Monday, 7 August 2017

So why might the far right of the Liberal and National parties being pushing for a postal plebiscite on same-sex marriage?

The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) states this of national plebiscites:


An issue put to the vote which does not affect the Constitution is called a plebiscite. A plebiscite is not defined in the Australian Constitution, the Electoral Act or the Referendum Act. A plebiscite can also be referred to as a simple national vote.

Governments can hold plebiscites to test whether people either support or oppose a proposed action on an issue. The government is not bound by the 'result' of a plebiscite as it is by the result of a Constitutional referendum. Federal, state and territory governments have held plebiscites on various issues.

Under s. 7A of the Electoral Act, the AEC can conduct a plebiscite as a fee-for-service election, with the AEC entering into 'an agreement, on behalf of the Commonwealth, for the supply of goods or services to a person or body'. The rules for a plebiscite or fee-for-service election are normally contained in the terms of the agreement between the AEC and the person funding the election.

Military service plebiscites were held in 1916 and 1917 but, as they were not proposals to amend the Constitution, the provisions of section 128 of the Constitution did not apply. Voters in all federal territories were permitted to vote. Both the military service plebiscites sought a mandate for conscription and were defeated.

The first thing to note about a national plebiscite is that its outcome is not binding on the federal parliament or on any MP or senator.

Additionally, voting in a national plebiscite can be voluntary, unless otherwise stated in any legislation authorising a specific plebiscite. As was the case in the National Song Poll in May 1977 at which 7.59 million people or est. 90%+ of registered voters cast a voluntary ballot.

Besides being voluntary a plebiscite can also be a mail-out ballot as was the Election of Delegates to the Constitutional Convention some twenty years later in December 1997, at which 6 million ballot papers were returned, scrutinised and counted – that is to say only 50.04% of all eligible voters actually voluntarily voted and an est. 1.13% of these cast informal ballots.

A parliamentary vote on same-sex marriage was calculated as costing $17 million in 2016. A stand-alone same-sex plebiscite was estimated to cost up to $525 million in that same year.

An important point to note about a national plebiscite on same-sex marriage is that it is unnecessary as s51 of the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act gives federal parliament power to make laws regarding marriage and, parliament exercised that right as recently as 2004 when it changed the definition of marriage in order To ensure that same sex marriages are not recognised as marriage in Australia, inclusive of those performed under the laws of another country that permits such unions.

So one can see why far-right federal MPs and senators would be in favour of a voluntary plebiscite, particularly a postal one.

It may cost taxpayers more but the chances of a high voter participation rate is not as certain and, if the government of the day doesn't like the results of the ballot it can decide to not to act on them.

These parliamentarians probably believe those voters who will be less likely to return a postal ballot will not be those strongly opposed to same-sex marriage, but those who are undecided, neutral, or disinterestedly in favour of rewriting the Marriage Act to allow gay couples to wed.

In the minds of zealots like Eric Abetz and Tony Abbott this is probably seen as giving their cause a fighting chance and absolving them of any responsibility for continuing to actively oppose same-sex marriage.

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