It seems like a nice idea to ask the public what they think about a hot topic. But what do you do when you don’t like the answer?

There’s a case study on offer from the Sydney-based Ambrose Centre for Religious Liberty, which polled the public on gay marriage. When the public answered “yes please”, the Centre kept those key findings under wraps.

Some 1204 Australian adults were surveyed in a poll on “public attitudes towards same-sex marriage in Australia” late last year. Key findings — which were similar to the August 2011 Galaxy Poll commissioned by the Australian Marriage Equality Network — went missing from the Centre’s parliamentary submission on the Marriage Equality Amendment Bill. Here’s what the Centre’s study, conducted by independent research company Sexton Group, found:

  • 58% of Australians agreed that same-sex couples should have the right to marry
  • 10% of Australians disagreed that same-sex couples should have the right to marry
  • 62% of Australia agreed that if “marriage is all about love and commitment, and any couple in a committed loving relationship, including same-sex couples should be able to marry” (9% disagreed)
  • 64% of Australians agreed that “marriage is all about love and commitment, and any couple in a committed loving relationship, including same-sex couples should be able to marry” (9% disagreed).

The Ambrose Centre’s centre was founded by Rocco Mimmo, a lawyer who specialises in human rights and discrimination law. The Centre’s advisory board members include former deputy prime minister John Anderson, Cardinal George Pell, Archbishop Peter Jensen and former MPs Santo Santoro and Con Sciacca.

In the centre’s written and oral submissions by Mimmo to the Marriage Equality Amendment Bill Senate inquiry, none of the above findings were mentioned. Instead Mimmo reported on the results of the second category of question in the survey: “Do you believe that the definition of marriage in the federal Marriage Act should stay as it is, namely between a man and a woman, or do you think the definition of marriage should be changed to include same-sex relationships as well?”

Mimmo wrote in his submission: “In a survey poll commissioned by the Ambrose Centre and released in November 2011, support for changing the Marriage Act was 49 percent in favour and 40 per cent against … The poll, which was conducted by the Sexton Group, showed that only 14 per cent were strongly in favour of changing the Marriage Act while 18 per cent were strongly opposed.” That was all Mimmo’s submission said about his survey.

I wrote to Mimmo and asked whether it was “selective”, “in bad faith” or dishonest not to mention the survey findings showing majority support for gay marriage (in the first category of questions), and in particular, survey results indicating only 9-10% of people surveyed were opposed to gay marriage rights. Mimmo wrote back, saying my questions were “offensive” and that it was clear my intention was to “disparage, lie, misrepresent, make false accusation and denigrate by stealth”.

Mimmo said: “There is no 9% figure in our survey that was opposed to same-sex marriage as you put it. You again have let your mind concoct a figure which is not within our survey in the context in which you put it. Why can you not report the truth rather than a concocted untruthful version that suits your purpose … You clearly have a mindset as to what you wish to write rather than be objective. I find it offensive that you throw accusations of “dishonest … in bad faith … selectively” around so loosely without the slightest evidence and regard for truth and honesty.”

I further asked: “The Galaxy survey suggested 53% of Christians supported gay marriage. Why was this question excluded from the survey or at least, your report?  Can you provide evidence of the original survey questions used by Sexton Group, which may have been excluded from report? Do the majority of Christians support same-sex marriage?” I also asked whether the difference in agreement answers to his second question simply mean religious people merely want a separate provision for gay marriage, without changing the statutory definition of marriage?

I wrote back to Mimmo, requesting that he answer the questions more directly and indicate in what way I was lying or misrepresenting his survey.

When he didn’t respond, I called his office. “You have distorted my survey,” he said. “People only agree with more general, subjective questions because they don’t want to be seen to be discriminatory, but when there are more specific questions, people’s views change,” he said. “You need to get off the crack, mate, go and off and read the survey … when you add it all up it shows there is majority opposition to gay marriage.”

I did read the survey and could find no such data. Mimmo directed me to more particular questions that he said justified his viewpoint.

  • Marriage between a man and a woman and them having children together is an important social institution and we should uphold marriage and its traditional meaning (69% agreed)
  • Marriage is not just about love and commitment between two adults. It is also the best way to help ensure that children are raised by their own mother and father (59% agreed)
  • Where possible, as a society we should try to ensure that children are raised by their natural mother and father, and promote this (73% agreed).

But as Mimmo himself pointed out in his analysis: “A significant proportion of those in favour of changing the Marriage Act also agree with these arguments.” In other words, these figures don’t alter the finding that 49% of people agree that the Marriage Act definition should be changed and only 9% are opposed to gay marriage rights.

Peter Fray

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