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Monday, 25 August 1997
Page: 6770

Mr BEAZLEY (Leader of the Opposition)(9.52 p.m.) —We oppose the motion strenuously, as we did suggest the amendments that the Senate ultimately came up with in the course of the debate here in this chamber some time ago now. At the last election this government did not go to the Australian people and say to them, `Oh, by the way, when we put in place this constitutional convention, what we will be doing is overturning the Australian secret ballot and overturning the compulsory attendance at the polls that has served this country well since the 1920s and the Australian ballot for a lot longer than that.' They went to the electorate and said, `We will have a constitutional convention.' We are fully prepared to support that proposition. We are perfectly happy for the government to have their constitutional convention, even though we think the government ought to be presenting to the Australian people immediately the question as to whether or not there ought to be an Australian head of state.

This is a matter not to be tinkered with by politicians any more; there has been enough public debate on this. Any reasonable reading of any of the opinion polls and any of the debate that has occurred to date would show that you could not sensibly stand up and say that these matters have not been given due consideration by the Australian electorate. They are prepared to vote. The government are not prepared to permit them to do so. The government want to produce with this constitutional convention a flawed process that serves several of their ends. The first of their ends is a convention with plausible denial, a convention that does not necessarily represent the full articulated view of the Australian people. They may choose then to accept the outcome or reject it and have their argument around that particular point.

The second thing is that they always like a little bit on the side. The little bit on the side is to work out a mechanism for starting to introduce the public to the notion that perhaps what we do not need is a compulsory ballot. When you take a look at their performance to this point, you see that there is no question at all that very substantial numbers of the members of the government side no longer wish a compulsory ballot to obtain. They believe there is political advantage in that. Whether or not there is political advantage for the Liberal Party, for the Australian community to have that situation obtained would be extremely bad indeed. The capacity to develop from that process a representative parliament would be virtually non-existent.

This compulsory ballot was not put in place by this side of politics. The compulsory ballot was legislated by the other side of politics and strongly supported by them when it occurred, because in the election prior to the act being passed there was a turnout of something like 57 per cent. With voluntary voting in Western Australia, where it occurs in local government, you are lucky to get a turnout of 15 to 30 per cent in those ballots. We would be lucky to get a turnout of 50 per cent in our elections. We would get very quickly to the US situation, where about 75 per cent of those entitled to enrol do so and about 50 per cent of those who subsequently enrol end up voting. The consequence of that is that invariably the American President and the American Congress are representative of very much a minority slice of American public opinion. We do not want to see that process begin in this place, when no indication before the last election was given that that was the intention of the government.

Reasonable estimates point out that some two million people will be effectively disenfranchised by this, that these papers will hit the kitchen tables of a substantial number of people, but many will miss out—some two million are highly likely to miss out. Even if every ballot paper is returned from those whose kitchen table it finally arrives on, there will still be that plausible denial that I referred to earlier. A representative vote will not emerge from them. That is not going to be a constitutional convention which will be representative of any sort of Australian opinion at all. The government know that and I suspect strongly that the government would welcome that, were that to occur.

If the government proceed with this, and it is subsequently lost in the Senate and they take their bat and ball home, then we will go to the next election in the position we are probably in now—that is, the only party prepared to put an honest question before the Australian people on the issue of a republic. (Extension of time granted) We will go to the next election as the only political party putting forward a proposition to the Australian electorate which says this: `If you wish to have your constitution properly reflect your civil polity, if you wish to have your constitution properly reflect the fact that we are a mature democracy, if you wish your constitution to have a fully-fledged Australian head of state, then there is one party that will put an honest vote before you.'

It will be a vote that will include no overthrow of the Australian secret ballot, the one mechanism that is now universally recognised by an Australian title. When you go and talk about secret ballots at conferences of politicians in other countries or at constitutional and electoral conferences, you will hear people refer to the Australian secret ballot, which is to be overthrown by this particular proposition. The Australian secret ballot is not good enough for an election of an Australian constitutional convention. That is the position of the other side. An Australian secret ballot is not suitable for the election of a convention to deal with matters pertaining to the Australian constitution.

If you want to spit the dummy, if you cannot persuade the minority parties in the Senate to support you—and no doubt you will do your level best to persuade them to support you—be it on your heads. We will move propositions in the Senate and here to give people an opportunity for that secret ballot. If you choose to defeat those propositions, then we will go to the next election, which is 12 to 18 months away anyway, with precisely those propositions. The Australian people will know that you are not fair dinkum. The Australian people will know that you have paid lip-service to the issues of constitutional conventions. The Australian people will know that you have arrogant contempt for their rights to speak out on whether or not there should be an Australian head of state.

What thundering arrogance. What thundering arrogance that you will not put that position to the Australian people, a matter which you have debated with us for some considerable period of time, which very large numbers of members of the Liberal Party have expressed themselves supportive of and which even odd members of the National Party has expressed themselves willing to support. This government will not permit them a vote. And they will know that. You will have had three years to do it by the time of the next election. Despite the strong support of large numbers in the community, despite the strong support of Liberal Premiers and of others in the Liberal Party, despite the strong support particularly of young Australians seeking a bit of adventure, a bit of an opportunity to grasp their constitution, their civic polity, to express their view, they can all go and put it in their pipes and smoke it as far as this government is concerned. They will not forget it.

This is not going to be the biggest issue at the next election. It is not necessarily the biggest issue before us. But if your civil polity cannot handle the question of what the status of your constitution and your head of state is because a political party blocks them with mealy-mouthed words from their capacity to do so, then you have a weak civil polity. Everybody fundamentally understands that.

This little piece of chicanery by the Liberal Party to get onto the agenda a particular obsession of the parliamentary secretary who is interested in that, supported by one or two others on the other side of the House, has to be exposed for what it is, and that is a piece of Liberal Party tomfoolery. That piece of Liberal Party tomfoolery is at the expense of decent democratic procedure in this country.

To stand in this place and say that ballot papers ought to be sitting on the kitchen table so that everybody can come in and have a look at them, when you have that Australian secret ballot tradition, is an utter and absolute disgrace. To say that you are going to spit the dummy if the Senate objects to it reveals exactly the sort of people—arrogant people—we have running this country. If you put this through you will successfully get it through here. You may get it through the Senate; I don't know. But you stand condemned for lowering the standards of democracy in this place and you will be. (Time expired)