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  • Writer's pictureHannah Phillips

The Government to Hold a Postal Plebiscite

At the Liberal Party room meeting on Monday the government decided to adopt an approach first expressed by Stephen Dawson, writing in ‘Catallaxy Files’, that the government could hold a plebiscite without the need for legislation simply by having the Australian Bureau of Statistics conduct a survey of all Australians over 18.

Under the Census and Statistics Act of 1905, the Statistician can be directed to hold a census on matters specified in Section 9 of the Act.

Among the matters specified is “marriage”.

Section 10 of the Act empowers the Statistician to implement the logistics for the census.

The Statistician also has the power to make the responses compulsory under Section 14 but the government decided to eschew this option.

In the circumstances the government was sensible to adopt this course of action.

It presented the Parliament with the option of a full plebiscite but, on Wednesday morning, this was voted down 31 to 31 in the Senate.

As a consequence postal ballot papers will be distributed on September 12 with a return date of November 7.

In the event that there is a majority ‘yes’ vote then the government will facilitate a private member’s bill and allow a free vote.

There will be no government funding for either the ‘yes’ case or the ‘no’ case and the Prime Minister has indicated that, although he will be voting yes in the plebiscite, he will not be campaigning.

The Labor Party has yet to determine whether it will actively campaign or boycott the plebiscite.

So far it’s been vociferous in its attempts to discredit the vote as a gauge of Australian public opinion.

Its argument is that critical cohorts will be disenfranchised by the fact that the poll is being conducted by snail mail however the argument that people under 25 will be physically and intellectually incapable of completing a postal ballot seems frankly absurd.

If young people don’t vote it will be because they are apathetic.

The marriage equality lobby will launch a High Court challenge next week.

The challenge appears to be based on two grounds: firstly that the plebiscite represents an excess of power on the part Australian Bureau of Statistics and it is not the collection of statistics; and, secondly, that the use of Finance Minister’s special fund is unconstitutional because it is not a special appropriation for the purpose.

Since the first application is for an interlocutory injunction it’s likely there will be a quick decision.

In the event that the poll goes ahead and there is a high turnout then, even if it’s deemed unconstitutional after the event, it will have enormous influence.

When it’s considered that the current President of France was elected on the votes of just over 30% of the eligible voters, the threshold is not particularly high.

A return of 50% will be compelling.

Kate Critchley

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