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Dr Knuckles: The ‘survey’ that should never have happened

Posted by ReBelle Blogger on

It is about 5 minutes to 10 on a Wednesday morning and a bunch of colleagues are huddled around a television throwing out numbers.


I offered “65.”

The room goes silent as we listen to a boffin from the Australian Bureau of Statistics take what seems like forever to get to the point. The anxiety in the room is palpable.

“Hurry the fuck up!” someone yells… Ok, it was me.

It was at this point the realisation dawns that perhaps the yes vote won’t win. After all, a survey like this is an anomaly in Australian politics.

After the shocks of Brexit and Trump, could our predictions of a yes success be wrong? None in the hivemind of political scientists watching that television saw those clusterfucks coming.

We don’t do non-compulsory voting in Australia – the polling data could be off.

The last time we had a plebiscite it was for the national anthem in 1977, and the nation royally cocked that up.

As it was with the elections in the US and UK, it would all depend upon turnout. Did the youth come out? Did people decide to boycott?

Nearly 80% of the population had their say, we’re informed. High youth turnout we discover. Collective sigh of relief.

Finally, finally, the bureaucrat reveals – 61.6% of the survey respondents voted yes to marriage equality. We cheer, hug and go back to work.

I reflect that not for the first time, I overestimated the Australian public. But it’s a good number and the rest of the data leaves no room for conservatives to delegitimise the survey or the result. I find smug satisfaction in the fact that Tony Abbott’s threshold of over 40% of no responses constituting a ‘moral victory’ was not reached.

All states voted in favour. Only 17 of 150 lower house electorates voted no, mostly in Western Sydney, and mostly Labor heartland. But those Labor representatives are going to vote yes.

This throws up all sorts of questions about the nature of representation in this country. Are our representatives trustees, elected on the basis of their values? Or are they delegates, elected to carry out the will of their constituents? Who, then, are their constituents: the nation, the state, or their electorate?

In my home electorate of McMillan, a conservative rural seat held by oft-described ‘Moderate Liberal’ Russell Broadbent, the result was a resounding yes. Broadbent, a long-time backbencher, had previously caught national attention for his brave albeit sporadic stances against brutal government policies against asylum seekers under the Howard and Abbott/Turnbull governments. Despite the yes result, he is voting no. So much for ‘Moderate Liberal’.

Others are more predictably voting no – Senator Cory ‘born with a silver spoon up his rear end’ Bernardi is obviously voting no, despite South Australia saying yes. (Thanks to Jacqui Lambie for that description; after she called him on ‘arsehole’ on national TV. Bless.)

Others are surprisingly voting yes – the demented Robocop that is Peter Dutton is following the lead of his electorate.

The real conceptual problem is this: if we say representatives should follow the will of their constituents – i.e Broadbent should vote yes – then to be philosophically coherent, the Labor reps in Western Sydney would be obliged to vote no.

In the end, the survey lasted some excruciating two months – longer than the last election campaign. People were left traumatised by a nasty campaign. People suffered; the blows were brutal.

At $100 million, the ABS came $20 million under budget. $100 million, just like that. How irresponsible.

And for what – so parliamentarians could avoid doing what they’re paid to do? With a non-binding survey, conducted without any sense of whether representatives would follow the result, or even any clear sense of how they should follow the result in the cases where the national, state and local electorate results didn’t match.

There was public joy and relief about the result. But, at the same time, much of the joy seemed tempered, muted even: it’s hard for the victory to feel like a victory when the survey should never have happened in the first place.

And the real fight is just beginning. The battlelines have already been drawn in the shape of the bill. Terms like ‘religious freedom’ or ‘religious equality’ are being bandied about without much critical interrogation into the disingenuous and obfuscatory use of these concepts.

On the Thursday after the result, ‘Silver Spoon Arse’ wreaked havoc in the Senate, introducing all sorts of ideologically-driven motions around censoring the anti-domestic violence organisation White Ribbon and limiting Medicare access to abortions. Expect to see more of this in the future as the conservatives rally their base.  

- Dr Knuckles

Photos: Nat Rowe


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