Senate debates

Tuesday, 21 March 2023


Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2022; Second Reading

6:58 pm

Photo of Linda ReynoldsLinda Reynolds (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As we move forward, we have to remain vigilant and resolute in our defence of Australia's foundational principles and resist any attempt to undermine our Constitution, particularly in today's environment of fake news and foreign interference. Australians are, very wisely, naturally cautious about making amendments to our Constitution. It is only fair to the people that we serve in this place that we ensure they have all of the available facts, which they can trust, so they can make a fully informed decision about whether they support the upcoming referendum.

In this age of disinformation, it is important that the government takes the lead and provides clear information and a robust referendum process to Australians. The opposition has raised three points with the government to address our concerns with the referendum process. The first is to restore the pamphlet to outline the 'yes' and 'no' cases. Again, while the government may have indicated support for that, the devil will certainly be in the detail. The second is to establish the official 'yes' and 'no' campaign organisations. The third is to appropriately fund both of these official organisations to ensure that the process is fair and has integrity. These measures are fundamental to having a referendum with informed voters and, as I said, a process that is transparent and that voters can clearly trust because it has integrity. It's fair to say that this change in the bill to the existing legislation will actually have profound implications not just for this next referendum but also for subsequent referendums. So while, as I've said, we welcome the government's announcement that they will restore the pamphlet, we have to now see the detail of what that will mean for the change to the legislation.

On our side of the chamber, we cannot support and we will not support a bill that does not have a plan for how to properly regulate donations and how to properly regulate foreign interference—the very real threat of foreign interference—or one that does not provide a plan for how scrutiny of the referendum itself will be conducted. All of this could be resolved by the establishment of appropriately and equally funded official 'yes' and 'no' campaign organisations.

We welcome the engagement of government on this bill, but, as we said, we still have concerns. Why do we have concerns? Let's have a look at what this bill is designed to do. This bill will determine the settings for how the referendum on an Indigenous voice to parliament is conducted. However, the coalition has no doubt that the changes included in this bill will also be used for future referendums. The bill does—and we do acknowledge this—make a number of non-controversial changes to the act to bring the operation of referenda into line with the Commonwealth Electoral Act, which hasn't been done, I believe, for nearly 20 years. It is out of date and it is out of step with the Electoral Act. However, there are three key concerns and issues that remain for us on this side of the chamber. The bill as it stands removes the requirement to provide all households with a pamphlet outlining both the 'yes' and the 'no' cases for changes to our Constitution, the bill does not make provision for official 'yes' and 'no' campaign organisations, and the bill does not outline any official funding for these campaigns.

These positions have been advocated consistently to the government by those on this side of the chamber, because, while the government are desperate to get this referendum through, they keep mismanaging it, and the prospect of not doing that—due to their own mistakes and fumbles in this area—is making them more desperate to get this through. But by stacking the deck, as the government is proposing to do in this bill, not only will it corrupt the process but it will actually make it less likely for this to go through if the majority of Australians and all voters don't have access to information that they can trust so that they can make an assessment of both the 'yes' and the 'no' cases before casting their vote.

People listening might be wondering why we're advocating the retention of a pamphlet. On the face of it, it seems like it might be a little outdated—a written pamphlet in the days of modern media. But this sets a very dangerous precedent. There is no precedent at all, in nearly a hundred years, for deliberately not providing a pamphlet. This would be the first time since before Phar Lap won the Melbourne Cup for the first time that there is not a pamphlet.

The requirement for a pamphlet was instituted in 1912 for a very good reason. There have been three referenda—in 1919, 1926 and 1928—for which there wasn't a pamphlet, but there were very good reasons for that each time. In 1919 there was literally insufficient time to produce the pamphlet, in 1926 there was no agreement on how to produce the 'yes' argument itself and in 1928 there was overwhelming agreement between parties and government and it wasn't thought necessary. But none of the circumstances for those three exceptions apply here today. We know there's not complete agreement on the issue itself, we have the time to prepare the pamphlets and we can get agreement on how to argue the cases.

In 1967 and 1977 only 'yes' pamphlets were provided to the electorate. That, again, we think is wrong. We need to put to the people of Australia the arguments for both the 'yes' case and the 'no' case and people can then be in a position to make up their own minds.

Why the pamphlets? We know that people still trust written material that comes from the government as official material. We've heard from the AEC that, when they provide material to electors in our federal elections, 40 per cent of recipients will use this documentation as their main source of information for how to cast their vote. But we also know that electoral events are increasingly influenced by misinformation and social media algorithms that provide an echo chamber of thoughts and ideas for voters' minds, whereas this would be official material that people can trust.

Additionally, the ACCC has published data that has reported that 92 per cent of respondents to the ACCC's news survey had some concerns about the quality of news and also the journalism that they were consuming. The analysis has identified consumer concerns and competition harms across a wide range of digital platform services which are widespread, entrenched and systematic. If you think about that, it is even more important today that we provide, support and fund material that people can trust when you have 92 per cent of respondents in the latest ACCC news survey having concerns about the quality and veracity of the information they receive on online platforms.

Why are we advocating for official 'yes' and 'no' campaigns? We're doing that simply because it will clearly increase the trust of the Australian voters in the integrity of the process itself, which is absolutely critically important. Having official 'yes' and 'no' campaigns will make things simpler for the regulatory environment and for the proper conduct of the referendum itself.

The AEC has given evidence to the parliamentary committee JSCEM that the donation disclosure regime remains the most complex part of the Electoral Act. We will be applying that regime in this referendum and to participants who are not regularly involved in elections. An official campaign structure will be the best way for our regulators to ensure that the appropriate education and enforcement of the electoral laws is in place for the referendum.

We know that there will be a significant number of participants, including organisations, in this referendum who will not be associated with political parties or do not have regular events in the electorate. That is okay. That is what we would expect in a functioning democracy. But having a single point of coordination to provide education and to commence any audit processes for donations or foreign interference is the best way to protect the integrity of the referendum from misinformation and foreign interference.

The Senate has already heard from officials that there might be people who will fall under donations legislation and other electoral laws who won't know about it because they're not regular political donors. The AEC has said the education of participants will be significant given that these events happen so rarely and that they aren't the usual political parties that they will be regulating. They've acknowledged that even political parties, who go through this process all the time, sometimes struggle to get it right.

On the final point, why we are asking for equal funding: we on this side of the chamber are seeking an assurance that once these bodies are established and there is a guarantee of equal funding for both cases—if it is provided—it is provided to each side, to ensure that neither side is advantaged or disadvantaged and that they can comply with the disclosure and regulatory regimes at the referendum. In short, it is a big thing for Australians to consider changing our Constitution, and the— (Time expired)

7:10 pm

Photo of Anne RustonAnne Ruston (SA, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Health and Aged Care) Share this | | Hansard source

It is with great pleasure that I rise tonight to speak on the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2022, because it is a very significant day in our history when we seek to ask the Australian public to make a decision about changing the founding document of our country—that is, our Constitution.

I know, when it comes to constitutional matters, that those on this side of the chamber take the issue very seriously. We need to make sure that the approach we take when we seek to change our Constitution is principled, underpinned by sound reasoning, consistent and fair. I am particularly concerned, as I stand this evening to talk about this bill, that we are being asked to change the machinery that sits behind the establishment of a referendum in a way that has never been done before in this country and that, in my opinion, seeks to make the putting of this really important question to Australia an unbalanced activity.

The principles that underpin our democracy are the very reason we stand in this chamber. The principles that underpin democracy are the very reason that our parliament, the Westminster system, is the most important in the world. I believe, as I know many of my colleagues on this side of the chamber believe, that the sovereign will of the Australian people is something that we must treat with the greatest respect. Changing the document by which our country lives is one of the most serious things that we will ever be asked to do in this place. It's not something that we should be taking lightly and it's not something that we should be using for our own political purposes. So, in standing here today, I raise a concern that I'm sure just about all of my colleagues on this side, when they've contributed to this debate, have raised—that is, the responsibility of the government to make sure that they take the lead and provide clear, consistent, unbiased information to the Australian public so that the strength of our referendum process is not compromised by political interference.

There are three main issues that we came to the table with and that we told the government were extremely important for the maintenance of the integrity of the referendum process. The first one was providing to the Australian public a pamphlet that outlined the arguments that sat behind the case for a 'yes' and the case for a 'no', and, in doing so—understanding the broad scope of Australia, the many multicultural communities that exist—making sure that the pamphlet was provided in writing to every household in Australia in appropriate format for that household so that the people who lived there could understand what the two arguments in relation to the proposed change in the Constitution actually meant. We were obviously delighted when the government agreed that it would restore the pamphlet. The original bill that went through the other place actually sought to have that pamphlet removed. It sought to deny the Australian population the opportunity to be provided with, in an independent and unbiased way, an assessment of both of the campaigns and why they were proposing either the 'yes' case or the 'no' case. Whilst the government are bringing to this chamber, I believe, amendments to the bill that will enable a 'yes' and 'no' pamphlet, obviously we're very keen to see where the government finally land in relation to that pamphlet, because it underpins a hugely important component of the integrity of the referendum—that is, providing Australians with fair, unfettered, unbiased information about what the government are asking them to do. The idea that the government would seek to change our founding document—our Constitution—without providing them with information about that particular change was going to be I think undermines completely the integrity of the process of the referendum.

The second issue that we're asking the government about, and which we think is entirely reasonable, is to establish 'yes' and 'no' campaign organisations. This bill, in its current form, does not provide for 'yes' or 'no' campaign organisations to be established. This is a really dangerous precedent, because we know that the campaigns themselves provide us with vehicles through which we can ensure the integrity of the process and would make things very simple for the regulatory environment and for the proper conduct of the actual referendum. We note that when it comes to issues such as foreign interference that the 'yes' and 'no' campaign organisations provide the very vehicles through which we can test, assess and regulate to make sure that things like foreign interference don't occur. In their absence, there really is no mechanism by which the Australian government can assure itself that that sort of interference is not occurring.

The Director-General of ASIO, only two weeks ago, told Australians that we're seeing the greatest level of foreign interference that we have ever seen in the history of this country. We know that foreign interference is something that continues to grow around the world. To enable us to put full confidence in the integrity of the process and that there is no foreign interference in this really important decision that we're asking the Australian public to go and vote on, we would think that there should be provision of 'yes' and 'no' organisations through which we can monitor donations and foreign interference. It should be just as simple as finding an organisation through which we can determine how scrutineers will be able to be made available on the night of the counting of the ballots. It seems to me like this is a very simple and fundamental mechanism through which we can make sure that the ease, simplicity and streamlining of the delivery of this referendum could be assured. But, for some reason, those opposite—the government, are denying Australians the opportunity to have that particular provision.

The third matter that we're particularly concerned about is the fact that there's no funding available for these independent 'yes' and 'no' organisations that will be the vehicles through which we would be able to operate the integrity of this particular referendum. In the absence of any 'yes' and 'no' organisations and, therefore, in the absence of any funding to any 'yes' and 'no' organisations, we are left with half-baked bill here that seeks to provide a half-baked act. It does not afford the greatest amount of support and integrity to this system.

As I said in my original remarks, the integrity of the referendum is based on the information that is received by the voters, and consistency with precedent is something that should also give voters great confidence—that this government is taking this really seriously and is not using this mechanism to actually deliver a political argument. The reality is that this government has a bit of a track record so far of ticking and flicking election promises without any great regard for appropriate process or the integrity through which they seek to deliver it. So it's really disappointing, as we stand here today, after months of discussion and negotiation and the putting forward of an extraordinary amount of very good arguments for how the Australian public can maintain trust in the integrity of referenda in Australia going forward, that we sit here with a bill which is clearly seeking to politicise an opportunity because of the numbers those opposite have in the other place. And, sadly, they're obviously taking advantage of the numbers that they have here.

I call on the government to seriously think about making sure that you are honest with the Australian public. Don't stand here with a referendum before us whilst you are basically leaning on one side of the scales and trying to influence the decision of the Australian public. I think that, if you're going to ask the Australian public to change our Constitution, you should be allowing them to do it in an environment that is completely open, without caveat and provided to them without political influence.

I know that after tonight there will be a number of amendments put forward by a wide range of different parties in this chamber. The Labor Party, the Greens, many of the crossbench and, of course, the coalition will also be putting amendments forward in an attempt to see if we can make sure that this bill is actually going to deliver the kind of integral process that we believe is essential to ensure that the Australian public are given a fair and reasonable opportunity to make a change to their Constitution.

The problem that I have is with the track record of this government so far while it has been in government over the last nine months. It is a government that has been pretty quick to backflip. They often don't very well think through the policy positions that they put forward. We saw a lot of headline rhetoric when we came into the election, and now we're seeing ticking and flicking of those particular election commitments, without any real regard for the consequences that sit behind them and the flow-on effects of those decisions.

We know that many of their promises haven't been kept. We've seen broken promise after broken promise, and most often these promises have been broken because this government has not bothered to do the hard work to put in place the things that need to sit behind those headline promises to make sure that they're deliverable. Today we talked about 24/7 nurses in aged care. That's not deliverable, because the minister forgot to actually go out there and speak to the industry and realise that the workforce that was needed to deliver her election commitment just didn't exist. There were promises made about superannuation and franking credits: they weren't going to be touched. But somehow now they are. Of course, there were promises that your power bills were going to go down, and all we've seen is them going up.

They come in here as a government and say: 'It's okay. We're not going to give you all of those protection mechanisms that have normally been afforded to referendums in the past. We just want you to trust us that it will all be fine.' Their track record so far shows that I wouldn't really be trusting this government, and that's why, as the opposition, we're saying to the government: 'If you want the Australian public to absolutely trust you, put out there transparently the things you're prepared to do to make sure that the integrity of this referendum is assured and that this is the bill through which you are able to do it. Come forward and support the people's right to vote, but support the people's right to a fair vote and to have the information that they need through the method and the mechanism that they are most able to understand so that, when they turn up at the polling booth, they have full information to make their decision.' I have to say that the most disappointing thing would be for this bill and this referendum to fail because Australians think the mechanism is either unfair or biased. It would be a significant failure of this place if it were actually the political interference in the process that was the reason why this particular bill did not get passed and the referendum ultimately didn't get up.

I will reserve my right, as others have before me, to see what this final bill looks like after the amendments have been put to the chamber before I make a decision about how I intend to vote on it. Of course, there is much that could change over the coming days, with the amendments that are before us. As I said, I absolutely support the right of Australians to vote on important issues and to have their say on this particular issue, but I also support their right to have fair and unbiased information on which to base their decision when they go to the polls to vote in this referendum. I am absolutely a supporter of the appropriate mechanisms that this institution, the Parliament of Australia, has held proud since Federation, and I think that what we have before us today, what we are likely to see in the coming months and what we've seen from this government's behaviour in previous days is a government that's prepared to trash the convention that has led to this place being held in such high esteem for so long, in an attempt to tick and flick an election commitment. They are now prepared to provide a lopsided, one-sided approach to this.

I hope the government will listen to the concerns that have been put forward—some very valid concerns in the contributions that have made in the second reading debate on this particular bill. I ask them, for the sake of the integrity of this place, for the sake of the integrity of our referendum process: please make sure that you provide a fair and balanced approach to this referendum.

7:25 pm

Photo of Susan McDonaldSusan McDonald (Queensland, National Party, Shadow Minister for Resources) Share this | | Hansard source

The Constitution is the guiding document of the nation, and referenda to alter that document are among the most important discussions that we can have. It is the document that has seen Australia develop as the stable and functional society that we enjoy, and it is therefore critical that the government of the day provides comprehensive information to support both the 'yes' and 'no' cases to allow all Australians to make an informed decision.

More than a quarter of all Australians were born overseas and almost half have a parent who was born overseas, so the production of this material in other languages is paramount to allow those for whom English is not their first language to make the same informed decision as others. If Labor is serious about a multicultural society, this should be a priority. In fact, today is Harmony Day, and we heard earlier from the minister about how important a multicultural society is to this government, yet the very demonstration of how that should happen has been called into question by their decision not to provide a multilingual pamphlet with the 'yes' and 'no' cases outlined. A neutral civic program—the pamphlet—allows Australians to consider their decision in an informed and deliberate manner away from the din of public debate, and I think this is critical because this is a serious decision. Despite the commentary from the Prime Minister about Australians being generous and how Australians should do this, it's not fair to expect Australians to make a decision of such import, to change our Constitution, without doing the work that is required. I've been reflecting on Senator Ruston's comments that the failure of this referendum will be sheeted home to how well this government has provided the clarity and transparency to make a decision. That is why this is so important.

The coalition raised three major concerns with the draft bill. We wanted to restore the pamphlet to outline the 'yes' and 'no' cases, we wanted to establish official 'yes' and 'no' campaign organisations and we thought it was appropriate that there be appropriate funding for these official organisations. I acknowledge the government's announcement that there will be both cases published on the pamphlet, but, of course, we have not yet seen that amendment to understand exactly what they intend to do. But it is fundamental to our society—to good, balanced decision-making for Australians—that we have informed voters, we have good process and we have consistent process aligned with the precedent of previous referenda. This pamphlet is vital to the consistency of referenda. As I said, we welcome the government's signals, but we do need to wait for the final amendment words.

I'm also concerned about there being no plan to regulate donations to provide security and to promote a fair platform. Foreign intervention into critical decisions of national importance is a subject which is the matter of much discussion around the world, so it is important that this government also regulate donations and provide transparency about who is influencing the decisions that Australians make. If we were to have no pamphlet, it would be the first time since 1928. That is a dangerous precedent. A pamphlet has been required since 1912. We have had three referenda where there hasn't been a pamphlet—1919, 1926 and 1928—for three very good reasons. In 1919 there was insufficient time to produce a pamphlet—

Debate interrupted.