House of Representatives Speech- Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2013

Mr Deputy Speaker, the government opposes this amendment. This is a proposal by the opposition to retain a cap on spending that has been in the referendum (machinery provisions) legislation since 1912. That is where the member for Mackellar wants to take Australian electoral processes back to—1912.

Mr Deputy Speaker, the government opposes this amendment. This is a proposal by the opposition to retain a cap on spending that has been in the referendum (machinery provisions) legislation since 1912. That is where the member for Mackellar wants to take Australian electoral processes back to—1912.

The context is that this whole matter of what was to be the machinery provisions to apply to the next referendum to be held in our country was considered by the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee in a report in 2009, and we seem to have a change of heart by this opposition because the opposition members of that Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee in 2009 supported the removal of the limitation on spending for the purposes of referendums. But, of course, this opposition, represented here by the member for Mackellar, is nothing but negativity and obstructionism. One can only say that what has just been said by the member for Mackellar borders on the bizarre. She has quoted from an AEC submission to the joint select committee into the holding of this referendum, and the particular passage from which she read refers to the risk of inadequate advertising material, in particular such matters as the risk that the advertising material in association with the referendum would not be culturally adequate, would not be culturally specific enough, and a range of other risks—all of them directed properly by the Australian Electoral Commission to its concern that the Australian electorate be as fully informed as possible.

So what is the response put forward by the member for Mackellar? It is to propose that there should be no advertising; it is to propose that the only communication with Australian electors for the purposes of this referendum on recognising local government in our Constitution—bringing our Constitution a little bit alive and bringing it into the 21st century to recognise existing practice—is a yes/no pamphlet, a device that was invented in 1912, which is where the member for Mackellar wants to take us back to.

The removal of this cap on spending was supported by opposition members in 2009, and no explanation has been put forward by the member for Mackellar as to why it should not now be proceeded with. I would add that all parties, historically, have recognised that an effective referendum campaign—effective meaning that there is a high level of interest and a high rate of engagement by the voting public, not by the ultimate outcome of the vote, but effective in the sense of engagement—requires much more government input and financing than simply a yes/no pamphlet.

In 1999, $4.5 million was spent on a public information kit for the referendum on the republic, and $15 million was divided between the two opposing committees—there was a yes committee and a no committee—and another $16.9 million was provided to the electoral commission for the yes/no pamphlet and related advertising costs. That is a total of $36.4 million spent by the Howard government in 1999 on that referendum. The Howard government, quite properly, recognised the need for a range of funding avenues. I just quote again from what the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee noted about this subject. They said:

The increased funding allocated to the 1999 referendum to provide for both educational material and further campaign advertising illustrates the significant difference between what is necessary for an effective referendum and what is provided for in the Machinery of Referendums Act… the Yes/No pamphlet alone is insufficient to educate and engage the public.

The reality is that starving this campaign of sensible, reasonable funding will mean that the Australian community is unaware of and disengaged from the information that they need to make an informed vote in September. It is shameful. This opposition when in government removed the cap on spending for the purposes of a referendum and explained in detail why it was necessary to do so, seemingly understanding then in government that simply sending out 2,000 words in the yes case and 2,000 words in no case in a pamphlet to Australian electors was not sufficient. This is what the then-Attorney-General, Daryl Williams, had to say on the removal of the cap:

In order to make an informed decision, the Australian people must have access to relevant information about our system of government and the proposal for change. The government believes that public funding should be made available to support a vigorous and engaging public presentation of the arguments for and against change.

This opposition does not want that; it does not want the Australian people to be informed. Fundamentally they are an antidemocratic opposition.