“The final costs of the survey will be under $100 million,” said ABS chief statistician David Kalisch as he announced the results of the marriage equality survey on Wednesday morning.

We had been advised this would be a $122 million purchase. To find out at the checkout about an 18% discount was nice — I’m sure the government will find a good way to spend the $22 million they’ve saved.

But the important thing is that $100 million is nowhere near the whole cost of the plebiscite. And a lot of the spending came from organisations and people with a lot less in their budget bucket than the government.

If we only count the cost to the ABS, we miss a lot. The rest of the country didn’t stand still. And the costs outside the ABS were probably more than those in it.

Campaign costs

The campaign for marriage equality was far more than just the few minutes on Wednesday. Activists have been putting in thousands of hours. If we say each side had the equivalent of 100 people working full time since the vote was announced in August you can tack on another $1.5 million. (The actual numbers of volunteers was thousands, but they were pitching in around all their other commitments.)

One SMS company donated $500,000 worth of free text messages to the Yes campaign. We should add that on. (Let’s for now leave off the cost to the people who’d rather not be spammed.)

The No campaign spent an estimated $1 million on TV ads and the Yes campaign an estimated $500,000.

Much of the money spent campaigning was raised in donations. (Qantas chief Alan Joyce reportedly gave $1 million to the Yes campaign suggesting he personally probably had the highest costs of anyone. But not necessarily the worst cost-benefit ratio. That prize must go the No campaign.)

The costs of trying to change our mind are around $2.5 million. Less than you might expect as the campaigns were run quickly and fairly briefly.

Stress, suffering

The costs of the campaign pale in comparison to the (far less estimable) costs to the community. LGBTI Australians were seriously stressed out by the process. Many report that it felt like a referendum on their value as people.

The cost of the mental health impact could be measured in the counselling services provided. Major employers including the Victorian state government made such services available to staff.

But the true cost is not found in the help sought — rather, in the pain borne without assistance. I heard one story of a woman who had to take time off work after a rainbow flag was burned outside her house. The cost of her pain could be equated to the time taken off work, but the true cost is probably far greater.

It would be crude to try to estimate the value here so I won’t, but I suspect it might be the biggest single cost of the whole survey.

Trips to the postbox and time spent gawping

Let’s just take the moment the nation stood still. Let’s say one in three of the people who voted took 10 minutes to watch or read about the announcement when they were supposed to be working. That’s 4 million people. Multiply by 10 minutes you get 40 million minutes.

The value of that time at Australia’s average full-time wage ($40 an hour) is $27 million alone (or $12 million at the minimum wage of $18 an hour).

Twelve million of us contributed to the result of the postal survey. That represents millions of trips to the post box. We should count not only the time cost but the car accidents, bike crashes and twisted ankles that happened along the way. (And all the young people who probably had to wander miles around their suburb to find a post box at all.) Our time is not cheap. The value of that must easily be another $30 million.

Drum roll, please

The total of all the costs outside the ABS is at least $60 million and likely more than the $100 million the ABS spent.

Benefit

Of course, any good cost-benefit analysis considers the upside. Foremost is the benefit of equal civil rights. It’s tough to put a price tag on that.

Another effect that might be less apparent is the impact of the process on young people. After the result came out I saw kids walking home from the local high school wearing rainbow capes. They were celebrating. Young people have been deeply engaged with this process. Turnout was extremely high among 18- to 19-year-olds for whom this might be their first time “voting”.

A big win in your first election is like catnip to a burgeoning political awareness. These young Australians will start their adult lives believing you actually can get a good result from our democracy. That sort of early success is enough to make them engage with democracy even more. A generation that is willing to work in the system and hold it to a high expectation? The value of that could last for years.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

What a year. Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW