Ensuring a Fair, Balanced Debate — The Indigenous Voice to Parliament and Constitutional Change Bills

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.