17 May 2023
Coalition Faces Challenge in Indigenous Voice Referendum Pamphlet
The upcoming referendum on the Indigenous voice to parliament in Australia presents a unique challenge for some Coalition members. To have a say in the official referendum pamphlet, they may have to vote against the staging bill, per federal law regulations.
While the federal Liberals and Nationals are campaigning against the establishment of an Indigenous voice, they support the referendum bill itself, allowing Australians to express their opinions. As preparations for the October referendum progress, parliamentary committees are expected to convene and contribute to the lengthy pamphlet. This document contains 2000-word essays representing the yes and no arguments and is mailed to every household.
However, politicians can only contribute to the essay based on their voting stance on the constitutional alteration bill, which enables the referendum. To have a say in writing the no essay, some Coalition MPs must vote against the staging bill. The alteration bill would pass with the support of Labor, the Greens, and crossbench members, even without the Coalition’s endorsement.
The Australian Electoral Commission has allocated $10 million in the federal budget to print and distribute the pamphlet. While dedicated campaign organizations exist for the yes and no cases, the essays themselves are written by politicians. According to the Referendum Machinery Act, each essay must be authorized by a majority of parliament members who voted in favor of or against the proposed law. However, the act does not provide guidance on how this majority is determined or how disputes in essay writing should be resolved.
The government is considering the process and may establish large parliamentary committees to address this issue. Members of Labor, the Greens, and independent politicians like Senator David Pocock have expressed their desire to contribute to the Yes essay. At the same time, the Coalition and One Nation are expected to have input in the no essay.
Although Coalition leader Peter Dutton and other relevant officials have yet to provide detailed information about the process, it is believed that several politicians within the Coalition will strategically vote against the alteration bill. Some do so out of opposition to the Indigenous voice, while others aim to allow the opposition to contribute to the no essay.
Initially, the government planned to abolish the pamphlet, but it was retained following a request from the Coalition. Professor George Williams, a constitutional law expert, considers the pamphlet outdated but highly significant due to its distribution to all households. He emphasizes that writing essays is a delicate exercise, with politicians responsible for agreeing on the majority and the essay’s content.
The government intends to pass the bill in June, and the legislation requires the essays to be sent to the Australian Electoral Commission within four weeks of the bill’s passage. The commission is currently working on defining the process for this year’s referendum, and in 2013, it prepared guidelines to assist members in preparing their cases for a previous referendum.
When asked about the Liberal party’s willingness to put its name to the no case in the pamphlet, Peter Dutton stated that precedent suggests people from both sides of the debate are identified. He believes it is reasonable for arguments to be made by different individuals. Additionally, Dutton expressed the opposition’s intention to have a dialogue with the government and participate constructively in writing the pamphlet.
An independent senator, Lidia Thorpe, has not explicitly confirmed her stance on the referendum but has criticized the government for not engaging with the Blak Sovereign movement. She hopes Blak Voices will have the opportunity to write essays for both the yes and no sides, ensuring that a white parliamentary majority does not dominate them.