What really gets me about this marriage equality farce is the brazenness of the deceit. Malcolm Turnbull stands there telling open-faced lie after lie about his government’s policy, knowing that we all know he’s lying. Not a single person believes for a second that a plebiscite was ever anything but a delaying tactic pulled from Tony Abbott’s homophobic arse. Nobody thinks the postal vote has the slightest credibility or value. I am a “strong leader”, Turnbull has the gall to say with a straight face.

The price of this arrogant conceit is to be paid in dollars, delay and indignity. The plebiscite failed the Senate, again. And now we move to the next phase of Malcolm’s Ingenious Equality Prevention Plan: the postal vote.

What, it will be disingenuously asked by every Coalition MP and their fellow travellers ad nauseam over the next several months, could be wrong with giving the people a say, as was promised? What could be more democratic?

For starters, democracy: the debating of, and voting on, a bill to make, repeal or amend the law, by the people who were elected and are paid by us to do exactly that job. Inequality was placed in the Marriage Act by this mechanism; its removal can be determined the same way. “The only poll that matters is the one on election day,” said every politician ever. Indeed.

The postal vote is not, it should be emphasised, a plebiscite. A plebiscite is “the direct vote of all the electors on an important public question”. The postal vote fails this definition comprehensively. It is an opinion poll, nothing more.

This is underlined by the government’s decision to have the poll conducted not by the Australian Electoral Commission, but the Australian Bureau of Statistics.  This ruse is designed to overcome the legal challenges to the postal vote already threatened by equality advocates. The government’s theory is that the ABS can be directed under its enabling legislation to “collect such statistical information” as the government directs on a specific matter.

This arises under section 9 of the Census and Statistics Act 1905. The trick is that the power under this section is limited by reference to a list of “prescribed matters” in the regulation to the act. It’s a long list, but it doesn’t include opinion polls on random questions of law. It does include “births, deaths, marriages and divorces”, clearly intended to enable the ABS to collect statistics on these matters.

[Marriage equality postal plebiscite — statisticians to the rescue!]

Can an opinion be a statistic? In a sense, yes. The government says its plan is identical to a phone survey the Whitlam government conducted in 1974, via the ABS, in regard to a new national anthem. That question was asked as part of a wider household statistical survey, not a standalone poll. Still, there’s enough there to occupy the High Court for a month or so of argument and deliberation.

Legality aside, one thing we can say for sure is that the postal vote will have no statistical credibility or validity whatsoever. It is to be voluntary. A statistical sampling cannot possess integrity unless it is both sufficiently wide and randomised. Voluntariness means that a high proportion of those participating will hold a strong opinion; the outcome will be determined primarily by how successful advocates on either side are in getting out their vote, or advocating a boycott. The result, either way, will be useless; literally less statistically accurate than a random phone poll of a hundred or so people. On this basis alone, the exercise is utterly futile and ridiculous.

We then turn to the arguments so eloquently made by one Malcolm Turnbull some years ago: how a postal poll is the very antithesis of the democratic process, indeed entirely undemocratic. Quaintly, the sole demographic that still opposes marriage equality (men over 65) is also part of the sole demographic that remembers how to post a letter. For well over half the voting-age population, participating in the postal vote will be an exercise in inconvenience and anachronism.

For many voters, participation won’t happen at all, because the ABS won’t find them in time. As Malcolm said, whole slabs of the population will be unfairly disenfranchised from this vote, because they’re remote, indigent, mobile or impermanent. One way or another, young people are massively more likely than older people to not participate.  

And, of course, there is the question of why, on this of all questions, a public opinion poll is so vital. We are literally being asked to vote on other people’s marriages. I would actually quite like to have a say in whether religious leaders who preach the submission of wives to their husbands, should be allowed to marry anyone ever. Or whether I wish the federal government to continue using my money to spend $50 million each year funding the cost of school chaplains.

Speaking of cost, the government says the postal poll will have a price tag of $122 million. I think we should assume that’s a lie, too, and it’ll be more. This fact alone should suffice for resort to the barricades; this isn’t government, it’s wantonly corrupt wastage of public money. We’d get better value if they stacked the cash as a hedge to keep us off the Parliament House lawn.  

[Turnbull secures win on marriage equality — but it’s not going away]

And then, when the poll has been done, we’ll have what? If the result is a majority yes, then the Coalition says it will allow a conscience vote in Parliament. It hasn’t guaranteed it won’t decide to disregard a yes vote with a very low turnout and go back to the plebiscite plan, or said what it will do if the postal vote is knocked out in court. It has confirmed that a yes vote will not bind Coalition MPs, but a no vote will mean that it will block any attempt to bring on a parliamentary vote. So — if we say yes, they can still say no, but if we say no, they won’t be allowed to say yes. Which adds up to about a 75% structural bias against marriage equality, neatly balanced against the 75% of the population that wishes they’d just shut up and get this done already.

In the end, when the government has exhausted its last manoeuvre of obstruction and every homophobe in the country has enjoyed to the fullest extent the opportunity to express their fear of difference — oh, and every LGBTI Australian has been further needlessly subjected to having their human equality denied and abused in the cause of Malcolm Turnbull’s political survival for a few more precious months — we will be back where the High Court has said we must start. A vote of the federal Parliament to amend the Marriage Act to deliver equality before the law.

Stupidity piled on cowardice arising from ignorance and, at the bottom of it all, fear. Fear in the hearts of bigots, and fear in the mind of the man who wouldn’t stare them down. This tawdry, demeaning, traumatising journey we are on, it is the marker of this Prime Minister’s legacy to the country he said he wanted to lead to a better place.   

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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