In a morale-boosting win for the Turnbull government, the High Court has upheld the validity of the marriage equality postal survey, declaring that its funding, and the conduct of the survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, are lawful.

After being stymied by the Senate in its efforts to conduct a plebiscite on the issue of reversing the Howard government’s changes to the definition of marriage to exclude LGBTI people, the government opted to conduct a voluntary postal survey. The survey is to be conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, and was designed to placate Liberal right-wingers, led by former prime minister Tony Abbott, who were determined to delay marriage equality as long as possible.

Marriage equality advocates, including independent MP Andrew Wilkie, had challenged the survey in the High Court, arguing that its funding, via what is called the Advance to the Finance Minister — which “enables the Finance Minister to facilitate urgent and unforeseen expenditure that was not within the contemplation of Parliament when the Appropriation Act was passed” — was not urgent or unforeseen. The plaintiffs also argued that the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ powers to collect statistics did not cover the proposed survey. However, the court rejected both arguments and upheld the government’s use of the funding to enable the ABS to conduct the survey.

The decision clears the way for the Australian Bureau of Statistics to mail out a survey letter asking people’s views on marriage equality to around 16 million voters, as a prelude to parliamentary vote on the issue later in the year, if there is a majority for marriage equality in the survey — no matter what the turnout is.

This means the government now has a strong chance of removing the issue of marriage equality — which has deeply split the Liberal party — from the political agenda by Christmas, with legislation to remove the Howard government’s amendments to the definition of marriage passed by November. However, there still remains a bitter campaign ahead of the conclusion of the survey, with abusive and homophobic material already being circulated by right-wing groups and fundamentalist Christian organisations. Nonetheless, for Malcolm Turnbull, this is a much needed win and one hurdle — of many — overcome to shore up his beleaguered prime ministership.


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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey