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Inside The Scramble At The ABS To Run The Marriage Equality Postal Survey

"Public knowledge [is] now that the ABS will be involved with a plebiscite of some kind."

William West / AFP / Getty Images

Emails from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) obtained by BuzzFeed News under freedom of information law reveal the scramble the agency had to go through to get ready for the postal survey on same-sex marriage.

The ABS had the postal survey on same-sex marriage foisted upon it after the Senate blocked legislation for a compulsory plebiscite. The government announced the postal survey would be option B after a party room meeting on the matter on August 8.

The ABS was chosen as it allowed finance minister Mathias Cormann to use up to $200 million in funding without getting parliament approval to run a survey.

BuzzFeed News asked for all documents related to the postal survey from February 1 to August 9 this year. The first documents released are dated on August 8 — the day the government announced the postal survey — suggesting the first anyone in the ABS knew about the survey was when the government revealed it to the public.

The emails released show the ABS didn't know what it would be required to do, as it had not been given its direction to conduct the survey by the government.

"Public knowledge [is] now that the ABS will be involved with a plebiscite of some kind," a dot point states in an email sent out with talking points at 3.30pm on August 8 — from Nigel Ray in Treasury to chief statistician David Kalisch and two other ABS staffers — after the Coalition party room meeting ended and the new policy was announced.

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Actually, it's a postal survey

Many of the internal ABS emails are labelled as "urgent", requiring immediate feedback, as the agency struggled to get into place the process for running the postal survey.

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The documents reveal that the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) has a detailed plan for running postal surveys, and that the two bodies are working closely together on delivering the survey.

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The emails indicate that the ABS might have required use of the AEC's printing resources. Which is good as "AEC have a lot of printers"!

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The emails also reveal that marriage equality supporters who work for the ABS were unsure whether they could campaign on the matter. A day after the survey was announced, one staffer asked what the survey meant for ABS staff who wanted to support same-sex marriage.

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The response is redacted (because it would hurt the operation of the ABS, the agency argues) but Samantha Palmer, the general manager of people at the ABS said the agency's purpose is to "inform Australia's important decisions and this is clearly an important policy decision".

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Australian Public Service Commission guidelines state that public servants must not "make public comment that may lead a reasonable person to conclude that they cannot serve the government of the day impartially and professionally". The guidelines make it clear that if you are criticising the work of your agency, that would likely be a breach of the Public Service Act code of conduct.

Unfortunately a lot of the emails are redacted because the ABS reckons to release them would harm the operation of the ABS (and presumably the postal survey).

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We did, however, get a glimpse of (part of) the national anthem survey form from 1974, when the government got the ABS to survey the public about which song should be our national anthem. This document was sent around internally at the ABS to give workers a sense of what a postal survey looked like.

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Josh Taylor is a Senior Reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney.

Contact Josh Taylor at josh.taylor@buzzfeed.com.

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