Sunday, July 5, 2015

Abetz, Mushrooms And Shaky Same-Sex Marriage Polling

Advance Summary

1. Recent comments by Senator Eric Abetz opposing marriage equality should be taken in the context of Abetz's historic opposition to repealing "anti-gay" sex laws, and his use of much the same thin-end-of-the-wedge argument style then as now.

2. The anti-equality group Australian Marriage Forum is receiving substantial publicity but media have not examined whether this group has a formal membership structure or substantial membership.

3. Claims by the Ambrose Centre for Religious Liberty that support for same-sex marriage drops when respondents are asked to support changing the Marriage Act ignore the likelihood that some respondents would support achieving it through distinct legislation.

4. Many other findings in the Ambrose Centre's study are unreliable because of the extent to which respondents have been primed through the emphasis on one side of the story.

5. The Ambrose Centre study does, however, reveal that most voters who oppose same-sex marriage would still do so even if it did not cause significant social change and even if studies showed there was no impact on the wellbeing of children.  

6. Australian Marriage Forum's own report on polling is awash with unsound conclusions, and the amount of priming involved in their question designs means that little of use can be drawn from it.


This very long and in places rambling article covers some dodgy polling by opponents of same-sex marriage, but also some dubious recent comments by fellow Tasmanians on the issue.  There's also an irrelevant diversion about mushrooms.  Feel very free to just read whatever bits of it, if any, interest you.    As stated before I completely support allowing federal same-sex marriage and regard the arguments against it as lacking even the slightest shred of merit.  This then will not read like an unbiased article, but when it comes to polling I am careful to criticise bad (and praise good) polling practice by both sides of any debate, whatever I think of the views of those involved.

#IDon'tStandWithEric: An Ancient History

It's been a rough week for my home state when it comes to its contributions to the same-sex marriage debate.  Our foremost contributor was Senator Eric Abetz, claiming among other things that allowing same-sex marriage was the thin end of the wedge to allowing polygamy.  Nothing has changed since 1994 when Abetz was saying (hat tip: David Barry for that link) that overruling Tasmania's anti-gay-sex laws was the thin end of the wedge to incest.

Back in 1994 Abetz was one of seven Senators (the rest: Tasmanian Liberals Calvert and Watson, Tasmanian independent Harradine, and Nationals Boswell, O'Chee and McGauran) to vote against the federal bill to neutralise Tasmania's "anti-gay laws".  I use the quotes because the laws in theory targeted various consensual heterosexual acts as well. There were just four votes against in the Reps (but a fair few abstentions), and Abetz's only fellow naysayers still in either house of parliament are Bob Katter (back then a National) and the current Nationals leader, Warren Truss.  (The other two noes in the Reps were Liberal Allan Rocher and the Nationals' Paul Neville.)

The current Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, argued against the "override" in an op ed in The Australian at the time - but then on deciding that the bill didn't technically override Tasmanian legislation as such but rather just created a defence of privacy, voted in favour.  Abbott also believed the Tasmanian laws were "out of touch", a position Abetz didn't share.

Abetz's suggestion (also seen from Barnaby Joyce) that Australia should kowtow to (currently) anti-same-sex-marriage attitudes in Asia has been covered elsewhere.  Many asked what they thought was an ambit question about whether Abetz thought we should follow those Asian nations that criminalise homosexuality.  Unfortunately Abetz's voting record from 1994 (and associated comments) shows that at that time he actually did think letting Tasmania keep such criminal laws was a very good idea, and not just for state's rights reasons either.  I'm not aware of him ever apologising for defending the view that consensual sex acts should be regulated by laws that included a maximum 25 year prison term.

Like many opponents, Abetz likes to state without the slightest evidence that same-sex marriage threatens mixed-sex marriage, though if a green activist asserted an environmental value was threatened with as little logic, Abetz would rip into them and rightly so.  He also trots out the usual line about studies demonstrating that children are better off with a married mother and father, but ignores the problem that such studies are generally either drawing comparisons with other kinds of mixed-sex arrangements or have fatal method flaws.  (The infamous Regnerus study is a good example here - its most crucial error was treating any case where a parent had had any kind of same-sex relationship, however brief, as a valid comparison point.)

Much has also been said about Abetz's shrill attack on Hobart City Council's unanimous support for the right of its same-sex-attracted citizens, and indeed a lot of ridicule has been coming Abetz's way.

Another contribution was by fellow Tasmanian and Government whip Andrew Nikolic, who argued that same-sex marriage shouldn't be prioritised over economic issues and his government's obsession with hobgoblin-menacing in the form of constant "national security" bills.  I do sympathise with the idea that same-sex marriage should not take up a lot of the parliament's time, but this is very easily accomplished if those opposed to it stop pointlessly obstructing the rights of others and pass it quickly.  The excuse from one side of the debate is that same-sex marriage is not an important enough issue to hold up other issues over - oh, unless it might actually be passed, in which case stopping it becomes supposedly important.

One concern here is that Nikolic sits on the Selection Committee which determines which bills make it to parliament.  This is a matter on which the Parliament might be very closely split if a conscience vote is permitted, quite different to many private members bills that have no prospect of passing, and the Committee would not be doing its job if it did not allow the matter to be brought on.  (Indeed, that would presumably then lead to the government being continually bombarded with motions to suspend standing orders, and the issue becoming a more lasting nuisance.)  We can only hope that the Selection Committee members will think of the views of the wider parliament in making their decision.

But the Tasmanian contribution that brought things closest to this site's core business (polling, voting and all that jazz) wasn't from a politician at all, and I only saw it because I idly clicked a stray link in the #politas twitter feed ...

Wrong About Mushrooms, Wrong For America

Claire van Ryn is the Religion columnist for The Examiner (that it still has one is mysterious enough).  Van Ryn usually writes more in a chatty vaguely concerned style than the fire and brimstone of a Fred Nile type, but a stock in trade is to try (example here) to argue that we should all just be nice to each other, and to attack critics of the religious right for "vilifying" their opponents.

Of course, some supporters of same-sex marriage do go overboard in declaring all opponents to be homophobes.  It would be good though if van Ryn and her fellow travellers recognised that supporting a law that implies couples are unfit to be allowed to marry if they are the same gender is a fundamentally insulting thing to do (whether the person doing it is homophobic or not), and is a personal attack on everyone affected by such laws.  It's a bit rich to support denying people rights and then insist that they just pass the peace pipe.

Van Ryn's site has the curious name Faith Like A Mushroom, and this is the source of its title:

"I was out walking one day when I saw this squirt of a mushroom poking through a gap in the asphalt footpath.  Closer inspection confirmed that the delicate fungi [sic] had wriggled its way through the brute surface to angle its cap towards the sun.  It was a beautiful thing to look at: fragility and strength embodied in a small, unassuming scrap of matter.  And I thought, aren't we all like that wee mushroom? It is not our own strength that brings us victory, but the strength of what we strain towards.

This, friends is my mushroom theology! I love to write about my faith in God and the immense freedom gained from that relationship.  [..]"

Aside from the freedom bit, there's just a little problem here.  Mushrooms are not straining towards the sun as such.  Being not plants and not photosynthetic, they actually couldn't give a hypha where the sun is and what it is doing (hence the more familiar analogy, the "mushroom treatment", relating to growing them in the dark).  Their overwhelming relationships are not with the sun but with plants, soil and what is beneath the ground, and ultimately what they are striving for when pushing upwards is just a little bit of altitude in order to disperse their spores to reproduce.

So van Ryn is happy to base her site concept around a spurious analogy, but she's also not too good at getting to first base without problems when it comes to communicating with those she wants to convince.  This can be seen in her recent Letter To The Gay Community.  Claiming to be a "genuinely interested" request as to whether gay people think SSM will make a difference, and conceding that same-sex attracted people have a right to "a life unhindered by prejudice", van Ryn opens her open letter thus:

"To homosexuals everywhere in support of same sex marriage"

If van Ryn had the first clue about same-sex issues, she would know that the use of "homosexuals" as a noun is quite often considered totally offensive and outmoded, and even the adjective form is best used with some caution.  I'm undecided as to whether she is really this clueless, or whether her piece is actually about playing to a gallery of fellow travellers by showing off how effectively she can show gay SSM supporters that they're suckers, and therefore make "Christian" opponents of SSM feel good about their position.

Van Ryn quotes some comments by Rob Cover to the effect that it's not clear that legalising same-sex marriage will "legitimise queer people in the eyes of others", but conveniently drops the words "even if it gives a much-needed political legitimacy" from Cover's quote.  That it is important not to see same-sex marriage as a cure-all (because there will still be Claire van Ryns calling people "homosexuals", for starters) is a valid point, but I doubt too many of those directly affected do see it a such anyway.  That some not affected by it at all may think that by granting it they have solved homophobia at a stroke and don't have to care about anymore is also true, but it's hardly the issue when we are dealing with a basic denial of equality that should be fixed.

Van Ryn, however, seeks to muddy such waters by implying that since marriage equality cannot deliver everything that might be claimed of it, and since the odd patronising thing might be said in its favour before and after the event, and since those who oppose it are getting called nasty things for supporting a nasty position, then perhaps we should just call the whole thing off.  After asserting all kinds of things about positive perceptions that "homosexuals" deserve, van Ryn then goes back on all of that by playing the "children" card, saying that if same-sex couples are allowed to marry then they will inflict "injustice" on their children, and should stop claiming rights because they are bad parents.  She doesn't say it like that of course, but it is what she is saying.

And her only evidence that same-sex parents are bad parents? Polling supposed to show that Australians think ensuring children are raised by a mother and father is more important than "for two men or two women to have the right to marry and create a family."  But as we'll see, the poll actually found nothing about "two women" at all.

Most of van Ryn's article doesn't interest me that much but I thought I should give it some time rather than just focusing on the mushroom bit. What interests me most is the "polling" she referred to, and which I otherwise might not have seen.  And in the process I found some other such polling, which (from an unlikely source) bells the cat re the real motivations of most Australian marriage-equality opponents.

Who Is/Are Australian Marriage Forum?

The general pattern of same-sex marriage polling in Australia is well known.  All polls for several years have shown a substantial lead for "yes", and this lead seems to be increasing.  There is some variation by sampling method, commissioning source and question design, but even if the issue is confined to properly-worded polls that are not commissioned by pro-reform lobby groups, the trend is very clear.  The lead is large enough that if we were to have a plebiscite (in other words, a dreadful waste of money to tell us what we already know) then it would be very likely to pass.

Anyway, the poll van Ryn refers to is a commissioned Galaxy by "Australian Marriage Forum".  AMF claims to be "an organisation that has been set up to encourage Australians to discuss the issue of same-sex marriage with some discernment and caution", its catchphrase being "Think of the Child" (probably because "Think of the Children!" is such a common sarcastic cliche.)  It doesn't actually practice what it preaches, throwing "discernment and caution" to the wind whenever it wants to equate same-sex marriage with same-sex parenting (although they are largely separate issues) or ranting about a new stolen generation.  It seems that discernment and caution apply only to arguments in favour rather than arguments against.

AMF's "President" is Dr David van Gend, who was subject to a later-withdrawn anti-vilification complaint in 2011 after arguing that parenting of a child conceived through IVF by two men "approaches abominable".  Van Gend has addressed the Australian Christian Lobby arguing that same-sex marriage harms children, somehow delivering 1648 words on the topic without presenting even a shred of attempted direct empirical evidence that same-sex parenting harms children, let alone that same-sex marriage does.

Exploring his Forum's website I was unable to find any evidence of any method by which one could join AMF (though it did have a sign-up-for-email-updates option) or indeed any evidence that its formal membership is substantial.  I was eventually able to find a reference to the group also having a "spokesperson", Tim Cannon, but this is rather odd since clearly van Gend does almost all its "speaking".

On to the poll.  The report about the poll is here, and a direct download of the poll PDF is available via Dropbox.  The poll claims that it seeks to explore a contradiction between high support for same-sex marriage and high support for claims such as "Where possible, as a society, we should try to ensure that children are raised by their natural mother and father and promote this."

The 2011 Ambrose Poll and Report

The latter claim itself comes from a 2011 poll commissioned by the Ambrose Centre for Religious Liberty.  The poll was conducted by the Sexton Marketing Group, which has done some other polling from time to time including marginal seat polling in NSW in the late 1990s.

The 2011 poll started by finding that respondents were giving similar results to other surveys on standard question wordings. In fact, it found disagreement responses significantly lower than for other such surveys.  It then found that if the question was worded as "Do you believe that the definition of marriage in the federal Marriage Act should stay as it is, namely between a man and a woman, or do you think the definition of marriage should be changed to include same-sex relationships as well".  When the question was asked in this form, 49% agreed and 40% didn't.

The Ambrose Centre concludes that this means that there is lower support when people are asked to focus on the definitive act of changing legislation, but this doesn't necessarily follow. Another explanation could be that respondents prefer same-sex marriage to be regulated under a new and distinct Act.

Question 5.4 of the survey then primed the respondents with a biasing preamble that Australians are "not a nation that pushes ahead with divisive social changes" and then asked them if we should wait for more consensus; 48% agreed.

Question 5.5 is simply rubbish, because the degree of priming by introducing arguments for one side of the debate and not the other is now such that many of the results are not reliable, and this applies to most of the remaining questions in the survey.  This includes the "Where possible, as a society, we should try to ensure ..." bit, which was only offered to respondents after they'd been primed with the idea that the Marriage Act definitions had to be changed, with the idea that same-sex marriage is divisive and implicitly unAustralian, with the idea that marriage is the best way to ensure children are raised, and so on.

The problems with priming respondents might both in theory inflate and deflate support.  It's not that as easy to disagree with someone in a survey setting when you know clearly which side they're on, and if you don't really care much about the issue yourself.  However, if you notice this and disagree with their basic view strongly, you may be more likely to disagree with any claim that they are using to buttress their own case.

It is fascinating however that in question 5.6 very few opponents of same-sex marriage (by now knowing which side of the debate they are talking to) said they would be more favourable to SSM if:

* evidence emerged showing children in same-sex households were just as happy and well-adjusted as those with dual mixed-sex parents (18%)
* evidence emerged that same-sex couples were happier as a result (14%)
* "nothing much happened in Australian society after allowing same-sex marriage" (10%)

So basically, for same-sex marriage opponents according to their own polling, it's not about the evidence!  It's not about the children and it's not about the sky falling.  They're mostly just against it no matter what the evidence.  Let's just stop pretending otherwise.

The poll also covers changes in attitude if certain negative consequences were true.  The Ambrose Centre thinks this has something to do with the difference between in-principle support for SSM and support for changing the definition in the Marriage Act, but they don't provide any evidence that this is so - and it isn't; respondents hadn't been prodded with any arguments about negative consequences when they answered the Marriage Act question.

The 2015 AMF Poll and Report

Having used a contradiction obtained on one side by partly unsound polling as the pretext for its study, the AMF report goes on to claim that the two propositions are "mutually exclusive" - that you can't support same-sex marriage while also supporting raising children by their natural mother and father "where possible". These claims are not as mutually exclusive as they sound.  For instance, respondents might not consider the term "natural mother and father" as necessarily being meaningful when applied to a cases involving donated sperm or eggs and/or surrogacy.  They might not understand "where possible" as meaning that a society should do everything (however divisive, discriminatory or expensive) to ensure natural parenthood.  They might very well just see same-sex marriage as connected to same-sex parenting rates (most likely because it largely isn't).  And so on.

The poll document goes on to quote law professor and SSM opponent Margaret Somerville as arguing that SSM violates the human rights of children to have parents of both genders.  AMF clearly agrees with this claim, but the only evidence it presents is that the United Nations says the right to marry includes the right to start a family - a claim that even if true, speaks only to the rights of parents.

AMF's poll (conducted by Galaxy, but AMF is to blame for the question design) starts by repeating the Ambrose question ("Where possible, as a society ...") cold with 76% agreeing.  It then asks people if the right to marry includes the right to start a family, but has first primed them by saying that the United Nations says so.  Of course then there is high agreement (76-11).  AMF laments that 24% don't understand that the right to marry includes the right to start a family, but the UN saying something is true does not mean respondents have to agree.

The AMF poll then asks:

"Which of these two conflicting claims is most important?

A child should have a right, where possible, to both a mum and dad.

Two men should have the right to marry and create a family."

("Both equally important" and "don't know" are both options.)

48% take the mum-and-dad option, 17% the two-men option, 30% the both-equally-important option and the rest don't know.

However, the respondent by this stage has been primed by a question on whether they agree that we should do everything possible to ensure children are raised by ma and pa.  They've then been primed again by a statement that the UN believes specifically mixed-sex couples have the right to marry and start a family (the insinuation being that same-sex couples don't).  They've been primed again by the claim that the two above claims conflict (when depending on interpretation they might not - the respondent isn't allowed to argue that they don't).  Moreover, since it's common for about 35% to say they oppose SSM in online sampling, and this was an online sample, most of those taking the mum-and-dad option are doing so because they're opposed to same-sex marriage anyway.

So all this is really showing is that maybe a quarter of those who say they support same-sex marriage can be primed into saying that a child having a mum and dad where possible is more important.  That's even though their view that it is more important might well be based not on considering the cases where the two "rights" seem to conflict, but on considering the cases where they don't.  (Government practices of the past such as forced adoption, or the present, such as citizenship and asylum-seeker issues, spring to mind.)

The poll also finds that 10% of Coalition supporters say they would be much more likely to vote for their local MP if that MP supported SSM, and 29% say they would be much less likely.  This is a more polarised result than normal, mainly because of the amount of priming that's gone before it, but the usual caveat applies: 30% of voters will often say they would change their vote about anything.

It's also notable that the poll focuses specifically on "two men", because all-male parenting couples receive much more suspicion than all-female, based partly on gender stereotypes that mothers are more important and partly on homophobic ones that seek to link gay males to child molestation.

There are so many problems with this survey design that it's difficult to drag anything meaningful out of it.  At least they've published most of the data, unlike the vast majority of those who commission skew-polls, and for that reason they avoid the otherwise obligatory porcupine fish and escape with this site's first ever:

Rainbow Fish Award For Fishy Polling Connected To Same-Sex Marriage
(image credit)

Don't be too surprised if it becomes a common feature.

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