Image: Uluru Statement from the Heart, May 2017, Aboriginal Convention, Central Australia
The pamphlet outlining the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ cases for the Indigenous voice referendum will be sent to households with only one argument if both essays are not received by the Australian Electoral Commission on time.
Electoral Commissioner Tom Rogers told a Senate estimates hearing on Tuesday the organisation needed to receive essays outlining the cases on time and within the legislative framework, or they would have to be rejected.
“It might mean that we’re distributing a booklet with only one case,” he said.
“Whatever parliamentary processes put in place by the ‘yes’ and the ‘no’ groups that are formed, it will be very critical to make sure that we get all of that material on time.”
Mr Rogers said the commission would not make any changes to an essay, even to correct spelling mistakes or bold headings.
“We will be printing as provided by those committees and not making any editorial decisions including layout,” he said.
The commissioner said he was concerned about the “unpredictable information environment” in the lead-up to the referendum.
“The information ecosystem was entirely different at the time of the last referendum, with no social media,” he said.
“We’re already seeing an increase in disinformation on social media and a regrettable increase in threatening commentary.
“We are adapting our approach to manage this for the referendum, including protecting our own staff from online harm.”
Once legislation passes parliament, Australians are expected to vote in the referendum between October and December.
Mr Rogers said the commission would write to every politician to inform them about the process for preparing the pamphlet and include guidance on fonts and formatting.
The pamphlet will be sent to all households, will be available online and at polling places.
The electoral commission will translate the pamphlet into dozens of languages, including a number of Indigenous languages.
For languages which are oral-only, the electoral commission plans to create audio files.
Asked about the possibility of enrolment and voting on the day, Mr Rogers said the commission had made a number of recommendations, including this one, but it had “disappointingly” not been picked up by the government.
The hearing was told Australia now had its most complete electoral roll on record, at 97.2 per cent.
Special Minister of State Don Farrell said his priority was ensuring all the steps that needed to be taken to enrol voters were completed before polling day.
He said the government’s investment in Indigenous enrolment was succeeding, with 84.5 per cent of eligible Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders on the roll.
Meanwhile, ASIO director-general Mike Burgess said the intelligence agency is keeping a close eye on the referendum amid concerns neo-Nazis could use the debate to drive recruitment and spread their ideology.
“We look at all major things and minor things in society that could potentially represent a threat to security,” he told a Senate committee.
“The voice referendum is a significant event and we continually look at that situation.”
A recent rise in visible neo-Nazi activity, including a demonstration outside Victoria’s parliament this month, is a sign the movement is becoming more emboldened, Mr Burgess said.