A nationwide vote on marriage equality could cost the economy up to $525 million — way up from the $158 million estimated by the Australian Electoral Commission.
Modelling by auditing firm Price Waterhouse Coopers found a plebiscite on same-sex marriage - the option preferred by the Turnbull government - would cost way more than initially planned and have a significant impact on LGBT people's mental health.
The modelling found a standalone plebiscite held after the federal election is by far the most expense of three options; the other two being a parliamentary vote on the reform or a plebiscite held at the same time as the upcoming federal election.
The PwC report found a standalone plebiscite would cost taxpayers $158 million for the actual vote, plus $66 million for the community to fund the “for” and “against” campaigns and $281 million in lost productivity as people take time out to vote.
It also found the associated costs of a potentially divisive campaign would have an impact on the mental health and wellbeing of Australian citizens worth $20 million.
“Arguments opposing marriage equality in the media and community forums will have an impact on mood disorders and mental health of LGBTI people. This will be devastating for a segment of the community already more susceptible to mental health issues as a result of discrimination,” PwC partner Suzi Russell-Gilford said.
Of the other two options, a plebiscite held alongside the federal election would cost $117 million, and a simple parliamentary vote would cost just $17 million, PwC found.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has stuck to his party's policy of holding a plebiscite on marriage equality after the next election, despite passionately speaking against the idea before he became prime minister.
The Labor opposition favours a parliamentary vote on the reform, and has pledged to legislate marriage equality within 100 days should it win the election due to be held in the second half of this year.
PwC Australia CEO Luke Sayers said the modelling shows the plebiscite will be a drain on the economy.
“It’s clear from these findings that a standalone plebiscite on marriage equality is a massive waste of time and money that will remove focus on the economy, growth and jobs which is the real priority for Australia”.
“The mechanism chosen to make this change is vital to minimise the cost to the economy and health and wellbeing of our communities”.
“Our modelling points to a parliamentary vote as the best mechanism for change.”
The report also points to serious concerns for the mental health of LGBT Australians from a divisive, months-long campaign.
LGBTI Australians already have significantly higher levels of psychological distress and mental health issues than the rest of the population, and are three times more likely to contemplate suicide.
The recent debate over Safe Schools has already seen a spike in calls to support services for young LGBT Australians, and the PwC report expects this trend to continue during if a campaign on marriage equality is needed.
“A plebiscite will be a high profile, national, public debate that will likely extend over a number of months. Evidence reviewed for this study shows the attention that arguments opposing marriage equality received in the media and in community forums during a referendum have an impact on mood disorders and mental health and wellbeing of people from the LGBTI community,” the report states.
“For a segment of the community already more susceptible to mental health issues as a result of discrimination, the discussion of marriage equality opponents’ opinions may further exacerbate health outcomes.”
Rob Stott is a news editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney.
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