The Conversation – Politics Podcast

Senator the Hon Mathias Cormann
Minister for Finance
Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for Western Australia






Australian Marriage Law Postal Plebiscite

MICHELLE GRATTAN: The controversy around the postal vote on same sex marriage has been drowned out this week by the crisis over citizenship that has engulfed the Government. But preparations are proceeding at pace for the ballot, which is called a survey by the Government because to get around the lack of legislative approval it is being run by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Today we talk to the acting Special Minister of State Mathias Cormann, who is overseeing the vote. Seeking to bring you some answers to the many questions that are being asked about the details.

Mathias Cormann, how precisely will the question be phrased on the ballot paper? And can you just remind us of the timetable?

MATHIAS CORMANN: The question on the survey form to be sent out by the ABS will be the same question as has been previously flagged. It is a very simple question, which will say ‘should the law be changed to allow same sex couples to marry?’ There will be a box with a yes and a box with a no. People will be able to indicate their preference. The key dates, people have to enrol by the 24th of August, by midnight 24th of August 2017 local time.

MICHELLE GRATTAN: So get the running shoes on.

MATHIAS CORMANN: That was two weeks from the time of the announcement. From the 12th of September 2017 is when we have indicated that survey forms would start to be sent out. The next key date is that the ABS is strongly encouraging everyone to get their responses back by the 27th of October. But forms will continue to be accepted until Tuesday, the 7th of November. The final result of the survey will be announced by the ABS on Wednesday, 15 November. 

MICHELLE GRATTAN: Just one point of detail there. You say that the papers will start to be sent out from that date, from the 12th. Will they be sent out over a time?

MATHIAS CORMANN: They will be sent out from the 12th of September. They will be sent out as quickly as possible.

MICHELLE GRATTAN: Not all on one day.

MATHIAS CORMANN: There will be nearly 16 million survey forms, so you are quite right, they won’t all be able to be sent on the one day. So it will be staggered. But it will be staggered very quickly. The ABS has advised me that they will be prioritising those areas where it might take a little bit longer to get the mail to and from. They will get all of it out as fast as they can.

MICHELLE GRATTAN: How many extra people have got themselves on the roll since this enrolment started?

MATHIAS CORMANN: Since we announced the Marriage Law Postal Survey through the ABS and the fact that all Australians on the electoral roll who are eligible to vote could participate, the size of the roll has increased by nearly 33,000. That is nearly 33,000 new enrolments. More than 350,000 Australians have updated their details on the electoral roll in one way or another. People are certainly getting their details on the electoral roll in order. 

MICHELLE GRATTAN: Do you have any idea of the age breakdown of these new enrolments?

MATHIAS CORMANN: No, the AEC does not currently have an age breakdown.

MICHELLE GRATTAN: One of the issues that has been raised is that younger people will be less likely to be on the roll and also less familiar with the postal service. And this could mean that the result could become more unrepresentative. Are you making any special efforts to reach this cohort of younger people. 

MATHIAS CORMANN: Firstly, I don’t accept the premise. The Electoral Commission as a matter of course, have got strategies in place to ensure young people are enrolled. In fact, they do have the methodology of provisional enrolment of 16 and 17 year olds to ensure that people, when they turn 18 can be on the electoral roll proper and in a position to participate in elections. We are going through a process now where we are encouraging people to enrol. Our belief is that those Australians who feel strongly one way or the other will ensure that they will have the opportunity to have their say. Certainly we encourage all Australians to do so. We are going through a process at the moment where we are running an advertising campaign to encourage every eligible Australian to ensure that they are either newly enrolled, if this is the first time they will get the opportunity to participate, or to make sure that their details are up to date. I am very confident that young people are able to figure out how to deal with a letter. The truth is, that right now, under our electoral system as it stands, the Electoral Commission communicates with all Australians at the physical address that they are enrolled. That is not a new phenomenon. That is something that takes place in the ordinary course of events.    

MICHELLE GRATTAN: There was a bit of confusion a few days ago about 16 and 17 year olds. There is a provision for provisional enrolment, but of course they can’t vote til they are 18. 

MATHIAS CORMANN: There was no confusion at all. Some people sought to raise the question. I understand why they tried to run that argument. But the truth is, the very clear intention and the advice on the effect of the Treasurer’s determination to the ABS always was that only those on the electoral roll and eligible to vote, that is Australians aged 18 years and over, would be participating in this survey. But because the question was raised and to put it completely beyond doubt and make it absolutely clear, I have issued a further direction to the Australian Statistician to make it absolutely explicit that those Australians who get to participate in this survey are those that are on the electoral roll and eligible to participate in an election. 

MICHELLE GRATTAN: Now a High Court challenge has been brought to the ballot and this is to be heard on September 5 and 6. Would you expect a decision immediately or how long after? 

MATHIAS CORMANN: That is entirely a matter for the High Court. I would not presume to give advice to the High Court in relation to this. The Government made the decision that we have made, because we believe that the course of action that we have chosen is Constitutional and legal. But this is now a matter for the High Court. The process and the timing of the decision is a matter for the High Court.

MICHELLE GRATTAN: Obviously the whole timetable is very tight. Is this challenge affecting, in any way, preparations for the vote?

MATHIAS CORMANN: It is not affecting preparations. All parties before the High Court in relation to this have reached an understanding. We have made undertakings to the Court that the Statistician would not start to send out survey forms prior to 12 September 2017 and until this issue has been resolved through the High Court. That is an undertaking that the Australian Statistician will comply with.

MICHELLE GRATTAN: If the ballot was knocked out by the High Court, what would happen about the money that would have already been spent? 

MATHIAS CORMANN: Firstly, I do not accept the premise. I am not going to make a judgement now based on what is a hypothetical. But the money that is spent has been spent.

MICHELLE GRATTAN: And how many staff of the Statistics Bureau are involved in this whole operation and how many are being seconded from the Electoral Commission?

MATHIAS CORMANN: The ABS has advised the Senate Finance and Public Administration Committee yesterday that they have a taskforce of around 40 people now. There is a very small number of Electoral Commission officers involved at present. We expect, as the process ramps up and as we get into the active phase of this process, that the numbers will increase.

MICHELLE GRATTAN: And what security measures will be in place to guard against irregularities?

MATHIAS CORMANN: Under the Census and Statistics Act there are a whole range of integrity measures in place all the time. The ABS runs surveys all the time. They run a very comprehensive survey every five years involving the whole population, which is our Census. They are very experienced and have all of the necessary powers and authorities under the legislation to ensure that integrity is maintained.

MICHELLE GRATTAN: Presumably the ballot papers that are sent out will have identifiers, to make sure that they go to the right people and that there are no fake papers and so on? How do you address privacy concerns in this instance?

MATHIAS CORMANN: The survey forms are sent to people on the Electoral Roll. There is a process to ensure that the survey forms are sent to the right people and that when they come back they have been received back from the right people. There are integrity measures to ensure that people can only express a view once and so on. But the way the system is set up, through the ABS methodology, is no one will be able to connect an actual expression of a view with an individual on the Electoral Roll. They have put processes in place to ensure that there is no capacity for anyone to be able to identify how individual Australians have expressed their view on this question. 

MICHELLE GRATTAN: Because there was some controversy wasn’t there, over the Census? That went to these matters of privacy.

MATHIAS CORMANN: As the Deputy Australian Statistician said to the Senate Committee yesterday, the most recent Census was a learning experience for them. They have learned a lot of lessons from that exercise and have been able to feed those learnings into this process that they are going through now.

MICHELLE GRATTAN: A fairly painful learning experience as it turned out. Now, there has been speculation that there might be special legislation to deal with hate speech and the like. Is there going to be any provision about this? Because it is being done through the ABS, the same provisions do not apply as would apply if it was done through the Electoral Commission.

MATHIAS CORMANN: The first point to make here is our first preference always was to conduct a full, compulsory personal attendance plebiscite under the auspices of the Electoral Commission and within the electoral laws framework. But the Parliament was not prepared to go along with that. So we are taking a different approach. We are going through the ABS and conducting a postal survey in order to keep faith with our commitment to give all Australians the opportunity to have a say in relation to this. That means that not all of the usual safeguards that would apply in the context of an election do apply. There are a whole range of legal protections that are always there, no matter which way these sorts of processes are run. But we have said in good faith, we are happy to explore, how we might be best able to ensure that all of the necessary safeguards that would normally apply in an election context could be put in place here. We want this process to be fair and for Australians to have the opportunity to have their say in the right environment. So we are exploring at the moment how that can best be done. We understand that, in the first instance though, the High Court needs to settle the question as to the challenges that have been brought forward by some, because I think that people who are seeking to challenge what we are proposing to do would not want to take any steps that could be seen to be undermining the opportunity for them to be successful. So, we believe that probably the earliest opportunity for us to consider through the Parliament legislation that can put these additional safeguards of things like authorisation of campaign material and the like into place, would be after the High Court has settled on the two challenges that have been brought to our survey.

MICHELLE GRATTAN: And when you say explore, in the first instance presumably you would be exploring with the Opposition to try and get any measures through quickly?

MATHIAS CORMANN: We want this process to be fair to both sides of the argument. Once the High Court has settled the challenges, and not wanting to talk for anyone, but I suspect that there would be a broad consensus across the Parliament that it would be desirable to ensure that the usual safeguards that would apply in an election context should apply in this context. I am quite confident that in the context where the High Court decides that what we are doing is indeed constitutional and legal and that it can proceed, then I would expect that the Parliament would very quickly reach agreement on putting in place the necessary safeguards.

MICHELLE GRATTAN: What about people who are overseas, in hospital, homeless, in remote areas, silent voters on the silent roll? What provisions have you made for these people?

MATHIAS CORMANN: The ABS is working through all of these arrangements. The commitment is to give every Australian, every eligible Australian who is on the electoral roll the opportunity to have their say. There are some people where it will be harder to reach them and harder for them to get their survey forms back in the postal form. The ABS is working through arrangements to ensure that Australians living in remote areas, that defence personnel on deployment, those Australians located in the Antarctic, Australians living overseas, they are working through arrangements to ensure that they can have their say and participate as efficiently as possible. They are looking, as they have said yesterday in the Senate committee, they are looking at options through phones and perhaps even online. They will be making further announcements in relation to this by about 22 August. Remember, this process does not actually kick off until the survey forms start to get sent out on 12 September so there is still a bit of time to get all of these practical arrangements in place.

MICHELLE GRATTAN: When we get the results, how much detail will we get? As you say, this is a survey, or at least it’s been called a survey. We’ll get an electorate by electorate breakdown of results, but will we get gender and age breakdowns too and any other details?

MATHIAS CORMANN: So when it comes to the results, we will get a breakdown by electoral division, so every federal seat. We will know how every federal division voted. We will know how every state and territory has voted. We will know the result nationally. When it comes to the breakdown by age and gender and the like, that will not be able to show how different demographics have voted, but it will be able to show to what extent different demographics have participated. Because of the privacy issues that we have discussed before, there is no capacity to link the decision in the survey form or the expressed view on the survey form with individual Australians and consequently there will not be a capacity to show how individual demographics, different age groups or male and females how they have voted. But we certainly will be able to say how different age groups, how males and females have participated.

MICHELLE GRATTAN: One issue that’s emerged in the campaigning so far is that many people would like to know precisely what will be the safeguards for those with religious commitments in the subsequent legislation that the Government will facilitate and yet as you’ve mentioned that question is just broad and there is no detail about the shape of a subsequent bill if there’s a yes vote. Why has the decision been taken not to have a draft bill out there so people know that? 

MATHIAS CORMANN: There is a draft bill out there. That is the Dean Smith bill. That is a private members bill. What the Government has said is that if the outcome of the plebiscite is a yes, then we will facilitate consideration of a private members bill. We will not be putting forward a Government bill, we will facilitate consideration by the Parliament of a private members bill to change the law to allow same sex couples to marry, that is in the context of the yes vote. The ultimate shape of that bill will be a matter for the Parliament. That is by definition the way private members bills operate. It is not going to be a matter for the Government to determine what the content of the bill is. It will be a matter for the Parliament. 

MICHELLE GRATTAN: I see that you’re responding a lot to questions that are coming through Twitter and indeed to some of the personal abuse that you’ve been copping. Do you think people are using social media a great deal in this campaign to both get information and to advance their own views?

MATHIAS CORMANN: It is getting used increasingly. What is important to me is that this debate is conducted respectfully and courteously. I believe that people from both sides of the argument who abuse the other side of the argument are not helping their cause. That is an entirely neutral statement for me to make. I do not believe that either side of the argument helps their cause when they hurl abuse at the other side of the argument. The truth is that good people across Australia have strongly and sincerely held views on both sides of this argument. The reason we are going through this process is to give every Australian the opportunity to have their say. What I would say to all Australians is express your view with your conscience, based on what you believe is the right way forward. But those of you who are campaigning for either the yes or no case, please campaign with courtesy and respect.

MICHELLE GRATTAN: Just finally Mathias Cormann, you’re not campaigning as you’re overseeing the process but you’re on record as an opponent of same-sex marriage. If the vote passes, there will be a free vote on the private members bill to implement that decision. Will you personally vote for the bill in that circumstance, in other words in line with the national majority or do you feel that you would follow the vote in Western Australia or would you deal with the matter according to your own personal conscience?

MATHIAS CORMANN: I have got to pick up the way you have framed this. I know that everyone wants to frame thing as opposition to. What I would say first, yes, personally I will not be campaigning. Secondly, yes my personal view has been on the record for a long time. I support the current definition of marriage as between a man and a woman. But I also have long been on the public record to say that I will respect the outcome of this postal survey. I will respect the judgement of the Australian people through this process. If the Australian people by a majority vote indicate that they support that the law be changed to allow same sex couples to marry then I will vote in favour.

MICHELLE GRATTAN: Mathias Cormann, thank you very much for taking time to talk with us today.


Senator the Hon Mathias Cormann, Minister for Finance, Perth