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Thursday, 11 October 1984
Page: 1679

Senator DURACK(4.50) —The Electoral and Referendum Amendment Bill 1984 and the Christmas Island Administration (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill 1984 really have nothing in common except that each contains amendments to the Commonwealth Electoral Act. They do not really have any relation to each other. However, the matters have been dealt with cognately in another place and it seems convenient to do so here. The first Bill is to amend the Electoral Act and the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act by removing from those Acts provisions which were placed in them last year to prevent misleading advertising in the course of an election campaign or a referendum campaign. These new provisions were inserted into the legislation as a result of the major review last year following the report of the Joint Committee on Electoral Reform. For some time there had been criticism of the fact that there were no effective provisions in the Electoral Act concerning misleading advertising and it was presumably thought by the Joint Committee and the Parliament last year that this should be rectified.

However, adequate enforcement of laws of this kind during election or referendum campaigns has always been a matter of grave difficulty. Claims, counter-claims and so on, sometimes of a rather extravagant nature, which are part and parcel of electioneering, are virtually impossible to control by any legal process. Obviously the major sanction in regard to these matters is the vote of the people. The judgment that they make will no doubt be determined by the extent to which they believe material that is put before them. We trust the people and I think we can trust them to see through extravagant statements made by parties or candidates. I think this is the most effective sanction. Parties and candidates are encouraged to be cautious in their statements during an election campaign simply because of the ready exposure that can now be given to falsities and extravagant promises by the modern media and the speed with which corrections can be made and the readiness with which interviews can be conducted on radio and television and by the print media. We are now in an age when false or totally extravagant claims or promises can be very quickly and readily challenged and exposed. To have any sort of legal process governing this is not likely to be as effective as those processes. I understand that the Joint Committee has looked at the matter again and has reported to this effect. The Government has now introduced this legislation to remove the provisions which were inserted in the Act only a year ago in regard to this question of misleading statements and advertisements during election campaigns. The Opposition accepts the Government's proposals and will support the provisions of this Bill.

The second Bill we are debating is the Christmas Island Administration ( Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill. This Bill is designed to give to those Christmas Islanders who are Australian citizens the full benefits of Australian citizenship. Residents of Christmas Island became eligible for the rights of Australian citizenship in 1981 but the island has been under a separate administration from that of the rest of Australia and the full benefits, rights and obligations of Australian citizenship have not been provided to them. Towards the end of the autumn sittings of the Senate we passed legislation giving similar rights to the Australian citizens of Cocos Island. This legislation is designed to have the same effect. In fact, it is very much the same type of legislation. It contains provisions to extend the rights of Christmas Islanders in relation to medical and hospital services and in the Social Security Act and the Student Assistance Act. That is a quite interesting feature of this legislation compared to the Cocos Island legislation because there are courses in technical and further education on Christmas Island and these will be approved for the tertiary education assistance scheme allowance.

Another feature of this legislation which is different from that of the Cocos Island legislation relates to the acquisition of land on Christmas Island. This is another interesting and important feature of this legislation because as a result of the report of the Sweetland Commission of Inquiry into the Viability of the Christmas Island Phosphate Industry, which was commissioned by the Fraser Government, there has been a good deal of discussion about opening up the island for forms of economic development other than simply the phosphate industry which has been virtually the sole basis of the island's economy. As far as the Island' s future is concerned there are likely to be, and hopefully will be, other forms of economic use on the island and economic activities for Islanders. I understand that this is a matter on which the Opposition in the other place has sought to obtain further information from the responsible Minister. We do not even seem to have a responsible Minister in the chamber at the moment. I do not know whether it is any good referring to questions that have been asked in another place to see whether any further information can be provided, as was sought by Mr Ruddock in the House of Representatives.

Senator Peter Baume —Surely there is a Minister, isn't there?

Senator DURACK —No, there simply is not a Minister in the chamber. It just shows how much interest this Government has in conferring the benefits of citizenship on Christmas Islanders. Perhaps they will take note of that when they exercise these rights in the election on 1 December and register their view of a government that does not even have a Minister in the Senate when the Bill conferring these rights is being debated. This legislation confers voting rights on Australian citizens of Christmas Island and will take effect at the forthcoming election on 1 December. It is important that this legislation should be passed to enable the Islanders to exercise those rights. The Opposition is supporting this legislation for that reason and also for the broader reason that the Islanders should now be incorporated into the Australian community in the full way in which the Cocos (Keeling) Islanders have been.

The Opposition welcomes this measure. We give it our warmest support. However, we raise the question, as we did in relation to the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, of what is the appropriate Australian electorate for Christmas Islanders to exercise these new voting rights. Of course, Christmas Island is in the Indian Ocean, some considerable way from the Western Australian coastline. Nevertheless , there are air services from there to Western Australia. There is not perhaps the same connection between Christmas Island and Western Australia as there is between the Cocos (Keeling) Islands and Western Australia, because there is a Cocos (Keeling) Islands community that has been living for some time in Western Australia and obviously there is a great deal of exchange between the Cocos ( Keeling) Islanders and Western Australians. Nevertheless, the communications to and from Christmas Island are largely through Western Australia. It might well be logical for Christmas Island to be incorporated in Western Australia for the purpose of elections. However, there are constitutional difficulties, as we recognised in relation to the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. Nevertheless, that is a matter which perhaps will be rectified in the future in the Constitutional Convention so that the option would be there.

The question must arise as to the suitability of Christmas Island being a division of the Northern Territory electorate for voting purposes. We have pointed out also, in relation to the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, that the Northern Territory is proceeding towards statehood. When the Northern Territory achieves that status the same constitutional problems will arise in regard to the Cocos ( Keeling) Islands being attached to the Northern Territory as they would if they were attached, for voting purposes, to a Western Australian electorate.

This raises the question of Christmas Islanders exercising their voting rights with Australia. We believe that it is appropriate that their wishes be ascertained. As I have said, without constitutional amendment how those wishes can be given immediate effect to is another matter. But at least we believe that , in the long term, their views should be ascertained. Therefore, I propose to move, on behalf of the Opposition, as an expression of that view, an amendment to motion for the second reading of the Christmas Island Administration ( Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill. As I have said, we support the Bill. Our amendment is not in any way a qualification of anything in the Bill. We certainly do not propose any amendment to the legislation to delay it in any way at this stage because we want to see Christmas Islanders exercising their rights in the forthcoming election. When this matter arose in relation to the Cocos ( Keeling) Islands the amendment we proposed was supported by the Senate. I would be interested to know whether the Attorney-General (Senator Gareth Evans) is able to indicate what attitude the Government has taken in relation to that view expressed in the Senate regarding the wishes of the Cocos (Keeling) Islanders. Of course, we would also be interested to know what view the Government takes to the Opposition's proposed amendment:

At end of motion, add ', but the Senate is of the opinion that a suitable person should be commissioned to ascertain the wishes of the Australian citizens on Christmas Island as to which electoral division of Australia they should be included in for the purposes of participating in elections for the Commonwealth Parliament and referendums under the Commonwealth Constitution'.

I will be moving that amendment as an addition to the motion for the second reading. I understand that that amendment has been circulated. For those reasons the Opposition will be supporting the second reading but we will be moving, by way of that amendment, an additional expression of opinion to it.

When we debated this matter on a previous occasion I think we specified that the views of the Islanders should be ascertained by a Supreme Court judge. I think it was queried whether that was necessary. I take that on board. That is why I adopted the formula of a suitable person in general terms. But I hope that the Government has taken seriously the view of the Senate in regard to ascertaining the wishes of the Cocos (Keeling) Islanders. I hope that the Senate will support the same view in relation to Christmas Islanders.