ABC Afternoon Briefing with Greg Jennett

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Referendum Machinery Bill, Voice to Parliament Referendum.

Greg Jennett, host: Well, the Albanese Government from the Prime Minister down prides itself on being open to, it says, all suggestions on The Voice, including those made by the Opposition. Cabinet Minister Don Farrell has just successfully concluded a deal with the Liberals and passed into law, for that matter, the Referendum Machinery Bill, which lays down the rules and regulations for the conduct of the vote as an electoral event whenever that happens. The Special Minister of State, Don Farrell joined us here a short time ago.

Don Farrell, great to have you back in the studio. The Liberal Party, as we speak, seemed still very much up in the air over the Constitutional Amendment Bill on the Voice. But I'm interested in your perspective having closed the deal with Peter Dutton, Jane Hume and others on the Machinery Bill. What do you think their motivation was in coming to the party in a bipartisan way?

Minister for Trade, Don Farrell: Well thanks Greg. The Prime Minister has said all along that he's looking for bipartisanship in respect of recognition for an Indigenous Voice to the Australian Parliament and to the credit of the Leader of the Opposition, to Jane Hume and some of her colleagues, we were able to sit down over a couple of weeks - I have to say it didn't happen overnight - but we were able to get to a consensus position. Thanks to goodwill on the part of the Prime Minister, but also on the part of the Leader of the Opposition, and last night in the Parliament, we saw the Referendum Machinery Bill go through unopposed. There were a variety of opinions in the lead up to that bill, and yet there wasn't a single voice of opposition last night in the Parliament.

Greg Jennett: That is interesting, I suppose, two possible interpretations to that. One is it's no more, no less than an electoral law, and it's customary to have very wide support for that. Or the alternative is it augers well, from your point of view, as to the Coalition's disposition or the Liberal Party's disposition, more precisely on the Voice itself. What do you think about the latter?

Minister for Trade: Look, I'm hopeful Greg, that this is the first step along the path of the Liberal Party supporting the yes case on The Voice. We know from past experience that the best way of getting a constitutional reform through, and this is a very important one, the best way of getting a constitutional reform through is if both the Labor Party and the Liberal Party are supporting it. I'm encouraged by their support for the Referendum Machinery Bill, and I'd encourage the Liberal Party to move forward, and get behind The Voice, because I believe Australia needs that constitutional change, and I also believe that the majority of Australians support it.

Greg Jennett: I'll get to some ins and outs on the Machinery Bill, which you negotiated in a moment, but just on today's developments, Peter Dutton is publicly demanding the release of the Solicitor General's advice. Can that be done?

Minister for Trade: Look, that will be a matter of course for the Prime Minister and the Attorney-General. I'm very happy to leave those sorts of issues in their hands.

Greg Jennett: Will we get, in the context of the debate that begins next week on the Constitutional Amendment Bill, a date for the referendum?

Minister for Trade: That's entirely in the gift of the Prime Minister. He's made it very clear that the vote will be in the second half of the year. There's a range of considerations that he obviously has to take into account.

Greg Jennett: Football finals being one of them I think.

Minister for Trade: Football finals are always taken into account with any general election and of course, they'd be taken into account on a referendum date. Obviously, we want the maximum participation, and a couple of the things we did last night, encourage Indigenous enrolment to ensure that we get a maximum turnout on the referendum.

Greg Jennett: That was a feature. Can I ask you about another one of the additions that was put in through those negotiations? A civics education campaign? What's in it? What's it going to look like?

Minister for Trade: That's something that Linda Burney has responsibility for. That's about explaining to the Australian people what The Voice is all about. It's not a yes or no case, it's simply explaining to the Australian people what the referendum will be about. That'll mesh in with the pamphlet that we agreed to include to all Australian voters and the campaign by the AEC.

Greg Jennett: Yes, there must be strong overlap there because the AEC, I think we've discussed this before, had already been planning something itself.

Minister for Trade: Yeah. Look, a combination of all of those things are designed to ensure that every voter knows what it is that they're voting on to determine whether they vote yes or no. What we're not doing is funding either the yes or the no case itself. That's up to civil society. As the Prime Minister made clear today, this is a bottom-up process. This is a process by the Australian people to change their founding document.

Greg Jennett: Yeah. Part of the pitch in updating the machinery was to say that it will stand not just for this referendum, but for futures. That being the case, why does that element you just mentioned expire at the next federal election? Why isn't it a permanent feature?

Minister for Trade: We've got to make some further changes to our electoral laws. I think I might have spoken to you about these before. There's a whole host of changes that we would like to see to provide greater transparency in Australian elections. It'll be our intention that when we deal with those other issues, that whatever changes we make to the Electoral Act to establish that greater transparency, we do the same to the Referendum Act so that into the future, we will have identical provisions, whether it's a general election or a referendum.

Greg Jennett: Right. So that's the subject of further work. Just finally, this came up in debate, a register of companies advertising they're going to, if they spend more than $1,000, have to declare that. But the Internet is a very big place these days. How on earth will the AEC track all of this activity unless it's preregistered with them?

Minister for Trade: I think we should leave it to the AEC. They have experience with this at general elections, and I think on all the available evidence, the AEC did a terrific job at the last general election. They have a department - I've actually seen the department that looks after this at the AEC - and I've got the greatest of confidence that the people working in that department will ensure a free and fair election when it comes to the referendum.

Greg Jennett: Well, all of this will now start to be very real for the Electoral Commission and voters themselves, because we are creeping ever closer. Don Farrell, great to catch up, and we will do so again before too long.

Minister for Trade: Thanks, Greg.

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