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Wednesday, 18 February 1987
Page: 199

Senator RICHARDSON(6.06) —I begin my contribution to this report of the Joint Select Committee on Electoral Reform by thanking not only the officers of the Australian Electoral Commission-as previous speakers have done-for what they did and the services they performed for us, but also Donald Nairn, the Secretary, who laboured continually and fruitfully to service a committee that must have been one of the more difficult committees. One of the reasons that it was a more difficult committee, of course, is that it is not very often that a committee is made up of members who know more about the subject than the expert witnesses who come before it. That is indeed unusual. The reason for that can be found by looking at the composition of the Committee. Politicians will always take a great deal of interest in the laws that got them elected last time and which they hope will get them elected next time.

If we look beyond that point, the membership of this Committee includes the former secretaries of the major parties in New South Wales, our largest State; Senator Sir John Carrick, a former secretary of the Liberal Party; Charles Blunt, a former secretary of the National Party of Australia, and I, of course, was secretary of the Australian Labor Party once upon a time. The Committee has as its Chairman one of the great party apparatchiks of our time. So it is pretty obvious that this Committee would always have been difficult to serve. But having that concentration of those who, shall we say, are steeped in making their living out of electoral laws and the way in which they are administered did have its advantages. It meant that it was one of those committees of the Parliament which could look more often to the future than to just short term gain. The one thing about trying to gain short term advantages from electoral laws is that all of us have had experience of how that comes back to haunt one. So on this occasion more members of a committee were trying to make sure of a fairer system than perhaps has ever been seen previously.

The first report of the Committee saw the light of day in the Senate in about November 1983. Those of us who served on the Committee in those days, I think, did the bulk of the work. That was when the major part of the work was done. The Committee's purpose, therefore, was to review what we had done in light of the 1984 election and to look at some outstanding matters. I might say that there are still some matters that we have not dealt with, and that is why I would like to support the concept of a standing committee. Electoral laws will always need to be reviewed in light of experience. We ought not to be afraid to do so when that need arises.

I would like to take up one point raised yesterday by the Chairman of the Committee, Senator Ray, in his contribution, and a couple raised by Senator Sir John Carrick. Yesterday Senator Ray referred to the Committee and the way in which it looked at the administration of disclosure laws. The more one delves into disclosure laws and how they operated in the 1984 election, the more it becomes clear that there were people who sought to get around those laws, to find loopholes and exploit them. It is clear that a number of people did that successfully.

I would have thought that there is a fairly big sanction-at least a moral sanction, a political sanction-on the major parties. In some respects that sanction was ignored. I, like Senator Ray, though, would like to put to the Senate that it is within the power of the Parliament to take the bull by the horns, so to speak, and to look behind any of those false and fake setups that have been used to escape the law. If we find over the course of time-in the next election, shall we say-that there has been a continuation, or indeed a growth, of some of those practices, then it is my view that the Parliament will have little alternative but to set up such a committee to look into it. So I say to all those who are about using artificial rorts to get around the electoral laws of disclosure that they should look out. We have not stopped looking ourselves and, if people are prepared to overstep the mark, I assure them that there are a number of people in this Parliament who are prepared to see that those people pay for it.

In looking at some of the remarks of Senator Sir John Carrick, I believe it is true that there was a considerable degree of co-operation in the Committee. We did not divide, as we might have done, on party lines on every issue. I can remember that in the first Committee, back in 1983, Senator Ray and I had much more co-operation from Senator Macklin and Ralph Hunt than we ever did from some of the members of our own Party. It was never the sort of committee that developed along party lines. Having said that, Senator Sir John Carrick and I have had a continuing disagreement about the issue of compulsory voting. As he had seen fit to put his point of view, I think it appropriate to put mine. I do not like the spectacle of people like Mr Carter winning the presidency of the United States of America on about 22 per cent of the vote. I do not believe that is acceptable in Australia. I do not believe that it will be acceptable to see, as we now see in Great Britain, three parties sitting on 30 per cent and therefore someone able to win an election there on a small percentage of the vote. In Australia we are accustomed to seeing majority rule, and so we should.

In my view, if we do not have some sanction, and indeed an increased sanction, as this Committee decided, to ensure compulsory voting, then elections can develop into a farce. I well recall in the early 1970s the then Liberal-National Party Government, or Country Party Government as it was in New South Wales, removing compulsory voting for local council elections. The first council election that took place under the new rule produced a massive turnout of 11 per cent! We cannot risk that sort of thing for national elections. There is no doubt that a whole host of Australians may seek to walk away from their obligations, but in my view the sort of consideration I mentioned leading to Mr Carter being elected on such a tiny percentage of the vote is not acceptable in a democracy that has grown up in the way this one has. Let us remember that it is one of the oldest democracies in terms of electoral laws, one of the first countries to give women the vote and has set the pattern for a lot of places. I believe that any attempt to walk away from compulsory voting or to water it down would be a backward step. I strongly disagree with Senator Sir John Carrick on that matter, and I hope that he never wins the day.

The other point mentioned by Senator Sir John Carrick was that of redistribution. I strongly agree with him on the Committee's decision relating to what happens after the commissioners have produced a map, when one finds that after hearing objections the commissioners produce a map that has no resemblance to the first map to which people had objected. In the last election in New South Wales, particularly in relation to rural New South Wales, we saw some massive changes. I do not think that there was a beneficiary, but there were some individuals who lost. I do not think that any party could claim that it had been particularly hurt, although some individuals were. It would have been possible for a party to have been badly hurt, and I would have thought it in our interests to make sure it does not happen again. If the democratic process is to work we must ensure that people-every citizen, let alone the major parties-at least have the opportunity to complain or to attempt to nudge the electoral commissioners in the direction they wish. On that occasion, particularly in the second New South Wales result, no one had that opportunity. It meant that in some country seats there were massive changes, and New South Wales finished up with whole new electorates that had never been contemplated by any of the parties, individuals or organisations that made submissions. If electoral commissioners wish to do that, I earnestly hope that we can finally get around to doing something about it.

The last point I wish to make relates to habitation reviews. I know people can complain about the cost. In my view if one does not clean up the rolls, one cannot have a proper democracy. There is no question, as anyone in the Australian Labor Party who has been through branch ballots knows, that there are times when the rolls just are not cleansed. I would like to see that cleansing occur once a year. It enhances democracy and can do no one any harm. I commend the report to the Senate.