Australia’s postal survey on same-sex marriage: a flawed process that should not be repeated

Legislation legalising same-sex marriage completed its passage through the Australian parliament last week. This followed a strong vote in favour of the change in a postal survey, held from September to November. Paul Kildea argues that, while the survey proved effective in bringing about marriage equality, the process was deeply flawed and should not be repeated.

Australia’s political year ended on a high with the legalisation of same-sex marriage. There were jubilant scenes in the House of Representatives as it approved a change to the legal definition of marriage from ‘the union of a man and a woman’ to ‘the union of 2 people’. The first weddings will take place on 9 January.

The road to marriage equality was convoluted and messy. For many years politicians resisted growing community calls for change, and in the end opted to hold a national poll as a precursor to legislative action. This was constitutionally unnecessary and expensive, but the resounding result – 61.6% of respondents supported same-sex marriage – provided a clear endorsement that parliament could not ignore.

What is particularly noteworthy about this national poll is the form that it took: it was not a referendum or a plebiscite, but rather a public opinion survey run by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. It was non-binding, voluntary (voting in elections is compulsory in Australia), and conducted entirely by post over an eight-week period from September to November this year. The postal survey was, in design and execution, unlike any previous direct democracy exercise in Australia. Now that it is behind us, a full appraisal is necessary. This post will argue that, while the survey proved effective in clearing the political path to marriage equality, it was deeply flawed as a process and should not be repeated.

The long, winding road to same-sex marriage

It has been known for some time that the path to marriage equality in Australia runs through the legislature. In the past there had been doubts about the national parliament’s ability to legislate for same-sex marriage, but these were dismissed by the High Court in a 2013 ruling. Since then, reform has been in the hands of politicians. Advocates called on them to amend the Marriage Act 1961 (Cth) which expressly defined ‘marriage’ as ‘the union of a man and a woman’.

Yet, in August 2015, the conservative Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, resisted calls to legislate and instead announced that his government would hold a non-binding plebiscite on the matter. This was highly unusual. While Australian governments hold referendums on constitutional amendments from time to time (44 such votes have been held since 1901), they only rarely conduct plebiscites on other matters. In fact, history yields just three precedents: two votes on compulsory military service in 1916 and 1917, and one on the national song in 1977. This is consistent with Australia’s tradition of parliamentary democracy in which elected representatives are entrusted to make decisions on most issues. In line with this, Australia’s parliament has a long history of legislating on matters of marriage and divorce.

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