of thousands at a time.

Still confused?

We don’t blame you.

What were the results?

It was an overwhelming vote for ‘Yes’, with 61.6% of eligible voters ticking ‘Yes’!

Australians can check and enrol to vote at www.aec.gov.au

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The Australian Marriage ‘Postal Survey’