1 December 2022
In line with The Susan McKinnon Foundation’s vision to contribute to Australia’s public policy and democratic landscape, the Foundation made a submission to the Commonwealth Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (‘JSCEM’) in December 2022 to advocate for the importance of referenda in Australia’s democratic and constitutional landscape.
The referendum mechanism in the Australian Constitution empowers every citizen to have a voice on how our nation is governed, ensuring it reflects the will of the people and is fit-for-purpose. By the end of 2023, Australian voters will vote on a First Nations Voice to Parliament. This will be the first referendum since 1999.
The twenty-four-year ‘referendum drought’ is the longest period since 1901 without a popular vote on a constitutional amendment. In that time, the internet and social media have risen to dominate social and political networks. Moreover, based on population data, we estimate over 35 per cent of currently enrolled electors have never voted in a referendum. In conjunction with a declining public faith in democracy and a lack of awareness of the Constitution, the Foundation submitted that the education of current and future voters on the Constitution, the referendum process, and the referendum proposal, is now more important than ever.
The Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Bill 2022 was introduced by the Labor Government to update the relevant legislation ahead of the referendum on a First Nations Voice to Parliament. While the intent of the Bill to align the referendum process with the electoral legislative framework is relatively uncontroversial, debate has persisted on the distribution of a Yes/No pamphlet and public funding for the Yes and No campaigns.
The Foundation’s submission endorsed the modernisation and harmonisation of the referenda machinery, although it noted the unique incentives and accountability risks that differentiate a point-in-time referendum and the ongoing electoral cycle. Furthermore, the Foundation’s submission sought to address the unique opportunity and risks that a referendum in the 21st century provides. While the digital age presents a new opportunity to inform voters, it also creates a greater risk of the dissemination of mis- and dis-information. The risk of misinformation is heightened by the decline in voter education and awareness on civic issues – including on the Constitution and the referendum process.
Importantly, the Foundation’s submission underscored the role of public education and engagement in the referendum proposal, as well as investment in the education and awareness of our Constitution, its timeless values, and the ability for it to be changed to reflect contemporary society. While the proposed legislation provides the framework and guardrails for an improved referenda process, investment in the public understanding and engagement of all Australians in our democratic processes – both referenda and elections – as well as in civic participation in public policy, is critical to improving the health of our democracy.