‘70% Want a Plebiscite’ Is A Lie


by Celestine Chua

Overwhelming majority of voters want plebiscite, yells the press. You’re being lied to. They don’t.

Everyone even slightly involved in the battle for marriage equality has come up against this complete conversation stopper. You start to make your case for a free vote in parliament instead of a plebiscite when WHAM! this huge boulder is dropped right in front of you. “But this poll said 70% of people wanted one!” Voters overwhelmingly back plebiscite, shrieked the Sydney Morning Herald (The Australian was just as bad).

No they don’t. That is . . . well I was going to say a lie, but let’s be kind and say ‘very seriously misleading’! The result is based on one of the questions in a poll of 1222 people, taken by the Centre for Governance & Public Policy at Griffith University.

Matt Farrugia, well-respected pollster and Research Director of the Centre for Applied Political Psychology, who has conducted his own poll into the support for a plebiscite on behalf of PFLAG, was scathing.

“That [70% support figure] is absolutely not true: [the question] implies that if people vote on the issue of same sex marriage, that’ll decide what will happen, and that’s simply not true.

They asked would people prefer to have the government decide the issue of same sex marriage, or would they prefer the people to decide. It’s actually not asking at all about level of support for a plebiscite. It’s the best example I could give of push polling, the worst of its kind.”

I might add it’s also a very good example of how the way you frame and phrase a question can generate the answer you want, rather than an accurate reflection of people’s views. And a very good reason in itself not to have a plebiscite – unless we get to write the question.

The report from which the figure is taken – Australian Constitutional Values Survey 2016 #1 – actually says that only 52% of people definitely think the decision on same sex marriage should be made by a binding popular vote: something that isn’t, and can never be, on offer. Not a plebiscite.

Matt Farrugia explained that there are two main things wrong with the question the Centre asked, if you’re trying to claim it shows support for a plebiscite:

ONE:  There is no mention of a plebiscite in the question

TWO: The question implies that if people voted one way or the other, the result would be binding

That is NOT TRUE: the outcome of a plebiscite is not binding. He said:

“I’m not suggesting that it was the researcher’s intent for this figure to be used in this way, simply the reporting of it is extremely erroneous and consequently misleading.”

The actual question was:

Which do you think would be a better way to make the following decisions – by the parliament deciding, or by the people deciding through a direct vote?

Griffith question

Not only are there things wrong with the reporting of the question: reporting of the answer is misleading, too.

You’ll see (above) the 70% figure generally quoted is made up of 52% who say it should definitely be decided by a popular vote, plus the 18% who think it should probably be decided by a popular vote. Not quite as reported.

The Griffith University report has quite literally NOTHING TO SAY about any same-sex marriage plebiscite, and it is very misleading to claim it does.

Matt’s own nationwide poll of three times as many people, conducted for PFLAG, asked directly “To what level do you support a plebiscite on same sex marriage?”, and gave a number of options, ranging from strongly for, to strongly against. GayNewsNetwork and The Guardian reported.

It then asked if they supported the plebiscite more, or less, when given extra information, for example, that it would cost $160m.

His final result indicated only 40% – not 70% – support for a plebiscite, once people knew it was not binding. But guess which figure keeps being reported in the press.

UPDATE: a new Galaxy poll shows support dropping, now down to 25% of informed voters. More here.

I’ve just been reminded that the same point was also made here http://www.theage.com.au/comment/australian-prime-minister-malcolm-turnbull-wrong-on-marriage-plebiscite-20160627-gpsoe6.html


About the author

Veteran gay writer and speaker, Doug was one of the founders of the UKs pioneering GLBTI newspaper Gay News (1972) , and of the second, Gay Week, and is a former Features Editor of Him International. He presented news and current affairs on JOY 94.9 FM Melbourne for more than ten years. "Doug is revered, feared and reviled in equal quantities, at times dividing people with his journalistic wrath. Yet there is no doubt this grandpa-esque bear keeps everyone abreast of anything and everything LGBT across the globe." (Daniel Witthaus, "Beyond Priscilla", Clouds of Magellan, Melbourne, 2014)