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Helen Sidhu: Majority view on marriage unknown

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In all the emotion over the outcome of the postal survey on Wednesday, the media has presented a largely inaccurate version of the facts. It has been claimed by almost all commentators that an overwhelming majority of Australians voted ‘yes’. This is incorrect.

As Archbishop Fisher pointed out in his statement on the result of the survey, far from being an overwhelming majority that voted ‘yes’, the ‘yes’ vote did not even receive a bare majority of the eligible votes. Only 48 per cent of eligible voters actually voted ‘yes’.

There was of course a ‘yes’ majority in terms of those who did actually vote, and this outcome has been used to claim that Australians overwhelming voted for change. But this was not a compulsory vote, which is what the Coalition had promised. One of the key strengths of a compulsory vote is that by requiring all eligible Australians to vote it actually gives us a definitive incontrovertible outcome. Voluntary voting does not.

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Informal voting rates in state and federal elections tend to be around 2-3%; in the postal survey the no participation rate or informal vote was approximately 20%. Sufficient consideration has not been given to what this means with regard to the outcome of the survey.

What should have been made clear from the outset of the voluntary survey is that to carry the day the ‘yes’ campaign actually had to achieve a majority outcome among all eligible voters. This is because in Australia we have a compulsory system of voting, and with regard to social change the onus is not on getting a majority to defend the current legislative position (a majority ‘no’ vote) but rather in getting a majority of eligible voters to support changing the current legal arrangements, a majority ‘yes’ outcome among eligible voters. This has clearly not happened.

Indeed a decision not to vote, in a voluntary voting situation, can only be taken as a decision not to vote for change. These individuals had not been convinced that change is urgent or necessary.

This is why constitutional amendments are so difficult to pass, because compulsory voting forces everyone to actually go to the voting booth. Australians are naturally conservative, they do not like change, so they have to be thoroughly convinced to vote for change. This rarely happens.

It is of course important to acknowledge that the ‘yes’ side got more actual votes than the ‘no’ side – roughly 7,800,000 to 4,800,000. However, by not mandating a compulsory vote the government allowed for the possibility of there not actually being a majority outcome of eligible voters, of which there are 16,000,000. Roughly 3,300,000 eligible voters chose not to return their ballots.

Political representatives and commentators should stop claiming that an overwhelming or even a basic majority of Australians voted for changing the legal definition of marriage. They can of course claim that a majority of those who actually voted did vote for change, but this was not a majority of Australians (in terms of eligible voters). However, we can equally claim that a majority of Australians did not vote for change. In other words, a majority of Australians clearly want to retain the current legal definition of marriage. This is not playing semantics or stretching the truth: it is a clear statement about the outcome.

Any attempt to claim a majority of Australians support legally redefining marriage is patently false. Let’s have clear reasoned debate on this important issue, and be honest about the actual outcome. This is not the time for emotion filled responses that clearly misrepresent the actual statistical outcome.

The lack of a majority support among eligible voters for changing the marriage act is a very significant outcome for the ‘no’ campaign. Given all the time and resources that the ‘yes’ campaign has had over the last 10 years and to actually not get an overwhelming outcome shows that the support within the Australian community is clearly not there.

To make the above assessment is not sour grapes, being disingenuous or seeking to spoil the party as such. It is simply looking to the actual facts of the outcome and clearly stating what has happened. The battle over the legal definition of marriage is not over. It is only just beginning.

– Helen Sidhu

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