How do you solve a problem like Malcolm Turnbull’s proposed marriage equality plebiscite?
It was clear within days of the July 2 Federal election that Mr Turnbull’s Liberal-National Government had been re-elected – albeit more narrowly than had been anticipated (with final counting giving it 76 seats, to the Labor Opposition’s 69, and 5 others).
The outcome in the Senate was far less clear. Indeed, it was only after the final ‘button press’ in each state, over the course of the past week, that it was confirmed the ALP (26 seats), Greens (9) and Nick Xenophon Team (3) will together have enough votes to block Government legislation, including the Bill required to hold the plebiscite.
What remains completely unclear, almost 12 full months after they first adopted it as Coalition policy, and five weeks after an election in which it was a prominent part of their platform, is what, exactly, the plebiscite will look like. Key features – such as the wording of the question, the criteria for success and the extent of religious exceptions it will provide – remain in doubt.
In this context, it has been a challenge for many marriage equality activists, myself included, to determine what our approach should be to this issue. Should we be ‘principled’, and continue to reject a plebiscite because it is unnecessary, wasteful and will cause harm to the LGBTI community?
Should we instead be ‘pragmatic’, acknowledging that Turnbull’s re-election means a plebiscite is the most likely way to achieve marriage equality in the next three years? Or does the lack of information about the plebiscite mean it is in fact too early to decide, either way – in short, should we continue to wait and see?
In order to resolve this issue, I decided to survey the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and/or queer (LGBTIQ) community to determine what they believe we should do next. The remainder of this post will detail the methodology used for this survey, the demographics of respondents, the overall results, as well as results by category where a minimum of 50 people answered. I will then make some concluding observations.
An eight-question survey was designed on online platform Typeform. It asked for information about status, including whether someone was LGBTIQ or not. Members of the LGBTIQ community were then asked for relationship status, as well as whether they had children.
People outside the LGBTIQ community were asked whether they were family members or friends of LGBTIQ people, or allies of the LGBTIQ community and supporters of marriage equality.[i] All respondents were asked their age bracket.
The only compulsory question in the survey required people to identify their preferred approach to the plebiscite, with three options presented:
- Block it, if possible – Because it is unnecessary, wasteful and will cause harm to the LGBTIQ community, even if there is a risk marriage equality will not be passed for another 3 years as a consequence.
- Wait to see the details – Because the plebiscite may or may not be acceptable, depending on the question asked, the criteria for success and the extent of ‘religious exceptions’ that are included.
- Accept it, and fight to win – Because, following the re-election of the Turnbull Government, holding the plebiscite may be the clearest path to achieving marriage equality, despite the potential for harm to the LGBTIQ community.
Respondents were then provided with two optional ‘free-text’ questions, the first to explain their choice, and the second to provide any additional information they wanted.
The survey was open for a two-week period, from Sunday 17 July to Sunday 31 July. It was publicised via:
- The post “To plebiscite or not to plebiscite?” on my blog
- My personal twitter and Facebook accounts, as well as the No Homophobia, No Exceptions Facebook page
- Direct contact with individual trans, intersex and rainbow families activists, to ensure these groups were adequately represented in the sample, and
- A small amount of paid Facebook advertising, both general, as well as specific ads to encourage responses from lesbians, and younger members of the LGBTIQ community.
Demographics of respondents
From within the LGBTIQ community, the respondents were as follows:
- Gay – 342
- Lesbian – 293
- Queer – 207
- Bisexual – 151
- Transgender – 77, and
- Intersex – 9[iv].
Their relationship statuses were relatively diverse:
- Single, or in a relationship and not currently intending to marry, but want to be able to choose whether to get married or not in the future – 290
- In a relationship and waiting to be married under Australian law – 282
- Not interested in marriage for myself, but supportive of marriage equality for others – 165
- Married overseas but not married under Australian law – 58
- Married (here or overseas) and recognised as married under Australian law – 33, and
- In a relationship that is affected by forced trans divorce provisions – 11[v].
288 LGBTIQ respondents indicated they had children, while 551 said they did not[vi].
From outside the LGBTIQ community, survey respondents were as follows:
- Friend of an LGBTIQ person – 143
- Family member of an LGBTIQ person – 95, and
- Neither a family member nor friend of an LGBTIQ person, but an ally of the LGBTIQ community and supporter of marriage equality – 57[vii].
All respondents were asked for their age, with:
- Aged 30-54: 765
- 18-29: 205
- 55 or above: 154, and
- Under 18: 11[viii].
The overall result of the survey was unambiguous:
- Block it, if possible: 786 or 69% of respondents
- Wait to see the details: 231 or 20%, and
- Accept it, and fight to win: 123 or 11%
This is a remarkable, and remarkably clear, result. Just 1 in 9 respondents were willing to accept a plebiscite, despite it being arguably the most direct path to achieving marriage equality in the current Parliament.
Even with the addition of a ‘wait & see’ option – which, given key details are still to be resolved, is a perfectly understandable approach – almost 7 in 10 people believe we should block the plebiscite if we are in a position to do so.
786 respondents were willing to risk a delay of at least three years in this reform being passed, despite the fact it has already been 12 long years since Howard’s homophobic ban was first introduced.
On the basis of this result, I would argue that the people have spoken, and they have said, quite clearly, #NoPlebiscite.
Results by Category
In designing the survey, I expected there might be some differences in approach to this issue across the community, depending on personal characteristics. In analysing the responses across respective categories, however, I was surprised by how consistent the results were, with only minor differences depending on the group (although some of those differences were nevertheless interesting).
In terms of the LGBTIQ community, the responses were as follows:
- Gay: 227 (66.4%) block, 71 (20.8%) wait & see and 44 (12.9%) accept
- Lesbian: 221 (75.4%) block, 40 (13.7%) wait & see and 32 (10.9%) accept
- Queer: 157 (75.8%) block, 35 (16.9%) wait & see and 15 (7.2%) accept
- Bisexual: 105 (69.5%) block, 34 (22.5%) wait & see and 12 (7.9%) accept, and
- Transgender: 55 (71.4%) block, 14 (18.2%) wait & see and 8 (10.4%) accept[ix].
Overall, the differences between these categories were not large (with the proportion marking block located within a narrow range, 66.4% to 75.8%).
However, it is interesting to note gay respondents were both slightly more willing to accept the plebiscite, and slightly less willing to block it, than other groups, especially queer, lesbian and trans people. This may be due to lesser prejudice experienced by gay men in particular, a larger proportion of lesbians being parents (see below) as well as wariness on the part of the trans community following recent attacks on gender diversity (eg the Safe Schools debate).
In terms of people from outside the LGBTIQ, the responses were as follows:
- Friend: 82 (57.3%) block, 41 (28.7%) wait & see and 20 (14%) accept
- Family member: 64 (67.4%) block, 21 (22.1%) wait & see and 10 (10.5%) accept, and
- Ally/supporter of marriage equality: 38 (66.7%) block, 15 (26.3%) wait & see and 4 (7%) accept.
Given the small numbers within these categories, it is difficult to draw firm conclusions. However, when looked at overall, the proportion of people who are not LGBTIQ calling for the plebiscite to be blocked – 62.7% – is lower than the equivalent figure within the LGBTIQ community (71.2%)[x].
This may indicate that, even among family members, friends and allies or other supporters, there is less awareness of the potential harms of the plebiscite – and therefore that, if the LGBTIQ community is indeed to call for Labor, the Greens and Xenophon to oppose the enabling legislation, these harms will need to be explained in more detail (helpfully, the higher proportion of non-LGBTIQ people who marked ‘wait & see’ suggests that they are persuadable about these dangers).
There was even less difference according to relationship status:
- Single, or in a relationship and not currently intending to marry, but want to be able to choose whether to get married or not in the future: 203 (70%) block, 64 (22.1%) wait & see and 23 (7.9%) accept
- In a relationship and waiting to be married under Australian law: 201 (71.3%) block, 43 (15.2%) wait & see and 38 (13.5%) accept
- Not interested in marriage for myself, but supportive of marriage equality for others: 121 (73.3%) block, 31 (18.8%) wait & see and 13 (7.9%) accept, and
- Married overseas but not married under Australian law: 43 (74.1%) block, 7 (12.1%) wait and see and 8 (13.8%) accept[xi].
Interestingly, people already married overseas had the highest proportions of both block and accept[xii], although the sample size is smaller than for other categories.
The following is the summary of LGBTIQ respondents depending on whether they had children:
- Children Yes: 211 (73.3%) block, 51 (17.7%) wait & see and 26 (9%) accept, versus
- Children No: 387 (70.2%) block, 102 (18.5%) wait & see and 62 (11.3%) accept.
Perhaps the biggest surprise to me in undertaking this survey was that the margin between these two groups was so small – while LGBTIQ parents were more likely to call for a plebiscite to be blocked (presumably because of legitimate fears about the impacts of a prolonged hate-based campaign against themselves, and especially their children), the final difference was only about 3%, which is much lower than I had previously anticipated.
Finally, there was also minimal variation according to respondents’ ages:
- Aged 30-54: 536 (70.1%) block, 151 (19.7%) wait & see and 78 (10.2%) accept
- 18-29: 140 (68.3%) block, 42 (20.5%) wait & see and 23 (11.2%) accept, and
- 55 or above: 103 (66.9%) block, 35 (22.7%) wait & see and 16 (10.4%) accept[xiii].
To me, this consistency, not just across age groups, but also relationship status, parental status and LGBTIQ attributes, demonstrates that, far from being divided by the plebiscite, the LGBTIQ community is remarkably united – roughly two-thirds to three-quarters of every group believes the plebiscite should be blocked, even if that means a potential delay to marriage equality being passed.
As noted above, the only significant difference in approach was actually between people who marked LGBTIQ and those who responded ‘None of the Above’, although, as the debate about the plebiscite continues, and its inherent unfairness and potential danger attracts greater scrutiny, there is room for ‘growth’ in the proportion of non-LGBTIQ people supporting calls for it to be blocked.
I found this to be both an interesting exercise to undertake (and hopefully for you to read about), and a valuable one in resolving what my approach will be to the plebiscite in coming months.
It should also be noted that the findings of this survey are similar to those of a poll which was conducted by PFLAG Australia (Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), and new organisation just.equal, in late July[xiv]. Based on 5,500 responses, it found that:
“Almost 85 per cent of LGBTIQ Australians remain opposed to a plebiscite on same-sex marriage, with 10 per cent in favour, and 5 per cent undecided. In addition, a majority said they were against a nationwide vote even if it means no change to the law.”
Full results of their survey can be found on the just.equal website.
Of course, there are limits to both surveys – these are complex questions, with the potential for unintended consequences in any approach that we ultimately adopt (for example, blocking the plebiscite could cause a delay of much greater than three years, or the Liberal-National Government could be returned with a larger majority at the next election, meaning a plebiscite goes ahead irrespective of the position of Labor, Greens and Xenophon Senators). And it is likely that stopping the plebiscite, potentially delaying equality, will be seen as a win by our opponents.
It is also possible that, even if the LGBTIQ community calls for the Senate to block the enabling legislation, at least one grouping out of the ALP, Greens or Nick Xenophon Team will instead agree to the Government’s demands to hold the plebiscite, as a ‘circuit-breaker’ on this issue.
Given these factors, it is both rational and reassuring that Australian Marriage Equality is currently focussing on lobbying to ensure that, if a plebiscite is held, its format is as fair as possible (please sign their petition calling for no public funding for the Yes and No cases, thereby preventing the Australian Christian Lobby receiving money from our taxes to campaign against us: sign here).
It is also absolutely vital for Australians 4 Equality – a national umbrella organisation – to lay the groundwork to fight a Yes campaign should the plebiscite turn out to be unavoidable.
However, on the basis of both my survey, and that of PFLAG and just.equal, my own primary focus in the next few months will be on pushing for a parliamentary vote, rather than plebiscite.
The responses to both polls mean we can and should be bolder in our demands – that parliament must deal with this issue in the ordinary way, rather than by holding an extraordinary national vote. Now it is time to make sure Bill Shorten, Richard Di Natale and Nick Xenophon listen.
One final note: While the answer to the main survey question – whether to block, wait & see or accept the plebiscite – was interesting, perhaps just as valuable were the ‘write-in’ responses to the two free-text questions, including respondents’ personal explanations for why they opposed the plebiscite (or not). I will publish a summary of these responses in the week beginning Monday 15 August. Please check back then for more information.
[i] It also allowed people outside the LGBTIQ community to indicate that they opposed marriage equality. If they answered yes, survey logic then excluded them from remaining questions. 14 people did so.
[ii] Excluding two responses that did not answer the primary question (to block, accept or wait & see), and the responses identified in endnote 1, who indicated they were opposed to marriage equality and were therefore discarded.
[iii] 6 respondents indicated that they were at least one of LGBTIQ and ‘None of the Above’. For ease of analysis they have been treated as being outside the LGBTIQ community.
[iv] Numbers add up to more then 840 because people were allowed to mark as many of LGBTI and/or Q as appropriate.
[v] Numbers add up to less than 840 because this question was not compulsory.
[vi] Numbers add up to less than 840 because this question was not compulsory.
[vii] Numbers add up to less than 300 because this was an optional supplementary question for people who indicated they were ‘None of the above’ rather than LGBTIQ.
[viii] Numbers add up to less than 1140 because this question was not compulsory.
[ix] With only 9 responses from people who marked intersex, this sample size is deemed insufficient to draw any conclusions. In raw numbers, 3 intersex respondents marked block, 4 selected wait & see while 2 answered accept.
[x] A full comparison:
- LGBTIQ: 598 (71.2%) block, 153 (18.2%) wait & see and 89 (10.6%) accept, versus
- Non-LGBTIQ: 188 (62.7%) block, 78 (26%) wait & see and 34 (11.3%) accept.
[xi] There were two categories with insufficient responses to draw any conclusions, although their raw numbers are as follows:
- Married (here or overseas) and recognised as married under Australian law: 23 block, 6 wait & see and 4 accept
- In a relationship that is affected by forced trans divorce provisions: 7 block, 2 wait & see and 2 accept
[xii] It is perhaps unsurprising that people who have taken matters into the own hands, by choosing to marry overseas rather than wait for the Australian Government to eventually catch up, would be less ‘undecided’ about this issue, include a minority willing to accept the plebiscite to have their marriages finally recognized domestically.
[xiii] With only 11 responses from people aged under 18, this sample size was also deemed insufficient to draw conclusions. In raw numbers, 5 respondents who were <18 marked block, 2 selected wait & see and 4 answered accept.
[xiv] The PFLAG and just.equal survey did not start until Thursday July 21 – four days after my survey had commenced – and I was not aware it was being conducted until after my poll was already in the field.