The postal poll will be held by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) in the form of the ABS requesting ‘on a voluntary basis, statistical information from all Australians on the electoral roll as to their views on whether or not the law in relation to same sex marriage should be changed to allow same sex couples to marry’. The Finance Minister has stated that the Commonwealth ‘has the necessary Constitutional power and the ABS and the Australian Statistician have the necessary statutory power’ for the exercise. On 9 August 2017 the Treasurer, the Hon Scott Morrison, issued a Direction to the Australian Statistician under the Census and Statistics Act 1905 to collect:
‘(a) statistical information about the proportion of electors who wish to express a view about whether the law should be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry (participating electors);
(b) statistical information about the proportion of participating electors who are in favour of the law being changed to allow same-sex couples to marry;
(c) statistical information about the proportion of participating electors who are against the law being changed to allow same-sex couples to marry’.
The arrangements for conducting the poll will be determined by the Australian Statistician; it appears that the ABS will be assisted by staff of the Australian Electoral Commission. Media reporting suggests that process rules for the poll are currently being drafted. The poll is already the subject of a legal challenge in the High Court of Australia.
The Finance Minister has cited a 1974 poll on the national anthem, which was conducted by the ABS, as a precedent for the ABS conducting a postal poll on same-sex marriage.
The 1974 national anthem poll and 1977 national song plebiscite
The national anthem poll was conducted by the ABS in February-March of 1974. It was conducted supplementary to the Bureau’s February 1974 labour force survey, and surveyed approximately 60,000 people aged 18 and over across the states and territories. Most of the cost of the national anthem poll was absorbed by the normal costs of the population survey.
Those surveyed were asked to indicate preferences among three songs as the national anthem (‘Advance Australia Fair’, ‘Waltzing Matilda’, and ‘Song of Australia’). Just over half of respondents (51.4 per cent) expressed a preference for ‘Advance Australia Fair’, with the second preference being ‘Waltzing Matilda’ (just under 20 per cent of respondents). The National Anthem was accordingly changed to ‘Advance Australia Fair’, with ‘God Save the Queen’ (the previous national anthem) retained for regal occasions.
Subsequently, in 1976, the Fraser Government reinstated ‘God Save the Queen for royal, vice-regal, defence and loyal toast occasions’, and also ‘decided to find a national song for use on ceremonial occasions when it was necessary to mark a separate Australian identity’. Accordingly, in May 1977 the Government held a national non-compulsory plebiscite on a national song, which asked voters to indicate their preferences among four songs (the three surveyed in the 1974 national anthem poll together with ‘God Save the Queen’). ‘Advance Australia Fair’ was chosen by the largest number of participants (over 43 per cent), with ‘Waltzing Matilda’ again coming second (over 28 per cent of participants).
Funding for the postal poll on same-sex marriage
The Finance Minister has indicated that the cost of the postal poll could be up to $122 million. On 9 August 2017 the Minister made Advance to the Finance Minister Determination (No. 1 of 2017-18) under the Appropriation Act (No. 1) 2017-2018, which will provide funding of $122 million to the ABS to conduct the plebiscite. Under subsection 10(1) of the Appropriation Act (No. 1) 2017-2018 additional appropriation is available to the Government ‘if the Finance Minister is satisfied that there is an urgent need for expenditure, in the current year, that is not provided for, or is insufficiently provided for’:
‘(a) because of an erroneous omission or understatement; or
(b) because the expenditure was unforeseen until after the last day on which it was practicable to provide for it in the Bill for this Act before that Bill was introduced into the House of Representatives’.
For the Advance to the Finance Minister to be available, one of these two limbs in subsection 10(1) must be satisfied. Subsection 10(3) of the Act sets the maximum amount that can be provided by way of an Advance to the Finance Minister to $295 million. The Advance to the Finance Minister was last used to provide funding of $101.2 million in 2015-16 to the Australian Electoral Commission to allow the Commission to implement a revised Senate electoral system. The Department of Finance provides annual reports on the use of the Advance to the Finance Minister.