Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard   

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Thursday, 9 May 1985
Page: 1694

Senator HILL(8.34) —I rise to support the Constitution Alteration (Appropriation Bills) Bill 1984 [1985] which is a private member's Bill introduced by Senator Peter Rae. I do not intend to speak at length but I again record my support for the Bill. I say 'again' because the Senate last debated a Bill in a similar form in June of last year. That legislation was passed by this place but, unfortunately, the Government failed to take it further. In particular, it failed to take it to the people at a referendum. That is a matter that I will come back to.

The Bill is an attempt to provide an answer to just one of the many problems that arise in our Constitution in its effort to marry the Westminster system with the Federal system. On the one hand we have the principle that a government that loses Supply or which is unable to get Supply has no alternative but to resign, after which it would normally have to go to an election whereas on the other hand there was an attempt by the founding fathers to give adequate powers to the upper House to protect the States' interests as they were then seen to exist. Those adequate powers included the power to reject Bills, including the power to reject Supply. When both of these principles are joined, unless there is a double dissolution mechanism in place, the upper House's rejecting Supply can lead to an election of the House of Representatives. That might of course happen in a situation in which the government still has the confidence of the lower House. If we follow that scenario down the track a little further, it means that the Senate has the power to force the House of Representatives to the people although it may be that it is not at that time answerable to the people for its action. That position is to some of us no longer tenable. If the Senate chooses to exercise this extreme power some of us believe it should not be able to avoid the electoral consequences of that action. This private member's Bill which has been introduced by Senator Rae is one solution to that problem. The Bill in effect provides that if the Senate fails to pass a proposed law appropriating revenue or moneys for the ordinary annual services of government within 30 days, the Governor-General shall forthwith dissolve both the Senate and the House of Representatives. In other words, forthwith the Governor-General has no choice but to dissolve the Senate and the House of Representatives simultaneously.

Much of the Bill deals with what are Appropriation Bills or proposed laws appropriating revenue or moneys for the ordinary annual services of the government. It is obviously of critical importance that such terms are properly defined in order that the Constitution contain the certainty which is so necessary. The arguments and the debate on the definitional matters were gone into in Senator Rae's second reading speech and have been debated in full in this place previously. I do not intend to retain the attention of the Senate tonight with the various opinions as to what amounts to appropriations but I do want to say that Senator Rae had no choice but to define the terms in his Bill and he appears to have done that, certainly to my satisfaction.

I want to stress that the Bill provides a solution to the type of political crisis that occurred in 1975. It may not be the solution that some would want and I am sure that the Minister for Resources and Energy, Senator Gareth Evans, when he follows me in this debate, will argue that it is not the solution that he would advocate. However, the first point to be made is that the legislation provides a solution to that type of crisis. The second point is that it provides certainty in that it requires the Governor-General to so act. Of course, that would remove much of the discretions which might suffer from clashes of convention such as Parliament resigning if it fails to secure Supply as against the Governor-General's obligation or the convention that he should act on the advice of the Prime Minister. If this Bill does-as in fact it does-remove that uncertainty, I would argue that that is a point in its favour. Thirdly, I suggest that the Bill provides a solution which is in fact just. I stress the importance of the system that we have of being seen to be both fair and just. Therefore, if the Senate is to retain the power to block Supply, and that is not in argument tonight, it is fair and just that it should be prepared to answer to the people for exercising that power.

The history of this matter appears in the record. This proposal was considered by the Australian Constitutional Convention. In particular it has been considered by Standing Committee D of the Convention for a number of years. This was proposed as a matter of principle at the Perth Convention in 1978 and then, I understand, referred back to Standing Committee D for detailed drafting and recommendations. That drafting was presented to and accepted with amendment by the Adelaide Convention in 1982. As I indicated when I commenced, a Bill was prepared, again under the name of Senator Peter Rae, and debated in the Senate last year. As I recall, on that occasion it passed. Of course, we desired that it be put to the people but this Government, as we know, chose last year rather to abuse the process of constitutional change than move in this constructive direction. I say that the Government chose to abuse that process because, as the Senate will remember, it sought to extend the power of the Prime Minister to dissolve the Senate at any time of his choice. At any time he chose to have a lower House election, he would have had the power to take out the Senate.

The Government sought to mislead the Australian people with its so-called simultaneous elections referendum by arguing that it would mean fewer elections. The Australian public, not being so gullible, realised of course that that was not necessarily so, that in fact it could result in more elections rather than fewer elections. That attempted abuse of the public did not succeed and the proposal of the Government was defeated. An opportunity to improve the working of the Constitution constructively by putting Senator Rae's Bill to the Australian people was lost. Senators would also remember that when we last debated this Bill it was one of a package, and the most important of that package was the much vaunted fixed term Bill. I very happily supported that Bill on that occasion. Of course, it was designed to ensure that, except in the most exceptional circumstances, a government would have to serve its full term. History records that this current Government failed those who supported the Bill by refusing to proceed with it to the Australian people, in the same way that it refused to proceed with Senator Rae's Bill. It took this action because it feared a political backlash. The principles of constitutional change have been failed again by this Government and in the short term the Australian people have been let down.

All I say in conclusion is that this Government, which we feared at the time it was first elected was going to present to the Australian people constitutional change from an idealistic point of view and carry it through to the people at referendums, has failed in that area, as it has failed in others. It had the opportunity, after last years Bills, particularly in relation to fixed term parliaments and also in relation to Senator Rae's Bill, to show that idealism in a practical form by taking these proposals forward, but it failed to do so. Senator Rae's Bill on this occasion is another attempt. I admire his determination and dedication to proceed with the matter. It is going to give this current Government another opportunity to give the Australian people the opportunity to put into the Constitution a solution to the type of crisis that developed in 1975, and as I have indicated, a solution that appears on the face of it to provide certainty, justice and equity and which would be a much better situation than currently exists.