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Wednesday, 14 December 1983
Page: 3751

Senator CHANEY —My question is addressed to the Attorney-General. I refer to the unique approach which has been adopted by the Government to referenda. I do not mean by that the on-again, off-again nature of the proposals which have been put forward by the Attorney over that time, but I refer firstly to the attempt made by the Attorney and the Government, without reference to this Parliament, to re- word the questions which were to be put to the Australian people; secondly, the failure of the Government to table the regulations in the normal way so that they could have been subject to parliamentary disallowance-an omission which the Attorney sought to rectify by putting the new questions into the legislation we have recently had before us; and thirdly, the unique proposal to fund an advertising campaign using taxpayers' funds for the Yes case only. Does the Attorney believe that he advances the cause of constitutional amendment by trying to present the people of Australia with a stacked deck?

Senator GARETH EVANS —I will take those issues in turn. As to the re-wording of the questions on the ballot paper, it has long been the view of many people on both sides of politics that the practice which has prevailed, albeit only since 1967-before then the short title of the Bill was used in the question-of putting the long title of the Bill served only to make more unintelligible and inaccessible to the average voters what the subject matter was that they were being asked to pass upon than was appropriate for anyone committed to the sensible operation of the democratic process. The path taken was in fact to try to write the essence of the proposal going before the people in plain, concrete, non-abstract language. That effort was made in good faith, so much so that the wording of the first question added a reference to a variation of the terms of honourable senators, which is something dear to the hearts of the No case, which was not in fact there in the terms of the long title.

Mr President, these matters have been debated amply in this place and I do not think this is the occasion to debate them again. I make the point though that the re-written language of the ballot paper was made the subject of a regulation which was of course able to be and was meant to be the subject of proper debate in this place should anyone have been minded to move a disallowance motion. There is no question of bypassing parliamentary scrutiny.

As to the second matter of the tabling of that particular regulation, the circumstances in which there was a delay-I readily concede an unfortunate delay- which occurred as an administrative matter have already been explained. There was no intent to deceive in any way in this respect and, if Senator Chaney wants to make such an allegation under cover of privilege, well, that is his coward's entitlement and I welcome the opportunity to pursue--


Senator Chaney —Mr President!

The PRESIDENT —Order! I suggest the honourable senator withdraw that remark.

Senator GARETH EVANS —I withdraw, Mr President. I think the point is made. To the extent that--

Senator Walters —Mr President, I raise a point of order. The Attorney said: 'I withdraw, but the point has been made'. I do not consider that a full withdrawal .

The PRESIDENT —I ask the Attorney-General to withdraw.

Senator GARETH EVANS —I withdraw, Mr President. I believe the regulations were in fact tabled last week and, to the extent that it remains relevant for them to be further debated in the light of recent developments and the incorporation ultimately of the ballot paper questions into the legislation itself, that opportunity will of course arise and, I understand, has been created by a notice of motion from Senator Harradine today.

I turn to the final matter which is the question of the Government's proposed financial support for the Yes case over and above the $5m that has already been provided even handedly under the statutory obligation which the Government readily continues to accept to put a pamphlet containing the No case as well as the Yes case into every letterbox in the country. As to this particular controversy, the reason of course, I repeat, why the Government chose to follow this path is that we believed there was cross-party support and indeed cross- government support for these particular referendum proposals, as demonstrated not only by the votes in this Parliament but also by the whole course of proceedings in the Australian Constitutional Convention over the last 10 years.

We believed further that there was very strong evidence from past history that the No case in any referendum campaign, whatever its intrinsic irrationality, always starts with an advantage because of the apathy of the Australian electorate to these matters, the complexity of the issues on which they are obliged to pass and the natural response of people when confronted with conflict to adopt a cautious No approach. That is well established as a matter of political science research over the better part of this century. That is a fact of life that anyone running a referendum campaign has to cope with. To get the Yes case into the same perceptual field even as the No case does require a differential effort. The fact that such an effort has not been made in the past, the fact that no sophisticated campaigning involving expenditure of the kind that was contemplated by the Government has been conducted in the past, is one clear and obvious reason, I would suggest, why so many referendum campaigns in the past, whatever their merits and their degree of bipartisan support, have in fact failed. If there are any conventions, to quote Senator Macklin's contribution to the debate on radio this morning, governing the conduct of referendum campaigns, the only one I can think of is the convention that referendums in this country always fail, and that is a convention we were seeking to break-the convention we were seeking to turn around. We wanted to create the possibility where the Yes case would be fully appreciated, given the bipartisan support it commands, by the Australian people. The refusal of the Opposition parties, notionally committed to constitutional reform and notionally committed to these measures to come on board, the refusal of the Australian Democrats to accept the force of this proposal,which is of course given added weight by the notorious public fact that Mr Grey is proposing to spend taxpayers ' money in Tasmania on the No case and that Mr Bjelke-Petersen will do the same in all those matters there has been utter refusal to take them into account by honourable senators, if that is the proper description, for reasons of crude, political opportunistic advantage and for reasons having nothing to do with the high principles which they so hypocritically espouse.

Senator CHANEY —I ask a supplementary question. How does the Attorney square that answer with the fact that the Fraser Government succeeded in three of its four referendums without recourse to taxpayers' funds in the way that he was proposing?

Senator GARETH EVANS —The particular matter which was most important, and universally regarded as most important, in 1977 and on which the No case people campaigned most vigorously and most irrationally was the proposal that in fact went down notwithstanding that it won the support of 62 1/2 per cent--

Senator Harradine —What was that proposal?

Senator GARETH EVANS —The simultaneous elections proposal. It went down, notwithstanding that it won the support of 62.5 per cent of the Australian electorate, because of a very carefully devised and tailored No case campaign which concentrated in three small States only in electorate terms-Tasmania, Queensland and Western Australia. It was possible by the expenditure of significant sums of money by the No case campaigners and the focusing of the campaign in that way to defeat what was manifestly a proposal that commanded widespread, popular and community support across the nation. Exactly those same logistics are potentially applicable in the context of this referendum campaign and it was, of course, for that reason, amongst others, that the Government thought it entirely appropriate, bearing in mind the supposedly consensual character of these proposals, to spend the extra money-really only a drop in the bucket compared with the basic cost of the referendum-in order to promote effectively and ensure that the Yes case would be understood effectively.