Legislative Assembly for the ACT: 1995 Week 11 Hansard (14 December) . . Page.. 3085..
MS FOLLETT (continuing):
Anyone, either individually or in groups, can lobby their elected representatives on particular issues and propose changes in the law. Citizens also have the right to petition. When citizens lobby or petition, law-makers get a strong sense of the desires of the community. The Community Referendum Bill is an expensive way of giving the Legislative Assembly another gauge of public opinion.
The Attorney-General said that the Assembly would ignore the wishes of a majority of voters at a referendum at its peril. Mr Speaker, my view is that the Assembly already ignores the wishes of a majority of voters at its peril and the voters can effectively make their wishes known without expensive referendums. The Attorney-General has argued that the Bill is "a very effective way of taking controversial issues out of the hands of extremists, pressure groups and power elites". I disagree strongly, Mr Speaker. Indeed, it is precisely these groups that the Bill would empower the most. An individual citizen can effectively lobby their elected representatives with a minimum of expense; but, for a citizen or even a group of citizens, gaining signatures of 10 per cent of the voters would probably be both expensive and very difficult. Those with money and strong organisations would be most likely to be able to gain the signatures needed to trigger a referendum, thus giving them a strong organisational advantage over the average citizen. Furthermore, pressure groups and power elites would be best placed to organise and run expensive election campaigns, giving them further advantage over the average citizen.
The community referendum would also be a dangerous tool in the hands of extremist groups. The Attorney-General says that referendums do not empower extremists and points to the United States as a success story. However, Mr Speaker, an examination of the US record shows that groups such as racist anti-immigration forces and religious right anti-gay forces have all profited from referendums. Anti-gay referendum victories in the United States are particularly disturbing. In 1992 Colorado voters passed an anti-gay ballot measure which has cost the State millions in lost tourist and convention revenues. But it is the human cost that is even more disturbing. Anti-gay referendums have legitimised homophobia and discrimination in many parts of the United States. Just this week an activist lesbian couple were found murdered in Oregon, apparently the victims of homophobic killing. The pair had left Colorado five years earlier because of the strength of the anti-gay movement there. But the couple campaigned in Oregon three years ago against another anti-gay ballot referendum, and they were subsequently the victims of hate mail, public insults, graffiti and eventually murder. Thus, overseas experience shows that extreme groups can indeed benefit from referendums and have their causes legitimised.
Mr Speaker, the Attorney-General also points to New Zealand as an example of a referendum success story. However, New Zealand recently had its first referendum, and almost everyone agrees that it was a waste of time and money. The Government spent $NZ10m to find out that 87 per cent of those who voted did not want their fire protection cut. What a surprise that must have been! In fact, fewer than 28 per cent of the voters even bothered to cast ballots, and the cost of the referendum works out to over $15 a vote. Mr Speaker, would they not have been far better off to have spent the $10m on fire protection?