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Wednesday, 3 May 1939


Mr WARD (East Sydney) .- To justify this motion for the appointment of a joint committee to inquire into, among other things, the law and procedure in relation to the choice and election of senators, the Government maintains that there is a widespread public demand for alteration of the Senate electoral system. The most amazing feature is that this alleged widespread public demand for a more satisfactory method of electing members of the Senate became evident only when the Government found, after the returns for the Senate election in 1937 had been received, that out of a possible nineteen, only three of its supporters had been elected. Alarmed by the swing of the political pendulum, the Government declared that heed must be taken of this alleged widespread public demand. I do not deny that for many years there has been dissatisfaction with the present method of election to the Senate in many sections of the community; what amazes me is the fact that for that long period the Government was unmindful of that dissatisfaction, and that it has taken heed of it only after a general election which indicated that the fortunes of the Labour party are improving, and that, if the present method remains in operation, that party must, after the next general election, have control of the Senate. It is only when that fact becomes obvious to the Government that ir, sees fit to heed the dissatisfaction and to propose some alteration of the system. The former Minister for the Interior (Mr. McEwen), in submitting this motion late last year, said that consideration would have to be given not only to the method of voting under the present system, but also to whether it was satisfactory to continue to elect senators from each State as one constituency or whether each State should be divided into three electoral divisions. The system of electing the senators from each State as a single constituency has operated since federation; obviously this system which the Government now says is unsatisfactory must have been equally unsatisfactory many years ago. I deny that the proposal to divide each State into three divisions is one that should meet with the support of those who desire equitable representation for political parties in the Senate. The Labour party believes that the Senate serves no useful purpose, and that it retards rather than forwards the wishes of the people as expressed in the activities of the popularly elected House of Representatives. The Labour party would prefer to see the Senate abolished. But that proposal is not before the chamber. What we have to consider is whether changes of the Senate electoral system are necessary, and whether we should have a committee to consider such changes. The Labour party has no objection to the appointment of committees to inquire into matters which warrant attention, but it is not satisfied that the Government can at this moment make out a case for some drastic alteration of the Senate electoral method.

Another aspect of this proposal is this : The then Minister, in submitting this motion, said that one of the reasons why we should alter the system in the Senate was the fact that on many occasions the majority had all of the representation and minorities none. That has frequently been the case since the chamber was established. In 1934 Labour party candidates polled 47.2 per cent, of the number of votes recorded; yet the anti-Labour Government won every Senate seat. Thus 47.2 per cent, of the electors were disfranchised. No proposal was made then by the Government to amend the legislation to provide for a more equitable method. No! The existing method suited it. But after the 1937 election, when the Labour party candidates polled 53 per cent, of the votes and won sixteen of the nineteen seats, the Government at once announced that the system had to be altered. If the Government sincerely desired to ensure that minorities obtain representation there would be a great deal to be said in favour of the proposal. If the Government wants the representation of minorities in the Senate it should apply the same principle to the committee that it proposes to appoint. Every body agrees thai it is right that minorities should have representation, but it would bc distinctly unfair to say that minorities should have greater representation than majorities. It will be agreed that the majority should have the greater representation. Fifty-three per cent, of the electors voted in favour of Labour senators at the last general election. It is not fair to ask us to agree that on the committee proposed to be appointed to consider methods of electing the Senate, the representatives of those 53 per cent, should be in a minority. The representation on the committee should at least be on an equal basis. The Government does not propose to adopt that fair suggestion. Whenever it ha3 introduced proposals for the appointment of a committee to consider any subject, it has given very little consideration to the minority. We quite realize that tlie opinion of the majority of the committee will eventually prevail. Therefore, we ask that in the appointment of it the Government shall at least be consistent. If, as the

Minister said when moving the motion, it is wrong to deny representation to minorities, we say it is a greater wrong for the Government to give a greater representation to the minority than to the majority on this committee. Consequently we cannot accept the proposal in its present form.

Several systems of voting have been tried in connexion with Senate elections. Prior to 1918 the system was, " first pasthe post ". Electors voted by placing three crosses against the names of the three candidates they preferred. After 1918 the anti-Labour Government then in power altered the method. It decided that it would be in the interests of its political organization to have a socalled preferential election. In actual practice, this method, proved to be very little different from the "first past the post " method. . In Australia the anti-Labour forces are divided into certain groups, whereas the Labour forces are a consolidated mass of electors. The purpose of the new scheme adopted after 1918 was to give to electors a preference as between Country party and Nationalist candidates, but the aggregate of votes for those two groups of candidates becomes effective against the Labour candidates. Under the old system of voting by crosses, once a candidate dropped out of the count he dropped out permanently; but under the so-called preferential system, candidates do not drop out permanently. At a certain stage in the count their votes are again valid. In practice, the system gives a definite advantage to the anti-Labour parties. That, as a matter of fact, was the whole purpose of it. It was designed to hinder the Labour organization from securing a majority in the Senate. To operate our policy we must have a majority, not only in this House, but also in the Senate. For this reason, we consider that it would be a distinct disadvantage to our organization, and an unfair advantage to our opponents, in existing circumstances, if we were to agree to an alteration of the method of election to the Senate, the main principles of which have been in operation ever since the consummation of federation. Go vernments of many political complexions have been in office during this period, but no serious attempt has been made to make any fundamental alteration in the system of electing the Senate. The Government has given no indication whatsoever of any desire to adopt a system of more equitable representation in the Senate. Had it indicated that it desired to ensure the fair representation of minorities, and that it wished to alter the system to achieve that purpose, we should have known where we stood. I challenge it to declare in clear terms what its real intentions are. Does it desire to give representation to minorities? As things are, the Labour party believes that it will have a distinct advantage at the next general election, for it will need to secure only a few of the seats on that occasion to have a majority in the Senate after the election. "We believe that the Government is making these proposals at this stage in order to destroy the advantage which the Labour party now holds.


Mr Blain - Does the Labour party believe in dividing the States into electorates for Senate purposes?


Mr WARD - We do not. We fear that if that be done the States will be divided so as to group the majority of the Labour voters in one electorate, and leave the other electorates with a slender majority of anti-Labour voters. If any redistribution of that kind he agreed to, methods characteristic of the redistributions carried out in certain States will be followed, with the result that although Labour candidates might receive a majority of the votes cast, the Labour party will not have the majority of the members elected. We believe that the motive behind these proposals is to preserve, for the anti-Labour forces, the control of the Senate. We are opposed to any system which will deny control of the legislature to the majority of the voters. Minorities should be properly represented, but we do not believe that minorities should have larger representation than majorities. For this reason we shall, at the appropriate time, propose certain amendments to the motion.

The Government proposes that the committee shall consist of three members of the House of Representatives and three members of the Senate. If that were agreed to, it would probably mean that Labour would have one representative from the Senate and one representative from the House of Representatives, and would be in a minority of two to four. We intend to propose that the representation of the House of Representatives shall be increased to five, and the representation of the Senate to four. We quite realize that, notwithstanding the favorable results achieved by the Labour party at the last Senate elections, the Government would not concede what we regard as our moral right to a majority of Senate representatives on the committee. We recognize that the Government will desire to control the committee. However, we are firmly of the opinion that, if we cannot have a majority of the Senate representatives, to which we consider we are entitled, we should at least have equal representation with the Government parties. If five members of the House of Representatives are to be appointed to the proposed committee, we think we should nominate two of them, and the anti-Labour parties two, leaving it for the Government to appoint the chairman. On that basis the Government parties would have five representatives and the Labour party four. We are definitely not prepared to accept the proposal as it stands, but we are willing to join, under fair conditions, in making an exhaustive inquiry into the whole method of election for the Senate, on the distinct understanding that we shall not be a party to any agreement or undertaking which is designed to take away from the majority of the electors, the right which Ave believe they should possess, to control the business of Parliament in both Houses. Under the present method of Senate elections, it is possible for the majority of the people to approve of a particular party at an election, only to find that, because only half of the members of the Senate retire at each general election, the will of the people may be frustrated. That has happened on many occasions, and it has enabled anti-Labour parties, which have lost the confidence of the people, to prevent the Labour party from giving effect to the policy which has received the endorsement of the people.

The Labour party will support any proposal which will make the continuance of such a state of affairs impossible. We believe, of course, that the Senate should be entirely abolished.


Mr Spender - That would require an amendment of the Constitution.


Mr WARD - I recognize that that is not the subject which is now under consideration. I merely wished to make our position clear. It appears that the Senate will continue for some time to come. That being so, Ave believe that Senate elections should be conducted under a system which will ensure that the majority of the people shall be able to put into that chamber a majority of members, so that the policy approved by the electorate may be carried into effect. I hope the Government Wil accept the suggestions that I have made for the enlargement of the proposed committee. If it does so, the Labour party

Will participate in the inquiry, and consider all proposals that are brought forward to achieve .the desired end. We are opposed to the motion as it stands.







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