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Wednesday, 30 November 1983
Page: 3005

Senator JESSOP —I refer the Attorney-General to the extraordinary and unprecedented commitment by the Government to spend $1.25m of taxpayers' money on the promotion of the Yes case at the referendum to be held on 25 February, this amount, of course, being over and above the $21m cost of the referendum. I ask the Attorney-General whether in previous referenda equal opportunity for the presentation of both Yes and No cases was provided through the Australian Electoral Office and whether equal time was provided to both sides to present the cases to the people through the then Australian Broadcasting Commission. Is it also a fact that in previous referenda funds were provided for promotional purposes by organisations, political parties and individuals interested in supporting either side and that no Government finance was provided for publicity , apart from through the Electoral Office and the ABC? Can the Attorney-General say who authorised Government expenditure of $1.25m on the promotion of the Yes case? From what appropriation will this amount be obtained? Does the Attorney- General recognise the democratic fairness of equal presentation of cases for and against referendum proposals so that the electorate can make an informed decision on 25 February? Will he acknowledge that it is unfair that these government funds should be earmarked for expenditure on a Yes campaign to the exclusion of the No case?

Senator GARETH EVANS —It would be quite irresponsible for the Government not to provide positive support for constitutional changes which would provide this country with more efficient and stable government, particularly when the changes in question have support, not just of one party, but from all the major parties in this country. The Australian Labor Party, the Liberal Party of Australia, the National Party of Australia and the Australian Democrats support the matters being put to the public in this way. It is the case that the No case gets ample treatment at taxpayers' expense through the equal time provisions that Senator Jessop has referred to and, of course, through the distribution of the referendum pamphlet containing the Yes and No cases. We still await with interest what Senator Jessop's No case will be on the removal of obsolete provisions. It is the case that the No case gets ample air time.

It is also the case that opponents of referendum proposals in the past have generally embarked upon quite active paid advertising campaigns of their own, supported as they have been by various interest groups. I readily concede that it has been very rare indeed for governments of the day to do anything other than rely simply on ordinary campaigning and the formal Yes and No cases going into the post boxes. The absence of strong campaigning on the Yes side must be seen as contributing to Australia's record of failed referendums. When one is spending $21.5m on the conduct of the referendum, the additional one and a bit million dollars that is proposed for this, by comparison, seems eminently worth spending.

I make one final point. The Queensland Premier has indicated his enthusiasm for embarking upon what he describes as an election style No campaign against the referendum proposals. I have no doubt that the Tasmanian Premier will do the same. I will be very interested to know whether either of those gentlemen will give undertakings as to the non-utilisation of any government or taxpayers' resources in those States in the conduct of their contributions to this campaign .

Senator JESSOP —I ask a supplementary question, Mr President. The Attorney- General very effectively evaded the question. I asked him, among other things, who authorised the expenditure of taxpayers' money for this purpose? From what appropriation will this money be obtained? Does the Attorney consider it fair that the Yes case should be supported by taxpayers' money, whereas the No campaign apparently is not considered worthy of support although many people in the electorate would want that to be presented on an equal basis?

Senator GARETH EVANS —The last part of Senator Jessop's supplementary question is simply idle reiteration of the rather feeble rhetoric with which he commenced his question. I do not think it demands any further answer. In relation to the first part of the question and who authorised the expenditure, a committee of Ministers on government advertising, chaired by the Special Minister of State, is responsible for dealing with things such as authorisation of Medicare advertising or Commonwealth Electoral Office enrolment drives and matters of that kind. That committee has formally endorsed this proposal. The appropriation in question will come out of, as I understand it, the appropriation for the Department of the Special Minister of State. The honourable senator is welcome to pursue this matter with as much vigour as he can muster when it comes to the next round of Estimates.