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Thursday, 7 June 1984
Page: 2775

Senator HILL(4.28) —I will make one last attempt to persuade the Democrats. The more one looks at section 7A (1) (c) of the Commonwealth Electoral Legislation Amendment Act, the more ambiguous it appears to be. The ambiguity relates to whether one is speaking of referendums-the task of the Electoral Commission is to provide education or give information on the nature of referendums, to use Senator Harradine's expression-or the detail of a particular referendum. To give information as to the nature of a referendum and on the responsibilities of the public in a referendum is obviously a proper and worthwhile role for the Commission to take. We will not argue against that. But if it means rather that the Commission has the ability to educate and provide information on the arguments for and against a referendum, it will be involved in the business of politics, which we say is totally undesirable.

I would have said before today that on balance this provision was limited to dealing with the nature of a referendum. I would have said that, because it is not only referendums, it is parliamentary matters. Surely the Attorney would not say it was the role of the Electoral Commission to be able to advertise in the paper as to the arguments for and against pieces of legislation that are passing through these Houses. I am sure he would not say that. He would say that when it speaks here of parliamentary matters, it is talking about the nature of the parliamentary process. I would have thought that probably that it how this provision should be interpreted. We were not certain about this, so we said that when we were talking about giving the Commonwealth power to fund its role under this provision, it should be made clear that it is limited to questions on the nature of the parliamentary process or the nature of referendums. That is why we said, in a spirit of caution, that we should include this provision. We now hear that the Attorney's interpretation of this provision is that it might well give power--

Senator Gareth Evans —I did not say 'might well'. I said it is conceivable but I doubt it.

Senator HILL —You said, if I may quote: 'In the guise of information it may well be legitimate for it to put arguments for and against'. If that is a possible interpretation and one that the Attorney endorses, there is even more reason for the Committee today to exercise the caution that we advocate and make clear by this amendment that the only material that the Commission should put out in relation to a referendum should be material which is factual and which is not aimed at advancing either the arguments in favour of the proposed law or the arguments against it.

Perhaps the Democrats could consider the clause in that light. There is ambiguity and it should be clarified. It has become more worrisome after what the Attorney said today. The Democrats should come with us on this occasion and exercise that little bit of caution that we all concede, except perhaps the Attorney, cannot do any harm; the amendment will simply ensure that the Commission does not run that risk of delving into waters that are inappropriate for its role and responsibility.

Question put:

That the amendment (Senator Hill's amendment to Senator Macklin's proposed amendment) be agreed to.