House debates

Monday, 6 March 2023


Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2022; Second Reading

4:27 pm

Photo of Keith WolahanKeith Wolahan (Menzies, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

To the children watching up in the gallery, this year there will be a debate in this country about amending our Constitution, and our Constitution is a document that not only defines the boundaries of our democracy; it must be one that serves you and your children and your grandchildren. So the decisions that we make this year must be ones that we are proud of and ones that serve our democracy.

The Prime Minister has said that, when we wake up the day after the referendum, we must feel proud, and he's a known advocate for change and for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. But I think there's a more important question that we should ask ourselves the day after the referendum—that is, as a nation, we respect that the public got it right. That's what happens in a democracy. Whether it's yes or whether it's no, if the public were fully informed and were treated with respect, whatever their decision is, that is the right one, and that is what we should always do in a democracy. And that is why the machinery provisions that we're discussing here are so important.

The Prime Minister and the government do have a mandate to put a question to the Australian people, but it's a mandate for a question, not an answer. The answer lies with the people. Anthony Albanese is our Prime Minister, and that mandate is one that we respect, but we must always respect the mandate of the people to answer it. A peaceful and orderly transfer of power matters in a democracy. It begins with a concession by the losing candidate. This marks the election as legitimate because of the core belief that the people always get it right. That is why the Prime Minister's description of the Voice being about decency and manners is concerning. The same can be said for the criticism that this is about whether Australians want to be counted on the right side of history. Last year, former prime minister Kevin Rudd claimed that arguments against the Voice were 'intellectually fraudulent' and the work of 'bad actors'. Such ad hominem is antidemocratic and should be discouraged as we continue this debate.

What if the referendum fails to achieve enough support by enough people or enough states? In defining the question of support as one of decency and manners, what does that mean for the legitimacy of the vote? Will that majority be bad mannered and lack decency? Is that how we will reflect upon the Australian people the day after they vote? Will the Prime Minister then condemn the majority for being on the wrong side of history? Even worse, some have sought to put our national reputation on the line by labelling the opposing view xenophobic. Again, this form of advocacy is toxic and should be resisted by all.

We know that our Constitution lacks the soaring rhetoric of other foundational national documents. We're not a democracy that is founded in civil war and blood. We are a democracy founded in careful thought and consideration of other democracies and what would serve best for here. Our Constitution will never provide the inspiration for a musical like Hamilton, but ours delivers something far more consequential and far more beautiful. Ours is the foundation stone for one of the world's most stable liberal democracies.

It is disingenuous to attack any voices in any debate for lacking decency and manners, especially if that view ends up being shared by a sufficient majority. Those who are advocates for their cause are understandably passionate. Fear of losing the referendum is rational, but fear of the people hearing the opposing argument is inexcusable. Again, that is why what is being discussed in these machinery provisions is so important.

Changing the Constitution is one of the most serious of decisions. The Prime Minister has said there will be a national conversation. A conversation, by its definition, involves the exchange of thoughts and ideas. It should include matters of principle, practice and constitutional design. The Prime Minister will be a passionate campaigner for the 'yes' case, but he should be an even more forceful advocate for the legitimacy of the debate. If that happens, and if both sides commit to that, then no matter the referendum result we will wake up the day after and say that the people have made the right decision.

The Prime Minister gave a key speech at the Chifley Research Centre conference on 5 February this year. It was a good speech. Parts of it are relevant to what we are discussing here. The Prime Minister spoke about the risk of 'the rolling fury of a culture war and the way it undermines civil and rational debate', and he spoke about 'our capacity to disagree respectfully'. The Prime Minister then referred to the 6 January riots in the United States Capitol. He said people who had 'fallen headlong into poisonous conspiracy theories, into a world view of grievance and suspicion' saw 'betrayal' and that there 'were no political opponents, only mortal enemies'—people 'who would rather believe that an election was stolen than accept that their preferred candidate was defeated'. He said that democracy 'can never be taken for granted' and that people should always be 'treated with respect'.

These principles don't apply just to other democracies and the United States; they apply here in this referendum. There is a great risk that the tone of this debate in this year will be highly divisive. The role that we all have to play here starts with understanding and respecting that people can have legitimate differences about what our Constitution should look like.

The Prime Minister said in that speech, 'Governments need to be prepared to put their faith in the judgement of the Australian people.' He said 'drumming up outrage, trying to start a culture war' is counterproductive. He finished with some positive tones. He said he's 'optimistic for the success of the referendum' because he is 'optimistic about the character of the Australian people'. Again, that's where the Prime Minister falls short. He's linking success to the result. The success of this referendum should be that it is an informed, considered and respectful debate. That is what we should respect. Again, the Prime Minister defaulted to his passion for the 'yes' case winning by saying that Australians should play their part in a historic step forward for our country.

This referendum bill has some key changes, one of which will be in the Senate. The three parts that the coalition is committed to are: restoring the pamphlet to outline the 'yes' case and 'no' case'; secondly, establish an official 'yes' and 'no' campaign for organisations; and thirdly, appropriately fund those official organisations. We have heard commitments that the first of those three—restoring the pamphlet—will be made by an amendment in the Senate and that is a welcome change, because we should always trust Australians when hearing both sides of an argument—always. We here in the news and through this place and many others the risk of compromise in digital information. We can't just say, 'It is 2023. There is no need to send a bit of paper to Australians because we can send them a social media link or an email or something else, or they can go to the website.' That isn't good enough. For those of us in this place, we communicate with our electorates using all means. We use social media, digital, emails but we also put things in people's letterboxes, and if that wasn't effective we wouldn't do it. We do it at great expense to the taxpayer because we know that it works and we know that it is important. Particularly for electorates that have migrant communities where English is not their first language, it is even more important that we spell things out clearly in their letterboxes. I think that is always an important part of communicating and it will be for this referendum.

We on this side welcome the commitment to have a pamphlet; that is so important. But there is no commitment for the other two parts that we are worried about—that being, an official 'yes' and 'no' campaign organisation and appropriately funding these. This bill will determine the settings for how the referendum on this voice is to be conducted. It should be a constructive one that reinforces the principles that the Prime Minister outlined in his Chifley speech, because the risk of division in our democracy is real. It is not something that just happens in Washington or in other countries; it can happen here. We all need to lean in and make sure that that doesn't happen, and it starts by having a respectful debate. So we call on the Prime Minister and the government to make sure that they commit to properly funding both sides of the campaign because this will increase trust and integrity in the process.

I was a barrister before this, and people would often say to me: 'What is the measure of a fair court or a fair judge?' It is a simple answer—that the loser feels like they were given a fair hearing. So whatever the result of this referendum, the passionate advocates for either case will wake up saying, 'You know what? We put our case fairly, it was heard, the result was made and we respect it.' That is what we should all be saying the day after the referendum, not accusing this country of being xenophobic or racist because the 'yes' vote didn't get up. Or if it is flipped and if 'yes' does get up that we respect that decision too. That is our duty. But again, it starts with making sure that we get the process right.

The proper conduct of the referendum is an obligation on the government and, therefore, on the parliament. The Electoral Commission has given evidence to parliamentary committees that the donation and disclosure regime remains one of the most complex parts of the Electoral Act. Again, the people in this place are probably more knowledgeable about that part of the Electoral Act than most other Australians and it is complex—it just is. So if we can help to reduce any potential corruption in the process, that would be a good thing.

It is also important we recognise that for this referendum the participants are often people who are not regularly involved in elections. Again, for us, and for those political parties or for those who have their own community movements, we have become quite seasoned at being involved in elections. We have structures, procedures, knowledge and people we can draw on. People will be coming out to get involved in this, and we encourage that. But again, they need help so that they make sure that they comply with all our laws and regulations.

I come back to the Prime Minister's speech at the Chifley centre. It was a good one. I ask that when he asks: 'What shall we feel like the day after the referendum,' that he reflects upon his answer to that. It can't just be about his commitment to the 'yes' case. It has to be that our democracy is a stronger one the day after, no matter the result, and that starts with improving this bill because it isn't quite there.

4:39 pm

Photo of Kylea TinkKylea Tink (North Sydney, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I'd like to start my contribution on the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2022 today by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people. I pay respects to their elders past, present and emerging. I especially want to acknowledge any First Nations people who may be in the chamber today and any who may be watching. Thank you for care of country over thousands of years.

As a nation we will have an important opportunity later this year to begin to work towards righting a past wrong by ensuring that First Nations people are recognised in our Constitution and that their voices will forevermore be heard directly at the highest level of our federal parliament whenever it is seeking to create a law that directly impacts on First Nations people. This seems like a really simple thing to wish for for those who have come before us: recognition and empowerment. And yet this ambition is far from achieved right at this moment in time. From my personal perspective, I believe it's a privilege to be part of the generation that is prepared to step into this uncomfortable space and begin the process of transforming our nation into a land where we're all rightfully respected and where we can all connect on the basis of a shared history that goes back over 65,000 years.

I hope that everyone will join with me in voting yes with ambition, optimism and determination in the referendum when the opportunity arises. You see, I do believe it's unacceptable that our 122-year-old Constitution does not recognise the first people of Australia. How can the document on which all truth of our nation is based be silent when it comes to recognising the sovereign nations that existed here prior to white settlement? The conversations around enshrining an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament in the Australian Constitution are currently taking place right across our country as people seek to come to grips with what it means exactly for them and what impact it may have on them. From my perspective, a constitutional voice will not just be symbolic; it will be a substantive recognition. In the words from the Statement From the Heart group, who are without a doubt much closer to this than I, the proposals are simple and elegant—and they make the essential changes required. They describe the Voice as being a modest request that will deliver a fair go to Indigenous Australians, as a practical step which will give us our best chance to close the gap and as a unifying moment for all Australians.

But what exactly does it mean to enshrine this Voice in the Constitution? And why is the mechanics of how we do it so important? It's because the Voice needs to be enshrined in our Australian Constitution to ensure it remains a permanent part of our democracy. Constitutional enshrinement can only be achieved through a referendum, so all Australians of voting age will have the opportunity to have their say about this proposition at the ballot box. But, given this, the machinery in place to conduct this process of change must match the weight which this moment carries. The proposed amendments to the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984 are important, and I'm conscious that the last referendum was held in 1999. I agree, then, with the importance of modernising the legislation that will govern how this referendum is conducted. The referendum vote will be the culmination, but not the end, of a long-overdue national conversation about the rights and dignity of our First Nations people. We must accept that this conversation needs to be evidence based and facts led. As a nation, in order to mature and to take steps forward together, we must look to create spaces where respectful conversations can occur. During the week of action this last month, the Uluru Statement from the Heart launched a series of yarning circles. The yarning circle concept is used by many First Nations people across the world. It's a space for active listening and reflection. This is the approach that I hope we can all take collectively in the lead-up to the vote.

The bill as drafted suspends the operations of the provisions of the Referendum Act that require the preparation and distribution of a pamphlet with 'yes' and 'no' cases for the referendum question. I don't agree with this provision and, indeed, have had people from within North Sydney express their concern that this resource would not be available to them. Of course, communications have changed since the pamphlet was first introduced in 1912. As a member of parliament, I do have opportunities to engage with my voters directly and regularly through a wide range of sources, including direct email, social media, website communications and radio and television commentary. I will do these things, but they should be in addition to and not instead of an official fact-checked pamphlet which has been worked on by the members of parliament. In this context, I welcome the undertakings from the Prime Minister that the bill will be amended to ensure a factual, informative resource will be distributed nationally. The pamphlet must be clear. It must be factual. It must have a factual explanation of the proposal with concise and considered arguments for and against. Importantly, it would be in addition to and not a substitute for a civics campaign. Ultimately, I believe this resource will help the community of North Sydney and the vast majority of the Australian community engage in a respectful discourse, and we will all be better off for it.

I also note and support the recommendations that the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters have made following their inquiry into the bill relating to enfranchisement and participation in the referendum. All communications from the government and the Electoral Commission must be clear, factual and impartial, and provided in appropriate formats for all Australians, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, and older Australians.

I'm was also supportive of calls for the Electoral Commission to prioritise increasing the enrolment rate for First Nations people prior to the referendum. The current rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander enrolment and participation in elections remains low, at just 84.5 per cent compared to a 97 per cent overall enrolment rate. Indeed, the estimated number of unenrolled Indigenous Australians has come under 100,000 for the first time, to just 87,000. That is significant, but that still leaves a balance that remains at nearly the equivalent of an entire electorate worth of voters who are not enfranchised. We must do better.

In an age of disinformation, truth in political advertising laws at a federal level is urgently needed. Currently, political ads are not fact checked, with the validity of content, be that truthful or otherwise, left up to the voter to determine. Deliberate misinformation and misrepresentation continue to erode trust in government and our democratic institutions by the electorate. For this reason, I support the introduction of robust laws that prohibit false statements and misattribution in political advertising in any election process. So I support the member for Warringah's amendment, which would prohibit misleading or deceptive political advertising. I think it's a practical, popular and proven way to clean up our politics whilst approaching the regulation of political advertising with caution and respect for our constitutional freedom of political communication.

In mirroring the financial disclosure provisions of the Electoral Act, this bill has inevitably picked up on the problematic aspects of our current electoral laws. I welcome the move to regulate referendum donations and spending, but unfortunately the bill has adopted the less desirable provisions, including a lack of real-time disclosure and the retention of a high donation threshold. I believe this is a missed opportunity for overall positive reform. This moment deserves a process and a framework that is not just up to scratch but is the most efficient it can practicably be. Again, I can't stress enough the weight that this moment carries. We can't afford to get it wrong.

As an advocate for integrity in this parliament, I acknowledge the transparency and integrity that these amendments will bring to the voting process. Importantly, the amendments will also increase accessibility for many Australians. Behind this referendum is a principle, a principle of recognition of our First Nations people. The question at the centre of the conversation—do you support an alteration of the Constitution that establishes an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice?—is absolutely what matters. Recognition is a simple statement of fact that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were indeed the first people here and form part of the oldest continuing culture on earth, yet Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to experience a lower quality of life outcomes than Indigenous Australians. Despite good intentions, governments and parliaments by themselves cannot provide lasting solutions. A voice is a practical way to achieve this recognition in the Australian Constitution and facilitate Indigenous people directly advising politicians about what really works in their communities, offering practical solutions to their unique challenges, including jobs, health, education and justice. It will also ensure that policies and laws deliver practical results on the ground and secure value for taxpayer investment.

This is a conversation that needs to be had with respect, and each of our communities' ambitions need to be heard through this referendum process, ensuring that no one voice is more important than another. Ultimately, everyone has the right to their own opinion, and the machinery of the referendum will ensure we each have the right for that opinion to be counted. Together we are going to have a conversation that matters about how constitutional recognition will take all of Australia forward as a nation, and I believe the proposed amendments would help to ensure that.

Ultimately, the Uluru statement is an invitation from First Nations peoples that has been issued to all Australians. I hope the people of North Sydney and all Australians can accept the invitation with kindness and respect, and I look forward to working with my community and all of my fellow members in this place to ensure the conversation that takes place is respectful and provides the space for us each to make our own decision.

4:50 pm

Photo of Kate ChaneyKate Chaney (Curtin, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise in support of the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2022 and to make some additional comments in relation to some of its more contested elements, consistent with my additional comments in the report of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, following our inquiry.

A large part of this bill modernises the process for running a referendum, in line with how we now run elections. Generally, these changes have been broadly supported, although they do raise the question of why we need to make temporary changes to the referendum act in the context of an upcoming referendum, rather than considering modernisation of the act dispassionately when there's no referendum looming. No doubt other priorities win out, but it would seem a sensible idea to do a broader review of the act after this referendum to ensure that next time we have a referendum we're at least starting with a process that's grounded in the 21st century.

An example of this is in the wording of questions. Section 25 of the referendum act requires that a referendum ballot paper be set out in the form prescribed, with the title of the proposed law first and a question: 'Do you approve this proposed alteration?' This clumsy wording may be challenging to understand. This requirement could be amended to ensure that a simple version of the change being proposed can be included in the actual referendum question. For example, for this referendum the actual question could be something like: 'Do you support the establishment of a First Nations Voice as provided in the [short title of the act]?' This is unlikely to be fixed this year, but it should be part of a broader review to ensure the smooth running and clarity of future referenda.

I'm supportive of amendments made to improve enfranchisement of Indigenous voters, in accordance with the recommendations of the joint standing committee. In every election or other voting opportunity, it's important that all Australians are given the opportunity to participate in our democracy. But it would be particularly painful if we were not listening to the voices of Indigenous Australians on the question of whether we should listen to the voices of Indigenous Australians.

I'd like to make a few comments on the more contested elements of what's included in and omitted from the bill. I'm not against the inclusion of a 'yes' and 'no' pamphlet, an amendment negotiated by the opposition and expected to be moved in the Senate, but it does raise some concerns. In the past, these pamphlets have not necessarily always been factual and have been full of emotive language. They are, after all, drafted by committees of parliamentarians who hold a view one way or another. There remains a challenge for government to address as to how to ensure that information contained in the 'yes' and 'no' pamphlet is accurate and fair—and I'll speak about this more later—but I accept that there is still a proportion of the population that doesn't get its information from the internet. In the interests of fair debate, a clear setting out of the best arguments on each side will afford people an opportunity to sit down and consider both sides, following up with their own research on any particular points that challenge or resonate with them. I suspect the number of people who sit and read 2,000-word essays has diminished, but creating the opportunity is probably a good thing.

The bill suspends subsection 11(4) of the referendum act, allowing government to spend money on providing public information and education about the referendum and to counter misinformation. The government has indicated that this education campaign will be on the mechanics of referenda, rather than for one side or the other, and that neither side will receive government funding. There is a leap of faith involved that this will be upheld, but, given that the last referendum was in 1999, I can see that education is required on the mechanics of a referendum so people understand the significance of their personal vote as well as their state's vote. Education is also required on what a referendum is and what it is not, and on what type of information belongs in the Constitution and what type of information does not. No doubt there'll be cries that the education campaign strays into a 'yes' campaign. While this remains a risk, the best we can do is be vigilant and attempt to remain fair-minded in an increasingly polarised world.

Donation transparency is an area desperately in need of reform at a federal level, with federal regulation lagging behind almost all the states in terms of both the donation disclosure threshold of $15,200 and the timing of the disclosure months and months after votes are cast. While there's a simplicity to aligning donation disclosures for the referendum with part 20 of the election act, it's a lowest-common-denominator approach. I would like to see stronger transparency requirements in relation to funding campaigns for the voice referendum. I accept that it creates a reporting burden for entities unaccustomed to the financial disclosure regime, but I also think that any entity campaigning on the voice either way should be willing to disclose that publicly in advance of the referendum. There is overwhelming community support to improve the transparency of who is funding political campaigns before people vote.

I support greater transparency in line with most states, with more immediate disclosure of donations above $1000. If this is not in the legislation, in line with community expectations and to show government that requiring real-time disclosures won't cause the sky to fall, I would like to see any companies, not-for-profits or individuals contributing to campaigns for either side to voluntarily disclose their commitments in real time. If the norm starts to change voluntarily, this may make regulation easier for the major parties. In my election campaign I disclosed all cash donations in real time on my website. Ninety per cent of donors chose to disclose their names despite not being required to. This shows that it's possible and not a big deal if you have nothing to hide. Those who choose not to disclose their support until months after the referendum, hiding behind the 'I complied with the law' excuse, may increasingly have to explain to their stakeholders why they were not proud enough of their political support to own it in real time.

Another issue that's not covered in the bill but came up in the submissions to the committee inquiry is truth in advertising. It's essential that we do a better job of ensuring truth in political advertising. This is broader than the proposed voice referendum, but concerns about racist misinformation in this context are real and sharpen the focus on truth in advertising because of the potential damage that could be done. My crossbench colleague, the member for Warringah, has introduced the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Stop the Lies) Bill 2022, laying out a potential approach to rebuilding community trust in what our politicians say. This is an admirable and solid contribution to debate on this topic, reflecting a strong community appetite for political information that can be believed. I support this bill and would like to see some version of this enacted in this term of parliament.

I accept that there are a number of issues that need to be resolved in setting up appropriate structures to ensure the community has faith in the arbiters of truth. No doubt there will be resistance to whichever body is tasked with determining the truth of statements, and conspiracy theories will abound. This challenge is not insurmountable and can't be used as an excuse not to commit to a structure to rebuild trust in our politicians. I accept that it may be challenging to build an appropriate regulatory framework on this board issue in time for the referendum and that getting it wrong could be very damaging in the long term.

For this reason, I would like to see the government set up an independent panel specifically for the referendum, with the goal of finalising the question, ensuring access to fair information and addressing instances of misinformation. Many expert witnesses to the committee inquiry backed this idea. The panel could be comprised of both sides of politics and experts to oversee public information relating to the campaign. This is also consistent with the amendment moved by the member for Warringah to require fact-checking of the 'yes' and 'no' pamphlets.

For such an important referendum for the future of the country, truth and transparency are vital, and I urge the government to consider improvements to this end in the implementation of this legislation.

4:59 pm

Photo of Keith PittKeith Pitt (Hinkler, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

What an absolute stitch-up. This proposal is the sporting equivalent of two teams lining up, one running out in brand-new uniforms with all the gear, a top-line coach, a change room, a bus and crowd that's been booked, and the other side is tied up on the sidelines, gagged, with no gear, and they had to walk in because no-one would pick them up. We are talking here about the Constitution. It is not a note from your mum. It's not a shopping list. It's not a school exam. It's the Australian Constitution. The proposition by the government is that they won't fund both sides of a referendum. Since when is that even reasonable? The proposition being put forward is an absolute stitch-up. It is wrong, and this is one of the reasons that our side of politics fought so hard to make sure there was at least a pamphlet.

I was quite interested in what a pamphlet might be, because it sounds like an A4 piece of paper that you might fold up and find in your letterbox, so I went back to the 1999 referendum—well, one of my staff did, anyway—and found the official referendum pamphlet. It is pages and pages and pages of information for people to sit down and take the time to look through and make their own informed decision about. Regardless of what the vote is about and regardless of what the issue is, we are talking in this bill about changes to Australia's Constitution. The concept that we would set a prototype, which would be the first of its kind, to the best of my knowledge, and which could be used for future referendums, where both sides are not equally funded and the debate is not managed and is instead run by companies and other sponsors, is outrageous.

In this nation, we are a democracy. This is one of the greatest democracies in the world, and that means that we listen to the opinions on both sides of a debate. Like anyone in this House, I have seen any number of opinions from legal experts on the proposition and the issue itself. Guess what? They've got different views, and that is no surprise to me whatsoever. We've had some who are judges, who have put forward their view and their legal opinion—which is what they do—and we've had others who have different views on what the actual vote might change in the Constitution and what it might do to not only the operation of this House but also the way in which the executive and others work. These are the issues that people are concerned about.

The idea that the Australian people will walk up and vote one way in a referendum because it feels good is not the way to approach the issue whatsoever. Feeling good is not factual. Feeling good does not get good outcomes for the country. Feeling good is going to terrify individuals because they are always afraid of the unknown, and the unknown in this case is extensive. What is it that the government is scared of? Why wouldn't they fund both sides of a referendum? Why wouldn't they provide equal funding and equal opportunity for every individual to put forward their views in a concise, purposeful and respectful way, as you would expect in this debate, because the government is going to the people with their proposition to change Australia's Constitution?

This is a significant change, and no-one should underestimate what changes to the Australian Constitution do. I'll come back to the pamphlet. When the referendum was put forward proposing the changes for Australia to become a republic, extensive information was provided to the Australian people. Both sides were able to put their case in a respectful way, and the Australian people made a decision. At that stage, their decision was known. I think that the further this debate goes and the more discussions there are and the less information that is provided, the more concerned the Australian people will become about the unknown. Nothing terrifies people more than the things they don't know.

What have we seen in recent weeks? We've seen the Minister for Communications, who I've got a lot of time for, I have to say, announce that there will now be the equivalent of a ministry of truth in this country. Nineteen Eighty-Four, here we come! A government ministry will decide what facts are so that there is no misinformation. I mean, seriously? Since when do governments decide what facts are in the information that is provided in the public sphere? What happened to freedom of speech, freedom of thought and freedom of religion?

This, in my view, is one of the great dangers in the way that this government is approaching not only this debate but this referendum. The further down this rabbit hole they go, of not supporting both sides equally and fairly, the more concerned people will become and the more likely the current government will not get the result that they want I say to those opposite: it is beyond time that you ran a standard constitutional referendum. That has been the process, always, and the further we go away from that constitutional referendum, in my view, the less likely you will get the result that you want and you are asking for.

No matter how many specialists line up, if the Australian people think that they are not well enough informed, if they are worried about what the outcome might be, if they don't have the information that they can look at themselves in the time that it takes for them to absorb that information—and this is complex debate; it is not simple and it is a significant change of the Australian Constitution—the further they will move from a proposition.

We know there is a lot of foreign influence out there. We know that the way people communicate and talk and discuss and receive their information changes. But we also know that there is nothing more informative than a direct piece of mail put into your letterbox that you can read in your own time and in the time that it takes for you to absorb that information. So I'm very pleased that the Labor government has changed their mind about providing the pamphlet. But they still have not changed their mind about funding both sides of the 'yes' and 'no' case and, of course, about controlling the way the debate is run. If they are concerned about misinformation, this is one of the best ways to deal with it: ensuring that both sides are equally funded and that both sides have equal opportunity.

I have said publicly, and I will continue to say it, that I will be voting no. But I know that I am one vote amongst the Australian people—one vote. I will proudly stand with Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price and support her view, and I will campaign. I will campaign for the 'no' case. On the information that has been provided, I think that is the best outcome for this nation—to not change Constitution. That is because, in my view, we are one people, we are one country and we are all equal, and we should never walk away from that position. I understand what has been put forward by the Labor government, but I am very significantly concerned about the way that this has been worked and the way it has been proposed.

The other challenges that I think we will have in the very near future are around Australia Post. For those of us who live in regional Australia—I live in a significant regional city, and we are not getting one-day deliveries on mail. The further west you go and the further towards remote Australia go, the less likely it is that you can be delivered this information in a reasonable amount of time. So I say to those opposite, I say to the federal government: this is the time to do the right thing—not the ideological thing and not the thing you think will give you the outcome you want, but the right thing. If you continue to refuse to provide details to the Australian people, they will not support your proposition. You can never underestimate the mob. The mob always get it right. They always get it right.

So we need to make sure that the information is correct—I have no issues with that whatsoever—but we also need to make sure that it is equally funded and that both sides of the campaign have the same opportunity. Not one that is supported by extensive corporate Australia delivering significant amounts of money and standing up at all sorts of different sporting events and whatever else it might be, and the others being shut down by what is now the ministry of truth, because they decide that the information that they put forward and their opinion is not factual. That is not what this country was built on. Freedom is not free. It is paid for by others, and we should never forget that the opportunities that are provided to the Australian people to even have this debate have been provided by others, and we should always thank them and those who take that opportunity to put forward.

So I say again: fund both sides of the debate. Do not try to slip this one through. Do not run with: 'It's a stitch up. It's okay, because it will make you feel good. If you vote yes, you will feel good. If you vote no, you will feel bad.' It is Australia's Constitution. It is the most significant document for our nation in the way that it is governed for all Australian people.

In conclusion, I will come back to the point that I made earlier: we are one people, we are one country and we are all equal. I do not support the bill in its current form.

5:09 pm

Photo of Henry PikeHenry Pike (Bowman, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I congratulate the member for Hinkler on such a strong contribution. Australia has a tried and tested method of undertaking referenda. It is a method based on precedent, fairness and transparency, and it has served our nation well over the past 122 years. This bill will determine the settings for how the referendum on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament is conducted. The bill outlines how a referendum's donations regulations will operate, how the prepoll scrutineering and counting will operate and how the newly introduced foreign interference regime will be applied to this referendum.

The bill makes a number of noncontroversial changes to the act to bring the operation of the referendum in line with the Commonwealth Electoral Act. However, the bill represents a considerable departure from the established precedent. The coalition has raised three key points with the government to address our concerns on the referendum process. Firstly, we've asked the government to restore the pamphlet that is posted to each household and outlines the yes and no case. We've heard that the government has agreed that they will now support that measure, which we strongly welcome. It was unfortunate we had to take so many months to get there. Secondly, we've asked the government to establish official yes and no campaign organisations. And, finally, as the member for Hinkler put so eloquently, we've asked the government to appropriately fund these official organisations in an equal and fair way. These measures are fundamental to having a referendum with informed voters and a process with integrity. There is also the basis on which other referenda have operated and it will be consistent, of course, with the precedent that has served us well over the last century and more.

The coalition has welcomed the engagement from the government on the bill but until we have our concerns addressed exactly the position of the coalition is to oppose the bill. It is important to note that the changes included in the bill will likely become the new normal and be used as a precedent for all future referenda. This is bigger than just the question that we put the Australian people in a referendum this year. This potentially has significant implications for the future of Australia's Constitution and future referenda questions that may be put over coming the decades. So it's really important that we get this right now and that this is properly considered in the context of future questions, not just the one that we face this year. There may be future referenda questions that the Labor Party, or the government, wishes to defeat, so it is important to consider that it's not just about trying to get a yes answer to this vote, it's about where do we go from here over the future decades. When we consider questions like this, we should never undervalue the importance of precedent. This whole chamber is based on precedent in many ways. It is precedent that has served us well and it is precedent that we should cling to when taking our next steps.

It is interesting to look back at the history of the referendum pamphlet in Australia. The requirement for a referendum pamphlet was implemented 1912 and there have only ever been three referenda without an official pamphlet, those being 1919, 1926, 1928. I don't think any of the members present here today were around to vote in those referenda. There were very significant reasons why there weren't pamphlets. In 1919—this was a very rushed referendum—there was insufficient time to produce one. In 1926 there was no agreement on how to produce the yes argument to that question. In 1928 there was overwhelming agreement between parties and government in relation to the state debts referendum. There was near unanimous support. For every subsequent referendum, every other referendum over the last 100 or so years, there has been an official pamphlet produced. It would've set a dangerous precedent if the government had embarked on its original course, which was to deliberately not provide one. We know how important it is because people trust that official material. The feedback I am receiving from the constituents in my electorate is that they don't understand what is been proposed and are keen to get more information and further details on the proposals. The opposition, of course, has been consistent in its call for the government to provide more detail in relation to this question. I hope that the official booklet will provide these constituents of mine with more answers to the questions that they are asking.

We have heard from the AEC that when they provide mailed material to voters during elections 40 per cent of recipients will use this documentation as a main source of information when they cast their vote. We welcome the government's announcement that they're going to restore the pamphlet, but we'll wait to see an amendment presented to the government to that effect. We cannot just simply take the government's word for it.

I note that there has been an important submission made to the committee's inquiry into this bill by Blind Citizens Australia. They outlined:

…we have serious concerns about this legislation in its current form.

We are greatly concerned that the new legislation was introduced without proper consultation with the blind and vision impaired community … We believe this failure to consult risks disenfranchising our community and excludes our voices from the electoral process …

I think those are important words for this chamber to reflect on. The Australian Human Rights Commission's submission noted:

The Commission supports retaining the requirement under s 11 that a Yes/No pamphlet be distributed to Australian electors as part of the referendum process.

The coalition is also advocating for the establishment of official 'yes' and 'no' campaigns through this bill. Having official 'yes' and 'no' campaigns will make things simpler for the regulatory environment and for the proper conduct of the referendum. The ABC has given evidence to the parliamentary committee that the donations and disclosure regime remains the most complex part of the electoral act—of course it is. We all know that; we've all been through elections to get into this place. We understand how complex Australia's disclosure requirements are; often, members of this chamber and others who aspire to be here get tripped up by it—and these are professional people who are operating with the support of professional organisations who are supposed to know these things. An official campaign structure is going to be the best way for our regulators to ensure appropriate education and enforcement of the electoral laws for the referendum.

We know that there will be a significant number of participants and organisations in this referendum. There'll be many players who come out of the woodwork who will not be associated with political parties and who will not be regular participants in electoral events. Having a single point of coordination to provide education and to commence an audit process for donations—   particularly from foreign influencers—is the best way to ensure the integrity of this referendum.

We've heard from officials that there might be people who will fall under donations legislation and other electoral laws but don't even know it. I can absolutely see that occurring with so many people interested in this question, many of them not having participated financially in elections previously. Even the Labor-controlled Joint Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs noted in 2019:

… it is important and appropriate that members of Parliament retain responsibility for authorising the official Yes/No arguments and supports the retention of this requirement.

I will now move on to our request for equal funding. We are seeking an assurance that, once these bodies are established, there is a guarantee of equal funding—if any is provided—to each side to ensure that neither side is advantaged and to ensure that they can comply with the disclosure and regulatory regimes of the referendum. I think it's an important point that if we're adding this extra cost of compliance, adding all this regulation, and wanting participants in this referendum to comply with the very complex electoral systems that we have, they be provided some public funding to support them in bringing people up to speed, to ensure they employ appropriate people who can police that, and to ensure that we have good compliance and a good, transparent election. This plays into a basic principle of fairness.

While the government has currently committed to not spending on the set-up of 'yes' or 'no' campaigns, this does not mean that both will start on an even playing field, as some of the previous speakers have mentioned. In fact, the government outlined in its October 2022 budget—in book 2 on page 17, to be precise—that campaign group Australians for Indigenous Constitutional Recognition will be made recipients of tax-deductible gifts through changes to the relevant legislation taxation laws we passed towards the end of last year. This will directly operate as a form of funding for the 'yes' campaign. According to the government's own figures that it used in the budget, the financial advantage derived from these gifts will be valued at $800,000, with the figure likely to only grow as the referendum nears. There is no equivalent, of course, in the 'no' campaign. There is no equivalent treatment in terms of tax deductibility.

Let's take a closer look at some of the provisions that are also contained within this bill. Schedule 1 modernises postal voting in referendums, aligning it with the equivalent procedures in federal elections as outlined in the Commonwealth Electoral Act. In light of the significant uptake in postal votes—particularly post pandemic—this is a necessary step in reforming the referendum process, and the coalition will be supporting that element of the bill.

Schedule 2 allows for the early opening and sorting, but not counting, of prepoll votes. As a coalition member, I consider efficiency critical to the provision of government services and therefore support this measure. I'm sure we'll all be grateful there will be a quick count and that everything is prepared ahead of time for that. I've heard stories from many scrutineers in electorates across Queensland and other jurisdictions about unnecessary delay in sorting prepoll votes. I think this is a good, commonsense measure, and of course we support that.

Schedule 3 updates authorisation requirements to align with recent changes to the Electoral Act. Again, where the legislation is merely being modernised, of course we support that. Schedule 4 is also admirable in that its amendments effectively ban foreign interference in the Voice referendum and allow for transparency through its updated financial disclosure scheme—of course, no objections there. Schedule 5, like those before it, aligns the referendum process with the Electoral Act. The same goes for schedule 6. Schedules 7 and 8 contain a number of language changes, as well as legislative drafting modernisations. As noted above, most of the provisions are uncontroversial. It is, by and large, a considered attempt to modernise the Referendum Act.

If the amendments ended there, I would absolutely support the bill. But, unfortunately, they do not. The government's bill and the proposal for the conduct of the Voice referendum will not require the production and distribution of the 'yes' and 'no' printed pamphlet, as it currently stands. It will not establish or fund the 'yes' or 'no' campaigns. With the Prime Minister's unwillingness to provide any detail to the Australian people, the risk of a partisan educational campaign cannot be understated. In a hotly debated referendum such as this, allowing total government control over the educational campaign makes the Voice referendum dangerously susceptible to misinformation and a one-sided narrative. Having clear 'yes' and 'no' campaign organisations creates trust and integrity in the process.

In addition to this, it will make things simpler for the regulatory environment and for proper conduct of the referendum. Having a single point of coordination to provide education and to commence an audit process for donations is the best way to ensure the integrity of the process. Furthermore, it will also stop foreign interference, something that we should all recognise the importance of, particularly given recent headlines regarding the level of foreign interference taking place across Australian government—and in civil society, for that matter.

Moreover, the regulatory auditing process, which takes up great time and taxpayer money, should be optimised in a national referendum. This could be done by having an official campaign to provide a starting point for enforcement and education by the AEC. Some of the changes made could also have the adverse effect of incriminating organisations and individuals that are unaware that their current or previous activities relating to the Voice referendum will be captured by the proposed regulatory scheme. This is dangerous, and we should safely guard against that potential.

Changing Australia's Constitution is not something we should ever take lightly. I am a constitutional conservative, and I'm instinctively sceptical of any changes to our founding document, as are most Australians. Of the 44 referenda that have been put to the Australian people, only eight have succeeded. Labor has not proposed a successful referendum since 1946. It is the only time they have succeeded in changing the Constitution. Changing Australia's Constitution is not something we should ever take lightly; it is not routine, and it should only be undertaken in exceptional circumstances and with almost universal recognition of the problem and support for the solution. Our Constitution has enabled Australia to be one of the most successful and longstanding democracies in the world, and we should only interfere with that document in the most extreme circumstances.

This bill does have some positive elements. It modernises procedures to make them more comparable to a federal election. It makes the experiences of first-time referendum voters more parallel to what they've done in federal elections. This will be the first time I will vote in a referendum. It's also, I'm sure, the first time the member for Griffith has voted in a referendum. In fact, anyone born after 1981 hasn't voted in a referendum before. But, despite the positive elements of the bill, the legislation ultimately fails in its most important provisions. Supporting this bill supports an unfair and unbalanced referendum to alter Australia's foundational document.

Photo of Steve GeorganasSteve Georganas (Adelaide, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The immediate question is that the amendment be disagreed to.

5:24 pm

Photo of Max Chandler-MatherMax Chandler-Mather (Griffith, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the following words be added after paragraph 2:

"; and:

(3) strengthen opportunities for enfranchisement and participation in the referendum, particularly of First Nations people, including by:

(a) facilitating on-the-day voter enrolment;

(b) extending the Remote Mobile Polling program;

(c) ensuring the Australian Electoral Commission has adequate funds to conduct effective awareness and education campaigns, including translation and interpretation; and

(d) removing restrictions on the voting rights of prisoners and Australians living overseas".

The Greens will be supporting this bill, the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2022, because the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984 provides the framework for how referendums are conducted, and we welcome many of the reforms in this bill to update that framework. In the past 10 years, the parliament has conducted several inquiries into constitutional referendums and reforms. Those inquiries recommended a comprehensive suite of reforms, including aligning referendum laws with broader electoral laws, removing the restriction on governments funding education and promotion campaigns, modernising the way information about the 'yes' and 'no' cases was distributed, and establishing an independent expert panel to advise on the wording of referendum questions and information campaigns. This bill does some of those things.

Many submitters to the earlier inquiries emphasised the need for a comprehensive, objective review of the referendum machinery separate from the rush of an impending referendum, and the Greens agree. Referendums are about constitutional change and about foundational democratic reforms. Beyond giving a voice to First Nations people, future referendums will determine whether Australia becomes a republic and whether we remove the restrictions on running for parliament that ignore the multicultural background of so many Australians. The Greens believe we need more comprehensive reforms to the referendum act to make it fit for the challenge of those future referendums, but for now it is critical that the improvements proposed in this bill are enacted before the upcoming referendum.

We welcome the introduction of donation disclosure provisions for referendum campaigns. The bill would align referendum disclosure obligations with the Commonwealth Electoral Act obligations; however, what the government has failed to acknowledge is that those obligations are woefully inadequate. The Greens have long called for political donations over $1,000 to be disclosed in real time so that voters can see who is funding campaigns. This is, in fact, Labor's own policy, so this bill represents a missed opportunity to strengthen disclosures. We'll be moving an amendment to lower the disclosure threshold to $1,000 and we hope that Labor supports us in improving transparency for all political donations.

I said earlier that referendum machinery reforms should be considered not only on the eve of a referendum; but we also cannot ignore the timing and context of this bill. Alongside progress towards treaty and truth, the upcoming Voice referendum is a generational opportunity, and it will be critical to maximise the participation of all Australians in the vote. Without reforms, there is a real risk that many First Nations people may not get the chance to have their say in the Voice referendum. While enrolment among First Nations people has been increasing, it remains lower than that of the general population. On-the-day enrolment options would prevent a situation where First Nations people who try to vote in the referendum are turned away.

Even with increased enrolment, many voters, particularly in remote areas, may be effectively disenfranchised by the unpredictable, limited availability of mobile polling services. During the last election, some communities were visited by remote mobile polling units for only a few hours, and some missed out altogether. Communities received little information of when polling places would be open, and many missed out on voting as a result. We need to do better. I understand that the government will move amendments in the Senate to extend the remote polling period. We welcome that as a positive first step. The Northern Territory Electoral Commission report on the Daly by-election noted that, where a polling place in the Wadeye community was open for five days, there was a nearly 40 per cent increase in voter turnout from the previous by-election, where the polling place was open for only two days.

Giving people in remote communities the best chance to have their say is an investment we all need to make. There also needs to be a concerted effort to engage interpreters to assist voters at polling places to understand the voting process and make sure their vote can be counted. Again, the last election saw many communities without interpreters, and the AEC needs to be funded to ensure that that is not repeated.

The Greens believe that constitutional reforms are generational changes that will affect the lives of all Australians. Young people, particularly First Nations young people, will be impacted by the outcome of the referendum and deserve to have a say. We estimate that an additional 32,000 First Nations people would be able to vote if the voting age were lowered to 16. The Greens have a bill to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote, and we urge the government to support that. I will be moving a second reading amendment calling for measures to address voter participation, particularly among First Nations voters. The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters has made similar recommendations, and the AEC has supported those calls. The government needs to act.

Lastly, I want to talk briefly about the pamphlet. The Greens support some form of independent, objective information outlining the 'yes' and 'no' cases being made available to the voting public; however, we acknowledge the many submitters who have questioned whether the pamphlet, and the archaic way that it will be developed, will meet this objective. It is critical that all Australians are given access to resources to inform their decision. It is critical that those resources are accurate and clear, that they don't misrepresent the implications of a Voice, that they don't fearmonger or spout racist talking points and that they don't undermine the democratic process. We will continue to call for measures that ensure publicly funded resources are clear and factual, developed in consultation with experts and available in appropriate formats and languages to reach all voters. We will also continue to support calls for truth in political advertising campaigns. The Greens believe in democracy. We want to see referenda conducted fairly and openly with transparency and respect. This bill goes some way to go towards that, and we will keep pressure on the government to go further on electoral reforms in this term of parliament.

Photo of Steve GeorganasSteve Georganas (Adelaide, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the amendment seconded?

Photo of Elizabeth Watson-BrownElizabeth Watson-Brown (Ryan, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the amendment and reserve my right to speak.

5:30 pm

Photo of Zoe McKenzieZoe McKenzie (Flinders, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak to speak on the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2022. At least, I think I rise to speak on the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2022; although, based on much of the debate we have heard from the other side and the crossbench today, you could be forgiven for thinking that we are discussing a bill to implement a referendum regarding an Indigenous Voice to Parliament. That, of course, is not what this bill does. It changes the operation of referenda, not just for the forthcoming referendum on the voice but, presumably, for all referenda which may follow.

This bill goes to the public information campaign and the quality of informed debate regarding proposed questions and constitutional changes to be submitted to the Australian people for a decision. The bill also makes some changes to transparency arrangements regarding expenditure on referendum campaigns and imposed reporting requirements akin to the current laws, transparency and obligations which apply to Australian elections. As currently drafted, the bill suspends the operation of the provisions for the referendum act that require the preparation and distribution of a pamphlet with 'yes' and 'no' cases to the referendum question. It also prevents any Australian government spending money on referendum campaigns.

Early last month the Prime Minister indicated the government would, in fact, relent and provide 'yes' and 'no' pamphlets to all Australian voters. Yet where is the government bill to that effect so we really know they will be provided? Aside from the pamphlet, the government remains resolute that it will not fund the campaigns for or against the change. I have heard many members get to their feet here today and talk about the 1999 referenda on two questions—an Australian head of state and the transition of Australia from a monarchy to a republic—and proposed changes to the preamble of the Australian Constitution which would have, among other things, included the following phrase: 'We, the Australian people commit ourselves to this Constitution honouring Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders as the nation's first people for their deep kinship with the lands and for their ancient and continuing cultures which enrich the life of our country.' That would have been the first step towards proper constitutional recognition of Australia's first peoples.

Despite significant support on all sides of politics, the proposed preamble referendum was resoundingly defeated and this was particularly the case in my electorate of Flinders, with 63 per cent voting against. At the time, my electorate equally voted against the transition to a republic, with 58 per cent voting against. Many in this place who have spoken before me have indicated that they have only faint memories of the 1999 referendum. However, I remember it well and so do most of my constituents, because more than 50 per cent of all residents of Flinders are older than 40. I remember it particularly well because at that time I was a very young adviser in the office of the Attorney-General, down on the blue carpet in the ministerial wing of this building. I had just joined the office of the Attorney, then Darrell Williams QC, and was tasked with the responsibility of constitutional law, an area which I loved and had worked in for more than a decade by the time I made it there.

I had a peripheral role in relation to the logistics of the referendum. I answered calls from the public about it. I listened to their questions and, indeed, I was witness to their marvellous curiosity about what the proposed changes would do and what they would not do. Those calls numbered in their hundreds and they were accompanied by thousands of letters from interested Australians who took the changes to the Constitution very seriously indeed. We know from AEC research that almost half of the people who received mailed material would use this information as their main source of information in casting their vote. I cannot help but wonder if the government feels we have moved beyond the information age—that is, the age in which you would give the public information—to the age of the 'vibe of the thing'?

I have heard so many frankly silly references to the Australian Constitution as some kind of mission statement, an expose of our values, our history or our birth certificate—as I think the Prime Minister likes to call it. It is nothing of the sort. It is a pragmatic and practical document which brought together a bunch of errant colonies—in particular, the most mischievous of all the colonies, Western Australia, which for most of the time during the Constitutional Conventions, which ran between 1890 and 1898, wanted to go it alone. As the covering clauses state, the Constitution was designed:

… to unite in one indissoluble Federal Commonwealth under the Crown of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, …

It spelt out the operation of this place and the powers of the Commonwealth parliament, which, at the time, were largely focused on logistics—matters like quarantine, lighthouses, stamps, currency, telephony and railways. It provided for the courts and the appointment of an executive government.

The 1999 referendum was, for many people, their first real examination of the Australian Constitution and its provisions. Copies of the Constitution were readily available and even more readily read. Our civic awareness and engagement were at an historical peak. It was a moment to be celebrated and, indeed, to be repeated, rather than condemned to history as old-fashioned, out of date or archaic. On the walls of this building at the moment, in the public areas, there is a mini exhibition of constitutional reform of times gone by. It describes the circumstances which led to the 1942 Constitutional Convention, the first which occurred after Australia's Federation in 1901. The convention, undertaken in wartime, considered a proposed new section 68 of the Constitution to provide this parliament with the power to undertake all measures which, in the declared opinion of the parliament, will tend to achieve economic security and social justice. A general outrage was precipitated by this egregious catch-all provision, and it was later watered down. But the modest exhibition on the walls of the first floor of this building describes the 1942 process as follows: 'State and federal political leaders met to discuss the proposed new powers: the repatriation of service personnel; employment and unemployment; marketing of commodities; company legislation; trusts, combines and monopolies; profiteering and prices; the production and distribution of goods; foreign exchange and investment; air transport; railways; national works; national health; family allowances; and the power to make laws for Aboriginal people.' It goes on upstairs: 'After extensive debate, the premiers agreed that the states would voluntarily transfer the proposed powers to the Commonwealth for a period of five years after the armistice. However, some premiers soon faced opposition from their respective parliaments and could not fulfil their agreements.'

On 19 August 1944 the Commonwealth government held a constitutional referendum to ask the Australian people to approve the 14 powers listed. That proposed amendment did not pass. The Constitutional Convention and its aftermath had tested the Constitution's limits on Commonwealth power. Inputting the question to the Australian people at that time, then Prime Minister John Curtin used lofty terms, equal to those we hear in the debate today about constitutional reform. On this occasion, leaders of His Majesty's government and His Majesty's opposition from all seven parliaments in Australia were gathered to consider from a non-party and a national point of view the course of action to be followed at one of the greatest turning points of our history, saying, 'We shall be dealing with matters which profoundly affect the future welfare of Australia,' and yet the Australian people said no, as they had done 36 times before—having said yes only eight times before. And so what does the Albanese government propose? Not to tell people what is proposed. Not to think through the potential consequences of any mooted changes. Instead, he proposes to keep the Australian people in the dark, with no funding for the 'yes' or 'no' campaigns and, until recently, no pamphlet explaining in simple terms what the referendum choice is all about.

The Voice is not a burning issue in my electorate. People are focused on the challenges which befall their days: how to find staff, how to meet the ever-increasing repayments on their mortgages, how to absorb hundreds of dollars more in increased energy bills, how to find affordable accommodation, how to buy a first home and how to save for their futures without fear that their sacrifices will be wiped out by ad hoc and retrospective change to superannuation, capital gains tax, negative gearing or franking credits. But when I raise the Voice with my constituents, invariably the response comes back, 'What exactly is it?' Much as I wish I could, I can't answer that question and, to be fair, nor can the Prime Minister. Some days it sounds like it's a voice to parliament; other days it's a voice to the executive government; and other days still it's both. Either way, the Prime Minister is proposing to give people a say about the concept but not the construction and, more importantly, the consequences of the referendum.

This bill is, quite simply, an attack on fundamental pillars of democracy, and it has a shallow disregard for the Australian electorate. It comes from the heart of a government which has given up on its people as informed citizens capable of thinking through constitutional choices for themselves. It is essential that we all in this place defend the rights of voters to be informed not just for the imminent but for all constitutional referenda and for our constitutional reform to pursued with integrity and accompanied by rigorous and respectful debate. We have done it before, and we can do it again.

5:40 pm

Photo of David GillespieDavid Gillespie (Lyne, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2022 is a very complex bill. It should be separated that this is changing some of the ways that referenda are to be run from here on in. That in itself is a cause for great concern to me and to many, because there doesn't appear to be a level playing field. That is a very important principle which needs to be addressed. We need to know that when a referendum happens for this upcoming recognition of Indigenous people in the Constitution it's not only a huge change to the Constitution but the process will linger on for other referenda.

I don't think it is giving any solace to people with great concerns about the referendum that this bill is allowing huge amounts of disinformation and factual incorrectness and is not addressing other really serious issues that people are crying out for by not funding both sides of the argument. It's a travesty, as far as I'm concerned. We have to have a pamphlet available with accurate information for both the 'yes' and the 'no' case. We have to have the ability to establish official 'yes' and 'no' campaign organisations and to appropriately fund them. It is very, very important.

The bill is responding to some inquiries that have been led by standing parliamentary committees. Some of the machinery things to bring the referendum process in line with the Electoral Commission process makes common sense. But overall this bill is very concerning. To support this, the coalition have to have no doubt that there will be equal support for the 'yes' and the 'no' case. As the bill stands, it does remove the requirement to provide all households with a pamphlet. The government have mentioned, separate to this bill, that they're going to restore the pamphlet, but there are no details and there is no funding. It's very wishy-washy. We need certainty going into this critical piece of legislation, and I would like to say informed voters are of that opinion. I have taken vox pop polls around my electorate. Most people are in the dark about what is proposed, let alone how the machinery of referenda would be run. It's a very dangerous precedent to set that nothing is defined, apart from how foreign interference and donations can be restricted and how any Australian citizens who are funding campaigns have to be clear.

With all the referenda that I've been involved in in my lifetime, there was plenty of information for both sides. There were only three referenda that didn't have 'yes' and 'no' campaigns. There were exceptional circumstances in 1919, after the war—there wasn't sufficient time to produce them. There was no agreement on how to produce the 'yes' argument in 1926. And, in 1928—a unique event—there was overwhelming agreement between the parties. We know now that people are hungry for information. When you scratch the surface, lots of people in my electorate, dozens of people I incidentally meet, have grave concerns. If you want the Australian people to have trust in the integrity of the process, you need a pamphlet, and that is meant to be a signature of this new government—that they are all for integrity and openness. We are asking for equal funding, and it's a reasonable request.

I will say a few words about the referendum itself. It is a really important referendum. Every referendum is important because the referendum result can allow changes to the Constitution. But, from what I've seen, it gives carte blanche for the government to then go and establish not just constitutional change but yet another level of bureaucracy on top of the bureaucracy that's funded to the tune of over $30 billion every year, which hasn't delivered any significant tangible benefits pro rata with the amount of money spent across state and federal governments.

I object to the concept of a change in the Constitution to give special legal standing to a group of people based on race, even if it is Indigenous Australians. And there's no definition of what is Indigenous. You get lots of different definitions, and that's very vague and undefined. Many people have commented that it would just be a body of advice, but what we've learnt in subsequent announcements from ministers on that side and by eminent High Court lawyers is that what is an opinion and an advisory comment could have standing as being obligatory when it's taken to the High Court, and it will be justiciable. There's a bank of High Court lawyers and barristers who agreed with this. Legal opinion is ringing loud and clear, and this isn't what was advertised by the other side.

The National Party have done our legal homework. We have sought opinions from highly qualified legal people. I would like to also put on the record that six per cent of my population is Indigenous, and I'm sure the vast majority of them would support it, but our role here, particularly with constitutional change, is to establish the consequences of what a law will do to how this nation is run. To have one body which, depending on the size of population survey you do, represents three per cent of the population and gives them special standing at state, federal or local government levels—because the local voice, the state voice or the federal voice has an opinion—will gum up the whole works of the nation.

The concept of Australia is that we are full of people of all nations, and I acknowledge that Indigenous people have been here. There have been three waves of Indigenous civilisations in the 60,000 years. But, since Australia has come into being, once you are Australian and you are a citizen, you get the same treatment. You get the same education, support and health. The law is applied the same, without fear or favour. This is, in the words of a former Prime Minister, creating a de facto third chamber. A recent opinion from a former Labor minster in Australia's second-most-respected national paper even said this will be a shadow government. It will have the ability to pass an opinion which can then be acknowledged, read, understood but not agreed with, and then it will be off to lawfare, and that will not be fair to the rest of the nation.

There is also no legal impediment for any Indigenous member of Australia to run for local government, state government or federal government, and we have whole departments dedicated at state and federal level to Indigenous affairs. We have Indigenous advancement strategies. We have health policies. We have Prime Minister and Cabinet committees. We have prime ministerial committees taking advice from Indigenous groups. We have land councils. We have so many voices from Indigenous Australia, and this will be just be another bureaucracy, but the making of laws and the way we decide to govern ourselves will be decided by an unelected third chamber. That is the nuts and bolts of it.

The fact is, whether you are someone from Ethiopia who just got their citizenship, like the last ones in my electorate, or you are from the Biripi, or the Ngunnawal or the Ngambri people in the area where I was born and raised, here in the Monaro—sure, Australians respect and honour the traditions of the Indigenous—we are all the same. We are one country under one law and we all have the right to stand for parliament. This particular bill isn't about that, but I take the opportunity to put my thoughts on the record.

This Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill is very vague and one-sided, and I won't be supporting the bill unless it's changed considerably. By the sounds of it, that is not going to happen.

5:51 pm

Photo of Julian LeeserJulian Leeser (Berowra, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Indigenous Australians) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2022. As a parliamentarian, a lawyer and a constitutional conservative, and as someone who was an active participant in the 1999 republic referendum campaign, our last referendum, I think the most important decisions we can make as citizens in a democracy are the decisions we make at a referendum. Elections all have a time frame, and for Australia it's three years. You can change your mind at an election—and we on this side certainly hope that at the next federal election Australians do change their mind—but a vote at a referendum is for something that is permanent. It's the most serious decision a citizen can make at the ballot box. Australia is one of the few countries in the world that leaves the question of amending their Constitution to the citizens themselves, and that is a very good and powerful responsibility we all have.

My view is that trust is created when the process is fair to both sides. The government shouldn't be putting its fingers on the constitutional scales. There are three things that I think are needed to ensure a referendum in the modern era is fair. Firstly, as is our tradition, there needs to be the distribution of a 'yes' and 'no' booklet so that all Australians can hear the arguments of both sides. Secondly—and this is important at this time—there needs to be the formal establishment of a 'yes' case and 'no' case as the place to receive funding, to receive donations and to expend money. This is required because the environment in which the referendum is operating in is more complex due to foreign interference and more complex because of the difficulty in complying with electoral legislation more broadly. Thirdly, as was the case in 1999, there needs to be equal funding for the 'yes' and 'no' side. Both sides in 1999 were able to put their cases so that Australians could hear the arguments.

Sadly, the government seems to want to game this referendum. Unfortunately, the Prime Minister and the Attorney-General have form when it comes to interfering in referendum questions. In 2013, when the Prime Minister was the Minister for Local Government, and the Attorney-General held the same role in the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government, they presided over an aborted attempt to recognise local government in the Constitution. The Prime Minister as minister promised $10 million to the 'yes' case with another $10 million from local government and millions more through various local honey pots. The so-called 'neutral' case was in effect a de facto 'yes' case mechanism. So there were millions of dollars promised to the 'yes' case. On the other hand, the 'no' case was offered $500,000. In other words, the 'no' case was funded to the tune of about five cents per voter. This was absolutely outrageous interference in the referendum process.

I believe in equality of public funding, because Australians deserve to hear the arguments. I believe that is a very important matter of principle. It's not about the Voice. It's not about recognition of local government. It's not about a republic. It's about the belief that, regardless of the topic, Australians need to hear both arguments.

Let me remind members opposite of the 1951 referendum. That was the referendum to ban the Communist Party, which was loathed by Labor. Some believed it was the thin edge of the wedge. That campaign was the shining moment in the political career of Dr HV Evatt, who travelled the country allowing Australians to hear the 'no' case. The 'no' case won, and it won because people got to hear it. Imagine if that process had been rigged. Imagine if Menzies had played it for partisan benefit. It wasn't; the 1951 referendum followed the normal rules. As a democracy, good process matters. It always does. I believe that we should always trust the Australian people. They get it right.

The framers of the Constitution set up a mechanism whereby Australians could make an informed choice about changing our Constitution. The framers wanted Australians to hear the alternatives. In order to make an informed choice, you must have information. We've seen only eight successful amendments to the Constitution in almost a century and a quarter. Three of those eight were delivered by the late Bob Ellicott, when he was Attorney-General in 1977. He put four questions up. Three, as I mentioned, passed, and the fourth failed, despite receiving 62 per cent of the national vote. Ellicott's view on successful referendum questions was insightful. He said that referendum success required broad support among Australians and that that's the 'result of broad consultation and the provision of information as to its purpose and effect'.

I come to this bill as someone who's a supporter of the principle of the Voice and someone who's a supporter of a fair process. A democracy that seeks to manipulate electoral processes for partisan reasons is a democracy that is corroding the very foundation of the trust that underpins it. I believe that, in elections on referendum questions, Australians deserve to hear the arguments, through traditional media and through social media. Governments shouldn't censor by obstruction or by promoting one view over another. That's the cynic's approach. Cynics believe we should manipulate processes to achieve outcomes. I should stress that this bill is about the process around the referendum and not the referendum question itself. This bill is not even about the eventual question; it's literally about the referendum machinery.

There's much in this bill that's sensible, particularly around aligning many of the rules of the referendum with those that occur in federal elections. We live in an age of foreign interference, and we support measures that seek to modernise referendum machinery to bring it into line with election machinery designed to safeguard Australia's institutions against foreign interference. It's right to modernise, because we've also seen much change since the last referendum, including online campaigning and, with it, the emergence of malicious actors. So the machinery for a referendum should be in line with a federal election, and we support that, but we're opposed to the discarding of formal 'yes' and 'no' cases prepared by members of parliament in a booklet. Giving Australians a formal case from each side that's been approved by the members who will vote yes and the members who will vote no will add to this debate.

I believe in free speech and I believe in Australians having access to all the arguments, so I support the distribution of formal 'yes' and 'no' cases. I also support public funding for both cases because the Constitution should never be for sale. I welcome the decision of the government to reinstate the official 'yes' and 'no' case booklet, but why was the booklet ever withdrawn? It was withdrawn because the government thought it could manipulate the process. Formal 'yes' and 'no' cases should appear at every referendum. They should be sent to every elector. They should be publicly funded. No referendum campaign should be driven by money or by who has access to the most billionaires. It should be driven by arguments that Australians can hear.

The formal 'yes' and 'no' cases mean that every Australian can hear those arguments, and the government should provide funding to each side so that Australians can actually hear those. I know some have said that funding a formal 'no' case will simply mean the government is funding racist arguments. I don't accept that, because I know the great majority of Australians are not racist. We're one of the great multicultural and multifaith nations on earth. Australians hate racism, and we know a racist trope when we see it. Racist arguments will be a vote loser, and I can't imagine respected Australians of the calibre of the former deputy prime minister John Anderson advocating arguments that would in any way denigrate First Australians.

A formal 'yes' case and 'no' case will communicate the gravitas of a referendum, and an official 'yes' campaign and 'no' campaign organisation would also create the structures by which both sides could respond to the important disclosure and regulatory regimes that exist in our electoral processes. It means the debates from both sides will be driven by the mainstream and not by groups from the far edges or by vested interests with large pools of cash.

I've said repeatedly that we must approach this referendum with goodwill. Everyone has a responsibility in this debate, be they for the 'yes' case, the 'no' case or genuinely undecided. We all have a responsibility to listen to each other with respect. If you're a leader or an advocate of the 'yes' case, you have a responsibility to listen to the legitimate questions of those who doubt, and, if you're a leader or an advocate of the 'no' case, you have a responsibility to listen to the real concerns and the lived experience of Indigenous Australians. Both sides deserve to be heard, and we should create the space where Australians can engage with the questions asked.

We saw recently a news report in the Sydney Morning Herald about an event that the member for Sydney held advocating for the Voice. It was a community forum, and she was asked questions. The Herald described these questions as probing questions, and I think it's good. In fact, many of those probing questions were the same ones that Peter Dutton has been asking since early January. I'm glad that the member for Sydney held the forum. If the referendum goes ahead there will be events like this all over the country, because a referendum is a decision of the Australian people and I want the Australians to hear the arguments. We must oppose any and every attempt to shut down debate.

I want to be very clear to the global big tech companies who own the social media channels Australians rely upon. I say to them: don't censor this debate. Global big tech companies censoring debate in Australia is in itself a form of foreign interference and shouldn't be allowed. We're not Moscow, we're not Beijing, we're not Kabul, we're not Tehran. We're Australians. In this country the citizens have a right to hear the arguments. When there are bad arguments, disinformation and unpalatable tropes—as there will be—let them rot in the public space as they should. Let Australians expose them and tear them down. Big tech companies don't have a right to determine what is a good or a bad argument. Australians don't need the censorship of big tech, nor do they need big corporates, under the guise of corporate social responsibility, directing Australians how to vote. I want to say to corporate Australia: if you want to be involved in this debate that's a good thing, but make sure you really are a good corporate citizen. Make sure the planes are running on time. Make sure you've invested in fixing the mobile black spots. Make sure you're not still trading with Russia. Make sure you're not ripping off Indigenous consumers. Make sure you're not destroying the sacred places of Indigenous heritage. Make sure you're keeping price rises down, and if you're a bank your interest rate down as well. I say this explicitly, because this is a debate of citizens. It's the debate of Australians. I don't want the Constitution to be a plaything of big money, big tech or big corporates, whether those corporates are located overseas or whether they're located here in Collins Street, George Street or any other capital city in Australia.

I make these points because I think we must all walk gently in this debate. We must respect good process. We must respect debate. We must make places to persuade, rather than make people feel fearful to speak. We must understand this referendum will be the place where citizens decide—we the people. As with the substantive matters in this move towards a referendum I believe the government should move back towards a normal process. Part of that normal process of a referendum is those three things that we have talked about: a formal no case, equal public funding and a formal yes and no case booklet which seems to now have been achieved. The normal formal processes for yes and no cases were established and, as was the case in 1999, funded equally so that all Australians can hear the arguments. And good process will mean the government listens in terms of the question on the amendment.

I remember being on the national no committee in 1999. We looked at the way in which Australians were engaging with the yes and no booklet, and we saw that it was a very important document in terms of Australians thinking about this. I think we have to go back to some of the basic ideas in this debate. Most Australians, unfortunately, don't know we have got a Constitution, and those who do know we have it have never read it. Yet we are asking them one Saturday to make an important decision about what that Constitution looks like and what the future of important government structures under our Federation are to look like. Australians will want to sit at home and look at the amendment. They want to understand it. They want to read it. What we found in 1999 was that Australians take decisions of this sort seriously. We need to be able to ensure Australians are hearing the arguments for and against. As I say, it doesn't matter whether we're talking about a referendum on a voice, whether we're talking about a referendum on a republic, whether we're talking about a referendum to ban the communist party. It doesn't matter what the topic is. It is the process that must be fair. It is the process that must inform Australians. It is the process that must allow both sides to get their arguments out. They are the points that we on this side of the House have been making about changes to the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act.

We believe that the government should adopt the orthodox process and take a leaf out of the 1999 republic referendum where there was a yes and no case booklet delivered in the mail to every elector. There was a publicly funded yes and no campaign. Those campaigns were drawn from the constitutional convention that had convened in 1998. As I say, I had the privilege of being appointed to the national no case committee by John Howard for that referendum. The environment which we are now conducting our politics in is an environment where the level of foreign interference, according to the agencies, is at record highs. It is higher than it ever was during the Cold War. There are malicious state and nonstate actors that would seek to disrupt our democracy. There needs to be formal cases recognised to make it easier to deal with that threat and to make it easier to deal with an increasing amount of bureaucracy, understandably because of the importance of preserving our electoral system and our referendum system as it were, such that the compliance for small organisations around the country will be very difficult, and the capacity for foreign interference through small organisations will be greater. Those are the reasons why we on this side of the House have been so trenchant in our views about this bill, and why we think those three things are very important preconditions to this. Fundamentally, what we need to see from the government here is a commitment to good process. Good process means the government will listen in terms of this bill. Good process means the government will listen to the question in the amendment. Good process ultimately builds confidence, and, sadly, confidence is ebbing, but good process is the best pathway on this issue, as it is on so many others as well.

6:06 pm

Photo of Andrew WallaceAndrew Wallace (Fisher, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2022, which proposes crucial amendments to one of the most important instruments available to the Australian people for change. Questions of national character and constitutional reform are some of the most serious questions we can ask of voters in this country. When we propose a change to the Constitution at a referendum, it is a change which goes to the foundation of the way in which our nation operates, of how it is governed, of how it is protected, of how it does what the Australian people expect it to do.

The Constitution empowers the Australian people to own their democracy and, when we change it, we must be cautious that we are not disempowering voters on one side or the other. A lot has happened since the referendum act was last used. In fact, it hasn't been used since 1999. It was in 1999 that the Australian people rejected a politician's republic in favour of the status quo. They opted to retain the constitutional monarchy because, well, it worked, and the change would come at a price too high—uncertainty, instability, and an increase of power to the elected, not the electors.

As the Samuel Griffith Society pointed out in their submission to the inquiry, the fact that the nation has experienced the longest period in its history without a referendum should be seen as an indication of Australians' overall satisfaction with our existing constitutional arrangements. However, after nearly 25 years, the legislation which enables such a referendum has not kept pace with the modernisations we have made successively to the electoral act, amendments which have improved the efficiency, transparency and integrity of our electoral process.

Since the last national referendum, we have seen some remarkable change. The iPod was invented and has since transformed into wearable mobile technology thanks to the Internet of Things. YouTube was invented, along with the social media platforms from which we now source so much of our information and news. Advances in cybersecurity, generational shifts in workforce participation and the working week, and social change at scale unlike anything we have seen, at least my lifetime, have taken place in a quarter of a century since the referendum act was last used. It is time for its modernisation. That is why in 20121 as chair of the Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs, I led an inquiry into constitutional reform and referenda, passing the baton on to the member for Moncrieff on my election as Speaker of the House of Representatives. That inquiry, which has contributed to this bill in debate today, showed me a number of things. The minister claims that this bill aims to ensure that referenda reflect contemporary federal election voting processes, and extends transparency and integrity measures in the electoral act to support voter confidence in referenda. That may well be the aim, but, in some respects, it will not be the result.

Australians are becoming more aware of the Constitution's role. Since the report of the Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs was handed down, Australians have become a little more aware of the real-life implications of our Constitution on democracy and government. That is not unusual as we are approaching a referendum. I believe that Australians, given that there have 25 years since our last one, will take a more active role in understanding what referenda are about, a lot more about our Constitution and about how the Constitution should be changed, if at all. During the COVID-19 pandemic and in the aftermath of the COVID lockdowns, the nature of Australia's competitive federalism was laid bare before the Australian people. For some, the to-ing and fro-ing between the states and the Commonwealth was proof that the system was strong, demanding cooperation across borders while protecting state electors' interests. For others, it was a point of concern and contention that governments disagreed at times and agreed on other issues.

The question we are discussing now is not whether competitive federalism is the best system of governing our Commonwealth and its states. The question is whether the provisions proposed empower the people of this country to make such decisions for themselves if or when the time comes.

This debate should be considered in light of the Indigenous Voice to Parliament debate. What we debate in relation to this bill will naturally be viewed as a reflection on the upcoming referendum on an Indigenous voice to parliament. It will, after all, be the first national referenda held in nearly a quarter of a century. The changes we make now, however, will extend to the referenda which follow: crucial moments of significant and fundamental change to the way our nation operates. As such, it's important that we all take a critical and forward-thinking approach to these reforms and that we undertake this debate with dignity, that we do it in a collegial spirit and, perhaps most importantly, that we do it with respect. I am heartened by the tone of the debate in relation to this bill, because this bill is almost a precursor to the Voice referendum itself. How this debate is managed by this House over the next hours and days, if it comes to that, really does set the tone, and I think that tone needs to be one of respect.

Now, there are things that we have taken for granted in our typical election process which have not been amended since the previous referendum nearly a quarter of a century ago, and I will go through some of the things that we do agree with in relation to this bill. The coalition supports some of those changes. We support allowing the early opening and sorting—but not counting—of prepoll ordinary votes from 4 pm on voting day along with the extraction of declaration votes during preliminary scrutiny. These changes will support the timely scrutiny of prepoll votes on the night of voting day, consistent with federal election processes.

We support measures to combat foreign interference, particularly in relation to financial contributions. In a rare foray from Labor into actually improving integrity and accountability measures, this bill would see the financial disclosure procedures amended to protect referenda from foreign interference. It would prohibit foreign donations of more than $100 and prohibit foreign donors and actors from incurring referenda expenditure, to a maximum of $1,000 per financial year. This includes aggregated smaller donations below the disclosure threshold.

As the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights noted, 'The threat of foreign influence in democratic referendums can risk undermining democratic integrity and has the potential to erode democracy by compromising trust in voting results and trust in political participants.' The limit on foreign campaigners and the restriction on their ability to fundraise or directly incur referendum expenditure is a mechanism to counteract the effects of foreign influence in Australia's democracy and maintain Australians' trust in their referenda. Genuine freedom to vote at referenda requires freedom from undue influence or interference. Donors will also be required to report to the AEC the details of donations for referendum campaigning valued above the disclosure threshold. If only those opposite would consider the same level of scrutiny with respect to Australian superannuation funds or union contributions to general elections!

Unfortunately, this bill is one-sided, and that really touches on one of the key concerns. It's hypocritical. The bill as proposed does not include a commitment to provide equal information about and equal funding to both sides of the debate. This means that those with the most money and the greatest capacity to provide free information—that is, governments—have an extraordinary and unprecedented advantage. This is a heinous double standard. What has become clear is that the Australian people are losing faith in the Albanese Labor government. They're losing faith in the government's integrity, their intentions and their abilities. It's not often I'll quote the current member for Warringah, but I will today. When she talked about her Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Stop the Lies) Bill in December last year, she said 'the government knows it needs to protect truth, and it's failing to do that'. The Australian people know it to be true. To that end, the coalition and Australians with common sense are calling on the government to amend this bill and commit to: restoring the pamphlet to outline the 'yes' and 'no' cases, which they have now done; establishing official 'yes' and 'no' campaigns organisations; and appropriately funding both of those official organisations.

Early on, we called Labor out with respect to the pamphlets. It may sound like a little thing, but the inequity and inaccessibility with relation to information for the opposing argument would be a grossly undemocratic stain on this critical referendum. Initially, Labor refused. It came as a shock. In their own words in the 2021 SPLA report, they said:

Awareness and understanding of our Constitution, referendums and constitutional matters is disturbingly low amongst Australian citizens.

I was shocked because I assumed that Labor meant what they said and said what they mean.

Recommendation 6 of the SPLA inquiry that I referenced before specifically called on the Electoral Commissioner to distribute the 'yes' and 'no' pamphlets to all electors, using any additional methods that the Electoral Commissioner considers appropriate. Labor agreed to this when they were in opposition, but once granted the reins of power they went back on their word. Shock, horror—I know! There have been three referenda without an official pamphlet: 1919, 1926 and 1928. In 1919 there was insufficient time to produce a pamphlet. In 1926 there was no agreement on how to produce the 'yes' argument. In 1928 there was overwhelming agreement between the parties and the government. Surely, a century on, we are past these kinds of excuses.

We've also called on Labor asking them to provide equal public funding for both sides of the campaign. A recommendation of the SPLA report in 2021 called for the act to be amended to provide for the Australian government to fund referendum education and promotion of the arguments for and against the referendum proposal. This is the model applied across like-minded democratic parliaments.

In conclusion, what the coalition want to see is equal funding, equal access to information and equal standing for Australians who share a common love of country but, perhaps, differing views on one particular issue. It's about being a mature government, a fair government and a responsible government. That's what Australians expect. With all that said, I cannot support this bill as it's currently written, and I want to support it because we need to modernise our approach to referenda. We will support a bill that allows for a referendum with informed voters and a process with integrity based on precedent. To that end, we're hopeful that the amendments that I've outlined today will be introduced in the Senate and accepted so that we can vote on what is an important reform to the way we amend and defend our Constitution.

6:20 pm

Photo of Andrew HastieAndrew Hastie (Canning, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise this evening to oppose this bill, the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2022, along with my opposition colleagues, because I fear this establishes a process that undermines the very referendum that we're all going to participate in as Australians. A change to our Constitution is a very momentous thing. It's a big thing, and it involves all Australians. It's very important that we have the whole population informed about the change they're being asked to vote on, that the information that they're given is accurate and correct, that it's a level playing field and that they get both sides of the argument. I'm not confident that this bill does that.

This is a really important question that the Australian people are being asked to answer—the question of whether we have a Voice to Parliament or to the executive established. It's a debate that needs to be handled with care, with prudence and with respect, and I fear that this bill alloys the debate by depriving it of the integrity and the process that it demands and absolutely requires.

We have raised three points for the government, to address our concerns on the referendum process. First, we made the case that the pamphlet to outline the 'yes' and 'no' cases be restored, and that has been done. We also argued that there should be official 'yes' and 'no' campaign organisations established. Finally, we argued that those organisations be funded appropriately. Those second and third points have not yet been agreed to by the government, which is why we're opposing this bill.

So why are we advocating for the retention of a pamphlet? Without a pamphlet, this bill sets a very dangerous precedent, and there is no valid reason or precedent for deliberately not providing one. Setting a new standard for the conduct of referenda in this instance will create precedents for future referenda. As I said, it's really important that the Australian population is fully apprised of what they're voting on, they understand both the 'yes' and 'no' arguments and they go into the ballot box understanding exactly what they're being asked to do. There's always been a requirement for a pamphlet. In fact, it was implemented back in 1912. There have been three referenda without an official pamphlet: 1919, 1926 and 1928. In 1919 there was insufficient time to produce the pamphlet, in 1926 there was no agreement on how to produce the 'yes' argument, and in 1928 there was overwhelming agreement between parties and governments on the question. Of those referenda, none of the circumstances apply. We know there's not complete agreement on this issue, we have the time to produce a pamphlet and we can get agreement on how to argue the cases. It's really, really important that we have this pamphlet, and I'm glad the government has agreed to provide it as a part of this bill.

It's really important that people use official material. One of the things that I've noticed—indeed, I experienced it myself going through to school—is the decline of civics in this country. Of course, during our education, we get taught about our system of government, about the parliament, about the judiciary, about how our democracy works, about all the constituent parts and about how they come together. But I think, over the last 20 years, there has been a decline in civics, and that's why it's so important that we provide a pamphlet for Australians as they are being asked this important question. At the same time as we've seen a decline in civics, we've also seen an increase in misinformation, which has been accelerated by social media.

I recall a few years ago I went to a local high school in my electorate and I asked a group of year 10 students, 'Who do you trust more? Facebook or the government?' Overwhelmingly, they trusted the government over Facebook, largely because people don't know what they can trust online anymore.

So we've seen the decline in civics and the increase in misinformation. People are digitally saturated as it is. A lot of the information that we get—whether it be bills, bank information, you name it—comes to us via email, and a lot of those things get missed because of the saturation we all feel from the digital world on our individual devices. So a pamphlet is a really good way to get people to pause, whether it be at the kitchen table or wherever it is in their home. They'll sit down and consider the issues before them—in this case, the issue of whether or not to establish a voice.

One thing I will say about the online world—and the member for Fisher raised it just before—is there has been an increase in misinformation driven by state actors, non-state actors and other aligned forces. In fact, we've heard ASIO over the last few years talk about the risk of foreign interference in our elections and how we're seeing espionage and foreign interference being conducted in this country at unprecedented levels that far exceed the Cold War. For people to receive a pamphlet from the Australian government, with the code of arms on it, that says, 'This is the question you're being asked to consider; this is the change to the Constitution; this is the 'yes' case, and this is the 'no' case,' in a world of uncertainty and digital saturation such a pamphlet is an excellent idea. I think it's great that the government has met us on that request.

I am also concerned about the role that big tech will play in this debate. We've seen how big tech has operated. We've seen how some of the companies do business, whether it be censorship or shadow banning. We've seen how the algorithms work. We've had plenty of testimony from people across the world who've worked for some of these big companies and have seen how they do business. I've got to say it alarms me that these foreign companies will have a say in the way that the question is shaped, the way people interpret the data and the arguments coming at them. That's another good reason why we need to have that pamphlet delivered to people in their homes—so that they can consider the arguments for themselves.

The other thing I'll say about social media is that the algorithms are driven by outrage. It's almost as if social media is designed to push us to the extremes, to polarise us, to create outrage, to divide us and to separate us from each other. This topic is very sensitive; it goes to a very central question around reconciliation in this country. It's got to be handled with care, and I have no faith that social media, judging by the way it has done business in the past, will be able to conduct or assist Australians through this very sensitive debate over the next six to eight months. So, again, I am very glad the pamphlet has been agreed to.

The second question is: why are we advocating for an official 'yes' and 'no' campaign? The main point here is that it will increase the trust and integrity in this process. Having an official 'yes' and 'no' campaign will make things simpler for the regulatory environment and for the proper conduct of the referendum. We've seen evidence from the AEC to parliamentary committees that the donation and disclosure regime remains the most complex part of the Electoral Act. Having two single points of contact for the 'yes' and 'no' campaigns is vital, I think, particularly so people know, when they're receiving messages from those campaigns, that they can at least have confidence that they are coming from an officially sanctioned campaign and that it is not misinformation or disinformation. It will create order and simplicity in an otherwise very complex undertaking. As I said, this is a very sensitive question. Having a pamphlet out there will assist in limiting misinformation. Having an official 'yes' and 'no' campaign will also provide that order and simplicity for people, and, again, increase the integrity of the process.

Finally, why are we asking for equal funding? Well, it's really important that both of these bodies, the 'yes' and 'no' campaigns, if they are established—and, at the moment, they won't be by this bill, which is why we're opposing it—have equal funding, as we saw in the last referendum in 1999 on the question of whether to become a republic or not. That gives each side the opportunity to build their campaigns and get the arguments out there, and it creates a level and equal playing field. As it stands, we've seen a lot of corporates come out already for one side of the campaign, and I think there's going to be an unequal playing field if the 'yes' and 'no' campaigns are not funded equally.

So we will oppose this bill. We hope the government comes to its senses and creates that level playing field. They've restored the pamphlet for the 'yes' and 'no' cases, but they're yet to establish official 'yes' and 'no' campaigns and they're yet to appropriately fund those official campaigns. In closing, we will oppose this, and I call on the government to implement those two amendments.

6:30 pm

Photo of Aaron VioliAaron Violi (Casey, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to discuss the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2022. Of the 44 referenda that have been put to the Australian people, only eight have succeeded. Personally, this will be the first referendum that I will vote in, and it's worth remembering that this will be true for more than six million Australians. It is vital that Australians have trust in any referendum and understand the process they are participating in.

This bill is amending the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984 in preparation for the referendum on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament and will apply these proposed changes to the conduct of this referendum and any others that follow. It is very important to note that this bill is not dealing with the issue of the Indigenous Voice to Parliament, but rather the way in which any future referendum campaign is conducted in Australia. This bill makes a number of non-controversial changes to the act to bring the operation of the referendum in line with the Commonwealth Electoral Act.

The bill suspends the provisions of the referendum act that require the production and distribution of a 'yes' and 'no' case on the proposed constitutional change and imposes restrictions on the government otherwise spending money on a referendum campaign. It will regulate donations and expenditure for referendum campaigns and impose reporting obligations. It will ban foreign donations of amounts of more than $100 being used for a referendum campaign and ban foreign campaigners authorising referendum material.

The bill updates the referendum act to generally bring it into line with the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, which has been amended recently. In this age of disinformation, it's so important that the government takes the lead and provides clear information to Australians about the referendum procedure and has a strong and robust referendum process. We have raised three points with the government to address our concerns about this process: we've asked for a restoration of the pamphlet to outline the 'yes' and the 'no' cases, for the establishment of official 'yes' and 'no' campaign organisations and for appropriate funding of these official organisations.

I'll now talk about why these changes are required. These measures are fundamental to having a referendum with informed voters and having a process with integrity. It is also the basis on which other referenda have operated and will be consistent with this precedent, and it is the way we practise democracy in Australia.

The government has stated that the purpose of removing this provision relates to the modernisation of the referendum process in the digital age. Other arguments have included the desire not to publish a significant amount of printed material that will not be read and will end up in landfill. However, Labor did not explain why the removal of the pamphlet in its entirety could not be replaced with a digital pamphlet or that the AEC will continue to provide printed material to households, as part of the referendum.

In evidence to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, the AEC provided evidence that the pamphlet to all households would be expected to cost approximately $10 million. And the AEC noted that around 40 per cent of Australians rely on the printed material that the commission, in conducting an election, provides to households. It's an important number to repeat, Mr Deputy Speaker: 40 per cent of Australians rely on the printed material that the commission provides when conducting an election. We need to remember that there are a large portion of Australians who are not digitally literate. We have an obligation and responsibility to provide them with easily accessible information on this referendum and any referendum in the future.

I do understand that the community are concerned about misinformation and I share their concern. We know that, unfortunately, electoral events are increasingly influenced by misinformation. The ACCC reported that 92 per cent of the respondents to the ACCC news survey had some concerns about the quality of news and journalism they were consuming, and that analysis had 'identified concerning consumer and competition harms across a range of digital platform services that are widespread, entrenched, and systemic'. That is why printed booklets in official campaigns are so important.

We now operate in a social media world which has changed the way in which we consume information. Through social media, artificial intelligence and deepfake videos, we've adapted to getting news that we can no longer trust. In many ways, we are losing the ability to trust our eyes and ears. Sometimes this is innocent, but, as other members have spoken about, there are bad faith actors that are looking to use these new technologies and platforms in social media to mislead and undermine campaigns. That's why we need these official 'yes' and 'no' pamphlets—to give greater certainty to all Australians.

Freedom of speech and democracy ensures that we can express and seek differing points of view to make up our own minds; to form our own opinions and make our own decisions. Democracy depends on this. Labor has not made any provisions for an official 'yes' and 'no' campaign organisation to be established. This is of concern in relation to the implementation of modern electoral regulations on donations and foreign interference. An official campaign structure will provide boundaries for the AEC to coordinate education on the responsibilities of organisations and individuals participating in the campaign. The regulatory auditing process to administer these regulatory schemes would be assisted by having official campaigns to provide a starting point for enforcement and education by the AEC. We welcome the government's announcement that they will restore the pamphlet; however, having an official 'yes' and 'no' campaign would make things simpler for the regulatory environment and for the proper conduct of the referendum. It would go a long way to countering the misinformation that could be distributed through digital and social media.

An official campaign structure is going to be the best way for our regulators to ensure appropriate education and enforcement of the electoral laws for this referendum and future referendums. We know that a significant number of participants and organisations in this referendum will not be associated with political parties or regularly participate in electoral events, so having a single point of coordination to provide education and to commence any audit process for donations or foreign interference is the best way to ensure the integrity of this referendum.

As I said earlier, we have a whole generation of Australians who have never voted in a referendum. Here in Canberra we're very engaged every day. It's literally our job and the job of our staff to be engaged in the detail of the political process. But I think we all know that many Australians are not engaged with the political process. That's not a criticism of them: it's a fact—it's an observation. They're focused on putting food on the table. They're focused on taking their kids to sport and being engaged with their communities. So we can't forget that many people are not engaged in this process yet and will not become engaged in this process until much closer to this referendum or to any future referendum. So having official campaigns is important, to ensure that when they do seek information they can go to a trusted source. As I said, an official campaign structure will go a long way to helping those Australians who have not voted in a referendum or who are not engaged to understand the process they're undertaking, and what exactly they're being asked to change.

The bill makes fundamental changes to how referenda are conducted in Australia and they go beyond what has been done in the past. In particular, there's the removal of a requirement for a pamphlet to be provided outlining the cases for and against the change. We will support a bill that allows for a referendum with informed voters and a process with integrity based on this precedent. This is what is expected in a strong and robust democracy. We cannot alter our electoral laws based on one referendum. A change to this document should not be undertaken lightly; our Constitution has served our nation well and has resulted in our strong and stable democracy.

As I said, we have called for three things: firstly, the restoration of the pamphlet to outline the 'yes' and 'no' cases, and it appears that this has been agreed to by the government. We have also called for the establishment of the official 'yes' and 'no' organisations, and for appropriate funding for these official organisations. As it stands, the government has not agreed to these two points. I urge the government to reconsider; as I've outlined, official information and official campaigns are so important in a digital age—in a world of misinformation. It's also important because it allows Australians to have an understanding of the process they're about to take part in. Almost six million Australians have not engaged in this process previously, and it's so important that we give them some confidence in this referendum.

6:42 pm

Photo of Andrew GeeAndrew Gee (Calare, National Party, Shadow Minister for Regional Education) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to support the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2022. This bill symbolises the start of the process of holding a referendum to enshrine an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament in our Constitution. It's the vitally important first step. This is an historic moment for our country, and I would urge all Australians, whatever their political persuasion, to embrace it. Over the past few years, reconciliation in this country has come a long way, but the cold, hard truth is that it's far from complete. The upcoming referendum is a chance for all Australians to move reconciliation forward. This is our moment, our country's moment, and we need to seize it.

Only three weeks ago, I attended the 15th anniversary of the National Apology to the Stolen Generations breakfast here at Parliament House. It was an event that marked just how far we've come, but also how much further we need to go. I thought about Aunty Mary Hooker, my friend and constituent. She was a proud Bundjalung woman. Sadly, Auntie Mary passed away in 2019. She was here for the National Apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008, and she returned in 2018 for the National Apology to Victims and Survivors of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse. After being forcibly removed from her family as a child, she suffered horrific abuse at the Parramatta Girls Training School and also Ormond Training School in Thornleigh in Sydney. She wanted her story to be told, which I have done in this parliament on a previous occasion so that it's recorded in Hansard. Yet, despite all she endured in her life, Aunty Mary refused to be consumed by hatred. She wanted justice, but she never carried that hatred in her heart. She was passionately committed to reconciliation and to bringing Australians together. She knew that we all have to continue walking down that road. The work that so many like Aunty Mary started needs to be completed. I spoke to her husband, Rodney Hooker, about this just this afternoon.

I hope it is complete in my lifetime, although it may not be. However, the responsibility to move reconciliation forward currently rests with us, and a new generation is rising to lead. In our area it is young people such as Alicia Agland and Kishaya Delaney of the Uluru Youth Dialogue who are driving and guiding the Voice campaign. A couple of weeks ago, the Minister for Indigenous Australians visited our electorate of Calare and spoke to many young Australians who were keen to learn more about the Voice and what it would mean for our area. We went to Lake Canobolas and visited Ngurang-gu Yalbilinya, a partnership between the Orange Local Aboriginal Land Council and Canobolas Rural Technology High School. It's an innovative, community driven program that connects to culture and makes a real difference to the lives of the young men who learn there.

We went to Canobolas high school, Wellington High School and Nanima Preschool, just outside of Wellington. There we saw the future of Australia, which was appropriate, because the Voice is very much about the future of this nation. It will deliver long-overdue recognition in Australia's founding document. It should already be there. It's hard to believe that it's not. The Voice is also about tangible, practical results in communities around Australia. It's an acknowledgement that policies and approaches of the past have not worked and that change is needed. The Voice won't be delivering programs. It won't be a third chamber of parliament. It won't have a veto. It's an advisory body. It will consult with Indigenous Australians on policies affecting them. And, because it will be in the Constitution, it will be an enduring voice.

The Indigenous groups that I have spoken to in our electorate are not looking to divide Australians. Through this Voice, they are seeking better outcomes in fields like education, health and housing. They are not seeking division. They want this to be a moment of unity, and that's the spirit in which we need to be having this national conversation.

This referendum won't be decided by members of parliament; it will be decided by Australians in all corners of our nation, and I would ask the people of Calare and Australians everywhere to approach the referendum with an open heart and an open mind—a generosity of spirit. In the days, weeks and months ahead, there will be many opportunities to find out more about the voice and have questions answered—to have those conversations. It doesn't matter how old you are, where you live or from what walk of life you come. We want everyone to engage in this pivotal moment in our history.

This bill is set to modernise the legislation that will govern how the referendum will be conducted. As I have said, for this historic referendum, it's the starting point. I urge all Australians to support giving our First Australians this long overdue recognition and voice. Together, we can do it. I commend this bill to the House.

6:48 pm

Photo of Jenny WareJenny Ware (Hughes, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2022. Most of this is noncontroversial and seeks merely to bring the operation of the proposed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to parliament referendum into line with the Commonwealth Electoral Act. The stated purpose of the bill is to amend the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984 to suspend the provisions of the act that require the production and distribution of a 'yes' and 'no' case. The bill otherwise restricts government expenditure in relation to this referendum campaigning.

There are three parts of this bill that trouble those on my side. First is the pamphlet, which we say needs to distributed to all Australian households. The second is that this bill does not establish 'yes' or 'no' organisations. Third, we say that those 'yes' and 'no' organisations should be properly funded by the government.

The upcoming Voice to Parliament referendum is very important to the future of race relations in Australia. It is important to Indigenous Australian and it is important to non-Indigenous Australians. It is important that Australians understand the content of what they are being asked to vote upon. The upcoming process on the Voice should not be the stuff of wedges. Those who support the Voice should be given the opportunity to fully explain their case for constitutional change. Similarly, those that oppose the Voice should not be demonised as racists or bigots. This is an opportunity for our country to have an intellectual debate without descending into anger. It is an opportunity for Australians to consider both sides of an argument for constitutional change without hatred, without virtue signalling, without name-calling and without outrage. The government can assist by getting the process, the mechanics, correct. That is why I advocate for proper funding of both the 'yes' and the 'no' campaign. I also support the distribution of a pamphlet to each Australian household. In this way, regardless of the outcome of the vote, Australians will be capable of waking up the morning after the referendum satisfied that their fellow Australians had the opportunity to be fully informed, that there was integrity in the process.

If we turn now to the history of referenda in our country, Australian governments have largely been reluctant to submit a proposal to alter the Constitution to the Australian people. Australians, when voting in referenda, have largely been reluctant to support changes to our Constitution. Since Federation in 1901, only 44 questions for altering the Constitution have been put to the Australian people. Of these 44, only eight have been approved. The last constitutional referendum was in 1999 and included questions on a republic in a preamble to the Constitution, both of which failed to be carried by a majority of voters or a majority of states. Majorities of both are, of course, required to alter the Constitution.

The most recent successful referendum was in 1977, relating to voters in territories being allowed to vote in referenda, age limits for judges and the question of casual Senate vacancies. Having regard to the small number of successful referenda in our history, the way that we conduct referenda into the future is important and deserving, therefore, of a prudent approach. In his second reading speech on this bill, the minister said:

A decision to change our Constitution is a significant national event, and it has been more than two decades since a change has been proposed. It is therefore important that the government can fund civics education in relation to the upcoming referendum on the Voice.

I fully support the minister's sentiment on this. It is therefore beyond comprehension that he then stated, 'The government has no intention of funding 'yes' and 'no' campaigns.' If we are to give Australians a proper civics education, it only makes sense that there is a proper government funding of both the 'yes' and the 'no' campaigns.

I was particularly concerned that the bill sought to remove the requirement to provide all households with a pamphlet outlining both the 'yes' and 'no' case for changing the Constitution. It is noted now that the government has announced an intention to restore the pamphlet and that announcement is welcomed. In an age of misinformation, it is extremely important that the government takes the lead on this and provides clear information to Australians and establishes a strong referendum process. If the government does want this referendum to pass, it must ensure that the process has integrity. To that end, I call upon the government to establish official 'yes' and 'no' campaign organisations and to appropriately fund those organisations. This is the basis upon which most other referenda in our country have operated and will be consistent, therefore, with established precedent.

There are cogent reasons to provide written material to all Australian households. We have heard from the AEC that, when they provide mailed material to voters during elections, 40 per cent of recipients will use the documentation as a main source of information in casting their vote. We also know that electoral events are increasingly influenced by misinformation. The ACCC, for example, has published data reporting that 92 per cent of the respondents to a recent survey had some concern about the quality of news and journalism they were consuming.

Proper, equal government funding of both the 'yes' and the 'no' cases will therefore increase the trust and integrity of the referendum process. Having official 'yes' and 'no' campaigns will make things simpler for the regulatory environment and for the proper conduct of the referendum. The AEC has given evidence to parliamentary inquiries that the donation and disclosure regimes remain the most complex part of the Electoral Act. An official campaign structure is therefore going to be the best way for our regulators to ensure appropriate education and enforcement of the electoral laws for the referendum. We know there will be a significant number of participants and organisations in this referendum who will not be associated with political parties or who do not regularly participate in electoral events. Having a single point of coordination to provide education and to commence any audit processes is the best way to ensure the integrity of the upcoming referendum. Therefore, I conclude by reiterating the importance of careful consideration being given to changing our Constitution. Australians must be given the opportunity to be fully informed of the arguments for and against change—the 'yes' and the 'no' campaigns.

The upcoming Voice to Parliament referendum is vitally important to the future of our country, to the future of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. It is vital to the future of race relations in this country. It is therefore outrageous to suggest that a referendum of this magnitude does not deserve equal government funding of both positions. It must be concluded with respect, and, for that to occur, we must consider the content of the debate. We must first ensure that the process, the mechanics, are correct to enable a debate based on intellect and integrity.

In all of those circumstances, it is pleasing to note that the government has agreed to the distribution of pamphlets to all Australian households. If the government also agrees to establishing both the 'yes' and the 'no' organisations and agrees to proper, equal funding of both of those organisations, this bill will be supported by those on my side.

6:59 pm

Photo of Mark DreyfusMark Dreyfus (Isaacs, Australian Labor Party, Cabinet Secretary) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you to those in this chamber who have contributed to the debate on the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2022. I also take this opportunity to recognise and thank the members of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters for their review of this bill and for their continued consideration of matters relating to electoral laws and practices.

Referendums are an integral part of our democracy, but the last referendum was held over 22 years ago. Since that time the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984, the referendum act, has not kept pace with changes to the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, the electoral act. The bill makes amendments to replicate current electoral machinery provisions into the referendum context to ensure the voting process and experience are similar to that of a federal election. The bill will also ensure that integrity and transparency measures that currently apply to federal elections will also apply to referendums. This includes the establishment of a financial disclosure framework for referendums to support transparency and accountability with respect to funding and expenditure.

A decision to change our Constitution is a significant national event, and it has been more than two decades since a change has been proposed. It's therefore important that the government can fund civics education in relation to the upcoming referendum on the Voice. I can foreshadow that the government will be moving amendments to the bill in the other place to, among other things, respond to recommendations of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, JSCEM, inquiry into the bill. The most substantive amendment will be in relation to the pamphlet.

The bill before the House would temporarily suspend the requirement for an official 'yes' and 'no' pamphlet. The Special Minister of State has considered arguments to reinstate the pamphlet, which would contain arguments authorised by a majority of parliamentarians who voted for and a majority of parliamentarians who voted against the proposed law and be posted to all enrolled households in Australia. As an act of good faith, in our continued effort to work across the parliament, the government has agreed to reinstate the pamphlet. Amendments to that effect will be moved in the other place. This was a significant concession. I note recommendation 2 from JSCEM's advisory report recommends the government ensure appropriate structures and mechanisms are put in place to ensure clear, factual and impartial information is made accessible. The government will continue to consider that recommendation.

I acknowledge that the opposition continues to argue that the government should be using taxpayers' money to fund official 'yes' and 'no' cases. The Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act does not provide for public funding of 'yes' or 'no' campaigns, let alone establish official campaign vehicles. And this government does not intend to move amendments to change this. As the Prime Minister has said, taxpayers should not be funding 'yes' or 'no' campaigns.

I note that a number of the members who have contributed to this debate have referred to the government's ambitious electoral reform agenda. It is true that our party is the party of electoral reform, and the Albanese government is committed to lowering the disclosure threshold to a fixed $1,000, reigning it in from the current $15,200. The Special Minister of State is also committed to delivering a mechanism for pursuing truth in political advertising within Australia's electoral framework. Both these issues need careful consideration and are currently before the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. When the committee reports back on its review of the 2022 federal election, the Special Minister of State will consider how to implement broader electoral reforms most effectively. Now is not the time to rush these proposed reforms in the context of this bill and the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act. However, such changes to electoral laws should also be reflected in referendum machinery where appropriate.

The amendments in this bill are important and necessary to deliver a modern referendum in which the voting process and experience are similar to that of a federal election. Once again, I thank my colleagues for their contribution and commend this bill to the House.

Photo of Scott BuchholzScott Buchholz (Wright, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the amendment moved by the honourable member for Griffith be disagreed to.

Question agreed to.

The question is now that the amendment moved by the honourable member for Warringah be disagreed to.

Question agreed to.

The question is that the bill be now read a second time. There being more than one voice calling for a division, in accordance with standing order 133 the division is deferred until the first opportunity on the next sitting day.

Debate adjourned.