“To the last, I grapple with thee; From Hell’s heart, I stab at thee; For hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee”
In the melodramatic final scenes of the second Star Trek film, The Wrath of Khan, the titular, vengeful, obsessive villain activates the self-destruct sequence on his crippled starship, as Kirk and his crew struggle to limp away from the impending explosion on their similarly damaged craft. He utters that quote, as, with his final action, he inflicts a consequential blow on his adversary.
Khan’s words (from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick) perfectly encapsulate the vengeful instinct of those who have come to terms with the fact they’re on the losing side of a monumental battle. The same emotion seems to be a major component of the recent push from the Australian government to hold a postal survey of Australian citizens, to determine whether there is broad support for the removal of discrimination from our marriage laws.
This could be resolved quickly with a free vote in the parliament, but the government has decided this issue needs to be put to a national vote. A compulsory plebiscite, where everyone votes in a similar fashion to an election, has been twice rejected in parliament, and now, the government has gone ahead with the idea of a postal survey, administrated by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).
This isn’t how a question like this is meant to be resolved, and the fact it’s gotten to this point is a function of the same discriminatory spite contained in the laws themselves. Ivan Hinton-Teoh from Just Equal summarised this neatly, on a recent Guardian podcast:
“We’ve had a 116 years of relatively effective stable, representative democracy and it’s only now when we’re talking about the rights of LGBTI Australians, affording them the same dignity and respect that every other Australian takes for granted, we’re looking at upturning the entire process, creating a new mechanism, saying to LGBTI Australians, ‘No, as a Government, our responsibility every other day of the week is to legislate, but we will only legislate for people other than you”
Forcing Australian citizens to vote on whether they’re allowed to have the same rights as other citizens is historically significant and very unique, but it gets worse, because this concept has been made significantly worse through the new adherence to the idea of a voluntary survey conducted through the postal system. There are a very large number of reasons this is a bad idea:
- The medium of post inherently favours older people, who are also much more likely to vote no. Ian McAllister, political scientist at ANU, told Buzzfeed that “In a non-compulsory, postal plebiscite, you are going to overestimate opposition to same-sex marriage. That is absolutely true”
- Young people are more likely to be overseas. There’s already mass confusion about voting from overseas, with the ABS saying “We have received no information about this at all”
- Young people also move frequently, because they live in rental properties, and have been locked out of the housing market. Many thousands of voters won’t receive their form because they moved out of their home after the cut-off date for enrolment (coming up in days).
- If you’ve moved house since July 25, you won’t be able to register on the electoral roll, because you need to have been at your address for a month. All of these people are excluded from the vote.
- A postal survey run by the ABS might exclude tens of thousands of “silent voters” (people left off the electoral roll for privacy reasons – this includes politicians), because that list is held by the electoral commission, and they’re not meant to give it to anyone.
- Each ballot form won’t have a unique ID – there’s no way of ensuring each enrolled voters gets their form and responds to it. This is done for privacy reasons, but it also means there’s no way of stopping someone sending in the 50 forms they’ve snaffled from up and down the street.
- The Australian Bureau of Statistics collects (as you might expect) statistics about Australians – not their opinions – and this is a major distinction, because the two things require different areas of expertise.
- People who are homeless will find it essentially impossible to participate.
- Indigenous Australians are almost certainly going to be left out, too.
- The result is non-binding on the government – specifically, what that means is that a vote that agrees with conservative values will be strictly adhered to, and a vote that contravenes them will be ignored.
- The vote won’t take place with the usual protections of election law – that means advertising materials with seriously hateful messages don’t need name on them, you can buy other people’s voting papers, you can mislead electors, and there’s no legal recourse to challenge the final outcome of the vote.
- It isn’t compulsory – and any ‘vote’ this isn’t compulsory will have a result skewed from the average, because the two extremes are more compelled to vote, rather than a normal distribution of the population.
- A poll method that is “high involvement” has a far less reliable sample response – “It’s making you have to physically do something and take it to a post box”
It’s fair to assume some of these will be resolved (perhaps next week with new legislation rushed through parliament). I’ve created a Google Sheets file tracking these issues, and summarised them, at the time of writing, in the image below (PDF, Jpg, SVG, High-res PNG).
There will surely be some efforts to rectify some of these, but the core problem will remain: we already know the answer to the question in this survey, with a very, very high degree of certainty.
The number of scientifically valid opinion polls on this question is huge, and each of these polls, with independent methodologies and a range of sampling techniques and sample sizes, reach the same conclusion: the majority of Australians want this change to happen, and have been on that page for quite some time.
Why, then, survey the population with a question for which we already know the answer, using a terrible technique pocked with legal, moral and scientific flaws? If the idea is to ‘give every Australian a say’, a postal survey very specifically fails to do that, as we saw above.
One could argue the government been legislatively forced into this corner, but that doesn’t seem right: an immediate resolution exists with a free vote – one that doesn’t subject the nation to a strange and ugly process. No, this isn’t it. There’s a reason we’ve ended up in this spot, and I think it’s related to Khan.
Poison for progress
This is a moment of unashamed ugliness from far-right conservatives so rarely forced to come to terms with the reality of the electorate – a final infliction of discriminatory harm, as the LGBTI community is forced to decide between participating in a truly sinister performance – watching a country vote for whether you have rights – or boycotting it, and risking a ‘no’ result held aloft by opponents forever.
Forcing this gut-wrenching decision on a community that’s been hurt in so many different ways in recent history is so incredibly poisonous. It’s heartbreaking.
Justice Michael Kirby said “This [campaign] will touch young gay people very closely and will reinforce feelings of low self-worth and feelings their community hates them”. There is no way that me, nor my straight friends and family, can begin to imagine what it’s like having to make a decision like that. We’ll never be subject to a vote of this kind, or at this magnitude of open cruelty.
These red-hot decision points shake civility from people and they inject us with the democratic equivalent of road-rage. This happens in so many contexts – Bec Colvin, an ANU researcher, pointed out she’d seen this effect in a wind development that put a vote to a small King Island community:
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said, “The weakest argument of all [against a plebiscite]….is that the Australian people are not capable of having a respectful discussion on this issue”. This is deeply misleading no matter how you slice groups of Australian people, and it’s incredibly easy to see examples to the contrary even if you limit yourself to the past two days.
The government’s efforts, first around a plebiscite and now around the postal survey, have been characterised as a way to delay the inevitable – I don’t doubt that’s true. As David Marr says, “…no battle is quite as righteous as a battle lost. The God-given imperative is to fight and keep on fighting. Winning even a little delay is a triumph”.
But the profound flaws of the postal survey, alongside the knowledge that it’ll inspire hatred, abuse and division, all in the constant presence of an easy alternative, suggests a deeper, more vengeful emotion. Something acidic, more personal, more destructive. There seems little other way to explain how we ended up here.
This is a self-destruct sequence triggered from the deck of crippled, broken vessel. The arguments against equal marriage have long since eroded into dust, and all that’s left is an effort to poison the process, and to poison the people who’ve already suffered so much.