With Australia the only major English-speaking country which has not legalized same-sex marriage, supporters are clamouring for change.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull stands firmly in the “marriage equality” camp, but has agreed to hold a plebiscite after the upcoming Federal election, if he wins. The plebiscite would not bind Parliament, but politicians would be foolish to ignore the result. If voters say Yes to same-sex marriage, the Marriage Act would be amended to allow marriage between any two persons.

A plebiscite is fiercely opposed by the “marriage equality” lobby. Convinced that they have the numbers in Parliament, but unsure whether they will emerge victorious in a plebiscite, they want the pollies to settle the issue, not the people. One of their tactics is to underscore the cost of a plebiscite.

The latest salvo is today’s release of an estimated cost for a plebiscite. The author of the study is the leading accounting firm PwC Australia, which boasts that it was “Australia’s top LGBTI employer in 2015”. CEO Luke Sayers says that a plebiscite will impose a huge burden on the economy just as it is entering rough waters.

“a standalone plebiscite could cost $525 million – that’s three times the cost commonly quoted. This includes the $158 million cost to the taxpayer to facilitate, $66 million for the community to fund the “for” and “against” campaigns, $281 million in lost productivity as people take time out to vote, and at least $20 million in costs associated with the impact on the mental health and wellbeing of Australian citizens.”

A simple vote in Parliament would only cost $17 million, saving the country $508 million.  

But do these figures stack up?

No, they don’t. PwC has entered the shadowy world of advocacy accounting where statistics are used as drunkards use lampposts: for support, not for illumination.

Let’s take a closer look. 

The Australian Electoral Commission has estimated that a stand-alone plebiscite will cost $158 million, mainly for staffing across the country and printing costs. Let’s accept that this is a reliable figure.

PwC says that the campaigns “for” and “against” will cost $66 million. This figure is fantasy. PwC took the average of the average-cost-per-voter in six other campaigns in Australia and overseas and multiplied it by the number of potential voters. Presto! The plebiscite will cost $3.41 per voter.

Statistically, this methodology is as dodgy as lung cancer statistics funded by Philip Morris. Not only do these six averages include overseas figures of questionable relevance to Australia and Australian figures from nearly 20 years ago, they include the estimated cost of an Australian referendum which never took place.

Why not take the per capita cost of last year’s Irish referendum? It’s recent; it’s probably accurate; and it’s $0.55. That implies a cost of $9 million.

A figure of $281 million in lost productivity is the major component of PwC’s massaging of the figures. The plebiscite will take place on a Saturday, which will not be a working day for most people. Taking a closer look:

  • $12 million will be lost in productivity by people who fill in a postal vote. PwC estimates that it will take people 30 minutes to fill out the ballot paper. Thirty minutes? Have the authors of this report ever voted by post? Opening the envelope, ticking a box, placing the paper in the envelope and sealing the envelope takes about 1 minute. Let’s say $400,000.
  • $49 million of lost productivity by people who work on Saturday. OK, I’m feeling in a good mood, let’s concede that.
  • $220 million of lost productivity by people who are not working on Saturday, costed at the minimum wage of $17.29 per hour. This is absurd. By that calculation, watching the AFL Grand Final is a vastly more wasteful opportunity cost. Nobody is complaining about that. Let’s not complain about the plebiscite. Let’s say $0 for Saturday’s lost productivity.

Total lost productivity: $49.4 million.

If PwC wants to include lost productivity on Saturday, let’s have some economics to back it up. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The report’s two-page bibliography includes a blizzard of studies of LGBTI mental health which settle in gentle drifts over the utter dearth of methodology in support of its single most important figure. As Vox journalist Brad Plumer put it in another context:  

“… no one’s ever done a rigorous analysis of all these supposed productivity-killers. The findings are usually just large numbers tossed around to draw attention to pet issues. A new study finding that spam or yawning or picking your nose costs billions of dollars in lost productivity might make for good headlines. But it rarely tells us anything useful about the economy.

The final component is $20 million in costs associated with the impact on the mental health and wellbeing of Australian citizens”. The idea is that 5% of the LGBTI community will be so distressed by the debate that they will need to see a GP or psychologist ($4 million), take sickies ($2 milllion) or do stuff-all at work — which PwC delicately describes as “presenteeism” ($14 million).

But what about the havoc wreaked by the campaign on the psyche of the 98 percent of the Australian community which is not LGBTI? The report acknowledges that “It is also important to consider that people opposed to marriage equality may also be impacted by the plebiscite in relation to their mental health.”

Well, it may have been important but they didn’t consider it and they didn’t calculate it. Surely, with PwC’s flair for creative accounting, it could have pulled a non-LGBTI mental distress rabbit out of the hat.

Let’s assume that the net balance of anguish between the two sides is $0.

A bit of realism trims back the cost of Australia’s plebiscite on same-sex marriage to $216.4 million, a hefty sum, but considerably lower than the widely publicised estimate of half a billion.

This report ought to leave PwC Australia with egg on its face. Does it really want to be a gun-for-hire for the “marriage equality” campaign, ready to produce whatever statistics are needed to prove whatever point, no matter how implausible? We’ll soon see: a second report is on the way about the economic benefits of “marriage equality”. 

Is a $216.4 million plebiscite worth it? If you think that preserving real marriage, marriage between a man and a woman, is important, it’s worth every cent.  

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet. 

Michael Cook

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet