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Thursday, 7 June 1984
Page: 2765

Senator GARETH EVANS (Attorney-General)(3.22) —The Government is obviously not altogether enamoured by the insertion of a provision which directly prohibits the Commonwealth from expending any money in respect of the presentation of the argument in favour of a referendum, otherwise than in the context of the official Yes/No pamphlet. But we do nonetheless recognise the reality of the opposition of a majority of senators in this place to any such Commonwealth financial capacity. We derive some solace from the terms in which this prohibition is now expressed under the Australian Democrats' amendment. In particular we see it as being quite appropriate and desirable that there be expressed provision enabling the Commonwealth Electoral Commission to produce impartial information for the public on the way the constitutional amendment will work. It would be unfortunate if there were indeed to be any exclusion of the role of the Electoral Commission in this respect.

The effect of the proposed clause 11 (4) (b) is to ensure that the prohibition against extra funding does not in fact override the function which the Commission would otherwise have under section 7A (1) (c) of the Commonwealth Electoral Legislation Amendment Act of promoting public awareness of electoral matters, including referendums, as it says 'by means of the conduct of education and information programs and by other means'. We need the kind of provision that the Democrats are here inserting in order to ensure that what is otherwise the function of the Commission can in fact take place. 'Impartial information' of course means an explanation of what a particular proposal does. It does not mean arguments for or against a proposal. For these the elector would have to continue to turn to the official Yes/No pamphlet and any supplementary advertising that the proponents for or against wanted to engage in and were able to engage in. The provision of information as to the effect of proposals obviously would not replace the official Yes/No pamphlet. I note that some of the States have produced information pamphlets on issues such as four year terms in New South Wales and daylight saving in the case of South Australia.

If there is to be a function of conveying information of this type, of course it needs to be vested in an impartial body with the capacity to carry it out, and the Electoral Commission would seem to be the obvious vehicle in that respect. It should be squarely acknowledged that the official Yes/No pamphlet is simply no longer adequate-if indeed it ever was-as a means of conveying information. Most people now look to television for information about what is going on and the pamphlet no longer seems to be regarded as an authoritative account of what a referendum proposal is about. It may still have a useful role as a point of reference for the Yes/No arguments. The last occasion on which the Yes/No pamphlet appears to have been relatively informative and moderate in its presentation was back in 1913. It was not used again after that for 24 years, when it was produced for the marketing and aviation referendums of 1937, and the No case was of the 'once again democracy is attacked' variety which has become all too familiar ever since. Since then the quality of the Yes/No pamphlets has been consistently criticised from all quarters. I think the question that perhaps deserves more serious consideration than we have given in this debate is whether we should continue to incur the kind of expense that is associated with Yes/No pamphlets in the future.

It ought to be said, finally, that a system of this kind, giving a positive role to an independent or impartial body to communicate information, has, I am told, operated in California for some time, where someone called a Legislative Analyst is given the duty of placing before the people an analysis of the effects of any proposal for constitutional alternative. The statutory duties of that official are specified in some detail. For example it is provided that:

The analysis is to be written in clear and concise terms so as to be easily understood by the average voter, must avoid the use of technical terms wherever possible, may contain background information, including the effect of the measure on existing law, must generally set forth in an impartial manner the information which the average voter needs to understand the measure adequately, it must also show the total number of votes cast for and against the measure in the Legislature.

I am not suggesting we should seek to write in detailed-

Senator Hill —Is he an independent authority?

Senator GARETH EVANS —Yes, so I gather. It is a public official, but I do not have any information about the way he is appointed. Perhaps this is something we might look at. Certainly, as I understand it, the whole object is to create some officer outside the legislative framework. He may be an executive official who is outside the legislative environment-there being no connection between them in the Californian system as elsewhere in the United States of America. As such he is independent by virtue of standing outside the legislature. That would need to be further looked at. Accordingly I indicate the Government's support for Senator Macklin's motion in the terms in which he has moved it. It is very much a second best position, so far as the Government is concerned, as will be fully appreciated. If we are to be denied the capacity to spend money as we like in promoting the referendum issues, or if we are also going to be denied, as we were by the last vote, the capacity to spend money at least in proportion to the degree of parliamentary support for the measure in question, at least there should be some capacity to communicate neutralised information to the electorate as some contribution at least to redressing some of the more strident propaganda which has traditionally made constitutional referendums so irrational a feature of Australian political life.