The Extremely Dumb Postal Plebiscite Will Likely Happen Way Sooner Than Expected


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UPDATE: The government’s plan to bring back a compulsory attendance plebiscite was defeated in the senate today. That means the government will now move ahead with plans for a voluntary postal plebiscite. Make sure you enrol to vote.

Malcolm Turnbull just dropped some of the details on the government’s dumbass postal plebiscite plans, and it turns out the whole thing could be happening way sooner than expected. As in, if the Senate rejects a compulsory plebiscite again this week (it will), the government plans to have postal ballots arriving in people’s mailboxes by September 12.

Tbh, given that Australia Post is sending these out, that’s a very ambitious timeframe.

But wait, there’s more.

What Other Details Did They Share?

Turnbull, along with acting special minister of state Mathias Cormann, released further details about how a postal plebiscite would play out. The government will aim to secure a final result by November 15, two months after ballots will be distributed. Should the Australian people vote in favour of marriage equality, the government will then “facilitate” a vote in parliament on the issue in the final sitting fortnight (before the end of the year, basically).

The postal plebiscite will cost an estimated $122 million, approximately $50 million less than a full, compulsory plebiscite, and $122 million more than a free vote in parliament.

In an interesting move, it will also apparently be run by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), for reasons that will shortly become apparent.

But Wait, Is This Even Legal?

Earlier this week, the Human Rights Law Centre announced that a postal plebiscite would immediately be subject to a High Court challenge, on the grounds that it is unconstitutional for the government to spend taxpayer money on a national vote without passing legislation.

Today Turnbull and Cormann announced what they believe to be a legal workaround. They argued that there’s precedent for the Treasurer to direct the ABS to request voluntary statistical information from the Australian public, without parliament passing legislation. Hence the mysterious use of the ABS, instead of the Australian Electoral Commission who normally run elections.

Cormann pointed specifically to the Whitlam Government’s 1974 phone survey of Australians’ views on the national anthem as an example of governments using this power to determine opinions on a policy matter. Some people have pointed out differences between that survey and the plebiscite, but it’s yet to be seen whether those differences are of legal importance.

The ABS would need two more things to get a plebiscite together: funds, and the electoral roll (y’know, so as to send the survey to everyone eligible to vote). The government is pretty confident that they have this sorted too — as Finance Minister, Cormann says he has “the power to make the relevant appropriation [of funds] to the ABS”. The government can then apparently “second” Australian Electoral Commission officers to the ABS, so the two departments are essentially working together.

Basically, by framing the postal plebiscite as more of a statistical fact-finding mission than an actual plebiscite, the government reckons it can get it on the road without passing legislation. We’ve reached out to the Human Rights Law Centre to see whether a legal challenge would still go ahead, and we’ll update this post when they get back to us.

A Reminder: This Is All Extremely Dumb

Anyway, the main takeaway from today’s press conference is that the postal plebiscite is still an extremely cooked and terrible idea. We still don’t know what the question will be, whether Australia Post is actually practically up to the task of handling postal ballots for every single eligible voter in Australia, and it’s still gonna cost millions of dollars to do something we could do immediately through a free parliamentary vote for no cost.

The stupidity of this policy was perhaps best summed up in a memorable quote by Malcolm Turnbull, who told press that “if the Australian people vote… the Australian people are never wrong.” 

We’ll see what he has to say about that when the Australian people vote him out.