Hi. Do you have questions about Australia's upcoming postal survey on same-sex marriage? Same.
BuzzFeed News has the answers to the most common questions people are asking about the postal survey. We will update this post frequently as more information comes to light.
We've split the questions up into: a) postal survey logistics; b) the High Court challenge against the survey; and c) the political background. We won't be including day-to-day coverage of the postal survey in this post, unless it pertains to a direct answer to a common question.
If you have a question you'd like us to answer, or have noticed something interesting happening around the postal vote in your neck of the woods, email email@example.com.
POSTAL SURVEY LOGISTICS
I'm just after the bare bones. What dates do I need to be aware of?
So far, the government has provided the following dates:
- Enrol or update your details by August 24.
- Survey forms sent out from September 12.
- Survey forms likely to arrive at houses between September 22-25.
- You can request replacement material if it is lost or spoiled, up until 6pm on October 11.
- Australians "strongly encouraged" to return forms by October 27.
- Last date to return forms is November 7.
- Result announced on November 15.
How can I make sure that I get to vote?
Enrol or check that your details are up to date with the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) here. Look, everyone's doing it:
What question will we be answering?
"Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?"
Do I have to vote?
No. Unlike usual Australian elections or referendums, the postal survey is voluntary and you will not be fined for not voting.
Who is running the Yes and No campaigns?
In the Yes camp, expect to see: The Equality Campaign; Australian Marriage Equality; Getup; just.equal; Pflag; the Labor Party; the Australian Greens; and unions. Plus, former swimming star Ian Thorpe!
In the No camp, expect to see: The Anglican and Catholic churches; the Australian Christian Lobby; Marriage Alliance; the Australian Marriage Forum; and the Australian Family Association. They are under the new umbrella organisation "The Coalition for Marriage". Plus, former prime minister John Howard!
Why are you calling it a postal survey? Isn't it a vote? What happened to the "plebiscite"?
This is...complicated, and largely because it is being run by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), not the AEC. The "postal survey" language is taken directly from the Australian Bureau of Statistics memorandum. Legally, it is a survey, because the ABS only has the authority to collect data from Australians, not to run a vote or an election. And it is being run via the post, therefore, "postal survey".
Hang on. Why is the ABS running the vote and not the AEC?
We have put this question to the government on two occasions and not received a direct response. So who can say, right? But here is some commentary that offers interpretations in Fairfax Media and The Conversation and on the ABC.
If it's being run by the ABS, rather than the AEC, does that mean the responses will be demographically weighted according to the population?
No. Finance minister Mathias Cormann advised BuzzFeed News that responses would be counted on a one person, one vote basis.
If the Yes vote wins, will same-sex marriage be legal?
It's not quite that simple. A bill still needs to pass the parliament for same-sex marriage to become legal, no matter what kind of vote/survey is held ahead of it.
If a Yes vote is returned, the government will allow its MPs a conscience vote (meaning they can vote however they like) on a private members' bill for same-sex marriage. Many governments MPs have pledged to follow the result of the postal survey, but others have said they will ignore it or just use it as a guide.
Given the numbers in the parliament, it is very likely — but not guaranteed — that a same-sex marriage bill would pass the parliament if the government allowed a conscience vote.
What if the No vote wins?
If the No vote wins, the government will not allow a conscience vote on a bill for same-sex marriage and continue to block any legislation for same-sex marriage coming forward.
It's worth noting here that Labor has said it will legislate for same-sex marriage within 100 days of winning government even in the event of a No vote.
How will the results be reported?
On November 15 we will discover the yes/no/invalid count for a) the country; b) federal electorates; and c) states and territories.
Remember, if it's "yes", government MPs can vote on this issue in parliament however they like — so some may vote according to their electorate, others by state/territory, others by the national vote, and others still according to their beliefs about marriage.
We will also get a participation rate breakdown by age and gender.
How would a "yes" vote be successful?
If it achieves 50% + 1, nationally. Referendum rules (a majority of votes in a majority of states required) do not apply.
Will Australians get to see the same-sex marriage bill before taking part in the postal survey?
No. Mathias Cormann told BuzzFeed News the legislation would be considered after the vote and that "the question is self-explanatory". However, groups on both sides of the debate are unhappy about this and want the legislation to be released so they know the extent of religious exemptions that might be proposed. (This is essentially the bakers-baking-a-gay-wedding-cake debate.)
How much is the postal survey costing taxpayers?
Will taxpayer money be spent on the Yes and No campaigns?
The government is not officially funding the Yes and No campaigns. However...there is a loophole that allows politicians to use their electoral office budgets to print material supporting either campaign, and politicians on both sides have already told BuzzFeed News they plan to use it. You can read more about that here.
Will it be a reply paid envelope?
Will there be regulations around advertising?
Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull laid out the protections the postal vote would be subject to in Question Time earlier this month:
"The protections that will be in place for the postal plebiscite will include all the protections under the telecommunications legislation, which makes it an offence to tamper with the mail. It will be covered by the protections under the Census and Statistics Act, which makes it an offence to provide false or misleading statements. And, of course, the Criminal Code itself contains multiple offences which would prohibit a person from interfering with the collection of statistics, including making it an offence to obstruct, hinder, intimidate or resist a Commonwealth official in the performance of their functions."
But, it currently doesn't have the protections contained in the Electoral Act, which prevent the distribution of misleading or deceptive material, and require advertisements to be authorised, among other things. Finance minister Mathias Cormann has distributed a bill to Labor and crossbenchers that would see the electoral protections around the postal survey broadened. Labor and the Greens have said they will consider the legislation — so stay tuned.
Are there any options for voting that don't involve filling out a paper form?
Yes, but only in particular circumstances. If you a) are overseas during the survey; b) have a disability that makes filling out a paper form difficult or impossible; or c) live in a remote location where posting or picking up a form is not feasible, you can access the PAPERLESS RESPONSE OPTION.
This involves requesting a "Secure Access Code" from the ABS from September 25 to October 20. You can then use that code to respond to the survey by phone or online.
Are there any options for voting that don't involve posting the paper form?
Yes. There will be pick-up locations in every capital city, plus in some regional and remote locations, where people who can't receive the survey by post can collect and/or return survey forms to the ABS.
We don't know where these locations are yet, but the ABS will publish them on its website at some point.
I'm an overseas voter. What should I do?
If you will be overseas for the entire duration of the survey, you have two options: get a "trusted authorised person" to receive the form, fill it out and return it for you; or use the paperless response option (see above).
No survey forms will be posted overseas.
If you decide to go the trusted authorised person route, here's how you do it: Do NOT change your regular electoral roll address to that of your trusted person. (The AEC wants to keep the addresses as accurate as possible for elections.)
Instead, call the postal survey hotline on 1800 572 113 (open 8am to 8pm, Australian local time) or, if you are outside of Australia, call +61 2 6252 5262. Via these lines, you can register an "event address" with the ABS, and your survey form will be sent to that address.
If you decide to go the paperless response option, here's how you do it: Call the postal survey hotline or visit the ABS website between September 25 and October 20 and request a secure access code. You'll then be able to use that code to respond to the survey via phone or the ABS website (details to come).
I live in a remote Indigenous community. How will I be able to fill in the survey?
People living in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities will be able to:
- Use the paperless response option.
- Collect and return a survey form at a pick-up location.
- Use a trusted authorised person who has access to the postal system to fill out the survey form for them.
Material about the survey will also be translated into a number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages — you can find these on the ABS website, at pick-up locations, and distributed in existing networks.
So, hang on. How will my trusted authorised person be able to tell the ABS survey form envelope (which I want them to open) apart from my regular mail (which I don't)?
The ABS said the envelope will be "clearly identifiable" as the postal survey. The ABS will also circulate the envelope design ahead of time, so people know what to look out for.
I don't speak English well, or I know someone who doesn't speak English well. Will the survey be in multiple languages?
The survey itself will be in English only. The Translation and Interpreter Service (TIS) is available to help Australians who don't speak English.
On the reverse side of a letter sent out with the survey, there will be instructions in 15 different languages for contacting TIS. Any person who doesn't speak English well, or at all, can call TIS, and TIS will hook them up on a three-way call with an interpreter and the postal survey hotline, so they can ask questions about the survey or how to fill out the form.
The form will also use basic language to accommodate people with a lower level of speaking or reading English.
I am in some other kind of complicated voting situation. Help?
Read the ABS' "Special Strategies to support participation" information sheet here. It has further information on the questions above, and addresses these scenarios: living in remote areas; travelling or working overseas; experiencing homelessness; residing in other territories (such as Norfolk Island); in residential aged care; with culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds; and those in the Australian Government personnel serving overseas.
If you're still baffled, there is a dedicated information line for the postal survey. You can call 1800 572 113 with questions, seven days a week, from 8am–8pm AEST.
I'm a silent elector. Will I be posted a survey form?
Silent electors are people who do not have their addresses listed on the electoral roll for personal or safety reasons. This group includes prominent people such politicians, judges and celebrities and victims of domestic violence or stalking.
There was initially some confusion over how silent electors would participate in the survey, because their addresses can't be provided to the ABS under the law. On August 16, the ABS clarified that the AEC would send out the forms to silent electors and that the ABS would not have access to the addresses at any time.
So: if you're a silent elector, you WILL be mailed a form, but by the AEC, not the ABS.
My dog ate my ballot paper. Can I get another one?
Yes. You can request a replacement ballot if yours has been lost or spoilt. You have to do this by 6pm on October 18, and details of how to request one will be posted on the ABS website once they figure out how the process will actually work.
If you never receive your survey, or think it may have been stolen, you can report this to the ABS and they will cancel the barcode and issue you a new one — as long as its before October 18.
I saw an article saying 16- and 17-year-olds might be able to vote. Can they?
The short answer: no.
The long answer: Some people speculated that treasurer Scott Morrison accidentally enfranchised 16 and 17 year olds in his first directive to the ABS, which defined an "elector" as a person who:
(a) enrolled on the Commonwealth electoral roll at the end of 24 August 2017; or
(b) who has made a valid application for enrolment on the Commonwealth electoral roll before the end of 24 August 2017.
The (very short version of the) theory goes that 16- and 17-year-olds can make valid applications to be on the electoral roll before turning 18. They just can't vote in elections — but there's nothing saying they can't vote in a postal survey. You can read the long version of the theory here in an excellent blog post by Stephen Murray.
The AEC and Cormann watered down the speculation, saying it was not correct because 16- and 17-year-olds are only "provisionally" enrolled until they turn 18.
However, several people with legal and/or electoral experience maintained that the government and the AEC made a mistake, and that the directive as it stood definitely allowed those aged 16 and 17 to vote in the postal survey. Again, Murray laid out the legal case here on his blog.
Due to the ongoing pressure, the government issued a new directive on August 16 using more precise language about who is allowed to take part in the survey. Sorry teens.
I turn 18 after August 24 but before the survey is due back on November 7. Can I vote?
I regret to inform you that you can't. The latest directive from the ABS says that only people who have turned 18 by August 24 will be included on the roll.
This is different to a usual election, in which people who are still 17 when the roll closes but have turned 18 by the day of the election can vote.
The question uses the words "same-sex couples". Will people who have an X marker on their passports, or who identify as non-binary, genderqueer, or otherwise outside of the male/female binary be allowed to marry if there is a Yes vote?
Ultimately, this depends on the legislation that is passed after the vote. The question in the postal survey is not what will actually change the law — so if you're currently barred from marrying, but the phrase "same-sex couple" doesn't apply to your relationship, don't fret yet.
If there is a Yes vote, what is likely to happen based on recent bills put forward is that the Marriage Act would replace the words "a man and a woman" with the words "two people". This would mean any two people of any gender or sex could marry.
However: this is an educated guess at what the legislation would look like, not a guarantee.
Can I put glitter in my return envelope?
You probably shouldn't. The ABS has warned that any extra material in the envelope other than the survey response will be destroyed and "due to processing machinery or possible contamination, may result in the survey form also being destroyed and therefore not processed".
Can I write a message or draw a dick/love heart/something else on my ballot?
You can — as long as you have a "clearly legible" mark in either the "yes" or "no" box. We don't have exact guidelines about where the line falls here in terms of what is "clearly legible", but for goodness' sake use your common sense. If it's not clear whether you're voting "yes" or "no", your vote might get chucked out.
Will my response to the survey be anonymous?
Sort of. The ABS will send out reply-paid envelopes to every Australian on the electoral roll with a single-use, unique barcode.
When you send your response back to the ABS, they'll scan in that barcode to mark you off the roll, separate out your response, which is stored/linked only to the federal electorate you are registered to vote in. The ABS has said that those who are checking off the people the roll as responses come in won't be able to see the name, or any identifying details, of the people they're crossing off, nor the response they've given.
HIGH COURT CHALLENGE
Look can I just get a 101 on this?
Of course. The postal survey is currently subject to two legal challenges in the High Court, both brought by supporters of same-sex marriage who object to the national vote. Broadly speaking, the challenges argue that the government does not have the power to spend money on the postal survey without passing legislation, and that the ABS does not have the authority to collect the information the government is asking it to.
If the court decides in favour of the legal challenges, there will be no postal survey and the government will not allow same-sex marriage legislation to come forward. If it decides in favour of the government, the postal survey will go full steam ahead.
What are the important dates?
The two cases will be heard together by the full bench of the High Court on September 5 and 6. The hearing is scheduled to run for a day and a half.
There have already been two directions hearings — one on August 11 and another on August 17.
When will we know the result?
At or after the hearing on September 6.
Isn't that date awfully close to September 12, when the ballots will be posted out?
It is! I wish I had more to type to reassure you, but I don't. The timeframe is just super tight.
OK I want to know more. Who is involved in the cases?
The two suits are known as M105 and M106 (this is the number the court assigns to the cases after they are filed).
The litigants, or plaintiffs, in M105 are independent MP Andrew Wilkie, Shelley Argent from Pflag, and Victorian mum-of-three Felicity Marlowe, represented by the Public Interest Advocacy Centre. Their lead barrister is Ron Merkel QC.
The defendants in M105 are the Commonwealth of Australia, finance minister Mathias Cormann, treasurer Scott Morrison, the Australian Statistician and the Electoral Commissioner.
The litigants in M106 are advocacy group Australian Marriage Equality and Greens senator Janet Rice, represented by the Human Rights Law Centre. Their lead barrister is Katherine Richardson QC.
The defendants in M106 are Cormann and the Australian Statistician.
What are the legal arguments?
Normally, in order to spend money, the government has to pass legislation through the parliament. This rule exists so the government can't go mad with power and spend all Australia's taxpayer money with no checks and balances.
In this case, the Senate rejected the plebiscite twice — so in normal circumstances, the government could not spend money on it. However, there are some special circumstances under which the government can spend money without passing legislation. In this case, the government is using a section of the Appropriations Act called the Advance to the Finance Minister:
This allows Cormann to allocate up to $295 million for expenditure that is urgent and unforeseen.
Some of the issues likely to be raised and contested in court include:
- Whether the postal survey counts as an "urgent" and "unforeseen" event.
- Whether the government has exceeded its executive powers.
- The definition of "statistical information" and whether it includes people's opinions about same-sex marriage.
- The powers of the ABS more broadly.
What does the government say?
The government says it is very confident that it has the power to conduct the vote. Its precedent? A telephone survey of 60,000 Australians about the national anthem in the '70s.
In 1974, the Whitlam government commissioned the ABS to survey 60,000 Australians about what the national anthem should be and whether it should be changed. Inexplicably, just over half endorsed changing it to Advance Australia Fair.
But the fun fact here is after Advance Australia Fair was picked, the Fraser government after Whitlam changed it back to God Save the Queen and then eventually let everyone have a vote on it in 1977...in a national plebiscite.
Um, OK. So what has happened in the directions hearings so far?
On August 11, the parties in M105 and M106 came to an agreement about what happens between now and the actual hearing. Both challenges had filed injunctions, meaning they had requested the court to order the ABS to stop preparing for the postal survey. But the court heard that everyone had agreed the injunction wasn't necessary if the High Court granted a hearing before September 12 — which it did.
In return, the Australian Statistician agreed that the ABS would not post out any ballots or ask Australians for information on the issue until September 12. But it can still prepare for the vote — organising lists, printing ballots, etc — so if the challenge fails, the postal survey can go right ahead. Kiefel also set out the dates for the hearings ahead.
On August 17, we discovered that the government will be "taking a point of standing". This means it will contest whether the plaintiffs in M105 and M106 have the right to bring the legal action. In order to have the right to bring legal action, the plaintiffs have to demonstrate a special interest in the case, which can be proved in a number of different ways.
If the court finds that the plaintiffs do have standing, the government will argue that its use of funds is legal and that the ABS does have the authority to collect people's opinions about marriage.
I am a huge, huge nerd and want to read the submissions.
What happens to the money the government has already spent on the postal survey if the High Court strikes it down?
We asked Cormann if it would somehow have to be paid back, or if there would be consequences. He said:
"The Government is confident that we have the constitutional power and statutory authority to proceed with the Australian Marriage Law Survey as proposed. This is now a matter for the High Court. But clearly, the money that is spent has been spent."
Australia is holding a voluntary postal vote on same-sex marriage...how did we get here?
The plebiscite policy originally came out of a six-hour emergency joint party room meeting called by then prime minister Tony Abbott in August 2015. It came after heightened debate on the issue of same-sex marriage in Australia, and growing pressure on the government to take action.
At the time, the policy was announced in rather vague terms of going to the people on same-sex marriage, rather than specifically as a plebiscite, referendum, survey, or something else.
Although Turnbull argued against the plebiscite at the time — instead advocating a free parliamentary vote on the vexed issue — he adopted the policy when he became prime minister in September that year.
The government took the plebiscite to the 2016 election and won. It attempted to pass it through the parliament, but it was defeated in the Senate in November 2016 by a coalition of Labor, Greens and crossbench senators.
Their reasons for voting it down included the $160 million price tag, the fact the vote would not be binding on the parliament, the negative effects of an ugly debate on LGBTI people, and the question of why Australia would have a national vote on same-sex marriage, but no other contentious piece of policy.
Since the bill failed in the Senate, same-sex marriage has plagued the government and at times been a serious distraction from its agenda.
Several moderate Liberal MPs have suggested the doomed plebiscite be dropped from the platform and a free vote be held. At the same time, ministers — most notably Peter Dutton — wanted the issue to go away, and so canvassed a plebiscite run through the post which would not need legislation to be passed through the parliament.
Throughout July and early August speculation mounted, and eventually Turnbull called another emergency party room meeting — this time just the Liberal Party — to discuss a new path forward.
At this meeting and a joint party room meeting the next morning, the government determined it would try one more time to pass the compulsory attendance plebiscite through the Senate, and if that failed, it would hold a postal survey on the issue conducted by the ABS.
The plebiscite legislation indeed failed in the Senate a second time on Wednesday August 9 — and here we are.
Why are so many people — especially in the LGBT community — so fervently opposed to a national plebiscite/vote/survey on marriage?
Here are some of the most common reasons:
- Some believe it is fundamentally wrong to hold a public vote on whether certain citizens have the right to marry.
- Some believe that using a national vote to determine this issue is a worrying departure from Australia's usual system of representative democracy, and could set a dangerous precedent for other national votes.
- Some believe that holding a national vote just on same-sex marriage and no other issue unfairly singles out LGBT people.
- Some fear that a public campaign would be divisive, hurtful and even harmful to vulnerable LGBT people.
- Some take issue with the fact the vote is non-binding, allowing government MPs to vote however they like regardless of the result.
- Some take issue with the cost.
Two weeks ago, everyone was talking about a group of five Liberal MPs crossing the floor and legalising same-sex marriage. Is that still an option?
It's technically still an option, but BuzzFeed News understands the five MPs in question have decided to lie low for a while following their decisive defeat in the party room last week.
If you're still interested in how the whole crossing the floor process would work, you can read a full explanation here.
When was the last time the parliament voted on same-sex marriage?
In 2012 under the Labor government. Labor MP Stephen Jones brought forward a private members' bill, which failed in the House of Representatives 98–42.
Labor MPs had a conscience vote on the issue. The Coalition didn't, meaning frontbenchers had to vote against same-sex marriage or they'd lose their job, but backbenchers were free to cross the floor (none did).
PM at the time, Julia Gillard, voted against the bill. You can see how other MPs voted here.
The next day, a vote on a different same-sex marriage bill also failed in the Senate, 41–26. You can see the votes here.
People talk a lot about how many times the parliament has considered same-sex marriage. How many times, exactly?
That depends on what you mean by "considered", but here are some answers to the various interpretations:
Same-sex marriage bills introduced to the parliament: 20.
Same-sex marriage bills voted on in either house: 3.
Same-sex marriage bills voted on with a conscience vote for all parliamentarians: 0.
Lane Sainty is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney, Australia.
Contact Lane Sainty at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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