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Thursday, 11 November 1976
Page: 2598

Mr E G Whitlam (WERRIWA, NEW SOUTH WALES) (Leader of the Opposition) - There are two ways of regarding the events in this place whose anniversary is remembered today by millions of our fellow-countrymen. The first is to treat this day- 1 1 November- as the end of the first year of the Fraser Government. We can look back on that year and take stock of the Government's performance. That is a political exercise and a highly instructive one; I shall return to it. The second approach is to review the events of that day in the light of their constitutional significance, to consider their implications for parliamentary democracy and for the future stability of our country. That is the more important and more urgent task for all members of this Parliament and for all Australians who respect its traditions and value its survival.

On 1 1 November last year my colleagues and I, for all our different backgrounds and different temperaments, had a shared belief, an instinctive realisation, that what was happening that day represented the supreme challenge to all we had stood and fought for, to everything we held in common, to everthing for which we had devoted the greater part of our energies for 3 years and the greater part of our working lives. Our Party had been out of office for 23 years. As democrats we had accepted that because, though one may argue about the electoral system, we respected the will of the people and we believed that in time the will of the people would give us the chance we sought. And it did. We came to office after 23 years in a time of international economic crisis; after 18 months our term was cut short. We faced another election; we won it. Half way through a second term we were challenged again by the Senate; we fought that challenge; we were dismissed by the Governor-General. One does not need to believe in conspiracy theories or to indulge in emotive recriminations to imagine the feelings of Australians who had twice voted Labor into power. So if I speak on Grievance Day it is not because we grieve for the Labor Government or grieve for ourselves, but because we grieve for the hopes of millions of Australians who supported us, millions who believed that the system of government we profess to uphold offered them some hope, some fair chance of participation in the democratic process. We grieve for the damage done to the democratic system and for the lost faith of those who believed in it.

This is an emotional response, an essentially human response to 1 1 November and the joyless conquest that came after- joyless not least for the victors. But our case does not rest on emotion alone. Our objections to what happened are based on the oldest and firmest principles of constitutional law and parliamentary practice. We took our stand on 11 November on a simple issue: Is a government with a majority in a democratically elected House of Representatives to be allowed to govern, or is it not? We took our stand on the principle that a Prime Minister who derives his authority, his very office, from the House of Representatives is entitled to remain in office while he commands the confidence of that House. All the words of our opponents cannot alter the fact that on 1 1 November that ancient principle was turned on its head, and the rules and precedents of centuries of parliamentary practice were ignored. I believe it is possible now, with emotion recollected in tranquillity, to see the salient features of our case even more clearly than we perceived them at the time. Certain things stand out from the welter of words and arguments canvassed since last November, and I shall deal with just two of them.

First let me state as fairly as I can what I might call the basic conservative case. The defence of the Senate's action rests on the proposition that the Senate is a popularly elected House and, except in certain limited matters specified in the Constitution, enjoys equal powers with the House of Representatives. Therefore, so the conservative argument goes, the Senate may withhold Supply from a government, and a government without Supply must immediately resign. There are two central flaws- fatal flaws- in this argument. The first is that the Labor Government on 1 1 November was not without Supply; the second is that whatever the force of convention in these matters, the view that the Senate is a democratic House comparable with the House of Representatives can never be sustained. It is a parody of democracy to assert that a govenment must be responsible to a chamber elected on a grossly unequal system of representation; a chamber whose numbers can be varied, and have indeed been varied, by State Premiers without regard to the electors' will; whose members at some times have been chosen 3 years or 6 years before the members of this House, and who can bring about an election for the House of Representatives without having to face an election themselves.

The other point I make is a simpler and more obvious one. Everyone accepts that this House alone can form a government; that is its primary and exclusive power. It follows that this House alone can remove a government, for the power to form a government must carry with it the power to preserve and sustain that government in office. No one asserts that the Senate can form a government; its powers in that regard are inferior to those of the lower House. Yet conservatives, while denying the right of the Senate to form a government, assert its right to remove one. The power of the lower House to form a government is now, we are told, conditional on the concurrence of another chamber which has no such power. It seems to me that, notwithstanding legal arguments and constitutional precedents, the attempt to claim superior powers for the Senate over this House involves us in a logical contradiction. The Senate's assertion of power was not only undemocratic but manifestly absurd.

This is a Government that overturned all accepted rules, traditions and decencies in a rush for power. And for what results? The record of the Government speaks for itself. It is a Government that has broken its election promises as it broke the rules. It is a Government that promised a magic cure for the economic problems that beset the entire western world; far from curing these problems it has made them worse. It promised an end to the recession; the recession is deepening. It promised jobs for all Australians; yet unemployment now stands higher than it has since the Depression, and it is rising, not falling. It promised a return to business confidence; that confidence is lower than ever. It promised to retain Medibank; Medibank has been dismantled. It promised to support wage indexation; it lias undertaken a systematic attack on the real wages of employees. It promised to retain tax deductions for home buyers; it is curtailing those deductions and thereby depriving half a million home owners of tax benefits worth $40m a year. It promised to maintain federal funds for Aborigines; it has cut them. It has attacked the Australian Broadcasting Commission; it has stunted the growth centres; it has damaged our relations with foreign powers. It has embarked on policies which can lead only to the slow and steady suspension of all the best and most creative achievements of the Labor Government.

So on this Remembrance Day we lament 2 things: The damage to democracy caused by the Liberals in opposition, and the damage to our nation caused by the Liberals in government. The result of all their dishonesty, their ruthless greed for power, their contempt for rules and propriety, is not just to destroy for ever the credibility of the Liberal Party. If that were all it did the remedy could be left safely in the people's hands. What the Liberals have done is to damage the whole fabric of trust between the electors and elected governments. And the effects of the damage will be felt for years to come- in growing cynicism and in a slow corruption of the standards of public life. It will continue until we return to honesty and decency in government; until the rules of our democratic system are restored and upheld; until the Australian people reelect a government that stands once again for progress, humanity and justice, a Labor Government.

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