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Thursday, 17 November 1983
Page: 2851


Mr SNOW(10.43) —As it is some weeks since we last discussed these referendum proposals in a cognate debate, I propose to touch on each of them. The first is the Constitution Alteration (Simultaneous Elections) Bill 1983. Honourable members will know that at present a half Senate election costs some millions of dollars and that to avoid a half Senate election on its own one would have to hold an early House of Representatives election, which is also costly. This legislation, if enacted, will make it necessary to hold a Senate election whenever a House of Representatives election is held. This will take away the need for separate elections for the Senate. The Government believes that there will be two beneficial results from this action. Firstly, the Senate will more accurately reflect the will of the people because it will be forced to go to the people at the same time as they are considering whom they want to be in government in the House of Representatives. The legislation also ensures that the Senate is more accountable because if the Senate forces the Government to the people by voting against important legislation it will be forced to face the people and will have to share with the House of Representatives the brunt of the people's approval or anger.

The next proposal is for four-year terms for members of the House of Representatives. The Constitutional Alteration (Parliamentary Terms) Bill will also be going to the people in a referendum in late February 1984. In New South Wales there has been a Federal or State election in 10 of the last 12 years. In fact, the average term of Parliament since the War, two years and four months, is somewhat less than a three-year term. Had we had an election every four years , nine parliaments would have been elected at a saving of at least $80m on present day costs. It cannot be doubted that four-year terms would bring us elections less frequently than every four years, nor can it be doubted that extending to four-year terms would bring us fewer elections than we have now. A term of two years and four months may create an accomplished election winner. It certainly does not encourage a parliamentarian to become an informed representative of the people in a diverse electorate.

Richard Reeves said that Congressmen, because they run for office every two years, are distilled politicians. That is the temptation in Australia now. Members are tempted to become show ponies rather than watch dogs. With electorates now double their 1950 size and the tendency to mid-term elections it is not hard for parliamentarians to become distilled spirits interested in point scoring but not in investigation, interested in appearing everywhere but less in effective representation. This becomes inevitable when time becomes an all- consuming factor. A four-year term will encourage responsible government. We need to do something to encourage governments to take necessary, sometimes unpopular, measures which can be beneficial to the community in the longer term. This Bill and a Yes vote on 25 February 1984 will bring Australian elections into line with four-year terms in Tasmania, New South Wales, Territories in Australia and all but three of 52 world parliamentary democracies.

Two previous speakers on this legislation, the Leader of the National Party (Mr Anthony) and the honourable member for Bass (Mr Newman), have both objected to eight-year terms for senators which would be necessary if we had four-year terms of the House of Representatives and passed the simultaneous election proposals. I have some sympathy for their view that eight years is quite a long time for a senator to spend as a member of parliament without going to the people, but I point out to those who object that simultaneous elections, so that the Senate goes to the people with the House of Representatives, may well reduce this sort of occurrence because elections for the Senate will be held each time the Parliament dissolves and doubtless the average lower House term will be less than four years. Political parties tend to re-endorse senators and many of them serve for more than one term. Our colleagues in the other place are elected on a State or Territory basis and I cannot see any significant problems for what will probably turn out to be anything from three-year terms to eight-year terms for senators.

The third proposal I wish to deal with in this cognate debate is the provision which would enable advisory opinions to be sought by government from the High Court. I refer to the Constitution Alteration (Advisory Jurisdiction of High Court) Bill. I understand that this has been amended by the Senate. The important aspect of the Bill is that it enables the High Court to give advice to the Commonwealth on Commonwealth matters and to the States on State matters and to obtain advisory opinions from the High Court on specific types of questions. If the proposal is accepted, large and important proposals can be tested at the outset rather than challenged perhaps years after they have been implemented or months after enacting legislation has been initiated. It would be extremely convenient to the Government and the Parliament and far less costly to the community if advisory opinions could be sought from the High Court prior not only to the enactment of the legislation but also to possible appeals to the High Court perhaps years after the legislation has been enacted.

Some of the States of the United States of America have these advisory opinions available to them. India and Canada are countries which have these advisory opinions available. In the Australian Law Journal, volume 51 of March 1977, it is stated that in practice most advisory opinions in Canada have been delivered in situations where the constitutionality of legislative acts was in doubt; that many essential constitutional issues have been decided by this means, particularly the question of the scope of the power of the dominion and provincial legislature; and that, according to Laskin, the typical constitutional reference has become almost the normal method of determining constitutional issues in Canada.

I wish to touch briefly now on the proposal to remove outmoded and expended provisions, the fifth question suggested for referendum. It is not hard for governments to accumulate dead wood. Governments need to tidy up and spring clean their legislation and structures every now and again. Wendell Phillips said that all that is valuable in the United States Constitution is 1,000 years old. Probably the Australian Aboriginals would say the same thing about Australians. Most of us take the Constitution of Australia seriously. Some of our legislation becomes either outmoded or inapplicable. Therefore the various political parties agree that there should be a yes vote on the proposal to remove outmoded or expended provisions.

The other proposal, the interchange of powers as between State and Federal governments, allows the States and the Commonwealth to refer powers to one another if it is convenient to both. Here again, the proposal seems to have the general approval of both Houses of Parliament. I point out that a lot of complaints are made that our country is over-governed. I say to those critics that out country is over-governed, not because we have too many members of parliament but because we have too many levels of government. We have the Federal government, State governments, local government and quite often an ethereal fourth tier, regional government or country councils, as they are called in New South Wales. We are over-governed in that we have too many levels of government. However, this Constitution alteration proposal is realistic in that it faces the reality that sometimes Federal and State governments want to exchange powers. The proposal enables that to be done. At the moment it is relatively easy for a Federal Government to receive powers from the States with the consent of those States. It is a little harder for State governments to receive certain powers from a Federal Government when it wants to give them. The proposal allows both States and the Commonwealth to refer powers to one another if it is convenient to both.

The Bills being discussed cognately are the result of some very hard work by people on both sides of the Parliament and their predecessors. I congratulate members of parliament and staff of the Department upon the work leading up to these not particularly ambitious, but very important, proposals for referendum on 25 February 1984.