October 21

Making it easier

Sending out a “Yes/No booklet” summarising the arguments in a referendum, and providing full details of the proposed changes has been a feature of Australian political life for close on one century. Originally proposed by a Labor government with conservative support, this essentially democratic practice is based on a direction to the Electoral Commissioner contained in Federal legislation, now the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act, 1984 (“the Act”).   

This provision was originally introduced in 1912 by a Labor government. The Prime Minister, Mr. Andrew Fisher, acknowledged the strong conservative support for the proposal with these words: “It is pleasing to find both sides are agreeable to this proposal.” 

 

Referring to the fact that this process was followed in relation to the adoption of the Constitution itself, he said:” The object then was to make the electors acquainted with the Constitution which they were to adopt for the government of their country. The proposal here is to enable the electors to obtain in a concise form the arguments for and against the proposals. There can be nothing worse for a country than to expect the people in it to vote for or against the alteration of the constitution without knowing what they are doing.”

The Attorney General, William Morris Hughes, said the measure was based “upon sound common sense. The people will naturally want to know why the Constitutional Alteration Bills have been introduced. I submit that they will be quite unable to ascertain that by attending public meetings because on the platform the honourable member for Bathurst and I will say a number of most interesting things that have no relation whatever to those Bills. Under this measure it is proposed to tell them the plain facts of the case, as set forth by each side.”    

The Home Minister, King O’Malley, succinctly described the process as “…sending out to the people the kernel of the speeches which have been delivered on the proposed amendments to the Constitution.”  

Speaking for the recently fused conservative opposition parties Alfred Deakin said: “It is our duty, when we ask electors to vote for or against momentous proposals of this kind, to give them the best material we have in order that they may form an independent judgement.”

It is curious then that the distribution of the Yes/No booklet to every voter is under challenge. This is in the context of clearing the path for the holding of a plebiscite.

I suspect this is being done if it is decided to hold a plebiscite during the next term – and in an attempt to encourage its being passed.


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