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Tuesday, 21 August 1984
Page: 47

Senator DURACK(9.04) —Is it not intended that there be a cognate debate on the Constitution Alteration (Simultaneous Elections) Bill 1984 and the Constitution Alteration (Interchange of Powers) Bill 1984?

Senator Grimes —I suggest that they be debated cognately, Mr Deputy President.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —There being no objection, it is so ordered.

Senator DURACK —The attitude of the Minister at the table, the Minister for Social Security (Senator Grimes), in relation to these matters and the offhand way in which he has approached the very introduction of the Bills on the subject shows how little interest the Government really has in constitutional reform.

Senator Grimes —Why don't you get on with your speech, you boring turd? Get on with your speech.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! Senator Grimes, you will withdraw that remark.

Senator Grimes —Mr Deputy President, I withdraw it, no matter how accurate it is . Why should we have to put up with people like that taking advantage of the circumstances?

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! Senator Grimes, you do not have the call. Senator Durack has the call.

Senator DURACK —The Minister who was so affronted a moment ago is now about to walk out again and compound his attitude.

Senator Grimes —Mr Deputy President, I point out that we had to send out of the chamber to get the honourable senator who is speaking now into the chamber because he was not here in time for the Bill.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! That is not a point of order.

Senator DURACK —Mr Deputy President, that remark of the Minister is total rubbish. The fact of the matter is that the Government was putting down statements. I was in this chamber before the Bills were brought on. We have a Minister in charge of the business of this chamber who is so full of pique and pettiness that this chamber is subjected to the insult of behaviour such as we have just witnessed. As I said, that fit of pique, pettiness and total disinterest in constitutional reform is a good foundation for the discussion we are about to have on the subject of the referendum proposals. It is not surprising of course that the Government should approach this, I think now, third debate on its referendum proposal in this cavalier, offhand, disinterested and, as I said, irresponsible way. It clearly marks the whole attitude of this Government to the question of constitutional reform.

During the Government's election campaign-indeed, for some time prior to the election campaign-at which it was elected, the now Attorney-General (Senator Gareth Evans), then the shadow Attorney-General, made great play of the importance of constitutional reform and what he and a Labor Government would do about it. In fact, right at the very beginning of the Government's term of office, in the course of a constitutional convention in Adelaide at the end of April 1983, the Attorney-General endeavoured to upstage even the Constitutional Convention which was then sitting to consider proposals for constitutional reform by announcing that there would be a referendum on several matters, including his pet panacea of fixed term parliaments, to take place in August 1983.

A few weeks later, in May 1983, the Attorney-General introduced a package of referendum proposals which had as its centrepiece fixed term parliaments, proposals for interchange of powers, advisory opinions and the removal of what he called outmoded provisions of the Constitution. The Senate commenced to debate those proposals. I spoke on behalf of the Opposition in reply to them on 19 May 1983. The attention that we primarily gave to that package was in relation to the proposal for fixed term parliaments which was opposed by the Opposition in fairly strong terms. In relation to other matters of the package we saw little virtue in them but in fact did not oppose them and said that as far as we were concerned if there was to be a referendum we would be supporting the proposals. However, the proposal of fixed term parliaments, if it had been passed by the referendum which was then projected, would have required this Government to see out its full term-at least almost its full term because its first opportunity for an election would have been November 1985 under its fixed term proposals. Of course, as we know, in the election campaign this Government and the present Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) made great play of the early election called by the Fraser Government. It was all part of its new approach to government and parliament that we would not have actions such as that of Mr Fraser when he called an early election in 1983. But it did not take this Government very long to learn that there were great advantages in Prime Ministers being able to call elections when they liked. We know now, of course, that the great influence of the New South Wales right wing faction of the Labor Party on the Prime Minister soon got the better of him and the Attorney-General' s ideals about fixed term parliaments et cetera soon bit the dust. They bit the dust within a very short time of the introduction of the proposal for fixed term parliaments.

It was announced that the referendum to be held in August 1983 was to be postponed. Of course, even then we could not get the Government to come clean with an honest statement that it was actually abandoning the proposal. It was merely to be postponed. All sorts of dust was thrown in everyone's eyes to indicate that there was not in fact to be an abandonment of the concept of fixed term parliaments. But of course the reality was that the Attorney-General had been completely rolled in Cabinet by the cynics of the New South Wales right wing of the Labor Party, of which he is a captive. Shortly after that it was announced that the Government would not be going on with the proposal for fixed term parliaments at all but, in lieu of it, would be going on with a referendum containing proposals for a four-year parliamentary term and simultaneous elections for both Houses of Parliament. Bills for that purpose were brought into the Senate in, I think, October last year. At that stage the Opposition was attracted by the proposal. In fact, we had floated it ourselves; that is, that in order to give stability to government in Australia there would be merit in having four-year parliamentary terms and simultaneous elections for the House of Representatives and the Senate.

The Opposition was attracted to that proposal as a package. We thought that the proposal for a four-year parliamentary term was the important one. As there could well have been objections to the Senate's having a fixed eight-year term, we were attracted to the proposal for simultaneous elections for both Houses to try to modify the possible effect of the fixed term parliament proposal on the term of the Senate-that of making it excessive. That was the second proposal of the Government, presumably very much a second best proposal as far as the Attorney-General was concerned. But as I have already said, he was already being shown to be of very little consequence as far as the Government was concerned. He was being rolled time and again in regard to various pet hobby-horses of reform, whether constitutional or otherwise.

The fact was that the Government was really genuine and honest about the unsuitability, the undesirability of early elections and the need for governments to complete the three-year terms for which they were elected. There was still some sense in the Government's proposal at that stage because a referendum was proposed for February this year. Of course, that would have avoided the need for an election of half the Senate by 30 June 1985 and certainly would have avoided any need at all for the consideration of an early election for the House of Representatives. It would have avoided the need for a half-Senate election by 30 June 1985 and the need for a general election by 1986 . However, shortly after those proposals were debated in the Senate and supported by the Opposition-as I said, because of their package aspect-the attractions of an early election started to become very apparent to the Prime Minister.

We know that the Attorney-General is a little slow in catching on to the political realities of the world in which he lives. He was still boring on with semi-ideal solutions. They were very much second or third best, but nevertheless he was still pursuing the academic pipe dreams that stirred him with such enthusiasm. However, again the realists in the Labor Party, particularly the Prime Minister, captive of the right wing of the New South Wales Labor Party, at about the time that the Attorney-General was still pursuing his Will-o'-the- wisps of constitutional reform decided that an early election would be very attractive to the Government. They knew that with the breaking of the drought, the improvement in the world trading position, the wage pause and the fact that generally things were improving-which had nothing to do with the Government but was a result of completely external factors-the Government would be in a reasonably happy position. As we have seen from the Budget presented tonight, the economy is now in a reasonably happy position-owing not, of course, to any actions on the Government's part but as a result of fortuitous circumstances-and the Government would be in quite a good position for an election by the end of 1984 or early 1985.

What a difficult position-what an unfortunate position-the Attorney-General, with all his pipe dreams and Will-o'-the-wisps, had placed the Government in. We remember all the great proposals for constitutional reform, the ideals and principles about government which so motivated the Attorney-General and, indeed, which the Prime Minister said motivated him, for a time. When faced with the realities of political life the Prime Minister proved fairly quick on the uptake -much quicker than the Attorney-General. At the end of last year the Government was searching around from some excuse to get out of these embarrassing limitations upon total freedom to call an early election whenever it seemed likely, during some temporary period of office, that it would be re-elected with somewhat the same sort of result it had received in March 1983.

The Government then had the effrontery to propose that $2.5m of taxpayers' money should be spent by it on the referendum campaign that was then proposed for February this year. Not unnaturally, perhaps, it was deliberately setting up an excuse for not having that referendum. When that proposal hit the light of day, of course, the Opposition together with the Australian Democrats, in a very principled way, opposed the total misuse of taxpayers' moneys in that way. As soon as the strength and principle of the Opposition parties and the Democrats in this chamber defeated the proposal and prevented its going ahead the Government used it as an excuse for abandoning the referendum campaign in February. It provided the Government with just the excuse it was looking for to abandon what had already become a complete embarrassment to the Prime Minister; that is, the need to have a referendum campaign which would have limited-in fact , virtually destroyed-his chances of calling an election at a time which he thought suited him for naked political purposes. That was the end of that proposal.

The Government has now introduced not a fixed-term proposal, not a four-year term proposal but a proposal for simultaneous elections to be held. To try to give this some veneer of respectability the Government throws in the interchange of powers proposal. No explanation has been given of why the Government has abandoned the advisory opinions which the Attorney-General thought were so important; no explanation has been given of why it has abandoned the proposals to amend all the outmoded and spent provisions of the Constitution. There are just proposals for simultaneous elections which everybody has always conceded expand further the Prime Ministerial power. There is no doubt whatever that these proposals do limit to some extent the independence of the Senate. They enable the Prime Minister much more easily, without any complications whatever, to call early elections whenever he likes. He does not have the complication he now has of having to have an election for the House of Representatives at any particular time within a term for which the members of the House of Representatives have been elected.

Of course there have always been-we recognise this-good arguments against simultaneous election proposals. As I have said, if they had been coupled with some real measure to improve the stability of government in this country, such as a four-year term proposal, we on the Opposition side have said that we would not oppose them. However, we are not prepared now to support a simultaneous election proposal on its own which, as I have said, is a thoroughly naked, stark piece of political cynicism by the Prime Minister and this Government of which the Attorney-General is a pathetic victim. Any Attorney-General who has made such a great business of constitutional reform, who has held up ideals that have motivated him in a political career, who has been rolled ignominiously on his first proposal for fixed term parliaments, who has been rolled even more ignominiously on his third best proposal for a package of four-year terms and simultaneous elections, would have resigned in protest at the cynicism of his colleagues. But not a bit of it, he still sits on the front bench enjoying, presumably, the fruits of office and participates in this total cynicism of the Government about constitutional reform. How can anyone believe any more that this Government is fair dinkum in any shape or form about constitutional reform after this sorry story that I have just unfolded to the Senate?

The Opposition will no longer participate with the Government in any ideas about constitutional reform after the way the Government has behaved, after the way the Government has treated this Senate, this Parliament, and the way the Government has treated the Opposition which has until now been prepared to participate in reasonable debate about constitutional reform and to support reasonable action in relation to constitutional reform. As I said, the Opposition is now totally convinced of the dishonest, expedient, partisan approaches of this Government, the total cynicism of this Government, and the Opposition will no longer be part of it.

There is also another factor and that is that any government interested in constitutional reform would put its proposals for reform on their own at a referendum, not coupled with an election campaign. On this occasion these proposals for constitutional reform will be put to the electorate at the same time as an election campaign, at a time when people's attention is, of course, devoted to the issues of the Government's record and the Opposition's alternative proposals. Attention is on those issues; it is not on the referendum proposals at all. Presumably the Government thinks that this will assist it in some way in getting these proposals up but it is another example, as I said, of the Government's totally dishonest and cynical approach to constitutional reform . We in the Opposition believe that if the Government were really serious about constitutional reform it would be putting the proposals, as we did in 1977, on their own at a referendum when they can be judged by the people on their own merits and not as part and parcel of an election campaign.

The interchange of powers proposal on its own certainly does not justify a referendum. There are provisions in the Constitution for the reference of powers by the States to the Commonwealth. They could well be improved, as I have always conceded. There may be some merit in the proposal of interchange of powers but as I pointed out when this proposal was debated in the Senate in May 1983, it is only for the benefit of governments and politicians. It is of little obvious benefit to the people. As I pointed out to this chamber in May 1983, the real reason why the Government proposed the interchange of powers is that the States will have the power to impose excise duties on their people. The Government supports the interchange of powers so that the States can impose indirect taxes. I think people should be aware of that and I said that at the time. The States have the right to refer powers under the Constitution as it exists. However, they rarely do so because States do not like giving powers away, not because there are any particular doubts or difficulties about referring those powers. I pointed out in the debate in May 1983 that despite the fact that four State governments had said that they would refer powers for the Commonwealth to legislate with respect to the custody of children they never did so in the space of 5 1/2 years.

Senator Chaney —The guardian of the Labor Party. The minder of the Labor Party. The friend of criminals.

Senator Gareth Evans —There is an exchange going on here courtesy of the Leader of the Opposition-he ought to be the Deputy; he ought to be something less-in which he uttered, a moment ago, the proposition 'friend of criminals', apropos of nothing that I could discern in particular. I regard it as totally offensive and I demand that he withdraw it.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —I did not hear the remark that was made. Will the Leader of the Opposition withdraw it?

Senator Chaney —I withdraw it. He asked me to speak up. I withdraw it.

Senator DURACK —The proposal for a referendum on the interchange of powers has just been thrown in here for window-dressing, so that the Attorney-General can say: 'We, of course, are here proposing a package of constitutional reform'. As I have said, what utter cynicism has been revealed by this Government in the last 18 months, in its term of office, on that subject. Nobody would ever suggest that we have a referendum on the interchange of powers, or such a matter of minor significance in constitutional reform, as it is, on its own. It has been thrown in here only because the Government wants to give some veneer of respectability to its present proposals, single proposals, for simultaneous elections. Again it is another subject of minor significance so far as constitutional reform is concerned. It is one which was rejected by the Australian people in two previous referendums, in 1974 and 1977, when the simultaneous elections proposal was put on its own without any compensating or improving factors being put in conjunction with it, some more elaborate proposals such as fixed term parliaments or four-year term parliaments. As I have said, the Government is trying to put it up again to give some veneer of respectability to its quite unjustified claims that it believes in constitutional reform.

The Opposition is not prepared to take part in this farce any longer. The Government has shown its total cynicism in relation to this matter. It is determined that it will pursue its own total self-interests and have an early election if it judges that that is in its interests. Over the years we have heard all the rhetoric from the Prime Minister and the Attorney-General about the evils of early elections and so on and the power of the Prime Minister to call elections. I think they have called it obscene. I think that was one of the favourite words of the Prime Minister. I do not think I can accuse the Attorney- General of using that word. Nevertheless they have constantly criticised what they conceded to be the Prime Minister's power. 'We must curb the Prime Minister 's power', they have said. Here we have this Government bent on preserving prime ministerial power at all costs and at all times. The Government could not care less, if that suits its purpose, that that is the position that exists today. There is nothing in these proposals which lessens prime ministerial power. There is everything in these proposals which increases prime ministerial power and the Opposition will oppose them.