The Turnbull government won’t say if taxpayers will fund an official guide to the arguments for and against same-sex marriage as part of plans for a national plebiscite on the issue in February.
Australian Electoral Commission advice to a parliamentary inquiry on the plebiscite in 2015 said that section 11 of the Referendum Act requires a government pamphlet outlining arguments for and against the proposal to be sent to more than 10 million households around Australia, warning it would be a “complex and expensive product”.
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Same-sex marriage referendum delay
A referendum on marriage equality looks unlikely this year after the government receives advice from the Electoral Commission. Courtesy ABC News 24.
Ahead of the 1999 referendum on an Australian republic and a new preamble to the constitution, production the official pamphlet was the largest single print job undertaken in Australia and the largest single mail out.
Production of the required 12.9 million pamphlets took nine high-speed presses in three locations 10 days of round-the-clock work to produce.
Last year, the commission said a plebiscite pamphlet would require at least 29 weeks preparation time, including about four weeks for paper to be purchased from overseas because Australia is unlikely to have sufficient stock for printing.
An advertising campaign, direct mail and other promotions are also possible.
Attorney-General George Brandis and Special Minister of State Scott Ryan are finalising plebiscite plans, but a spokesman wouldn’t say if an official pamphlet had been considered.
The plebiscite could be held in February next year after the commission told the government last week that it “strongly recommended” against a vote before the end of 2016.
“The mechanics of the plebiscite are subject to the usual cabinet processes and no decision has been made,” a spokesman for Senator Ryan said.
The government would effectively contract the commission to conduct the plebiscite as part of a “fee for service” arrangement, similar to private elections for organisations like trade unions.
Legislation requires arguments in favour and against the proposal of 2000 words or less each be sent to voters on the electoral roll within 14 days before polling day.
The 1999 guide was 39 pages long.
The commission used its September 2015 submission to warn that strict legislative timeframes and content requirement were in place, and enough time would be needed to adequately market test the pamphlet design and ensure it was provided in accessible formats and translations.
“Section 11 of the Referendum Act requires that the referendum pamphlet be delivered to each address on the electoral roll,” the advice said.
“A household mailing will not cover all addresses – special measures are required to reach all, which means advance notice is required to allow time for consultation between Australia Post and the Australian Electoral Commission to match address data from both organisations.
“Timing, costing and resourcing would change depending on length of the pamphlet.”
Market testing was expected to take eight weeks, with at least six weeks required for printing and delivery.
The commission also advised the government to consider if an electronic media blackout would be required for the plebiscite campaign.
In federal elections, the blackout covers all TV and radio broadcasts from midnight on the Wednesday before polling day to the end of polling on the Saturday and is designed as a cooling off period for voters.
The Australian Communications and Media Authority would be asked to advise the government on any blackout period in the plebiscite campaign.