Seven things you should know about the same-sex marriage postal vote

Written by Kelsey Rettino

Australians could be heading to a postal vote on same-sex marriage. Here’s what you should know about the Government’s postal plebiscite, and how you can have your say.


1. Why a postal vote?

A postal vote isn’t the Turnbull government’s Plan A for same-sex marriage, with the Coalition’s first option being a compulsory, national plebiscite on the issue. The Turnbull government tried twice to get their plebiscite bill through the Senate, but was blocked on both occasions. The Upper House first rejected the bill in November 2016, then again on August 9, prompting the government to introduce the postal vote.

2. What’s the difference between a plebiscite and postal vote?

A plebiscite is a national poll, which can be held to test the public’s views on an issue. Unlike a referendum, it doesn’t affect the Constitution, and it’s non-binding, so the Government isn’t required to take any action on the poll’s results. If the Coalition’s plebiscite on same-sex marriage had’ve passed the Senate, it would’ve involved compulsory voting. Like a plebiscite, a postal vote also isn’t binding. But what differentiates the two is that the government’s postal vote is voluntary. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has been critical of postal votes in the past, with Crikey unearthing an 1997 opinion piece by the PM, in which he argued such a ballot “flies in the face of Australian democratic values”.

3. How do we vote?

Australians have less than two weeks to register to vote in the same-sex marriage postal ballot. August 24 will be the last day Australians can get on the electoral roll or change their details with the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) to have their say on the issue. Ballots will be distributed from next month, and need to be posted back by November 7, with a result expected by November 15. Unlike Federal elections and referendums, which are run by the AEC, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) is in charge of conducting the postal vote, which the Government says will cost $122 million.

4. Some are planning to boycott the vote

Some same-sex marriage advocates are vowing to boycott the postal ballot, arguing it’s illegitimate, a waste of money, and that negative debate surrounding the issue leaves the LGBTIQ community open to harm. Former High Court Judge Michael Kirby is one of those planning to boycott the vote. He’s told the ABC’s RN Breakfast the postal ballot is a “political improvisation” and he’ll “take no part in it”. But not all same-sex marriage advocates are following Michael Kirby’s path, with some taking to social media to urge people to vote on the issue.

5. The postal vote is facing a High Court challenge

Same-sex marriage advocates have launched a legal challenge against the postal ballot, with Tasmanian independent MP Andrew Wilkie, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays’ Shelly Argent, and Victorian lesbian mother Felicity Marlowe taking the voluntary vote to the High Court. They’re arguing that it breaches the Constitution.

6. What are politicians saying about the postal vote?

Malcolm Turnbull says he’ll be voting yes on the postal ballot, and will be encouraging Australians to do the same. He’s urged people to “act with responsibility and respect” when debating the issue. Across the Parliamentary floor, Labor politicians have vehemently opposed the ballot. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has called it a “waste of time and taxpayer money”, and says he holds Malcolm Turnbull directly responsible for “every hurtful bit of filth” that arises from the debate. Senator Penny Wong described the debate as “disrespectful” when she delivered an emotional speech to the Upper House on Wednesday, saying the discourse surrounding the postal vote exposes the children of LGBTIQ couples to “hatred”.

7. What could happen next?

Given the postal ballot is non-binding, a “yes” vote doesn’t guarantee change to the Marriage Act. If there is majority support for same-sex marriage, members of Parliament will be allowed a free vote. If the result comes back as “no”, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull says there won’t be a vote on the issue held in Parliament.

About the author

Kelsey Rettino