Exploring the postal vote plebiscite

By Georgia Thompson

Australia is one of 171 countries that continues to deny same-sex partners from marrying. In recent times, there has been a push to change the law to better reflect a diverse society that values equality, which is defined as the state of being equal, especially in status, rights, and opportunities (Oxford Dictionary).
Only a few countries, including the United States, Canada, Taiwan, and Germany, have legalized same sex marriage. In the past, Australia has led the world in issues concerning equality. In 1902, Australian women were given the right to vote in Commonwealth elections, 18 years before the same right was granted to women in the United States.
At present, Australia is engaged in a national discussion regarding the legalization of same sex marriage by means of a postal survey vote. The question is: will Australia be the next country to give members of the LGBTQI community the same rights as heterosexual Australians when it comes to marrying the person they love, and thus join the small list of progressive countries that have already done so?
At the center of this issue are the two major political parties in the Australian parliament: the more conservative Liberal Party, which is currently in power, and the more liberal Labor Party, currently in opposition. These parties have been debating changes to the Marriage Act for many years and, following progressive developments in other countries and continued agitation in Australia, the parliament is acting.
How does the postal survey work? On September 12, 2017, the Australian Bureau of Statistics mailed 16 million ballots to eligible voters across the country with the question, “Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?” Accompanying the question were two boxes to fill in, yes or no.
From there, enrolled Australians have two months to make their decision and return the vote to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. On November 15, 2017, the results will be announced.
But these results don’t have much weight in the grand scheme of things. If the majority vote yes, same sex marriage does not become legalized. It simply means that the government will discuss the issue further before presenting a private member’s bill in Parliament.
If Australians vote no in the survey, a parliamentary vote will not take place. Prime Minister and leader of conservative Liberal Party, Malcolm Turnbull stated, “Our policy…is to hold a [postal] plebiscite to give all Australians a say.” However, many doubt that the postal vote will fulfill this promise.
Many ‘yes’ supporters objected to the survey long before it was approved in Parliament and even attempted to take the government to court to prevent the survey. Tasmanian MP Andrew Wilkie of Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, Felicity Marlowe, the Australian Marriage Equality group and Greens’ senator Janet Rice have all faced the Federal Government in court.
Those opposed to the postal survey argued that there were insufficient funds available for the postal vote, which is costing Australian taxpayers $122m according to Parliament House in Canberra (August 8, 2017). They also argue that the survey doesn’t meet the definition of “urgent” and “unforeseen,” grounds upon which funds of this size can be accessed. They also argued that the Australian Bureau of Statistics does not have the authority to ask the question, as the company merely collects statistics, not opinions.
But the High Court sided with the government with a rule of 7-0 to allow the postal vote to go ahead. Moments after the ruling, ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigners were ready and waiting outside the doors of the courthouse to give out flyers instructing people how to vote.
One of the major grievances from the high court ruling is not a dislike for the High Court, but rather for the Federal Government. If the decision is to be made by the government in the end, why couldn’t they decide now?
It all comes down to the current conservative government. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull must find a way to maintain his position as Prime Minister whilst fulfilling his own moral obligations. A ‘yes’ voter himself, Turnbull stated, “My position on this issue has been clear for many years. I am a supporter of same-sex marriage and I’ll be voting ‘Yes’.” So why did he not take the position full stead in parliament?
Many members have the opinion that the marriage bill should simply be voted for by members of parliament as it is the “quickest and most efficient way to deal with the issue,” according to Liberal MP Trevor Evans. Others in the party believe that internal disagreements among conservatives mean that other important issues are garnering less attention.
Thus far, 814 big businesses and corporations have voiced their support for the ‘yes’ vote, including the likes of McDonalds, Amazon, and Uber, as well as major Australian businesses like the insurance company Allianz, law firm Arnold Thomas & Becker, and Commonwealth Bank (AustralianMarriageEquality.org). Qantas airline CEO Alan Joyce took things one step further by making a $1m donation to the “yes” side (Australian Financial Review).
As the postal surveys are returned by voters, the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigns are still working hard to influence late voters with large advertizing campaigns on social media and television. It has been recorded that the no campaign has spent more than the “yes” campaign, with opponents of marriage equality spending $312,000 on television ads, compared to advocates who have spent $64,000 (Ubiquity).
The results of the postal survey will be announced on November 15, 2017, upon which the decision to take the issue to parliament will be decided. Australia is in the early stages of legislating same sex marriage and, although the results of the postal vote will reflect the views of many Australians, there is no guarantee that a private member’s bill will be introduced in a conservative government led by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Image courtesy of Kai Fisher