Recently, Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull announced a postal plebiscite on the issue of same-sex marriage, and you may be wondering to yourself how exactly this will affect you and what social changes may come about as a result.
A plebiscite is a vote put out to the public by the government on an important public issue, as a way for them to gain an insight into the public’s views. It is relatively uncommon with Australia’s last plebiscite occurring in 1977 on the issue of our national anthem. In this case, the issue is same-sex marriage and whether or not it should be legalised in Australia. Given that this is such a prevalent issue which has been debated relentlessly throughout society, a plebiscite appears to be ground-breaking in Australia’s progress towards marriage equality. However, there are a few aspects of this postal plebiscite that distinguish it from voting as we know it in Australia and questions its effectiveness in enacting change.
Firstly, while anyone who is registered on the Commonwealth Electoral Roll is eligible to vote, the vote itself is not compulsory and no penalties will be issued to people who choose not to vote. This means that the results of the vote may not be indicative of the entire population and their opinion. Further, given the nature of postal votes, there is also no guarantee that someone else has not filled in another person’s ballot.
The results of the vote is not in itself, legally binding. Instead, the government has stated that a ‘Yes’ vote will simply mean that they will allow a private member’s bill to be introduced to the House of Representatives. This bill would then have to undergo the process of a normal bill, with discussions and possible amendments, and there is no guarantee that it will be accepted by the Senate or Governor-General and become law.
High Court Challenge
There has been arguments that the plebiscite itself is against the Constitution in the way it is being funded and the information it is collecting. Several challenges have been put out and the High Court is set to hear and decide on them a week before the votes are due to be posted out. There are several key issues that will be determined:
- No legislation was passed in Parliament which required the plebiscite or granted the $122 million funding from taxpayer’s money which this plebiscite is estimated to cost. This questions whether Malcolm Turnbull actually had the power to announce the vote.
- The plebiscite is being run by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) whose power is technically to collect facts and statistics rather than opinions. As a result, they lack the proper legislative framework regarding voting which affects aspects including advertising and voting eligibility, questioning the legality of the vote.
While many marriage equality advocates, including former High Court Judge Michael Kirby, are opposing the postal plebiscite and its effectiveness, if the High Court does not deem it illegal and allows it to go ahead, it may be beneficial to get the votes of as many eligible Australians as possible. Discussions in Parliament from the introduction of a private member bill is a progressive step towards equality compared to Parliament’s approach in the past.
To vote, ensure that you are enrolled by Thursday 24 August 2017. The postal votes will start being sent out from Tuesday 12 September 2017 (if it has not been deemed illegal by the High Court). All forms must be returned by Tuesday 7 November 2017 with the results being released on Wednesday 15 November 2017.
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