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Monday, 25 March 1985
Page: 754

Senator SIBRAA(9.07) -We are addressing ourselves to the Governor-General's Speech to Parliament on 21 February-an excellent speech and a comprehensive documentation of the wide range of initiatives introduced by the Labor Government. First, I wish to congratulate those senators who were elected in December and who have already taken their places. I also extend congratulations to those senators-elect who will take their places in the Senate from 1 July.

We heard some excellent maiden speeches tonight and by tradition there were no interjections. However, after listening to a couple of those maiden speeches I think that that is a situation that will not occur in the future. As Senator Maguire pointed out in his speech on 20 March, the six-year term is becoming a rarity and it is only the President of the Senate, Senator Douglas McClelland, amongst the present senators who has ever served a six-year term. That happened in the 1960s. This is an indication of the turbulence that has occurred in Australian politics since that time. I am not confident that this Parliament will see out its full term despite the claims made about not rejecting Supply by both the Liberals and the Australian Democrats. This fear has been enlarged, rather than diminished, by the speech made by Senator Mason on 22 March. I will examine some of the issues raised by Senator Mason later in my speech.

I wish to turn to the results of the general election held last December. Any result that returns a Labor government is a good result, no matter what the majority. The Liberal and National Party senators will realise as time progresses that there are no prizes for running second, no matter how happy they were about the result.

Senator Walters —You must be joking.

Senator SIBRAA —It might take some time for this to seep in with Senator Walters, but the fact is that as a result of the last election she is still on that side of the chamber in opposition and we are still here in government. I have been involved in every Federal election since 1961. In 1961 and 1963 I was a Party member organising campaigns and in 1966 I was a Federal candidate for the House of Representatives. In every election since then I have been a Party official or a Senate candidate. I well remember the elections in 1961, 1969 and 1980 because they were great results in that the Labor Party made large gains in the House of Representatives, yet in the end we were still in Opposition. The sweetest victories were in 1974 and last year because those were re-election victories. The re-election of the Hawke Labor Government, whilst not having the icing on the cake, as was so aptly put by the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke), still demonstrated that the Australian Labor Party enjoys the confidence of the majority of the Australian people. Whilst the majority in the House of Representatives decreased from 25 to 16, the swing against the Government was of the order of only 1.5 per cent. When the final figures are available after the distribution of preferences, I believe that the swing could be lower than one per cent. I also believe that when the final figures are available on the informal vote in the House of Representatives they will indicate that at least three and possibly four or more seats should have been won by the ALP, thereby giving us roughly the same majority that we had in the last Parliament. In the next election the informal vote in the House of Representatives will be much lower and thus seats such as Petrie in Queensland will be regained by the Labor Party.

Close examination of the figures in Victoria indicates, when they are compared with the figures for 1983, that the Liberal Party went further backwards, by approximately 2 per cent on top of the 2.2 per cent loss suffered in 1983. Only the swing to the National Party saved the Opposition parties from a disastrous decline. Yet the Leader of the Liberal Party, Mr Peacock, claims to have reversed the trend towards Labor in Victoria.

One feature of the last election was the excellent showing made by the Labor Party in some rural and provincial seats in New South Wales. For example, in the seat of Eden-Monaro, Jim Snow, the sitting member, despite having a redistribution that worked against him, held the seat and increased the Labor vote by approximately one per cent. In Calare, David Simmons, the sitting member, increased his vote by 1.4 per cent. I mention that because both these seats need to be won by the National Party if the Opposition parties are to win the next election. Both Jim Snow and David Simmons are proving to be traditional New South Wales rural Labor members in that they are good local members, they are increasing their vote and they will hold their seats while the Labor Party remains in office. The New South Wales seat of Gilmore also gave an excellent result to the Labor Party.

Another feature of the result in New South Wales is that the electorates of Cowper, Richmond and Page, on the far north coast of New South Wales, continued to show an historical long term swing to the Labor Party. The Richmond by-election result, which did not get a lot of publicity at the time because of the number of candidates who stood, showed perhaps the best by-election result that the Labor Party has ever achieved in office. In the State seat of Byron, a part of the Richmond Federal electorate, which used to be one of the safest National Party seats in Australia, despite a swing against the State Labor Government in the last State election the Labor Party went within 500 votes of winning the seat. I believe that following the next Federal redistribution, when there will possibly be a fourth Federal seat on the far north coast of New South Wales, at least one of those seats will turn out to be a Labor seat.

The Commonwealth Electoral Commission deserves congratulations for the fine job accomplished in last year's electoral redistribution. Equity of electoral redistribution has been achieved. Equity now exists between States and also within States. In the 1983 election the Labor Party gained 53.2 per cent of the two-party preferred vote and won 75, or 60 per cent, of the seats. The Liberal-National Party coalition gained 46.7 per cent of the vote and won 50, or 40 per cent, of the total number of seats. In the 1984 election the Labor Party gained 51.7 per cent of the vote and took 55.4 per cent of the seats while the coalition, with 48.3 per cent of the vote, won 45.3 per cent of the seats. Given that we have a preferential system of voting for the House of Representatives, this was a fine result, and a very fair result. Leading up to the last election the Electoral Commission encouraged people to take an interest in the electoral process, something that has not been done during the time of previous Liberal-National Party governments.

Despite the excellent job done by the Electoral Commission in reducing the Senate informal vote, the informal vote in the House of Representatives was very disturbing. Clearly the Government and the Electoral Commission made an omission by not explaining the importance of numbering all squares in the ballot for the House of Representatives. However, if our error was the result of the unforeseen, how does one describe those members of the House who forced the Government to amend its Commonwealth Electoral Legislation Amendment Bill so as to prevent the extension to the House of Representatives of optional preferential voting? The damage done by that can be seen in the figures to which I shall refer later and for which I thank the statistics group of the Department of the Parliamentary Library. I also point out that in New South Wales at the State election level there is an optional preferential system of voting, so it was doubly difficult for people in New South Wales voting in the last House of Representatives election. They were used to an optional preferential system of voting in the State and they now had it in the Senate; in the system to operate in the Senate; the system that operates in the Senate had been described to them by the media and I do not blame them for thinking that the system operated in the House of Representatives.

A simple example of how the informal vote affected the Labor vote can be seen in the results for the safest Liberal seat in Australia, Bradfield, which is on the north shore of Sydney, and comparing it with the safest Labor seat, Gellibrand, in Victoria. In Bradfield the informal vote was one of the lowest, if not the lowest, in the country-a mere 3.5 per cent. In Gellibrand, the safest Labor seat, we had an informal vote of 12.2 per cent, one of the highest in Australia. More significant are the figures for the informal votes in the marginal seats. If we look at those seats in New South Wales described as marginal we see that in the Liberal-National Party seats such as Bennelong, Cook, Cowper, Gilmore, New England, Page and Richmond-I think that is a fair spread of both Sydney and rural seats-the informal vote averaged only 3.97 per cent. Meanwhile, in the designated marginal Labor seats such as Barton, Calare, Hunter, Lowe, Macquarie and Phillip-again I have tried to include rural seats-the informal vote was 5.6 per cent. Certainly if there is any reason why we did not enjoy the icing on the cake it is in figures like those. Indeed, around the country the informal vote was 4.5 per cent higher than that recorded in 1983. In New South Wales it also became apparent early on polling day that many of the Nuclear Disarmament Party voters, particularly young people who were probably voting for the first time, were voting only in the Senate election and were discarding their House of Representatives ballot papers.

I now wish to turn to the Senate results. I am especially pleased to see the Senate informal vote drop from the traditional 10 or 11 per cent in New South Wales. In some instances in some areas it has been as high as 17 per cent in the past, especially when in one Senate election in New South Wales we had 73 candidates. We did have a traditional 10 to 11 per cent informal vote, which I believe was a disgrace, and that has declined to a much more acceptable 5.6 per cent. It is still high but it is certainly a promising start to a new system of voting. At the declaration of the poll Senator Mason, who is now in the chamber, complained about the long wait for the result in New South Wales and Senator Chipp made references to the use of computers in achieving a quicker result in the future. I agree with the comments made by both Senator Mason and Senator Chipp. However, there were longer counts under the old system. For example, in 1975 the count in New South Wales took from 13 December 1975 to 6 February 1976. The winning margin in that case was a total of only 854 votes, not the difference of thousands of votes that was the case on this occasion. It was certainly much closer, but it was an excellent result because it was the result on which I was elected to the Senate.

I was extremely disappointed by some ill-informed comments during the campaign made by both the media and candidates over the preference distribution on the ALP Senate how-to-vote card in New South Wales. As late as last Friday Senator Mason stated:

Let me say initially that in recent New South Wales Senate elections the ALP has been quite scrupulous in directing its preferences to parties it perceives as having ideologies close to its own.

Senator Mason —Don't misquote me; I said 'effective preference'. Now go back to Hansard and have a look.

Senator SIBRAA —It makes no difference, Senator Mason.

Senator Mason —If you are quoting what I said, I would rather you used the words I did. There is a big difference, as you know, Senator Sibraa.

Senator SIBRAA —Let me start again. He said:

Let me say initially that in recent New South Wales Senate elections the ALP has been quite scrupulous in directing its preferences to parties it perceives as having ideologies close to its own. I refer to the fact that in the last two elections the ALP has directed its effective preference--

I was right in quoting Hansard, because I now get to the part that says the 'effective preference'-

to the Liberal Party, presumably in support of its fellow conservatives.

Let us examine the real situation. The New South Wales Senate ticket preference allocation was a unanimous decision at both the national and State levels of the Labor Party. The decision was to direct our preferences through the Liberal-National Party to the Australian Democrats. There was never any chance that ALP preferences would elect a Liberal-National Party candidate to the Senate. New South Wales State Secretary, Steve Looselys and National Secretary, Bob McMullan, examined all possible results and ultimately concluded that the ALP preferences would elect Senator Mason, not Peter Garrett, or a Liberal candidate. Even though at one stage the opinion polls put the Liberals at a disastrous level-I think it was only about two and half quotas-it was always our opinion that they would obtain three quotas, and that judgment proved to be correct. With no previous experience to guide us in the new voting system, we had to attempt to avoid a large number of informal votes from those voters who chose to fill out all the squares on the ballot papers. These voters were about 17 per cent of all Labor Party voters. Previous experience showed us that if only one column was out of sequence, thousands more informal votes could be expected.

One of the great myths of the last election campaign is that the Nuclear Disarmament Party candidate, Peter Garrett, was not elected because the Labor Party gave its preferences to the Liberals-a statement made by him during the campaign and, incredibly, repeated by him after the poll. As I said, he was defeated because the Labor Party and the Liberal-National Party gave their preferences to the Democrats.

When Sue West, the last ALP candidate, went out with a total of 133,709 votes, her preferences went to Senator Mason, who picked up 116,748 votes, and to Peter Garrett, who picked up only 16,477. Unfortunately, the real situation received only superficial coverage from the media. I think it was a case of 'We have a good story, do not confuse us with the facts'. When I spelt out the situation at the declaration of the poll, it was not reported. This is the third time I have mentioned it since the declaration of the poll-twice in speeches here-and probably it will not be reported again.

The Labor Party of New South Wales was pleased at the high percentage of people who used the simplified system of voting. Approximately 83 per cent of our voters used the box system. We believe this will be higher in the future because there will be no adverse publicity like last time when there were suggestions that somehow the Australian Democrats and the NDP were being dudded by the Labor Party. At the next election we will be able to direct our preferences on strict ideological grounds. My reference to this at the declaration of the poll, and again in the Senate on 26 February, seems to have upset Senator Mason, who spent some time attacking me last Friday, saying that I had rather arrogantly-

Senator Mason —I just gave you a warning about it.

Senator SIBRAA —I realise that, and I would like him to listen to what I have to say now. Senator Mason said that I had rather arrogantly threatened the Democrats over preferences in future elections. I said previously that the NDP, at the time of the next election, could be an established party with an identifiable party platform, and that the Labor Party could well direct its preferences to the NDP. This is correct, although I personally would not want that to happen. I also said that preferences could now be directed much more tightly than in the past and could differ from State to State, according to the number of candidates, the number of parties and local circumstances. I acknowledge that the Democrats could do the same thing; I realise that. I was making the point that it is a whole new ball game under the newly simplified voting system in the Senate.

Senator Mason thought it was threatening. However, I believe it was simply a statement of fact. I would expect that the same result would occur in New South Wales in future Senate elections as occurred this time; that is, if the Labor Party does not win the final seat its preferences will elect Senator Mason or a Democrat senator. That has been the historical pattern since the Democrats came into existence, and I would expect that would happen in the future.

The Senate result in New South Wales showed that, despite other parties competing to the left of the Labor Party on some issues, we continued to poll strongly, with approximately 43 per cent of the total vote on the first count. This was an excellent result, I believe, in view of the 9 per cent polled by the NDP. One disturbing feature of the vote in New South Wales, however, is that in some rural areas, particularly in Riverina-Darling, the Labor Party vote in the Senate exceeded that received in the House of Representatives. The vote in the House of Representatives in Riverina-Darling was approximately 45 per cent, yet in the Senate it was in excess of 47 per cent, and that is not the only example in rural New South Wales. The results require some careful research and a lot of work by our Party before the next election.

The Hawke Labor Government has now the opportunity to be the longest serving Labor Government in Australia's history, with the next election possibly being held as late as April 1988. It is also the first time in history that the Labor Party is presiding over an Australian economy which is on the up-swing as opposed to being elected to government in time of crisis. For the record, almost 400,000 more Australians are now in work since the historical National Economic Summit Conference in April 1983. We are well on the way to achieving our campaign promise, a target of 500,000 more jobs in the first three years of a Labor government. At the same time, we halved the inflation rate inherited from the Fraser-Howard years. Australia's inflation rate is now only 5.3 per cent. Further, the number of days lost during industrial disputation has falled to its lowest level for 16 years.

Senator Walters —Come on, come on.

Senator SIBRAA —If Senator Walters does not like those statistics that is tough, but that is the record at the moment-we have the lowest level of industrial disputation for 16 years. It is clear that the wish of the Australian people at the last election, to have a Labor Government in Canberra, has been fulfilled. With such a fine record of achievement in the previous 20 months, this is not surprising. If the Labor Government is allowed to do what it was elected to do and implement its program of reform, the Australian people, so clearly benefiting from the policies of the Labor Party, can again be expected to return a Labor Government in 1988.