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Monday, 24 May 1965

Senator WEBSTER (Victoria) .- I rise to support the Bill. I am very pleased to be able to follow in this debate my friend Senator Kennelly from Victoria. Holding an official position within his party as he does, I hope he will arrange to have published the views of his party and its leaders in relation to representation in rural areas. I certainly think that the views of the Labour Party should be known to the people of these areas. It is noticeable that the members of the Labour Party in another place who represent country areas have been very quiet regarding this matter. I doubt very much whether they accept the principle that has been espoused by speakers for the Opposition in the Senate.

We are dealing with a Bill to amend the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918- 1962. The Minister for the Interior (Mr. Anthony) has stated that this measure is not intended to alter in substance the provisions of the Act. I commend that statement to the Senate because, if one studies the provisions of the Bill, one will find that very little weight can be given to the arguments of the Opposition. The provisions of the Act which remain in the Bill have been in this statute since Federation. Section 19 of the Act provides -

In making any proposed distribution of a State into Divisions the Distribution Commissioners shall give due consideration to -

(a)   Community or diversity of interest,

(b)   Means of Communication,

(c)   Physical features,

(d)   Existing Boundaries of Divisions and Subdivisions,

(e)   State Electoral boundaries; and subject thereto the quota of electors shall be the basis for the distribution and the

Distribution Commissioners may adopt a margin of allowance, to be used whenever necessary, but in no case shall the quota be departed from to a greater extent than one-fifth more or one-fifth less.

There will be six Distribution Commissioners in the various States. The Government is well aware of the variations in the interpretation of these provisions over the years, as is the Opposition, and the Bill is designed to bring about some uniformity. Proposed new section 19 (1.) provides -

In making any proposed distribution of a State into Divisions, the Distribution Commissioners shall so determine the proposed Divisions that each Division contains a number of electors not exceeding, or falling short of, the quota of electors by more than one-fifth of the quota.

These provisions are basically the same as those in section 19 of the principle Act but there are three specific innovations. Proposed new section 19 (2.) provides -

For the purposes of the last preceding subsection, the Distribution Commissioners shall give due consideration, in relation to each proposed Division, to -

(a)   community of interests within the Division, including economic, social and regional interests;

(b)   means of communication and travel within the Division, with special reference to disabilities arising out of remoteness or distance;

(c)   the trend of population changes within the State;

(d)   the density or sparsity of population of the Division;

(e)   the area of the Division;

(f)   the physical features of the Division; and

(g)   existing boundaries of Divisions and Subdivisions.

A most important provision in the Bill is the one that now lays down a procedure for the Distribution Commissioners. I have not heard any argument by the Opposition to suggest that this is something tending towards the advantage of one party. This is the first occasion on which a procedure has been written into the legislation for the guidance of the Commissioners, and it is a procedure which is to be commended. First, the Distribution Commissioners, by notification in the Commonwealth Gazette, will invite suggestions relating to the distribution. A period of 30 days will be allowed for suggestions, which must be made in writing. These suggestions will then be made public for perusal at the office of the Commonwealth Electoral Officer for the State. After that time, 14 days will be allowed to individuals, political bodies or any interested party to lodge a written comment on the suggestions. In other words, a total period of 44 days is available in which a written comment may be lodged. The Commissioners will then consider all the suggestions and comments that have been presented to them. Maps will then be exhibited in post offices and a 30-day period will be allowed for objections or suggestions to be lodged in respect of the proposals made by the Commissioners. Further, copies of all these suggestions, together with all relevant matters, will be made available to the public and to political parties at their request.

Senator Cavanagh - Nobody is arguing about that.

Senator WEBSTER - I agree that nobody is arguing about that. Those are the provisions of the Bill.

Senator Cavanagh - The honorable senator is justifying a gerrymander.

Senator WEBSTER - It is interesting to note what this gerrymander happens to be, and it is interesting to observe that the Australian Country Party is the subject of the attack in this respect. It is interesting to note also that the Opposition has concentrated its argument on the proposal of a 20 per cent, variation in the quota. The whole song from the Opposition in this matter is that there should be one vote one value, but has this been the suggested policy of the Australian LabourParty now for a number of years? It is interesting to recall that the Labour Party was probably the only party that was represented when the original Act was promulgated. In 1902 when the Labour Party was probably the only one of our present parties that had been formed as a party it passed the Commonwealth Electoral Act which allowed a margin of 20 per cent, above or below the quota. Has the Labour Party changed its views since then? Undoubtedly we would find from the arguments in the Senate this morning that it has.

It is interesting to note that in Queensland in 1949 - this is a rather significant year - the Labour Party, which was in office at that time, amended the State Electoral Act to provide that 10,795 metropolitan votes should have the same effect as 4,613 country votes. In 1949, at least, the Labour Party did not propose a principle of one vote one value. In Western Australia under the

Hawke Labour Government in 1955 a metropolitan seat required 9,369 electors. Under the Labour Party, which saw wisdom in its wonderful proposition of one vote one value, it was decided that there should be three seats with no quota whatsoever. How can honorable senators opposite argue their case when within the last half a dozen years they have put up a proposition like this? Do the Federal Labour members argue with their State members about what they did in 1955? Perhaps they see reason in the wisdom of making some disparity in the value of a vote. Perhaps the Labour Party believes not in one vote one value but in equality of representation. Perhaps the standard of one vote one value that is held over the heads of Labour members is intended for the densely populated metropolitan areas, lt is from such areas, of course, that the majority of Labour members come. I put it that, when they come here today suggesting that one vote should have one value, their policy in regard to rural areas is quite out of line with what is required in those areas.

Is it possible that Labour members believe that constituents should have equality of representation in either the Federal Parliament or a State Parliament? Do they suggest that a member should be able to contact all his constituents with the same facility? Are we able to say that there is equality of representation when in a closely populated metropolitan area a member may have to take only a five minute or a ten minute walk to see a constituent and when in certain large electorates a member may have to take a trip on foot and by road and aeroplane to see a constituent? The constituent is the first person who must be considered. Members who come from the big States know that there is no equality of representation as between a constituent in a metropolitan area who has only to put through a telephone call or to take a tram or even walk half a mile to contact his representative and a constituent in a rural area.

Senator Ridley - We will give you two members with one vote in a country area. Will that satisfy the honorable senator?

Senator WEBSTER - The honorable senator may have some such principles. What he has said has been said only by way of interjection. T have not heard that sug gestion made yet. I do not believe that the honorable senator would want to double the number of Country Party members.

Senator Ridley - I am suggesting that the honorable senator is interested not in the constituents but in the party that he represents.

Senator WEBSTER - In our age the interests of the constituents are very much bound up in whether they can congregate to discuss matters of importance - perhaps matters such as the one we are now discussing. It is much easier for constituents in a closely populated metropolitan area to meet and discuss the problems of the day than it is for constituents in rural areas.

Members of the Labour Party are particularly quiet on this point. They know that this measure does not favour the Country Party. Indeed, rural voters select representatives from all the great political parties. lt cannot be suggested that a Country Party representative will be returned in particular circumstances. Indeed, if the rural electorates were to contain fewer constituents, representatives of the Labour Party, the Liberal Party and the Country Party would all have an opportunity to be returned. We speak of equality of representation, but when we think of the difficulties that are experienced by country electors we must agree that there is no equality of representation as between those electors and metropolitan constituents.

A suggestion has been made that this Bill represents an attempted gerrymander on the part of the Country Party. I do not think that suggestion is well founded. Indeed, this is a bill which has the full support of the Government. It is rather difficult for members of the Country Party to have their voices heard in this matter but my party, representing the rural areas, is being given an opportunity to voice its opinion on this side of the chamber. The Country Party does consider the matter of balanced development to be of great importance to the nation. We feel that this Bill will provide a way in which balanced development can be brought about. I imagine that every honorable senator would agree that a greater balance of development, or the decentralisation of the population away from our great cities, is an admirable thing. It will be only by a greater concentration of parliamentary representation of outer areas that this may be brought about. But the Labour Party has suggested that this measure is a gerrymander. Has the Labour Party ever known a measure which was more out in the open than this one? It is provided that arguments for the alteration of electoral boundaries shall he in writing. This is certainly something which has never been proposed in the 60 years that Labour has been interested in this matter. The whole proposition has been laid out quite clearly. I suggest that the Opposition would agree that it is in the national interest to have a transfer of population to country areas.

Senator Cant - We have agreed with that.

Senator WEBSTER - The Opposition agrees on points which may be to the benefit of the Labour Party but it opposes anything which it thinks may be for the good of the rural community in particular. The Labour Party opposes any greater representation in rural areas. I hope the Labour Party will make that known in country areas. I noted with interest the comments made by the Leader of the Opposition in another place about the position existing in the United States of America and the great disparity that occurs there. As far as voting weight is concerned, there is a disparity in every country in the world as to the principle of one vote one value. But now an attempt is being made in Australia to have some equality of representation in the rural areas.

Senator Ridley - What about the Tas.manian State election?

Senator WEBSTER - I am not familiar with the Tasmanian State election. I know that there has been a Labour Government there for a long time. I have no idea what has happened there. I think that great advances are being made in this measure we are debating. The Government has introduced provisions which are sound and sensible. The Bill will direct Distribution Commissioners to take note of particular things in order to bring about equality of representation as far as scattered areas of Australia are concerned. Certain procedure will be laid down which will bring uniformity to all States. I congratulate my friend Senator Prowse on the excellent figures which he presented to the Senate. I suggest that Opposition .members again read those comments he made and study the figures he produced. If they do they will find themselves in agreement with ' the principle of equality of representation and not necessarily that of one vote one value which they expound. I heartily commend this Bill to the Senate and I am confident that the wisdom of Senators on both sides of the chamber will ensure that this Bill is passed today.

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