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Wednesday, 13 September 2017
Page: 10221

Mr CHESTER (GippslandMinister for Infrastructure and Transport) (12:42): I am pleased to present a bill today that will provide for a range of additional safeguards to support the conduct of the Australian marriage law postal survey.

The government is honouring its commitment to deliver on its pre-election promise to give the Australian people a say on whether the law should be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry.

As the government announced on 8 August 2017, the government is proceeding with a voluntary postal survey for all Australians on the Commonwealth electoral roll and eligible to vote, with a final result to be known no later than 15 November 2017.

There are a range of measures already in place in Commonwealth legislation to safeguard the public in their participation in the Australian marriage law postal survey. In particular, there are postal and telecommunications offences under the Criminal Code. There is also prohibited conduct under the Census and Statistics Act 1905.

These existing Commonwealth laws are supplemented by existing criminal and civil penalties under state and territory legislation. This includes strong protections already in place for the prevention of hate speech and incitement to violence.

The government is, however, proposing to complement these safeguards with the additional measures contained in this bill, which are broadly consistent with safeguards which would apply in the context of a federal election. This will help ensure the integrity of this process and that Australians can have complete confidence that the outcome of the survey reflects the freely given views of the respondents and that those participating in the debate can do so in an appropriate environment.

Australians need to be assured there is appropriate transparency and accountability for those who communicate their messages as part of the debate on this issue.

The measures in the bill will support responsible conduct of public discussion by applying authorisation requirements similar to those that apply in the context of elections and referendums. This will promote the transparency and accountability of those making public comments in relation to the question in the marriage law survey.

These arrangements will apply to communications of all forms, including paid advertising, social media, bulk text messages and telephony, broadcast matter under the Broadcasting Services Act 1992, and printed material. There are a range of sensible exceptions provided to these requirements to ensure that people continue to be able to freely express their political views, including those engaged in personal communication.

The bill will also impose obligations on broadcasters, including the ABC and SBS, who broadcast matter in favour of one side of the issue about whether the law should be changed to allow same-sex marriage, to provide a reasonable opportunity for an organisation to broadcast matter in favour of the opposing view. Broadcasters will be able to utilise an extra minute of non-program material to facilitate compliance with this requirement. Recognising that there are community broadcasters established to service specified community interests, these broadcasters will be exempt from the reasonable opportunity requirements.

Collecting statistical information is core business for the ABS, and the government has full confidence in their capacity to deliver this opportunity for Australians to have their say.

However, we need to be assured that the statistical information obtained has not been subject to influences such as bribery and threats or misleading information about how to complete the survey form, and ensure that those that engage in such influencing behaviour are held to account.

To address this, the bill will put in place a range of measures to ensure the integrity of the statistics that are collected as part of the process.

The bill includes penalties for receiving and giving bribes or making threats to influence or affect people's decisions on this matter, including whether to respond.

It also includes a civil penalty for printing, publishing and distributing matters or things that are likely to mislead or deceive a person in how they respond to the survey, for example, how the survey response is marked.

The bill also includes offences for officers who engage in conduct with the intention of influencing the content of a response provided to the Statistician.

The government believes that the Australian people are able to have this debate respectfully and courteously.

We also believe that Australians will judge anyone harshly, on either side of the debate, who pursues inappropriate and offensive arguments.

We certainly call on all Australians to participate in this debate with courtesy and respect.

However, the government acknowledges that we cannot guarantee that all Australians will at all times express their opinions on that basis.

For this reason, the bill will also establish an offence for grievous conduct against those participating in the debate, or against those who may hold strong views on the survey question.

The bill contains provisions against vilification, intimidation, and threat to cause harm, as well as for hindering or interfering with a person in making a response, or discriminating against a person for making a donation relating to the marriage law survey.

Importantly, merely expressing a view about the marriage law survey question does not trigger the offence provisions against vilification, intimidation or the threat of harm.

While the government would like nothing more than for these provisions never to be used, their inclusion gives the parliament the opportunity to send a clear message that hateful and malicious conduct will not be tolerated.

I remind the parliament that the government's preference was to deliver on the commitment to give the Australian people a say on whether the law should be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry through a compulsory attendance plebiscite.

Such an approach would have brought with it many existing safeguards and protections.

As we proceed with the survey as the new mechanism to give the Australian people their say, we need to separately provide those safeguards to ensure all Australians have the opportunity to participate in this process in the right environment.

I commend the bill.

Leave granted for second reading debate to continue immediately.