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Thursday, 23 August 1984
Page: 230

Senator JACK EVANS(10.39) —I wish to speak only briefly in this debate on the Constitution Alteration (Simultaneous Elections) Bill and cognate Bill because the Australian Democrats' position has been put very clearly, concisely and accurately by Senator Macklin and Senator Mason. I think it needs to be recognised, and I now acknowledge, that the Australian Democrats are the principal reason for this constitutional referendum proposal. I say 'the principal reason' because this proposal is aimed at gutting the Senate. Its whole point is to ensure that the Senate loses the power which it has had, enjoyed and used very responsibly since Federation. I am very concerned that the Attorney-General (Senator Gareth Evans) has set out on a path to take this Senate like a bunch of lemmings over a precipice which will ensure that the Parliament of Australia becomes, to all intents and purposes, unicameral.

The powers of the Senate will be destroyed because the Prime Minister will have the opportunity to exercise the same power over this House that he currently exercises over the House of Representatives. I am not talking about today's Prime Minister only but Prime Ministers of the past and the future. Those of the past have all demonstrated their willingness and their enthusiasm for applying a dictatorial approach to the decision-making processes of the House of Representatives. When the government had control of the Senate it was possible for that power to be exercised over the Senate as well. It was not always possible because there were occasions when the government did not have the control of the Senate. But since the arrival of the Australian Democrats who have gained the balance of power, the government of the day and the potential government, currently Her Majesty's Opposition, have recognised that the Senate has the potential to modify, to reject and to improve legislation coming from the House of Representatives as an independent House not controlled by either the Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition. The result of that has been that for the first time since Federation Australia has a House of review which genuinely reviews legislation and which not only exercises its powers to improve legislation in the sense of taking out the bugs of the legislation but also looks at legislation in terms of what is going to be right, just and appropriate for the whole Australian population and not just for sectional interest groups who may have the ear of the government of the day.

Mr Acting Deputy President, as you have already heard, the Australian Democrats will reluctantly be agreeing to this motion because of the deep concern that we have that the Australian people must be given the opportunity on every occasion to determine the shape and the content of the Australian Constitution. We do not believe that politicians should have the right to determine whether matters go into the Constitution. As has been demonstrated very ably by Senator Mason, the determination of the Constitution's content should not only be the result of matters initiated within this Parliament but also should be possible as a result of items initiated by the people of Australia outside this Parliament as a result of a citizen's initiative being presented to this Parliament with the appropriate number of signatures attached. We believe that it is not the place of politicians to deny people the right to vote on constitutional alterations. We will be voting for that right to be maintained and not to be thrown out by a group of politicians who have an interest in the rejection of this constitutional referendum, an interest which I share and with which I agree.

Let us see what will be the effect of the passage of this constitutional amendment if the people of Australia, in their wisdom, do accept the proposal. It will increase the uncertainty of election dates. That must is absolutely certain because in addition to the current pressures on the Prime Minister to call an election ahead of its normal time, there will be the pressure of the Senate's recalcitrance annoying the Prime Minister of the day and the government of the day to the point that they want to teach the Senate a lesson. They will throw the Senate to the people for an election. That will happen once or twice and, presumably, the Senate will get the message that from then on it will have to behave itself; it will have to follow the dictates of the Prime Minister of the day or it will be thrown out to the people for another election. What was intended as a six-year term will become a five-year term, a four-year term or a three-year term. It could come back to a two-year term or even less for senators who were originally elected for a six-year term. Until now that possibility might not have occurred to the people who have been speaking on this Bill. But it is a very real possibility and believe me, Mr Acting Deputy President, it is the inherent threat of this constitutional amendment which has been put forward by the Government.

One of the incredible things that we find is that the general support for simultaneous elections is coming from all sections of the political spectrum. There is support by the Liberal Party of Australia, when in government, for the Prime Minister to have the power to send the Senate to the people at any time. Support for the proposal changes when Liberal Party members are sitting in opposition. It becomes abhorrent to them when they perceive it likely that they will be sitting in opposition for not just this Parliament but for the succeeding parliament. They recognise that the current Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) will be the first Prime Minister to be able to use the threat to the Senate.

The threat is not just in terms of uncertainty of election dates; it flows on from that beyond the politicans of the day into the whole economic fabric of this country. We have seen what happens to the economy of the country when an election is threatened. If this Bill is passed and becomes law, and the Constitution is changed, there is potential for an election to be called every day of every year following each election. There will never be restraint on a Prime Minister. Currently at least this restraint is there because the only provision for the Prime Minister to throw out the Senate is to call a double dissolution and he has to have constitutional provisions to enable him to do that. Therefore this provision gives the Prime Minister of the day the potential to manipulate this Parliament. It also needs to be recognised that it gives him the potential to manipulate the whole electoral system because he will be in a position to call an election immediately after a half-Senate election, to throw out those honourable senators who were serving their second term and put them before the people shortly after the election of the Senate which was elected at the same time as the new Prime Minister was elected. I believe that that will in turn lead to a loss of confidence in parliamentary democracy in this country. It is as serious as that.

Let us look at the people who will have the opportunity to exercise this power and see whether it is likely that it will be used responsibly. The Prime Minister, who I believe has dictated to the Attorney-General that this measure will go through at this time, on its own, is the very Prime Minister who announced this week that he will be calling an early election. It will probably be five months early with absolutely no justification for it being five months early. That early election originally intended-I believe it still intends-to give the Parliament an opportunity for temporary control of this Senate by the Australian Labor Party; a deliberate manipulation of the electoral system. In this election seven senators will be elected from each State, both short termers and longer termers. It may be, as a result of the electoral processes, that the Government will have the power of control of this Senate for a short term before 30 June next. That is still a possibility. It was certainly a strong possibility when this proposal was conceived and it was part of the reasoning behind the proposal. It is that kind of machiavellian reasoning and political electoral manipulation of the system which has caused the Prime Minister to bring on this early election.

Do not tell me that suddenly, when the Constitution is changed, Prime Ministers from here on will be puritanical and that they will not have any political objectives when they call elections. I do not believe that and neither does anybody else in this chamber. The alternative to this Prime Minister, whose track record is already completely demolished in terms of letting parliaments run their full term, is somebody like Mr Fraser. I do not think history will ever reveal a Prime Minister with a record for calling early elections such as that enjoyed, if that is the word to use, by Prime Minister Fraser, as he was, and Leader of the Opposition Fraser as he was before that. He manipulated early elections even before he became Prime Minister. They are the sorts of leaders who will have absolute power in determining when elections are called if this proposition is accepted by this Parliament and, in turn, by the people of Australia. They are the sorts of people in whom the power to determine the fate of a parliament will rest.

The Australian Democrats believe that this matter needs to be put honestly, openly and clearly to the people of Australia before this constitutional alteration is voted upon. For that reason I now move on behalf of the Australian Democrats the following amendment to the motion for the second reading:

At end of motion, add ', but the Senate, noting that-

(a) the Attorney-General stated in the Senate on 21 September 1983 that ''We ( the Government) believe, as a party, that there are real advantages and real merits in the fixed term proposal'';

(b) the reason given by the Government for withdrawing the fixed term proposal was that ''opinion on this issue (fixed terms) as between the major parties is hopelessly divided at this point'', and ''given the history of referendums on constitutional matters in this country, it does make it extremely implausible that the proposal would attract the necessary majority support were it to go ahead in that particular environment''; and

(c) the same set of circumstances exists in relation to this Bill, in that the Government supports the Bill and the Liberal and National parties are opposed to the Bill as it stands,

urges the Government not to proceed to a referendum on this issue unless conducted concurrently with a proposal for fixed terms of Parliaments'.

The honest proposition that the Australian Democrats want to have put before the people of Australia is the alternative of simultaneous elections, where the Prime Minister can pick his day, or fixed term parliaments. That is an honest proposition and I ask the Attorney-General to respond specifically to it and to give reasons for not putting it to the people in those honest terms and for not giving the people of Australia the opportunity to make this decision rather than he and his mates working out a proposition in a cosy corner which will transfer the power away from the people to the Prime Minister of the day.

I conclude by putting one other suggestion to this Parliament. I believe that, along with the proposal for fixed term parliaments, there should be a proposal for a four-year term. Once more, if the Attorney-General had the courage of his convictions, as expressed outside the Parliament in many other fora, he would propose an alteration to the Constitution providing for a four-year fixed term. I go further than that and put the proposition that a four-year fixed term should be applied to both Houses of Parliament, both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Senator Gareth Evans —That is a sensible proposition.

Senator JACK EVANS —I very strongly believe that. It is very interesting to hear the interjection of the Attorney-General in support of that proposal. The Attorney-General is about to transfer to the House of Representatives and therein lies the reason for his support for the whole proposition. He wants the House of Representatives to have even greater control of the Senate than currently exists. He wants to take the power of this Senate chamber away from the Senate because he no longer has an interest in the Senate. He is willing now to be manipulated by the Prime Minister to put this sort of half-baked proposition before the Senate and, in turn, before the people of Australia. I ask the Attorney-General again: If he agrees, as he has just implied, with the proposal for a fixed four-year term, why is he not putting it to the people of Australia as a constitutional proposal? Why is he putting up this single proposition which does exactly the opposite to what he really believes in, or what he says he really believes in outside the Parliament, and gives instead the power to call an election at the drop of a hat, at the whim of a Prime Minister?