Shopping Cart


Postal survey - did 'yes' really win?

Monday, 20 November 2017  | Byron Smith

The results are in. Over the last two months, around 12.7 million Australians expressed an opinion in the Marriage Law Postal Survey, answering the question ‘Should the law should be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?’. With ‘yes’ receiving 61.6% and ‘no’ 38.4%, the answer may seem clear. Nonetheless, when it comes to Parliament actually legislating marriage reform, interpreting the meaning and relevance of these numbers has become the next contested space in public discourse.

In the following paragraphs, I’m not mounting a case for any particular legislative outcome. I simply want to make a fairly straightforward comment against one line of thought that I’ve noticed becoming somewhat popular in certain segments of social media.

I'm seeing more than a few 'no' supporters arguing that, because 20.5% of eligible voters chose not to participate in an optional survey, therefore the result is ambiguous, or at least somewhat indecisive. The argument goes that 61.6% of those who expressed an opinion said 'yes' and the participation rate was 79.5%, therefore ‘only’ 49% of eligible voters said 'yes' (0.616 x 0.795 = 0.48972).

Now I have all kinds of criticisms of this survey: its necessity, its function in public life, how it was conducted and so on. But anyone claiming the result was less than decisive ought to consider the figures from this survey in light of Australian (and global) electoral history.[1]

First comes the question of whether 79.5% is a high or low turnout for a non-compulsory survey. It is true that federal elections typically see a turnout of 90-95%, but they (a) are compulsory and (b) affect considerably more than a non-binding survey on a particular topic. Prior to voting becoming compulsory, not a single election saw a turnout as high as 79.5%. The highest was 78.3% (1917) and the lowest was 50.3% (1903). Although the recent question took the form of a postal survey, not a plebiscite, by way of comparison it is worth noting that the most recent plebiscite, held in 1977, saw 75% of eligible voters express a preference - and this was on a day where four compulsory referendums were also held. The two plebiscites held on conscription during WWI saw participation rates of 80.1% and 79.1% respectively. The non-compulsory postal ballot for the republican constitutional convention in 1998 had a participation rate of 46.9%. Participation in the survey was as high or higher than most national elections in comparable liberal democracies: for example, the 2017 UK general election (68.8%), 2017 Japanese general election (53.7%), 2017 New Zealand general election (79.8%), 2017 French presidential election (77.8%), 2017 German federal election (76.2%), 2016 US presidential election (between 55% and 60%, depending on methodology),[2] 2015 Canadian general election (68.3%), 2015 UK general election (66.4%) and 2014 US mid-term elections (36.4%). So to see almost 80% respond to a non-binding, non-compulsory survey is a very strong response rate.

But, more importantly, the argument that, because 'yes' fell (just) under 50% of total eligible voters, the result is invalid or inconclusive just doesn't stack up. If we applied the same logic to elections, we would end up with some strange outcomes.

Of the 49 Australian federal elections since federation,[3] only 7 have been won by a party (or coalition of parties) with more than 50% of the two-party preferred (TPP) vote from all eligible voters: 1929, 1931, 1943, 1958, 1966, 1975, 1977. The most recent instance was forty years ago. So, using the logic of disappointed 'no' supporters would mean declaring 42 of 49 federal elections inconclusive/invalid - despite compulsory voting! If we just look at primary votes, there is not a single election that has been won by a party gaining a majority of all eligible voters.

The largest ever victory margin in a federal election was in 1931 and the two-party preferred vote was 58.5% to 41.5%.

Thus, any federal election that won 61.6% to 38.4% on a two-party preferred basis would be the most comprehensive landslide victory since federation.

If we look only at primary votes, then the highest the Labor Party has ever received is 50.9% (1914), the highest the Liberal Party has ever received is 41.8% (1975) and the highest a non-Labor coalition has ever received is 54.3% (1919).

If the result of this survey were treated like a referendum, then it would pass, with the comfortable support of every state and with a strong overall majority.

If the results are calculated by electorate, as they are in a House of Representatives election, then 133 of 150 electorates (88.7%) opted for 'yes'. The most electorates ever won in a federal election was 71.6% in 1975.[4]

In absolute numbers, 'yes' received more support (~7.8m) than either Labor or the Coalition have ever managed at a federal election (the record is ~6.9m on two-party preferred and ~5.9m for primary votes).

Is this a ‘landslide’? Is it an ‘overwhelming’ win? Such terms do not have precise definitions, but both have frequently been used by both sides of politics and media commentators for electoral victories with smaller margins than the opinions just expressed on marriage reform. Whatever else you may think of the result, to claim that this survey was anything other than a very strong and decisive 'yes' to the legalisation of same-sex marriage appears either somewhat delusional or bad faith special pleading.


An interesting tangent/footnote: I note that in 1988 Australia voted on a referendum question offering to enshrine ‘freedom of religion’ in the Constitution. The motion was opposed by many churches and church schools and was roundly defeated 30.8% to 69.2%. Back in 1944, another referendum offering to put freedom of religion into the Constitution was defeated 45% to 54%. And a 1999 referendum that included adding a reference to God in a Preamble to the Constitution was defeated 39.3% to 60.7%. Again, I make no recommendations on the basis of this observation, other than recognising the shift that has occurred amongst many church leaders regarding the desirability of legal recognition of a right to religious freedom.

Photo: 'Yes' rally with Sydney's St Andrew's Cathedral in the background. Source: AAP.

Byron Smith is Assistant Pastor at St George's Anglican, Paddington and has recently completed a PhD in theological ethics.

[1] All the statistics cited here are based on data published by the Australian Parliamentary Library. The Australian Parliament House (APH) also links to the statistics kept by Adam Carr on his extensive database of global electoral results. For those wanting to check numbers quickly, the relevant Wikipedia page does a fine job of presenting the statistics in a readable format. For referendums and plebiscites, the APH website is the primary source. Again, Wikipedia includes the most readily comprehendible and comprehensive table of results.

[2] Since the US does not have a federal electoral commission or its equivalent, getting reliable and consistent statistics on national voting data is not straightforward.

[3] Seven elections have been for the House of Representatives and the full Senate, thirty-two have involved the House and half the Senate, six elections were only for the House, and four were only for half the Senate.

[4] If all the seats in the intended coalition of the UAP and CP from the 1931 election are counted together, then they won 55 of 75 electorates (73.3%), but as the UAP won enough seats to govern in their own right this intended coalition never came to pass.


Fletcher Cole
November 23, 2017, 10:18AM
1. This happening/event was a (irritating) political ploy, dressed up as poorly thought out survey. It was not a plebiscite. It was not an election. We did not vote.

2. From what I could tell, the reasons people responded the way they did seemed to vary enormously (as always in surveys), many of them not germane to the actual issue: the definition of marriage. The exercise seemed to be proxy for venting a whole range of hurts and grievances.

3. To not have returned a response is a response; I know in several cases a well-considered response. Each needs to be given due weight.

4. The sampling frame was the electoral roll. The results should therefore report the percentage of the total frame, not the percentage of total returns. It would be helpful if Someone re-worked the numbers, electorate by electorate, and put it on the public record.

5. Some more detailed analysis, especially of those electorates with relatively high number of 'no' responses, is worth pursuing. According to Mark Dreyfus, Labor politicians in these electorates have no obligation to be guided by the sentiment of their electorate. Rather they are to be guided/obliged but the upcoming mandatory view of the Labor Party. It will be interesting to see what happens at the ballot box the next time around.
Bruce Wearne
November 23, 2017, 10:55AM
Following on from Fletcher Cole:

Yes, the standard of social scientific discussion about the survey tells me, as a qualified PhD in sociology, that in this country sociology, as a university scientific discipline, has failed completely.

The principles enunciated in the famous essay by Max Weber's '"Objectivity" in Social Science and Social Policy' - in which the famous economic historian cum sociologist makes it plain that for science to be science it needs to be kept free of the 'Kaiser principle', State-absolutism - have been completely ignored, not just by parliament but also by social science professionals failing to speak out and by the ABS itself. Appalling.

The ABS survey on all fronts violates the principles of principled (ah there it is!) social surveys. The survey has sent an exocet into social scientific integrity in this country.
Bruce Wearne
November 23, 2017, 7:44PM
Let me add a further comment here:

It is the marriage ceremony's 'monitum' in which the freedom of religion matter is already a battleground. The 'monitum' is a statement that the legislation decrees must be announced when a marriage is conducted by one authorised to do so under the Marriage Act. The 'monitum' informs a wedding couple of the legal expectation of the binding nature of marriage within Australia.

Those advocating the change to the Marriage Act have long been suggesting that the phrase 'lawfully wedded spouse' be made an option alongside of 'lawfully wedded husband' and 'lawfully wedded wife'. That was under the old 'monitum'. 

But how now will a new 'monitum' function under the proposed changes to the Act?

Apparently, according to some civil marriage celebrants, they have long been willing to have those involved in civil marriage ceremonies join in what is an orchestrated promotion of Marriage Equality by which the celebrant has framed the words required by legislation with their own ME-compliant and ME-advocating views, thus saying publicly that they, in effect, repudiate the wording of the lawful requirement as it stands, and which they have only just read out because they are required by law to do so. Apparently that wording is found by some to be offensive to their deeply held beliefs. And so the marriage ceremony could even become a venue of ME-dissent from what the monitum of 2004 required.

The wording goes like this:

'I am duly authorised by law to solemnise marriages according to law. Before you are married in my presence and in the presence of these witnesses, I am to remind you of the solemn and binding nature of the relationship into which you are now about to enter. Marriage, according to the law in Australia, is the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.'

Now of course the big question is how will the 'monitum' appear in the newly legislated Marriage Act. I think there is good reason to argue that there should be various monita. And so, one of the "lawful options", for celebrants reading at a Christian civil wedding ceremony would be:

I am duly authorised by law to solemnise marriages according to law. Before you are married in my presence and in the presence of these witnesses, I am to remind you of the solemn and binding nature of the relationship into which you are now about to enter. Marriage, as the lawful union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life, is recognised as marriage by law in Australia.

then we might see a modicum of due lawful respect in a marriage ceremony that a Christian man and woman want stated in the own wedding ceremony when it is performed as a civil ceremony. Is it not highly likely that some Christian couples may prefer not to have a church or churchy wedding?

The changes to the Marriage Act with respect to the wedding ceremony should not be predicated on the assumption that Christians who wish to be married should go to a church to do so. It is not only a matter of freedom of religion for ministers conducting a wedding in a church, but also freedom of religion for Christian civil celebrants conducting a wedding in a civil ceremony. There is no public justice reason why the law should exclude the possibility of Christian civil celebrants. Moreover, public justice should also be ascribed to Christian couples who wish to be married as husband and wife in a civil ceremony that does not violate their religious beliefs about their marriage.

So we come to the question: what is to prevent a Christian wedding in a civil ceremony?

This then is to expand the rather constricted discussion of freedom of religion with respect to the proposed changes to the Marriage Act. Freedom of religion as discussed thus far has been inordinately about celebrants and religious celebrants. But as I have suggested: what about those seeking to be wed? What about their "freedom of religion" in their wedding?

The question of freedom of religion should extend to freedom to be married as a Christian husband-and-wife in a lawful ceremony wherever that be held... and the change to the Marriage Act should not be forcing people to have to chose between either going to a church or becoming 'secular' by going to a civil celebrant.

This raises the question of whether civil celebrant registration is closed or inclusive. Is it an option only for those who can embrace same-sex marriage?

Is the Parliament going to be prepared to legislate in order to respect prospective husband-and-wife couples who will dissent from allowing their wedding ceremony to give implicit approval to a secularist view of marriage or a State-endorsed mistaken understanding of marriage?

Are we now to see civil liberty enhanced or wound back? Will it be justice for all in a genuine way? Can there be civil marriage celebrants who are religious but are not church-religious (synagogue or mosque)? Will civil celebrants who dissent from 'same-sex marriage' have to invent a denomination for themselves in order to officiate or continue to officiate at weddings?

Is Philip Ruddock going to initiate the breaking of genuinely new ground of civil liberty or are we to say that marriages conducted according to law by civil celebrants are a closed shop, a closed secularist shop? Are we going to continue to flounder around in the confusion that has been our political discussion about marriage for far too long.
Bruce Wearne
November 24, 2017, 9:34AM
And there's a further point here. The Marriage Act is not part of Australian Law simply to regulate a new Civil Celebrant Wedding industry that then has a monopolistic reach.

When previously and long-married husband-and-wife couples, who wish to see marriage as wife-husband union, look at the wording of the Law that also governs THEIR relationship in this polity, they should be able to identify themselves and their union in the explicit wording of the law that also affirms the public-legal maintenance of the distinctive integrity of THEIR vowed wife-and-husband marital union. They should be able to identify themselves qua husband-and-wife as married by reference to the letter of the law and not find their union somehow downgraded because the law as worded now presumes that an unjust view of marriage pertains to their union, i.e. because it was lawfully vowed before the Marriage Act was changed.

Got something to add?

  • Your Comment


Online Resources

subscribe to engage.mail

follow us

Latest Articles