Senate debates

Wednesday, 15 May 2013


Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2013; Second Reading

11:43 am

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2013. I join my coalition colleagues and, indeed, Senator Rhiannon's short, pithy contribution to this debate. The bill goes to the arrangements on how referenda in our nation are conducted. The Special Minister of State in his contribution in the other place said that they are small amendments, but they are small amendments that we believe have quite large consequences. To have them rushed in here in the manner in which they have been today speaks volumes about the government's chaotic and dysfunctional legislative agenda, not to mention the disrespect with which they hold the Senate. There are other pieces of 'urgent legislation' being rushed before us this week. I, like Senator Birmingham, was all geed up for the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act amendment that was coming before us, but that will have to be put off for another day.

I believe that these amendments go against the spirit of the 2009 report from the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, A time for change: yes/no?. It was a report inquiring into the machinery of how we conduct referenda in this nation, because we do not do it easily. We do not change our Constitution easily. I am one of those people who would not advocate that we change our Constitution willy-nilly. A lot of thought went into it. It has served our nation very, very well, and it protects our citizenry from us, essentially—from government, from parliament. It has been very useful.

In the history of referenda in this country, very few have been held concurrent with an election, as is being proposed. When you are dealing with changing the Constitution, it is important that these are very detailed and complex issues. By the time we are actually discussing as a nation a question in a referendum, it is an important issue. There have been 44 referendums held since 1901, and only eight of these have been successful. Obviously the most successful in Australia's history was in 1967, when over 90 per cent of Australians voted yes to Aboriginals being considered citizens. The questions are difficult and contested, and they go to the heart of our democracy, our national identity and the function.

There has been some guidance set out on developing a successful referenda strategy—how to get them through. I think Senator Sinodinos touched on this. It is about collaboration. It is about coming together and consensus. Our state governments need to be on side. Our political parties need to be well versed in the questions and be supportive of it going forward. We need to have popular ownership of the issue by many Australians, and there obviously need to be education campaigns. All of these strategies going forward for a successful referendum to be held are not actually present currently.

Coalition senators speaking prior to me have noted the short time frame, which even the Australian Electoral Commission is saying is not long enough for us as a nation to adequately prepare for a successful referendum—no matter what the question is—to be held on 14 September. It is just another example of politics over policy and unprincipled development and approaches in this country by this very, very poor Labor government—another smoke-and-mirrors campaign, another distraction to put before the Australian people. But they are not so easily fooled. On 14 September, Australians will be focused on sending a message. You can put as many referendum questions up as you like, but I think they are pretty convinced that they have a message to give this government.

But this government, despite having all the experts in the world tell it that this is the wrong approach to make a question, any question, have the desired result—that the approach it is recommending today is the wrong approach—does not listen to experts. It prefers expedient political solutions. There are many, many examples over the period of this government of it doing that—the Henry tax review, the Hawke review into the EPBC Act, the Fair Work review, the Caring for Older Australians review—where the government simply cherry-picked politically expedient recommendations and ignored, on the whole, in those four reviews I mentioned, the recommendations that would actually go to changing the system and making it better for all stakeholders involved. Similarly, this response to the Spiegelman review is simply typical. We want to focus on consensus going forward so that we can have a mature, articulate debate with our public, with the Australian people, within the Australian body politic, in order for the Australian citizenry, who are sovereign in this conversation, to make an informed decision about the question put before them.

This government is not concerned about claims of incompetence or of a chaotic or dysfunctional legislative agenda, as evidenced today when it put its motions up to change the order of business. It is not concerned at all. So what could have prompted this very, very quick decision to rearrange the Red, as we like to call it in the Senate—our agenda? I can only assume that it was Tony Windsor or the Greens—that this is this week's promise by Gillard, I guess, to hold it together for another day, to hold it together for another week. This is one of the promises she has had to make, which goes against all principles of good governance.

I would like to go to the details of the bill itself. As mentioned, the bill implements recommendations 3 and 11 of the A time for change: yes/no? report. Recommendation 3 is:

The Committee recommends that the Australian Government introduce amendments to the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984 (Cth) to require a Yes/No pamphlet to be delivered to every household, not every elector.

The coalition put forward a dissenting report on that particular recommendation because we believe that being a citizen is a requirement of being an elector, and that is important—not whether you live in a house but that you actually have those characteristics that define you to be an elector in this nation. That is important. Other senators have gone to the issues with sending material to householders. I have a similar response to Senator Bernardi's to mail that arrives at my home addressed to 'the householder'. It sometimes gather dust on the fridge until I can get to it. When we are dealing with questions, as we have over our entire Federation, that parliaments feel are important enough to bring before the whole people, we do not want the materials that we send out to inform people to sit on top of the fridge and gather dust. We want an active citizenry engaged in the conversation and debating the issue. When it comes time for our citizenry to make a decision on the question before them, we want that decision to be an informed one. We want them to have participated in the conversation and we want them to have arrived at a reasonable understanding of where they sit with it, not to be swayed this way or that.

When we talk about such material being sent to a household rather than to an elector, I question whether this is the time for such a change and whether we have done enough background work on this new method of reaching out and conversing with citizens. Barring any change of mind by the Greens, Tony Windsor or Rob Oakeshott, and all things going to plan, we are to go to an election on 14 September. How, in that time, will the AEC be able to obtain the email addresses of our citizenry? Can it actually do that? Will it be cross-referencing against government departments? What is the role of Centrelink in this? What is the role of state departments of justice, education, corrections and health or of their child support agencies? Do we have the resources to enable us to assess and deal with the emails bouncing back from this Gillard government spam campaign—to keep track of who has received and who has opened their emails?

We know that 92 per cent of Australians have access to the internet in one form or another. But, within that, there are subsets of Australians who do not have easy access to the internet. I am thinking here particularly of older Australians. They may have the internet but may not be completely au fait with email. ABS statistics tell us that 41 per cent of Australians over 60 have access to the internet. That means that most do not. Similarly, accessing the internet may be problematic for those in rural, regional or remote areas. If we want to enable our citizenry to make a decision on a referendum question, they need to be well informed—we need to be able to have a serious conversation with them. I also question how the email address data will be shared and how we will obtain consent from electors to send to their email address.

Another area of concern for me is the underlying assumption of compulsory enrolment. I think the right to exercise civil disobedience by deciding not to go on the electoral roll—I would not advocate this; I believe people should participate fully in our democracy—should be and should continue to be a fundamental right. Compulsory voting is a great aspect of our democracy. It is important to be an active participant in deciding who gets to devise the laws you will be governed by. However, that does not necessarily flow on to compulsory enrolment. That is fundamental to how our democracy functions.

I turn now to recommendation 11 of the report, which says:

The Committee recommends the Australian Government introduce amendments to remove the current limitation on spending imposed by section 11(4) of the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984 (Cth) and to include provisions to ensure that spending is directed to referendum education and to equal promotion of the Yes/No arguments.

One of the provisions of the legislation before us, however, seeks to suspend that principle until polling day. There were several different ideas put before the inquiry about how we would go about funding the different sides of a referendum campaign. One of the ideas raised was to provide funding proportional to the number of votes in parliament for or against the proposal. However, as the report says:

… there could be issues with this proposal as, where only a small number of members vote against the proposal, it would very difficult to launch an effective No campaign.

It is important for the federal government to make sure the Australian citizenry is aware of both sides of the argument—the pros and the cons. That is the bit we should be funding. Let the colour and movement of a referendum debate motivate and energise voters to vote one way or the other. Let the major stakeholders get out there and make their case and try to win people to their side. But in getting the facts on the table there should be equal funding for both sides of the case, irrespective of how many parliamentarians vote on either side. The committee goes on to say:

The Committee therefore supports equal funding of the Yes and No cases, irrespective of their Parliamentary support. This is in line with the original intention of the Yes/No pamphlet as well as consistent with democratic ideals of informed debate.

I say 'hear, hear' to that. That is exactly what we should be looking to do, but the legislation before us is aimed at changing that. Obviously, therefore, we do not support it.

This is about using public money wisely. I know the government struggle to do this. But here is your chance, guys, to follow your own report, your own advice. Do not worry about the experts—I know you have been quite flippant, across a whole range of issues, about whether or not you accept expert recommendations. Why not accept your own advice, from your own committee? We would be happy with that, and we would not be having this conversation. It really makes us struggle, I guess, that there is this flippant response to remove recommendation 11(4).

It is appropriate to fund equally and moderately and to allow others to make up their respective cases. I think this is what is so exciting about referenda. I remember the constitutional monarchy conversation—I was rapt with the result, obviously; it is the side I sit on—and the excitement that it generated within the Australian public on both sides. It forced us to have mature conversations about the issue, and sometimes we do not get to do that as often as we would like. As parliamentarians we are very quick to slip into our partisan conversations, and this is why it is so important for there to be an equally funded conversation.

I want to draw another recommendation to the attention of the chamber, and that is recommendation 6. It recommends:

… the Australian Government develop and implement a national civics education program to enhance the engagement of the Australian public in democratic processes and to improve knowledge and understanding of the Australian Constitution.

I think this recommendation should be paramount. I would really like us to go out—maybe we could do it in our lunchbreak—and conduct a straw poll of the young electors in our electorates to see how much they know about the Australian Constitution. Before we get down to tintacks and discuss how we change it, it would be helpful if most Australians actually understood that we had one and what its powers are. If we all spent a little more time singing the praises of the Constitution, which has stood us in such good stead over a long period of time, then these conversations would not be so vexed as they are.

The coalition will be moving amendments, because obviously we have huge issues with the Gillard spam attack. We have issues with the process. We do not want just any referendum proposed for 14 September—not one that would muddy the waters to ensure that electors will not just be fixated on all that this government has or has not done for them over this last electoral cycle, so that they will not actually be calling to mind the Prime Minister's promises and blackflips or calling to mind the numerous examples that we have of government failure and dysfunction. It would be quite incredible if we were to list the examples of incompetence of this government.

Whether the Greens want this legislation this week for their continued support or Tony Windsor wants it for his continued support—whatever the reason—the fact that the government have brought in this piece of legislation in a rushed manner to us here, today, shows that they really do not know what they are doing. This is not a sensible conversation to have in a rushed fashion. These are serious issues for our nation and we need to make a serious and considered response. Unfortunately, it is the thing that is lacking from this Gillard-Greens government. I look forward to the discussion on the amendments when they are moved. (Time expired)


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