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Thursday, 14 June 1984
Page: 3010


Senator JACK EVANS(1.05) —I have recently completed an operation in Western Australia which I have found very helpful to me in my political activities. I asked 5,000 Western Australians-a random sample of people right across the State-for their views on a variety of current issues either before this Parliament or likely to come before the Parliament in the near future. I have been delighted with the response. I take this opportunity of thanking those people who contributed by completing the questionnaire and who may be listening for taking the time to let me have their views. The invitation is issued here to all Western Australians to get in touch with me to let me have their views on current issues of concern to them so that as a senator from that State I can truly represent the whole perspective of views in Western Australia. I am introducing that point so that I can talk about a matter of great concern to me.

One of the questions on the questionnaire related to people's opinions of Australian politicians. It may not be news to the public of Australia, nor even news to us as politicians, to know that we are unfavourably regarded by 74 1/2 per cent of the people who responded to my questionnaire. Only 17 per cent had a favourable impression of Australian politicians. A small group of 8 1/2 per cent had no opinion, which may be even worse than having an unfavourable opinion of politicians. My concern comes about because of the lack of understanding of politics and politicians in this nation. There is a lack of public awareness of what politics is about and of what we as politicians are endeavouring to do. This lack of awareness results particularly from the lack of public debate in any depth of the political issues in the community. I do not mean that nobody is involved in any debate. However, the great majority of Australians do not get involved in the political debates of the moment. I think that is easy to understand.

As far as politics is concerned we have developed in this country a system of leave it to father. Here it is a case of going to the polling booth once every three years and electing somebody. I think most people would life that somebody to be a father figure. I am being deliberately sexist because it has been the pattern to elect a Joh Bjelke-Petersen, a Charles Court, a Malcolm Fraser or a Bob Hawke to let him solve all the problems for the next three years.

I think Australians certainly are mature enough to be able to solve the great bulk of political problems themselves or at least to have some input to the solution of those problems. I think it is time that we, as a parliament, matured to the point of passing a Bill giving people the right to get into the debate on the issues of the day. I instance the citizenship initiative Bill introduced on a couple of occasions by Senator Mason which has been feared by major political parties in this country. Those parties voted against the Bill because they are afraid of the possibility of Australians being able to initiate legislation-even constitutional reform-through the process of citizens' initiative. This is simply an initiative which, for example, 100,000 or 200,000 people can take by signing petitions to the Parliament and getting a referendum on that subject. In that way everybody gets a chance to participate in a vote on that issue.

This is not a mammoth or insurmountable task for the Parliament to undertake. The people of Switzerland have been doing that for years. The opportunity is provided to the people of Switzerland once every six months to put forward subjects for citizens' vote-a referendum. That matter then is voted on by people at large. That result has an impact on the Parliament in that the Parliament is forced to legislate in the way the people want it to legislate. The alternative is to stay with the status quo and let somebody else make all our decisions.

With my short experience I have not met anybody in this Parliament who has the supreme, all knowing capability with the wisdom of the world, of saying: 'This is absolutely right. I know that the people of Australia support what I am saying and what I am doing'. We need the sort of input that I am getting from my people in Western Australia. More importantly, we need the sort of input involving all of the voters across Australia which a referendum would provide us with. The problem stems not from this Parliament which could alleviate the problem to a degree but from the whole system of political education in schools. I really should say the lack of political education in schools.

In the United States training in politics is regarded as a responsibility of every citizen. That is a democratic approach. The system that we have is the sort of system we would expect in a totalitarian country. The system is so pathetically weak that it is left to a few educators to determine whether there will be any training in schools in the political system. Far worse is that this society and the pressure groups within it have made quite sure there is no way that schoolchildren will be allowed to consider, debate or discuss party politics. That is the tragedy. Party politics are taboo in our schools. It is verboten for a teacher to introduce debates on important issues in party political terms. A teacher does this at the risk of ostracism within the school or the community.

It is very difficult in most schools to get debate going by inviting politicians from several parties, giving them the opportunity in front of children to raise issues and to speak in blatantly party political terms, and allowing those children to be inducted into the real world of party politics. As a result of this, immense social issues such as unemployment and the attitudes of governments to the unemployed, the whole social welfare system, for example, pensions for the elderly and benefits to unemployed people, and issues such as the mining of uranium are kept from debate by young people in schools. Of course , as honourable senators would expect, debates on matters such as proportional representation, which would introduce real democracy in the lower houses of parliament around Australia, are very rarely considered in a blatant party political manner within the schools. I make a plea to parliaments, communities and educators around Australia to let our children get into the political debate early. We should let them get an awareness of the issues, social and otherwise, that are being considered by the parliaments around Australia. We should encourage them to become involved, not just in the debates but in the political parties. We should encourage them to join political parties. They should not just leave it to the party hacks, the power brokers. They should get into political parties and use their influence within the political party system.

If our young people are to have that sort of attitude, it has to be encouraged early in their lives-at the very latest at the secondary education level-so that we do not have this apathy which is becoming even more prevalent in the tertiary education system and the post-secondary era, whether it be in schools or out in the community at large. There is an apathy on the part of people towards politics and politicians. The only way that we will upgrade the status of politicians and politics in this country is by getting a wider cross-section of people involved. The only way to achieve that is to encourage them and facilitate involvement in party political debating and discussions at schools. Balance, I agree, is necessary, but balance not to the point of exclusion but to the point of inclusion of all points of view. My appeal is not just to parliamentarians; it is to the people of Australia. We should encourage our young people to get into politics, into the political debates of the day and have an influence on the decisions that are made in this Parliament and other parliaments around Australia.