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Tuesday, 18 October 1983
Page: 1841


Mr LIONEL BOWEN (Minister for Trade)(5.11) —I move:

That the Bill be now read a second time.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I need to explain a point at the outset. We are now dealing with the Constitution Alteration (Simultaneous Elections) Bill, and the following Bill is the Constitution Alteration (Parliamentary Terms) Bill. Rather than make the same speech twice I shall address my remarks to this Bill and will indicate when the second Bill is introduced that I have already made my second reading speech.

This Bill and the next Bill to be introduced will give effect to proposed changes to the Constitution endorsed by the Australian Constitutional Convention at its meeting in Adelaide earlier this year. This Bill will alter the Constitution to provide for the holding of simultaneous elections for the House of Representatives and half the Senate. The second piece of legislation provides for four-year terms for the House of Representatives. They are proposed in substitution for the Constitution Alteration (Fixed Term Parliaments) Bill which the Attorney-General (Senator Gareth Evans) introduced into the Senate on 12 May 1983.

Since that Bill was introduced, the Government has given further consideration to the package of referendum proposals designed to streamline and modernise the machinery of the Australian Government which it believes should be put to referendum early in 1984. Without resiling in any way from the view that the fixed term parliament proposal would have important benefits as an acceptable solution to some of our more intransigent constitutional problems, the Government has come to the view that it is preferable that the proposals relating to parliamentary terms which were endorsed at the Adelaide meeting of the Constitutional Convention should be put to the people.

There has been no consensus in favour of the fixed term proposal but, by contrast, the proposals for simultaneous elections and four-year terms have both previously attracted strong support from the present Opposition. I am gratified that the Opposition has announced its support in Parliament for these Bills. The most recent declaration of that support was the announcement by the former Prime Minister, Mr Fraser, on 7 February that, if re-elected, his Government would itself put both of these propositions to referendum as soon as possible.

Although the two proposals are more modest in their concept and scope than the fixed term proposal, they would significantly improve the operation of government by creating the conditions for fewer elections, better long-term planning and a more rational political climate generally. There is no doubt that the present electoral arrangements have resulted in Australia being plagued with too frequent elections. For example, the average term of parliaments post-war has been two years and five months, and in the 14-year period from 1963 to 1977 there were no fewer than 10 separate national elections. There has been increasing community dissatisfaction about the lack of sufficient continuity and stability in government, with a resultant atmosphere of uncertainty and controversy and strong pressure on governments to adopt short term expedient policies to ensure electoral success.

There has been greater recognition of the need for governments to have sufficient time between elections to develop new policy proposals, to put them into operation and to assess their results. Particularly in the area of economic management, measures can take several years to develop and to implement fully. Moreover, governments which must face frequent elections are at a disadvantage when proper economic management calls for the implementation of initially unpopular measures, the beneficial results of which may take some time to emerge . Frequent elections not only have an adverse effect upon government planning; they also adversely affect private sector planning and business confidence, which would benefit from stability of government and more continuity in government programs. Not least, there would be less cost and inconvenience to the electorate if there were fewer elections.

Both of the measures now proposed will contribute to the desirable aim of a more rational system of national government. The simultaneous holding of elections for the House of Representatives and half the Senate will avoid the need for separate elections. Apart from the special circumstances of the double dissolutions in 1974 and 1975, elections for the Senate and the House of Representatives have been out of phase for the greater part of the last 20 years . They are again out of phase following the double dissolution election earlier this year.

The move to simultaneous elections will ensure that the composition of the Senate at any given time more accurately reflects the current wishes of the people. It will also provide greater accountability of the Senate to the extent that senators themselves will have to face the people if the Senate forces a premature House of Representatives election. But the proposal does not otherwise affect the powers of the Senate, which will retain all of its present power to review, amend or reject legislation.

The lengthening of the term of the House of Representatives to four years is consistent with the terms of the lower Houses in New South Wales, Tasmania and the Northern Territory and developments in other States. Two Bills, one Government and one Opposition, providing for four-year terms are now before the Victorian Parliament. It is also in line with international standards. A study made in 1974 by the Inter-Parliamentary Union of the duration of the lower Houses in 56 countries showed that in 24 there was a five-year term, in 25 a four-year term with Australia being one of only four countries with a three-year term.

The four-year term proposal will preserve the existing discretion of the Prime Minister to call an earlier election. Nevertheless, the change will provide greater continuity and stability in the electoral cycle, since the average length of parliaments may be expected to increase substantially. The present three-year election cycle, in which-for governments of any colour-the first year tends to be taken up with planning and with implementing immediate election promises and the third year with electioneering, does not allow sufficient room for the development and implementation of programs. Increasingly, new programs call for capital expenditure, particularly in the installation of equipment such as computers, which cannot be accomplished quickly, and more time is required for this to be put in place and the program to be operating for its benefits to be assessed by the electorate at the next election.

Although both the simultaneous elections and the four-year term proposals are directed to eliminating the undue frequency of elections, the Government believes that the electorate should be given an opportunity to vote separately on each of the proposals. For that reason we put them forward as separate proposals, but we do, of course, believe that adoption of both proposals is desirable. I turn now to consider each of the proposals in more detail.

Simultaneous Elections Bill

This Bill provides for half-Senate elections to be held at the same time as elections for the House of Representatives whenever those elections may occur. The proposal in the Bill is substantially the same as the one submitted to referendum by the Whitlam Government in 1974 and by the Fraser Government in 1977. In 1977 the proposal only narrowly failed to obtain the required support when it achieved fully 62.2 per cent of the national vote. It clearly passed in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia and was supported by 48.5 per cent of the voters in Western Australia and 47.5 per cent in Queensland.

The Bill proposes a re-writing of section 13 of the Constitution to provide for senators to hold office normally for two terms of the House of Representatives instead of for six years as at present. This will, of course, be subject to any earlier double dissolution of both Houses that might take place under section 57 of the Constitution.

An incidental but significant feature of the proposed new section 13 is the provision which it makes for determining which senators should be long term and which should be short term following a double dissolution. It will establish and entrench the principle, based on the existing procedure, that the terms allotted to senators should accord with the relative order of their success at the double dissolution election. This accords with the unanimous opinion of the Constitutional Convention at its Adelaide meeting and a recommendation by the Joint Select Committee on Electoral Reform in its report tabled last week.

The precise means by which the relative success of senators at the double dissolution election is to be established will be a matter for the Parliament or , in the absence of legislation on the matter, for the Senate. The proposals in the Bill would allow the Parliament to adopt the particular procedure recommended by the Joint Select Committee on Electoral Reform. Proposed new section 13 also deals with the case where a senator dies, resigns or becomes disqualified before the division of senators into two classes takes place. The point is expressly covered by a specific provision requiring the division to be made as if the place of the senator had not become vacant.

The new section 13 contains transitional provisions relating to senators holding office at the time when the amendments take effect. Subject to any double dissolution which might take place, the effect of these provisions will be as follows: Senators whose terms are due to expire on 30 June 1985 will hold office until the first expiry or dissolution of the House of Representatives after the commencement of the amendment; and senators whose terms are due to expire on 30 June 1988 will hold office until the second expiry or dissolution of the House of Representatives after the amendment takes effect.

There are a number of other incidental and consequential matters covered by the Bill. Section 9 of the Constitution will be amended to empower this Parliament, rather than the State parliaments, to make laws determining the times and places of electing senators. This is the logical consequence of bringing together elections for both Houses of the Parliament. The Bill will also make two other consequential changes, one to section 12 of the Constitution and the other to section 57 of the Constitution. Section 12 of the Constitution, as it now exists , provides for State Governors to cause writs to be issued for the election of State senators. Where the election follows a double dissolution, the writs must be issued within 10 days after the proclamation of the dissolution. The proposed new section 12 will place a like obligation on a State Governor to cause a writ to be issued for the election of senators at a half-Senate election within 10 days of the expiry of the term of the retiring senators.

The amendment to section 57 will expressly provide for an election of senators to be held on the same day as the general election of members of the House of Representatives next following a double dissolution. This will remove one ground of criticism of the simultaneous elections Bill, namely, that, whatever may have been its intent, it did not in fact require simultaneous elections to be held. I commend the Bill to the House.

Debate (on motion by Mr Spender) adjourned.