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Thursday, 6 October 1983
Page: 1453

Mr STEELE HALL —by leave-Before I deal with the report of the Joint Select Committee on Electoral Reform, I express the hope that the Special Minister of State (Mr Beazley) has got it right on the first occasion and does not have to retable his statement, as he did yesterday when he made a mistake with regard to his personal interests. There is no doubt that the Joint Select Committee on Electoral Reform has paid a great deal of attention to furthering the right to vote of citizens of Australia. One aim of the Committee was to develop a fair electoral system not only one in which everyone can take part, but one in which everyone's rights are safeguarded, so that every opportunity is given to everyone who is entitled to enrol. Therefore, we cannot ignore the startling findings of the surveys which show that between 500,000 and 600,000 Australians, a great number of them young people, are not enrolled to take part in the democratic process. Certainly, we support any fair moves to have those people made aware of their rights and to have them enrol and take part in the system.

The Committee's report, which will be discussed at a later time, contains some important areas of change. Despite that, I say clearly that the main base of Australian democracy will be unchanged if the Committee's report is followed. It does not recommend change to compulsory voting. It retains in its recommendations the basic thrust of the preferential system which we now enjoy. It maintains the 10 per cent variation between electorates. It continues the recommendation for single member electorates for the House of Representatives and it maintains the existing system of proportional representation for the Senate.

I define those matters to remove any doubts in the minds of anyone who has listened to the Minister or his predecessor describing this reform as a new dawn in electoral matters in Australia; it is not. The Committee has suggested numerous changes in detail-some of a major nature which few dissenting reports have shown will be harmful to the system-but has left intact the major system that has been developed in Australia. That needs to be stated, in case the Minister and the Government try to make the people of Australia believe that this is the first system we have had. In fact, it builds on the system which has been developed over many years. In relation, for instance to the vexed question, of preferential voting, I take an optimistic view that most people in Australia vote formally. In fact, 97 per cent of those who vote for the House of Representatives vote formally and 91 per cent who vote for the Senate vote formally. Therefore, one need not look pessimistically at the electoral system. We have a good system, possibly the best in the world, which we are improving by the study that is now proceeding and the reforms which will now be put into legislation by the Government. I make the point that it does not represent a new dawn. It is improving a peak situation which we previously reached.

We concur with the proposition put forward by this statement. The Minister has outlined a vigorous and major campaign to educate the unenrolled to join the system. He made this remark almost at the conclusion of his statement:

In particular, I will be seeking the active participation of members from both sides of the House in explaining the aims and purposes of this campaign.

I suggest to him that this campaign should be bipartisan. If we are to develop a system which encourages people to take part in it, we must ensure that the campaign is not party politically motivated. I suggest that the only way it can be carried out in a non-party political way, if there is to be political presence, is to ensure that at least the Leader of the Opposition is involved in the campaign. If no political presence is envisaged, the matter will be equalised. But if political figures are to be involved in this campaign, I suggest to the Minister he should be very careful to ensure that there is no smell of party politics involved in what should be, and hopefully will be, a non -partisan area of education and encouragement.

Much of the success of the campaign, of course, will depend on the way in which it is carried out. I ask the Minister: How is the matter to be dealt with? Perhaps he may be able to explain at a later stage how we can be assured that the major sums of money involved will be applied fairly throughout Australia, State by State, within the States geographically, electorate by electorate and demographically. That is a major question because, as outlined in the statement, $3.56m is involved, over $2m of which will be spent in general advertising. I would like some assurance that the details of construction of this campaign will be placed before this House so that honourable members are at least aware of the fairness which I hope the Minister will build into the campaign.

The Minister said a few things about the public's perception of members of Parliament and indicated that some people-in fact, a good number-may not enrol because they dislike politicians, have a jaundiced view of the system, believe that those who take part in it are there for their own benefit, or believe all the other criticisms which are levelled at politicians. I say to the Minister that one of the major reforms which his Party is proposing will, I believe, increase public disregard for politicians. That is the matter of public funding. I would have hoped that the Government would not proceed with public funding. But its course has been well established by its support of the Committee's recommendation in this area. I put it to the Minister that nothing could discourage the public more in its attitude to politicians than to know that political parties and political figures are elected to this place by expenditure from the public purse. In that one so-called reforming stroke, the Minister is adding very significantly to the disregard which the public has for members of this House. I say on behalf of the Opposition-certainly, it is my observation of the Government-that it is a disregard which is totally unwarranted. I believe that members in this House work diligently and fairly for their electorates but that regard has to be built on, and it will not be built on by saying to the taxpayer of Australia: 'You will significantly fund the members who inhabit this place'. By the ability of honourable members to belong to major parties, they are automatically ensured of funding and thus of being re-elected to this place.

If we were to ask any young people who are unenrolled today whether they approve of public funding, I am sure that we would get the answer which the polls have already shown. A vast majority of young people would be against using public funds in support of political ideology and a furtherance of political figures in this House and in the community. I say, in a forlorn, last minute request to the Minister that if he wants to support his remarks in the statement , of which he made a great deal, he should remove his support for public funding . As I have said, a eight month compaign is indeed a long campaign. It is well funded. I again make the point-I hope the Minister will maintain his interest in it-that both sides of politics, if politic figures are to be involved, will be involved and that the further action which will be necessary will be taken.

The paper did not mention what will happen after cessation of this campaign. It is one thing to make people aware of their rights but it is another thing, after they are educated-hopefully the expenditure of just under $4m will make the members of the public aware of their entitlements and responsibilities-for the Minister to evolve some plan to get them on to the electoral roll and not simply let them, in disregard of the campaign, go off and do their own thing. People will have to respond. The Minister will need to have some force in his argument; he will need to have some penalties that will bear on those who will not take part in the system. There are penalties now but obviously they are not effective otherwise we would not have half a million people who have ignored their civil responsibilities in this way. The Minister too will need to bring back to this House a practical plan to take over from the educative role which he has put forward to enforce the law and the necessity to get unenrolled people into the system.

I repeat that I could not agree more that the issue is important. No one in the community could oppose this proposal, as none could oppose or want to oppose the compulsory enrolment of Aboriginals. One would support that proposal just as one would support the enrolment of every person over 18 years of age in this community. However, it is the quality of this campaign which will count and it will be very much within ministerial capacity to inform the House as to whether that quality will be high.

The Minister's regard for the Opposition's role, his regard of the amount of money that is spent and his regard for the campaign which must be mounted after the money is spent will finally tell the tale as to whether we ought now to be supporting his message to us. However, we do support it in anticipation that some of the vitriol which has crept into the political argument, and which was maintained by his predecessor in office, will not spoil what I believe is a fine recommendation from a committee that has worked hard and assiduously at its task . I ask the Minister now to produce the goods to match his rhetoric in the statement.