Wednesday, 15 May 2013
Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2013; Second Reading
I do not know about leave. I am thinking in relation to the motion that I might move an amendment deleting the word 'now' and inserting the words 'this day six months' pursuant to standing order 1142.
Leave was sought to incorporate the second reading speech. There being no objection, leave is granted.
The speech read as follows
I am pleased to present a Bill to amend the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984 to make two small amendments to the arrangements governing how referendums are run.
The Bill implements one of the recommendations of the then House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs which reported on the machinery of referendums in the December 2009 report entitled: "A time for Change: Yes/No?"
Recommendation 3 of this report was that:
"The Committee recommends that the Australian Government introduce amendments to the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984 (Commonwealth) to require a Yes/No pamphlet to be delivered to every household, not every elector."
Subsections 11(1), (2) and (3) of the Act provide for the printing and distribution to each elector of a pamphlet which outlines arguments in favour of the proposed Constitutional change and arguments against the proposed Constitutional change. These arguments are compiled and presented in one pamphlet known as the Yes/No pamphlet.
Printing and sending the Yes/No pamphlet to every Australian elector represents a substantial expense. According to figures drawn from the Australian Bureau of Statistics web site there were approximately 5.7 million family households in Australia in 2006 and this figure is increasing. It is not unreasonable for persons who share a family household to share the Yes/No pamphlet.
Of course it is not intended to restrict access to the Yes/No pamphlet. This Bill replaces the requirement that a pamphlet be posted to each elector by requiring the Electoral Commissioner to send a pamphlet to each residential address, mainly those from the addresses that appear on the electoral Roll.
However, as communication methods have changed since the last referendum in 1999, the Bill also gives an additional capacity to send pamphlet information via email. Many Australians wish to communicate via digital means and this small amendment merely allows the Electoral Commissioner to send the information via email if that is what is sought.
Finally the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) has the capacity to identify residential addresses where numerous electors are enrolled, for example, nursing homes. The AEC will ensure that multiple copies are provided to such establishments. And the AEC will also translate the pamphlet into other languages and formats which will be able to be accessed and read on the AEC's web page.
The second amendment suspends the operation of subsection 11(4) to allow broader Commonwealth spending. This amendment has been drafted in similar terms to an amendment which the Parliament passed to support the 1999 Referendum. It broadens the capacity of the Commonwealth to spend money on promoting, educating and informing the public about the case for and against any referendum.
The proposed suspension of subsection 11(4) is only until the end of polling day for the 2013 general election.
The Government is considering the final report of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Local Government, released on 7 March 2013. These amendments would keep open the option of a referendum at the forthcoming election, subject to continuing bipartisan support at the federal and state levels, and further consultations, in particular with the States and Territories.
Finally I would emphasise that the introduction and passage of these amendments does not commit the Government to holding a referendum at the 14 September 2013 election. However, the amendments contained in this Bill are necessary to keep open the option of holding a referendum at the next election.
The question is that the bill be read a second time.
It is a pleasure to rise to speak on this bill, but what has happened here this morning is a sign of the lack of consideration the government has given this issue over three months. It is a sign of the lack of consideration the government has given this very important issue of amending the Constitution and proposals to do so over the last several years. It is only a matter of minutes ago that this side of the chamber was informed that this bill would be coming on right now. In fact, I had my suspicions when I saw some of the officials with whom I am familiar walking into the chamber as I was walking in here this morning.
After this bill was put to the House yesterday—after it was dropped into the House of Representatives on the day of chaos in the last day of the autumn sittings, the day of chaos on the other side when, once again, Australians did not know who they would wake up to as their Prime Minister—the government has on this occasion simply treated this important issue and the parliament with contempt. It is a bill that was presented on that last day and dropped into the House of Representatives on budget day, and no advice was provided to the opposition in this place—until less than an hour ago—that the government wanted it passed today. Compounding that, no advice whatsoever was given that it would be brought on first. Only minutes of advice have been provided to the opposition. But we are prepared—unlike the government—to deal with this issue.
This is not a bill about the proposed referendum on inserting local government into our Constitution. Indeed, I have not yet seen the words of that proposal. There may be some in the government who have, but I have not seen the words. As far as I am aware it has not been introduced into either chamber yet. It is important to remember that this is a machinery bill. This bill proposes to amend the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984. It proposes to do so in a number of ways, not all of which have the opposition's support, and this will be reflected in a number of amendments that I will move later on in this debate.
In 2009 the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs brought down a report: A time for change: yes/no?The report assessed the effectiveness of the famous or infamous yes/no pamphlet, which was sent to every elector in Australia under the current referendum provisions, and assessed whether there were more suitable ways to engage voters in referenda. In the history of referenda in this country, it is quite famous that only eight of 44 have been adopted by the people. I might make the point that, particularly on the Left of politics, this seems to be said as if there is some flaw in the process, or some flaw in the people. I think it reflects the quality of many of the proposals put up. Of course, there have been very few proposals put up by the Labor Party that have been adopted. I think the last one might have been in 1944.
Bipartisan support for a referendum is often outlined as a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for the success of a referendum. There are those that have failed with bipartisan support. I point out that in 1967, on the same day that over 90 per cent of Australians voted to amend the Constitution to give the Commonwealth power over Indigenous affairs—and at the same time removing section 127 of the Constitution regarding counting Indigenous people in the census—a proposal to break the nexus between the House of Representatives and the Senate was only supported by just over 40 per cent of the Australian population. On the same day, more than half the people who voted yes for one proposal, voted no for another. Also, I point out that the second proposal that failed with only just over 40 per cent of the vote did have bipartisan support as well.
What we know is that bipartisan support is a necessary but not sufficient condition. The process we have seen this morning, the bringing in of this bill and its alleged urgency, reflects the government's disorganisation and, I would say, lack of consideration of the import of this process. If the government actually thought this proposal was as important as it has said over the last two weeks, if the government thought this particular bill in reflecting the needs of that particular referendum was as important as it has said in the last 10 minutes, then this legislation would not be being dropped on the chamber at such short notice, would not be being put through this parliament at such short notice.
There are two aspects of this bill that are worthy of particular discussion. The first one is in regard to the yes/no pamphlet. I am old enough to remember the 1988 referendum, although I was not a voter. The four questions put by Lionel Bowen and the Hawke government, which failed so abysmally, were outlined in that small black-and-white booklet produced by the AEC that came out to every voter. In 1999, I cannot remember whether there was a booklet—I note that one of the officials of the AEC indicated that there was—there was a much larger campaign that reflected community discussion about the issue, and reflected the fact that there had been an election and a constitutional convention that came up with the proposal that was then put to the Australian people.
My view is that the proposal in this bill to remove the requirement to send a booklet to each individual elector represents a dismantling of one of the more effective means of communication when it comes to one of the most important decisions a voter can make. Unlike many countries of the world, neither a parliament here nor a convention of politicians has the power to amend our Constitution. Almost uniquely amongst democracies of our age, we have a constitution that was developed by delegates elected by the people and that can only be amended by delegates elected by the people. As I said earlier, while that has frustrated some I think it is one of the greatest elements of our democracy, and it is one of the shining lights of our constitutional arrangements.
No matter what politicians may think, say, wish or desire, that choice remains with the people. That, in my view and the view of the coalition, makes this yes/no booklet a very important component of information to electors. I know the AEC has on occasion suggested that the yes/no booklet could either be sent to an address of a registered elector so as to save money, as it does not go to each individual elector. I contend that effectively householder mail, while it may not say 'householder' on the front, is not going to have the same attraction to voters to read—nor would it necessarily get to everyone in that house—as something individually mailed by the Electoral Commission. The Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act does provide that the yes/no booklet is prepared by those who vote to support a proposition to be put to the people in this parliament, and those who vote against. Not all referenda have had such a booklet distributed. One of the reasons for that is that some proposals, such as that in 1967, were not contentious and were, if not unanimously supported, I am not aware of any particular dissent to affect the Commonwealth power over Indigenous people.
But the fact that the government would say, 'Let's save a couple of million dollars'—particularly when to them a couple of million dollars represents a few copper coins fallen down the back of the car seat—'by mailing a booklet about a constitutional change to households,' when a referendum costs so much and this is such a small element, to me betrays a lack of consideration for the import of that booklet. After all, there will be media discussion about this. It will of course be swamped by an election campaign. I cannot remember the last time a referendum passed on an election day—those passed in 1977 and 1967 were not on election days. So that puts it beyond my lifetime. So, particularly in this election period, having the yes/no booklet, prepared by people who do and who do not support the proposal, distributed to each elector is critical for voters and the community. To send it to households would in my view devalue it and it would not ensure that every voter got a copy.
There are also proposals in this bill that I believe would facilitate email communications. Again—and I have said this on the record on many occasions—I am not a fan of things like electronic voting and new technologies when it comes to the electoral process. There is both simplicity and transparency in pencil and paper, and in this case there is simplicity and transparency in sending people a booklet which they can read, old style. That does not necessarily preclude it being put up on iTunes so it could be accessed on iPods or Kindles—I am happy to be corrected on that—by the AEC or being put up on a website. I think the 1999 booklet was available on the AEC website. We do not want to preclude electronic communications, but no case has been made that this is the place to save money—by a government that does not know how to save money. The coalition members opposed this recommendation at the committee level in the House of Representatives, and we will be moving an amendment to reflect that later on. We believe that all voters should receive personally addressed mail with the yes/no case from the Australian Electoral Commission.
There is also a proposal in this bill to suspend subsection 11(4) of the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984 until the end of polling day 2013. Subsection 11(4) generally limits the capacity of the Commonwealth to spend money in relation to a referendum other than on the production and delivery of the yes/no pamphlet that we discussed earlier. This is a provision that has been suspended before. I do not think anyone could deny that. I was not in this place in 1999, but I understand that in 1999 that provision was suspended. However, the provision was suspended with a couple of issues that I think are inextricably linked to it. There was an education campaign associated with the 1999 referendum, but also, with the 1999 referendum, there was an appropriation of money for a yes and a no case, there was a yes and a no committee appointed. I believe the members of that committee were members of the Constitutional Convention that had been elected and appointed to come up with the proposal.
That is a critical difference in the process we have had here. In 1999, after a long debate about Australia's constitutional arrangements, after an election for delegates and half the delegates being appointed, after participation by political and community leaders from all around Australia and after a proposal being agreed on by a majority of that convention—parts of which were televised, and there are also nice Hansard volumes of it—a proposal was put to the people. There was no question regarding a lack of awareness about the proposal. There was no question regarding a lack of awareness around the substantive issue, which was the arrangements around Australia's head of state and the Crown. It was the product of a long gestation. This process has been the exact opposite. The government has botched this. If the government were serious about addressing the issues, it would not have left this until the last minute. We still have not seen in the parliament their proposal to amend the Constitution. It would not have left it until budget week to bring in this bill. It would not have brought it on with so little notice.
The government proposes to suspend section 11(4) until the announced polling day on 14 September this year. Our concern with that is on multiple levels. I plan to ask in committee, and I was planning to ask in estimates, what the details around the proposed community education campaign were and whether it was an education campaign along the lines of: 'There is a referendum on; there is a yes case and a no case available; here is where you can find them.' Or is it an advertising campaign for one side of that debate? I think it is a legitimate question that people should ask when considering this element of the bill. The explanatory memorandum of this bill actually refers to the House of Representatives committee report that alluded to this provision being suspended but also that there should be funding for a yes and a no case, but the bill before us contains no such guarantee. So I am not sure as to what the government's intentions are and why the explanatory memorandum mentions that. I think it is also worthy of an explanation.
In this financial environment, the opposition are not of a mind to lift this particular prohibition on the Commonwealth spending money, and we will be moving an amendment to that effect. One of the reasons, and the prime reason for it, is that I do not know whether we should be borrowing $12 million to spend on advertising. I know that there was a special amount in the budget yesterday for $22 million on advertising for the NBN over the next six weeks, by the end of the financial year, so anyone who watches a footy game or a League game over the next few weeks can probably be expected to be bombarded with the NBN, and then they can jump online and find out that they will get it in 2019. The point I make here is: should we really be borrowing another $12 million when we do not have any details of what the campaign is for and when we do not have any metrics of its success? The explanatory memorandum implies that it is a yes/no campaign. It wants to achieve some sort of equality in the arguments, yet there is no such provision in the bill.
Also, I think it is putting the cart before the horse to say that we want to advertise something before we have got a proposal in this chamber to deal with. There is no section 128 in the bill before this chamber and, as far as I know, there is not one before the House of Representatives yet. I do not think it is necessarily good practice to say that we want to start looking at advertising for something that the members of this place have not seen and to be asking members of this place to vote for advertising or education for a proposal we have not seen. I cannot think of a better example than this of putting the cart before the horse. Can I suggest to the proponents of this, for those who have cared deeply about it for a long time, that you want to give the Australian community a sense that there is fair play. But to actually talk about education and advertising—and I think there was a line item in the budget last night for this as well for the department of regional Australia—before we have seen a proposal is, I think, not getting off on the best step. This is merely an observation as a student of constitutional history.
The history of referenda is littered with the failures of governments to mount the case for change, to generate consent, to establish a need for the change in the community. This government has failed on almost all of those, by leaving this until the last minute. I cannot help but think that this government is seeking some sort of diversion from its own record; it is seeking to talk about constitutional issues as if that will help people forget about its appalling record in government. I do remember a past Prime Minister doing this when he was behind in the polls in 1993 and 1995—Mr Keating. For some reason, whenever the unemployment rate went up and there was a scandal, discussion about the flag used to start. It was a distraction then. I do not want to assign motives to the government, but the way in which they have implemented this is reflective of their broader failure in office and reflective of their incapacity to establish a community need for something, to generate consent and to reflect that, through a process that respects the multiple views and seeks to convince people. The government have been an abject failure when it comes to the state governments. I understand there is even a Labor state government that might be opposing the referendum—which would be an interesting proposition, I imagine.
The opposition supports this referendum going to the people, but today we believe that this bill should be amended. We are not convinced but we retain open minds on the urgency of the bill. We are not convinced but we retain open minds on the advertising and education campaign, but I will be seeking further information about that during the committee stage
Could someone tell me why it is so important to lift what you might call a fair-play restriction on the Commonwealth, which simply says it cannot spend money on a yes case or a no case, in subsection 11(4), other than the booklet? Why should we facilitate education and spending on advertising before we have seen a proposal to change the Constitution? I would appreciate answers to those questions.
Absent very good answers which were not made available to the House of Representatives yesterday, the coalition will be opposing this bill, but we will be seeking to make amendments.
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.
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.
I too rise to speak on this bill and make some observations. What we are seeing here today is a desperate government that is seeking to take the minds of ordinary Australians that are going to be making judgements off their shambolic record and trying to confuse the issue on election day by putting up this referendum. Instead of focusing the attention of Australian voters in the days before the next federal election on its record, the government is now, in my view, putting forward what is clearly a red herring.
Let us look at the bill that is being rushed here with such unseemly haste and, again, I reiterate the comments that have been made by both Senator Back and Senator Smith about the appalling conduct of the Greens in this matter. They come in here all the time trying to be holier than thou, but when push comes to shove they will always do what their political masters are instructing them to do, and they will always get into bed with them. It does not matter: you can go out there and you can talk about wanting transparency and being holier than thou, but you are always in here supporting the government's agenda, supporting the guillotine. As other coalition senators have said, we are going to see in the coming weeks legislation that is going to be truncated, and debate that is going to be truncated, and the guillotine imposed, and you are going to be right there next to them.
To these bills now at hand: there are two amendments that are before us, one of which will remove the provision of this bill contained in the schedule which seeks to remove the need for the yes/no pamphlet to be posted. This bill substitutes 'sent to each address'. We are very concerned about this because, by getting rid of the word 'posting' and substituting it with 'sending', we are going to allow the Australian Electoral Commissioner to send information to an address that he considers appropriate. We have had discussions in this place last year, and certain comments were made when we were discussing the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill 2011. It is our strong belief that the Australian Electoral Commissioner should not be assessing what is the appropriate address or particularly an email address which the minister in his second reading speech has indicated has been contemplated.
Instead the Australian Electoral Commission should be focusing its attention on meeting its current obligations under the act and focusing on maintaining the integrity of its roll. There is no official register of emails for electors. There is no data that was collected in the census that shows how many people have emails. Moving away from the effectiveness of material being posted to electors and to each elector, this is a fundamentally important aspect of any constitutional change. When there is a referendum, it is vitally important that electors are fully informed and, as Senator Ryan has said, there is no better way to be informed than receiving a piece of correspondence that has been posted to you by the Australian Electoral Commissioner so that you can fully comprehend what you are about to vote on, whether you are contemplating voting yes or whether you are contemplating voting no.
As the coalition has argued, we are vigorously opposed to automatic enrolment and the use of government departments to provide the AEC with information to be used to automatically enrol people to the electoral roll. This is in the same vein as arguments we were opposed to last time—that is, watering down the information and the ability of the elector to be fully informed. There are no statistics that have been collected on the number of electors who have email addresses. There is no data.
Let us go back and have a look at the dissenting report of coalition members to the Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, which was brought down in December 2009. There was a reason coalition members dissented to recommendation 3, and I would like to examine those reasons in the time available to me. The report states:
If adopted this recommendation would result in the Yes/No booklet be delivered to every household instead of every elector. We strongly disagree with this recommendation. Household distribution would reduce the number of people who had access to the Yes/No case.
Absolutely. If you have five electors in a household and one piece of correspondence goes to them, what are the chances that all five of those electors will be properly informed at the end of this process? When one receives material in one's letterbox that is addressed to the householder the reaction of most people is to simply take that material, put it in the round filing cabinet and not read it. That is precisely what is likely to happen in this circumstance.
As the dissenting report noted:
Referenda to change the Australian Constitution are significant events and require the engagement of as many Australians as possible. All politicians know that communicating with their constituents via direct, personalised mail is far more effective that a letter delivered ‘To the Household’. It therefore seems rather odd that the Australian Government would reduce the direct delivery of official information regarding referenda.
The dissenting report also quoted evidence given by Ms Cheryl Saunders:
Even constitutional expert, Cheryl Saunders, whose view of the Yes/No case via the mail was that 'I would be doubtful that it is very useful even for older people', went on to say '…but you may have research that shows differently, and you are the members of parliament, so you know what your constituents do.'
That is precisely the case. As politicians we know that correspondence that is forwarded to our constituents and directly addressed to them is the most effective way of communicating with them.
Let us move now to the second amendment that the coalition is moving. The amending bill seeks to suspend the operation of subsection 11(4) for the period up until the end of election day. Let us not forget—and it is very important to remember—that this provision was placed in the legislation to curtail unnecessary expenditure; in other words, to put a cap on it. It specifically states:
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 …
The section goes on to talk about translations into other languages of the material contained in those pamphlets, preparation of material suitable for those who are visually impaired and distribution or publication through the internet. Therefore, specifically, if this subsection were to be suspended from operation, as is provided for by this bill, it would leave it open to the government to spend as much money as it would like promoting one case or the other.
Whilst the Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs did recommend that spending be directed to referendum education and to equal promotion of the yes and no arguments—that was obviously in the minds of the people on the committee who made the recommendation—there is no provision in this enabling machinery legislation that requires money spent by the government to be spent equally on the yes case and the no case. Clearly, even in the dissenting report there is a recommendation that recommendation 11 be supported. So, this proposed change is not in the tenor of the report itself, because it was clearly contemplated that it would not be put that way.
So, let's look at the Spiegelman report which, as we know, is the report of the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Local Government. It was pointed out in that report that there was a need to ensure that the presentation of the arguments for the cases was not left solely to the politicians and local government representatives. That report does contemplate having other people in the community being involved in this process. What we are now seeing is a government that is going out there deliberately to confuse people. And we are seeing the possibility of a government wanting to have absolute freedom to have a media campaign of one sort or another—probably using existing regulations for advertising—unfettered by this provision in the machinery legislation.
We do have existing regulations that deal with government advertising. Most of the time this government chooses to ignore those. We have seen them ignored repeatedly—especially in relation to how the government proceeded on the so-called health reform advertising—but in this situation government advertising would be unfettered.
We are likely, then, to see a truncated period of time to put the cases. Irrespective of what one's views are in relation to this question of the recognition of local government, even the Spiegelman report outlined that fewer than 30 per cent of voters can be said to feel sufficiently strongly committed at this time to recognising local government. But leaving that issue aside, every indicator—including the indications of the AEC itself—is that a truncated period in which to prepare all the information for a referendum would expose the referendum to risk of insufficient information being made available.
Under these circumstances, why are we suspending this provision? This government has just delivered—it happened yesterday evening—a budget which confirms Labor's financial and budget management to be in complete chaos, and which does absolutely nothing to help Australian families with the rising cost-of-living pressures. In economically uncertain times, this budget delivers more debt, more deficits, more taxes, more broken promises and greater uncertainty for ordinary Australians. At this particular time it is absolutely economically irresponsible to be spending money outside the provisions already contained in the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act to ensure that information is properly sent out to the electors of Australia. As I said, this is clearly another stunt and another exercise by this government to attempt to take the minds of ordinary Australians off the real issue for the next federal election, which will be a referendum on this chaotic government. It will be a referendum on the carbon tax, a referendum on the trust aspect of this Prime Minister. Let us not forget that the real issue here is the Prime Minister's indication to the electorate at the last federal election, when she said, 'There will be no carbon tax under a government I lead.' The litany of broken promises that followed that very big broken promise mean that history will judge the Prime Minister very badly.
After six years after we do have? We have debt; we have lots of spin. Australians are desperately seeking stable and competent economic management, and they have not had that from this Prime Minister and not from this Treasurer. The Treasurer's budget and his budget speech yesterday evening demonstrate even further the criticism that is warranted of his absolute chaos as an economic manager. This government has failed to set out a credible strategy for the coming 12 months or the next six months, let alone for the next decade. The Treasurer has failed to indicate to the Australian public where the money is going to come from for his big-ticket announcements and how this government proposes to find the money to spend on these initiatives.
What does this budget actually deliver? That is what is going to be foremost in the public's mind and what should be foremost in the public's mind at the election on 14 September, not some question about local government that is some sort of diversion tactic from the fact that total gross debt will breach the $300 billion debt ceiling over the forward estimates. This is Labor's fifth record deficit in five years with at least two more deficits to come. There is no credible path back to surplus. There are more broken promises, such as the scrapped tax cuts and family payments. There will be more than $25 billion in higher taxes over the next four years and an extra $100 million spending on government advertising. This budget confirms that Labor's financial and budget management is in utter and complete chaos.
In conclusion, I support the amendments that Senator Ryan will be proposing on behalf of the coalition. The first relates to the need to continue to send by post the yes/no case to every elector. And, the second amendment is to remove the provision that would suspend the provisions of section 11(4).
I must say, I am quite surprised to be speaking on Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2013 this morning. Not because I do not want to speak on it, but because the government has rushed this in with very little notice in order, I believe, to create a further magnificent distraction from their overwhelming failings and to hide those from the Australian people. The essence of this magnificent distraction is going to be built forward towards the next election when the government has mooted that they will hold yet another referendum on the constitutional recognition of local government. This follows the failed referendum from the Whitlam era, in 1974, which garnered less than 50 per cent of the support of the Australian people. It follows the 1988 referendum on the same question by the Hawke government, which failed to obtain even 30 per cent approval from the Australian people. And yet we now have perhaps the most flawed, and certainly the most unpopular, government in the history of this country putting forward the same question, which the Australian people clearly do not want, in order to detract from the anger that will be directed its way come election day.
It is a matter of record that experts say referenda should not be held on election day because they are a distraction. The advocates for the proposal, including Senator Conroy, say it is a small change to our Constitution. How can we make a small change—I believe it is a radical change—on election day without appropriate discourse, discovery and communication with the Australian people? The government will purport that the bills before us right now will facilitate discourse and the dissemination of information to the Australian people about the forthcoming referendum. I disagree. I think these changes are wholly unnecessary. I would suggest that the maxim 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it' applies in this circumstance. The important part of that phrase is that we know our Constitution is not broken and does not need to be fixed. The Labor Party know that the constitutional mechanism for referenda and the facilitating bills that have historically moved through this place are not broken. But they want to fix it so they can try and engineer the outcome that they desire.
It is quite right for the Australian dollar to be cynical of everything that this government in particular does in its desperate need to cling to power, to plan ahead, to centralise power in Canberra and to put it in the hands of what the Labor Party and their allies in government have always deemed 'the worthy elite'. They are scared of the Australian people actually having a say, and they want to engineer this by making changes to the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act. They are rushing this bill through this morning.
I note the chattering classes over there who once again are not prepared to listen but only to interject. The problem we have with Senator Conroy and Senator Polley over there is that they are defending the worst government in the history of this country. I will not take a lecture or any advice from a minister who has a track record of abject failure in his communications portfolio—except, as I say, in obtaining skiing holidays and accommodation from Eddie Obeid and others. He is very successful at ingratiating himself with billionaires but he is not so good at talking and communicating with the Australian people about the benefits of these programs. But I digress—and I should not be sidetracked by the rude interjections of Senator Conroy.
I want to come back to the point that the Labor Party think they are better conduits of information to the people than the people can obtain for themselves. They do not want fairness and balance; that has never been part of their DNA or their modus operandi. That is why we are seeing these changes in this bill coming forward. The first of these changes is one of the most significant—and it is one in which I have some expertise, as Senator Conroy will attest—and that is in communications directly with members of the public. This bill provides that communications do not have to be 'posted', in the literal sense of using Australia Post, but can be emailed and the use of the internet can apply. I make the point that in the last referendum, on 6 November 1999, that glorious day on which our constitutional provisions were upheld and our recognition of the constitutional monarchy was overwhelmingly supported by the Australia people, the AEC used the internet to communicate the yes/no case; it was available for people to download from the internet. The internet is not some mythical creature that has been invented by Senator Conroy—he may lay claim to Al Gore's legacy in this respect, but the point I would make is that the internet and the use of the internet is not necessarily changed by this bill. There is no specific provision in it. What this allows is for the AEC to email people on their database, which can be obtained by various other government departments, and that would then constitute the basis of an appropriate communication with the individual voter.
I think that is wrong, based on my own experience. I maintain perhaps one of the most extensive email lists of people right around the country, and I communicate with them on a regular basis. I certainly know that the Prime Minister's office is a subscriber to my email list, and I suspect that Senator Conroy's office is as well. I also know, because we can manage these things, that many of the email addresses we have, which people have put into our databases and which they subscribe to because they request my communications and my common-sense political message, change on a regular basis. I also know that many of them become inactive as people move to another email service provider or as they want to prevent spam from getting into their inboxes. You have this enormous problem that an email list and communication by email are only as good as the last email you sent. If the AEC or anyone else thinks they are communicating with people via their email addresses, if it is not done on a regular basis, they do not know whether that email address is live or not and whether they have been able to communicate with people.
Further to that, there are people who are not slaves to email. They do not check it every single day, or three, four or 15 times a day. They do not walk around with their heads down and eyes glued to their Blackberries. There are people who open emails once a week or once a month. They go on holidays. How can anyone with any certainty accept that this is an appropriate means of communicating about something as important as information in support of or against a referendum question—questions that will determine the future governance of our country? I am happy to have that open, and be satisfied as to this as an appropriate means, but please do not peddle this as something that is a necessary change in order to update ourselves to the latest communications. I understand that that is what the Attorney-General is putting out there.
The Attorney-General, I have found, is a man of limited credibility: I was on the ABC with him once and I caught him telling a direct untruth. I have never rated him particularly highly ever since. How can you have a man saying one thing and then contradicting himself a moment later, saying he is telling the truth? It beggars belief. I am sure that one of his statements was true; I am not sure which one. We are wise to be cynical about that aspect of it.
The other thing I think we should be cynical about is this determination to communicate with households and not directly with voters. I think it makes many presumptions, not the least of which is that someone who opens a letter addressed to the householder is instantly going to share that with every other eligible person in their family. That simply does not happen, and I will come back to that in a moment. The other aspect is, and I do not know how many other people are like this, that when I get mail addressed to the householder it is not on my priority list of things to open. Sometimes they come in yellow envelopes with marketing material and promotional stuff; other times you just know that they are what I would term political junk mail or propaganda. If it is not personally addressed to you it takes on a far lesser importance. How can anyone seriously suggest that a constitutional change is somehow of lesser importance than a directly addressed letter from your local politician talking about the latest mumbo jumbo that they have achieved in parliament?
Last year, if I recall, we got directly addressed mail in my electorate from a government minister talking about how the path to surplus had been re-established, that we were going to have a surplus next year, that deficits were over and the global financial crisis was behind us and that the government's management of the economy was so stellar and sterling. We now know that it was all nonsense—and arrant nonsense at that. They spent the money to address that personally to each individual elector in that division. This government thinks it is okay to peddle that sort of nonsense and propaganda in a directly addressed mail piece, yet they do not think it is appropriate for the AEC to communicate directly with the Australian voter about something as serious as a constitutional change. It beggars belief and puts into perspective, once again, the priorities of this government.
A further point that I would like to touch on, which Senator Fierravanti-Wells also addressed, is the use of public money to promote or dissuade people from taking a particular point of view in a referendum. I believe it is absolutely appropriate for governments of any political stripe to fund a yes case and a no case for referendum questions. It is appropriate to put forward provisions, within budgets and within our governance arrangements, to have essential information communicated in a non-partisan fashion to the Australian people for them to make up their minds. It is then up to organisations or groups or individuals who want to facilitate that and enhance that communication to run their respective campaigns. If governments want to fund their respective campaigns outside the necessary provisions of the Electoral Act, then they should do so in an equal and bipartisan manner. It does not matter whether I agree or disagree with what has been put forward or the necessity of it.
Our Constitution, by some great quirk of fate or some ingenious design, has served us very well through good times and bad, through crisis and through any number of challenges. But the challenge we have before us is that governments may seek to game the system. And that is what we have. When they are seeking to game the system, we are all wise to ask the question, 'Why?' This bill allows—notwithstanding what the government may say—a clearly partisan funding of one side of a proposal to reform or change our Constitution. That means Labor's great dream of centralising power in Canberra—bypassing the states and allowing the Canberra bureaucrats or the Canberra politicians to control local communities and decisions that take place in them—can be funded to the tune of millions of dollars, or maybe tens of millions of dollars, while the common-sense proposition of saying, 'Hang on, it's dangerous to concentrate power in Canberra. We need the checks and balances offered by the federalist system,' will not receive any funding.
If that provision exists, given the track record of this government to use their legislative power and their executive decision-making power in partisan fashion in a desperate attempt to cling to power, how can we trust them to play an even hand at the forthcoming referendum? The simple answer to that is that we cannot. The Australian people know that we cannot trust this government and they know that we cannot trust their agenda, because what they have said successively over the last six years has been borne out to be false, again and again. They have not delivered on the promises they said they would deliver, they have broken promises they said they would not break, and they have delivered and squandered budget deficits with huge amounts of debt for this country. Now they somehow want to shackle local communities to decision making in Canberra. That is what the next referendum is all about: concentrating power in this place. I happen to believe, in principle and politically, that we should be allowing decision making to be made closer to the people, because those decisions will always be more relevant to their needs than to ours.
This bill is being rushed into this place today to allow these new provisions—which I believe are wholly unnecessary for a fair and balanced case to be put forward—to be applied to the forthcoming referendum. I believe it is a referendum that is destined to fail, because, from what I can pick up, it is opposed by the majority of states, and the Australian people think it is, at best, a third- or fourth-rate issue, with less than 30 per cent of the populace wanting to support it. Yet notwithstanding that evidence, notwithstanding the evidence from the AEC that says you need at least 26 weeks to build an appropriate case to support a constitutional referendum, notwithstanding the Spiegelman inquiry saying, 'Don't put it forward at this next election,' and notwithstanding the fact that no-one out there is talking about this, the government is proceeding with it in the hope that it will somehow slip through in the anger, the disappointment and the sense of disillusionment that people have in this government.
The government is hoping that it will be able to run a magnificent distraction that will have one of two results. It might allow the government to cling to a couple of seats because people are distracted by this referendum question or, if no-one is interested in it—I assure you that people will become interested when they know exactly what it is all about—if people are not really engaged in it and they just focus on anger at the government, somehow it might slip through and get a yes vote. That is the strategy here. I think it is quite clear to see. It is once again duplicitous. It is deception by a government that is absolutely desperate to take the focus off its own failings.
This bill is not in the interests of the Australian people because it is overriding the bipartisanship that has hitherto applied to referendum questions, where both sides have an equal say, where both sides receive equal funding, just as they did on that glorious day on 6 November 1999—a glorious day. This government is seeking to challenge that. This government is seeking to overturn convention, as it does. It does not respect tradition. It does not respect the separation of powers and the wisdom of that. It does not respect the innate virtue of allowing the Australian people to determine, in their own fashion, unpressured, whether they think Canberra based politicians and bureaucrats should have more power over their local communities. That is why it concerns me.
I support the amendments that are going to be put forward by the opposition because they will improve a bad bill, but this bill is unnecessary and should not stand.
The Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2013 takes us a step closer to holding the urgently needed referendum on constitutional recognition. It is widely recognised in Australia that this recognition is long overdue. Constitutional recognition of local government means a great deal to so many people across this country. I had the opportunity to sit on the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Local Government, and I was particularly struck by the number of submissions that came from country councils.
It is interesting to hear the contributions from the coalition, because from what I have heard they are certainly not representing the views of many of their own constituents, who recognise the urgent requirement for this constitutional recognition to give their councils certainty with regard to the funding that they urgently need. They need to know that funding will come from the Commonwealth government not only for programs like Roads to Recovery but also to give certainty so that they can spend other parts of their budget on various programs, including things like Meals on Wheels, and councils in Queensland are talking about their plans for light rail. Many of those councils spoke of their uncertainty if we do not get this referendum in place.
The Greens obviously recognise the importance of maintaining the integrity of the referendum process, the integrity of the way in which the referendum is held. We need to ensure that the machinery is in accord with what is set down and with what facilitates our democratic process. But, in listening to the opposition speakers, I have become increasingly concerned that, while the lead speaker for the opposition, Senator Ryan, stated that this is about the integrity of the process, there are other opposition tactics going on here. You start to feel that the intent here is to throw up roadblock after roadblock (1) to make it much harder to get to the referendum but (2) to discredit the progressives who are supporting this and to try to cause more chaos. It looks like the coalition have reverted to their default position of 'Let's approach everything by putting a shroud of negativity over it.'
We must not be distracted. We really need to stay with this important issue of getting the machinery in place for this all-important referendum. This issue is bringing about uncertainty. In addressing the machinery, we should never forget the politics of what we are dealing with here. Many of these councils are grappling with fundamental issues. I did mention Roads to Recovery and I want to stick with it, because it came up time and time again from so many councils keen to maintain the safety of their roads, rebuild bridges and create sustainable transport. Many councils believed the program was under threat because of those High Court cases. We are getting closer now; we have to get the machinery right. We have legislation before us that ensures that the referendum can be presented as effectively as possible.
There is provision for the department to spend money on this referendum. We have heard from the coalition that they want to knock that out. As I read that, it implies that the department would not do the job properly in presenting the case—and here again you see the coalition arguments fall down. On the one hand they are saying that the public need to be more informed, but on the other hand they want to move these amendments. I have considerable concern about how the coalition is conducting themselves in this debate. Senator Bernardi did let the cat out of the bag by setting out considerable opposition to the very notion of constitutional recognition, let alone the referendum itself. What we are seeing here today is the coalition running a guerrilla campaign of political disruption at every opportunity. Now they are using this legislation to continue that particular pattern of work that we saw around climate change measures and other progressive legislation that comes before this house.
The way the Liberals and Nationals are using this bill in the debate is very informative, because it is not about protecting the integrity of the referendum process and making sure the machinery works; it is about causing maximum confusion and disruption. If the opposition played this out in the way they wanted, it would be a setback to their own constituents. Many of those who live in rural and regional areas recognise that we do need to get constitutional recognition in place to give certainty to local councils so they can get on with this work. The bill that we have before us is an important step towards achieving that.
The Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2013 has been brought to the chamber unexpectedly today in a way that demonstrates the ongoing chaos that exists in the government's ranks, the ongoing chaos that exists in the government's legislative program and the chaos they are now extending to the treatment of this nation's most important document—the Constitution. I listened to Senator Conroy groan and moan across the chamber, so it should not come as any surprise that this government treats the constitution with as much contempt as it treats so many other facets of the Australian polity. In the end the Labor government has treated the Australian people with contempt throughout its reign, happily going to an election, saying one thing and then doing the opposite afterwards—happily rolling out budgets where it promises one thing and does the opposite afterwards. In this sitting week we have been reminded so vividly of their contempt for the Australian people in that regard. Whether it was the carbon tax at the last election or the surplus in the last budget, this is a government that consistently has said one thing and done another.
Equally, this is a government that treats the parliament with great contempt. We consistently see guillotines applied in this place to ram legislation through; we see a constant changing of the government program and the order of business. This bill was well down the order of business for today. I came into this chamber this morning ready to continue debate on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment Bill 2013. Indeed, until prayers were concluded this morning, that is exactly where I expected the debate would be going. Senator Ryan, who has carriage of this legislation on behalf of the opposition, only had a few more minutes' notice that in fact he was going to have to take off on the referendum bill instead.
It is a sign of contempt not just for those of us who work in this place and deal with the government's ever changing priorities but also for those people I know to be interested in the EPBC bill, whom I noticed sitting in the gallery at the time of the prayers. They had planned to be here to watch the debate occur on that piece of legislation. They had arranged their plans in accordance with the government's published schedule. Because the government operates in a constant state of chaos and contempt, it had changed its mind and decided to bring this bill on instead. It is one thing to treat the people with contempt and it is another thing to treat the parliament with contempt, but it is something altogether to treat the nation's constitution with contempt. That is what the government are doing by pushing ahead as they are with proposals to change Australia's constitution at the eleventh hour of this parliament. There are just 123 days to go until the scheduled election date at which this government wants to put a question to the people to change the constitution. In terms of having proper planning and proper processes for a constitutional debate, that is incredibly short timing. Senator Rhiannon just described the need to enact this change as an urgent issue.
That is something that can be debated and no doubt will be debated when the actual question for the referendum comes through this place, but what does beggar belief is that this is an issue that has been around for decades. It is an issue that has twice before gone to referenda and twice been rejected by the Australian people at such referenda. This government has spent inordinate time discussing this issue, setting up committees, and looking at the process of how it might bring a question forward. Every sign was there that the government was not going to go ahead this time around because the clock had ticked too far and it was running too late. But then the government changed its mind at the eleventh hour and said it would bring forward a referendum despite the incredibly short timeframe. But it is not just a contempt to bring forward that referendum: not satisfied with that in the short period of time there is for consideration, the government has also decided that in that short period of time they want to change the rules for the referendum as well.
That is what this specific bill, the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill, seeks to do—it seeks to change the rules for the referendum that the government is seeking to put to the Australian people in 123 days' time. Why are we debating this bill with such urgency today when it was not the first bill listed on the Notice Paper? Because the government has realised that if it does not get the machinery provisions bill passed first, then its question will be put under the old rules. The government could have got on and dealt with this machinery provisions bill a long time ago—it has had plenty of forewarning that it was at least still thinking about having a referendum—but, because of the government's own chaotic nature and because of the shambolic approach it brings to the legislative program, it failed to do that. So today we have to come and debate this legislation to change the rules under which the referendum will be held, just 123 days before the proposed referendum.
These are serious changes to those rules. We should not doubt the fact that these are changes that could have a significant impact on the way the referendum is conducted. Australia's constitution has served us extremely well throughout the life of our federation. The Australian people have shown great reluctance to accept change to our constitution. They deserve to be treated with respect when they are asked to change our constitution. That respect should include sufficient notice for a proper debate and it should ensure that those who are required to prepare the information needed for such a debate are given appropriate time in which to prepare that information. In the discussions about this referendum, even the Australian Electoral Commission flagged that there were real risks that information would not be given in a proper manner if there were insufficient time for its preparation. It seems that that is not a priority of this government. This government, it appears, wants to subvert the way in which information has historically been given to the Australian people in referenda.
The Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act of 1984 was actually passed by the Hawke government. It put in place incredibly fair arrangements—fair arrangements that ensure that every voter receives yes/no cases, so that people can make their own minds up based on factual information that assesses the arguments for a case to change our constitution and the arguments against it. It is a very mature and sensible approach. It also ensures that the government of the day cannot use its overwhelming resources to campaign one way or the other. We politicians are of course free to go out and argue our cases as much as we want. Political parties can spend their money on the questions, if they so wish. Lobby groups and others can spend their money. But this is one area, thankfully, where the government's hands have historically been tied—where the law says that the government itself should not use taxpayers' money to advocate a change to the Constitution; the government should simply present the cases for and against to the Australian people and let them make up their own minds. The changes in this proposed legislation subvert those traditions put in place and enshrined in legislation by the Hawke government in 1984.
There are two particular aspects of this legislation that the coalition has grave concerns about. The first relates to the redefining of certain terms within the act and to the redefining of those terms as it relates to how that yes/no case is put to voters. Those changes firstly replace the word 'elector' with the word 'household' and secondly replace the word 'posted' with the words 'sent to each address'. Those changes could sound somewhat innocuous to many people but, in fact, those changes could have quite a dramatic effect in terms of how the government complies with the act. Under the current act it is very clear: every registered voter must receive their own copy of the yes/no case and it must be posted to them. There is no room for ambiguity. There is no opportunity for the government of the day to subvert that in any way, shape or form. If you are on the electoral roll, you get the yes/no case and you have that chance to sit down and work your way through it.
If the government's proposed changes are adopted, then there is a real risk that voters will not necessarily receive a yes/no case with such certainty, because replacing 'elector' with 'household' means that rather than a direct mail piece that goes specifically to the voter in question, the yes/no case could become essentially another piece of junk mail that goes into each household. It does not have to be addressed to the voter or targeted at the voter but could simply be distributed with their Coles or Woolworths catalogues, if the government chose to take that shortcut. Indeed, as other colleagues have raised, replacing the term 'posted' with 'sent to each address' opens up the possibility of the government deciding to use email as an alternative. In time, that may well become a viable proposition. But right now the likelihood that the AEC would have the capacity to accurately send emails to ensure that every voter got a copy of the yes/no case would be very slim, because the accuracy and comprehensiveness of such lists are sorely lacking. Removing the term 'posted' and replacing it with 'sent to each address' also removes the requirement to use Australia Post—the credible, traditional and reliable pathway of getting this information into the hands of every household—and puts it in the hands of whoever the government or the AEC decides to use. That is how you could have the scenario of your yes/no case for serious constitutional change simply being enclosed between your Coles catalogue and your Toys R Us catalogue that get crammed in your letterbox and in many cases simply then get dropped straight into the recycling bin. We have very serious concerns about these particular changes to definitions. The government should be honouring the time honoured tradition of ensuring that the yes/no case is posted to every voter so that we ensure that every voter is thoroughly informed and able to make their own decision.
The other change proposed here is even more grievous and even more concerning. The other change relates to the operation of section 11(4) of the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984. Section 11(4), it is proposed, would be suspended from operation for the period up until the end of election day on 14 September. The government is not necessarily proposing to knock it out for all time but for the particular referendum that the government wants to put up this time. That makes it an especially extraordinary change. Why would the government want to knock out a provision that has been there since 1984, when the act was passed, and just exclude it for the purpose of putting this one question.
What does section 11(4) say? It is a long one but it is important that it is put clearly on the record. It says:
(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;
(aa) the preparation, by or on behalf of the Electoral Commission, of translations into other languages of material contained in those pamphlets;
(ab) the preparation, by or on behalf of the Electoral Commission, of 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);
(b) the provision by the Electoral Commission of other information relating to, or relating to the effect of, the proposed law; or
(c) the salaries and allowances of members of the Parliament, of members of the staff of members of the Parliament or of persons who are appointed or engaged under the Public Service Act 1999.
What is the effect of this section 11(4) that the government proposes to suspend? At present, section 11(4) ensures that the government can only spend money going into the referendum to provide the yes/no case fairly to voters. That fair provision then leaves the funding of arguments in favour of or against changing our constitution to those outside of government that may wish to take it up.
It is unfortunate in many ways that we do not have this type of provision to prevent all manner of other political advertising that governments have historically undertaken and that this government has, as it has gotten closer to the election, been increasingly desperate to undertake. Such a restraint is a good thing to have, because it ensures that governments simply put the question in a fair way. If the operation of this provision is suspended—if 11(4) does not apply and the government is able to spend, finance or freelance willy-nilly in relation to the referendum question—then the government will be fully within its legal rights to offer funding to proponents or opponents of the referendum question in unequal amounts. It will be fully within its legal rights to offer that funding to only one side of the debate or to itself fund campaigns arguing for the yes case or the no case.
In the end, we should have faith that the Australian people are able to make the right judgement based on the facts. It should not take a slick marketing campaign funded by taxpayers, by voters, to argue the case for constitutional change. Constitutional change is too important to be left to slick marketing campaigns. It must be a case of trusting the judgement of the Australian people and trusting them to read and assess the arguments for and against. As is provided for, those arguments should be able to be translated into other languages and made suitable for the visually impaired and they should be accessible to people online as well as through the post. All of that is provided for to ensure that people have equitable and fair access to the yes case and to the no case. But sadly this government wants to suspend the fairness provisions of the referendum act so that they can argue a case or fund the argument of a case that suits their ends.
The handling of this bill, the timing of this bill and the content of this bill are all just examples of the contempt that this government has for the parliament. This is how it treats the Australian people and the Australian Constitution. Our constitution deserves better than this. The Australian parliament and people deserve better than this. If we are going to have a referendum on 14 September, it should be one that is fought fairly and fought in a way such that the Australian people can be guaranteed that they will be informed in an equitable, fair and reasonable manner of both sides of the argument. For those reasons, these provisions in this bill should most definitely be opposed.
The big guns are here, Senator Conroy. Good to see you; good to see you getting educated in the ways of the Senate. I rise more in sorrow than in anger because the debate on the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill has been brought on by a government seeking to rush a series of machinery measures through that will allow it to facilitate, in its mind, a constitutional referendum proposed to be undertaken concurrently with the election which, to date, is still to be held on 14 September.
It is interesting that the bill implements a couple of recommendations, recommendation 3 and recommendation 11, of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs report of 2009, called A Time for Change: Yes/No? I say to those who are in the chamber or watching this debate: the government in 2013, almost at the death knell of its time in office, has suddenly woken up and said, 'This is the time to respond to the standing committee. This is the time to show the parliament respect as an executive by putting forward a bill to implement certain recommendations.' You ask yourself of this government: why, what is the motive? At the eleventh hour, five minutes to midnight, as the clock ticks down to 14 September, what is the government up to? Well, the government has decided for strategic reasons, for political reasons, that it would have a referendum in association with the next election—a referendum around constitutional recognition of local government. The government will say that in part it has been motivated by a number of court decisions which throw doubt on the capacity of the Commonwealth to directly fund local government. The history of referenda in this country is that very few of them succeed anyway, and those that do succeed do so after lengthy and fair consideration of the yes and no cases, and with adequate opportunity for the community to debate the measures, to consider the measures and to hear both sides of the case.
In this particular case, with the referendum slated for the election, it is understood that the Spiegelman report, which is the shorthand expression for the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Local Government, 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 to local government representatives. There is very good reason for this. The report goes on to say that, if the government wishes to have the referendum passed, other people in the community have to be convinced of the need for it to occur. We are only slightly over 100 sleeps away from 14 September, from election day, and the government has decided, as a last minute burst, that it will put up this particular referendum and argue the case. It is just trying to muddy the waters and confuse the voters. By bringing in this issue it is trying to create a constituency, or expand its constituency beyond its narrow trade union base, by seeking to get local governments, local councils and their supporters and stakeholders onside. This is politics; this is not about considered constitutional change. The way to get change in this country is to embrace both sides of politics in a genuine bipartisan consensus and then move to use that consensus as a basis to build public support for change. That is not what is happening here.
The Spiegelman report found, having commissioned research on the support for a proposed referendum, which has only just been announced in effect, that 'fewer than 30 per cent of voters can be said to feel a sufficiently strong commitment at this time to the idea of recognising local government to provide high confidence they would support it at a referendum.' So, at this very late stage, every indicator—including the Electoral Commission, which has indicated its concern about the amount of time available to disseminate information on this important matter—shows that a truncated period in which to prepare all of the information for the referendum would expose the referendum to the risk of insufficient information being made available. That is the problem. The government is truncating the space in which this issue will be considered. That will, therefore, further muddy the message coming out of this election, because this election pre-eminently has to be a referendum not on the constitution, not on the status of local government, but on a government which has undermined the process of government in this country. It is a government of which the members opposite are very much a part—the Gillard government.
There are a couple of amendments which are raised in the context of this machinery bill that I wish to address. The first has to do with recommendation 3 of the committee's report, which recommended that the Australian government introduce amendments to the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984 to require a yes/no pamphlet to be delivered to every household and not to every elector. The coalition opposed this recommendation in its dissenting report and believes that a yes/no pamphlet should be delivered to every single individual elector. Again, here is the spirit of collectivism that pervades this government. People are no longer people, they are no longer electors, they are no longer individual voters; they are part of a household and the household gets a pamphlet. Households can have more than one person in them, by definition. More than one person can share a household. Who gets the pamphlet? Who fights late at night over reading the yes/no case? Who has the right as an individual? We all have rights as individuals. One right is to have our government give us information as an individual, to be treated and recognised as an individual and not as part of a household.
The yes/no pamphlet is required by the existing 1984 act which was introduced by the Hawke government. It was no creation of the coalition. The yes/no pamphlet provided by the Electoral Commission highlights the yes case and the no case in one pamphlet. It was designed so every elector could make their decision on proper information. You could keep the pamphlet and refer to it; you could carry it on the bus on your way to work and refer to it. You did not have to share it with anybody else. Every elector, not household, should have the right to receive this information. By removing the word 'elector', the government is furthering another agenda: its agenda promoting automatic enrolment, where the commission finds ways to enrol you so you do not have to go to the effort of enrolling yourself.
We have had a long debate in this country about the role of voluntary voting versus compulsory voting. I happen to be in favour of compulsory voting. I think everybody should have a stake in democracy, everybody should own the decisions of that democracy and they should be forced to make those decisions if they are not willing to do so voluntarily. I think it works better that way. Perhaps it is a violation of some individual rights, but it is to meet a higher right, which is to make sure that democracy better reflects the outcomes of society as a whole. But in that context we should not make it too easy for people so that they say, 'Someone else will enrol me. I don't have to bother.' When you come of age it should be your priority to get enrolled and do it for yourself, not have the Electoral Commission do it for you. The government should not assume responsibility for enrolling citizens to vote. If we want to have a freer society, we have to keep enlarging the domain of freedom and not restrict it in such a way. We in the coalition are vigorously opposed to automatic enrolment and the use of government departments to provide the Electoral Commission with information to automatically enrol people to the electoral roll.
Another element to what is being contemplated under the first amendment I am addressing—and it was contemplated by the Special Minister of State in his second reading speech in the other place—is the use of email addresses for the sending of material. Material would be sent via email rather than posted. As some of my colleagues have indicated, Australia Post is a reliable and credible way to get information out. We have email addresses. Most of us, particularly younger people, have email addresses. We can have multiple email addresses, but we are meant to have one fixed residential address. That creates greater certainty in getting information to people. I am not an expert on the IT aspects of this, but there may well be greater opportunity for identity fraud and other issues when we use email addresses, particularly when there are multiple email addresses.
The bill also moves to implement recommendation 11 of the committee report to suspend subsection 11(4) of the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984 until the end of polling day in 2013. That may sound fairly innocuous, but what does it mean? Subsection 11(4) generally limits the capacity of the Commonwealth to spend money in relation to a referendum other than on the production and delivery of a yes/no pamphlet. The committee proposed back in 2009 that any additional expenditure would be provided equally for the yes and no cases, but all that the government is proposing to do is suspend subsection 11(4) to election day. One pamphlet would be sent to a household and then the government would make up for it by having a big-spending, taxpayer funded advertising campaign without any provision for it to be a fair division of expenditure between the yes and no cases. This leaves it open for the government to do a big-spending campaign in cahoots with those who may support this particular referendum, free of any of any inhibition under subsection 11(4). We will be opposing this and will be moving amendments on both of the matters I have raised.
I want to come back to where I started, which is that this referendum at this time is a smokescreen. It is meant to muddy the waters, potentially confuse the electors and mess with the minds of stakeholders in the community in the context of what should be one of the most important elections in a decade—maybe in a generation—in setting the direction of this country. In the budget last night, the government sought to set the direction of this country for the next decade. It sought to lock those on this side of the house into a particular pattern of spending and tax them, reflecting what the Treasurer in the other house described as 'Labor values'. There is an election on 14 September which will decide what people think of those values and the values of those on this side of the house. Pre-eminently the election should be about the merits of the two sides of politics rather than be confusing with the referendum I mentioned before.
We are taking our time to debate this bill to make it clear to people that the only reason this is being brought forward is to facilitate a referendum in the context of this election. It is meant to confuse people. If we truly respect our constitution and the need for voters to make a considered change to the constitution, we have to give them the time to do that in a fair way. Along with my colleagues, I will be opposing this bill and moving amendments.
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)
I rise to speak to the Referendum (Machinery) Provisions—nothing but a complete smokescreen—Amendment Bill 2013. In doing so, I would like to make some introductory comments in relation to this whole issue. It is no secret that there are many of us on this side of the chamber who were involved in local government prior to our entry into this and the other place. I include myself in that. I spent six years on the Ballarat City Council, and I remember it with great fondness. It was important from my point of view and important, I know, for my colleagues to be involved in local government, to put something back into our communities. That, of course, was the motivation for us to stand for local government. But the Australian Labor Party have used local government on many occasions not to put something back into the community but to take out what they could for their own personal benefit.
Many honourable senators will remember the Wollongong sex and bribery scandal. Labor Party members were using local government for their own cheap political purposes. It is a great irony that government ministers have been swanning around over the last week, indicating that they are doing this for the benefit of local government. This government and the Australian Labor Party care nothing about local government. It is just a smokescreen. It is a deceitful smokescreen. It is treating local government in this country with utter contempt as opposed to supporting them.
Debate on this bill in the other place—for those in the gallery, the 'other place' is the House of Representatives—commenced at five o'clock last night, and we will finish dealing with it in about 35 minutes. It shows complete and utter contempt for the process, complete and utter contempt for local government and complete and utter contempt for that body of work that binds us as Australians, which is our Constitution. If this was going to be done, it should have been done 12 months ago.
Everyone in the Australian community knows this has been done to try to provide a smokescreen for a very, very bad government that reinforced its bona fides as the worst government in this country's history last night at 7.30 when the hapless Treasurer rose to deliver his sixth and, hopefully, final budget speech, which delivered more debt, a bigger noose around the necks of our children and grandchildren, no support for families, no support for small business, no withdrawal of the toxic carbon tax and no hope for the future.
What concerns me about this bill are the two provisions that my colleague Senator Ryan has already referred to. What is of enormous concern to me is seeing the continual degradation of the principles that underpin the Commonwealth Electoral Act and the most important of rights that we as citizens have under that act. We have seen under this government constant and regular removal of the rights of the Australian community in relation to their right to vote and the integrity of the electoral roll. We have seen a chipping away to the extent that now anyone who goes into a polling booth will have a very serious question mark—not unreasonably, in my view—about whether the person beside them with a pencil in their hand is legitimately entitled to vote. I will go through those bits of legislation before my time to speak is up this afternoon.
The notion that something as important as a change to this nation's Constitution can be dealt with by way of email and material sent to households, not electors, is another significant attack on the fundamental rights of electors in this country. It is a fundamental attack on the rights of those Australians who are legitimately and properly able to vote. What utter contempt it is from this government to remove any right of an elector to himself or herself receive properly prepared information in relation to a very, very significant decision they must make on 14 September—and that is whether or not to change our Constitution. It is beneath contempt to think that this cannot be legitimately done by anything other than something sent by post to a household. It is the pits. Quite frankly, those who are going to support it today should stand utterly condemned. They are shamed.
The fact that the Australian Labor Party is doing it, of course, is no surprise to anyone. But they will undoubtedly be joined by the Australian Greens, who themselves have become completely complicit in the attack on those who are legitimately entitled to vote in this country. They have become the government's companions in the last six years. This notion of a divorce between the Australian Labor Party and the Greens is a complete and utter farce. The Australian community know that it is a complete and utter farce.
In relation to the second matter that we will be moving amendments to, we have a situation where the government are deliberately suspending the provisions of a bill introduced by the Hawke government in 1984—I think that is when it was, from recollection—which were specifically designed to limit expenditure on referenda to advertising and the preparation of a yes case and a no case. I was not here in 1984, but I suspect that was probably done to minimise the involvement and potential involvement of the government of the day to influence the outcome of a referendum. I suspect that is why that provision was there. So what we are seeing in this bill that is suspending this provision until election day is another attack on our democracy. It is another attack on what is right and the elevation of what is wrong. Those of us on this side are passionately of the belief that, when you are going to the Australian people to change the Constitution, at a very minimum they are entitled to not have the involvement of the government of the day. At a very minimum they are entitled to be given appropriate information in relation to the reasons why they should or should not support that referendum.
This is not about the government; this is about the people and the people's right to change or not change the Constitution. As honourable senators know, the Australian community have been very reluctant to change this Constitution and they have been reluctant to do so for very good reason. Rather than respect that fundamental historical fact, this bill seeks to completely and utterly change everything that has underpinned former governments' involvement in any referendum question. It is quite extraordinary.
I made mention before of some changes this government has introduced. I want to speak about a couple of them. The first one is the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Improving Electoral Administration) Bill 2013. As I said before, those on this side of the chamber believe that, if you go to vote, you are entitled to know that the person standing beside you is also legitimately entitled to vote; otherwise, the whole process becomes a complete and utter mockery. If you are going to provide the Australian citizen with one fundamental right, it must be to know that their right to legitimately cast a vote is shared by every single person who walks into the particular polling booth they are in that day. That must be across the nation. If you do not maintain the integrity of the electoral roll then you are diminishing the value of a right that people have fought for and died to protect. People have given their lives to protect that right.
If you look at that bill, there were three recommendations that the coalition opposed. One was for the provision to the AEC by the ATO of protected information, or what had been protected information. We believed that to allow the AEC to provide protected information—
Perhaps some could be doing some talking out of the chamber rather than in it on their telephones, particularly at that level, but anyway I am sure they will hear. We believed that it was inappropriate. As we said in our dissenting report, the AEC should concentrate on continuing to check the accuracy of the roll by canvassing and advertising to make people aware of their obligations to properly initially enrol and advise of a change of address when it occurs, not on getting the ATO to provide previously protected information to the AEC.
The second part of this was the repealing of the requirement for an applicant for a prepoll ordinary vote to complete and sign a certificate. As I said in a speech to this chamber on 18 March this year:
The coalition are of the opinion that electors continue to be required to sign a declaration when casting a prepoll on the basis that the repeal of this requirement:
… will increase the likelihood of voter fraud and threaten the integrity of the Electoral roll.
I think that quote was lifted from our dissenting report. There has been one political party in the last six years which has maintained, or attempted to maintain, the integrity of the electoral roll and which has tried to minimise the likelihood of voter fraud by maintaining the integrity of the roll. I am sorry, but I do not accept the view of the government and the Greens that they are doing that. Equally I do not accept some of the arguments of the Australian Electoral Commission in relation to these matters. In 30 or 40 years time, when some boxes are opened about the discussion of some of these things, I hope I read in there, if I am still here in 30 years time—
it seems a long time away, doesn't it?—that indeed this was a matter forced on the Australian Electoral Commission by this government, as opposed to the AEC being in any way complicit in the legislation being put through the way it was.
In the time remaining, I also want to refer to the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill 2011 and the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Protecting Elector Participation) Bill 2012. When you look at those two bills, you see examples again where the coalition, in dissenting reports, were the only ones who were trying to protect and maintain the integrity of the electoral roll. The Australian Labor Party and the Australian Greens again were doing everything possible to maximise the chance of electoral fraud by minimising the integrity of the electoral roll. These bills, from recollection, were also rammed through the chamber. Senator Ryan might have a better recollection of that than me.
That is right. There were 160 guillotined bills—which is quite remarkable, because I think the Australian Greens and the government attacked us, in our last period in government, for guillotining bills. I think we had 30 during our period and they have 160 to date. I will bet London to a brick, and I will put as much money on it as I have got, that we will see more guillotining between now and the end of June. You watch that 160; it will go through the roof. It will not go up as quickly as our gross and net debt will; but, I tell you what, it will not be far behind it.
Isn't it remarkable that those who float around this country and pretend that they are protecting the rights of the individual allowed this bill to go through, when people's names were actually added to the public record unless they objected? This completely changed the principles that have underpinned people making an application for, and being granted, the right to vote. (Time expired)
It gives me great pleasure to rise to speak on this matter, having myself served in local government for nine years. During that time, I was the mayor of Port Hedland for three years and the chairman of the Pilbara ward of the Western Australian Local Government Association, so I am quite interested in this referendum.
The Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2013 that we have before us today proposes that a yes/no pamphlet be delivered to every household—that is, every home—rather than to individual electors. That is recommendation 3, and the coalition opposes that recommendation. Then there is recommendation 11, which is under discussion at the moment in this matter today, which is that increased money be allocated for referendum education and information in equal proportions for the yes and no cases, and of course the coalition supports this proposal. That is because, obviously, every elector should be well informed about the yes and no cases for this proposed referendum and should thereby be able to make a better decision about which way they will vote.
I must say that the first proposition—under recommendation 3, to send material to every household rather than every elector at their registered address—is, in my view, a very strange one. It will mean that many electors will not receive material relevant to the referendum at all. For example, these days many people, as we know, move about the country with their work. In Western Australia, where I come from, there are a great number of fly-in, fly-out workers. They come into Perth airport, then fly to mines all over the north of the state and the east of the state. They come from all over Australia. They come from Queensland, New South Wales, Tasmania and even from other countries. These people, nevertheless, do have a registered home address somewhere in Australia, if they are Australian citizens. To merely send material relevant to the referendum to households—which might mean mining camps, where people come and go, and do not stay for long—will mean that many people do not actually receive information about these referendum proposals.
In a general way, all over this country, people shift around a lot. Nevertheless, everybody has a permanent, official address. It is to that address that important mail is sent to them. Such important mail would obviously possibly include bank statements, credit card statements, notices about local government and other matters. I think the idea of just sending the mail to a house—rather than to an elector's official address—is very, very bizarre and very hard to understand. In my view, all referendums are important matters.
It has been said today in the course of this debate that, of the 44 referendums put to the Australian people, very few have passed, because the Australian people generally are very wary about changing the Constitution. I think that this referendum on constitutional recognition of local government is a very important matter indeed. It is my belief that material relating to this matter should be sent to the designated home address of each elector so that they can be informed. It is surely the responsibility of government to communicate with each elector and it is patently obvious, in my view, that the most efficient manner of communicating with each elector is to send material to their registered address. In my view, to not send mail to each elector but to the householder is disrespectful of the rights of each elector as an Australian citizen. The reality is that there may be several people living at a street address and, in truth, material that is put in the letterbox may not be handed around to the other members of a particular household.
The reality is that quite often the amount of junk mail that accumulates in people's letterboxes addressed to the householder is very large. In my case, when I come home and find a letterbox full of 'to the householder' junk mail, I simply pick it up, walk in, put it in the bin and forget about it. That might be the fate of any letter addressed to the householder in many homes around Australia. In this case, it would have the unfortunate consequence that electors, who are supposed to be informed about these referendums, would not get the information that the Commonwealth government is sending out so that they can learn the purposes and objectives of these referendums.
It is totally unacceptable that the Commonwealth government would not be ensuring that each Australian citizen as an individual is informed and provided with an explanation personally of a proposed change to the Constitution of the Australian federation. One might even say that it amounts to sheer insolence by the Commonwealth government and an insensitivity to the rights of our citizens that this approach is being considered. Quite frankly, I can only presume from this that the present Commonwealth government regards electors with some disdain and amazing disrespect. This approach of proposing to send referendum material to the household rather than to the official address of an elector is quite dumbfounding. As my colleagues Senator Bernardi and Senator Birmingham have said during the course of this debate, most householders regard material addressed to the householder as junk mail. As I have said, junk mail ends up in the rubbish bin.
The other curious thing about this is that these provisions are to be in place only until the end of polling day 2013. That is very curious, as I am sure you would agree. One must wonder if the government is seeking to minimise the level of understanding of the yes and no cases and hopes that citizens will vote in an uninformed manner, presumably, in the government's view, so that they might vote yes just as a reflex because it seems on the face of it to be a reasonable proposition—the donkey vote, in effect. This amounts to profound contempt for the interests of the people of Australia by this government. It is beyond comprehension that the current government should be so disrespectful of the citizens of Australia that it is not prepared to mail information to every elector at their home address. That is why the coalition is opposing these provisions.
We do, however, support the distribution of equal promotional material for the yes and no arguments to every elector. That is the right and proper thing to do. However, I again must ask you all to consider why the government is conducting this referendum in such haste. Why is it being presented as an unimportant matter when in reality this referendum on constitutional recognition of local government is actually one of the most important that has been presented to the people of Australia, because bringing local government into the Constitution and into the sphere of the federal government will profoundly change the mechanics of government in Australia?
As you would know as a member of the ALP, Madam Acting Deputy President Moore, it has long been ALP policy—from the 1920s—to set up a series of regional councils, which would be directly funded from Canberra, to provide a means of progressively undermining and sidelining the state governments. This is long-term ALP policy, most recently restated by Bob Hawke, who said, 'Let's get rid of the states.'
Some of us believe that the states play a very important role as the protectors of regional interests in this country. We believe in the concept of federalism and the distribution of power around the country so that the different interests of different parts of Australia can be catered for. We believe there should not be one single central source of power and provider of government. In my view, were this referendum carried and local government were to be included in the Constitution, this would be a step down the road to undermining the federalist nature of our Constitution. Those of us who are federalists believe that state governments are the protectors of regional interests. This referendum, far from being an unimportant matter, is actually one of the most profoundly significant matters that has ever been put to the Australian people. It has been put twice before, of course, and twice the Australian people have rejected the proposition that local government should be included in the federal Constitution, which would mean it would be funded directly by the federal government. I hope and trust that the commonsense of the Australian people will prevail yet again in this case and that the referendum result will be a resounding 'no'.
All Australians should be very wary of changes to the Australian Constitution, however simple those changes may seem, if for nothing else than the fact that the High Court has a habit of reading implied intentions into constitutional provisions and these implied intentions may be open to all sorts of unexpected outcomes. High Court interpretations of the external affairs provisions of the Constitution are the most significant examples of this. The High Court has read all sorts of things into the external affairs provisions of the Constitution and they have had significant impacts on the way we are governed and on the operation of the federal government. Accordingly, I think it is both naive and, perhaps, dangerous to believe that these constitutional changes would have minimal impact, as is claimed by the Local Government Association.
In conclusion, I would say that if these provisions were to be adopted the ALGA may find the outcome very different to their expectations. But there will be time to debate the actual referendum provisions at a future time. At this point, where we are simply deciding whether or not to accept recommendations 3 and 11. I think recommendation 3 should be opposed and recommendation 11 should be enthusiastically supported by the Senate.
It is a pleasure to rise to address the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2013. I do so, like many other speakers in this debate, particularly on this side of the chamber, with something of a background in local government, to the extent that the ACT Legislative Assembly, from which I came to this place, provides the citizens of this territory with both state-level and local-government-level services. So I am very much familiar with the arguments about the need to protect the role of local government in the Australian constitutional system. I have some sympathy for the arguments presented here for certainty for local government and for the capacity of local government to continue to receive payments from the Commonwealth, and to be seen constitutionally to continue to do so. But I am also extremely well aware, as are Senator Eggleston and other speakers in this debate, of the enormous difficulties faced by any party seeking to amend the Australian Constitution. It is a matter of deep concern that this exercise, in an attempt to amend the Australian Constitution for an arguably very worthwhile purpose, is so mired in politics and seems to be so clearly designed to fail that one has to be extremely cynical about the government's motives in bringing forward this legislation.
We are all, I am sure, very familiar with the background to the many reasons why Australians have shown a profound reluctance to amend the Constitution. Of the 44 proposals for constitutional change put to Australian electors, only eight have ever been approved, and I think seven of those have been proposed by coalition governments. The last questions to be carried were over 36 years ago, which demonstrates that the maturing of Australian democracy has not changed people's attitude towards the prima facie unlikelihood of a proposal being carried to amend their Constitution.
We have to ask in this case whether the very fundamental threshold has been reached by the proponents of change to execute this particular manoeuvre. The question remains very real: has the government actually accomplished that? The answer is doubtful. The history of these things is not encouraging. I think it was Labor Prime Minister Andrew Fisher who attempted to amend the Australia Constitution on several occasions and became increasingly frustrated at not being able to communicate his message successfully with all the voters. That is a rather familiar refrain in the contemporary age. At the three preceding referendums—in 1906, 1910 and 1911—the administrations had not even bothered to inform the people of why they should vote yes, except to have 12,000 printed black-and-white posters describing how to vote displayed prominently at polling booths. That was the extent of the Commonwealth's intervention to assist people to know what was going on with a referendum, except perhaps for comment in the free media of the day. So Prime Minister Fisher attempted, I think a little more wilfully, to put his case to the Australian people, but he also failed in his several attempts to get the Constitution amended.
We understand clearly from those early examples and from the many examples that followed—in particular, the unsuccessful attempts—that a better case needs to be made to ensure that people have the chance to understand what is at stake. But that better case does not appear to have been made in this instance. The government is attempting at a very late stage in the process to change the rules affecting the way in which referenda are conducted. We have an election coming up. It is an appropriate mechanism to put referendum questions in conjunction with an election but you need to take the care, time and expense to ensure that the issues in a referendum are clearly distinguishable in the minds of electors from the more fundamental question of who they want to govern them for the next three years. With the enormous focus preceding the election on 14 September, the chance of people focusing separately on the question of what is an appropriate referendum question and the extent to which it should be supported is diminishing all the time. And that is a matter of great regret because with every unsuccessful and possibly cynical attempt that is made to amend the Australian Constitution the more we reinforce in the Australian electors' minds the sense that Australian politicians play with these things and attempt to amend the Constitution for political reasons rather than for the betterment of the Australian community.