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Thursday, 7 June 1984
Page: 2766

Senator HILL(3.29) —I wish briefly to put the Opposition's position in regard to the Australian Democrats' amendment. The chamber will be aware of the Opposition's view that the Commonwealth should not expend money in the presentation of the arguments in favour of or against a proposed law. The chamber will be aware that we pursued that matter when a similar debate took place late last year. On that occasion we accepted that moneys be expended in the publication of the pamphlet that is referred to, the Yes/No pamphlet that is covered in the legislation, and also for travelling and accommodation expenses for members of parliament. We took a similar view on this occasion when this Bill, the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Bill 1984 was being debated in the House of Representatives, and moved an amendment to that effect, but of course due to the numbers in the other place it was unsuccessful. We intended again to move a similar amendment here today. We noted that the Democrats were going to do likewise, except their amendment also covered the matter that has just been discussed. That is an exception also related to the Electoral Commission in the provision by it of information to electors. We considered the drafting of the Australian Democrats' amendment and we are happy with it. We are, therefore, prepared to defer to them except in one aspect. That aspect relates to paragraph (b). The wording included in the Australian Democrats' amendment is:

the provision by the Electoral Commission of other information relating to, or relating to the effect of, the proposed law;

We accept the spirit of that provision and of the Commission in its educative role. Nevertheless, we believe the drafting is too loose. It needs to be tightened up. We therefore desire to move an amendment to the Australian Democrats' amendment. Our amendment has been circulated; it is in two parts. Instead of the word 'other' we wish to substitute the word 'factual' so that the present wording of the Democrats' amendment:

the provision by the Electoral Commission of other information

would read:

the provision by the Electoral Commission of factual information . . .

to make it quite clear that we are looking for the Commission simply to provide facts relating to this matter; so that it cannot use funding to spread out and take a wider role in the provisions of opinions. We believe that once it started to do that it would become too close to the political process. That would be undesirable. Therefore, to make it absolutely clear that what it prints should be limited to facts, we propose the amendment. The second part of our amendment is to add at the end of paragraph (b) the words:

which is not aimed at advancing either the argument in favour of the proposed law or the argument against the proposed law.

It might be thought that that is perhaps being overcautious and that the Electoral Commission certainly would not act in that way. I can see from the Attorney-General's nodding that that is his view. However, we have had some unfortunate experiences in relation to this subject in the last 12 months. Last year we witnessed what we believed was a gross abuse by the Government in attempting to expend taxpayers' funds in a way that was contrary to the spirit of the referendum Acts. That spirit, as we all know, is that there should be an even-handed approach and that the Australian public should, from Commonwealth expenditure, have simply the Yes and No cases put to them. That was abused. The Government attempted to expend $1.25m of taxpayers' money promoting the Yes case which was the case which it wished to promote. We were able to contain that abuse. It has meant that, perhaps, we have become a little more suspicious than we would otherwise be in these matters. That is why we will move these amendments. We accept that they are expressed in terms that are extremely cautious, but we believe that our experience of the last 12 months is such that we should exercise caution in these matters. I seek leave to move the two amendments together.

Leave granted.

Senator HILL —by leave-I move:

(1) Paragraph (b), leave out 'other', insert 'factual'.

(2) Paragraph (b), after 'the proposed law', insert 'which is not aimed at advancing either the argument in favour of the proposed law or the argument against the proposed law'.