Parliamentary committee staff has never had more work thrust upon it than the interest generated by three bills seeking to amend the Marriage Act. A staggering number of public contributions were made to the House and Senate committees — nearly 300,000 by last Friday — including written submissions, form letters and the curious introduction of the parliamentary web survey.

In the Senate, committee secretariat made the decision that its approximately 75,000 written submissions were too many to process and “only” a few hundred would be made public. In the House, anyone with an email address could answer a small online survey. When it closed midnight on Friday it became clear this was one for the record books: 218,048 responses from unique email addresses, with some additional checks against attempts to game the system.

Most inquiries tend to generate several hundred responses at most, and usually far fewer than that.

The House Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs first experimented with the web poll during its inquiry last year into the operation of the insurance industry during disaster events. It was a topic where industry voices could easily drown out those most most in need of being heard. Inquiry submissions, regardless of topic, tend to come from a very small number of rent-seeking lobby groups and a few highly motivated individuals. If other members of the public even get wind, the daunting formal processes are usually enough to scare them away. But when given the chance to submit their experiences anonymously and conveniently, the 694 online responses outnumbered the industry voices almost 10 to one.

The unavoidable problem here is that we’ve been trained not to take online polls seriously. Several MPs chose to host their own web poll to survey constituents when asked last year to report back on the community’s views on same-s-x marriage, with mixed results that sometimes appeared gamed. Media outlets that run online polls on gay marriage, seemingly every week, advise readers their polls are for entertainment purposes only. Any given day of the week strongly interested lobby groups will send out emails telling their members to vote in them, usually swaying the results one way or the other for a few hours until the opposition group sends out its email blast.

If we can trust parliament’s same-s-x marriage survey, it should tally close to the results of professional polling. So, 58.1% favoured legalising gay marriages in Australia while 41.6% opposed. Latest Nielsen and Galaxy polling both show near or at 60% support, so perhaps we can.

Written submissions also aren’t expected to accurately match the public sentiment, but in the Senate approximately 44,000 favoured the marriage equality bill, while approximately 31,000 opposed.

But if there’s anything an online survey cannot provide, it’s the considered analysis by experts in the field. Unfortunately, parliamentarians investigating gay marriage have not been helped by a decline in the quality of advice they’ve received through the inquiries since the issue was first introduced in the mid-1990s. Invited members of the House committee hearing in Sydney earlier this month gave some truly bizarre testimony.

Dr David Michael Phillips, from FamilyVoice Australia, sitting on a panel with the Australian Family Association and the Australian Christian Lobby, tied his opposition to the Greek economic woes, specifically their declining birth rate and percentage of the population on welfare benefits: “Those two factors combine to mean that Greece is a basket case. Governments have a responsibility to ensure Australia does not become a basket case as Greece has become. For that reason, governments need to commend, privilege and protect the institution of marriage as we know it.”

Lobbyists for the gay community appeared at times to be unfamiliar with the concept of a celebrant who is neither a public servant nor a minister of religion, and were caught unprepared and stalled for time when asked what tangible disadvantages same-s-x couples face without a marriage certificate. Having built their case entirely around the psychological and sociological disadvantages, they eventually drifted into such topics as gay blood donation, aged care and the homos-xual panic defence for murder.

It is difficult to argue such contributions were an improvement over an anonymous online web survey, regardless of whether or not it could be gamed.

Both House and Senate committees are due to report their findings in June.

Update: Final figures of the House Standing Committee’s online survey just came through: 276,437 total responses. 64.0% support Adam Bandt’s bill, 36.0% oppose.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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