Thursday, 10 August 2017

Looking north at the directive for ‘statistical information’ on same-sex marriage laws

Dr Andrew Taylor

The directive

We heard on August 9 this year that the Australian Statistician (the head of the Australian Bureau of Statistics) may, pending legal challenges, be directed to conduct a statistical survey of the nation in relation to laws on same-sex marriage:
"The Treasurer will be directing the Australian statistician to request, on a voluntary basis, statistical information from all Australians on the electoral law [roll] as to their views on whether or not the law in relation to same-sex marriage should be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry."

While some are questioning the legal validity of this directive, Section 9 of the Census and Statistics Act (1905) states that the Statistician can be directed by the Minister to collect “…such statistical information in relation to the matters so prescribed as is specified in the notice.” (Census and Statistics Act, 1905). At the moment, and not surprisingly given the scale and short timeframe it has been directed to conduct the work within, the ABS has provided limited information on the process

Putting aside political and legal considerations, the proposal for a postal-based collection to be run by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in just a few weeks’ time raises many questions. Not least, there is no suggestion that the results of the exercise should be representative. This would require a carefully planned sample to obtain a certain number of reposes from sub-sections of the population based on where they live, their gender and age.

Secondly, there are questions about the logistical capacity of the ABS to effectively garner the preferences of those living in some parts of Australia where electoral enrolments are low (for example, only half of those aged 18-25 in the Northern Territory are enrolled - see our Research Brief on this topic) and where it is logistically difficult to get mail to individuals in a timely fashion, if at all. In parts of the north up to a third of the population do not have letterboxes. If updates to the roll are allowed in the period leading up to the collection, the very short timeframe may leave many Australian’s (not least those in remote areas) at risk of not receiving a form.


Where do Australia’s Same Sex Couples Live?

Given these developments, it is interesting to look at the geographic distribution of same-sex couples according to the 2016 Census. The chart below shows the proportion of couples who said they were in same sex relationships in 2016. While inner city areas, and especially Sydney, have by far the highest rates of same-sex couples, some northern parts (coloured in orange) are at or over the national average of 0.9% of couples (shown by the red dotted line). Regions in the north that stand out include Outback NT, Darwin, Cairns and Townsville (right click and select 'open in new tab').

When we look more closely within the NT, we see the proportion of same sex couples is highest in the Alice Springs, Darwin, McDonnell and the Tiwi Island regions (the latter is home to the now famous ‘Sister Girls’). These have below average enrolment rates and a substantial proportion of the population are without household letterboxes - particularly in remote areas like Alice Springs.

The very limited time frame and non-representative approach which is proposed for this exercise raises questions about how well the ‘views and opinions’ of Northern Australians in particular will be obtained. And for some parts of the north, less representation may mean a reduced ‘no’ vote. It is also not clear whether this is a vote-type exercise, where people might answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to one question, or a survey-type exercise in which there may be a number of more detailed questions.

Demography North

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