Of the 44 referenda held in this country, only eight have passed. The last referendum proposal to pass was in 1977. This shows not only that Australians take referenda very seriously but also that, as Robert Menzies said, ‘to get an affirmative vote from the Australian people on a referendum proposal is one of the labours of Hercules’.
It is of the essence in any referendum that the Australian people are presented with a question to which they answer yes or no. This seemingly simple set-up belies the complex sets of reasons people might have for choosing one answer over the other. This is why it is crucial to present voters with clear and comprehensive ‘yes’ and ‘no’ cases—so that all Australians can make an informed decision. Every government since 1928 has agreed with this and has provided pamphlets to voters.
If the referendum on an Indigenous voice to parliament succeeds, it will be one of the defining political moments of our time. The Voice has the potential to change the way our federation is governed. It does not represent a merely procedural amendment to our Constitution.
This referendum deserves fairly funded ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigns, and I am deeply concerned about the consequences if that does not occur. This referendum deserves ‘yes’ and ‘no’ pamphlets. It deserves the full attention of this parliament and this government. Instead, very regrettably, what this government has given the Australian people reflects a process which is undermined by a profound lack of fairness. The government has declined to fund ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigns, setting a dangerous precedent for future referenda and of course most significantly undermining the integrity of this referendum process. The Australian people deserve better.
It is patronising to assume that Australians do not need to receive official material associated with referenda. The Australian Electoral Commission reported that 40 per cent of recipients use its mailed material—a pamphlet setting out the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ cases—as a main source of information in casting their vote. That said, we are encouraged by indications from the government that it will reverse its decision and will agree to a ‘yes’ and ‘no’ pamphlet. This is not just a matter of fairness but critical to our democratic process. I put on the record very strongly that it is deeply concerning, however, that the government thought it could get away with a smoke-and-mirrors approach to this referendum. I hope and trust that, on this point, common sense will prevail and there will be a ‘yes’ and ‘no’ pamphlet received by all Australians.
We know—and this is a very important point to make in relation to ensuring that all Australians receive appropriate information—that electoral events are opportunities for bad actors to use misinformation to influence voters. The ACCC reports that 92 per cent of the respondents to the ACCC news survey had some concern about the quality of the news and journalism they were consuming and that analysis has identified concerning consumer and competition harms across a range of digital platform services that are widespread, entrenched and systemic.
Only weeks ago the director-general of ASIO told Australians that we are currently experiencing the greatest level of foreign interference in Australia’s history. Let me just say that again—the greatest level of foreign interference in Australia’s history. It would be naive in the extreme to think that foreign actors who desire to disrupt and undermine our democracy will not seek to spread misinformation in relation to the referendum on the Voice. We have seen foreign interference very openly at work in Canada and in Europe, and we know that we are not immune.
So in the name of fairness, integrity and democracy the Albanese government must fund official ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigns. This will give Australians confidence that the referendum is being conducted transparently, fairly and with integrity. Having official ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigns will minimise the risk that the referendum process is undermined by any sort of misinformation campaign, no matter the source of that misinformation campaign.
The government has said it will fund a facts campaign to the tune of $9.4 million. I am concerned that this may be an underhanded attempt to ensure that its own view on the Voice prevails. The Prime Minister, reportedly, recently told the Labor caucus that the government needs to minimise scare campaigns in relation to the Voice. Instead of doing the right thing and funding both sides equally, the government has arguably decided to fund the ‘yes’ case via proxy through its facts campaign. That’s why it’s so critically important that any factual campaign is delivered in a way that is completely neutral.
How can we trust the government to ensure a fair referendum process when—and I say this respectfully—the government has already broken so many of its promises to the Australian people: promises on power prices, on interest rates, on mortgages, on superannuation and even on registered nurses in aged-care homes. Australians deserve to have absolute, crystal-clear clarity in relation to the machinery of how this referendum will be conducted. All Australians have a right to have their say, and that’s why getting this machinery bill right is so important.
Unlike the government, we do not want to stand in the way of Australians having their say with fairness and integrity. We want Australians to be free to exercise their free will and their free choice, free of foreign interference, free of foreign influence, free of government pressure and free of misinformation. This freedom is fundamental to the maintenance of our democracy and the integrity of our Constitution.
Democracies are measured not only by what their citizens vote for but also by how they vote. The framers of our Constitution understood this, which is why they inserted section 128: the referendum provision. Referenda represent the soul of representative democracy in this country. They are a means by which Australians are meant to express their true view on matters of fundamental importance. It was with a referendum in 1967 that Indigenous people were counted as Australians. Once again, Australians are being called to vote on a matter of fundamental importance: the establishment of an Indigenous voice. Why does the government continue to insist, by denying the creation of official ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigns, that Australians not be able to make an informed decision about this?
There is no doubt that the legitimacy of the referendum result will depend heavily on the manner in which the referendum process is conducted by the government. The government needs to ensure that, especially on a matter as important as the Voice, the referendum is conducted with complete impartiality and unquestionable integrity. Why does it hesitate to do this? Surely this is counterproductive. Surely there is the risk that the government may in fact harm its own case for a ‘yes’ result in the referendum.
Regrettably, ever since the government announced its intention to hold a referendum, it has tried to wriggle out of its responsibility to ensure a fair referendum process. I think this says a lot about trust and the way the government trusts the Australian people to make their own choices. This is too important for the government to attempt to make the choice for Australians.
I also want to flag my deep concerns about other matters concerning the referendum such as the refusal of the Prime Minister to answer 15 very reasonable questions put by the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Dutton. It is also deeply concerning that, with only a number of months before Australians are meant to vote on this referendum, we still don’t know the proposed wording that will be put to the Australian people. There is also a very live debate which continues about the scope of the powers of the Voice along with many other questions. I have to say that in many respects the government has made a real mess of this and undermined this process, because it has not been able to address so many fundamental questions. The bottom line is that Australians do have a right to know the answers to those questions. Australians should not be required to answer yes or no until those questions are answered.
I stand here today to defend the right of all Australians to be presented with a real choice at this referendum, a genuine choice informed by fair and balanced information from ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigns that have received fair and equal funding. Like my colleagues, and, most recently, Senator Payne in her contribution, I too want to adopt a constructive approach to this bill. But the government must establish a level playing field. Getting this bill right is so important. If this this bill is not right, this is going to do this whole process fundamental damage. It has never been more important to ensure that our referendum machinery provisions are fit for purpose. Again I say to Senator Farrell, who is in the chamber: we really need to get this right.
I call the government to do the right thing by the Australian people. Let them have their say in a manner which is fair and in a manner which does not undermine the integrity of this very important process and the decision that all Australians must make.