Senate debates

Monday, 20 March 2023


Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2022; Second Reading

5:16 pm

Photo of David VanDavid Van (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As I was saying earlier before I was interrupted, just as concerning is that the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2022 also intends not to fund the 'yes' and 'no' campaigns. I'm sure that, if the Labor Party could get away with it, the government would do nothing but fund their party operation and their party apparatchiks—for they follow that great line from Dale Carnegie: 'The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it.' Advocating for official 'yes' and 'no' campaigns is a crucial step towards increasing trust and integrity in the referendum process. The implementation of official campaigns will simplify the regulatory environment and ensure the proper conduct of the referendum.

The Australian Electoral Commission has provided evidence to parliamentary committees that the donation and disclosure regime remains the most complex part of the Electoral Act. Applying this regime in the referendum will require proper education and enforcement of the electoral laws for participants who are not regularly involved in elections. Having an official campaign structure is the best way for regulators to ensure appropriate education and enforcement of the electoral laws. An official campaign will provide a single point of coordination to provide education and to commence any audit processes for the donations or foreign interference, thereby ensuring the integrity of the referendum. This is especially important because in this referendum there will be a significant number of participants and organisations who will not be associated with political parties or who do not regularly participate in electoral events.

Moreover, the AEC has expressed concerns that some individuals might fall under donations legislation and other electoral laws without even knowing it. The education of participants will be significant, given that these events happen so rarely and they aren't the usual political parties that they will be regulating. Even political parties struggle to get it right every time. Therefore, the implementation of an official campaign will provide a framework for education and support, ensuring that all participants have a clear understanding of their obligations and responsibilities.

Official 'yes' and 'no' campaigns will also enhance transparency and accountability of the referendum process. They will ensure that all participants have equal access to funding and resources, thereby levelling the playing field for both sides of the debate. This will ensure that, whatever the result of the referendum, all Australians respect it and accept it. We don't want the Australian people to feel like their side won or lost because of dodgy donations and misinformation. We want our referendum system to be like all of our other election systems: the gold standard that the rest of the world follows.

It is also a concern that the threat that a foreign power may influence this referendum and, by extension, our country is worsened by this piece of legislation. The director-general of ASIO only two weeks ago told Australians that we are seeing the greatest level of foreign interference in Australia's history. In light of this, it is crucial to consider practical steps that can provide structure around the referendum process and help regulators and agencies manage the situation effectively.

The issue of foreign interference is not unique to Australia, as evidenced by similar incidents in other countries, for example, Canadian intelligence agencies uncovered plots to interfere in their 2021 election to create a minority government, and state-sponsored hacking has reportedly targeted three major parties in Australia. As such, the need for a structured approach to the referendum becomes all the more important to mitigating the risk of foreign interference. The establishment of official 'yes' and 'no' campaigns, along with the formal structure to regulate the process, can help provide a single point of coordination to ensure appropriate education and enforcement of electoral laws and help mitigate the risk of foreign interference.

The arrogance of the Australian Labor Party is on full display here today. They show that they have no respect for democracy and no respect for the Australian people and their decision. They think, if a 'yes' vote for the referendum is such a forgone conclusion, why would they ever need to give any respect to the other side of the argument? Just like in 2019, when they were so sure of a win they were practically measuring the curtains, Labor's arrogance and pride will be their downfall.

I was reminded of one of Paul Keating's quotes on Fightback!, before he entirely lost the plot. He said of John Hewson's policy:

If you don't understand it, don't vote for it; if you do understand it, you'd never vote for it!

So I say to those opposite: if you don't give the Australian people the chance to understand the Voice and the referendum that they are voting on then you are sorely mistaken if you think they are going to vote for it.

5:22 pm

Photo of Alex AnticAlex Antic (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This government loves nothing more than signalling virtue about the importance of countering so-called disinformation—or is it misinformation? I get confused. The reason for this is that they view anything that contradicts the left-wing talking points such as the identity politics narrative or the need for the welfare state as disinformation—or is it misinformation? I'm still trying to find that out.

Of the 44 referenda that have been put on the Australian Constitution during this country's history, only eight have succeeded. The last successful questions were put in 1977, relating to voters in territories being allowed to vote in referenda, age limits for judges and the question of casual senate vacancies. Labor has not proposed a successful referendum since 1946. It's the only time they succeeded in changing the Constitution. It's no wonder Labor now seeks to use every opportunity to change the rules to suit the style of telling the Australia people what to think and how to vote.

This bill seeks at its heart to fundamentally remove safeguards in the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act to ensure that referenda are conducted with informed voters and with integrity. Under this bill Labor will get to put their finger on the scales, and Australians will pay the ill-gotten price. The bill will determine the settings for how the referendum on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to parliament is conducted, but the changes included in this bill will of course be used in future referenda as well.

Now, it's true that this bill does make a number of what we would describe as non-controversial changes to the act to bring the operation of referenda into line with the Commonwealth Electoral Act. As currently drafted, though, there are three issues which really ought to ring alarm bells in every Australian. Firstly, the bill removes the requirement to provide all households with a pamphlet outlining the 'yes' and 'no' cases for changing the Constitution. Secondly, the bill doesn't make provision for the official 'yes' and 'no' campaign organisations, and the bill also does not outline any official funding for these campaigns.

All that aside, let's drill into what this is really about. This is really about the government's obsession with race based politics. It's really about saving the government's failing Voice to Parliament by removing your right to be fairly informed about the true motivation for and the practical outcomes of the proposed race-based division that the Voice represents. Far from being something that would actually help Indigenous Australians, if it is even designed to do that, the Voice is nothing more than a Trojan horse for creating yet another left-wing bureaucracy that, once established, will not be able to be disbanded without another referendum. We know that the point of these amendments is to facilitate that referendum on the Voice. The point of the Voice is to have it entrenched in the Constitution. It's really an underhanded tactic from Labor. It serves only the welfare state's interests and promotes more division in our culture at a time when we simply do not need it.

There's absolutely no reason why the so-called Voice to Parliament requires a referendum at all. If the intention behind the Voice is to help Indigenous people and alleviate the very real suffering that many of them face, this could be done without an advisory body and it could be done tomorrow for things like the cashless welfare card that was abolished earlier in the year. As I said, the real agenda here is to brick a left-wing bureaucracy into the Constitution. It's just more jobs for their lefty mates, and pretending to speak on behalf of Indigenous people is just not the point. Only, this time, this particular body would never be able to be disbanded without a referendum. The swamp won't be able to be drained. That's another way of putting it. We will not be able to drain the swamp without another referendum, and the Australian people are being led down that path.

Does the Albanese government already have in mind the changes that it would make, or are Australians going to get what they're being told they will be voting for? The only way to find out will be to see the manoeuvres that this Albanese Labor government pulls after the referendum. I prefer not to take that risk, given how difficult it would be to undo if it happens. But, simply put, Labor is hoping that Australians just don't ask too many questions about the Voice. Instead, Labor is relying on being able to call you names if you start asking questions—names like 'borderline racist' if you dare to question it—even if your concern is for the wellbeing of Indigenous people, and I would suggest almost everybody on this side of the chamber holds that concern.

The bill seeks to pay lip-service to democracy and transparency in the referendum process while removing and meddling in the safeguard processes that are actually designed to keep referenda clear and honest so that Australians know the facts and can then make up their own minds. In fact, Labor's own explanatory memorandum describes it as a bill 'to ensure a consistent voter experience across elections and referendums'. But we know what this is about. It's about greasing the wheels for a major strike on our democracy by way of this Voice to Parliament. And, if the bill passes in its current form, the operation of section 11 of the act will be suspended for the purposes of the vote, meaning there will be no requirement for government to distribute information to electors that sets out both the case for and the case against the Voice. These pamphlets, as they're known, are vital to ensure that Australians understand what they're voting for and understand the long-term consequences of making such a radical change to our Constitution, our founding document which underpins the entire system of government and our way of life.

These important safeguards of our constitutional amendment process have only been departed from three times since the requirement was introduced in 1912—firstly, in 1919, when there was insufficient time to produce them; in 1926, when there was no agreement on how to produce the 'yes' argument; and then, in 1928, when there was overwhelming agreement between the parties and the government. None of those circumstances apply today. So one must ask: why is Labor pushing to avoid these important checks and balances? It's because they know they can't defend their own position under proper scrutiny. They don't want you to know the detail and they don't want you to hear the arguments against the Voice.

The notion that dividing Australians by race in our bureaucracies and asserting that only people of Indigenous descent have a valid opinion about matters pertaining to Indigenous people is absurd. Such a notion is hostile to the reason and the words of civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King, who, as we all know, famously said that he hoped for a world in which his grandchildren would not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. Talk about missing the point. Labor are actively trying to hide this from the Australian people. They don't want you to question it. They don't want you to know that, when it comes to the very real and serious issues that Indigenous people face—such as incarceration rates, lower life expectancy, alcoholism, drug addiction, unemployment, homelessness, suicide and so on—the Voice to Parliament will not have a positive impact on those issues. They don't want you asking what new departments will be established, what welfare policies will be enacted or what advertising or welfare campaigns will be undertaken that haven't already been tried. They don't want you to know that the welfare-state approach to these issues simply isn't working. They don't want you to query why the government isn't taking consistent, practical action on tackling these problems rather than engaging in more semantic rhetoric.

The Voice is a Trojan horse for a bureaucracy that we won't be able to curb or disband, even though its powers and functions are subject to change. Either way, it's more jobs and more taxpayers' money for the unelected. They just want you to think that you are borderline racist if you oppose them. All that is happening here is that the government is making an advisory body for itself and claiming it will serve Indigenous interests. It's a very convenient way of appearing to do something to help Indigenous suffering while actually not achieving that goal. The Voice members are only going to echo the same old left-wing talking points designed to trash Australia's heritage and divide us. So it's my position that this chamber should oppose the bill. I ask you to do the same.

5:30 pm

Photo of Wendy AskewWendy Askew (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I, too, rise today to contribute to the debate on the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2022. Constitutional change, no matter how minuscule, must be carefully considered but must also be based on extensive research and consultation. The coalition worked hard to promote electoral change and update related legislation in a measured and balanced manner during its term. But we knew any reforms made would pave the way for future changes. Australia's Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act has not been used since 1999 and, as a result, has not kept pace with the successive changes we have made to the Electoral Act.

As a member of the JSCEM committee at the time, I was involved in the inquiry into the 2019 federal election, and I am also familiar with the committee's 2013 and 2016 inquiries. Recommendations from these inquiries resulted in numerous changes to the Electoral Act, and this bill will extend those changes within a referendum context. Recent electoral reform included changes to the way elections are conducted during emergencies, which proved necessary for elections conducted at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Changes were also made to the electoral authorisations required for material produced by political parties and entities as well as on foreign interference through donations. These reforms were developed to retain public trust in our electoral process and strengthen electoral legislation.

Now it is time to reform the referendum act and bring it into the 21st century. The changes proposed in this bill will modernise postal voting, vote sorting and counting in referendums by bringing the referendum act in line with the same processes and efficiencies around federal elections introduced by the former coalition government. The bill reforms proposed here will also increase transparency by updating authorisation requirements and amending financial disclosure and foreign donation restriction frameworks. Additionally, contingency measures have been incorporated to modify some aspects of referenda that are held during a declared emergency.

However, when the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters held the inquiry into this bill it was rushed to completion over Christmas and the new year. The short time frame of just weeks made it difficult for members and stakeholders to scrutinise witnesses and the proposed legislation. In its submission to the committee inquiry, national representative organisation Blind Citizens Australia said this bill was introduced without consulting those within the blind and vision impaired community. Further, their submission noted only two weeks were allowed for consultation on this legislation. The organisation said:

We believe this failure to consult risks disenfranchising our community and excludes our voices from the electoral process, during a potentially once-in-a-generation vote of nation shaping consequence.

On top of the concern about the short consultation period, Blind Citizens Australia pointed out the lack of technology assisted voting options outlined within the bill, like human assisted telephone voting, which has been available for voting in federal elections for the past decade. Additionally, there is no provision for voters who are blind or vision impaired to request a postal ballot in a braille or large-print format. Legislation like we are discussing now presents an opportunity for us as policymakers to create laws that meet the voting needs of all Australians. We must not rush such important change. We should be conducting a proper consultation process to ensure all voices are heard.

The coalition has raised three major points with the Labor government about this bill, which we believe will address our concerns on the proposed referendum process. These points are simple but important. We ask the government to: provide an information pamphlet that outlines the cases for 'yes' and 'no'; establish official 'yes 'and 'no' campaign organisations; and appropriately and equally fund those organisations. These three measures are fundamental to a referendum where the electorate is informed, and they will contribute to a process that has integrity. Those of us who have participated in referenda before will remember it was these points that formed the basis on which they operated, and it is this process we understand.

Section 11 of the current referendum act requires an official pamphlet containing arguments for and against the referendum proposal be prepared and distributed to households by the Electoral Commission at least 14 days before the voting day. This requirement was first introduced in 1912, more than 100 years ago. As you have heard from earlier speakers, there have only been three occasions since 1912 where a referendum was held with no information pamphlet issued. They were in 1919, 1926 and 1928. From this, we can conclude Australians have received information pamphlets at all referenda held since 1928. Such a document is even mentioned in the AEC's fact sheet explaining the referendum process, stating:

The Australian Electoral Commission prints and distributes an information leaflet to voters outlining the proposed alterations and the 'yes' and 'no' cases

Referendum pamphlets are consistent with the Australians' expectations. Why would we not proceed on the same basis with this and future referendums?

I welcome the recent announcement by the Labor government to restore the 'yes' and 'no' information pamphlet. Such a pamphlet will give all Australians an official source of information on the question being asked at the referendum and is an important step in countering misinformation. Indeed, Professor Anne Twomey, AO, who has worked as a solicitor, a parliamentary researcher and as secretary to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee, told the committee inquiry that not allowing information pamphlets to be produced would create a vacuum for misinformation and a free-for-all on the internet, encouraging bizarre views out there to be given some level of legitimacy. These comments came from someone who has practised law, who has worked within our senate committee system and is as an expert in constitutional law. Arguably, she understands the legal and social implications of such decisions well.

The coalition is also concerned about the government's decision not to create official 'yes' and 'no' campaign entities. Again, this has been standard practice during past referenda, so why change something we understand? Official campaign entities reduce the chance of proxy organisations claiming to be official bodies during the campaign, like we have already seen multiple times in public media coverage of this referendum. This situation calls the integrity of the referendum process into question, detracting from the debate about the actual issue. Additionally, official campaigns provide a starting point for the AEC in its coordination of education for those participating in the referendum campaign.

The government's decision not to provide public funding for either the 'yes' or 'no' campaign risks creating a situation where there is a dependence on private funding from those with vested interests. Obviously, interested parties could dominate debate for their chosen campaign, colouring public discourse on the topic and compromising the quality and reliability of information shared. Drawing on Professor Twomey's expertise again, she explains: 'If voters are to be fully informed before they vote in either a referendum or an election, they need transparency about who is funding relevant campaigns. Providing that information well after the referendum is held is really shutting the stable door after the horse has already bolted.' We want Australian voters to be able to make informed decisions when they come to cast their vote. This is less possible with multiple disparate campaigns, rather than one official campaign for 'yes' and another for 'no'.

It has been more than 20 years since Australia's last referendum. Given this circumstance, and that this will be the first referendum for a generation of voters, we support the government's a plan to run a community education campaign ahead of the vote. However, the coalition is mindful of the Institute of Public Affairs's analysis of the bill, which finds it is unbalanced and favours the 'yes' case—and that's before campaigning has even begun properly. The institute warns, 'The bill would mean the federal government will use the notion of misinformation to control the public debate,' which must not happen. This is not the hallmark of a democratic referendum.

In their joint media release on 1 December 2022, four of our government ministers justified changes that would 'temporarily lift a funding restriction in the act, to enable funding of educational initiatives to counter misinformation'. But this is ambiguous. What constitutes misinformation on this issue? The government has not provided a definition in this context, which opens up debate around the need for both sides to have one official campaign and equal funding.

Supporting an amendment to restore the referendum information pamphlet is one thing, but we cannot support a bill that doesn't have a plan for how to properly regulate donations and foreign interference or, most importantly, doesn't have an outline of how the conduct of the referendum will be scrutinised. As my colleague Senator McGrath said when speaking to the report of Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters on this bill, it does contain sensible and constructive changes, but it is clear that the government has put forward other changes that are not in the interests of an informed and robust process for conducting a referendum.

The coalition has been asking the Prime Minister and his government for basic detail on the Voice just so we can understand how this proposal works. We all want to see an improved situation for Indigenous Australians, but how do we actually know this proposal will do that when we don't have the detail? Don't take my word for it. Surveys repeatedly show that Australians want detail too. Week after week for months now we've heard reports of confusion around the upcoming referendum on the Voice. People are wondering what the Voice actually means and, more importantly, what the Voice will mean for them. Australians deserve basic detail to help them make an informed decision about such an important constitutional matter.

Disinformation is rife right now, with scammers, pretending to be a child in trouble, preying on parents by asking for money, while others are taking advantage of the housing crisis to fleece people of hard-earned money with the promise of a rental property if they stump up a sizeable deposit. At a time when it's hard to know who we can trust, the government must provide the detail we are asking for ahead of a national referendum. We must have clear information on this issue for the referendum process to be a strong one. In relation to the proposed Voice, opposition leader Peter Dutton MP has directly asked the Prime Minister to advise Australians the answers to 15 questions. The answers to those questions must be forthcoming. More than $75 million was set aside in the 2022-23 budget to prepare for the delivery of a referendum to enshrine a First Nations Voice to Parliament in the Constitution over the next two years, but what has been done to give Australians the answers they seek about this referendum?

The bill before us today relates to the legislative framework of this and future referenda. A number of amendments to this legislation have been proposed, showing the significant impact it will have in determining the outcome of future referenda and demonstrating the significance placed by all sides of the political divide on getting it right. I acknowledge that the government have already decided to restore the pamphlet to outline the 'yes' and 'no' cases. At a minimum, they also should now agree to establish official 'yes' and 'no' campaign organisations and appropriately fund those official organisations. As the bill currently stands, I will not be supporting the measures contained in the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2022.

5:43 pm

Photo of James PatersonJames Paterson (Victoria, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Cyber Security) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to make a contribution to debate on the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2022. There are really two points I want to make, which I'll flag upfront. First is the importance of conducting the proposed changes to our Constitution via referendum in an utterly impartial, fair and transparent way that the Australian people can have confidence in. Second, which relates particularly to my shadow portfolio responsibilities, is the need to take appropriate steps to mitigate the very serious risk of foreign interference in the upcoming referendum.

On the first point, there are few more consequential things that we will vote for in this parliament and that the public will be asked to consider than changes to our Constitution. Elections in this country are of course significant. The choice of who governs his country—the policies they will implement, the majority they may or may not have in the parliament—is enormously significant. But if the public feel they've got that choice wrong there's always an opportunity to revisit it 2½ or three years later. By and large, our country is well governed and has a strongly supported democracy, and the change of power between the parties is done peacefully, without acrimony, and life goes on.

The consequences of getting an election wrong and electing a political party with a bad program can be quickly remedied. Changing the Constitution is much more fundamental than that, and this constitutional change proposed by the government is a very far-reaching potential change to the way in which we govern ourselves. The changes, if they're agreed to by the public, will have ramifications for years, if not decades and centuries to come. Long after we are all gone from this place, and long after it is forgotten what we did in terms of legislation we passed or policies we enacted, it's likely that this change to the Constitution, if agreed to, will remain in place and will have impacts on the way our country is governed that we here today can't yet anticipate.

Given the gravity of that change, and given the almost zero likelihood that the public would change their mind on that and reverse it, it is more important than in any other decision the public is asked to make that they do so within a framework which is utterly impartial, transparent, agreed upon and freed from controversy. It would be my hope that, regardless of whatever each of our positions ultimately are on this substantive question put to the people, we are able to put to them a system for making that decision, a framework for making that decision, which we all agree with, which we all have confidence in and which we can all say, with sincerity, there are no issues with. As it currently stands, as proposed by the government, I don't think it passes that test. Certainly, for at least a significant proportion of this chamber, we will not be able to go hand on heart to the Australian people and say that, as it stands, the process for making this decision is impartial, fair and untainted by any perceptions of bias or of aid for one case or the other.

It is a good thing that the government has made the concession that they have already, to restore the 'yes' or 'no' pamphlet, but it is a bit troubling that government speakers in this debate have framed this as a concession, like it is a magnanimous action which they didn't want to take but they're being forced to take through the negotiation process, when it should actually be viewed as putting forward the normal processes of a referendum and the normal policies that are in place to facilitate a referendum. There's nothing exceptional about continuing to provide a pamphlet outlining the 'yes' or 'no' cases. It was illustrative that so many disparate groups within the joint committee process inquiring into his bill recommended that this be restored after the government tried to remove it. But, as you've heard in this debate from other coalition speakers, we're not satisfied with this concession as it stands, and we do believe it is necessary to, at the very least—as has often been the case in referenda—restore official 'yes' and 'no' campaigns and also to fund those campaigns so that they can communicate with the public about their message and deliver a fair contest in this upcoming debate.

History is instructive here. The last time that the Labor Party in government successfully proposed a change to our Constitution was in 1946. That was also the last time that the Liberal Party supported a Labor government attempt to change the Constitution. Since then, on every occasion that the Labor Party has proposed a change to the Constitution, it has failed, and the coalition in opposition has opposed it. If the Labor Party wants to guarantee that this referendum is like all of those—in that it fails—then putting forward a bill for a process that is not fair and not impartial is one way to guarantee that that also happens.

History is also instructive when you think about the most recent previous attempt of the Labor Party to change the Constitution. It was in 2013 and it related to the recognition of local government in our Constitution. In that debate, the Labor Party, quite openly, in government, tried to put a thumb on the scales of that referendum to aid one side over the other. It's one thing for government ministers, members and senators to campaign in favour of a change to the Constitution—they're perfectly entitled to do so—but it's another thing entirely to set up a lopsided process that favours one side over the other. In the proposed local government referendum, which was abandoned because of a lack of bipartisan support and was never put to the people, the government proposed public funding in the 'yes' and 'no' cases of $10 million for the 'yes' case and $500,000 for the 'no' case. They thought that was justified, based on what they assessed to be the support in the community and in the parliament for that change, and they didn't want to give the 'no' case significant resources to push back and to contest that campaign. I think Australians saw that for what it was, and the parliament saw that for what it was, and it was one of the reasons why support for that referendum was withdrawn by the coalition and why it was never put to the people, because it would have failed.

It's instructive to remember who the relevant minister was who made that decision, because, of course, the minister for local government at the time was a Mr Albanese. It was he who devised, and publicly defended and articulated, the rationale for an unfair, biased and lopsided public funding model in that referendum. I hope that the government which he now leads—of which he is now the Prime Minister—is not trying to do the same with this referendum through less-transparent means. Of course, we know that the government plans to spend public money on a public education campaign. I hope that it will be rigorously impartial and fair, and won't side with one case or the other. But forgive me for wanting to see it before I'm assured of that.

Of course, the government has already awarded tax-deductible status to one side of the debate and not the other. I hope it's the case that the people associated with the 'no' campaign are given equal access to that tax deductibility when they're able to apply for it. I hope it's granted. But, even if it is granted, the 'yes' case has had the advantage of being able to raise tax-deductible funds over many months to facilitate their campaign. The 'no' case has not had that equal opportunity. So it does look to me like the government are again trying to put their thumb on the scale. I urge them to reconsider that, if their objective is for this to succeed and to occur without rancour or conjecture. I think there's a very high risk that if they continue to proceed with a lopsided and biased process that the public will react very strongly to that—as they should.

I'll turn to the second question, which is the question of foreign interference. This upcoming referendum campaign, as we know—and as the Attorney-General himself has said—does run the risk of foreign interference. Foreign interference probably won't be generated in this campaign because a foreign government has a particular interest in one side or the other prevailing. Instead, there are foreign governments and potential adversaries of Australia who seek to profit from division within our society and who seek to exacerbate existing tensions within our society as a means of undermining social cohesion and our national unity, and of doing harm to our democratic institutions in the eyes of the public. We have seen attempts to do this all around the world, both through cyberenabled and other means in recent years. The most recent case study that we have is from Canada, where leaked documents from the Canadian intelligence agency set out pretty clearly what the Chinese Communist Party's objectives were in intervening in previous Canadian elections.

What I thought was most interesting from those leaked documents was the assessment by the Canadian intelligence community that the outcome the Chinese government most preferred wasn't just the re-election of the Trudeau government but the re-election of the Trudeau government in minority. A comment was attributed to a Chinese government official as part of that intelligence assessment which said, 'We like it when parties are fighting between each other.' That's as if division, discord and disagreement are an objective in and of themselves for our potential adversaries. It's very important that we don't allow this referendum to become a vehicle for that, and there's a risk that it will become so unless we put in place appropriate measures to mitigate and guard against that threat. One of the three requests by the coalition to the government was, in particular, to re-establish and restore the official 'yes' and 'no' cases. That's very important in mitigating that threat.

I've been in discussions with a number of tech companies, including the major global platforms. While protecting the confidence of those conversations, and without attributing this to any one company in particular, the point was made to me that one thing they would rely on in their task in contemplating this upcoming referendum and dealing with the misinformation that will no doubt arise and the disinformation that may be placed deliberately and maliciously by foreign states as an attempt to divide us—to combat that and to help inform the public—was to be able to point to official authoritative sources of information which are reliable and which represent the opinions of leaders of the community in conducting these campaigns. It would assist them greatly if there were an official 'yes' case and an official 'no' case which they could point to. that's because, in the absence of that, they are put in the difficult position of having to make those decisions and draw those distinctions themselves, drawing themselves into a domestic political debate in which they have no particular interest and which they don't want to get involved in, quite appropriately. If we don't provide an official 'yes' or 'no' case which they can direct Australians who are searching for information to when disinformation surfaces in our system then they won't have that authoritative source to rely on and they'll have to do that by other means. That involves them making compromising and values based judgements about the merits of arguments being made in a domestic political context.

I think that the last thing any Australian should want is putting big tech companies headquartered in Silicon Valley in the position of deciding what the limits are of acceptable public debate in an Australian referendum, or what constitutes misinformation or disinformation, because those are inherently values based judgements. I think Australians will make the right decision, considering all the information presented to them, and we should facilitate their ability to do so by providing those official sources of information that they can rely on so they can easily weed out those sources of disinformation that might be provided to them.

I really do sincerely hope the government reconsiders this, because, as it is, this is on a path to being very rancorous, hotly disputed and open to foreign state disinformation and interference. None of us, regardless of our view on the substantive issue, on which we differ and on which good people of sincere values come to different conclusions, will be proud at the end of the process if what we have facilitated is a debate which descends in this way and undermines social cohesion or our national unity. I urge the government to reconsider the pathway they are on and to consider the reasonable requests that the coalition has put. It is not an outrageous request to say that there should be 'yes' and 'no' cases and that they should be appropriately funded. I hope they consider doing so.

5:55 pm

Photo of Ross CadellRoss Cadell (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I stand to talk on this matter as part of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. We had an inquiry on the bill over the January period. I think the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2022 does a lot right. There is some harmonisation of the electoral processes that is well and truly needed. Some of the amendments that have been foreshadowed probably go a step too far in trying to lead the electoral process; I think we should harmonise wherever we can. There are some great changes that I support coming up in amendments, but they are things I would like to see first in the Electoral Act before launching a referendum.

The problem with going this late on the speaking list is that all the good things have already been said. I will have to do a bit of making up, but I like constitutional change. I like the option of it. I like the idea of a country being able to have referenda to change its document. I quote a couple of previous prime ministers. Sir Robert Menzies said, 'The Constitution is not an unchangeable tablet of stone but a living document responsive to changing conditions and needs.' Quite topical at the moment: 'The constitution is a reflection of our values and aspirations as a nation. It should be changed when those values and aspirations change.' That was Paul Keating, who is in and out of favour depending upon the day.

I would like to see referendum machinery that is fit for all purposes, not just one that we're changing for this referendum—a referendum position to going through constitutional change where we aren't fearful of losing the referendum; we're joyous at being able to put the question to the Australian people and for them to have a say in an informed and considered way. Ultimately, that is where I have a problem with where this bill comes down in the end and is why there is the dissenting report of the coalition members in the inquiry. There is, as Senator Paterson put it, a thumb on the scale. It's not seen as a fair fight. It's seen that there is some advantage in starving resources from a constitutional question this time, and to me that doesn't work in longevity. We want people to walk into the light knowing what they're talking about, knowing what the consequences are. This isn't a blind date. You don't go in hoping it goes well and then getting unintended consequences.

In Australia we've had not a lot of luck with constitutional reform, and we haven't had a lot of unintended consequences from that, but around the world I notice, of all places, Bolivia in 2009, when a new constitution came in. One of the things it did was to give a lot more rights to Indigenous people, who had been suppressed for some time. It ended up in violence and significant problems because it wasn't well considered. It wasn't gone through. It was put in as part of a whole new constitution. We Australians, as a nation—everyone here—need to take a more open and considered look at these changes.

As I said, I wish there were more of them. I wish the government had no stigma against putting forward things in this parliament, them being considered and getting it wrong—'No, we don't want that.' I'd like to see some work on property rights. It would not be just Mabo or The Castlecoming through but real property rights. When we're talking taking productive lands, the right for transmission lines for electricity, e-zones over farmers' lands and not fairly compensating that, I'd like to see constitutional questions there. Maybe there could be something on debt levels. All these sorts of things that are open, where we could do more as a country—just put them up. Have them every now and then. Go through the process.

I don't think this bill is fit for having a long-term lifespan as the way we hold referenda. I think it is a short-term beneficial thing in light of just one referenda: the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. I don't want to get into the politics of that, because whether you support the change in the referendum shouldn't influence you; it should be the bill by itself.

When you acknowledge that a lot of corporate Australia in their ESG plans and a lot of sporting bodies will come out on one side of this referendum question, to starve the other side of resources seems a little exploitative and opportunistic. That's not good, because we need to be safe with our changes. We can't have unexpected consequences.

I had a real strange soliloquy. I was with my son when he went for his Ls on the weekend. You get 50 questions and you can get only two wrong. He sat through the whole thing. The last question was his second one wrong, so he failed on question 50. It seemed a little unfair, but then I thought, 'He's about to be on the road with other people and I want him to be safe.' If I ever got 48 out of 50 on a test, I would be pretty stoked, because I was never that smart. But he got that and he failed. It's the same with our Constitution. We want it to be safe and informed. We want to go through.

One of the great sorrows I see in this process is that, without greater clarity on what the question is and without greater clarity on how it will be implemented—and we are taking away funding for something that will give people knowledge of what will happen—it isn't a safe process. It's a process set for an outcome, and that is not fair.

As we go through we'll look at all of the issues one by one. I personally am in love with Senator David Pocock's exclusion amendment, as I'll probably have to spend this Saturday on a polling booth in Monaro for the state election. I'll come back on Monday sunburnt and either happy or unhappy. I love that amendment, but again it is too soon for that.

As we went through the joint standing committee process—and it has been mentioned by others, but I'll repeat it—there was a turning point for me on the pamphlet. I was swayed by the use of new technology to disseminate information. I was really interested and thought, 'That's right.' The turning point for me was the Australian Electoral Commission saying that 40 per cent of their respondents use the electoral booklet as their primary source of information for the election. A normal part is being included—I thank you for that change to bring that back in because, even if it's not the majority and even if their numbers are fudged a bit, a significant number of people will feel better about that.

When we come to how we go through the process and show up, concerns were raised by Senator Paterson, the previous speaker, about foreign interference. There is a specific purpose—and again I don't think it's to influence the outcome of this—to cause division. We are at a time in this country when people are looking at the next year or two years, are looking at their finances, are looking at their lives and are looking at what's going on. We are consistently talking about potential conflict around the region and we have a war in Ukraine. People are worried about a lot of things, so it doesn't take a lot to trigger disunity, disharmony and exploitation—'Someone is getting what I haven't got.' If we were better funded and had better provisions to protect Australians from having a go at one another, that would be a great thing.

All constitutional changes can be emotional. They change this country we've built over 100 years and the rules which we have. Some will be for the better and some are potentially for the worse—obviously they won't get up if they are for the worse. But we need more clarity and better vision. We need a better process so that people don't go, 'Oh, we didn't know,' because, as hard as it is to get constitutional change through a referendum, it is harder to get it undone.

The medical view is 'do no harm'. We can talk about lots of things with that. My fear is that, by having this as the referendum model that now works and that starves one side of resources, it will become the norm. That would be a horrible thing for our country. What could potentially be worse is if it doesn't get up because it is seen to be weighted. What does that do to the conversation in our nation about bringing more things forward? What does it do for people who had their hearts and souls in this? I think it's a management process in any election. I managed campaigns. I ran them. When you can show that something is not fair and you can show that something is loaded against them, people get their heads up. In this building, we have spent years having a go at one another. Negative advertising, truth in advertising—we're talking about all these things at JSCEM. We invest so much money and time making the public doubt us, think less of us and feel worse about our public processes. This will feed directly into that narrative.

Personally, I would love for there to be a time when, in the conversation about fact-finding, the South Australian model of truth in advertising were there when facts are wrong. But there are so many ways around it. If I want to make an accusation, 'Have you seen candidate A has got a criminal record?' I'll just get around that by asking a question, 'Do you know if candidate A has a criminal record?' I'll ask a question; I won't make it a fact. There are ways around it. We need to do better. We can't go complaining about the way this parliament, government and politicians act and why referendums are held if we keep being nongenuine and we keep doing things in our own interest. I think a great change would be one where any political advertising can only mention you, your candidates or your policies and you can't have a go at anyone else. It's clearly something that would make it a lot harder to place negative ads. That is something we have to think about when we're talking about some of the amendments, and I think Senator Pocock has got something on a factfinder's booklet. Whose facts and where are they? Facts are only when you say, '32 per cent of people,' or numbers or stats. They don't cover opinions or grey areas. We've got to do more work on it.

Constitutional reforms are great. Again, I would encourage us to do more of them. It's a time for people to have a greater say on the long-term future of their country and on things that can't be done by political will. But I think this bill needs to be constructed in a way that is fit for purpose for the long term. This doesn't do it; therefore we can't support it.

6:06 pm

Photo of Claire ChandlerClaire Chandler (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the government's Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2022—I was just checking the date, because it is now 2023! This bill will determine the settings for how the referendum on an Indigenous Voice to parliament is conducted, but it should be noted, and the coalition is of no doubt, that the changes included in this bill could be used for future referenda, so it is absolutely critical that we get this right.

It is no small issue when a government calls for the people of this country to vote on a referendum on our Constitution, whatever that proposal may be. In due course, Australians will get the chance to have their vote and have their say on the proposal that the government puts forward for that referendum. Changing our nation's Constitution is always a very serious matter. That's why it's so important that the ground rules that govern each and every referendum are fair, are balanced and give Australians the best possible chance and opportunity to fully understand the proposition that is being put forward so that they can cast their votes accordingly. We, in this place, cannot set a precedent in relation to referenda that it is acceptable or normal for the government of the day to set ground rules that favour a preferred side. The principle that both the 'yes' and the 'no' sides are able to operate from a level playing field is vital in ensuring that Australians who have the duty and the privilege to decide on any changes to our Constitution can make an informed decision.

If a position put to the Australian people deserves to receive enough support to successfully pass, then it should be able to achieve that support without getting an unfair leg-up from the government of the day. That's why it is so important, in setting the machinery of this referendum, that it proceeds in a way we can all agree is fair and we can all agree is reflective of the way that future referenda should be operated. This is not just about the referendum that we will have at the end of this year; it is also about the potential for future referenda later in this parliament. It is an obvious point to make that we don't know what those future questions may be that could be put to the Australian people regarding constitutional change. Many people who vote 'yes' in this referendum might find themselves voting 'no' in a future one and vice versa. It's in nobody's interest for a precedent to be established that either a 'yes' case or a 'no' case is advantaged or disadvantaged by the rules. That is why the opposition doesn't support this bill in its current form.

While other speakers from the coalition have spoken to the issues that we have with this bill, I want to reiterate some of my concerns and some of those concerns more generally with this bill tonight. The opposition has highlighted the following three points for the government. It is our sincere hope that they will not only take note of our concerns but move to address them. The government must restore the pamphlet to outline the 'yes' and 'no' cases. The government must establish official 'yes' and 'no' campaign organisations. And the government must appropriately fund those official organisations. Addressing these three key points is essential if the government hopes to hold a referendum in which voters are empowered to make informed decisions while upholding the integrity of the referendum process.

To directly address point 1, the opposition welcomes the government's announcement that they will restore the pamphlet. It is particularly important that this is the case not just for this referendum but for future referenda. The same applies to the other points that the opposition has raised in relation to this bill.

The establishment of official 'yes' and 'no' campaigns which both start with an equal minimum level of funding so that neither side is denied the opportunity to adequately put their case is another important standard for all of the referenda we hold in the future. We can't allow a precedent or have it be suggested from the starting point that there is only one legitimate side to an argument or one legitimate opinion to be expressed. That goes for referenda as well. Whichever way this referendum goes, it is a fact that there will be millions of Australians who vote yes and there will be millions of Australians who vote no. Advocates, activists and everyday Australians will debate, discuss and put their views on which way Australians should vote, and that is a good thing. That is a vital function of our democracy. We should be able to have these conversations openly. But the matter for consideration for this parliament with this bill is to set fair rules so that each side in the debate can put their case and then each Australian adult can meet their own decision and vote based on those cases that have been presented and their own consideration of the views that have been put forward.

As the debate proceeds, we will see a huge number of different opinions and different cases put forward. As I said, this is a good thing. It is a vital function of our democracy that we live in a society where we are able to put these different views on the record and argue the points and make our case. But having official campaigns and an official pamphlet means that there is a clear reference point for all Australians to start informing themselves, doing their own research and forming their own opinion.

I think sometimes being in this place and being as engaged in the political process as we all are it's easy for us to forget that not everybody is engaged in that way. We have compulsory voting in this country, so at some point there is an element of compulsion to make a decision. But we need to be cognisant of that lack of knowledge or lack of engagement and put information into the public sphere so that people who have not necessarily been as engaged on this particular issue for this referendum, or any issues for any referenda, are able to get that information and make up their own minds which way they should vote. You can't have a situation where it is easy to find the official case for one side but much harder to find the official case for the other side.

On the internet, particularly social media, we know there will be many spurious arguments put out. That is why having an official pamphlet with official cases put forward by official campaigns for both sides is incredibly important. We need that pamphlet and those campaigns to have the basic resources to put the case to ensure that there is always an official source of information for each side that Australians can go back to and review and refresh their memory on exactly what is being proposed before it comes time for them to make their decision about the proposed referendum at the ballot box. It ensures that the centre of the debate is an official document that both campaigns feel puts their best arguments forward. That's because in the absence of having any sort of official campaign documentation, I can certainly see the situation where the centre of the campaign for this referendum, or for any referendum into the future, is played out on social media, whether that's Twitter, TikTok, Facebook, Snapchat or wherever you get your social media from. Yes, those are part of the environment we're operating in and part of our democracy, but we know from elections past that not everything that somebody says on social media is necessarily factual and that we do need to have those single sources of truth for both sides of the referendum debate.

Like I said, we know that there are potential problems with misinformation and that there are potential issues with foreign interference, so I certainly encourage the government to consider and adopt the sensible points put forward by the coalition. Conducting a referendum on changing our Constitution is no small thing; it's a big decision for Australians to make. It's a decision that Australians of my age haven't had to make before because we weren't of age when the republic referendum was conducted. I can just remember that happening when I was nine years old, and so I think it's important to recognise that when the republic referendum occurred resources were provided to ensure that Australians could make an educated choice about becoming a republic or not. A 'yes' case was presented and a 'no' case was presented, and that has been the case in referenda past.

The referendum that we will approach towards the end of the year should be no different and, like I said in my initial remarks, we also have to keep in mind that any decision about the conduct of referenda that we make in this chamber today will impact on the conduct of any potential referenda in the future of this parliament. We owe it to ourselves and to the Australian people to provide the information they need to make an educated and informed decision on changing the Constitution whenever that might happen—but, certainly, within the life of this parliament.

6:16 pm

Photo of Pauline HansonPauline Hanson (Queensland, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2022. One Nation will support this legislation, which effectively aligns referendum practice with election practice. This is not to be taken as support for the question to be put to the Australian people at the referendum on the Voice to parliament proposed by the Labor government.

One Nation will be active campaigners for the 'no' vote. We cannot support a race based Voice to parliament. We will not support taking the Constitution backward more than 50 years. We will not support giving a minority of Australians more political power based solely on their race. We will not support opening the door to a separate, sovereign, independent black state being established in Australia. We will not support a proposal that, if successful, will expose Australia to a series of constitutional crises that will threaten the supremacy of parliament and make the country ungovernable. We will not support handing over the government of Australia to the unelected High Court. We will not support allowing activists and the Aboriginal industry to hold parliament and the executive government hostage.

The Voice to parliament is racism at its very worst. It is effectively a perverse apartheid, and there's not a shred of evidence that it will address real Aboriginal disadvantage or close the gaps. In fact, there's every indication that it will only entrench the disadvantage experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in remote communities. This is because the same leaders of the Aboriginal industry, which have failed to close the gaps over the decades at the cost of hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars, are the ones eagerly anticipating high-paid, constitutionally protected jobs with the Voice. These frauds, who have no experience of the real disadvantage in remote communities, will only keep it going because they have a vested personal interest in doing so. They saw what happened with the corrupt money train that was the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. Once the corruption, nepotism and dysfunction of ATSIC became obvious, parliament wisely abolished it, although it took about eight years after I warned the government to get rid of it.

They don't want that to happen with the Voice, which is why they want to put it into the Constitution. Once it's in there, it will be very difficult to remove. It is no small thing to change the Constitution, and it's critical the Australian people are given all the information they need to make a wise decision. But Labor won't do that because it knows the details of its plan for the Voice won't be acceptable to the Australian people. Fortunately, the activists pushing the Voice are revealing their true intentions, because they are drunk with power and can't help themselves.

First we were told by the Prime Minister that only parliament would decide the powers of the Voice. Since then, members of his own referendum working group have admitted they are looking forward to these powers being decided by the courts. The same working group can't even decide on the wording of the proposed constitutional amendment or the question to be put to Australians at the referendum. It's indicative of the wider division within Aboriginal Australia being caused by this proposal to forever separate our nation by race. While the Prime Minister claims there will be no public funding for the 'yes' case or the 'no' case, we know he's stacking the odds in favour of the Voice with bucketloads of taxpayer money.

Only donations to the 'yes' campaign have received tax-deductible status. More than $30 million has been budgeted to establish local and regional versions of the Voice, and we're yet to see exactly how much this referendum—let alone the Voice itself—will cost taxpayers. This is why I foreshadowed that I will move the second reading amendment circulated on sheet 1857. We will note that referendums held separately from federal elections cost the Australian people more than holding them in conjunction with elections, and we will call on the government to hold the coming referendum at the next election.

I remind this government that it must at all times, always, look for sensible ways to save money. This amendment requires the government to do precisely that, yet there was an indication today that Australian taxpayers may have to pull back on what they can claim in their tax in order to save the government money. To those hard-working Australians: you're going to have to miss out on getting some tax deductions back while the government spend very loosely with the money. It's also why we must have a comprehensive audit of all the taxpayer funds thrown at Aboriginal land councils and corporations and why they've have failed Aboriginal communities.

This is not the first time I have raised this. I have been raising it for years and years, and we know for a fact that about $33 billion of taxpayers' funds goes into the Aboriginal industry, and that, on average, about $44,000 is paid to every Aboriginal, whereas only $22,000 or thereabouts is allocated for every other Australian. You see, it's not about money; there has been money. It's about keeping these people in poverty and the conditions that they are in—in remote communities, mainly.

For the majority of people who claim to be Aboriginal, there is no real definition. Anyone can jump on the bandwagon from one census to the next and increase it to 24 per cent. They believe there's about 850,000 claiming to be Aboriginal at this stage; that's an increase of 24 per cent since the last census, yet the increase in the Australian population was only eight per cent. Does anyone question that? Are you interested? Is it easier to jump up and down and say, 'I'm claiming Aboriginal status,' with no true definition of it? No wonder a lot of the Aboriginals themselves are fed up with the whole system. They see people abusing it and claiming Aboriginality when they are not Aboriginal, because of the benefits paid out by the government, and that's quite obvious, with $33 billion a year for approximately 850,000 people who claim Aboriginality. And it's based on race, not on means-testing. We have age pensioners who have to pass the means test. We have people on the NDIS who have to pass a test. We have disability pensioners who have to pass a means test. But we don't do this for this race based voice that we want to introduce in this parliament.

I want to talk about this referendum. I have stated I'll be moving an amendment to it. The referendum should be held at election time, again saving about a hundred million dollars. We're talking about wanting to buy submarines that are going to cost us hundreds of billions of dollars and how we're going to pay for it. Well, let's get rid of the tax cuts to those hardworking Australians—the ones who are truly struggling. That's the way to pay for this. It's not about reining in government spending and the money that's been wasted through NDIS government programs and also a hundred million dollars for Aboriginal communities to deal with climate change of all things. Let's throw out another hundred million dollars for a referendum when we can have it at the next election. No, it suits you to have it at a time you know you've got more chance of getting it up. You don't care about saving the taxpayers' dollars, but you'll be looking to pull back their tax relief.

I don't know if you really understand how hard people are doing it out there, how many people are going to lose their homes, how many people are suffering. People can't even go to the doctor anymore; they can't afford it. They can't even afford their prescriptions. They cut back on their food; they can't afford it. If referendums are held during an election, there will be savings to the Australian taxpayers. That's what we're here for: to ensure that the taxpayers' money is accounted for. But there's no accountability in this place for bad decisions, for anything, for ministers who are useless in the positions that they hold and the portfolios they deal with. They have no idea, no understanding. No-one's held accountable. You pass laws in this place all the time where you are ensuring that directors of companies and everyone else are held accountable with jail terms and heavy fines, yet you don't do it for yourselves. You can make decisions in this place, but no-one's held accountable.

There's another thing I will be moving. It's a citizens initiated referenda, and it's been a policy of mine and One Nation since 1997. This is about true democracy. It's about giving power back to the people to have a say on something. If it's that important to them, they will make the effort to sign a petition. Two per cent of electors must sign a petition. That is then overseen by the Australian Electoral Commission, and 50 per cent—it has to be investigated—have to be eligible to sign that petition, so we can't have people from overseas or people in the country who are using false names just to sign the petition. It's overseen to make sure that we do have eligible people who are actually signing the petition. That petition then comes to the parliament, and it's up to the parliament then to decide whether they accept that petition and do something about it. If not, it automatically goes to the next election as a referendum. You are giving the people the opportunity. If they want to insert or remove anything in their Constitution, they have a right to have a voice and put it to the parliament. There are a lot of things that the people want to say and want changed. It's not all about policy when it comes to elections—what we, the members of parliament or political parties, want to do. The people should have a right to have a voice. This will give them that opportunity if there is something really concerning them. Isn't that what democracy is about? Isn't that what this chamber is about—representing the people of this nation?

When I put up that second reading amendment, I hope that you will consider it wisely and give some power back to the people. We would not be the first ones to have it. New Zealand and other countries around the world have this referendum. It's called the citizens initiated referenda. If you're truly interested, go and read up on it. If you do vote for it, it will show me and the people of Australia that you really care about giving them a voice that they don't have. I note and commend the notice of the motion to this effect proposed by senators, who can be assured it will receive enthusiastic support from One Nation.

6:29 pm

Photo of David FawcettDavid Fawcett (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2022. Before I go to the details of the bill, I think it's important just to reflect for a minute on what it is this bill pertains to. It pertains to changing Australia's Constitution. That is not something that we should do lightly, because of the role of the Constitution in making Australia one of the most stable, prosperous, multicultural—and united—democratic nations in the world. It is a huge achievement, and the Constitution plays a large part in that. So any proposal to change it should make sure that we have good governance, with processes that do due diligence and inform people appropriately.

In fact, the Australian Constitution Centre highlights, as part of their campaign to educate people about the Constitution, the six principles that the Constitution has underpinning it. It says that the six foundation principles are 'democracy, the rule of law, the separation of powers, federalism, nationhood and rights balanced by responsibilities'. They go on to say:

The daily processes within the institutions of government should always be in the public interest. The principles interact with each other providing checks and balances. They protect things we value as a community such as a fair go, religious tolerance and the freedom of political communication. If we can better understand the principles, then we are better equipped to know, and to get involved with what is happening around us.

And they ask:

What powers does a Government Minister have and who keeps him or her within those powers? How are issues solved between State and Federal Governments? What are your rights and who defends them? What are your responsibilities as citizens of Australia?

And they make two last points: 'How do we develop as a nation? And what is a parliamentary representative democracy?' So these are the key principles and their purposes, as outlined by the Australian Constitution Centre.

I think it's important that we keep that in mind as we discuss this machinery bill, because what we're talking about is the integrity of a process that will change the document which is at the foundation of Australia's success as a modern, multicultural, plural, liberal democracy, where people with different views and backgrounds can come together and have respectful debates and work as a nation to drive prosperity and inclusion for all people. That's something we have done successfully as a nation to date.

So to the machinery bill: like most bills in this place, it was referred to a committee. I'd like to read through some of the recommendations from the coalition members and senators in their dissenting report to the majority report, which was supporting the government position. Recommendation 1 from the coalition members and senators—this being a joint committee—supported recommendation 1 of the government's report, and, in particular, changes which seek to increase enrolment and participation, particularly of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including in remote communities. Many of the other changes proposed in this just align the referendum act with the Electoral Act and are sensible changes which the coalition does support.

Recommendation 2 of the dissenting report, though, goes to clause 4 of the bill, which relates to the suspension of section 11 of the act. Now, there are three key things that the coalition believe we need to have, if, indeed, we are to have a population in Australia who are well informed and are confident that the information they have received is unbiased and factual, as opposed to many things that you see in social media which end up being opinions as opposed to a considered case. The first of those three things is to restore the pamphlet—which, since 1928, Australians have had at every referendum—and that pamphlet being a simple clarification of what the issue is, and the case for and against the issue. We welcome the government's undertaking to change their position and bring back the pamphlet, but we will obviously reserve our right to comment until we see what is actually delivered.

Importantly, associated with that is the distribution of that information to people. It will take some funding to distribute it but also to ensure its integrity and that it has the trust of people. Rather than having a broad spectrum of voices speaking at the Australian public, there's a need to have an official 'yes' case and an official 'no' case, where people can go: 'Okay, this is where the various views for and against the referendum question are coalescing.' That will provide people across Australia with a degree of confidence that they're hearing the full range of views relevant to the cases for and against, as opposed to having to pick through the many different views in print, on television, on radio or on the internet, whether through social media, webpages or other places. It will also make sure there isn't undue influence—and we have seen that in recent years both here, amongst diaspora communities, and in nations where foreign interference has sought to change the outcome of the democratic process or cause dissension.

The last part the coalition is looking for is around appropriate funding for those official organisations. Again, going back to precedent, former attorney-general Daryl Williams, in looking at the referendum around the Constitution in Australia, made it clear that the government would actually match funding between the 'yes' and 'no' cases so that there could be no accusation that there were additional funds put toward one side or the other. That was an important outcome. The Bills Digest, prepared by the Parliamentary Library, highlighted the $15 million, with half provided to each of the campaign committees to use to run their campaigns. That is an important precedent which has been in place and which we should follow.

Going to the actual committee report and the evidence that was received on the provisions of the bill, it highlights in paragraph 120 that, under section 11, the act currently requires that that official pamphlet containing the arguments in favour of and against the referendum proposal, along with the proposed textual alterations and additions to the Constitution, be prepared and distributed to households by the Electoral Commission by post no later than 14 days before the vote. There was quite a bit of evidence provided to the committee about that and why it has been in place since 1912. It's because of concerns about misinformation and partisanship during previous referendums. By suspending section 11 of the referendum act the bill would remove the requirement for the official pamphlet to be produced and distributed for any referendum held before the next general election. Instead, parliamentarians would choose how and when to engage with their constituencies, along with any other groups who wish to have a voice to influence the Australian public. As I said, that broad range of voices to the Australian public has sometimes in the past led to confusion. Hence, the Electoral Commission held an inquiry highlighting the value that people place upon official information and how many people use the AEC's information in preference to that distributed by political parties and others as to how an election would run.

The other part is that the official pamphlet also helps to set the tone. There's been a lot of concern raised about debates on sensitive topics in this nation. People have raised concerns that the tone is going to become negative and people will be attacked. To be honest, we saw that in the chamber today, where there was debate around a topic and accusations were made that people who had a different view were somehow racist or support things which are not true. Some of the evidence to the committee said that the official pamphlet helps to set the tone of the referendum by ensuring an open and fair exchange of ideas in which no side is demonised. In fact, the Australian Human Rights Commission submitted:

While it may be appropriate to modernise both the form and distribution of the Yes/No pamphlet, it continues to be 'a valuable document which provides electors with the views of their elected representatives.

The other part that I found interesting, in paragraph 1.32 of the committee's report, was that one of the witnesses was actually the Central Land Council. Here we are having a referendum because the government's keen to introduce a voice to parliament for Indigenous people, and here is the Central Land Council expressing concern that 'not providing a physical posted pamphlet in remote areas would leave some people, particularly older people and elders, without reliable access to information about the referendum, especially given the barriers to telecommunications access in some communities'. I think that, in seeking to implement the machinery provisions, surely we should actually be listening to people from remote communities who are calling for a particular outcome. We would encourage the government to follow through on their commitment to reintroduce the pamphlet but also the funding for those official 'yes' and 'no' cases.

There was also evidence given to the committee, noted in paragraph 1.38 of the report, which I think is sound, in that the official pamphlet should also be distributed through other means. Yes, we can print it and send it, but that information can then be distributed in audio format and, for example, in Aboriginal languages or other languages for groups within Australia for whom English is a second language. Also, the Central Land Council suggested that the pamphlet could be displayed in public places, and there are clearly other forms, such as television, radio and the internet, where that could occur. So there are a number of reasons why we should have that pamphlet and the funding for the 'yes' and 'no' cases.

In conclusion, if we go back to the six principles that the Australian Constitution Centre puts out as the very basis of Australia's success as a representative democracy, as a place that is building a nation, a country that has become the most successful multicultural, plural, liberal democracy in the world—the Constitution is a bedrock of that. We need to be certain that any changes to the Constitution are understood by the Australian people and that the people understand the arguments for and the arguments against. Then they can, in an informed way, legitimately make the parliament aware of their will, which can then be implemented. But we have a precedent in this nation of a form and a way. We've had some recommendations to improve it, through interpretation and translation and in the ways we can disseminate it, but the precedent shows that an important part is having an official 'yes' case, an official 'no' case—both equally funded—and the pamphlet which provides that information to the Australian people to express their will.

6:43 pm

Photo of Hollie HughesHollie Hughes (NSW, Liberal Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Climate Change and Energy) Share this | | Hansard source

In reality, I don't think it's actually that unreasonable that members on this side of the chamber have asked for some more detail with regard to this referendum. All we've asked for is detail. We want detail about the very thing that we're voting on and what it'll look like so that we in this place can make informed decisions on behalf of our constituents, whom this will impact. I've already brushed past the weasel words of calling this thing an Indigenous voice to parliament, when we literally have Indigenous members of parliament from across the political spectrum, in this very chamber and in the lower house, fighting for Indigenous Australians. Implying somehow that Indigenous Australians within our electorates and patron seats don't get a voice, as if we represent all Australians, regardless of ethnicity, except Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people, is an absurd and, honestly, a racist way of thinking.

But, as I've said, we want to be reasonable and consider what the government's proposing. The problem is that there's nothing to consider—no real detail once again, no plan, no transparency from those opposite. We keep seeing this. It doesn't matter if it is refusing to have a look at the Mobile Black Spot Program today, the lack of modelling with regard to the safeguard mechanism, the gas cap being rushed through without a proper plan or the changes to super without considering the broader implications. They are just more broken promises.

We have raised, though, three points with the government to address our concerns on the referendum process: restore the pamphlet to outline the 'yes' and 'no' cases, establish official 'yes' and 'no' campaign organisations and appropriately fund those organisations. These measures are really fundamental to having a referendum with informed voters and a process with integrity. The coalition are generally standing here in good faith. We want to reasonably consider the proposal, but we need the government to actually come to the table. We can't support a bill that doesn't have a plan for how to properly regulate donations or foreign interference or that doesn't provide a plan for how the scrutiny of the referendum will be conducted. All of this could be resolved by the establishment of appropriately and equally funded official 'yes' and 'no' campaign organisations. Until we can have these concerns address, we will be opposing the bill.

Surveys repeatedly show that Australians want detail, and the Prime Minister is repeatedly ducking under the table. The government must set out specific details, but I guess the bigger question is: does that detail even exist? As Mr Dutton has said, it's strange that the Prime Minister now says that the Calma-Langton view of having local and regional voices is potentially not part of his plan. We had one senior government minister—indeed, the envoy in this area—saying that there would be a seat at the national cabinet for the Voice. That was then backtracked by Minister Linda Burney and then ruled out by the Prime Minister. So which one is it? How can Australians understand what they're voting for or the government ask us to support it when the government doesn't even know what they're asking Australians to vote for? This is just confusing for everybody.

There are 15 questions that Mr Dutton has asked the Prime Minister to address for Australians and their concerns. Who will be eligible to serve on the proposed body? That is probably something important that we need to know. What are the prerequisites for nominations? As Senator Hanson pointed out, we saw the failed ATSIC model years ago; are we just moving back to the same feeders that are looking for a permanent snout in the trough under the Voice? Will the government clarify the definition of 'Aboriginality' to determine who can serve on the body? How do we know? Does someone have to talk in and say, 'By the way, this is me,' or is some sort of proof required? And how will those numbers be elected, chosen or appointed? Will it be another mates-fest for those opposite to continue to appoint those and push their so-called agenda? How many people will be on the body? I think you might have to be able to answer that one. Pretty fundamentally: how much will it cost taxpayers annually?

Concerningly to Australians, you can't even answer what its functions and powers are. Is it purely advisory or will it have decision-making capabilities? Who will oversee the body and ensure it's accountable? If needed, can the body be dissolved, like we had to do with ATSIC, and reconstituted in extraordinary circumstances? How will the government ensure that the body includes those who still need to get a platform in Australian public life? How will it interact with the Closing the Gap process? We can come onto that and how it will actually impact Closing the Gap, because we know, ultimately, it won't. Will the government rule out using the Voice to negotiate any national treaty? Will the government commit to local and regional voices as recommended in the report and the co-design process led by Tom Calma and Marcia Langton? That is something that we now know they can't answer definitively.

If not, how will it effectively address the real issues that impact people's lives on the ground in the community? Again, these are really reasonable questions. They're not gotcha questions. There's nothing malicious in their intent. They're just questions that the Australian electorate with like answered. It's information which really should be provided at a bare minimum when you're proposing a change that could have lasting and far-reaching consequences for all Australians, not just for Indigenous Australians.

The fact that we actually have to keep asking if there will be a local or a regional voice already shows us that this proposal is nowhere near ready to go. It would be a totally futile—in fact, purely symbolic—and empty exercise to implement any kind of system without ensuring it actually works for all Indigenous Australians at the very least and not just for those who signed up to the Labor Party in their inner city hubs and who are going to push their own agendas forward, ignoring the plight of those in regional and rural communities. We know that they don't care about Alice Springs. If they were paying any attention today, they'd have noticed that one of the bakers out there has had his shop broken into over 40 times. But of course those opposite have absolutely no plan for what to do or any willingness to do anything to help the people of Alice Springs. That's because it doesn't quite fit with their woke virtue-signalling agenda. That's all, quite frankly, that Labor is capable of and it's their lifeblood: virtue-signalling to the high heavens just so they can make it look like they're doing something good without actually having to do any work.

We on this side of the chamber are actually quite happy to do the work if you guys on the other side just really aren't up to it. My colleague Senator Nampijinpa Price has stood in his chamber, day in and day out, time and time again, championing the cause of and being the voice for the people of the Northern Territory—Indigenous and non-Indigenous. But, of course, she's the wrong type of Indigenous woman; she's the wrong type of Indigenous voice. She is a genuine regional voice for the forgotten Australians who are struggling right now in the Top End. These are the people who actually need a voice the most. We know that this Voice is not going to be their voice. So whose voice is it? The inner-city bureaucrats or only the Indigenous groups who vote red? How can the Prime Minister think that this parliament, Senate or the Australian people will simply send this through to the keeper so that he and his government can work the details out on the fly once they've worked out what they're actually trying to do? Either he has total contempt for this chamber and the people of Australia, or perhaps he already has a plan that he doesn't want to come clean on. That's kind of getting a bit of a ring about it in this place, isn't it? In that case, is he really working for the people of Australia or just for the people who check his name at the ballot box?

This bill makes fundamental changes to how referenda are conducted in this country, removing the requirement for a pamphlet to be provided which outlines the cases for and against change. Why would a government that's so confident that this is something that people want—they're so confident that this is just going to sail through—be eager to hide the details? Why would less information be a good thing? How can this be the way forward? The coalition will support a bill that allows for a referendum with informed voters and a process that has integrity. Do you want me to spell it out for you? We need some integrity that's based on precedent. On principle alone we cannot support the precedent being set by the government, regardless of the referendum question it's being used to support. This would be the first time that there has been no pamphlet provided to voters since before Phar Lap won the Melbourne Cup. There have only been three referenda in our nation's history without an official pamphlet; the last one was in 1928. There was one in 1919, when there was insufficient time. In 1926 there was no agreement on how to produce the 'yes' argument and in 1928 there was overwhelming agreement between the parties and government. None of the circumstances for those referenda apply here, so we have to ask why the government wants to unwind this longstanding precedent.

We've heard from the AEC, a bipartisan organisation, that when they provide mailed material to voters during elections, up to 40 per cent of recipients will use documentation such as pamphlets as their main source of information for how they cast their vote. The government is just simply playing games and trying to find ways to play the edges of this referendum without explicitly saying so. It's trying to skew the argument one way over the other to appease its base and stakeholders, instead of taking a genuine approach in asking the Australian people about whether they think this has any merit or not.

The act governs how a government must conduct a referendum and it's similar to the Commonwealth Electoral Act's role in governing the processes and procedures in conducting an election. The act also includes how a referendum's donations will be regulated and will operate; how the prepoll scrutiny and counting will operate; and how the newly introduced foreign interference regime will operate. The bill doesn't determine the question being put at the referendum on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament. So why are we still playing games with this? Why are we messing with the mechanism behind the question, instead of dealing with the actual detail around the question?

I say to those opposite: it's time to ever come clean to the Australian people about your agenda, or meaningfully engage with us and address our concerns. If this is something the Prime Minister truly feels strongly about, and if he believes that the majority of Australians feel the same, then I think he would provide reasonable detail. That is what we are asking for.

6:55 pm

Photo of Gerard RennickGerard Rennick (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I can't believe that in the year of 2023, in the month of March, I am standing up here tonight to have to speak about the integrity of our democracy. It is just beggar's belief. But, then again, that is the type of government that we have in power at the moment. It isn't interested in representing the rights of all individuals. No, what they want to do is divide the population by race, and they want to be sneaky about how they go about it. They're not going to conduct this referendum by normal rules. No, as usual they've got to hide and basically have no transparency and no accountability. This is the recurring theme of my time in government and Labor's time in government: with the bureaucrats, they never want to disclose anything. It is secret after secret after secret.

What is this referendum all about? It is designed to give a class of people a voice that they already have. We have a voice in this country. It's called the ballot box. It is the fundamental bulwark of Western democracies. It has made many countries prosperous, based on the fact that every individual gets a say. What have we got over on the other side of the chamber? Are they interested in wanting to preserve the rights of every individual, the dignity and worth of every individual? Do they want to empower the individual? No, they do not.

The other side of the chamber is interested in one thing and one thing only. That is command and control. They do that through three means. Number one, of course, is Marxism itself. That is where they to want to divide the world by race, by gender, by whatever you can think of. It is always us against them. Instead of just coming out and saying that there is only one race, the human race, and that we should all work together for the betterment of our children—no, that is not what the other side of the chamber are interested in. They are only interested in division, so that they can distract us with superfluous issues like the Voice at a time when we have much more pressing issues, like the cost of living.

We have Australians who can't find houses—can't buy a house or rent a house. We have other Australians who are in mortgage stress because we have an out-of-control RBA that has no idea about monetary policy. We have got people still locked down who can't get work because of COVID mandates, and here we are wasting time on a Monday about a bill that is designed to undermine the very essence of democracy itself.

We've already got a National Indigenous Australians Agency that has over $2 billion a year that is spent through it. It employs people that cost up to $300 million a year. So tell me this: what is it that this agency can't do that a change to the Constitution will? Why do those opposite actually want to change the Constitution? Heaven forbid that this ever gets into the hands of an activist High Court Judge. We well remember the impacts of the 1983 Franklin dam decision, where a High Court judge undermined the Constitution. I'm not talking about saving the environment; I'm talking about how the court ruled that foreign treaties could override powers of the state government. That was an attack on democracy itself.

This is an administration issue. By all means, let's close the gap; let's provide essential services. I touched on it in my maiden speech. You hear me talk ad nauseam about improving essential services, building infrastructure—dams, power stations, roads, rail, ports, airports and telecommunications—especially for those people in the regions. That is what the role of government is. It is to build things and to serve people. It is not the role of government to regulate people to within an inch of their lives, and it is most certainly not role of government to try to divide people on any identity or every identity you can think of. That is what this referendum is all about, and that is why Labor is being so sneaky—very, very, very sneaky.

If you look at the Constitution, you will see we already have a section—section 51(xxvi)—that says government has powers with respect to making laws on race. So, yet again, I ask the chamber and I ask those on the other side: why are we wasting millions of dollars on a referendum when we need to be focused on those things that matter? We need to be focused on providing essential services to all people, regardless of race. Let's focus on building hospitals, building schools and providing better water supply or better transport or whatever it takes to lift the standard of living in all regions of Australia. That is what we should be focused on.

Instead, all day today, we have been winding ourselves up like the Tasmanian devil, in a spin over the rules of this referendum, which is basically dealing with something that shouldn't even come into it. I note the questioning of my colleague Senator Antic in estimates, where he asked what the definition of an Aboriginal was. Of course, he got the usual reply; somehow, in asking a very simple question, fundamental to this referendum, he was accused of being a racist. And that is what we're up against here. This side of the chamber wants to deal in facts. It wants to deal in the output of deliverables—real services that make a difference to people in their everyday lives.

People don't go around the world looking at people through the lens of race. We're way past that. This is Australia. We're a proud multicultural nation, brought together by wrongdoings, whatever, in the past. We've all come from—

Photo of Louise PrattLouise Pratt (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Then then why won't you recognise Aboriginal culture and have a voice to parliament?

Photo of Gerard RennickGerard Rennick (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'll take that interjection, thanks, Senator Pratt. It's good to know that you don't think Australia's a multicultural country. But we have all come from persecutions. I've got Irish ancestry. The maternal side of my family came from the potato famine in 1851. My great, great, great grandfather—however many 'greats' I've got to say—was picked up on the streets of Dublin in 1826 and sent out here to build Paramatta Road. But, apart from paying out on my Pommy mates in the pub, do I go on about? No. The point is that a rising tide will lift all boats. The best thing that we should be striving for is prosperity and unity, not division and poverty, which is what identity politics will give us, because poverty will distract us from those things that really matter, like family, and respect for the dignity and worth of every individual, regardless of their background, their race, their gender or whatever, because it doesn't matter. It is none of our business as politicians. As politicians and as bureaucrats we need to get out of people's lives. People are sick and tired of the government telling them what to do and regulating them or, on the other hand, being fear merchants about things like COVID, climate change, the race division—fear and loathing.

This stuff has to stop. This stuff has to stop, and we need to get on as one country, as one race, and work together to provide better services. We have an enormous number of bureaucrats involved in providing services to Aboriginals and their communities, so why can't they close the gap? That is the question to ask. What is it that we have to do to close the gap in regional Australia, in whatever community that may be, and across the entire nation? What we should be striving to do in this chamber when we make laws is to actually lift all the boats of all the people by providing services to the Australian people.

I can tell you we won't be doing that this year while we're wasting time debating the intricacies of a referendum that is designed to permanently divide this country along the lines of race. It is abhorrent. It is completely abhorrent that, in the 21st century, this Labor government has sought to bring about a referendum to undo the work of the great 1966 referendum brought about by the Liberal Party. The Labor Party is trying to tear a wedge in this country, and it is completely wrong. They're playing games.

I read today, for example, that the Australian Electoral Commission is now mandatorily signing up people to the electoral roll without even informing them. If that report in the Australian is true—it came up this afternoon—that is alarming. That has got red flags for electoral fraud. I'm not sure if that's a part of this bill, but you don't just go around signing up people; they have to sign themselves up. Let's face it; what government agency hasn't made a stuff-up when it comes to managing databases? It's signing people up without their consent, without their knowledge. There are shades of compulsory superannuation here, where Keating ripped out—it started off at two per cent, but it's gone to 12 per cent of people's wages. There was never a referendum there. There are shades of the COVID mandate, forcing an untested jab into people's arms. Now we're going to sign people up to the electoral roll without them even knowing it. This just smacks of control and division.

Of course, this is what we have come to expect from those on the other side of the chamber, who aren't interested in peace and prosperity and unity. No, no, no. These people want to control you by fear and loathing and division. That's the modus operandi of the Australian Labor Party, backed by their mates in the Greens party—basically a watermelon party: Greens one day, Marxist the next, green/red. It's very, very scary. Let me tell you that this side of the chamber isn't going to allow our country to be divided by race, or fear and loathing.

Photo of David ShoebridgeDavid Shoebridge (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

You've had seven conspiracy theories in one speech.

Photo of Gerard RennickGerard Rennick (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'll take that interjection. Thank you very much, Senator Shoebridge. As you can see, they won't even tolerate a different type of opinion. For those of you who can't hear him on the audio, Senator Shoebridge is over there shouting at me. That is typical of the Greens. They always try and shut down a different opinion.

Photo of Andrew McLachlanAndrew McLachlan (SA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Rennick, resume your seat. Senator Shoebridge, what is your point of order?

Photo of David ShoebridgeDavid Shoebridge (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Surely it's contrary to the standing orders to have seven separate conspiracy theories in one speech, which is what Senator Rennick has had.

Photo of Andrew McLachlanAndrew McLachlan (SA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

That is not a point of order. Resume your seat.

Photo of Gerard RennickGerard Rennick (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Of course, what we saw there was the same old modus operandi, in saying this is a conspiracy theory. That's what these people do. They attack you. They have to make personal attacks all the time. This is the Greens, and this is the element of wokeness. This is what the essence of wokeness is, which is that feelings matter more than facts. Let me tell you that the world and Western society originally—it's been the basis of our prosperity—was built on empirical science, not on feelings. It was built by empirical science underpinned by mathematics. That is what we should be focusing on as a government in delivering engineering projects that are going to improve the prosperity of this country.

7:11 pm

Photo of Jonathon DuniamJonathon Duniam (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Environment, Fisheries and Forestry) Share this | | Hansard source

It's a delight to be able to make a contribution to the debate on the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2022. As anyone who's watching, all seven people out there across Australia, can see, it is an issue that invokes a high degree of interest and much passion on the part of many of our colleagues across the spectrum of views that we have seen expressed throughout this debate. I think it is important, though, for us to remember that what we're debating here is slightly removed from, but not completely removed from, what the referendum will be about—the question and details of which we are yet to be provided.

This is about establishing the mechanism to be able to ask the question, and I think it's important that we do try our very best to focus on that as much as we can, although, as we've heard from our last speaker and through many of the other contributions throughout this debate—and well made they have been, I say to Senator Rennick—it is an issue that brings out a passion in the debate in our democracy, which is a wonderful thing. I'm pleased to see the interactions we've been having here in the chamber. It's been a source of much entertainment for many of us, but it is a serious matter.

Of course, here in Australia, in the lucky country, as we are often referred to—it being free and democratic—we have to have the ability to: make informed decisions based on all the information; make the right decision based on our circumstances and what we believe to be right or wrong; and impose our values framework over whatever decision we are making and reach a conclusion. That's essential for us to be able to get to the right outcome. Whoever they are, every single individual in this country has an equal right to make the case for what they believe in and cast a vote or make a decision in accordance with that will.

Having a process that enables us to do that, which is underpinned by integrity, is also essential. If you have an absence of either of those characteristics—full information being provided or a process underpinned by integrity—then you're going to undermine everything that is good and wonderful about this democracy, which we take for granted in this country: both the processes related to democracy, including elections, referenda and plebiscites and the institutions that are built upon them as well, including our state and federal parliaments.

It is important to highlight that I think we have taken these things for granted as a country, because, frankly, we've known nothing else in the years since our Federation. Yes, many of those who came before us have fought wars, and we've seen terrible things happen overseas in other jurisdictions, but here in Australia we have not had to face the terrible situations of dictatorship and loss of liberty in the way that we have seen in other countries. That is because we have a strong and functioning democracy.

That's underpinned by one thing, and that is our Constitution. It's something that we need to guard, and we need to make sure that when changes are made they are made properly, for good reason and with full information and that they are underpinned by a process of integrity, as I said before. We want to make sure that we protect the processes around the alteration of this foundation document—the thing that so many people lost their lives fighting to protect because they believe in it—and the end product that is delivered. Australians expect us in this place—in the other place and here in the Australian Senate—to make decisions that are in accordance with protecting this foundation document, our democratic processes and our institutions.

I think it's important to highlight, as a number of my colleagues have, a couple of concerns there are with the legislation. I don't want that to be conflated in any way with the suggestion that there is a desire to deny people the right to have their say on an important issue. Where people stand on the ultimate question that will be asked in the referendum is, as I said, not de-linked but separate to the debate we are having here. I don't want anyone to look at our expressing concerns here today and our wanting to make sure that the process that underpins the mechanics that will enable this referendum to take place has integrity—questioning those things and wanting to make sure that they are the best possible standard, the standard Australians are expecting us as a parliament to deliver—and say, 'They're trying to deny us the opportunity to have our say.' I'll come to those particular concerns and itemise those shortly and also refer to some of the points that were made in the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters that had a quick look at this legislation.

This is not a trivial matter. In making changes to the Australian Constitution and to the process that leads to making those changes it is incredibly important to make sure how it is administered is fair, transparent and even-handed. The laws relating to communicating information, the organisations that communicate information are all there on an even playing field, and transparency—I think all of those things need to be front and centre as we move forward through this debate. As previous speakers who have participated in this debate have indicated, it is something that invokes a high level of passion and interest. It is something that I'm sure Australians—and there are not many tuned in tonight—will take a high degree of interest in over time.

I turn to the issues that the coalition have indicated they would like to see addressed with regard to the progression of this bill. There are three key areas. The first one is the restoration of a pamphlet to outline clearly and directly the 'yes' and 'no' campaigns as we head toward a referendum. That is something that has been in place in every referendum, as far as I'm aware, since 1912—a good 91 years ago. The second is the establishment of official 'yes' and 'no' campaign organisations so that we know who we're dealing with and how to apply the rules and we make it easier for the AEC to administer the laws related to campaigning, disclosures et cetera. Of course, then there is ensuring that appropriate funding is available to each of the organisations that I've just mentioned—the official 'yes' and 'no' campaign organisations. Having that arrangement and establishment in place is essential. As I said before, one of the vital characteristics to ensuring we preserve democracy in the way that we thrive and depend upon is to have a process based on integrity and where voters are fully informed through the process we're setting up today through this legislation.

I turn to the first of the issues though—the restoration of the pamphlet to outline both the 'yes' and the 'no' campaigns. It is welcome that the government have indicated that they will re-establish the provision of the pamphlet to Australian households to outline what each campaign is arguing for or against. It is essential that people are fully informed. This is the first arm of the issues I talked about before. I might turn to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters Advisory report on the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2022. I'll go to the remarks of some of my colleagues in the dissenting report by coalition members and senators. There are a number of recommendations contained within it, and it provides a good overview. In terms of the pamphlet, I think it is important to look at some of the comments of entities that were interested in and involved in this process, starting with—and I know others have referred to this—the Central Land Council, which:

Noted that the failure to provide a physical, posted pamphlet in remote areas would almost certainly leave people (in particular older Australians and Elders) without reliable access to information regarding the referendum question, especially given the barriers to telecommunications in regional communities.

That was based on a submission from the Central Land Council. We also had references to the same problem from Dr Shireen Morris, the Australian Monarchist League, Professor Anne Twomey and others in the submissions they provided to that committee.

The Australian Electoral Commission said that its research:

… shows that 40 per cent of people still rely on and use the guide posted to households as their primary source of information.

These are the people who administer these processes where we seek to have Australians fully informed—the process to do that is by way of a pamphlet—and they are the ones who also administer the process of counting the votes with integrity. The IPA, the Institute of Public Affairs, also argued:

… that the official pamphlet plays an integral role in setting the tone of a referendum debate and helps to ensure an "open and fair exchange of ideas in which no side is demonised".

I think that is important. I think this idea of a free and frank exchange of views and ideas in this democratic country where pluralism is endorsed is a good thing. It is great that the government have said: 'You know what? The pamphlet is back on. That's going to go ahead.' Let's hope that that remains the case and that we do see, at the end of the day, a proper set-up where we will have a proper, fully informed debate by way of, at the very least, a pamphlet provided to Australians in the form that those entities—the Central Land Council, the AEC, the IPA and others who made submissions to that inquiry—have requested.

Having some established 'yes' and 'no' campaigns properly recognised and properly organised is a very important part of any referendum. The history that has been gone through at quite some length throughout this debate has outlined how this has formed the basis of any successful referendum in the past. Indeed, any government willing to make sure that Australians are taken on the journey of change would ensure that these provisions are a part of what they take forward. As the dissenting report of the coalition members and senators said in paragraph 1.26:

The absence of official campaign entities is of concern when considering the implementation and enforcement of modern electoral regulations on donations and foreign interference.

It also says:

The regulatory auditing process to administer these regulatory schemes would be assisted by having official campaigns to provide a starting point for enforcement and education by the AEC.

If we don't have official organisations established, who is responsible and who does the AEC pursue in the event of breaches of electoral law? If we don't have these entities established, then how do we ensure that the process has integrity? There will be myriad entities out there entering into the fray and making their views known, and they may be, sadly, in breach of the law. How is the AEC going to have the resources to pursue all of this, and what do we do if there is the implication that the outcome has been tainted by the fact that there has been a huge increase in breaches of electoral law because of the number of entities out there—because we don't have recognised official entities—breaching well-established electoral laws, particularly as they relate to a referendum?

The third issue that was raised in the dissenting report was around public funding of official 'yes' and 'no' campaigns. Again, if we don't have that and we don't have some clarity around the provision of this funding, then there will be this increased and incredibly more likely dependence on private funding from vested interests, which will invariably dominate debate. The dissenting remarks in the committee report also made it very clear, at paragraph 1.33, that those sorts of vested interests and the information they may disseminate 'would undoubtedly compromise the quality and reliability of referendum information available to Australians, negatively affecting voters' ability to make informed decisions'. One of the key elements to a successful outcome here is the ability of Australians to make an informed decision, with all the facts on the table before them.

So there are a range of issues that need to be addressed to make sure the very important decision we are about to ask Australians to make by way of a referendum, should this legislation pass, is made properly. We need to ensure that the elements I have outlined here, which other coalition members and senators have outlined and which the dissenting remarks in the report point to, underpin (1) the capacity of Australians to be informed as we make this incredibly important decision, and (2) the integrity of the process we have as a vehicle for making this decision. I hope the government heeds these calls and that we have a proper process before us.

7:26 pm

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Competition, Charities and Treasury) Share this | | Hansard source

The Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2022 is probably more critical than most people appreciate, because it is the bill that will determine whether or not the referendum we're about to have has integrity. I think Australians expect their referendums to happen in a way that is orthodox, predictable and not subject to the particular whims of the government of the day.

I come to this discussion—and, indeed, will come to the next discussion, when we have the constitutional alteration bill—from two distinctive perspectives. The first is that of someone who was very much at the centre of the last transformative event that this parliament presided over, being the same-sex marriage act. I'm surprised that more people are not talking about some of the important lessons learned from that particular legislative success, and I'll come to that in a moment.

The second, and less commonly known to senators, is that I was very much at the centre of the last constitutional referendum debate that this Senate had, in 2012-13—indeed, Senator Ciccone, I was. That debate concerned the matter of constitutional recognition of local government. Again—it's interesting how history turns—I was on this side of the parliament and was appointed by Senators Bushby, Bernardi, Madigan, Leyonhjelm, Day and McKenzie as the convenor of the parliamentary 'no' committee. Again, I'll come to that in a moment.

When we get to the constitutional alteration bill there will be an opportunity for the Senate to debate the substantive issue of changing the Constitution, but I think it's very important to make this point: it's my modest view that the great bulk of Australians are now ready to have—are now very comfortable with having—a form of constitutional recognition for Indigenous people. That is my honest and informed view. What the parliament will be forced to debate this year is in what form that constitutional recognition will be undertaken and, perhaps, approved by the Australian electorate. So our country has travelled a tremendous distance, and I'm pleased to say that the coalition has played an important role in bringing forward different sorts of ideas about what constitutional recognition of Indigenous people should look like. I think that's a very important point: that we will debate in the near future a particular form of Indigenous recognition. But that, as I said, is a debate for other time.

Let me turn back to the experience of the same-sex marriage debate. I applaud the Prime Minister for being the first Prime Minister to walk in the Sydney Mardi Gras. I'm surprised he did not learn better some of the lessons from the most recent same-sex marriage debate. That debate was greatly aided by the fact that a bill to legislate same-sex marriage was released three months before the first vote in the plebiscite. That gave people great confidence about what the bill would be when we came to debate it in the parliament if the plebiscite was successful. It's not my job to advise the government, but if I were a member of the government my strong advice to it would be this: you create confidence and you build trust when you allow Australians to see the type of bill that they, through their representatives, will be asked to endorse.

It is not true that the parliament will decide the form of a legislated Voice. It's not true. That will be decided by the government, the Greens, Senator Pocock and perhaps Senator Lidia Thorpe. I don't know the extent to which Senator Smith will be invited to participate in that. I don't know the extent to which Senator Bragg will be invited to participate in that. It's a great error of judgement by the government and the Referendum Working Group not—

Excuse me, Senator Pratt. I'm making a very serious and sensible contribution. I know you know that.

So it's very, very strange. It's a great error of judgement by the government and the Referendum Working Group not to bring forward a draft legislative proposal.

The second lesson from the same-sex marriage debate is this. The same-sex marriage bill was not the first marriage bill; it was the last, but it was number 22 of 23. I make that point because it was a work that allowed everyone to bring particular perspectives. Some people gave important ground in order that the parliament could come to a near-unanimous decision.

Unfortunately, what we had here was the Labor Party in opposition adopting a form of recognition, making that its policy, and then suggesting that somehow it had virtues that extended beyond that. This is an election commitment in regard to a form of Indigenous recognition; it has no more virtue than that. And, as I said, we'll get to the merits of that when we talk about the constitutional alteration bill. Those are some important lessons, I think, from the same-sex marriage debate.

When we last debated constitutional reform in this Senate chamber in 2022-23—and I see that Senator McKenzie has now joined me, and Senator McKenzie was very much involved in that—it's worth noting that the referendum mechanics bill passed the Senate; it passed the parliament. The constitutional alteration bill passed the parliament. The 'yes' and 'no' committees were created. Senator Smith—you can see it on Facebook if you wind right back—took down the official 'no' case to the Australian Electoral Commission. And others—I don't know who it was; it might have been Mrs Prentice, a Queensland member of the House of Representatives—took down the official 'yes' case. It was orthodox. There were official 'no' and 'yes' committees. There was a 'yes' case and a 'no' case. It instilled great confidence in people, and there was never a skerrick of doubt about the integrity of that referendum process—until the government decided it would allocate disproportionate funding between the 'yes' and 'no' campaigns.

Anyway, for those who are keen students of history, you might remember; I actually don't remember going to vote in that referendum.

An honourable senator: No. What happened, Dean?

What happened? Leadership change: Prime Minister Gillard was forced out of office; it shifted to Prime Minister Rudd. The referendum was abandoned.

That brings me to my other substantive point. I am genuinely confused why some people have chosen to trust Labor to deliver such an important referendum proposal. Putting the merits of Labor's particular proposal aside for a moment, people, I think, have been foolish to trust Labor on this referendum. Under Labor—after, it would say, a distinguished period of government since Federation and a very, very long history of political participation in our country—just one referendum proposal has been successful. That's just one, in 1946. Not even Gough Whitlam, not even Bob Hawke could bring referendum proposals forward in our country and have them endorsed. The great legends Bob Hawke, Gough Whitlam and Ben Chifley could not even deliver constitutional reform except on one occasion, in 1946. And what is the other salient fact about that referendum proposal, which supporters out there in the community should think very carefully about? It enjoyed just 54 per cent of support. Wow!

If this referendum proposal is successful, I hope it's successful with a thumping majority. I do because I worry what it would mean if the referendum proposal is endorsed with a significantly lesser majority. This brings me to the next issue. As a keen student of constitutional reform—as I said, as someone who has participated in it—we and the government start with those opinion polls perilously low. The record shows with great clarity that support for constitutional referendum proposals in our country diminishes over time. They do not start with low support and get lots of support; they diminish over time. Why are those opinion polls—and opinion polls should be treated with a touch of scepticism—trusted? Again, it is not my job to provide advice to the government, but there has been much already in the government's actions around this referendum that has caused Australians to be suspicious, that has caused Australians to be concerned.

The government was slow to endorse a 'yes' and 'no' pamphlet. How can that possibly be? The 'yes' and 'no' pamphlet is the single means that allows everyone to have the debate framed in a way that is respectful and that sticks to the issues, because it is framed by parliamentarians. No matter the intensity of our contest in chambers like this and the House of Representatives, more often than not, we each conduct ourselves in a way that is generous and gracious and thinks of the country's interests. I'm very confident that the 'no' committee and the 'yes' committee, when they come to write those pamphlets, will do so in an informed, concise and conscientious way. The government was slow to think that that was a suitable way to proceed. The government is confused. The working group is confused. What is it that is actually going to be in that constitutional alteration bill? What is the question that Australians are going to be asked to support? And there is the government out there, saying that somehow everyone else is slow to understand. No, people have been quick to be suspicious because Australians, whatever their political views, are cautious and conservative on constitutional change. That's not me making it up. The history proves that.

And so we have two outstanding issues: 'yes' and 'no' committees and the issue of equal funding. The 'yes' and 'no' committees are very important. Again, I'm not speaking to the government; I'm speaking to the referendum working group. Take more care. Pay more attention. In your opposition to a 'yes' and 'no' pamphlet, in your opposition to 'yes' and 'no' committees, you might just be aiding and abetting the tarnishing of our proud democratic tradition by giving the government the wrong advice. I don't doubt that the advice is sincere. I do not. But it is wrong. There must be 'yes' and 'no' committees. It formalises the debate. It makes parliamentarians—and I hope that it would be chaired by parliamentarians—accountable. When we go to general elections every three years in this country, we don't hold our neighbours accountable. We hold our parliamentarians accountable. So 'yes' and 'no' committees that are comprised of parliamentarians and a pamphlet that is authored by parliamentarians allows Australians to hold parliamentarians accountable. It is unfair and it is wrong that other people might find themselves made accountable for a referendum that is unsuccessful or a referendum that is successful but doesn't enjoy a high enough level of confidence amongst Australians.

Orthodoxy is the way to approach referendums in our country, and, even then, they cannot be guaranteed of success. Getting the mechanics right is very, very important. Paying attention to these things is very, very important. The referendum machinery issue is what voters will see first, and they will quickly come to a judgement about whether or not the referendum mechanism has integrity. I've got to say, the government has started shabbily. The Prime Minister goes to great pains to say that this is not his referendum proposal. When he says that, bells should ring, because if it's not his proposal then who is accountable? If it's not his proposal, whose proposal is it? If it's not his proposal, who is going to have to deal with the disappointment if it's unsuccessful? The Prime Minister must take more ownership, and, thus far, this is off to a very, very bad start. It is bad for our democracy and bad for supporters of this Indigenous recognition proposal.

7:41 pm

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development) Share this | | Hansard source

It's such a pleasure to follow my good friend and colleague Senator Dean Smith. Together, he and I have stood in this chamber, sat in this chamber and crossed the floor in this chamber against our own side on constitutional matters, and I know he is very principled when he makes his contribution on this issue. His is always an intelligent, thoughtful and considered position, and one of great experience. His concerns—and I share them—are ensuring that the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2022 is not just some tick-a-box venture to get us to the referendum and to Albo's legacy project quicker, as it actually goes to the very heart of our democracy.

Australians are a conservative people. Sorry: Prime Minister Albanese.

Photo of Penny Allman-PaynePenny Allman-Payne (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

One moment, Senator. We've got a point of order.

Photo of Tim AyresTim Ayres (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Trade) Share this | | Hansard source

I think Senator McKenzie anticipated my point of order. It was that the Prime Minister should be referred to in the proper way, and she has just done that, so thank you.

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development) Share this | | Hansard source

No matter where you stand on the substantive issue that will be put to Australians sometime later this year, getting this bill right will actually affirm this chamber's beliefs in some principles that underpin our democracy. We're all democrats, I hope—with a small 'd', Senator Paterson. Hopefully, everybody who participates in the parliamentary and political process in our country believes in the sovereign will of the Australian people, because it is only by the exercise of that sovereign will of the Australian people that the diversity of the Senate chamber exists as it does. All the different political philosophies and ideologies that form this chamber are as a result of the reflection of the sovereign will of the Australian people.

Changing our founding document, the Constitution of Australia, is a very serious business. It's not something to be taken lightly. It's not some frippery. It's not something to get all emotional and warm and fuzzy about and just tick the box. It is a serious venture. That is why Australian people have been very reluctant to change that very simple document that underpins how we run this place and the great institutions that have meant we've stayed free and open for the last 123 years. When we come to changing that document and to this bill before us, there are things like the 'yes' and 'no' committee and things like making sure Australians come to that question not with social media or their Instagram account informing them but with some serious understanding of the substantive question before them—both sides. The reality is most Australians aren't deeply engaged on this issue and the question in and of itself. And so the only decent thing, the only responsible thing, for us as legislators to do is make sure, if we really respect their sovereign will and are not rushing down a road to corral and coerce the Australian people into a certain view, that they go to that ballot box with a full understanding to exercise that sovereign will.

The fact that the government has agreed, after much pressure, to have a pamphlet outlining both the 'yes' case and the 'no' case to every Australian means that, whether they live in capital cities like Brisbane or whether they live in Indigenous communities like Santa Teresa, they will have the 'yes' and the 'no' proposition before them and they will be able to confidently walk into that ballot box and exercise their sovereign will. What comes out of that will be as it should be, and we will all need to respect that decision.

But the Labor Party, the government, put a bill before us that didn't have a 'yes' and 'no' pamphlet in it. They had to be dragged kicking and screaming to make this fair. It doesn't have equal funding for both sides of the campaign, so the rich and powerful—big sport, big business, multinationals and people that see that there is some political or economic advantage for them to support whatever the substantive question is later on down the track—will actually be able to pour millions of dollars into an economic outcome, and, instead of it being a reflection of the will of the Australian people, it will actually be a perverse outcome because it will have been garnered from those who seek to profit from promoting a certain view over another.

We happen to be a very egalitarian society. That's why governments in the past have funded both the 'yes' and the 'no' cases equally for whatever question it is. It was so that Australians could have confidence that it was not a partisan issue and that the government really believed that they were sovereign under our Constitution. So that's been concerning.

The fact is that the government haven't set up the official campaigns. They are happy for this to all be a bit loose and all a bit opaque because it suits them. With Australians starting to understand this question and starting to see that serious Indigenous academics themselves have competing views about what this body should look like and what the substantive question should be it's getting a bit rubbery and a bit concerning. The big legacy project for the Prime Minister is actually looking a little shaky. It looks a little like an albatross around his neck. That's concerning because those of us who have been around this space a little while are very, very committed to reconciliation and to closing the gap for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in this country, but this is a separate question before us. The bill itself is about making it a fair and democratic process, and that is not what they have done here. They have tried to rig the results and they have been exposed for it. They have been exposed for trying to rig the results for the Australian people.

So I am looking forward to the government's amendment that will actually include the pamphlet outlining clearly for the Australian people the 'yes' and 'no' cases. I'm making sure they recommit to that. I call on them in the name of fairness, democracy and egalitarianism to commit to official 'yes' and 'no' campaigns and equal funding. It's not too late to draft amendments to their own legislation. Lord knows it is changing at a rate of knots, and I'm sure it won't be the last thing to change in this debate.

I saw some Labor senators mocking my stated commitment to reconciliation and closing the gap. I was actually the minister who negotiated the Barkly Regional Deal after the rape of a two-year-old in Tennant Creek. I actually sat down with the Gunner government and the Tennant Creek Regional Council to put forward a whole body of work—$78 million for infrastructure projects agreed between three levels of government to deal with what are systemic issues in that community. No-one can go up there, sit and talk to people in these communities and not be impacted by our roles and responsibilities in this place. Whether you sit on this side of the chamber, down in the back stalls, or have the privilege of government, this has to change.

The saddest thing for me, as the minister who negotiated that, was when I sat down and actually talked to the people who were dealing with these issues, day in, day out, and hearing that, yes, you can build a new skate park, put some lighting up and some boarding facilities, but what we really need to do is to map the service provision by local government, private providers, the Territory government and the Commonwealth. That's mapping what each service provider is actually doing, find the gaps and filling them. There was a lot of duplication and a lot of gaps. I said, 'Okay, that sounds like a smart thing to do.' Out of the $78 million they said about $800,000 and that it was going to take a couple of years. When you go through the list of projects under the Barkly Regional Deal, the one thing that hasn't been done is the one thing that the people on the ground said would make a difference. That's an indictment on all of us who sat there and said that we would change this. So we can talk about symbolism over substance—and I'll have much more to say about that when we debate the substantive issue.

As I said, changing the Constitution, our founding document in this country, is incredibly hard. We don't do it lightly, and to be so divided now would show that the Labor Party needs to appreciate that Australians want to have confidence in the process and the journey that they have taken us on. They don't, and it's decreasing every day because they've rushed this. They haven't gone to the heart of core principles around the mechanics for referenda. Be fair: people expect the Australian government to be fair, to give them the information they need and to fund both sides to make sure there's an official case, so that foreign interference doesn't play a role in this referendum. People want donations to be tracked so that we actually know who was funded for what, and by how much. Without an official campaign, we won't know who is paying who. Who is actually rigging the results here?

All that leads to a lack of confidence, not just in the government's ability, or trust and faith in the sovereign will of the Australian people, but to a level of mistrust in the institutions of government itself: the Senate, the House of Representatives, the cabinet and the ministry. I think that all of us are better served if Australians trust us more to have their best interests at heart and also know that we trust them to make the right decision, whatever that may be. They're sovereign entities: give them the information and they will make their decision, whatever it is. We actually have a responsibility to back that.

I think that, at a time when fake news is rampant around global society, for the government to remove those provisions for an impartial and trusted source of information for the consideration of the Australian people goes to the heart of it. So we welcome the pamphlet, and I look forward to voting for that amendment. But it must be without caveat. A deal is a deal, unless this is going to be another backflip by Prime Minister Albanese and his government. Those opposite stated publicly that they would do a pamphlet, and that was without caveat. I know that there's a whole range of amendments to this bill and that we'll work our way through this as a chamber over the coming days, but Labor has to walk the walk. It's tough to be in government; you can't say one thing one day and backflip the next.

Unfortunately, over the last few months we've seen a few backflips. We've seen a few broken promises. But, on something as important as changing our founding document, you've got to square up, give Australians the information they need, fund both cases equally and have the official committees so that we know where the funding and donations are going and we can actually have more confidence out in the broader community. Then they can make their own minds up.

I will reserve my right on the bill, to see what the final bill looks like after this chamber has its deliberations around amendments. We support Australians' right to vote. I support their sovereign will, and I will respect whatever that is, come the time. But I am absolutely committed to them being able to have information, so they can make an informed choice and so that we don't rig the results to make sure one side has more money flowing into it than the another. I support fairness and egalitarianism, because I am a small d democrat, and this is an important conversation that our community is going to have over the coming months. I want it to be fair.

7:56 pm

Photo of Perin DaveyPerin Davey (NSW, National Party, Shadow Minister for Water) Share this | | Hansard source

As my colleague said, we all support the right of Australians to have a say on this very, very important issue. We absolutely believe in democracy and the right of our people to have a say on the most important document in our society, which is our Constitution. That is why it is so disappointing that the government are not supporting free, open, transparent and balanced democracy.

We on this side have raised three very important points with the government, three points that are fundamental to having a referendum with informed voters, open and transparent processes and integrity. The first point was to ensure we have a pamphlet to outline the 'yes' and 'no' cases, as we have done in all but very few referenda in the past.

The second point was to establish an official 'yes' and 'no' campaign organisation. This is even more important in this day and age, where we have social media and where everyone can set up a tile. You can get a blue tick on certain platforms or be verified on other platforms. If you don't have an official campaign, how do those platforms know who to tick or not to tick? We have seen in the past some of our social media platforms selectively pick and choose who is right and who is wrong. Quite frankly, and with all due respect to Facebook—I am on Facebook and I use it on a daily basis—do I want Mark Zuckerberg determining who is the right person to distribute information on this campaign? No. I would like an organisation, for 'yes' or 'no', to be identified by this place and recognised by this place, so that it takes the Googles, the Amazons and the Facebook Metas out of the picture; it should be an organisation recognised by this place to put forward their case. But, apparently, it's a free-for-all. This government is happy for a free-for-all, is happy let Meta to decide whose voice we hear on this very important debate on the Voice.

We also asked for appropriate funding, equal funding, for those organisations. I've heard the argument: why should taxpayers fund an either/or campaign? Absolutely.

Debate interrupted.