Senate debates

Wednesday, 15 May 2013


Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2013; Second Reading

10:00 am

Photo of Christopher BackChristopher Back (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill. It is a disappointing day for me. I came into this chamber today, having read the Order of Business, to understand that the fourth order of business was the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill. We now find that, as a result of the machinations of the government and, indeed, the Greens political party, this particular bill has been jumped to the front, and our whip did not learn this from the government—indeed, she got this information from the Greens political party.

Before addressing the issue before the President's chair, I will make a couple of observations and quote from the now Prime Minister of Australia. When the Hon. Julia Gillard was in opposition in 2005 she said:

The Labor Party is the party of truth telling. When we go out into the electorate and make promises, do you know what we would do in government? We would keep them. When we say them, we mean them.

It is interesting because, on that occasion, she used the term 'electorate'. I notice that in this particular machinery we are trying to remove the term 'elector' and replace it with 'person'. I will come to that in a few moments. Again in 2005 Ms Gillard said:

The question of truth in government is not a game—and it is not my game …

What game has she been playing here this morning? She went on to say:

… say to the Australian people when it is seeking their trust and their mandate at an election. Anybody in the Australian community, if asked, would say without any hesitation that what they want to know before the election is just the simple truth.

I go on to a quote from Ms Gillard on 18 September 2010, when she said:

The parliamentary reforms for the new Parliament will change our political processes and the way we conduct our democracy, bringing new levels of openness and accountability into our democratic processes …

She also said:

I am going to be held to higher standards of accountability than any Prime Minister in the modern age. I'm well aware of that, and I'm going to focus on being up to that challenge.

What we have seen here this morning is a shameful reversal of every one of those high and noble statements that I have quoted from Ms Gillard. What we see here this morning is a cheap attempt to try to bring to the Australian people in a most undisciplined way a circumstance for which the Australian people are not ready and for which the very review panel commissioned by the government has counselled against.

A few moments ago I referred to a change from the word 'elector' to the word 'person' throughout this machinery provisions amendment bill. To my knowledge in this country, constitutionally and democratically, those who are eligible to vote are on the electoral roll and are called electors. There are others in this community who are not, for whatever reason—be it that of age, inability or ineligibility—and in that circumstance they should not be the subject of this particular communication. It is about electors; those who will go to the polls on 14 September, those who will make a decision on the transparency and the honesty of this government. I for one cannot wait for 14 September to give all electors, myself included, that opportunity. Why is it that in this legislation we are so keen to change to the word 'person' from 'elector'? It is pivotal, surely, to maintaining the proper sense of voting that, be it in an election or be it in a referendum, we speak about electors.

We have also had presented to us the information that in this particular amendment, should this machinery be changed, we would remove the necessity for the Australian Electoral Commissioner to post the advice, information, anything at all relating to the referendum, and presumably the election, to the registered address of each elector and allow it to be in fact distributed to an email address. I do not know what the figures in Australia are, but I imagine that most Australians would probably have two email addresses. I certainly have three, and I am a troglodyte when it comes to the electronic transfer of information. I also know from the fact that so many emails bounce whenever I send them that people change their email addresses frequently. The figure that I have for the United States, which is the only one I could source, was 1.6 email addresses per person; I do not know how many email addresses there are per elector in the United States of America. It begs the question: what would the Australian Electoral Commissioner do, in the event that this amendment was, regrettably, passed, when an email bounced back from a person or indeed from an elector? What would the Electoral Commission do then, go looking for them? Amazingly enough they might go back to the electoral roll, they might find what is called a physical address and they might post the information to that person. Time does not permit me to explore further what would be the aberrations of a circumstance in which electronic transfer took place for this vitally important question.

Reference has been made to the bill seeking to suspend the operations of section 11(4) for the period—not in perpetuity and not, if you like, for the next two, three or four years—until election day only. That is, 14 September. It begs the question: why would we want to suspend these provisions until 14 September? What changes on 15 September? It is interesting to look at what would be suspended. For example, the provisions:

(4) The Commonwealth shall not expend money in respect of the presentation of the argument in favour of, or the argument against, a proposed law except in relation to:

  (a) the preparation, printing and posting, in accordance with this section, of the pamphlets referred to in this section;

What is wrong with that? Why do we want to suspend it? When you start to have a look at some of the areas that would be affected by such a change you will see that they are, in my view, those of great difficulty—for example, for:

  … presentations of material contained in those pamphlets in forms suitable for the visually impaired;


  (ac) the distribution or publication, by or on behalf of the Electoral Commission, of those pamphlets, translations or presentations (including publication on the internet);

Specifically, if the clause were to be suspended from operation, as is the wont of this Labor government and its Greens allies, it would leave open to the government the ability to spend as much money as it liked promoting one case or the other. Do those bells ring alarm to you? They certainly ring alarm to me. Given the fact that the country is in such a shocking level of debt and deficit now, when you use the words 'government to spend as much money' I would instead use the words 'taxpayers' money' or 'borrowed money', because we have not got any left. We in this country are now in a circumstance where we are rushing towards $300 billion of debt. We are approaching $200 billion of accumulated deficit in the life of this Labor and Greens government. And here we are talking about a circumstance that would suspend and would allow the government to spend as much borrowed taxpayers' money as it liked, promoting one case or another.

This rings alarm bells to me and is certainly one of the reasons I will be opposing, with all the breath I can, this particular amendment—which brings me to the question of equality of expenditure in the circumstance of this referendum, a rushed and ill-considered referendum associated with the election on 14 September. In this world of transparency and greater scrutiny of government and accountability, has anybody yet heard from the government whether it intends to allocate equal sums of money, for example, to the yes and to the no vote? The suspicion I have—and I know it is shared by many of my colleagues and people in my state of Western Australia—is that it is not the intention of this government to spend equally on the yes vote and the no vote. It would certainly assist, and certainly restore some semblance of credibility to this Prime Minister, if indeed she was to lay that concern to rest and confirm that there will be equal expenditure of resources to ensure that both the yes and the no votes are prosecuted.

I go then to the findings of the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Local Government, referred to in brevity as the Spigelman report. The author has pointed out that there is a need 'to ensure that the case for the proposed constitutional change is not left solely to politicians and government representatives'. It goes on to talk about having other people in the community, should the change be looking to be passed, who are convinced either of the need for this to occur—or, in fact, people who oppose it. Those constitutional lawyers, those who address themselves often to these questions, should have the opportunity. It should not just be left to parliamentarians and, indeed, those in local government. I recall being a member of a select committee of the Senate, chaired at the time by then senator Russell Trood, looking at matters to do with Federation and the Constitution. We had the benefit of receiving submissions and having as witnesses several constitutional lawyers and others. It was impressive to hear the differences in the views they expressed and the counsel they gave the committee on whether indeed local government would benefit or not benefit from the change that is contemplated.

But that is not the subject of our discussion today. Today we are discussing the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill, and I certainly look forward to the opportunity, when it arises, to present my opposition to the referendum itself. It is interesting to note that the Spigelman report found that, after research about the support for a proposed referendum—which has only just been announced—has been commissioned, fewer than 30 per cent of voters, those people known as electors, can be said at this stage to feel a sufficiently strong commitment to the idea of recognising local government to support it in a referendum. So why are we going through this exercise? Why is it being rushed? Why is it being introduced 120 days or less before the election? The people of Australia have dealt twice with this question in the past. They have voted it down. You might say, since I am opposed to the concept of local government being represented as such in the Constitution anyhow, I would be quite pleased. But no, because I am interested in equality when it comes to decision making. I am interested in the wider community being heard from—constitutional experts and others. I am interested in there being adequate time, not only for federal parliamentarians but for state and territory parliamentarians to have their say and express that to their communities—as indeed I am local government representatives.

But we are not going to get it through this mechanism. We are not going to get it through this deceitful and duplicitous approach that we have been asked to deal with today. It is a disappointing day for the Senate and for the parliament. The way in which this has been brought into this chamber this morning is deceitful. The fact that there is much more, and much more important, legislation that must be dealt with and is not yet before this chamber is a disgrace. It speaks to the management of parliamentary activity in this place. We all know what is going to happen in the final two sitting weeks in June, because it happens at the end of every parliamentary session. We are going to be gagged and guillotined again and again in the matter of circumstances that should have full debate and full discussion in this chamber. But we know they are not going to, because we are wasting circumstances and time in the sort of exercise we are talking about.

My final comment in this debate is to go back to the question of funding and finance—whatever it is, $12 million or $20 million—which seemed to roll off the tongues of this Labor government because they do not understand it. We have a circumstance now in which this country is paying $35 million a day interest—not interest plus repayment of capital—on our debt. We are paying $1 billion a month interest on our debt in this country at the moment—$1,000 million a month, as interest only, on our national debt. What a disgrace. And what a circumstance, in which a government comes to this place wanting to spend even more money without telling us how much, without telling us how equally divided those funds might be, on a circumstance which will fail simply because the machinery is put into place too late. It is associated with an election and it is my prediction the Australian people will vote accordingly.


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