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A postal vote is a silly idea, but polling voters makes sense

 When you think about it, the tenacity should be applauded. The Coalition will stop at nothing – and be deterred by no one – in its bid to stop or delay a parliamentary vote on same-sex marriage.

And people say politicians today have no guts, no staying power.

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The former PM will vote against same sex marriage and has offered up reasons for people to do the same.

In the last couple of years – since it looked like the Parliament has the numbers to legalise same-sex marriage – the Coalition has tried everything, from dismissing the idea (ie it's not an issue/ people care more about jobs), to proposing a plebiscite and then blaming Labor for not supporting it.

More recently, when it looked like some within the government's own camp might cross the floor and bring on that dastardly vote, big, scary threats were made to the offending Liberal MPs (you'll lose your seat/ you'll blow up the government).

Then, this week, the idea of a postal plebiscite was officially added to the pot – a voluntary affair, which both voters and MPs can ignore if it suits them.

The Coalition has even wriggled around potential legal challenges to the survey. Instead of having the country's expert election organising body conduct the vote, the Australian Electoral Commission has been dumped for the Australian Bureau of Statistics. As a triumphant Finance Minister Mathias Cormann explained, if the government characterises the vote as collecting "statistical information", they can just give the ABS money to conduct the poll without going through Parliament.

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It's a convoluted, tricky, messy business.

So is it any wonder that voters are thoroughly unimpressed with what they see in Canberra?

Late last month, Fairfax Media ran four focus groups with undecided voters in marginal electorates (two in Sydney, two in Melbourne). As political editor Peter Hartcher reported this week, both sides of politics got the thumbs-down in the process. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was rated as a "huge disappointment" who had not made any improvement to voters' lives, while Labor's Bill Shorten was not seen as a viable alternative.

The most common complaint from the sessions was politicians were "out of touch". Voters also thought MPs fought too much and that they were just in it for themselves.

It shouldn't come as a wacky surprise to anyone that people are not happy. Quantitative surveys have found this time and time again. The Australian National University's election study interviewed about 2800 people after last year's federal election. It found trust in politicians had dropped to 26 per cent – the lowest level since 1969, when it was first measured. Seventy four per cent of those surveyed agreed that "people in government look after themselves," while 14 per cent said politicians knew what ordinary people thought.

It's a trend that worries political watchers as well as politicians. Trumpmania, the Brexit vote, the rise of the far right in France and One Nation in Australia show us that funny things can happen when voters are pissed off with mainstream politics.

The irony is that under different circumstances, something like the postal vote could be just what we need to refresh the political system. Voters would feel more engaged if they thought their opinions formed a legitimate part of the decision-making process.

(And realistically, elections involve too many policies and too many candidates to be able to say the tribe has specifically spoken on issue a, b or c.)

Some believe regularly polling voters is the way of the future, with a fledgling movement to encourage direct democracy in Australia. Direct democracy group Flux gained 0.15 per cent of the national Senate vote in the 2016 election (just shy of the Palmer United Party's vote at 0.19 per cent). The Online Direct Democracy Party won 0.09 per cent.

Entrepreneur Adam Jacoby has developed a mobile app – MiVote – that asks users to learn about different policy questions and then cast their vote. The app is part of a broader movement that has set itself a goal of getting three MiVote members elected to the Senate, who would then vote according to the results of the app polls.

"Representative democracy has been repeatedly harmed by corruption, corporate influence, media manipulation, ideological perversion, power of lobby groups, cronyism, erosion of transparency, and so much more until what we now live with is a shadow of its former self and a world away from its stated intention – to represent the will of the people," the MiVote website says.

Unfortunately, direct democracy moves have a dubious history in Australia. Recent examples, such as Joe Hockey's Twitter straw poll on the ETS and Julia Gillard's failed citizen's assembly on climate change were laughed off the stage because they were seen as desperate attempts to salvage a political situation that had already gone the way of the pear.

It's the same thing with the marriage equality plebiscite – voters aren't stupid. They know if their opinions genuinely mattered, the results would be binding on MPs. But as the political show staggers on, it's worth remembering just that – voters aren't stupid.

So maybe it's worth asking them what they think more often.

Judith Ireland is a Fairfax Media senior writer.