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Wednesday, 6 May 1987
Page: 2385

Senator ROBERT RAY(12.37) —I thank Senator Archer for his kind words about the Joint Select Committee on Electoral Reform, but I must issue a warning to him. In trotting parlance, at least for Liberal front benchers, the Electoral Reform Committee has been known as the death seat. For example, first of all Mr Steele Hall, a shadow spokesman, served on the Committee. He was unfortunately dumped on the back bench. He was succeeded by Mr MacKellar, a front bencher at the time who is now sitting at the back of the House of Representatives. We also had the pleasure of the service-on occasions-of Mr Charles Blunt, also a front bencher at that stage, who has also been relegated to the back bench. My advice to Senator Archer, as a new shadow Minister, is: Do not aspire to serve on this Committee.

The Bill is directed only at improving the 1983-84 Bills. It irons out the bumps and fills in the potholes of that landmark legislation. I agree with Senator Macklin that it has been one of the major areas of improvement in Australian society in the past few years. That is not really acknowledged by the public because it is not of most interest to members of the Senate and the House of Representatives.

The Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill, with only two exceptions, follows the recommendations of the Electoral Reform Committee. It is not as comprehensive as we may have wished, but I am sure that everyone will understand the problems that we faced with the availability of parliamentary draftsmen and the very heavy legislative program in which we are currently engaged. Therefore, although some of the Committee's recommendations are not picked up in the Bill, I understand that an assurance has been given that, at a later date, most of them will be picked up. Of course, the Government reserves the right not to pick up all of the recommendations, but I think that well in excess of 90 per cent of them will find their way into law.

At the start of the Bill are some fairly heavy amendments on redistributions. I acknowledge that they were included in this Bill and not in a later Bill simply because they were already drafted. We might as well deal with them now, even though we do not have a prospective redistribution-other than perhaps in Victoria-for another four years. Firstly, we reordered the timetable under which we carry out redistributions. That was primarily occasioned by the fact that New South Wales was dealt with on the last occasion of a redistribution simply because, during that process, it was involved in a State election-one in which, I am pleased to say, Mr Neville Wran was again returned. Therefore, New South Wales came at the end of the timetable, but we are suggesting a legislative amendment that would allow it to start where we always thought it would start, which is at the beginning. After all, New South Wales has 51 seats. A redistribution would be more difficult there than in any other State.

We also suggest a variation of 2 per cent after 3 1/2 years of a redistribution. This simply means that the commissioners would have more flexibility. Under the existing Act the maximum variation can be 10 per cent-some seats grow at a fairly fast rate; I am sure that Senator Sheil would know how quickly Fadden grew and how quickly Fisher is growing now-and sometimes because there is no provision for a variation of 2 per cent after 3 1/2 years the commissioners are forced to create what are almost artificial seats, putting some fast growing areas and some exceptionally slowly growing or declining areas together. This provision will give the commissioners more flexibility and, I think, will draw support from all sections of the chamber for that reason.

We stress again in our report, and to an extent in the legislation, that the independence of distribution commissioners is of paramount importance. I cannot recall one criticism of any of the appointments in the last round. There must have been 30-odd distribution commissioners throughout Australia and I do not think there was one criticism. There was one potential problem in Queensland where the Surveyor-General had overt political views, which I think were of Senator Sheil's persuasion, and he immediately stepped down from that position; so there was no criticism. I say that he did the right thing. We have had independent commissioners. One of the keys to having independent commissioners is our request that State Auditors-General throughout Australia be included in the redistribution process. The position of Auditor-General is the perfect statutory position, historically filled by people of independence. If they were allowed to serve on the redistribution committees I do not think there would be any criticism in this chamber. As it was, we had a 3-3 result. Three Premiers gave permission and three refused it. That did not break down on political lines. I think the Tasmanian Premier refused, as did the Victorian Premier, or someone else. I am not sure of the details. We reiterate that we would like to see the State Auditors-General included in the redistribution process.

We have also recommended that the broad outlines of redistributions be released by the redistribution committees as soon as they are known. In other words, the committees should not wait until every map and transmission line is drawn. They should let us know the outlines. That would have several advantages. It would enable people to get their objections to a redistribution well and truly under way. It would also stop leaks. The Commonwealth Police, I think, had to investigate a leak of a redistribution last time. It emanated, we think, not from the Electoral Commission but from a mapping office. So the broad outlines should be released as soon as possible.

We also argue-Senator Archer probably covered this-that if an augmented electoral commission has made reasonably radical changes in a particular State it has further hearings on them. There was a problem in New South Wales last time where the commissioners, having listened to objections, agreed with the objections and said: `We are going to rewrite the rural face of New South Wales'. There was no chance for people who had not been associated with those objections to put their views forward, or very little chance, because they did not know what was in the commissioners' minds. We suggest that where there is a reasonably radical reorientation of a commissioner's original suggestion there be more hearings. Thus, we would go from a 36-day objection period through to a period of 60 days, which would give us plenty of time.

The final thing we suggest in terms of redistribution is about the fact that nowadays sub-divisions are basically an outmoded means of achieving a redistribution. Too often they are artificially constructed and too often they are reliant on what State boundaries are. We suggest that census areas be used as a building block in a redistribution. That would help not only the Commission, by the way; it would help every political party to put in an accurate suggestion to the commissioners. As it is, when one puts in a submission now to the commissioners about a sub-division it is largely guesswork as to what the eventual numbers will be. So we recommend that building block process.

We recommend the repeal of the provisions of the Act relating to the registration of candidates. We do so simply because we have found it unnecessary. The registration of political parties virtually picks up everything. It has been largely of nuisance value around election time to have to fill in these forms. I am sure that we can do without them. We have simplified the grouping of candidates and nomination procedures. Anyone who was a Senate candidate last time almost got repetition strain injury from filling out all the forms, hoping that he did not make a mistake. Even though I had been involved in creating all this legislation, I had to puzzle for many minutes over where on the form I signed and where I filled it in to make sure that I did not make a mistake. I am sure that everyone was in that position. We recommend the simplification of those nomination procedures, including, incidentally, dispensing with having to get six signatures on a nomination form if one is part of a registered political party. That goes by the board.

A more contentious recommendation, possibly, is the 14-day cut-off rule for postal votes and absentee votes. My pushing this issue has arisen from the Nunawading case, which essentially provides, as I understand it, that there is no time limit for these votes under the present electoral law.

Debate interrupted.

Sitting suspended from 12.45 to 2 p.m.