Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard   

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Wednesday, 2 November 1983
Page: 2211


Mr BEAZLEY (Minister for Aviation, Special Minister of State and Minister Assisting the Minister for Defence)(3.54) —I move:

That the Bill be now read a second time.

The last occasion on which there was a substantial increase in the size of the Parliament was 1948. In the 35 years since then, Australia's population has doubled approximately. The tasks of government and of individual members have grown profoundly and people's expectations about what their representatives can achieve have increased markedly. It is essential that our Parliament is able to cope with these changing demands and to meet the needs of the 1980s and beyond. Past practice suggests such adjustments are rare and therefore it is necessary for legislators to consider problems in the future as well as their immediate circumstances when considering an increase in the size of the Parliament.

The importance of this principle was not lost on the Joint Select Committee on Electoral Reform. In a detailed and reasoned response to the submissions it received, the majority of the Committee recommended that the number of senators representing each original State be increased from 10 to 12, with a corresponding increase in the size of the House of Representatives of 23, and the Government has accepted that recommendation. The reasons given by the Committee for its recommendation are compelling. First and foremost is the question of our increased population. In 1947, the census year prior to the last major increase in the size of the Parliament, the population was 7.5 million; now it is over 15 million. Since 1949, average enrolments for House of Representatives divisions have risen from 39,948 to the current figure of 74,989 . But of greater significance is the fact that Commonwealth Government activity has grown enormously in the last 35 years, without a corresponding increase in the number of senators and members. There is now more legislation passed with a flow on need for more committees, and more Ministers. The Ministry has increased in size by 70 per cent since 1949. The annual volume of legislation has grown almost fourfold in the last 60 years. For example, in 1924, 65 Bills were proposed, and in 1978 the figure was 240.

There has been a great expansion of Federal Government responsibilities since World War II through the regulation of the national economy and the creation of a welfare state. The role of Parliament, the duties of parliamentarians and the expectations of the electorate have changed dramatically during this period. Today the Parliament through the ordinary back bencher is expected to be conversant with these new policy trends, and to be a watchdog holding the Government accountable to his or her constituents. In particular, Parliament has set up a wide range of committees which can function effectively only if there are sufficient parliamentarians to be called upon to perform the committee tasks . Yet the pool of members and senators available for these assignments has been eroded over the years through the increase in the size of the Ministry and shadow Ministry. Furthermore, under the present arrangements the ordinary member has difficulty coping with the flood of constituent problems which have escalated with the growth of poverty and unemployment. No wonder people become cynical about their politicians when so many of their Federal representatives are placed in the position of not being able to serve their constituents, let alone play an active legislative role in their national Parliament.

The increase in government business that has occurred in recent times has significantly altered the balance between the Executive and the back bench. It has meant that Parliament's independence in relation to the Executive has suffered. It is interesting to note when considering the increase in government business since 1949 that the numbers of those who report on it in the parliamentary Press Gallery have increased fourfold since then. There are those who argue that Australia is already overgoverned, that there are already too many politicians. This is a simplistic view. Nevertheless, it is superficially appealing. I reject the approach which adds up all the members of parliament in Australia and divides that number into the population and then produces some overseas country to prove that we have too many MPs. The functions of our parliamentarians differ too much from overseas to make such contrasts valid. For example, if we were to use that technique to compare ourselves with the United Kingdom then we would rationally have to ask whether local authorities and county councils which perform functions in education, social welfare and housing , here the function of State governments, should be included. For those who are fond of such comparisons, however, I should point out that in the United Kingdom , the 650 lower House representatives have an average 65,692 electors in their constituencies. In the case of the Canadian lower House, the number of electors per member is 56,349. New Zealand's 92 constituencies average only 22,117 electors each. In Australia, the 125 members of the House of Representatives have on average 74,989 electors in their divisions, well ahead of the others. The real question is: Do we want the members and senators to be able to carry out their two tasks, of representing their constituency and making a real contribution to the formation of national policy?

The Bill before this House will provide more adequate and more realistic representation for all Australians. It will redress the ludicrous situation that has developed whereby twice the population since 1949 are governed by the same number of representatives. It will allow more time to be spent by members on representing their constituents. It will train more adequately our future Ministers. It will permit the improving committee system to become more effective in improving the legislature's oversight of the Executive. It will increase the relevance, not just the numbers, of back benchers. Mr Deputy Speaker, there will always be some public opposition to increasing the number of parliamentarians. This is as inevitable as it is, in some ways, unfortunate. However, this does not constitute a valid reason for simply putting off what must eventually come. The time is appropriate to make these changes now-now that we are updating and consolidating our electoral legislation and now that we are preparing to move into the new Parliament House. As the Committee recognised, this is a matter of principle, and as such, must eventually outweigh any short- term unpopularity that may attach to the legislation. I commend the Bill to the House.

Debate (on motion by Mr Steele Hall) adjourned.