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Wednesday, 6 May 1987
Page: 2381


Senator MACKLIN(12.10) —We are debating the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 1987, which amends the Commonwealth Electoral Act, the fundamental Act for the operation of democracy in Australia. I have been a member of the Joint Select Committee on Electoral Reform since its inception in 1983 and it has been fascinating not only to have had the opportunity to work through the Act in detail section by section but also to be in a position, having suggested changes to that Act, to have the opportunity to review those changes to see how they worked out in practice and to see whether they were the best or optimum changes that could have been made.

Following the Committee's review of the 1984 election we produced a report almost identical in size to the first report of the Committee. This report did not deal quite so heavily with matters of philosophy or general discussions of practice; rather, it dealt in some considerable detail with the minutiae of electoral operations running up to, during and after an election.

The Australian Democrats support the amendments contained in the Bill. As a result of the Committee's inquiry and the extensive discussions it had, it had sufficient confidence to propose in its second report hundreds of amendments on the matters addressed. The Government is to be congratulated not only for accepting the Committee's report but also for moving so swiftly to translate the report into legislation form and to introduce this Bill. I must admit that I for one did not expect to see it until at least the Budget session. Fairly obviously, for a number of reasons, we would not have liked it to have been introduced in the Budget session. However, I would have thought that the pressure, particularly on the legislative wing of the Government, would have been such as not to enable the Government to produce a Bill in that amount of time. I am very pleased that it has been able to do so.


Senator Tate —It is a tribute to the new Minister!


Senator MACKLIN —Yes, undoubtedly it is a tribute entirely to the new Minister. I accept that point which came from Senator Tate, who is the new Special Minister of State. This Bill means that by the time of the next election the Commonwealth Electoral Commission will have had a considerable time to put these changes into place and it will be well prepared to address the next election.

I also commend the Commission's work during the 1984 election in particular. I make special mention of the work done by the Commission after the election. My Party, in all divisions, found the Commission to be extremely helpful. Its officers went out of their way to explain to people who were in some confusion because of the immensity of the changes that had been made precisely what was necessary. After the election they were extremely helpful on the matter of public funding. Their implementation of the law at that time was both delicate and considerate, in view of the fact that we were all novices. They dealt with it in a proper way which showed great sensitivity and which showed that they understood that the candidates who were standing were attempting to do the right thing even if they did not manage on all occasions to meet the letter of the law.

I again make a plea to the Electoral Commission that it produce a step by step guide. The guide might not be so important this time around for the established political parties, but I believe that a guide would be of incredible use particularly to independent candidates who wish to stand in the next election. I do not think that we should expect in a democracy that a candidate is necessarily a constitutional lawyer, or a lawyer of any sort. I think that it is one of the strengths of our democracy that the Parliament is composed of people from all walks of life. Although we need a complex electoral law-I disagree with Senator Archer on this-we must make sure that the complexity of that law should not deter people from standing for Parliament. I would hope that a step by step guide could be provided whereby the candidate, having completed step one of filling out forms or whatever else is necessary, could then move on to step two and step three. It is a constructive way of dealing with the problems that undoubtedly many independent candidates in particular, but also candidates for the major parties, have. They could then be sure that they have completed all the necessary requirements that are set down in the Act.

The amending Bill will reduce enormously the amount of complexity in a range of areas, particularly in the area of Senate nomination. I remember quite vividly my campaign manager constantly calling me back from somewhere in Queensland to suggest that I had to fill out yet another form, and then that we had to get people together from all over Queensland to fill out yet another form. This seemed to go on for most of the election period. This Bill has addressed that issue head on. We now have to fill out only one form. Candidates of established political parties do not even have to sign the form; it can be signed by the registered officer of the party. We have attempted to meet a number of the practical problems that arose during the last election.

I must admit that there are other areas in which I am still not satisfied. They are areas in which in our discussions within the Committee we found it very difficult to think of a viable and reasonable alternative. Here I refer to the issue of public funding, particularly whether the political parties have complied with the Act and have declared, as they should, their donations. People within the community who ought to know better have threatened that they are going to get around the law. I find that to be an utterly disgraceful, incredible and reprehensible statement for any politician in this country to make. I find it extraordinary that people in a position of passing laws should promote their intention to get around the law and urge other people to get around it. If such people do not have the numbers to overturn such a law, they should either declare that it is an immoral law and that they will not comply with it and take the necessary consequences of that action or seek to come up with some suggestions as to how an alternative system may work.

One of the problems we are going to face next time around is that the amount of money which was refunded last time under public funding will now appear as an item in the new amounts when they are tendered to the Electoral Commission after the election. In other words, the Electoral Commission will receive certain amounts of money that were a refund from a previous public funding exercise. That amount of money will simply grow over the years to make inoperative the various items that we currently have in this legislation. So the Joint Committee on Electoral Reform will be pressed in its continuing inquiry to come up with something more substantial in this area. It is a pity in a way because the law as it currently stands, if it were complied with honestly and openly by political parties, would be sufficient. Increasing complexity and toughness in this area will induce all sorts of concomitant problems. But, obviously, because of the stated intention of a number of people, that type of tack will have to be taken. For example, it had to be taken with regard to fringe benefits. If people had complied with the law, there would have been no problem. The problem that confronts any government in addressing a law which is being abused in whether to take the law out or to toughen it up. There are really no other choices.

I am very supportive of the Act and the amendments to it contained in this Bill. I think the Bill will go a long way towards overcoming a number of problems that we encountered last time. As the spokesperson for my political party, the Australian Democrats, I have another wish list of possible amendments that could be made. I think that over time some of these may come about, but obviously the political climate at this time is not conducive to those types of reform.

However, we could have addressed one additional issue, which is the issue of how to vote cards. I know that it is suggested that this is a self-serving argument, and I wish to address that directly. The first step is to avoid having people along the footpaths and elsewhere thrusting cards on to citizens as they come up to an election polling booth-an intrusion about which many people feel very upset. Although my preference would be to get rid of the cards entirely at that point of the electoral process, the next step could very well be to place them in the entrance to the polling booth, in a designated box, so that electors could take them in an easy fashion and use them if they so wished. That would be a relatively simple way of handling the problem. It would meet the kinds of objections that have been raised about our seeking a self-serving operation. What we are seeking is to remove that operation at the polls. One of the underpinning arguments that we would put is the need constantly to push our citizens to address their civic obligations by knowing precisely what they will do before they even get into the car or walk to the polling booth. Because we have compulsory voting, we do not have the pressure that exists in other countries for political parties to do a whole host of things by way of electoral education. Essentially, what we have to do is to push it back on to the government of the day to provide what in other countries is provided by political parties.

To add a bit of pressure in this area we might take one step back with regard to how to vote cards. But that is obviously not to be. I submitted a minority report with the first report of the Joint Committee but we have not been able to proceed beyond that point. I doubt whether, even if I moved an amendment, I would get any indication of support from either the Special Minister of State (Senator Tate), who is at the table, or Senator Ray, who is also in the chamber and who is Chairman of the Joint Committee on Electoral Reform.

However, I will move one other amendment in the hope that we may have another debate on this issue. It is an issue which was the subject of a recommendation of the first report. It ended up in the Act but was taken out of the Act prior to the 1984 election. It concerns truthfulness in advertising. To address head on the issues raised by Senator Archer as to why he could not support this I quote-in a way that I should not do-from a speech that I made in the Senate previously. With a certain amount of prescience, I used the exact same argument that he used-the capital gains tax argument. This speech was in 1984, pre-capital gains tax. I think it shows an extraordinary amount of foresight on my part to have used that example at the time. As recorded in the Hansard of 11 October 1984, I said:

I will take two substantive statements that may be included in an advertisement. This is the first: the Australian Labor Party will introduce a capital gains tax if it wins the 1 December election. Let us also take the statement that the Australian Labor Party's official policy is to introduce a capital gains tax. The first statement would not be caught up under the Act as it currently stands.

Let us remember that it was in the Act at that time but was taken out. I continued:

In other words it is a statement made amongst the political hurly-burly. It is a statement which has almost as much bearing as Mr Peacock's list of broken promises which he issued the other day.

This is dated, is it not? I continued:

It is of that order. Mr Peacock was rightly picked up in his Press conference, for the Australian Labor Party had not done what he had said it had done in government. In other words, Mr Peacock was saying that the Government was going to break that promise in the next Parliament. It is a political debating point; part of the grist for the mill. The ordinary elector knows that it is the type of comment which is thrown around; it is not the type of comment which is caught under this Act.

However, the type of statement which would be caught up under the Act as it currently stands and which this Government will remove, supported by the Opposition, is a statement such as: `The Australian Labor Party's official policy document says that it will introduce a capital gains tax when it comes to power'. The only point one can make about that comment is not that it is a debating point; it is that it is untrue. It is deceptive. It is calculated to influence the result of the election. That is what one can say about that comment. It is a comment which would be caught up under this Act . . .

I want to distinguish those two types of comments. In the Committee stage of that debate I referred to another item, an advertisement of the Australian Labor Party which had appeared on the previous Thursday with regard to what it had done in government and which included a whole list of statistics. The point I made at that time was that I would have thought that a political party would be happy to have a legislative guarantee that those statistics were true. Someone may ask: `Well, is it true?'. That is a reasonable question from an elector trying to make up his mind about such advertisements. We can say: `Yes. We are not allowed to put in deceptive or untrue statements'. We are not talking about statements concerned with predictions of what will occur. Those types of statements do not have a truth value. But, as Senator Tate will realise, quite a number of statements do have a truth value but can be untrue, deceptive.

In support of my argument, I refer to the Trade Practices Act. With the Trade Practices Act 1974, passed by a coalition government, this chamber was happy to impose on other people-not on politicians-an identical obligation. That Act states:

A corporation shall not, in trade or commerce, engage in conduct that is misleading or deceptive.

That also means anything that is likely to be misleading or deceptive. On advertisements, it states that corporations shall not make untrue, false or misleading statements or publish advertisements that are false or misleading. We are happy for an obligation to be imposed on commerce to address the issue directly and head on and that, in its relationships with the community, it be compelled to make true statements-that is, ones that are not misleading or deceptive. The least that we can ask is that.

I apologise to the Senate for the amendments that have been circulated, as another one should have been attached to them. The last time that the issues were discussed we had a lively debate on injunctions, essentially initiated by Senator Ray. At that time, I said on behalf of my Party that we would be happy to give away the power of a political party to take injunctions under that section if it were retained. I stand by that commitment and will, in the Committee stage, circulate an amendment to that effect. We are happy for the Australian Electoral Commission, which has the power of injunction and also the obligation to enforce the Act, to have that power in its hands, and not to have it ourselves. I take the point made by Senator Ray in the 1984 debate, that the power could be used in a destructive fashion by certain groups, particularly those which do not have the resources held by the major parties, to engage in massive advertising campaigns and hence, out of spite or otherwise, to seek to disrupt the legitimate process. The Australian Democrats do not wish to do that.

We admit that a narrow band of comments and advertisements will be picked up, but in any reform one must start somewhere. If we cannot reform the entire world, there is still a legitimate argument for reforming the little bit that we can get hold of. I believe that the Bill will be at least one step down that path. It will catch a limited range of statements that have truth value in their own right. That is not a matter of conjecture, or of what is in the eye of the beholder-it is a matter of strict logic. Certain statements can have a truth value; the majority cannot be assigned a truth value. It is a very simple proposition. We will address ourselves to that part of the Act in the Committee stage and seek to move amendments.

The Australian Democrats will support the Bill. Of course, we shall listen to the arguments, but I doubt whether any of them, on the matters to which I have referred, have not already been heard by the Committee, which carried out an exhaustive analysis of those items. My Party is of the view that, at the moment, we envisage no benefit in supporting the amendments circulated by the National Party or the Liberal Opposition.

I count myself proud to have been able to engage in this process, which does not occur very often in the life of Australia. It has been a very fascinating exercise. With the independent Electoral Commission, the means to carry out redistributions, the more open way that we conduct our elections-especially relating to funds, and we all know that elections are premised on increasingly large amounts of money-I believe that we now have an open, responsive, clean, fair and equitable electoral system, which is possibly the best anywhere in the world. A very large amount of that is due to the Government, and I am happy to say so. It has shown an enthusiasm, willingness and determination to act in these matters, and that should be acknowledged. If that passion continues, further changes can and will be made.

It is unfortunate that, in politics, often credit is not given when credit is due. We spend most of our time attacking one another, and I wish to take some time out from that activity to congratulate the Government on its efforts during the last two parliaments. I appreciate the work done by so many people, especially Dr Klugman, who was the Chairman of the first committee, and Senator Robert Ray, who was the Chairman of the second committee, for their diligent, detailed and exhaustive labours on behalf of both committees. They carried through something that was not an easy task. It is not a task to which we tend to lend much weight in this place, although it is a fundamental way of governing what we do in this country. It is a vital task. I would not like the debate to pass without putting on record the Australian Democrats' appreciation of the work done by the Government in this area.