The government has not told the Australian Electoral Commission to stop preparing for a plebiscite on same-sex marriage in February next year, despite the fact that the legislation is doomed to fail in the Senate.
During a Senate estimates hearing on Tuesday night, Australian electoral commissioner Tom Rogers told senators he had received no instructions from the government to cease preparations.
Although prime minister Malcolm Turnbull remains optimistic about the chances of the plebiscite going ahead, 40 senators have pledged to vote against it – two more than the 38 needed to block legislation.
“Experience tells me that you don’t know what the numbers are until the votes are finally counted," Turnbull said earlier this week.
Planning for the plebiscite is currently underway in the elections branch of the AEC, which consists of 40 people.
Rogers said the branch "prepares for the next election, whenever that may be" and that it is "difficult to unstitch" the specific work being done to plan the plebiscite from the general planning for the next election.
"There's a range of things we need to do," he said. "It would be the same if it was a plebiscite, an election, a referendum, another electoral event."
Rogers said the AEC had not yet made any "large-scale procurement decisions" as part of the plebiscite.
He said mid-December is crunch time for necessary purchases to be made if an 11 February vote – the government's proposed date for the plebiscite – is to go ahead.
"If we don't make those purchasing decisions by, let's say mid-December, that is going to make February 11 a very difficult date for us to meet," he said.
There are three and a half sitting weeks left in the year, with the plebiscite likely to be voted down in the Senate at some point in November.
Some small-scale purchases for the plebiscite – for instance, counterfoil paper to make declaration vote envelopes – have already been made.
Rogers said the cost of purchases already made was in "the very low tens of thousands" and that all items could be used for an election if the plebiscite does not go ahead.
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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