Senate debates

Thursday, 10 August 2017


Plebiscite on Marriage; Order for the Production of Documents

5:45 pm

Photo of Janet RiceJanet Rice (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

I am responding to the ministerial statement which was the response for our order for the production of documents regarding the conduct or constitutionality of the postal plebiscite that the government is proposing. Our order for the production of documents asked for any advice on the conduct or constitutionality of a postal plebiscite or ballot from the Solicitor-General, the Auditor-General, the AEC, the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the Australian Statistician or any other legal or constitutional or electoral experts because there are many questions that still remain to be answered about this proposed postal plebiscite, postal survey, postal opinion poll. And yet the response that we got from the minister today was very perfunctory. She said that it's not the practice of any government to release privileged legal advice made in the course of the normal decision-making processes of government. Privileged legal advice is the smokescreen, the catch-all, so that the community can be kept in the dark about the details of this most extraordinary, most unusual postal plebiscite.

There are so many questions that need to be answered that we had hoped that the government might have come forth with some answers in their response today—but, no. They, essentially, are really thumbing their nose at the Senate and thumbing their nose at the community who want to know answers to some very serious questions about this postal plebiscite. Some of them, which people have forwarded to me today, which we are now compiling—and, in fact, that I have submitted as questions on notice—are with regard to the capacity of the Australian Bureau of Statistics to undertake this. They want to know whether it's an opinion poll, whether it's a survey, whether it's a plebiscite—it's been very unclear—and what the advertising constraints are going to be. It takes the Australian Bureau of Statistics five years to coordinate the census. What processes are going to be put in place for the votes to be administered effectively in such a short time line?

In particular, we note that, given that the announcement that the Electoral Commission roll is going to be closing in only 14 days, there has been a huge number of people trying to enrol online, and, as of this afternoon, the AEC website has gone down. This means that people who want to enrol, who want the opportunity to participate in this postal plebiscite, are being denied that right this afternoon. They've got to go back and try again and again and again. The issues of disenfranchisement of people on this so-called opinion poll, so-called survey, are massive. These are the sorts of questions that the government should have been answering and that the Senate asked them to answer today.

On the issues of advertising, will advertising election materials still require to be authorised, as in section 328 of the Electoral Act? Will advertising election materials still be required not to mislead or deceive an elector in relation to the casting of a vote, as in section 239 of the Electoral Act? Will false statements with respect to the enrolment of voters still be a punishable offence, as under section 330 of the Electoral Act? If we had been privy to some of the advice that the government has been given on this plebi-survey, then we may have had some answers to these questions that people are asking. They are very serious, legitimate questions that people are asking.

Given that we know how damaging, how divisive and how hurtful the public debate over this issue is going to be, and we've already seen that really hurtful material start to appear in the public, is the government going to be providing additional funds to national mental health services, such as beyondblue and the LGBTIQ telephone and counselling services such as QLife and Lifeline to provide coordinated and timely counselling to LGBTI people and their families? Has there been any advice to government that this may be necessary? We don't know. Has the government even thought of that? We don't know. This is such a shonky scramble of a process, just to be serving the political purposes of the Prime Minister, just because Prime Minister Turnbull has not got the ticker to stand up to the right wing of his backbench.

Then there are the issues regarding the electoral roll, voter fraud and lost ballots. What role will the AEC or AEC-seconded staff play in administering the plebiscite? What measures will be put in place to protect the personal information of electors? Will voters whose ballots have been either lost before delivery or lost prior to return have any ability to cast a ballot? We don't know. What recourse will eligible voters have who have not received postal ballots in time to return them? What measures will be put in place to ensure that the ballots are received and completed by the intended recipient? What measures will the government be putting in place to militate against vote-buying? Some of these questions may have been responded to. There may have been some advice given by the Australian Electoral Commission, particularly when the government has decided to go down the track of using the services of the Australian Bureau of Statistics to conduct this survey, opinion poll, plebiscite, plebi-survey—whatever you want to call it. I'm sure that the AEC would have had some opinions about this, but we don't know. The government has told us it's privileged legal advice.

Then we have the issues of access to this material by Indigenous communities and culturally and linguistically diverse communities. Will the postal plebiscite advertising material and ballots be translated into the same 27 languages and 13 Indigenous languages produced by the AEC for last year's federal election? Will there be options to complete the vote in languages other than English? How will remote Indigenous communities participate, if they currently do not receive Australia Post services? Then there is the access to voting for people in aged and disability services. How will voters in nursing homes, hospitals, supported accommodation and people residing in other health and support services be provided a ballot paper? What arrangements will be made to ensure that people who are blind or visually impaired are able to complete the vote? And then there is the youth vote, the overseas vote and late enrolments.

What happens if people enrol or update on the last day of enrolment on 24 August? Will their enrolment be processed or included for the vote, as the AEC website says it could take up to three days to update the electoral roll with their information. How will people who live or who are travelling overseas be able to vote? These are all incredibly legitimate questions, and there are more questions that people are asking. These are things that people need to know with this very significant expenditure of $122 million of our money and these very significant processes that are going to be underway. We don 't know the answers to these questions. We don't know whether the government has been given advice on these questions. We don't know what advice the government has been given in terms of voter turnout. Do they expect to have a voter turnout of 70 per cent, 80 per cent, 50 per cent or 40 per cent? What is the advice that they have been given about the legitimacy of this as a way to survey the community, as a way to vote, as a plebiscite?

All of these things are really important questions that the government should have told the community. But the government's not having told the community about them underlines the whole illegitimacy of this process. What we will have is $122 million of our money being spent on a process that is going to hurt LGBTIQ people, without that legitimacy. We will have a shonky, non-binding, non-compulsory, completely workaround process just to fulfil the political needs of the Prime Minister. We will do this instead of acknowledging that we have a parliament here that could do its job. We are going through this shonky process instead of letting the parliament do its job and allowing it to vote on the issue of marriage equality.

If we allowed this parliament to do its job, to vote on the issue of marriage equality, to have a free vote of all the members of parliament in this place, I am very confident that we would end up with marriage equality extremely efficiently and quickly—just like the German parliament, which made a decision to have a free vote on the Monday and had marriage equality on the Friday. We could do that next week. We could decide, when we come back here on Monday, that we've got a bill that could be put before the parliament, and we could have marriage equality by next Friday, without going through this ridiculous process. We would then be able to celebrate the love of two people who would be able to get married and have their relationship recognised by the community.