Australia’s Same-sex Marriage Survey: Evaluating a Unique Popular Vote Process
In 2017, the Australian government conducted the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey (‘AMLPS’). This saw the federal government make innovative use of national survey processes to conduct an exercise that closely resembled an advisory referendum or plebiscite. This article views the marriage survey as a type of ‘popular vote process’ and uses the conceptual tools of referendum research to understand and evaluate it from a process perspective. The article begins by examining the legal framework that applied to the AMLPS and highlights how it differed from the laws that apply to referendums and plebiscites. Next, the article evaluates the AMLPS as a popular vote process. While acknowledging that the survey delivered some important democratic benefits, it offers a mostly critical assessment. The analysis identifies several shortcomings, including insufficient checks on the power of the executive to initiate the survey, gaps in legal regulation, inadequate protection of ballot secrecy, the absence of a mechanism to challenge the result, and questions around the effectiveness of administration. The article concludes that the survey device should not be used as the basis for future popular votes on policy issues.