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Wednesday, 15 May 2013
Page: 2567


Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS (New South Wales) (10:24): I too rise to speak on this bill and make some observations. What we are seeing here today is a desperate government that is seeking to take the minds of ordinary Australians that are going to be making judgements off their shambolic record and trying to confuse the issue on election day by putting up this referendum. Instead of focusing the attention of Australian voters in the days before the next federal election on its record, the government is now, in my view, putting forward what is clearly a red herring.

Let us look at the bill that is being rushed here with such unseemly haste and, again, I reiterate the comments that have been made by both Senator Back and Senator Smith about the appalling conduct of the Greens in this matter. They come in here all the time trying to be holier than thou, but when push comes to shove they will always do what their political masters are instructing them to do, and they will always get into bed with them. It does not matter: you can go out there and you can talk about wanting transparency and being holier than thou, but you are always in here supporting the government's agenda, supporting the guillotine. As other coalition senators have said, we are going to see in the coming weeks legislation that is going to be truncated, and debate that is going to be truncated, and the guillotine imposed, and you are going to be right there next to them.

To these bills now at hand: there are two amendments that are before us, one of which will remove the provision of this bill contained in the schedule which seeks to remove the need for the yes/no pamphlet to be posted. This bill substitutes 'sent to each address'. We are very concerned about this because, by getting rid of the word 'posting' and substituting it with 'sending', we are going to allow the Australian Electoral Commissioner to send information to an address that he considers appropriate. We have had discussions in this place last year, and certain comments were made when we were discussing the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill 2011. It is our strong belief that the Australian Electoral Commissioner should not be assessing what is the appropriate address or particularly an email address which the minister in his second reading speech has indicated has been contemplated.

Instead the Australian Electoral Commission should be focusing its attention on meeting its current obligations under the act and focusing on maintaining the integrity of its roll. There is no official register of emails for electors. There is no data that was collected in the census that shows how many people have emails. Moving away from the effectiveness of material being posted to electors and to each elector, this is a fundamentally important aspect of any constitutional change. When there is a referendum, it is vitally important that electors are fully informed and, as Senator Ryan has said, there is no better way to be informed than receiving a piece of correspondence that has been posted to you by the Australian Electoral Commissioner so that you can fully comprehend what you are about to vote on, whether you are contemplating voting yes or whether you are contemplating voting no.

As the coalition has argued, we are vigorously opposed to automatic enrolment and the use of government departments to provide the AEC with information to be used to automatically enrol people to the electoral roll. This is in the same vein as arguments we were opposed to last time—that is, watering down the information and the ability of the elector to be fully informed. There are no statistics that have been collected on the number of electors who have email addresses. There is no data.

Let us go back and have a look at the dissenting report of coalition members to the Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, which was brought down in December 2009. There was a reason coalition members dissented to recommendation 3, and I would like to examine those reasons in the time available to me. The report states:

If adopted this recommendation would result in the Yes/No booklet be delivered to every household instead of every elector. We strongly disagree with this recommendation. Household distribution would reduce the number of people who had access to the Yes/No case.

Absolutely. If you have five electors in a household and one piece of correspondence goes to them, what are the chances that all five of those electors will be properly informed at the end of this process? When one receives material in one's letterbox that is addressed to the householder the reaction of most people is to simply take that material, put it in the round filing cabinet and not read it. That is precisely what is likely to happen in this circumstance.

As the dissenting report noted:

Referenda to change the Australian Constitution are significant events and require the engagement of as many Australians as possible. All politicians know that communicating with their constituents via direct, personalised mail is far more effective that a letter delivered ‘To the Household’. It therefore seems rather odd that the Australian Government would reduce the direct delivery of official information regarding referenda.

The dissenting report also quoted evidence given by Ms Cheryl Saunders:

Even constitutional expert, Cheryl Saunders, whose view of the Yes/No case via the mail was that 'I would be doubtful that it is very useful even for older people', went on to say '…but you may have research that shows differently, and you are the members of parliament, so you know what your constituents do.'

That is precisely the case. As politicians we know that correspondence that is forwarded to our constituents and directly addressed to them is the most effective way of communicating with them.

Let us move now to the second amendment that the coalition is moving. The amending bill seeks to suspend the operation of subsection 11(4) for the period up until the end of election day. Let us not forget—and it is very important to remember—that this provision was placed in the legislation to curtail unnecessary expenditure; in other words, to put a cap on it. It specifically states:

The Commonwealth shall not expend money in respect of the presentation of the argument in favour of, or the argument against, a proposed law except in relation to:

(a) the preparation, printing and posting, in accordance with this section …

The section goes on to talk about translations into other languages of the material contained in those pamphlets, preparation of material suitable for those who are visually impaired and distribution or publication through the internet. Therefore, specifically, if this subsection were to be suspended from operation, as is provided for by this bill, it would leave it open to the government to spend as much money as it would like promoting one case or the other.

Whilst the Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs did recommend that spending be directed to referendum education and to equal promotion of the yes and no arguments—that was obviously in the minds of the people on the committee who made the recommendation—there is no provision in this enabling machinery legislation that requires money spent by the government to be spent equally on the yes case and the no case. Clearly, even in the dissenting report there is a recommendation that recommendation 11 be supported. So, this proposed change is not in the tenor of the report itself, because it was clearly contemplated that it would not be put that way.

So, let's look at the Spiegelman report which, as we know, is the report of the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Local Government. It was pointed out in that report that there was a need to ensure that the presentation of the arguments for the cases was not left solely to the politicians and local government representatives. That report does contemplate having other people in the community being involved in this process. What we are now seeing is a government that is going out there deliberately to confuse people. And we are seeing the possibility of a government wanting to have absolute freedom to have a media campaign of one sort or another—probably using existing regulations for advertising—unfettered by this provision in the machinery legislation.

We do have existing regulations that deal with government advertising. Most of the time this government chooses to ignore those. We have seen them ignored repeatedly—especially in relation to how the government proceeded on the so-called health reform advertising—but in this situation government advertising would be unfettered.

We are likely, then, to see a truncated period of time to put the cases. Irrespective of what one's views are in relation to this question of the recognition of local government, even the Spiegelman report outlined that fewer than 30 per cent of voters can be said to feel sufficiently strongly committed at this time to recognising local government. But leaving that issue aside, every indicator—including the indications of the AEC itself—is that a truncated period in which to prepare all the information for a referendum would expose the referendum to risk of insufficient information being made available.

Under these circumstances, why are we suspending this provision? This government has just delivered—it happened yesterday evening—a budget which confirms Labor's financial and budget management to be in complete chaos, and which does absolutely nothing to help Australian families with the rising cost-of-living pressures. In economically uncertain times, this budget delivers more debt, more deficits, more taxes, more broken promises and greater uncertainty for ordinary Australians. At this particular time it is absolutely economically irresponsible to be spending money outside the provisions already contained in the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act to ensure that information is properly sent out to the electors of Australia. As I said, this is clearly another stunt and another exercise by this government to attempt to take the minds of ordinary Australians off the real issue for the next federal election, which will be a referendum on this chaotic government. It will be a referendum on the carbon tax, a referendum on the trust aspect of this Prime Minister. Let us not forget that the real issue here is the Prime Minister's indication to the electorate at the last federal election, when she said, 'There will be no carbon tax under a government I lead.' The litany of broken promises that followed that very big broken promise mean that history will judge the Prime Minister very badly.

After six years after we do have? We have debt; we have lots of spin. Australians are desperately seeking stable and competent economic management, and they have not had that from this Prime Minister and not from this Treasurer. The Treasurer's budget and his budget speech yesterday evening demonstrate even further the criticism that is warranted of his absolute chaos as an economic manager. This government has failed to set out a credible strategy for the coming 12 months or the next six months, let alone for the next decade. The Treasurer has failed to indicate to the Australian public where the money is going to come from for his big-ticket announcements and how this government proposes to find the money to spend on these initiatives.

What does this budget actually deliver? That is what is going to be foremost in the public's mind and what should be foremost in the public's mind at the election on 14 September, not some question about local government that is some sort of diversion tactic from the fact that total gross debt will breach the $300 billion debt ceiling over the forward estimates. This is Labor's fifth record deficit in five years with at least two more deficits to come. There is no credible path back to surplus. There are more broken promises, such as the scrapped tax cuts and family payments. There will be more than $25 billion in higher taxes over the next four years and an extra $100 million spending on government advertising. This budget confirms that Labor's financial and budget management is in utter and complete chaos.

In conclusion, I support the amendments that Senator Ryan will be proposing on behalf of the coalition. The first relates to the need to continue to send by post the yes/no case to every elector. And, the second amendment is to remove the provision that would suspend the provisions of section 11(4).