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Monday, 8 February 2010
Page: 713

Mr SLIPPER (8:52 PM) —This is one of the few reports of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs which have a dissenting report from a number of opposition members. While there is a dissenting report, I think that one ought to recognise that the process of the inquiry, with the roundtable, was very positive. There was a lot of initiative expressed by many people, and the committee worked well together despite the fact that at the end, when one was considering the deliberations emanating from the roundtable, members of the opposition found it necessary to lodge a dissenting report.

There is no doubt that the Australian Constitution is the foundation on which our Australian democracy is created. We have freedom; we have stability; we have a way of life that makes us the envy of people around the world. Consequently, any attempt to tamper with our Constitution or to interfere with the process of referenda to alter our Constitution ought to be undertaken only after the most careful consideration. Consequently, while the concept of a discussion on streamlining the process of constitutional referenda certainly is something in which all of us ought to participate, on balance the opposition members of the committee—or those who signed the dissenting report—could not go along with the majority view as expressed by the chairman. I would like to join the chairman in thanking the inquiry secretariat and indeed the committee secretary for the excellent service which the committee received, as always, when preparing the report entitled A time for change: yes/no?

In the time that is available to me, I would just like to mention briefly that the opposition members who signed the dissenting report wanted to make a comment about a number of recommendations. With respect to recommendation 1, it was felt that the generality of the recommendation calling for an amendment of the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984 to improve the process was unhelpful, and it did not detail what amendments should be made. It was felt that this recommendation could not be accepted. Recommendation 2, which referred to the removal of the word restrictions of the yes/no cases, was a matter of concern because the recommendation did not preclude a decrease in the word limit.

Recommendation 3, if adopted, would have resulted in the yes/no booklet only being delivered to each household. As we know, in a democracy not everyone in every household necessarily agrees on everything. It was felt by opposition members that if individual electors did not receive a yes/no case then it could be that electors, who had a responsibility to participate in the referendum process, would not necessarily each receive a list of the cases in favour of change and, of course, against change.

With respect to recommendation 6, while opposition members generally agreed with the recommendation for the development and implementation of a national civics education program, it was felt that the recommendation would be enhanced if it included provision for such a program to be developed and delivered in conjunction with non-government organisations currently promoting and operating education programs about the Australian Constitution. Such organisations, as was indicated in the dissenting report, could include CEFA and the Centre for Comparative Constitutional Studies.

Recommendations 7, 8 and 9 referred to a referendum panel. The feeling was that such a panel would be unelected and unaccountable, whereas all of us are elected to the parliament and we are at least responsible to the Australian people. Consequently, recommendations 10, 12, 13, 14 and 15 could not be supported because they referred to the referendum panel. Recommendations 4, 5, 11, 16 and 17 are supported.

This was an extremely useful and worthwhile inquiry. We were all pleased to be able to participate because—let us face it—democracy is a fragile flower and our Constitution is the foundational structure which makes sure that we are the wonderful country that we are. That is why any attempt to tamper with our Constitution or processes ought to be carefully scrutinised.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Ms AE Burke)—Does the member for Isaacs wish to move a motion in accordance with the report to enable it to be debated on a later occasion?