Today, the 15th November 2017, the results of the (non-binding) Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey were revealed. Voters were asked the question, “Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?” They had two options – ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’ The result was a 61.6% vote in favour of ‘Yes.’ The turnout (defined here as legally cast votes) was 79.3%.
On the 23rd June, 2016, the United Kingdom held a (advisory) referendum to decide whether or not it should remain a part of the European Union. Voters were asked the question, “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” They had two options – ‘Remain a member of the European Union’ or ‘Leave the European Union.’ The result was a 51.9% vote in favour of ‘Leave.’ The turnout (defined here as legally cast votes) was 72.2%.
On the surface, these two scenarios and outcomes may appear very similar. They are not. Unfortunately, we now need to talk about statistics. The data is everything, because it tells us what is really happening. Please bear with me. I will be as terse as I can.
In the Australian Marriage Equality Survey, 7,817,247 voted ‘Yes.’ Frustratingly (if, like me, you are a supporter of marriage equality), this equates to 48.8% of the total electorate (16,006,180), thus falling just short of an overall majority. So, not then ‘the will of the people.’ Or is it? To achieve more than 50% of the total electorate, 8,003,091 votes were required. The ‘Yes’ vote was only 185,844 short of this target – or 5.6% of those who did not vote. Is it reasonable to assume they would obtain these votes were it possible to ask the non-voters? Yes of course it is. In fact, it’s practically guaranteed that they would. Therefore, the result of this survey can and should be considered the will of the people, and the Australian government should move to legalise same-sex marriage immediately. Happily, their Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has already indicated that he wishes to change the law by Christmas.
In the UK’s EU Referendum, 17,410,742 voted ‘Leave.’ This equates to 37.4% of the total electorate (46,500,001), well short of an overall majority. The ‘Leave’ vote required 5,839,259 more votes to achieve over 50% of the electorate – that’s 45.1% of those who did not vote. Is it reasonable to assume they would obtain these votes were it possible to ask the non-voters? No. The data suggests strongly that the total electorate is in favour of remaining in the European Union. 62.5% of people under the age of 50 voted ‘Remain’ and we know that the over 65s were twice as likely to have voted as people under 25. Clearly then, leaving the European Union cannot and should not be considered the will of the people.
The key factors in all of this are the margin of victory and the voter turnout. ‘Yes’ won by 23.2% in Australia, with a 79.3% turnout – a clear and resounding victory. By contrast, ‘Leave’ in the UK won by just 3.8%, with a 72.2% turnout – ambiguous to say the least. Thus, while Australia unites and rejoices, the UK becomes ever more divided as it stumbles towards the EU exit door with no apparent plan in place and a government that looks distinctly out of its depth.
There was of course a very easy way to avoid this situation. When devising the grounds upon which they would agree to act in response to the results of the referendum, the UK government should have required certain criteria to have been met. A minimum 75% voter turnout and a 5% margin of victory seem to be the obvious choices. It is unconscionable that the Tories were so irresponsible as to not put these safeguards in place.
It would be remiss of me also not to point out that, while marriage equality is something one could expect the public to fully understand and make an informed decision on, the consequences of leaving the EU are not (especially when so much misinformation was spread during the campaigns). Therefore, the UK’s EU referendum should never have taken place to begin with.
Alas, the EU referendum was only advisory and Article 50 can be revoked. It is now the duty of the UK government to acknowledge that not only did ‘Leave’ fail to win an overall majority of the total electorate, but that it never could have. It should then cancel the process of leaving the European Union and focus its energy instead on effecting change from within. One might almost say it should, ahem, take back control.