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

  I thank the member for Mackellar for her contribution to the debate on the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2013. Last week the Prime Minister announced that the Australian government will hold a referendum on 14 September to ask Australians to financially recognise local government in our nation's Constitution. If agreed by the Australian people, the amendment will make a modest but important change to our Constitution so that the existing practice of federal government support for local communities is formally recognised in our Constitution. The change would formally recognise the reality of our three-sphere system of government in Australia. The Australian government works closely with local governments every day to deliver vital services to communities, and I expect the referendum proposal will receive broad and bipartisan support in this federal parliament and across the country.

I thank the member for Mackellar for her contribution to the debate on the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2013. Last week the Prime Minister announced that the Australian government will hold a referendum on 14 September to ask Australians to financially recognise local government in our nation's Constitution. If agreed by the Australian people, the amendment will make a modest but important change to our Constitution so that the existing practice of federal government support for local communities is formally recognised in our Constitution. The change would formally recognise the reality of our three-sphere system of government in Australia. The Australian government works closely with local governments every day to deliver vital services to communities, and I expect the referendum proposal will receive broad and bipartisan support in this federal parliament and across the country.

Making two small, sensible amendments the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2013 helps to ensure that electors are able to make an informed vote in the referendum. These amendments will allow for stronger, more efficient communication with Australian electors. This bill implements the government response to two recommendations made by the then House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs in its 2009 report A time for change: yes/no? It is personally pleasing to be here today as the Attorney-General and Special Minister of State implementing recommendations from a House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs report prepared at a time when I served as chair of the committee.

In the 2009 report the committee made several recommendations to amend the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984. Under section 11 of this act the Australian Electoral Commissioner must arrange for arguments in favour of and against the referendum proposal to be printed in a pamphlet and posted to each elector. As the A time for change:yes/no? report noted:

The printed pamphlet as the primary method of communication has been in place since 1912 and retains support from many within the community.

…   …   …

This requirement to post material to every elector has been the subject of much criticism.

Recommendation 3 of the report was that, instead of posting the pamphlet to each elector, it be sent to each household. The amendments contained in this bill implement this recommendation but do so in a slightly different way than originally proposed. The amendments allow the Australian Electoral Commission to use the addresses they hold for Australian electors. Rather than attempting to describe what a 'household' is in the referendum act, it is more sensible to be able to draw on the existing database of addresses. Listening to the member for Mackellar's speech, it would appear that she has misunderstood the provision in the bill. I want to stress that email addresses are not provided for as an alternative to the use of postal addresses; they are an additional method of communication with electors that is proposed by this amendment. The whole intent of this amendment is to make sure that there will be as full communication as possible with Australian electors.

The bill also allows the Australian Electoral Commission to send pamphlets to any other address it considers appropriate, and I have mentioned the additional provision to allow pamphlets to be sent to an email address again if that is seen as appropriate. Many electors share residential addresses—for example, two adults who share a domestic partnership with, perhaps, adult children living at the same address. This amendment is aimed at making sure that the referendum pamphlet reaches Australian electors at least once, with less unnecessary and costly duplication. It is a provision which will save money.

The bill also implements recommendation 11 of the committee report, which was to lift the current limitation on spending imposed under section 11 of the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act. As many submitters to the A time for change report pointed out:

… the restriction on Commonwealth expenditure is a barrier to the development of better and more effective referendum process.

I would adopt the comments made by the member for Mackellar a moment ago about the need to ensure that electors are as informed as possible. That is what the lifting of this current limitation on spending is directed to. As the legal and constitutional affairs committee found in its recommendations:

It is apparent that referendums require a flexible and adaptable approach … the Committee is of the view that the funding level for referendum campaigns should be determined on a case- by-case basis and that decision should be taken by the Australian Government.

This bill lifts the limitation on government spending from when this bill commences until polling day for the 2013 general election. Lifting the limitation on spending is a sensible amendment which was also adopted in conjunction with the 1999 referendum—that is the last time that the Australian people were asked to vote on a change to our Constitution. The form of this provision in this bill to lift the limitation on spending is in exactly the same form as that used by the Howard government in 1999. I commend the bill to the House.