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Marriage Equality vote may leave elderly at risk

Safeguards have been put in place nation-wide as part of the current Marriage Equality postal survey, however concerns are still being held that the ability for older and vulnerable Australians to have their say may be at risk.

Responding to the postal survey is for individuals to do themselves or seek assistance from someone they trust (Source: Shutterstock)
Responding to the postal survey is for individuals to do themselves or seek assistance from someone they trust (Source: Shutterstock)

The ongoing concerns come following one older lady living at home who had visitors come and take her form from her, as well as questions voiced from aged care staff around filling out residents’ votes with a response that is ‘conflicting to their own beliefs’, which were heard during a senate inquiry.

Senator Louise Pratt also raised concern in the same senate inquiry into arrangements for the postal survey about religious institutes, such as aged care facilities and hospitals, who “may determine that a respondent’s survey conflicts with their religious beliefs”.

In response to Senator Pratt’s concerns during the inquiry, Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) General Manager of People, Culture and Communication Samantha Palmer is stated as saying that “one particular provider had staff who were concerned that they may not wish to complete a survey form in alignment with a resident’s wishes.”

Ms Palmer adds that the ABS has “provided advice, therefore, that if you do not feel you can complete a survey form in alignment with the wishes of the person whose form it is then you should respectfully decline.

“We have been engaging quite strongly with a number of different providers...different providers have different questions from staff.”

When asked by Senator Pratt about the obligation to the facility when it comes to completing the survey to the wishes of the resident, ABS Deputy Australian Statistician, Census and Enabling Services Group, Jonathon Palmer responded saying, “The facility has no right to do that”.

“It’s up to the individuals to do it themselves or seek assistance from someone they trust.”

Mr Palmer also adds that with the new legislation brought in as part of the safeguards for the postal survey, it is “very clearly an illegal act to operate to influence someone’s response. So it’s clearly illegal for those in institutions to provide a response that isn’t in compliance with the wishes of the eligible Australian”.

Despite Mr Palmer stating the illegality of influencing someone’s response, the granddaughter of the elderly woman in South Australia that had her survey taken, found no assistance from government following the incident.

“Over the weekend my grandmother, who has pretty severe dementia, called us to say that an old friend who she hadn’t seen in years had been to visit her, and had taken away her postal vote,” she explains.

“She had been confused as to what it was and had likely panicked over the prospect of having to post it as she no longer drives.

“She told us that her friend had offered to take it away and dispose of it for her.

“We were obviously gobsmacked because he had no right to take it, even if he did think he was being helpful.”

She adds that when confronted about it, he said he was only trying to help and in the end conceded to send the postal survey back to the lady and her family.

The role of a 'trusted person' is to not provide information on the survey or how to respond (Source: Shutterstock)

While being told that he would return the survey, the granddaughter says the family had their suspicions that there were ulterior motives after hearing comments from the man such as ‘it doesn’t really matter’ and that ‘not many people would be doing it anyway’.

“I went to the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) in the hopes that they could maybe do something in the event that this person was targeting other vulnerable people, but they didn’t seem to care,” she says.

“They told me nothing could be done about the fact that there was someone out there trying to remove postal votes from vulnerable people because it is an ‘anonymous survey’.

“They said it was up to the individual to alert the AEC and have the vote cancelled – how is a person with a cognitive impairment going to do that on their own?

“I felt really let down that there was nothing the AEC or the ABS could do to assist us.

“I do worry that other people are being targeted – there are stories out there of people’s votes being stolen and of votes being sold on Ebay.

“It is a highly contentious issue and it seems people are willing to go to extreme lengths to ensure their preferred result.”

For those unable to fill the survey out themselves, there are a number of options including appointing a trusted person to complete and return the form on your behalf, but the ABS has stated that a trusted person cannot be self-nominated or claim to be a trusted person. The role of a trusted person is to not influence a decision on the survey or how to respond, only to support in fulfilling the responders wishes.

Alternatively, from 25 September to 20 October a secure access code is available to be accessed via the Marriage Law Postal Survey online enquiry form or by calling the information line on 1800 572 113.

The code will be sent via nominated email or mobile by SMS which can then be used to provide an anonymous response through an automated telephone service, a secure online form or via ABS Customer Assistance Team.

More information on the survey and assistance access is available via the ABS website.

All postal votes must be completed and returned by Friday, 27 October, 2017 with results and a statement scheduled to be published on the ABS website on Wednesday, 15 November 2017.

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