On behalf of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, I present the committee’s advisory report, incorporating dissenting reports, on the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2022.
This was an important inquiry, and I thank all who participated and the committee members. This will be the first time in 24 years that Australia will have a referendum. A lot has changed in 24 years, including how our elections are run and how voters engage in elections. It is important that Australians continue to have an electoral system that is modern and that meets our current-day needs. The bill referred to our committee for consideration does this work. It modernises the way referendums are run so that this year, when Australians go to vote, they’ll have a voting experience very similar to last year’s federal election, including early voting centres and postal voting, a timely count of ballots, and transparency when it comes to authorisation of campaign materials, the financial disclosure and foreign donations framework and matching measures in the Electoral Act.
In conducting its work, the committee received submissions from members of the public, constitutional and legal experts, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representative groups and others. I thank them all. The committee heard there was important ability in holding this referendum for us to update the experience of voters and bring it into line with their experience of voting in a federal election. The AEC told us that, essentially, this means that when people go to vote their experience will be very similar to what it was on election day.
The committee heard there are further opportunities that should be considered as part of the referendum experience to build on our modern electoral system, to allow especially for improved enfranchisement and participation particularly amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The current rate of enrolment amongst Indigenous Australians is around 82 per cent nationally. That is not good enough. The AEC is confident that trials of new measures will further boost enrolment in coming months. The AEC told the committee it saw opportunities in this referendum to improve this participation. That includes conducting remote area mobile polling for up to 19 days ahead of the referendum date; trialling the provision of secure telephone voting in certain circumstances; and providing for secure on-the-day enrolment, enabling a potential new voter to cast a declaration vote that is admitted to the count once their enrolment is approved and processed. The committee urges the government to give serious consideration to supporting these measures that improve participation and enrolment. It is critically important that we allow all Australians to have their say as part of this referendum.
The committee also considered how information has been and should be provided during a referendum. There were a wide range of views the committee heard on this, including both for and against the use of the traditional yes/no pamphlet. Some legal and constitutional experts told the inquiry that, in the past, the pamphlet has not worked as intended to. Professor George Williams noted:
The pamphlets are often full of not only misleading statements but sometimes lies that we know to be false.
He added that he supported the removal of the pamphlet but was troubled that merely removing it was not enough, and that we should look at what we replace the pamphlet with.
Professor Anne Twomey said that such pamphlets have previously been used to provide the community with emotive, misleading and inaccurate statements. She said she wouldn’t mourn the loss of the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ case but stressed there was a need for something substantial to replace it. Others stated that the pamphlet remains a valuable document for voters, providing them with the views of their elected representatives. The Australian Human Rights Commission said the pamphlet was an official source of information that summarises the key arguments for and against. The Central Land Council expressed concern that, without a physical pamphlet, older people and those in remote communities might feel they didn’t have reliable access to information.
While views on the pamphlet varied, there was widespread agreement about the need for information to educate and inform voters about the referendum and help them make up their minds. That’s why the committee recommends the government considers how best it can ensure all Australians are provided with clear, factual and impartial information as part of the referendum. This includes, and the government has announced that part of providing this information will be, a yes/no pamphlet. This will be coupled with broader efforts in providing the information Australians will need to feel assured they have been informed before they go to the polls.
With these considerations and recommendations in mind, the committee supports the passage of the bill.