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Wednesday, 26 November 1986
Page: 2829


Senator GARETH EVANS (Minister for Resources and Energy)(9.49) —I do not think we need to do anything as dramatic as hold it up. I am happy to answer the questions as best I can. The situation is, in broad terms, that the Government's position on this issue is the same as was outlined earlier in the year. But some circumstances have changed. Instead of having a guarantee of universal and equal suffrage enshrined in a legislative Australian Bill of Rights which, in turn, picks up the entire International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, we will have simply a provision for the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission to investigate possible breaches of the terms of the Covenant itself. That may, at the end of the day, have significant constitutional implications for the Commonwealth Government's capacity to legislate for the implementation of that particular provision of the Covenant. It may be that the Commonwealth's legislative position, constitutionally speaking, is very much weaker in a one-off exercise than would be the case if one were implementing or enforcing, if you like, one particular section of a Bill of Rights. That is a matter for legal discussion and argument, and something, of course, on which I am not seeking to pronounce at this stage.

The further change that has occurred is that under the terms of the proposed Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Bill, as now to be amended by the Australian Democrats, the Commission will have a capacity to initiate reports and investigations of this kind itself rather than having to depend upon a formal reference from the government of the day. So that opens another option which was not there in the original formulation. However, my current understanding of the situation-I make this statement ad referendum to the Attorney-General (Mr Lionel Bowen) in case he wants to add anything different-is that the Government will proceed as earlier promised with a reference to the Commission on the subject I would think of electoral laws generally, rather than just the case in Queensland, to report upon whether one vote one value considerations are in fact guaranteed by the universal and equal suffrage provisions of the International Covenant.

When the Commission's report on that matter is received by the Government it may well suggest a firm legislative response is appropriate. It may be, on the other hand, after a full examination of the terms of the Covenant and the meaning of the expression `equal suffrage', given the uncertainties that apply as to whether that means, as I have often said in this place, one vote one value or simply one person one vote, that the report of the Commission will come back in a way which suggest that such--


Senator Durack —You are getting more shonky every minute.


Senator GARETH EVANS —I am simply not prepared to commit the Government at this stage. On that basis I have answered the question as fully and honestly as I can. I am not seeking to dissimulate in any way. I am not seeking to hide the difficulties that lie in the path of getting fair electorate laws in this country. I do not want to open up the substantive debate about that. We are simply talking about the procedures, the powers, the functions, the jurisdiction and so on of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. I will seek some further information from the Attorney as to what he sees now the full sequence of events being. But my understanding is as they have been described. To the extent that some of that sounds perhaps not quite as explicit as was the case earlier in the year, that is directly attributable to the fact that we will not now have for the endlessly foreseeable future an Australian Bill of Rights. We will simply have to make do with the much less satisfactory machinery of the kind that we now have. We will pursue these issues of democratic freedom and the values that some of us at least hold dear with as much vigour and enthusiasm as we can. But it is not easy to be confident about the outcome of these exercises as might otherwise previously have been the case.