Semantics or substance? Plebiscite/survey

Since my last post, I’ve developed a particular sensitivity to the language surrounding Australia’s marriage equality process. 

Billed by the government as a plebiscite using ‘one vote one value’ (Matthias Cormann on 10 August), a ‘democratic right’ to ‘vote’ on the question of marriage equality (Julie Bishop on 10 August), and having ‘the look and feel of an election’ (Allan Tudge on 9 August), in fact the government has directed the ABS to run a survey.

The legal questions as to the process therefore centre on the lawfulness of the direction under the Australian Bureau of Statistics Act, and the question of funding. 

The High Court of Australia will today hear two challenges to the survey. While some have expressed the challenge in terms of its undemocratic nature, I can’t see that this is relevant to the question of the lawfulness of a *survey*. 

Questions about democratic process are valid. But these are not legal questions to be heard by the High Court so long as the relevant process occurs under the Census and Statistics Act.

The relevant processes are the processes of surveys and of statistics. Statistics involves questions such as sample size and selection, population distribution, and the like. Survey methods go to the reliability of inferences drawn from the analysis. They do not involve questions of fairness, rights, legitimacy, or democracy. 

Further, a survey instrument is not a ballot and a survey response is not a vote. Defects in sampling methods are not voter fraud.

Because the government promised a plebiscite, we remain focused on democratic process and so we continue to frame our questions in this way. Even government ministers are stuck in their own language of a citizens’ vote.

But until we can clearly analyse the reality of the legal background to the process as one of statistical collection, we will be less able to analyse its validity – both under the law, and as to its ultimate statistical outcome.

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