Parliamentary Speech: Referendum Amendment Bill

I rise this evening to oppose this bill, the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2022, along with my opposition colleagues, because I fear this establishes a process that undermines the very referendum that we're all going to participate in as Australians. A change to our Constitution is a very momentous thing. It's a big thing, and it involves all Australians. It's very important that we have the whole population informed about the change they're being asked to vote on, that the information that they're given is accurate and correct, that it's a level playing field and that they get both sides of the argument. I'm not confident that this bill does that.

This is a really important question that the Australian people are being asked to answer—the question of whether we have a Voice to Parliament or to the executive established. It's a debate that needs to be handled with care, with prudence and with respect, and I fear that this bill alloys the debate by depriving it of the integrity and the process that it demands and absolutely requires.

We have raised three points for the government, to address our concerns on the referendum process. First, we made the case that the pamphlet to outline the 'yes' and 'no' cases be restored, and that has been done. We also argued that there should be official 'yes' and 'no' campaign organisations established. Finally, we argued that those organisations be funded appropriately. Those second and third points have not yet been agreed to by the government, which is why we're opposing this bill.

So why are we advocating for the retention of a pamphlet? Without a pamphlet, this bill sets a very dangerous precedent, and there is no valid reason or precedent for deliberately not providing one. Setting a new standard for the conduct of referenda in this instance will create precedents for future referenda. As I said, it's really important that the Australian population is fully apprised of what they're voting on, they understand both the 'yes' and 'no' arguments and they go into the ballot box understanding exactly what they're being asked to do. There's always been a requirement for a pamphlet. In fact, it was implemented back in 1912. There have been three referenda without an official pamphlet: 1919, 1926 and 1928. In 1919 there was insufficient time to produce the pamphlet, in 1926 there was no agreement on how to produce the 'yes' argument, and in 1928 there was overwhelming agreement between parties and governments on the question. Of those referenda, none of the circumstances apply. We know there's not complete agreement on this issue, we have the time to produce a pamphlet and we can get agreement on how to argue the cases. It's really, really important that we have this pamphlet, and I'm glad the government has agreed to provide it as a part of this bill.

It's really important that people use official material. One of the things that I've noticed—indeed, I experienced it myself going through to school—is the decline of civics in this country. Of course, during our education, we get taught about our system of government, about the parliament, about the judiciary, about how our democracy works, about all the constituent parts and about how they come together. But I think, over the last 20 years, there has been a decline in civics, and that's why it's so important that we provide a pamphlet for Australians as they are being asked this important question. At the same time as we've seen a decline in civics, we've also seen an increase in misinformation, which has been accelerated by social media.

I recall a few years ago I went to a local high school in my electorate and I asked a group of year 10 students, 'Who do you trust more? Facebook or the government?' Overwhelmingly, they trusted the government over Facebook, largely because people don't know what they can trust online anymore.

So we've seen the decline in civics and the increase in misinformation. People are digitally saturated as it is. A lot of the information that we get—whether it be bills, bank information, you name it—comes to us via email, and a lot of those things get missed because of the saturation we all feel from the digital world on our individual devices. So a pamphlet is a really good way to get people to pause, whether it be at the kitchen table or wherever it is in their home. They'll sit down and consider the issues before them—in this case, the issue of whether or not to establish a voice.

One thing I will say about the online world—and the member for Fisher raised it just before—is there has been an increase in misinformation driven by state actors, non-state actors and other aligned forces. In fact, we've heard ASIO over the last few years talk about the risk of foreign interference in our elections and how we're seeing espionage and foreign interference being conducted in this country at unprecedented levels that far exceed the Cold War. For people to receive a pamphlet from the Australian government, with the code of arms on it, that says, 'This is the question you're being asked to consider; this is the change to the Constitution; this is the 'yes' case, and this is the 'no' case,' in a world of uncertainty and digital saturation such a pamphlet is an excellent idea. I think it's great that the government has met us on that request.

I am also concerned about the role that big tech will play in this debate. We've seen how big tech has operated. We've seen how some of the companies do business, whether it be censorship or shadow banning. We've seen how the algorithms work. We've had plenty of testimony from people across the world who've worked for some of these big companies and have seen how they do business. I've got to say it alarms me that these foreign companies will have a say in the way that the question is shaped, the way people interpret the data and the arguments coming at them. That's another good reason why we need to have that pamphlet delivered to people in their homes—so that they can consider the arguments for themselves.

The other thing I'll say about social media is that the algorithms are driven by outrage. It's almost as if social media is designed to push us to the extremes, to polarise us, to create outrage, to divide us and to separate us from each other. This topic is very sensitive; it goes to a very central question around reconciliation in this country. It's got to be handled with care, and I have no faith that social media, judging by the way it has done business in the past, will be able to conduct or assist Australians through this very sensitive debate over the next six to eight months. So, again, I am very glad the pamphlet has been agreed to.

The second question is: why are we advocating for an official 'yes' and 'no' campaign? The main point here is that it will increase the trust and integrity in this process. Having an official 'yes' and 'no' campaign will make things simpler for the regulatory environment and for the proper conduct of the referendum. We've seen evidence from the AEC to parliamentary committees that the donation and disclosure regime remains the most complex part of the Electoral Act. Having two single points of contact for the 'yes' and 'no' campaigns is vital, I think, particularly so people know, when they're receiving messages from those campaigns, that they can at least have confidence that they are coming from an officially sanctioned campaign and that it is not misinformation or disinformation. It will create order and simplicity in an otherwise very complex undertaking. As I said, this is a very sensitive question. Having a pamphlet out there will assist in limiting misinformation. Having an official 'yes' and 'no' campaign will also provide that order and simplicity for people, and, again, increase the integrity of the process.

Finally, why are we asking for equal funding? Well, it's really important that both of these bodies, the 'yes' and 'no' campaigns, if they are established—and, at the moment, they won't be by this bill, which is why we're opposing it—have equal funding, as we saw in the last referendum in 1999 on the question of whether to become a republic or not. That gives each side the opportunity to build their campaigns and get the arguments out there, and it creates a level and equal playing field. As it stands, we've seen a lot of corporates come out already for one side of the campaign, and I think there's going to be an unequal playing field if the 'yes' and 'no' campaigns are not funded equally.

So we will oppose this bill. We hope the government comes to its senses and creates that level playing field. They've restored the pamphlet for the 'yes' and 'no' cases, but they're yet to establish official 'yes' and 'no' campaigns and they're yet to appropriately fund those official campaigns. In closing, we will oppose this, and I call on the government to implement those two amendments.