Foreign individuals, companies and governments are expected to be banned from donating or campaigning for either side during the Indigenous voice to parliament campaign, as the federal government updates laws around referendums for the first time in decades.
The proposed reforms to the Referendum Machinery Act will also include donation disclosure rules, and public funding for campaigns to mitigate misinformation around the voice and referendum process. And they abolish an antiquated rule requiring the printing of pamphlets to educate voters – described by a leading constitutional expert as “not fit for purpose”.
“The Referendum Act is out of step with today’s electoral laws and does not reflect modern delivery and communications methods,” the special minister of state, Don Farrell, said.
On Thursday, amendments to the referendum act will be introduced that the Albanese government says will bring the process into line with the electoral laws governing federal elections.
Current referendum laws require the government to produce and mail information pamphlets to voters, containing 2,000-word essays from those in favour and those opposed to the referendum change. That provision would be scrapped.
“The next referendum will be the first in the digital age. There is no longer any need for taxpayers to pay for a pamphlet to be sent to every household,” Farrell said in a joint statement with the Indigenous Australians minister, Linda Burney, the attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, and reconciliation envoy Patrick Dodson.
The proposed changes would ban foreign donations to the referendum campaigns and prohibit foreign campaigners from issuing referendum-related materials, including foreign companies, governments and individuals who are not Australian citizens or residents. They would also require disclosure of donations and expenditure to the Australian Electoral Commission – in line with laws governing regular federal elections.
The government has also chosen not to provide any public funding to either side of the campaign, leaving it to campaigners to raise their own cash. That decision was widely expected, with senior sources having hinted the government was unlikely to fund the anti-voice campaign.
“The government believes campaigns in the voice referendum should be organised and funded by the Australian community,” the government statement said.
During a speech at the National Press Club in October, Dreyfus called Australia’s referendum processes “very antiquated”, and said foreign funding of the referendum was “a concern”.
“I can’t think of a reason why there should be overseas funding permitted for campaigning in this referendum,” he said.
Many of the government’s proposed changes were based on a 2021 inquiry into constitutional reform and referendums from the parliament’s standing committee on social policy and legal affairs, which recommended greater disclosure of domestic donations and restrictions on those from foreign sources.
Prof George Williams, a University of New South Wales legal academic and member of the government’s constitutional expert group on the voice, said last month that many current referendum provisions were outdated, with some dating back to 1912, and needed updating for modern voting and communication practices.
“It means we have rules that have yet to be adapted for radio or television, let alone social media,” Williams said.
“The laws are just not fit for purpose anymore … The idea you have a written pamphlet of information rather than the internet just doesn’t make sense – it’s out of date.”
The amendments will include public funding for education campaigns around referendum processes, and also to mitigate misinformation.
The bill will be referred to the parliament’s joint standing committee on electoral matters, to report back in early 2023, with its recommendations to be considered before the bill is progressed through parliament. The referendum is expected in the second half of next year.
In an interview with the ABC’s 7.30 program on Tuesday, Burney said the government’s decision to not fund either side of the campaign was “prudent”.
“We will be using public funds to fund a civics campaign, so people know about what referendums are… We will not be using public funds to fund a yes or a no campaign,” she said.
“We believe those campaigns can raise their own money, through private means.”
Burney said there was “enormous support” for the voice referendum in the corporate sector, among unions and in the community.
“This is not about politicians,” she said. “This cannot be about politicians. This is a decision that the Australian people will make. This referendum belongs to the Australian people not politicians.”
Burney promised more information about the voice and the campaign in coming months.
“We have not even started the campaign. That will start next year.”