By Sharaf Khan
The marriage equality debate continues to dominate headlines following the Government’s announcement of the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey. The decision to undertake this voluntary postal survey, to be conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, came after the Government’s repeated failures to pass legislation on a plebiscite through the Senate. The postal survey has been heavily criticised as a waste of taxpayer money and for opening the door for a hurtful and derisory advocacy campaign against the LGBTIQ community.
While the validity of the Government’s decision to appropriate public funds and direct the ABS to undertake the postal survey was upheld by the High Court, the potential political ramifications of the Government’s actions are still to be seen.
Following the Government’s announcement of the postal survey, there has been a major public campaign to encourage people to update their enrolment details or enrol for the first time. This has been undertaken predominantly by the ‘Yes’ campaign and has focused on younger voters, particularly those that have never previously enrolled to vote. During the enrolment period (between 8 and 24 August), the Australian Electoral Commission experienced unprecedented interest with 933,592 transactions processed. This represents an approximately 26 per cent increase when compared to the close of rolls period before the 2016 federal election. 87 per cent of these transactions (812,225) were enrolment changes or updates and these were predominantly for electors aged 25-39. In addition, there were over 98,000 added to the roll of which 65,000 were aged 18-24.
Following the AEC’s 24 August deadline, there has been conjecture as to whether the increase in young voter registration as a direct result of the marriage equality postal survey, will adversely impact the Government at the next federal election. When you look at the numbers, it’s easy to see why. Historically, voters aged 18-34 are much more likely to vote for Labor or the Greens than voters aged over 35. While the vast majority of the 98,000 new electors aged 24 and under, statistics would suggest that by encouraging the activation of young people on an issue that matters to them, the Government has delivered more votes to their opponents. This sentiment was expressed by former Liberal leader John Hewson who described this phenomenon to Sky News as the “Theresa May affect” in reference to the recent British election where an unusually large number of young people voted for Labour.
With the Government continuing to trail Labor in the polls (47 to 53, two-party preferred), this appears to be a miscalculation on the part of the Prime Minister. There are current 28 Government seats that are held by a margin of 6 percent or less which suggest that they Government may be in trouble in some areas. However, without a geographical breakdown of the electorates in which these new voters reside, it is difficult to determine exactly what impact, if any, they could have on the outcome of an election. Despite this, an unfavourable result in the recent AEC electoral redistribution, coupled with an influx of new voters and continuing negative poll results, suggests that the Government is facing an uphill battle to retain power the next time Australia heads to the ballot box.