Starting in September, Australians will have the opportunity to vote on the issue of same-sex marriage in Australia via a postal survey. There’s a lot of information to take in and not all of the language is easy to understand. We’ve collated everything we know about the survey right here.
What are we voting on?
Australians will be asked to vote on whether or not they believe same-sex couples should be allowed to marry.
The postal survey will only ask a single question and that question can only be answered with a ‘Yes’ or a ‘No’. The question that will be posed in the survey is:
Do you support a change in the law to allow same-sex couples to marry?
Who’s running the Australian Marriage Law survey?
The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) will be conducting the postal survey. Yes, that is the same agency that couldn’t get the Census right but, hey, at least this time they’re using snail mail so it’s not like the servers can crash, right? There’s still no word on why the ABS got the nod instead of the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC).
Lifehacker asked the ABS why it is conducting the survey as opposed to the AEC and was told “Collecting statistical information is core business for the ABS.”
It’s also the reason that we are now calling this a ‘postal survey’, rather than a ‘plebiscite’. This is definitely not a ‘referendum’.
What’s the difference between a referendum, a plebiscite and a postal survey?
A referendum is only undertaken when the Australian Constitution needs to be changed. It is compulsory for every Australian to vote in a referendum and the Government is bound by the result. As the Marriage Act (1961) and the Marriage Amendment Act (2004) are not part of the constitution, a referendum will not take place.
In regards to plebiscites, the AEC states: “Governments can hold plebiscites to test whether people either support or oppose a proposed action on an issue.”
Essentially, a plebiscite is carried out like a referendum, but like Whose Line Is It Anyway? the results “don’t matter”. More accurately, the results are non-binding and the Government is not legally required to enact the result. The last plebiscite that Australia held was on May 21 1977, when a question was added to the ballot paper of the 1977 referendum asking which tune we would prefer as our National Song.
The postal survey is essentially a plebiscite, but it is voluntary and occurs via post, rather than at a polling booth. However, owing to the fact this is not run by the AEC and is instead run by the ABS it is officially known as the ‘Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey.’ Other interchangeable terms I’ve seen are ‘postal plebiscite’, ‘postal vote’ and ‘same-sex marriage vote’ and ‘same-sex marriage postal survey’.
Why are we voting on same-sex marriage?
There’s an incredibly complex and detailed response to this question, but the short of it is that same-sex marriage was a huge issue at the 2016 election. Malcolm Turnbull’s Coalition government stated that they would hold a compulsory attendance plebiscite on the issue of same-sex marriage if they were elected and so they brought the bill to Parliament but it was shot down by Labor, the Greens and various crossbenchers because of it’s expense, the fact that it was non-binding and how it would potentially affect the LGBTI community. After trying to get the bill through Parliament a second time, it was again knocked back and so the Coalition government decided to hold this ‘postal survey’, which means that legislation would not have to be passed for the plebiscite to occur.
That’s the history, but the reason the public are voting on it is because, like many developed nations, there has been a marked change in attitude towards same-sex marriage over the past decade and numerous calls to enact changes to the law that allow same-sex couples to be wed. Under the current legislation, the Marriage Amendment Act (2004), which made amendments to the original Marriage Act (1961), the law states that “marriage means the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.”
Therefore, same-sex couples are legally unable to be wed in Australia.
When do I get my same-sex marriage survey?
The same sex marriage survey forms will be mailed out on Tuesday, September 12.
Some reports say that November 7 is the final day to post your vote but this is not true. The ABS will not accept surveys received at the address after 6pm on this date. If you post your vote on this date, it’s very unlikely that it will reach the ABS on time unless Australia Post is using Game of Thrones-level methods of transportation.
Thus, you are STRONGLY ENCOURAGED to return forms by October 27.
Provided you get your forms on September 12, you have 48 days to answer and post your vote back before October 27.
What happens if I lose my same-sex marriage survey form?
If, for whatever reason, you lose or damage your form, you can request an additional form from the ABS up until 6pm on October 11. (Details on how to do this will be published on the ABS website when finalised.)
I want to vote. How do I vote?
You have to be 18 years or older, have lived at your current address for over a month and be an Australian citizen to enrol to vote in Australia. For the purposes of the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey, you MUST be enrolled to vote by August 24. If you want to check your enrolment status or need to enrol to vote, you can head to the Australian Electoral Commission website.
Once you’re on the Electoral Roll, there’s only one way to participate in the postal survey and that is through the post. There will be no polling stations and no democracy sausages. You can not vote online.
But I’ve never posted a letter before?
That’s okay. The ABS will also have more information on how to cast your vote closer to the date. However, they have revealed that you will receive both a survey form and a reply-paid envelope, which means that you do not have to purchase stamps to be able to post it – you just need to put your completed survey form in the envelope, seal it and drop it in an Australia Post box.
Where can I find an Australia Post box?
You can use this tool on the Australia Post website to locate Post Offices and Post Boxes near your area.
What if I don’t update my Electoral Roll details before August 24?
You will be ineligible to vote. You have until 11:59pm on August 24 to ensure you are enrolled. Do it now.
What happens if I turn 18 after August 24 but before the poll closes on November 7?
Unfortunately, the AEC has stated that you will not be eligible to vote in the postal survey. This is because August 24 is the date that the AEC will give Electoral Roll details to the ABS to conduct the survey and they are legally only allowed to hand over the details of those who are enrolled.
Those who have pre-enrolled at 17 years old and turn 18 after August 24 are only ‘provisionally’ enrolled on the Electoral Roll until they turn 18 and the AEC is not legally allowed to hand over these details to the ABS. If you turn 18 on August 24 you are still eligible to participate in the postal survey so go and enrol.
What do I do if I’ve recently changed address?
The best thing you can do is to update your enrolment details as soon as possible on the AEC website. As mentioned above, you will have to have been living at your recent address for more than a month.
I’m eligible to vote but I am not able to receive mail during the survey. How do I vote?
The ABS have currently only released a catch-all statement that says they are “finalising the survey process, including supporting participation by all eligible Australians (including those without access to mail, vision impaired, overseas etc). The ABS will provide details when they are available.”
If you are not going to be at your home address during the period of the survey, you can register a separate address with the ABS. You can do this by contacting the ABS Information Line on 1800 572 113. It is open seven days a week, 8am to 8pm (local time).
A report by Dijana Damjanovic at ABC News demonstrated how big of an issue this may become, especially in indigenous communities who do not have access to online enrolment services and speak languages other than English.
Does my vote still count if I draw a dick on the response form?
Interestingly, Alice Workman at BuzzFeed News asked this question of the ABS and was met with a resounding ‘Yes’. You can draw a dick or whale or unicorn or anything you want on your ballot paper, as long as there is a clearly legible mark in the ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ box. The form becomes invalid if there is no clearly legible mark in either box.
The ABS have clearly stated that “The survey envelope is designated to be for the survey response only and is not a channel for correspondence, complaints or other communication. Any extraneous material inserted in the envelope with the survey form will be destroyed and, due to processing machinery or possible contamination, may result in the survey form also being destroyed and therefore not processed.”
Therefore, if you place anything else in the envelope, there is a chance that your vote will be marked as invalid.
Am I going to receive hate-mail from lobby groups?
The Turnbull Government will try to get legislation through the Parliament, as early as this week, to prevent any homophobic or bigoted material from being used for promoting a ‘YES’ or ‘NO’ vote.
I don’t want to vote. Do I have to vote?
You don’t have to vote and, unlike an election or a referendum, you will not be fined if you do not participate. If you do not want to vote, the ABS recommends you tear your survey form into two or more pieces and dispose of it.
Why are we voting via post?
That’s a good question that no member of the Coalition has given a good answer to.
How much is the same-sex marriage survey going to cost?
It is estimated that the maximum cost will be $122 million.
When will we know the result of the postal survey?
The ABS have announced that they will release the result of the postal survey on November 15th.
Will the ABS be collecting my personal information?
Your identity will not be linked to your response. While there will be a barcode assigned to you, the ABS states that this is ‘a single-use, anonymous code.’ Moreover, the ABS also states that ‘No person who sees or has any access to any completed forms will know both the name of eligible Australians and the related single-use code.’
The collection of information is governed by the Census and Statistics Act 1905 . In regards to privacy and secrecy there are two pertinent sections.
Section 13 (3) states “Information of a personal or domestic nature relating to a person shall not be disclosed in accordance with a determination in a manner that is likely to enable the identification of that person.” As such, it is against the law for the postal survey to later enable the reveal of an individual’s identity.
Section 19 of the Act relates to the secrecy of information and the penalties applied to those who divulge any of the collected information.
Within 60 days of publication of the postal survey results (January 14th, 2018), all completed survey material will be destroyed.
What happens if the survey returns a YES vote?
Nothing, officially. The result of the postal survey is non-binding and the Australian Government is not legally bound to make same-sex marriage legal. However, Senator Matthias Cormann stated that the Government will allow a private member’s bill to be introduced to Parliament and will facilitate a ‘free vote’ or ‘conscience vote’, where politicians will be allowed to vote based on personal preference rather than party lines, on whether same-sex marriage should be legalised. This is also backed by Malcolm Turnbull.
Do we know the contents of the proposed private member’s bill?
We don’t, but George Brandis said on ABC’s Lateline on August 14th that the draft bill currently in question is Senator Dean Smith’s private member’s bill.
What happens if the survey returns a NO vote?
Nothing, officially. If the results of the postal survey show that Australians do not support a change in the law to allow same-sex couples to marry, then there will not be any vote in Parliament.
Why should I vote if it’s not even legally binding?
While the postal survey cannot change the law like a referendum would, it appears this is the government’s way of gauging public support for the issue. There are problems with this, of course, and routinely, the Australian public have shown their support for same-sex marriage, but this is like giving that opinion a government stamp of approval.
If you’re voting ‘YES’ and believe same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, it will pave the way for a conscience vote in the Parliament that may give them that right. The government does not legally have to introduce a private member’s bill if the result of the postal survey shows that the majority of Australians voted ‘YES’, but the government has continually acknowledged that they will.
If you’re voting ‘NO’, and don’t believe same-sex couple should be allowed to marry, you will have your voice heard and be informing the Australian government that you believe marriage should remain between a man and a woman.
Will we even get to vote? I’ve heard that the legitimacy of a postal survey is being challenged in the High Court?
That’s the $122 million question right now. Two High Court challenges will be heard on September 5 and 6 in regards to whether or not a postal survey is actually legal.
The legality surrounding the postal survey is a contentious issue with questions surrounding whether or not the ABS is legally able to spend the required money to conduct it (because that would require legislation passing through the Parliament) or collect information on people’s opinions.
If the challenge is successful, there won’t be a postal survey at all. Importantly, the government has suggested that they won’t allow a same-sex marriage bill to come forward, should the postal survey not be undertaken.
How are you voting?
Me? I don’t believe that it should matter how I’m voting. I’m not a part of Australia’s LGBTI community. The vast majority of people that will discuss the postal survey and its implications are not members of the LGBTI community, and yet if the postal survey goes ahead, it will be them who get to make the decision on the rights of same-sex couples.
What I will suggest doing is ingesting as much information as you can and making an informed decision before you send your mail back later this year. And you definitely should send your mail back. Don’t boycott the vote. You have a chance to be heard.
And be careful of the hyperbole and political posturing and remember the central question.
We are voting on whether or not we believe same-sex couple should be allowed to wed.
This postal survey is a vote for the rights of same-sex couples in Australia.
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