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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Improving the conduct of referendums: there are better options than a ‘truth commission’

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Following the EU referendum there have been demands for a ‘truth commission’ to be set up to oversee future referendum campaigns. In this post Paul Kildea argues that there are significant practical difficulties to the establishment of such a body. These include the possibility of a ‘chilling effect’ on speech, the fact that the accuracy of many controversial campaign statements would be impossible to assess and the probability that the interventions of a ‘truth commission’ would become political flashpoints in themselves. It would therefore be better to focus on other changes that can be made to better prepare voters for their choice at the ballot box such as improving the design of official pamphlets and the increased use of deliberative mechanisms such as citizens’ assemblies.

One of the many talking points to have emerged from the EU referendum in June is whether a ‘truth commission’ should be established to oversee future referendum campaigns. Numerous commentators have expressed frustration at the misleading claims made by both Leave and Remain campaigners, and feel that something must be done to protect voters against the wilful spread of misinformation. In a high profile report, the Electoral Reform Society recommended that ‘[a]n official body – either the Electoral Commission or an appropriate alternative – should be empowered to intervene when overtly misleading information is disseminated by the official campaigns’. At around the same time, a change.org petition called for the establishment of ‘an independent Office of Electoral Integrity (OEI) to factually verify the truthfulness of claims made during political campaigns…with powers to issue fines and factual clarifications’. That petition, which attracted over 165,000 supporters, has received 49 signatures since being published as an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons.

The objectives of improving the quality of referendum debates, and assisting voters to make informed choices, are worthy ones. However, the establishment of a body to monitor the content of campaign statements would be misguided. Efforts to foster informed voting should be directed elsewhere.

Concerns about false and misleading campaign statements

It is understandable why the idea of a truth commission emerged in the aftermath of the EU referendum. In a hard fought campaign, both sides were accused of misleading voters through exaggerations, distortions or outright lies. The Leave campaign was widely criticised for claiming that the UK sent £350 million a week to Brussels, and intimating that it could instead be spent on the NHS. Remain, meanwhile, was singled out for exaggerating the economic impacts of leaving the EU, including a claim that households would be on average £4,300 worse off. Other flashpoints included the release of UKIP’s anti-immigration poster, featuring a huge queue of migrants and refugees and the tagline ‘Breaking Point: The EU has failed us all.’ A survey conducted near the end of the campaign found that nearly one-half of voters (46 per cent) thought that politicians from both sides were ‘mostly telling lies’, while only 19 per cent thought that they were ‘mostly telling the truth’.

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The regulation of the EU referendum: lessons to be learned

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On 25 October the Constitution Unit hosted a distinguished panel to discuss the regulation of referendums in the UK in light of the EU referendum. The panel, chaired by the Unit’s Dr Alan Renwick, consisted of Jenny Watson, Chair of the Electoral Commission; Ric Bailey, Chief Adviser, Politics at the BBC; Sir Peter Housden, former Permanent Secretary to the Scottish Government, and Dr Paul Kildea, Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of New South Wales. Alex Quirk reports.

The EU referendum in June raised many questions about how referendums in the UK should be conducted. Electoral Commission research showed that 52 per cent of voters felt that the referendum campaign was not conducted in a ‘fair and balanced’ way. How is it that we can best strike the balance between allowing campaigners to speak freely to voters, and preventing a cloud of misinformation from obscuring peoples’ judgements? Is it appropriate for the government to be able to use public funds to campaign for one side of the debate? This event provided insights on these questions from experts from across a wide range of perspectives.

Jenny Watson

Jenny Watson is currently the Chair of the Electoral Commission, which is responsible for overseeing referendums in the UK, and was also the Chief Counting Officer for the EU referendum. She focused her introductory comments on the ways in which the legislative framework surrounding referendum campaigning should be altered to provide increased clarity and fairness, particularly regarding campaign spending rules.

The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act (PPERA), currently provides only the bare bones of the regulatory framework for referendums in the UK. This structure then needs to be fleshed out by specific supplementary legislation for each referendum such as the EU Referendum Act 2015. Watson argued for the augmentation of PPERA, to provide a more solid legislative platform in advance of a referendum. She especially recommended reform of section 125, which covers government spending of public funds. This section, she argued, needs to be altered to further restrict the ways in which the government can use public money, as there is currently an imbalance between restrictions placed on government spending, and those placed on spending by other campaigners. Making these changes will help to rectify the perceived campaigning imbalance that results from such heavy government involvement.

One function of the Electoral Commission that came under particular scrutiny during the referendum was its statutory role as designator of the ‘lead campaigner’ groups. This was the first time the legislation had been properly put to the test, as there had never before been multiple well-funded applicants in the running to lead a campaign (the Commission was required to choose between Vote Leave, eventually the successful applicant, and Grassroots Out for the Leave designation). In light of this experience, Watson argued that the statutory timetable for designation of lead campaigners, which currently allows four weeks for applications to be submitted and two weeks for the Commission to decide, does not allow sufficient time for this important process. She also suggested that the designation should happen further ahead of future referendums to allow the lead campaigners more time to secure funding. Continue reading