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Thursday, 20 October 1983
Page: 2045


Mr ANTHONY (Leader of the National Party of Australia)(5.39) —I enter the debate today dealing with the Constitution Alteration (Simultaneous Elections) Bill, the Constitution Alteration (Parliamentary Terms) Bill, the Constitution Alteration (Inter-change of Powers) Bill, the Constitution Alteration (Advisory Jurisdiction of High Court) Bill and the Constitution Alteration (Removal of Outmoded and Expended Provisions) Bill. Whenever the Constitution is considered by the Parliament it is important that there be adequate discussion and debate. I think we should welcome people who might have a contrary point of view so that the arguments can be brought forward to enable the people to make a judgment on what they believe is in the best interests of their central government.

The Constitution is that legal document or charter that enabled the six States of Australia to unify and to have central government. The Constitution defines quite clearly and precisely how the government will be elected and constructed and the sovereign powers that are referred to it by the State governments. It is a precious document. It defines the working of our democracy. Anything that is likely to change or alter that document needs very close perusal. In my experience, the Australian people have been very cautious about any changes. Most referendum questions have been lost. Therefore, it is important that when the Government goes before the people adequate and convincing explanations are given to support what is being done. If there were not people in the Parliament to put up a counter point of view-I do not intend to put up a counter point of view-one would not have a document prepared for the No case. If everybody here agreed, I think that the Australian people would be deprived of being able to analyse quite clearly what it all meant. Whilst my colleague from Bass has been criticised mildly by the honourable member for Fadden (Mr Beddall), I think he did the nation a service by speaking up and putting his point of view-clearly the point of view of the people of a small State, Tasmania.

As far as these Constitution alteration Bills are concerned, I have to say quite honestly that I am lukewarm to them. I know that there are merits in them and that there is justification for altering the Constitution. The Labor Government brought forward a series of alterations, and one of them included a fixed term for Parliament. Fortunately, that proposal is not being presented to us, it has been withdrawn. Had the Government continued with that proposal, I can assure honourable members that it would have been very vigorously opposed by me and by the Opposition. That proposal would have altered very substantially what we know as the Westminster system of Parliament under which we have traditionally operated in this country. The Government saw that the Opposition's emerging arguments were unassailable, wisdom prevailed, and the Bill did not come forward.

I am lukewarm about these Bills because I find it difficult to see the justification for bringing them forward at this time and for having a referendum next February. The Minister for Trade (Mr Lionel Bowen), when he was speaking about the Constitution Alteration (Simultaneous Elections) Bill and the Constitution Alteration (Parliamentary Terms) Bill, supported the case that the provisions would avoid inconvenience and reduce costs and that we would have fewer elections. It is inconsistent to bring forward a single referendum costing the taxpayers of this country something like $15m to $20m when it is not really necessary. There is no urgency about any of these Bills. The referendum could be held when the next Federal election takes place or, probably more appropriately, with the half Senate election that will take place some time before July 1985. It would have been very appropriate for these referendum questions to be considered during a Senate election, which is generally a fairly low key election. There does not seem to be the attitude of thriftiness needed by the government to save $17m to $18m, or maybe more, by having the referendum campaign with the Senate election. The fact that the Government is bringing forward the referendum displays its priorities in regard to constitutional change. As I said, none of these changes are of immediate importance or urgency. All they really do is help the Government. They do not really help the people immediately.

There are big problems in the Australian community. I would have thought that in the economic circumstances of today, when we have such massive unemployment and all the signs of it getting worse, we might be addressing ourselves more to constitutional questions that attack some of these very great problems. Certainly, one constitutional issue ought to be addressed immediately. That issue results from the High Court case in regard to the Franklin Dam. We now know that the central Government, with its external affairs powers, by entering into international treaties virtually has unlimited power to usurp the authority of the States. That decision radically changes the balance of power between the States and the central government. Whilst that situation of uncertainty remains there will be great anxiety and division within the Australian community, certainly between the States and the Commonwealth. The matter ought to be clarified. There ought to be a referendum put to the people defining quite clearly what the central government's powers should be in relation to the external affairs power. The wide-open power which it has now totally undermines the authority of the States, or at least can be used to undermine the authority of the States.

I also believe that there is an urgent need to consider the industrial relations powers. The restriction on the Commonwealth's legislative power for the operation of the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission are most obvious. The limited powers of the Commission to deal only with disputes of an interstate character make it impossible for it to deal adequately with the industrial troubles we suffer in this country. Being able to make decisions which relate only to the prevention and settlement of disputes again limits the authority and direction of this great body, which is supposed to be handling industrial troubles in this country. The previous Government brought forward proposals to put before the people at the last election, but this Government seems to have ignored the need to do something in these areas. A number of constitutional convention committees have been set up as a result of the Australian Constitutional Convention that was held in South Australia. These committees are working on a number of constitutional proposals. I should have thought that the Government would have waited until it had ascertained the reaction of these committees, instead of just going ahead with a number of parliamentary-type alterations to the Constitution. The parliamentary alterations are the most significant alterations which are before us.

In dealing with some of these issues, let me first of all talk about the Constitution Alteration (Parliamentary Terms) Bill, which I support. I believe that there ought to be a longer term for the House of Representatives-an increase from three to four years-although I think it is a very marginal question. I do not think it is an issue of great relevance and certainly does not warrant having a special referendum next February. I find it very hard to digest the proposal that we extend the term of the Senate from six to eight years. Eight years is a very long time indeed, and I think that in the course of the referendum campaign many questions will be asked by the Australian people as to whether an alteration to elect senators into a position free from accountability to the people for eight years is really warranted.

Because the Government is proposing to increase the term of Parliament for members of the House of Representatives and the Senate, I think it is also fitting that we look at the issue of simultaneous elections. The justification for simultaneous elections, if we extend the term of Parliament, becomes greater . I have always felt that the proposal for simultaneous elections was sensible and is one that the people of Australia should have passed on previous occasions . The arguments are quite clear. Simultaneous elections reduce the necessity for split elections for the House of Representatives and the Senate. Quite frankly, I do not believe single Senate elections, in which I have participated, are really healthy elections. I do not believe people really come to grips with the issues of the day. They are very much second-rate elections. They are not emotional elections. Indeed, it is hard to get people interested. The low level of polling during half Senate election campaigns is an indication of the lack of support and interest that the people generally have in that sort of election. I believe that a Senate election held at the same time as a House of Representatives election reflects more truly the expression of the people. A strong argument used against simultaneous elections is that the Executive or the Prime Minister of the day might use the threat of taking the Senate out as a means of getting support from the Senate. I do not really hold with that as a strong argument. It is an argument which can be justifiably used but, under our present Constitution, the Prime Minister, by putting legislation before the Senate, knowing that the Senate may not like it, can create the circumstances for a double dissolution and, having done that, can call out the whole Senate.

I believe also that the Senate should be accountable for any action it takes in stifling the operations of the Parliament or the government of the day. If the Senate were to block Supply there is no redress on the Senate unless double dissolution Bills are before the Parliament. The Senate could force the House of Representatives to an election without going itself. Whilst some senators argue that the Prime Minister should not have the right to take out half the Senate at the same time as the House of Representatives, I do not think the Senate should have the right either of sending the House of Representatives to the people without going itself. This is a sensible proposal which should be supported by the Australian people. I probably feel more strongly about this proposal than any of the others.

The Constitution Alteration (Inter-change of Powers) Bill is worthy of support. It makes for the better working of government. The interchange of powers has to be on a co-operative basis with the States. If there is some confusion or if there is duplication of authority between the States and the Commonwealth, an overlapping of powers, it makes good sense to get the States to do the work of the Commonwealth or the Commonwealth to do the work of a State. It has to be a voluntary arrangement. It can be done on a State by State basis if a State is referring power to the Commonwealth. If the Commonwealth is referring a power to the States, the power has to apply to all States and all States have to be in agreement. That proposal is sound and will make for better working of government . But again there is no urgency for it and it hardly justifies the expenditure of $17m or $18m on a referendum next year when that referendum could be incorporated with a Senate election or a House of Representatives election.

The Constitution Alteration (Advisory Jurisdiction of High Court) Bill is one which many members of the Opposition have had great reservations about. Indeed, I have had reservations about whether we ought to be using the High Court as a judicial and virtually a legislative authority which we would be doing by giving it advisory power. But now that the Government has brought forward the amendment that was put up in the Senate, that any referral has to be by parliamentary Act, I believe much more dignity will be given to any referral for consideration by the High Court. The amendment will enable the referral to be debated and it will enable the Parliament to decide whether the referral will be passed to the High Court. With the alteration that has been made to Labor's original proposal, I think that Bill can be supported too.

The last Bill, the Constitution Alteration (Removal of Outmoded and Expanded Provisions) Bill, provides merely a tidying-up of the Constitution. The wording and provisions of the Constitution are outdated. It is perhaps over time that we looked at this. The Bill contains many minor changes. They are not changes of any substance but they will make the Constitution much more readable and understandable for people and will be more in conformity with today's circumstances.

I repeat what I said at the beginning of my speech: This legislation hardly warrants the spending of $17m or $18m on a special referendum next year. It is unfortunate that the Government has given these Bills the priority it has. I would like it to be looking at constitutional matters of much greater substance and of much more immediate importance. It would have done much better and would have gained the respect of the Australian people had it addressed the questions causing concern, such as the external powers, by defining quite clearly the powers it wants the central government to have. The States would then have no uncertainty as to where the authority lies. I would like it to be looking much more closely at the industrial laws of this country to strengthen the operations of the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission. It is a mockery that today the Commission cannot enforce the awards it gives, yet we operate under those circumstances. However, if that is what the Government wants, it will have to answer to the Australian people. Certainly many projects to help the unemployed could be instituted for the expenditure of $17m or $18m, the cost of this referendum campaign. I give my tacit support to all these constitutional amendments. None of them excites me. None of them warrants any sense of urgency. I hope that the Australian people will exercise clear and careful judgment and will look at all the arguments. I will certainly be putting forward the arguments in support of them.

Debate (on motion by Mr Snow) adjourned.