Greens, Pocock push for independent fact-checking of Voice referendum pamphlet

The Greens and key independent David Pocock will push for the official Indigenous Voice referendum pamphlet to be reviewed by independent fact-checkers before it is mailed out, as the government canvasses support for legislation to modernise how the national vote will be conducted.

The ACT senator also wants a requirement for the real-time disclosure of donations to the Yes and No campaigns to be included in the government’s bill to amend the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984, which Labor is seeking to pass through the parliament during the March sitting block.

Independent senator David Pocock wants the final text of the Voice to parliament pamphlet to undergo a rigorous fact-checking process.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

As debate on the bill began in the lower house on Monday, the Coalition confirmed it would oppose the legislation unless the government agreed to establish official Yes and No campaigns with equal public funding – something Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has repeatedly ruled out – meaning Labor will need the support of the Greens and two other crossbenchers in the Senate.

The bill proposes to modernise how referendums are conducted by replicating the features of a federal election, including establishing a new financial disclosure regime for private fundraising by the Yes and No camps. Labor has already abandoned its most controversial proposed change to the act – scrapping a requirement for an official Yes/No pamphlet outlining the arguments for both sides – which was reinstated after pressure from the Coalition.

But Pocock said he would seek amendments in the Senate to ensure the final text of the Voice to parliament pamphlet underwent a rigorous fact-checking process before it was distributed, saying he was acting on concerns raised with him by Indigenous leaders including members of the government’s referendum advisory group.

“We have to ensure any official correspondence is based in fact and free from any racist content. If the government is determined to proceed with an official pamphlet, then I want to make sure we limit to the greatest extent possible any potential capacity to cause further distress to First Nations people,” Pocock said.

He said he would also push the government to implement real-time donation disclosures to help inform Australians about who was funding the Yes and No campaigns.

Greens senator Larissa Waters confirmed the party would also push for arm’s-length fact-checking of the pamphlet and a lower donation disclosure threshold for the referendum, which currently mirrors the federal election threshold of $15,200.

“The ball is in the government’s court now that they’ve lost the opposition as to what … sort of fact-checking they would be prepared to come at, but since we don’t have truth in political advertising laws we really do need that level of fact-checking,” Waters said.

Speaking on the bill in the house, shadow treasurer Angus Taylor said while the Coalition supported an update to donation regulations, official Yes and No cases were needed to assist the Australian Electoral Commission, warning that the changes to the act would set a precedent for other referendums.

“It’s clear that, if we’re to have a strong process for the referendum, we should be ensuring there is a structure in place for those processes and regulatory bodies to start their work. In doing so, we should fund official Yes and No campaign organisations to ensure that they can adhere to the laws we’re about to pass,” Taylor said.

Concerns about the pamphlet’s contents stem from a requirement in the act for the wording of the Yes and No arguments, which can be up to 2000 words each, to be determined by the MPs backing the respective sides.

Constitutional law experts George Williams and Anne Twomey, members of the government’s legal advisory group on the referendum, have in the past noted that official pamphlets in previous referendums had often been riddled with misinformation, hyperbole and falsehoods designed to convince voters to back a particular side rather than assisting them to make an informed decision.

The machinery bill is the first of the legislative hurdles the government must clear before it can hold the referendum to enshrine the Voice in the Constitution in the second half of this year.

Later this month, the government will introduce another bill for the parliament to authorise the referendum, which will contain the proposed wording of the constitutional amendment to establish the Voice.

The current draft wording proposes the Voice will act as an advisory body to both parliament and the executive on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but this will be scrutinised by a parliamentary inquiry, which could recommend changes before a final vote on the bill anticipated around June.

Cut through the noise of federal politics with news, views and expert analysis from Jacqueline Maley. Subscribers can sign up to our weekly Inside Politics newsletter here.

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