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Tuesday, 21 August 1984
Page: 62

Senator MASON(10.21) —I rise to support my colleague Senator Macklin and, indeed, Senator Hill in the matter of the Constitution Alteration ( Simultaneous Elections) Bill 1984 and the Constitution Alteration (Interchange of Powers) Bill 1984. The Australian Democrats believe that in this referendum the people are being sold a bill of goods, to use the American expression. It is a deceptive proposition which, no doubt, will be put to the people on the basis that it will create fewer elections in Australia, whereas in fact it is quite likely to create more elections in Australia. There is no saving to the people. This is, indeed, really just part of a long term, long running campaign on the part of the Australian Labor Party to destroy the Senate and its powers in whatever way it can. It has reached the stage at which it cannot destroy the Senate without the approval of the Senate. Whilst the situation remains that the Government does not control the Senate, I believe that honourable senators will not willingly contribute to the destruction of the powers of this House.

The simultaneous elections referendum might be acceptable, and probably would be acceptable to the Australian Democrats, if it also included a fixed term. Without that, it is really just a mechanism for manipulating both Houses of this parliament, for permitting the Prime Minister, as has been said in this debate earlier-I reiterate it; I believe it and agree with it-to be able to manipulate the Senate, to control the Senate in just the way in which the House of Representatives is controlled now. There could be those who would say: 'Perhaps this is a good idea'. A while ago I heard an honourable senator, who is not now in the chamber, say 'Hear, hear' when a quotation of an earlier Prime Minister was read out, talking about an obstructive Senate, and things of that kind. But is the Senate really obstructive? What is its value to the Australian people? Would it be of value to the Australian people if we had a situation, as the Labor Party would no doubt wish us to have, in which we had a single House, not a genuine people's House but a House still elected on the ancient single member constituency system? There is no way in the world in which the House of Representatives can be called the people's House. It is not that at all. It is a House in which 49 per cent of the people are not represented by someone for whom they voted. Let us be absolutely clear on that point.

If there is a people's House, this House, the Senate, resembles it far more closely, because at least it is elected on a basis of proportional representation. It has its powers, and it has assumed the unique role that it is assuming now in the Australian parliamentary system because of that. It allows groupings in the community which are not, perhaps, 49 per cent or 50 per cent supported, to be represented in this Parliament.

Is it necessarily a good thing that the only representation in a House of Parliament should be a party which can gain 48 per cent or 50 per cent of the vote? I do not believe so. I do not believe that any idea of democracy can be taken so far as to assert that a minority in the community, even a large minority, ought to be ignored.

Let us, then, look at the Senate. Has the Senate, in the view of the Australian people, been exercising its powers improperly? Is it a place which deserves to be curbed? I believe not. I believe that in every election since the Australian Democrats have held the balance of power in the Senate there has been a significant differential between the votes for the Australian Democrats in the House of Representatives and in the Senate. In other words, in the last election the vote in the Senate for the Australian Democrats was roughly double that in the House of Representatives. I believe that is because the Australian people have begun to understand the value and importance of the Senate as a House of review and its value to them as a watch dog. I think the point has to be got through to governments constantly that we cannot have a democratic system under circumstances in which a dozen Bills can be forced through late at night by the use of the gag and the guillotine. The politics of exhaustion were used frequently in this Parliament as they were in other parliaments before governments lost control of the Senate.

By and large matters are now debated in this House. This is the only House of this Parliament in which matters are fully debated. In the other House debate continues only so far as the Government and the Executive are prepared to tolerate and it is then cut off. Is that democratic? Of course not. It is approaching dangerously and perilously the dictatorial situation. I think the people and the media of this country appreciate and understand that. They do not want that situation to return. I cannot understand why the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) and his Attorney-General (Senator Gareth Evans), who is sitting in the chamber at the moment, are not coming to us now and saying that they are going to put a fixed term in this proposition. During the time of the Fraser Government a large amount of the time of the Senate was devoted to the private member's Bill of the then shadow Attorney-General which in itself was a Bill designed, even at that stage rather impudently I felt, to castrate this House and which was very properly amended thoroughly. But what was left after that? Virtually what was left was the concept of fixed terms. The Attorney-General was the first person to support it. Now we have the situation where presumably some sort of dictatorial view has been taken in the Executive that this is a bad thing.

That takes me to my next point: The Australian people are not allowed to consider matters which they might wish to consider. The only matters which are put to referendum in this country are matters which the Government wishes to be put to referendum and only in the terms which it wishes to put to referendum. That is not democratic either. It is an absolute farce of democracy. It is rubbish. It is a reason why virtually every referendum that is put to the Australian people is thrown out. They recognise those referenda as a kind of contemptuous bone thrown to the unfortunate dog of the Australian constituency. The Government itself holds the whip hand and it decides what it wants to put to referendum. Then it comes to us with crocodile tears and says: 'Our proposition was thrown out'. I assure the Attorney that this one will be thrown out. I understand that the Liberal Party and the National Party of Australia will be campaigning against it. I assure him that the Australian Democrats will be campaigning against it too. Because of our belief in consultation, we would not allow a situation to arise in which we would willingly vote against a matter being put to a referendum of the Australian people. We have some faith in the discretion of the Australian people to make decisions for themselves on matters of this kind. I think they are going to see through this one.

I think the Government realises the perilous weakness of its situation. It realised it when it came to us with the preposterous suggestion that it should spend a huge amount of money only on the Yes case. What a delightful democratic precedent that was! Just think what problems it might have caused in the future. A future government could say: 'But we had the precedent of the Hawke Government not giving equal weight to matters put to the people by referendum because it made a subjective judgment on what they should think'. I have heard the Attorney -General get up in this Parliament and say that virtually the people might not be able to think right about it, so he has to go on television at a cost to public revenue and tell them what he thinks they should think. That is a very dangerous thing. It is something which we would not tolerate and on which the Senate showed one of its chief values to the Australian people by throwing it out. I give the Government fair notice that if any such ridiculous proposition is put here again it will be thrown out. I might say that the public reaction I got when we threw that one out was one of universal congratulation from the community. We got a lot of letters on that. All of them condemned the Government and all of them supported the Opposition and the Australian Democrats for throwing out that absurd proposition. So I hope the Attorney has learnt better than to raise that matter again.

Senator Gareth Evans —It was a raging populist cause of six letters, was it?

Senator MASON —No, I do not say it was a raging populist cause. I just say that it was somewhere where the Attorney put his foot wrong and, I think, where he put his foot wrong morally and philosophically as well as practically.

Debate interrupted.