All articles are copyright, no reproduction in any format without permission.
In another life I worked in an institution which had been transformed by Gough Whitlam’s decision to make study at a university free for all. My then rejoicing colleagues brushed aside my reservation that we would, ipso, facto, become Commonwealth public servants living off the public purse, and subject to the same rules, directions and vagaries in policy as any other Commonwealth employee. This very slowly came to pass, until we have now entered on a phase in which universities are told they must downsize, tighten their belts and do more with less. But long before this, one other aspect of our new standing was making itself felt: government questionnaires and surveys. They fell on our desks like ash from a bushfire at the rate of about one a week.
The universities had to create new administrative offices to cope with the influx. In a small gesture of rebellion, I once responded to a questionnaire which demanded to know how many disabled students I had. I had no idea. Certainly some of my students appeared to be intellectually handicapped, but I wasn’t about to interrogate anybody. I missed the deadline. The statistician’s reminders were becoming more importunate and eventually I replied: thirty non-English-speaking one-legged Albanians, and sat back to await the furore. Nothing happened. Since then I have not been able to take ‘surveys’ seriously.
I am not here speaking of that one which occupies so much of our news space and swamps social media. I mean the survey as social instrument, an examination of opinions and behaviour. It is accomplished by asking people questions. Lately, on almost every weeknight, about the time dinner is served, the phone rings. Chances are it will be some earnest person asking who you would vote for if an election were to be held tomorrow, and there follows a list of the political entities which want your vote indeed, are, apparently desperate for it. There is never a category ‘none of the above’.
We are in a political era in which all parties, including those in government, seem to have lost their nerve, or who are petrified by the possibility of alienating any portion of the electorate, the ‘small target’ syndrome. We are also in a period of extreme individual opinionatedness, where everyone seems to have one, on any issue to which they individually, firmly and often irrationally adhere, deploying the now ample means at everyone’s disposal to disseminate it. The use and management of the survey has reached the proportions of an industry, and many people earn money by making themselves available to their constructors and retailers who are also in it for the money.
To be asked to participate in a survey is flattering. Those who man the phones are adept at ingratiation, and suddenly your opinion seems to be important to someone. It doesn’t seem to matter
whether their motives are overt or not. The request may come in online, or via the telephone. Either way, by choosing to respond, you have created an opening through which, for good or ill, access may be gained to you. With varying degrees of subtlety the survey will enable the entity conducting it to form a picture of who you are, who you are likely to vote for, what you may be inclined
The present Marriage Equality National Survey [MENS] being conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, with aid of the Australian Electoral Commission, is a deeply flawed political expedient. It is also unique in that government has never previously been interested in our opinion, much less requesting it, listening to, or acting on it. I am sure it has no idea how many people will be affected, although I suspect many fewer than either side would claim are involved. Whatever the outcome, and I have no idea what that might be, it will not resolve the issue, although interested parties on either hand will assert that it does. The only certainty will be that the stable door of divisiveness has swung wide open. And in the process a great many people will become polarised. The cost to the nation is incalculable.
To begin with we do not know what the validating rate of return might be. Nor have we any guarantee that all those eligible to participate will have received an invitation to do so. Secure mailboxes in or out are a rarity and mail can easily be interfered with or contaminated, physically or otherwise. The question ‘is a simple yes or no one’ we are told. but is it? The forms are bar-coded and obviously designed to be machine-processed, but how secure are the machines? How detached are the operators who will, incidentally, also be participating in the survey? There exists an immense literature on the factors which affect the responses to any survey, and the responsiveness of those surveyed or even if they respond at all. The MENS survey would never have been approved by any serious academic research committee. Nor would any commercial enterprise invest money in it because it is such a flawed project.
We are not having the survey because the issue is one of national significance, but because a minority Liberal government is itself split on the subject, even before its Coalition Party was admitted to the Liberal Party’s policy discussion and what’s more, was allowed to vote on it. It is merely an expedient, a diversion, a face-saver and in the end it will satisfy no-one, will divide a nation, and the taste of it will linger on the political palate for years. Whichever way the outcome goes.
I hope I’m wrong.
John Fleming II
Scroll to Top