Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2013, Wednesday 15 May 2013
Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (11:03): The Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2013 takes us a step closer to holding the urgently needed referendum on constitutional recognition. It is widely recognised in Australia that this recognition is long overdue. Constitutional recognition of local government means a great deal to so many people across this country. I had the opportunity to sit on the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Local Government, and I was particularly struck by the number of submissions that came from country councils.
It is interesting to hear the contributions from the coalition, because from what I have heard they are certainly not representing the views of many of their own constituents, who recognise the urgent requirement for this constitutional recognition to give their councils certainty with regard to the funding that they urgently need. They need to know that funding will come from the Commonwealth government not only for programs like Roads to Recovery but also to give certainty so that they can spend other parts of their budget on various programs, including things like Meals on Wheels, and councils in Queensland are talking about their plans for light rail. Many of those councils spoke of their uncertainty if we do not get this referendum in place.
The Greens obviously recognise the importance of maintaining the integrity of the referendum process, the integrity of the way in which the referendum is held. We need to ensure that the machinery is in accord with what is set down and with what facilitates our democratic process. But, in listening to the opposition speakers, I have become increasingly concerned that, while the lead speaker for the opposition, Senator Ryan, stated that this is about the integrity of the process, there are other opposition tactics going on here. You start to feel that the intent here is to throw up roadblock after roadblock (1) to make it much harder to get to the referendum but (2) to discredit the progressives who are supporting this and to try to cause more chaos. It looks like the coalition have reverted to their default position of 'Let's approach everything by putting a shroud of negativity over it.'
We must not be distracted. We really need to stay with this important issue of getting the machinery in place for this all-important referendum. This issue is bringing about uncertainty. In addressing the machinery, we should never forget the politics of what we are dealing with here. Many of these councils are grappling with fundamental issues. I did mention Roads to Recovery and I want to stick with it, because it came up time and time again from so many councils keen to maintain the safety of their roads, rebuild bridges and create sustainable transport. Many councils believed the program was under threat because of those High Court cases. We are getting closer now; we have to get the machinery right. We have legislation before us that ensures that the referendum can be presented as effectively as possible.
There is provision for the department to spend money on this referendum. We have heard from the coalition that they want to knock that out. As I read that, it implies that the department would not do the job properly in presenting the case—and here again you see the coalition arguments fall down. On the one hand they are saying that the public need to be more informed, but on the other hand they want to move these amendments. I have considerable concern about how the coalition is conducting themselves in this debate. Senator Bernardi did let the cat out of the bag by setting out considerable opposition to the very notion of constitutional recognition, let alone the referendum itself. What we are seeing here today is the coalition running a guerrilla campaign of political disruption at every opportunity. Now they are using this legislation to continue that particular pattern of work that we saw around climate change measures and other progressive legislation that comes before this house.
The way the Liberals and Nationals are using this bill in the debate is very informative, because it is not about protecting the integrity of the referendum process and making sure the machinery works; it is about causing maximum confusion and disruption. If the opposition played this out in the way they wanted, it would be a setback to their own constituents. Many of those who live in rural and regional areas recognise that we do need to get constitutional recognition in place to give certainty to local councils so they can get on with this work. The bill that we have before us is an important step towards achieving that.