Peter Dutton’s “concern” about potential voter confusion during the Voice referendum is the “weakest, laziest argument” Education Minister Jason Clare says he’s ever heard.
His comments come as Mr Dutton demands voting in the upcoming Voice to parliament referendum be made a “fair process” amid a warning about what will count on the ballot paper.
Voters are being urged to write “yes” or “no” on the ballot papers when they head to the polls later this year to vote in the referendum, with the date – widely anticipated to be held on October 14 – to be formally announced on Wednesday.
But a political storm is brewing after Australian electoral commissioner Tom Rogers conceded that while a clear tick would technically count for a yes vote, a cross could not be counted because of ambiguity.
Earlier this week, Mr Rogers appeared on Sky News, repeatedly asking voters to just write their response in clear English, saying he was “nervous” of talking about other options, but “savings provisions” existed that allowed AEC staff to count votes that don’t strictly follow the instructions.
“It is likely that a ‘y’ or an ‘n’ would be counted under the savings provisions. But I get nervous even talking about that because then people hear mixed messages. It’s just important to write either yes or no on that ballot paper,” Mr Rogers said.
“It is likely that a tick will be accepted as a formal vote for yes but a cross will not be accepted as a formal vote.”
Mr Dutton said the rule – which has been established for 30 years and is in play during federal elections – could “skew” the vote against the No campaign.
“Just make it a fair process instead of trying to load the system and try to skew it in favour of the Yes vote,” Mr Dutton told 9 News.
“And I just think that sense of equality in terms of the arguments and people’s ability to make a decision and for it to count and for there not to be a … gerrymander in place.
“I think that is all important so people have some respect for the process, but at the moment, it’s a real problem.”
Mr Dutton said he would write to the AEC to seek answers, which quickly prompted a rebuke from the federal government who accused Mr Dutton of hypocrisy, noting the Coalition had supported the legislation that oversees referendums.
A government source noted that Mr Dutton’s “scare” campaigns were like a play out of the monarchists’ playbook ahead of the 1999 referendum.
In the lead-up to the 1999 republic referendum; monarchists launched a court challenge against the republic referendum, arguing the guidelines for counting votes were biased towards the Yes case.
Mr Clare said the rules “hadn’t caused any confusion” in 1999, and wouldn’t do so this year, and questioned why Mr Dutton hadn’t made his concerns known before the referendum rules were legislated by the parliament.
“I think there were less than 1 per cent of votes that were informal (in the 1999 referendum), so I think that pricks the bubble of the argument that ‘this will cause some confusion’,” Mr Clare told Channel 7.
“These are the same rules we’ve had for 30 years and if (deputy Liberal leader) Sussan (Ley) and Peter (Dutton) are so worried about this, why didn’t they move an amendment to legislation a couple of weeks ago when it was going through parliament.
“This is the weakest, laziest argument I’ve ever heard.”
Originally published as Jason Clare hits out at Peter Dutton as he demands greater transparency ahead of Voice referendum