Senate debates

Wednesday, 15 May 2013


Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2013; Second Reading

10:16 am

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

What a surprise for coalition senators to come to the Senate this morning to find that the program of the Senate had been adjusted to reflect the mixed and appalling priorities of this Labor government. It is a very, very sorry day. If Australians were ever doubtful that the Australian Greens were still in a political marriage with the Australian Labor Party, they need look no further than to the events of the last hour or so. This is a very, very sorry day for fair play in our country, for fair play over what should be the proper considerations, the fulsome considerations, of constitutional reform proposals in our country.

This is not about a specific constitutional reform proposition. This goes to the heart of how we have our public discourse. This goes to the heart of how we share our ideas and ultimately how Australians come to a conclusion before they cast their vote on constitutional reform. Shambolic and reckless is how we have described this government's management of our budget. Shambolic and reckless is how we have described this government's management of our borders. Shambolic and reckless is how we have described this government's approach to many of our national affairs. Not even the Australian Constitution is safe from the shambolic and reckless attitudes of this Labor government. Nothing is safe, not even our cherished national Constitution. This demonstrates yet another broader failure on the part of this Labor government. It matters not whether you are for or against any of the constitutional reform proposals that are being put before Australians. It matters not whether you are for a full and proper discussion about what are the merits of those proposals. In this instance, in the last days—we hope—of this Labor government, not even the Australian value of fair play is safe from the shambolic and reckless attitudes of this Labor government. Speaking on the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2013, we are not talking about specific constitutional amendments that might be before us at the moment. Nor will I be talking about my own personal ideas on constitutional reform and how we can ensure that Australians have a better say in amending their own Constitution.

In discussing this bill I just want to touch briefly on some of the concerns that I and other coalition members and senators have with this particular bill. We know that the government wishes to hold a referendum concurrently with the federal election scheduled on 14 September.

Looking back at the other referenda that have been held in the course of Australia's political history, one notes that they have generally occurred separately from a federal election not concurrently with an election. There is a very solid, sound reason for that: constitutional amendment should always be undertaken not lightly but with due and proper consideration by electors. Whatever side of a particular debate we may be on, as parliamentarians I would have thought that we could all agree that in our democracy the best decisions will be made when electors are well informed about the issues. In relation to a referendum, that means that electors should be informed as to the arguments for and against a proposed change to our Constitution. Along with my colleagues, I find it quite extraordinary to be in this chamber debating a piece of legislation that will actually make that less likely. Some senators might smile and grin at this proposition, but this is a disgrace. Whether you are a Labor senator, a Liberal senator, an Australian Greens senator, at the core of our democracy you should promote a proper public discourse.

With this bill the government is seeking to change the terms of the legislation. No more will the Australian Electoral Commission be required to arrange for information setting out the case for and against to be posted to electors. Instead this bill changes the term from 'posted' to 'sent'. This is an innocent enough change, you may think, but on closer detail we are being told by the government that this is all about modernising our democratic process so that material can be communicated to electors by more modern means than the post. The problem is that there is no official register of electors' email addresses. We have absolutely no idea how many Australians have email; our census apparently does not record that. But from a practical point of view, what happens to people with more than one email address? Is the commissioner supposed to guess which one is best?

The coalition does not believe it is appropriate for the Electoral Commissioner to be making decisions about what is or is not an appropriate email address to be sending information to. The commissioner should be focused on maintaining the integrity of the electoral roll, a simple but very significant task. He should not be tasked with making decisions about the best method for contacting individual electors. There are 123 days remaining until the proposed date of the next referendum. Given the truncated time frame, now is not the time to be conducting experiments with the machinery that administers our democratic process. From the census we do know that almost 20 per cent of households do not have internet access. Clearly, if you do not have internet access at your home your ability to use email is severely curtailed, particularly for those older Australians who may be less familiar with the technology.

The other major concern with the bill is that it suspends restrictions or limits to the ways the government can spend to promote the case for and against a proposed change. This is contained in section 11, subsection (4). Presumably the intention here is to leave it open for the government to spend as much money as it sees fit promoting one side or the other of the argument. There is no provision here to require the money to be divided equally between a yes case and a no case. It is deeply concerning, as I said: if we are going to propose changes to the Constitution, we need to ensure that electors are properly informed about the issues and the cases for and against on an equal and fair basis. I might add that in a perfect world, taxpayers would not be asked to pay for anything that in our civil society individuals or their organisations would fund from their own funds, and would find voluntarily from taxpayers the funds needed to argue their particular case. But that is a debate for another time in, I suspect, some very distant point in the future.

The manner in which this bill is being dealt with is typical of the approach of this government—rushed, last-minute and designed to conceal information from, rather than reveal information to, the people of Australia. I cannot but imagine how disappointed and downhearted our professional bureaucrats must feel when their professionalism is constantly put to the test rushing legislation forward, not being able to put the best stamp that they can on our democratic process and ideas for reform and change.

In conclusion, along with my colleagues in the coalition I am opposed to this government's unseemly rush and its attempts to prevent the people of Australia from having a chance to pass judgement on its appalling record in office. It is seeking to distract voters at the next election with other issues—including a process that has been set by historical precedent—that a good government would pursue separately from this federal election.


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