Second Reading – Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2022

Monday, 6 March 2023

Mr PITT: What an absolute stitch-up. This proposal is the sporting equivalent of two teams lining up, one running out in brand-new uniforms with all the gear, a top-line coach, a change room, a bus and crowd that’s been booked, and the other side is tied up on the sidelines, gagged, with no gear, and they had to walk in because no-one would pick them up. We are talking here about the Constitution. It is not a note from your mum. It’s not a shopping list. It’s not a school exam. It’s the Australian Constitution. The proposition by the government is that they won’t fund both sides of a referendum. Since when is that even reasonable? The proposition being put forward is an absolute stitch-up. It is wrong, and this is one of the reasons that our side of politics fought so hard to make sure there was at least a pamphlet.

I was quite interested in what a pamphlet might be, because it sounds like an A4 piece of paper that you might fold up and find in your letterbox, so I went back to the 1999 referendum—well, one of my staff did, anyway—and found the official referendum pamphlet. It is pages and pages and pages of information for people to sit down and take the time to look through and make their own informed decision about. Regardless of what the vote is about and regardless of what the issue is, we are talking in this bill about changes to Australia’s Constitution. The concept that we would set a prototype, which would be the first of its kind, to the best of my knowledge, and which could be used for future referendums, where both sides are not equally funded and the debate is not managed and is instead run by companies and other sponsors, is outrageous.

In this nation, we are a democracy. This is one of the greatest democracies in the world, and that means that we listen to the opinions on both sides of a debate. Like anyone in this House, I have seen any number of opinions from legal experts on the proposition and the issue itself. Guess what? They’ve got different views, and that is no surprise to me whatsoever. We’ve had some who are judges, who have put forward their view and their legal opinion—which is what they do—and we’ve had others who have different views on what the actual vote might change in the Constitution and what it might do to not only the operation of this House but also the way in which the executive and others work. These are the issues that people are concerned about.

The idea that the Australian people will walk up and vote one way in a referendum because it feels good is not the way to approach the issue whatsoever. Feeling good is not factual. Feeling good does not get good outcomes for the country. Feeling good is going to terrify individuals because they are always afraid of the unknown, and the unknown in this case is extensive. What is it that the government is scared of? Why wouldn’t they fund both sides of a referendum? Why wouldn’t they provide equal funding and equal opportunity for every individual to put forward their views in a concise, purposeful and respectful way, as you would expect in this debate, because the government is going to the people with their proposition to change Australia’s Constitution?

This is a significant change, and no-one should underestimate what changes to the Australian Constitution do. I’ll come back to the pamphlet. When the referendum was put forward proposing the changes for Australia to become a republic, extensive information was provided to the Australian people. Both sides were able to put their case in a respectful way, and the Australian people made a decision. At that stage, their decision was known. I think that the further this debate goes and the more discussions there are and the less information that is provided, the more concerned the Australian people will become about the unknown. Nothing terrifies people more than the things they don’t know.

What have we seen in recent weeks? We’ve seen the Minister for Communications, who I’ve got a lot of time for, I have to say, announce that there will now be the equivalent of a ministry of truth in this country. Nineteen Eighty-Four, here we come! A government ministry will decide what facts are so that there is no misinformation. I mean, seriously? Since when do governments decide what facts are in the information that is provided in the public sphere? What happened to freedom of speech, freedom of thought and freedom of religion?

This, in my view, is one of the great dangers in the way that this government is approaching not only this debate but this referendum. The further down this rabbit hole they go, of not supporting both sides equally and fairly, the more concerned people will become and the more likely the current government will not get the result that they want I say to those opposite: it is beyond time that you ran a standard constitutional referendum. That has been the process, always, and the further we go away from that constitutional referendum, in my view, the less likely you will get the result that you want and you are asking for.

No matter how many specialists line up, if the Australian people think that they are not well enough informed, if they are worried about what the outcome might be, if they don’t have the information that they can look at themselves in the time that it takes for them to absorb that information—and this is complex debate; it is not simple and it is a significant change of the Australian Constitution—the further they will move from a proposition.

We know there is a lot of foreign influence out there. We know that the way people communicate and talk and discuss and receive their information changes. But we also know that there is nothing more informative than a direct piece of mail put into your letterbox that you can read in your own time and in the time that it takes for you to absorb that information. So I’m very pleased that the Labor government has changed their mind about providing the pamphlet. But they still have not changed their mind about funding both sides of the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ case and, of course, about controlling the way the debate is run. If they are concerned about misinformation, this is one of the best ways to deal with it: ensuring that both sides are equally funded and that both sides have equal opportunity.

I have said publicly, and I will continue to say it, that I will be voting no. But I know that I am one vote amongst the Australian people—one vote. I will proudly stand with Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price and support her view, and I will campaign. I will campaign for the ‘no’ case. On the information that has been provided, I think that is the best outcome for this nation—to not change Constitution. That is because, in my view, we are one people, we are one country and we are all equal, and we should never walk away from that position. I understand what has been put forward by the Labor government, but I am very significantly concerned about the way that this has been worked and the way it has been proposed.

The other challenges that I think we will have in the very near future are around Australia Post. For those of us who live in regional Australia—I live in a significant regional city, and we are not getting one-day deliveries on mail. The further west you go and the further towards remote Australia go, the less likely it is that you can be delivered this information in a reasonable amount of time. So I say to those opposite, I say to the federal government: this is the time to do the right thing—not the ideological thing and not the thing you think will give you the outcome you want, but the right thing. If you continue to refuse to provide details to the Australian people, they will not support your proposition. You can never underestimate the mob. The mob always get it right. They always get it right.

So we need to make sure that the information is correct—I have no issues with that whatsoever—but we also need to make sure that it is equally funded and that both sides of the campaign have the same opportunity. Not one that is supported by extensive corporate Australia delivering significant amounts of money and standing up at all sorts of different sporting events and whatever else it might be, and the others being shut down by what is now the ministry of truth, because they decide that the information that they put forward and their opinion is not factual. That is not what this country was built on. Freedom is not free. It is paid for by others, and we should never forget that the opportunities that are provided to the Australian people to even have this debate have been provided by others, and we should always thank them and those who take that opportunity to put forward.

So I say again: fund both sides of the debate. Do not try to slip this one through. Do not run with: ‘It’s a stitch up. It’s okay, because it will make you feel good. If you vote yes, you will feel good. If you vote no, you will feel bad.’ It is Australia’s Constitution. It is the most significant document for our nation in the way that it is governed for all Australian people.

In conclusion, I will come back to the point that I made earlier: we are one people, we are one country and we are all equal. I do not support the bill in its current form.

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