Does the Marriage Equality Poll pass the Community Engagement Smell Test?

September 26th, 2017

Reflecting on the debate raging around the community on the issue of the marriage equality poll, I thought it would be interesting to evaluate the process with my community engagement practitioner hat on.

For our colleagues who are not in Australia, a very brief summary of the situation. A few years ago, without any wider consultation, the Parliament made a change to the Marriage Act and inserted the words “between a man and a woman” into the definition of marriage. Since then there has been a lot campagining and apparent public support for providing equal legal rights for same-sex couples under the Marriage Act. Our current crop of Parliamentarians have refused to make the decision or even to debate it, instead deciding on a non-binding, non-compulsory ‘survey’ on the issue. What is a ‘non-binding survey’ you ask? A survey that decision makers have already declared that they reserve their right to ignore.

So how does this process fare when we look at it as community engagement practitioners? I’ve used our Evaluation Framework based on the Brisbane Declaration to evaluate this process. If you’d like a copy of this evaluation framework, you can download the free e-book we created on this topic.


Openness and honesty about scope and purpose 
Appreciate respective roles and responsibilities

Score: Poor

If there is no clarity around what can and can’t be influenced in terms of the process or the outcome, then the integrity of the process is fundamentally flawed. While the poll has been described as non-binding, its real scope and purpose has not been clearly articulated to the wider community. There is a lot of confusion within the community about what exactly is being voted on and the debate seems to be focussing on a lot of unrelated issues such as freedom of religion, the safe schools program (a deliberate strategy by the people opposing the change, it has to be said).

The majority of the campaigners from both sides of the debate have managed to engage in the debate respectfully which is positive. However, there has been very poor behaviour from a small minority from both sides of the debate, much of it inflated by the media, which I think has led to a greater sense of conflict and division within the community.



People have input in how they participate
Policies and services reflect their involvement, and their impact is apparent

Score: Poor

Many of the politicians have already openly stated that they will ignore the vote in their electorate if it doesn’t match their personal viewpoint. While the community is galvanising to boost the vote on both sides of the debate, there is no clarity on what influence, if any, the vote will actually have.

The community has had no input in how they participate. A High Court challenge of the process failed – I’m not sure if that is a sign of success or failure on this criteria of influence?



Address barriers
Build capacity and confidence of people to participate meaningfully
Develop confidence in the process and the value of their participation
Engender a shared sense of ownership and commitment to the process and outcome
Adequately resource Indigenous Peoples and the poor and marginalised to participate meaningfully in the broader community
Ensure that they have a stake in the outcome and benefit equitably as a result of being involved

Score: Poor

There has been no official educational/information on the issue provided by the government to help people understand the issue and the process. Nothing has been done to develop confidence in the process. And there does not appear to have been any efforts to address the barriers the poor and marginalised in our community face to ensure that they can participate meaningfully. Other than deciding on the poll, it feels as though the government has washed its hands off the entire process (other than individual politicians campaigning for one side or the other). The handling of community engagement has been poor.



Subject to evaluation
Recognise and communicate the needs, interests and values of all parties, including decision makers
Decision makers find the output useful and have sufficient confidence to act on the community’s recommendations
More cohesive and informed communities and governance result from 
the process

Score: Fail

It would be fair to say that this has been a fairly divisive process for the community as a whole. This process had done the exact opposite of creating a more cohesive and informed community.

The needs and interests of people most affected by this decision have not been adequately catered for. Health professionals have expressed grave concerns for the mental health in particular for vulnerable gay youth.

Before the process started, the decision-makers (politicians) declared their lack of confidence in the process and refused to be bound by or even take any notice of their result. Community engagement hasn’t been utilised to its full potential.



Opportunity for a diverse range of values and perspectives to be freely expressed and heard
Representative of the population
Appropriate and equitable opportunity for all to participate

Score: Poor

We are lucky enough to have compulsory voting in Australia, and this non-compulsory poll does not sit well with one of the fundamental planks in how we practise democracy here. There are concerns about the disenfranchisement of youth (for example it could have easily made voting available to 16 and 17 year olds to get the youth viewpoint). A paper based survey form is also more likely to generate a higher response rate from the older demographic for the purpose of community contribution. Will the results be representative? We will have no way to judge. In 2017 is a paper based poll and no online option for most (online voting only available for those living overseas) the appropriate and equitable way for all to participate? I’d say not.

In theory all voters on the electoral roll will be given an opportunity to vote by receiving the survey form at their registered address. That should be a positive tick for the Inclusion category. Except for my personal experience of having my form sent to my two year old address despite me confirming that my address was up-to-date on the electoral roll (and voting in local government elections just a few weeks ago!). If I didn’t have a mail diversion service still running, I would have been disenfranchised. How can I be confident of the process given this fundamental failure for me personally?



Sufficient and credible information for dialogue
Space to weigh options, understand and reframe issues, movement
towards developing shared understanding, identifying common ground
and shared values

Score: Fail

There has been no official (credible!) information. Most of the reframing of the issue has been done by people seeking to mislead the community and skew the vote. And it feels like as a community overall we have lost our sense of shared values  and common ground. There has been a building of communities around each of the two sides, and perhaps those communities have indeed grown stronger and developed shared understanding….but the divisions between the two camps has grown wider and more intolerant.

This morning I read two news articles on this topic that referenced research that seemed to point to two different conclusions. On the ABC News website, the article “SSM: How cognitive ability shapes attitudes on equal rights for same-sex couples” by Francisco Perales from the University of Queensland found that:

“…there is a strong and statistically significant association between higher cognitive ability and a greater likelihood to support equal rights between same-and-different-sex couples.

This may shed some light on why those who stand against equal rights may  not be persuaded by evidence-based arguments…”

Also on the ABC News website, “The psychology of attitudes to same-sex marriage” by Nick Haslam from the University of Melbourne asks the question: are attitudes to same-sex marriage alterable?

“Younger people are consistently more likely to support marriage equality than older people, However, the change in public opinion on same-sex marriage has been too rapid to be explained by generational replacement.

…it has been estimated that two thirds of the recent historical change in attitudes is due to people altering their views rather than to generational shifts.

Although public debate may appear to reflect a battle between adamant, unshakeable positions, our attitudes may be open to influence, persuasion and evolving social norms.”

What can we conclude from these two research based findings? That deliberation and capacity are still important, just don’t necessarily rely on evidence-based arguments?



Have I been too harsh with my scores? I’ve tried to find some redeeming features of this process for each of the evaluation criteria from a community engagement perspective. Perhaps I just feel particularly disheartened by the state of the debate and division that is being created in our community. This has echoes of the fall out within the community after the Brexit vote.

One thing I have realised is that there’s something missing from the Principles of Good Community Engagement and my Evaluation Framework: Fairness. Even if this marriage equality poll had passed all of the other evaluation criteria, it would certainly fail on the Fairness criteria, were we to add it in.