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Wednesday, 22 August 1984
Page: 164


Senator MASON(5.47) —We are debating the referenda questions which will be put to the Australian people quite soon with the next election which I think will be probably on 1 December, only three months away. So this becomes a matter of some importance and concern to the Australian people. I must stress that this referendum for simultaneous elections of the Senate and the House of Representatives had been cunningly designed to deceive the Australian people. That is its purport. It would not surprise me in the least if the Attorney-General (Senator Gareth Evans) and the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) did not go to the Australian people with the claim that if they support this referendum for simultaneous elections there will be fewer elections. Of course everybody wants fewer elections, but the fact of the matter is that normally elections for both Houses of this Parliament are held together anyway, as indeed the election to be held in December will be.

The truth is that if this referendum is carried and if the Australian people are deceived into carrying it, it is likely to result in more elections, not fewer elections and more cost, not less cost. That is because the new power will allow the Prime Minister to throw out the Senate with the House of Representatives at any time he wishes. If the Prime Minister thought he was plagued by what he saw as an obstructive Senate, we might see elections for both Houses every 18 months or so. That is not outside the bounds of possibility. The real answer is to provide for fixed terms of parliament, as many countries have. In those countries elections are held on the same day every three or four years. Everybody knows when to expect them, there is no difficulty or uncertainty in business and it is a rational and sensible way to do things. That system cannot be manipulated by an unscrupulous or an opportunistic Prime Minister.

Ironically enough the Labor Party of Australia, while it was in Opposition, supported the proposition of fixed term parliaments but now it is in Government it has changed its spots on that matter, as with so many other matters. Now Mr Bob Hawke also wants the power to call an election as and when it suits him to do so. But he wants more. Mr Hawke does not only want the opportunity to call an election when he wants to-because of his own narcissistic views of things, as we know he has at times, or his own view of the Senate perhaps, which will cause the Australian people a great deal of expense-but he also wants that power so that he can involve the Senate, which is the watchdog of the Australian people, in this process and destroy it if he can. This would create a most unstable and damaging situation for the Australian people. The Senate's powers would be taken from it and it would become the same sort of toothless creature, the rubber stamp of the Executive, that it was while the Government controlled both Houses.

Hence, I repeat that the real motivation of this referendum, which is alleged to be the innocent means of simultaneous elections, is to damage or destroy the Senate and its usefulness to the Australian people as a House of review. When one looks at the matter in this way, it clearly emerges that the referendum is part of a long-standing campaign against the Senate by the Labor Party. This has gone on for many years. The Labor Party feels that the Executive must be the be all and end all and that there is no reason or justification for any control over its activities in the Senate. The Labor Party sees such a thing as obstruction. The Senate, of course, and certainly the Australian Democrats, do not see the matter in that way. We see it as a role which is wanted by the Australian people and which they have indicated clearly they want. They do not want to see that role destroyed. I repeat that given a fixed term for parliament the Democrats would probably support this referendum, but as it now stands it is really just a mechanism for manipulating both Houses to let the Executive Government control the Senate, just as it does now the House of Representatives.


Senator Martin —You are not surprised though, are you?


Senator MASON —I am not surprised, because over the years it has been the trend followed by the Labor Party. Once having relegated the Senate to a rubber-stamp for the Executive, it then becomes easy for governments to use their numbers to gag and guillotine a dozen Bills through late at night without more than the merest sham of debate and consideration. It is called the politics of exhaustion . By use of these methods, one knows that the most outrageous things can happen without people even becoming aware of them. As many as six or seven Bills are forced through without debate in the early hours of the morning. It is not possible for the media to cover those Bills properly. This technique has been used-let me not be unduly unkind to the Labor Party-as a convenient technique by all major parties in government in the past.

With those matters in mind, let us look at the Senate. Has the Senate, in the view of the Australian people, been exercising its powers improperly? Is it a House which deserves to be curbed in the way the Prime Minister proposes? I do not think that is the case and nor do the Australian people. At every election in which the Australian Democrats have held the balance of power in the Senate, there has been a significant difference in the votes. The Australian Democrat vote has always been much higher in the Senate than it has been in the House of Representatives, because the Australian people understand, and are understanding increasingly with every year that passes, the value and importance of the Senate as a House of review and its absolute value to them as a watchdog on the Executive. I think the point has to be got through to governments that the people will not again tolerate a situation where the mere use of numbers can gag and guillotine material through and where issues are not properly debated.

By and large, matters are now debated freely in the Senate. It is the only House of this Parliament in which matters are fully debated. In the other House, the House of Representatives, debate continues only as far as the Government and the Executive are prepared to allow, and then it is cut off. Is that democratic? Of course it is not. It is dangerously approaching the dictatorial. It is allowing people who think they are always right to assert that view and press it on other people regardless of whether there might be another point of view. I have already said that Australians want fixed term parliaments. There is no doubt at all about that. The feedback from thoughtful people in the community via letters, and so on, shows that they do want fixed term parliaments. They want that degree of certainty. Why, then, will the Government not let them have the chance to make that choice if they wish? That is the key question.

It 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 on which it agrees. That is not democratic either. It is an absolute farce of democracy. It is a reason why the Australian people do not vote for referenda. They are tired of the garbage that is constantly fed to the public solemnly in the guise of serious propositions by government. It is no good the Government coming back here and saying that the Australian people always throw out referenda. They are wise to throw out propositions which are of no serious consequence. It is part of the Democrat philosophy that we would never subscribe to the situation where we would prevent a matter being put to the Australian people to decide for themselves. As a result we shall vote for this Bill. We shall not vote against it, even though we do not approve of the proposition. We believe that the Australian people in their wisdom will make the decisions for themselves and I think they will see through the Government's deceptiveness in this matter.

The second vital point is that the Australian people could have the opportunity of voting for the things they really want to vote on and of having referenda on matters of importance that really concern them. That procedure has been enjoyed for many years by people in other modern democracies. Even more significantly, the people should vote on issues which the people themselves put forward. The Australian Democrats have always pressed for a maximum of consultation of the people and special powers by which the people can limit the untramelled powers of politicians, especially the Executive government. One such thing is called citizen initiative. It is very simple. If a petition of sufficient numbers is received by either House of Parliament putting forward a proposal, that proposal must be put to an annual referendum and, if passed, becomes the law. That is a modern democratic method which has long been enjoyed by the people of Switzerland and many of the American States. It is a mechanism of a true democracy which Australia lacks.

The Labor, Liberal and National Parties are so arrogant, so highhanded, so dictatorial, so deeply suspicious of the Australian people that they will not even allow the people to decide for themselves, by referendum, whether they want this new power. It is not a question of saying whether one approves or not, but a question of saying that the Australian people are not to be allowed to decide for themselves whether or not they want such a thing to happen. When my private member's Bill which would have offered the people that choice came recently to a vote in this place only the five Democrat senators voted for it. The Attorney- General (Senator Gareth Evans), and his Liberal shadow, Senator Durack, who are truly birds of a feather, trundled out the same tired arguments used against universal suffrage, against women's suffrage. That argument is basically that the people cannot be trusted to make decisions for themselves. So this December the Australian people will again be treated with contempt by being offered a referendum as phoney, deceptive and lacking in real substance as is this one, when they could easily have been offered something of more substance. Indeed, they could have been offered something which would have given them the opportunity to decide where they wished, and at times when they wished, large matters of serious consequence in the community, matters politicians find hard to deal with and duck out of. I refer to abortion and to marijhuana control, which we all know no government feels it can tackle for itself. These are matters which the community itself should decide, and which the community itself should have the right to put forward.

Although my private member's Bill was defeated, I was able the next morning to get it back on the Notice Paper. It will stay there as long as there are Australian Democrats in this place. Every week that passes I receive letters from people or I am contacted by representatives of radio programs interested in this subject. The word is getting about. I suggest it will not be long before the Australian people will insist on a modern democracy and not a strange nineteenth century representative democracy which the Attorney-General and Senator Durack seem to believe is best for this country. I think most Australians believe that, by and large, the Australian Democrats try to act honestly and sincerely in the interests of the Australian people. We are a citizens' party. We are not beholden to big business, the unions, or any outside pressure groups. I say that as a preface to a personal plea to anybody who may be listening to my remarks, to the voters of this country. I ask them in the national interest to think most carefully about simultaneous elections. I also ask them not to believe every simplistic thing they will be told about the issue in the next three months. If they are in any doubt about the matter, in the interests of the nation and in their own interests I ask the electors to vote against it. Certainly I will be doing that.