Newspapers and the electronic media seem to flourish on controversy, novelty and scandal; the temptation is to expand and prolong their coverage unduly. The current postal survey on “same-sex marriage” seems to be a classic instance.
Even though it will be weeks until the Australian Bureau of Statistics completes the counting of the returned forms, the data that are already available show that we know the result. It is “All over, Red Rover”.
On 3 October the ABS announced that it had already received a little over 9 million of the 16 million survey forms which have been distributed – an estimated 57.5% in total. So, unless those returned votes are “neck-and-neck”, as with a football team which is behind at three-quarter time, making up a significant deficit will be difficult for the trailing side.
An important question, therefore, is the probable number of returns. At a general election, where (unlike this one) the voting is compulsory, the “turn-out” is typically 90-95%. My own guess (and the opinion polls support this) is that we cannot reasonably expect more that 75% of recipients to return those survey papers . In other words, 12 million in all with only an additional 2.8 million yet to come. Achieving a majority will, therefore, require 6 million votes. What are the prospects for the “No” and “Yes” sides?
The ABS has not begun counting the votes, so at this point we can only speculate, but repeated polls give us worthwhile guidance. One poll surveyed those who said that they had already voted and found that 64% reported having chosen “Yes” while 15%“conceded that they had voted “No”. Can those responses be believed? I think that the evidence of the “Yes” voters can be trusted. After all, why would a “No” voter want to boost the “support” of the opposing side? On the other hand, some “No” voting people might not want to admit their choice – even in the impersonal circumstances of an anonymous telephone call (where a pre-programmed computer has chosen the number to dial); so they might not volunteer an answer or even claim that they had returned the form unmarked. That might explain the paradoxical figure in that poll: 21% of those who said that they had returned the form, allegedly hadn’t made a choice at all.
So it might be prudent to consider them all “No” voters, making the “true” negative proportion 36%.
This would mean that, of the “votes” which the ABS had received by the end of September, about 5.89 million were “Yes” and 3.32 million were “No”. Thus, to obtain even the slimmest majority, the “No” side would need an additional 2.68 million votes (but “Yes” only 0.11 million more). Put more dramatically, whereas, to date “No” has – at most — achieved 36% of responses, to win they must secure almost 96% of those votes which are yet to arrive, a rate which is 2.7 times the most optimistic estimate of what they have so far managed. Even if their presumed voting proportion were to double between today and the close of sampling, they could not make up the leeway.
So the ball will be tossed back to the Canberra politicians who will, doubtless, ask themselves: how big a margin will compel us to legislate? What will Malcolm Turnbull do to avoid further damage to his compromised position within his party (not to mention in the electorate)? Will he, with a wink-and-a-nod, allow Senator Dean Smith to bring on his Private Member’s Bill and secretly hope that it passes (as is likely, given the ALP’s position and the moral force of a Yes vote with, at lease, some of the Coalition)? But what if that 15% (or even 20%) is a realistic harbinger of the “No” vote – which it could be if some of the “Yes” vote has been inflated by Coalition voters who are dismayed by the spineless irresolution of the Prime Minister and his deracinated government? That would mean a mere 2.4 million “No” voted in the 12 million returns. It sounds like a bloodbath and a repudiation of the official Churches and the right of the Coalition. And, further, a serious portent for the election. Perhaps a political sea-change which might bring 1949 and its 23-year sequel to mind? That would give the media something substantial to write and talk about!
Dr John Carmody is Honorary Fellow, Discipline of Physiology, University of Sydney