Parliament, not a postal vote, should be used to decide issues

In the dying days of campaigning over same sex marriage in Australia, the figures were looking good for the Yes movement. In recent weeks four national polls had predicted they would win between 60 and 65 per cent of the vote.

In an ominous sign for the No campaign, its champion, Tony Abbott, was already doing his best to move the goalposts, declaring that if his cause won 40 percent of the vote it would be a "moral victory".

And then there was the turnout. Around 80 per cent of eligible voters returned their ballots. According to Tiernan Brady, director of Australian Marriage Equality, this is a higher turnout than for practically any voluntary ballot measure undertaken in a Western democracy in modern history.

His research suggests it is beaten only by the Scottish referendum on remaining in the United Kingdom and a similar measure in Quebec, Canada. Just 60 per cent voted in the Irish referendum that legalised gay marriage in 2015, the Brexit vote a year later attracted a 72 per cent turnout.

Does he then believe that postal ballots or similar measures would be useful mechanisms for Australia to adopt in deciding other contentious issues?

No, says Brady. "Australia has a mechanism for deciding all these issues, it is called parliament. Why should one group of people be forced to go through this process when the rest of Australians do not?"

He says the ballot was designed by opponents of gay marriage to stall or defeat its introduction rather than improve the democratic process. The Yes campaign had to overcome an early hurdle in regards to this issue when prominent supporters of gay marriage, such as former High Court justice Michael Kirby said he would boycott the vote, only to recant soon after.

Brady says this is a public reflection of a journey many "yes" voters have trodden.

New polling by Essential Research suggests Brady is right.

Essential Research found that 27 per cent of Australian voters thought the postal ballot "was a good process that should be used for informing governments on other contentious issues in future," while 64 per cent thought it should not be used again.

Essential Research's executive director, Peter Lewis, said the numbers showed that voters had "held their nose" while they voted in a process they did not believe should have been undertaken.

Roberto Foa, a lecturer in political science at the University of Melbourne, said voluntary ballot measures could be effective democratic mechanisms, but had significant drawbacks if not properly instituted.

In some cases governments had used them to consolidate their own power by deciding which measures were to be voted upon.

In others, where citizens are able to automatically trigger referendums when they gather enough support for their cause, well-funded activists with small but dedicated supporters are able to overwhelm majority opinions, often with the support of lobby groups and politicians.

A handful of such votes have become infamous over the years.

The former UK prime minister David Cameron backed Brexit in order to silence campaigners on the right in the belief that the measure would never pass.

In the 2004 US presidential election, 11 crucial US states infamously put gay marriage provisions onto the ballot at the urging of George W. Bush's political svengali, Karl Rove.

He was concerned that conservative voters were not excited enough to turn out to vote for Bush, but would turn out to vote against gay marriage. Bush won.

Dr Ryan Goss of the Australian National University College of Law says there was no legal or constitutional requirement for the ballot to have been held.

If similar votes became part of the norm in Australian politics it would constitute a weakening of our system of representative democracy, he said.

"We elect our political leaders to do a job."

This story Parliament, not a postal vote, should be used to decide issues first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.