Australia's longest serving politician, William Morris Hughes, once remarked that he trusted only the Commonwealth Statistician and God, and that often he was not too sure about the reliability of advice attributed to the latter.
The man on whom he laid this compliment was Sir George Knibbs, who saw his role as Commonwealth Statistician to be "a professional expert in statecraft, assisting the administrative statesmen with his counsel and advice."
Knibbs might vie with Ian Castles as the Australian statistician who had perhaps the greatest international reputation and who made the greatest contribution to his trade - except that it was sometimes hard to say just what the trade of this sometime surveyor, geodesist, professor of physics, astronomer, tax and insurance expert, eugenicist and educationist exactly was. Whatever it was involved advice of the highest quality, independent, detached and not compromised by anxiety to please the Government of the day. He told government what it needed to know, but did not prostitute his career or his agency to get the money it needed to carry out its functions.
It is by no means clear that Knibbs, or even the current Australian Bureau of Statistics Act, would have encouraged or sanctioned an ABS venture into the conduct of a voluntary plebiscite, or the settling of public policy disputes by the most dubious methods of sampling and significance.
The Government has formidable powers to lean on the ABS, and governments have been doing so for more than 30 years. But the power of ministers to impose such a duty on an unwilling bureau seems limited. Historically, pressure on the bureau has come not from explicit government direction, but from its power to starve the agency of funds, to set user-pays regimes, and to insist that the bureau finds some of its money from commissioned "research".
For all of that, the ABS has maintained a high reputation for integrity, if not always for its judgment in picking up some of its commissions.
It's a reputation the ABS used to value. In 2015, a poll showed that 30 per cent of people in the community placed a great deal of trust in ABS findings, and a further 51 per cent tended to trust them. Only nine per cent tended to distrust them.
The result were even better among informed users in government, academe and among economists and journalists. But seven per cent of informed users (and 14 per cent of the general public) had some doubts about the freedom of the ABS from political interference. That's a figure likely to increase over the next few months as the bureau turns to handling a government request that it conduct a poll on same sex marriage.
Australian Statistician David Kalisch: After the census fiasco, there are doubts whether the ABS is even managerially up to the task of the plebiscite survey. Photo: Andrew Meares
It's not a function for which the ABS is well equipped. It's not a function envisaged by its Act (even if, provided it publishes its results, it is not forbidden from carrying out). It involves a direct political issue from which the bureau has rightly shrunk. And the form that its survey will take will almost certainly violate most of the statistical tests of significance and meaning that Knibbs and successive statisticians set down, for the world and the science as much as government.
The Turnbull government has not chosen the ABS to conduct the same sex marriage plebiscite survey because it knows or believes that the ABS is best equipped to do such a job. Indeed, after the fiasco of last year's census, there are doubts whether the organisation is even managerially up to the task.
If a poll has to be done – and that is a political decision – the body best able to do it would be the Australian Electoral Office. But no specific money has been appropriated to such a task, even under the vague appropriating formula the High Court now heretically permits. It is, anyway, impossible to read the Electoral Act as providing a general permission to conduct such a poll – voluntarily or compulsorily – without specific appropriation.
There are more same-sex families in Australia than people presently in the Australian Defence Force. They are not the enemy.
The legislative functions of the ABS are sufficiently vague that they could authorise almost any unappropriated expenditure to collect "statistics", provided, at least, that the "survey" it conducts is not compulsory for respondents, and that the ABS voluntarily takes on the task. If government or the ABS wanted the plebiscite to be compulsory, the regulation requiring this could be (and would be) disallowed in the senate. Oddly, had government asked the ABS to perform a large opinion poll – as was done in deciding the national anthem – it would have more easily fitted within the ABS role.
Many people and interests are going to be adversely or positively affected by the plebiscite, or by its outcome (which is a different thing.) But, given that same-sex marriage legislation is virtually inevitable in the next few years, the self-inflicted damage to the reputation of the ABS in taking up this commission might be the longest lasting. As a former statistician, Bill McLennan has commented, the government has very limited power to order ABS compliance, since a poll can hardly be said to involve the collection of statistics. It gives the bureau "a bad look" and should be "sounding the alarm bells", with the risk, if it is an organisational disaster, of breaking the bureau.
For some, putting reputational damage to the ABS alongside the hurt and anger of ordinary Australians unable to marry because of the existing laws, or unhappy that other gay Australians cannot, might seem strange or perverse. Likewise with the fury some feel with the idea that rights for homosexuals are to be granted or withheld by majority vote. Or that they somehow fit inside some argument about whether such rights are to be a mere matter of political correctness, as Tony Abbott is now claiming.
The rights and feelings of those affected are real enough. But some of the expressions of them by some of their leaders, actual or self-appointed, are worth a generous discount.
If Labor figures, including Penny Wong, (herself in a same-sex relationship with children) were so insistent on the right as a fundamental and inalienable one, it is surprising that they did not push harder for it to be legislated into action during the Rudd and Gillard governments. The silence (or the loyalty) of Wong was, at the time more deafening than her clamour now.
At that stage, senior ministers, including Shorten and Wong seemed to think that appeasement of the anti-gay marriage views of the leadership of the shop assistants union was more important than the rights of gays. It is not clear how, by their logic, they are now suddenly so urgent and significant.
Labor frontbencher Penny Wong has two young daughters with her partner Sophie Allouache. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
It has been likewise with the angst, in some sections of the Labor Party, or among moderate Liberals, about the human rights of asylum seekers.
A minority in the coalition, including Malcolm Turnbull himself, strongly believe in a right to gay marriage. But events of the past few years, and even of the past week, have demonstrated the limits of their willingness to make any personal or political sacrifices for their beliefs, even when it would be popular in their own constituencies.
But it can hardly be said that the courage of any gay marriage advocates (including those who are gay) has put them into any substantial risk of political damage or within range of enemy fire. Oddly, it may be that there are more people on the conservative side prepared to take personal political risks on the subject than on the other.
Right now, the major political leaders have positioned themselves rather more for best political advantage than from firm conviction. Pragmatism, not passion, is to the fore.
A minority in the coalition, including Malcolm Turnbull himself, strongly believe in a right to gay marriage. Photo: Supplied
Same-sex marriage is not a zero sum game, in which one side will win what the other has lost, and it is quite possible that everyone, at least every one of the leaders, will lose.
It is generally assumed, on the basis of opinion polling, that support for same-sex marriage is of a proportion of about two to one, and that, generally, the younger you are, the more likely you are to be in favour. But a voluntary poll, conducted by post, raises a real prospect of a turnout skewed towards the elderly.
A voluntary poll, moreover, is a magnet for those with strong and dogmatic views. Gay recognition has become so passé among the young and middle aged that many may not see its affirmation as being at risk. All the more so given that the "yes" side lacks clear leadership, or the capacity to exert any discipline over supporters, some of whom (probably a minority) are inclined anyway to boycott the plebiscite as an insult.
If Bill Shorten and Penny Wong had any confidence in their charisma, they might urge a real boycott. That might not prevent the realisation of their fear – that a "no" campaign would unleash and "permission" a wave of fear and hatred of homosexuals. But a low turnout would embarrass the outcome.
If Labor blithely said that legislating gay marriage, regardless of the outcome, would take place soon after the election of a Labor government, even some of those rightly cynical about Labor's motives might think that less odious than the choice confronting them next month.
A "no" outcome is far from impossible, even with a Labor-led "yes" campaign, particularly if mischief making by Abbott succeeds in making the plebiscite a general vote of confidence in the Turnbull government. [The same risk applies to any referendum about Aborigines and the Constitution – indeed many Aborigines, and people on the Left would be disposed to reject any proposition for fear that it would be read as some sort of tick of current coalition, or Labor, Indigenous affairs policy.]
If Labor is campaigning for "yes," rather than a boycott, a "no" outcome ought to be disastrous for Bill Shorten, especially given the poor odour of the Turnbull government.
If Labor is campaigning for "yes," rather than a boycott, a "no" outcome ought to be disastrous for Bill Shorten. Photo: James Brickwood
It would also, of course, be very damaging for Turnbull, because it would be read, correctly, as a repudiation of him by his own side of politics. That is why Turnbull does not propose to campaign hard in favour of "yes," and why he has been making so many absurd and piteous claims of being a strong leader.
Whether or not Turnbull could survive as leader after a "no" vote, the issue will not go away. Indeed, it would probably damage a conservative replacement prime minister, whoever that might be, more than it could embarrass a moderate.
From Turnbull's point of view, a "yes" outcome provides the hope that parliament can then quickly pass same-sex marriage legislation, and that the issue would quickly die away. Perhaps, but his lack of leadership on the issue has not been the cause of the collapse of his public support, even if it has been an evidence of it. Anyway, the very campaign, and the demons and intemperate language it sets free, will reinforce many of the existing divisions within the coalition, and it is doubtful that everyone will reunite, without rancour, afterwards. There's not even any hope that Abbott would see a "yes" vote as a dismissal notice.
Coalition moderates will claim that a "yes" vote vindicates their strategy and tactics, and repudiate the Labor and senate approach. Having let the people, rather than the parliament decide, will be seen as more democratic and trusting of the good sense of the population, it will be said.
But most of those who will have voted "yes" would have preferred earlier action by parliament. A good many voters recognise that the plebiscite was, from the beginning, a tactic to cause delay, confusion and (as with the republic plebiscite) to seek to divide supporters. No one will concede that Turnbull's caution has saved the side, or the day.
Curiously, perhaps the best argument in favour of a plebiscite (if there is a reasonable turnout) is that it might encourage acceptance of a "yes" result even among those adamantly opposed. Those firmly of a "no" disposition might accept the passage of a law as the will of the people, even as they continue to believe firmly that marriage is in the religious, not civil domain, and that it is only permissible for different-sex unions.
But it is noteworthy that the fervour of opposition to same-sex marriages has dropped dramatically in every country which has legislated it, whether through the courts, parliament or by referendum. The Trump administration in the United States has not sought to wind back gay marriage. Recently, it told the UN that discussion of the family must consider all types of loving families, including families headed by a same-sex couple. It repeated the Obama administration view that "human rights belong to individuals, not the family unit."
For millions of Australians, including myself, the issue is not a mere intellectual one, nor merely some academic dispute, among honourable people, about the best social fit for our polity. It is about human rights, dignity, emotions, and the wellbeing members of one's own families.
There are more same-sex families in Australia than people presently in the Australian Defence Force. They are not the enemy.
Jack Waterford is a former Editor of The Canberra Times email@example.com