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Thursday, 20 April 1961


Mr WHITLAM (Werriwa) .- "The Commonwealth Electoral Act provides the fabric of Australia's democracy. Nothing is more vital to the working of a democracy than the mechanism by which the Parliament is elected. The electoral mechanism should be constructed on four principles. The first principle is that all adults should have a vote without a means test, an education test or any other qualification. This principle is necessary to ensure that everybody should be represented in the Parliament. The second principle is that all electorates should have the same population. This is necessary to ensure that everybody shall be equally represented. The third principle is that the Parliament should have to face the electors at regular intervals. This is necessary to ensure that the Parliament will be representative of the electors from time to time. The fourth principle is that all candidates should have equal access to propaganda. This is necessary so that the electorate may be an informed one and so that every candidate shall have an opportunity to present his views to his fellow citizens in an effort to gain their suffrage.

The Australian Constitution enshrines but a few of those principles. The Commonwealth Electoral Act does not enshrine them all. The Constitution does not guarantee the vote for all adults; it does not preclude a means test or any other test for the vote; it does not ensure that all divisions will have approximately the same population, and it does not ensure that a State shall be divided into divisions. These things are provided for by the statute which we are now amending. The. only safeguard which the Constitution affords is that the House shall continue for not longer than three years, that the number of members for each State shall be in proportion to its population, and that no person who has or acquires a right to vote at elections for the more numerous House of the State Parliament shall be prevented by any Commonwealth law from voting for both Houses of this Parliament.

There is no provision anywhere relating to equal access to propaganda. This principle has been increasingly abused as the years have gone by. There is a greater concentration of propaganda in fewer hands in Australia than in any other country on our side of the iron curtain. Three-quarters of the daily newspapers in Australia are published by the Melbourne " Herald ", the " Sydney Morning Herald " and their subsidiaries and affiliates.

The bill now before us reproduces the bill which was introduced last year. It does not make many or very important amendments. It is a bill for discussion principally in committee. We shall then move several amendments which, we believe, will improve the act.

There are certain matters, however, that I should mention at this second-reading stage. One concerns the re-enactment of a blot on the Australian statute-book. I refer to the fact that this bill prevents, as last year's bill prevented, aborigines from voting for this Parliament if they live in Queensland, Western Australia or the Northern Territory. This bill will re-enact that ban. The present act denies the vote to aboriginal natives of Australia, Asia, Africa or the islands of the Pacific except New Zealand, unless they are entitled to vote for the more numerous House of a State Parliament, or have served or are serving in the defence force. This bill will repeal that sub-section of the act and insert a new section which will deny the vote to Australian aborigines in the same circumstances as the vote was denied to all aborigines previously.

The obnoxious thing about the original enactment and the re-enactment is that the vote is being denied to aborigines because they are aborigines. The vote is not being denied to Australian citizens, as aborigines are, because they are nomadic, illiterate, spendthrift, unhygienic or for any of the reasons which are commonly advanced for depriving aborigines of the vote. We shall vote against the re-enactment, as we announced last year when the previous bill was introduced, and as we announced some weeks ago when we knew that the reintroduction of this bill was imminent. If this sub-section is not re-enacted, aborigines and other Australians will not be able to vote if they are nomadic because people, can enrol, and therefore vote, only if they have a real place of living. If other Australians are nomadic - for instance, if they move from place to place in a caravan - they cannot be enrolled and, therefore, cannot vote. So, under the act aborigines would not be able to vote if they were nomadic.


Mr Freeth - They can as long as they remain within a division. It could be a large division.


Mr WHITLAM - However large a division is I do not think a person can enrol unless he has a real place of living. Aborigines should not be denied the vote on the ground that in some cases they may be illiterate, because other Australians are not denied the vote on that ground. In fact, other Australians are given assistance to vote. No Australians other than aborigines are denied the vote or are prevented from enrolling because they may be spendthrift, unhygienic and so on. This is a thoroughly obnoxious requirement of our law. Hitherto and, if the Government has its way, in future we shall deny the vote to aborigines if they live in Queensland, Western Aus tralia and the Northern Territory. We shall grant them the vote - we have to under the Constitution - if they have the vote in other States, as they do. I am indebted to the honorable member for the Australian Capital Territory (Mr. J. R. Fraser) for the information that aborigines can cast completely valid votes. There is one polling place at Wreck Bay in his electorate where some scores of aborigines are enrolled and vote. It is one of the very few polling places in Australia where no informal votes are cast.

As the honorable member for the Northern Territory (Mr. Nelson) rightly stated this afternoon, the Commonwealth is held responsible overseas in matters of aboriginal welfare. We plead constantly that the Constitution does not permit us to count aborigines in the census upon which the distribution of seats is based, and that this Parliament cannot pass laws concerning aborigines. The rest of the world will not readily acquiesce in that excuse, because the relevant sections of the Constitution can be repealed if the people so decide at a referendum - but there cannot be a referendum on the subject until this Parliament gives the people the opportunity to vote at a referendum. A couple of years ago the Constitutional Review Committee recommended unanimously that the section precluding aborigines from being counted in the census should be repealed. We have no doubt that such a proposal would receive the overwhelming support of the Australian people. Aborigines should be counted in the census, and the distribution for this Parliament should be based on a count of all citizens of Australia, including aborigines.

Although the States are responsible in so many respects for aboriginal welfare, they are not accountable internationally because they are not recognized internationally. No representatives of the States are given audience at any international gatherings. The representatives of the Commonwealth Government alone are given that audience. In the interests of the whole nation we must accept promptly the responsibility in these matters.

It is anomalous, as well as unnecessary, for us to deprive aborigines of the vote if they do not have the vote for some State parliaments, and to grant them the vote if they have it for other State parliaments. The Constitution requires that we should give the vote for both Houses of Parliament to anybody who has a vote for the more numerous House of the Parliament of the State in which he resides. It does not prevent us from giving the vote to any person who does not have the vote for the more numerous House of the Parliament of his State. There is no necessity for us to re-enact this provision. We can delete it this week or next.

It applies, as I have said, in Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory. Something has already been said about conditions in Queensland. Conditions in Western Australia would be better if the Legislative Council of that State had not rejected bills which the Hawke Government sent up to it and which, I dare say, other governments sent up to it. Bills were sent from the Legislative Assembly of Western Australia to the Legislative Council two or three years ago and they were rejected by that Legislative Council. That is another illustration of the fact that legislative councils have never been guardians of civil liberties or human rights in Australia.

Then we have the position in the Northern Territory. We are not beholden to State governments in any matter there. We are entirely responsible for aboriginal welfare in the Northern Territory. Aboriginal natives are entitled to enrol or vote in the Northern Territory only if they are not wards as defined by the welfare ordinance, or if they are or have been members of the defence forces. They can vote unless they are declared to be wards, but they are automatically declared to be wards. At some time during every aboriginal's minority, he will be gazetted in the Northern Territory " Gazette " as a ward. At the moment, the aborigines who have not been gazetted as wards in the Northern Territory - that is, the only aborigines who have a vote for the Legislative Council of the Northern Territory and the House of Representatives in this Parliament - number 71. Of that number, 52 had their declaration as wards revoked when they married citizens. That means that only 19 aborigines are en titled to vote on the ground that they were never declared as wards. It is highly illustrative of the paternal attitude which has obtained in recent years in the Northern Territory that although aborigines can have the right to vote we deny it to them by administrative action.

It is true that aborigines are not the only persons who can be declared to be wards, but has anybody heard of a person other than an aboriginal being declared to be a ward under that ordinance? There is no compulsion on the Administration to declare aborigines as wards but, as a settled administrative policy, every aboriginal is automatically declared to be a ward in the Northern Territory and is thus deprived of his suffrage. Does anybody believe that there are only nineteen aborigines in the Northern Territory who live as do the rest of the Australian community? Are we to believe that there are only nineteen aborigines there who can read, write, earn their livings and conduct themselves in an assimilated or integrated manner?

I trust that I have commented sufficiently on the purely internal circumstances which should persuade us to take this opportunity to clean up the Australian statute-book and expunge this blot from it. But there are also external circumstances which should persuade us, or even compel us, to this course. Australia was an initial signatory to the Charter of the United Nations. This is the law of our country.


Mr Chaney - Do you mean that the charter is the law of Australia?


Mr WHITLAM - Yes; you will find it as a schedule to a 1945 act of this Parliament. Article 55 of the charter states - . . the United Nations shall promote:

c.   universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.

Article 56 states -

All Members pledge themselves to take joint and separate action in cooperation with the Organization for the achievement of the purposes set forth in Article 55.

In the past few weeks, we have heard much in the United Nations about joint and separate action for the achievement of such humanitarian purposes. In furtherance of

1.   Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.

2.   Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.

3.   The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

That article was adopted unanimously by the United Nations.


Mr Killen - It was signed by the Soviet Union, too; it means nothing.


Mr WHITLAM - That is a shameful, cynical attitude to take and is in accordance with the. honorable gentleman's telecasts on similar subjects. The article was adopted unanimously by the United Nations in 1948. No nation voted against the declaration as a whole, 48 nations voted in favour of it and eight abstained. They were the nations in the Soviet bloc, as we call it, in addition to Saudi Arabia and South Africa. That means that there is no question that all the nations which expressed their views on this matter are in favour of it. We have undertaken the obligation to. give all our citizens a vote for our Parliaments. As this country has- acknowledged in the United Nations in the past few weeks, human rights are not a matter of domestic jurisdiction under Article 2, paragraph 7, of the charter. We are clearly in breach of our protestations and, I believe, of our obligations.

More recently, in 1957, Australia attended an International Labour Organization conference which adopted a convention concerning the protection and. integration of indigenous and other tribal and semi-tribal populations in independent countries. The convention acknowledged that there may be social, economic and cultural conditions which render it- necessary to make special laws for the protection

Electoral. Bill.

Enjoyment of the general rights of citizenship, without discrimination, shall not be prejudiced in any way by such special measures of protection.

We attended that conference, although admittedly the Australian Government abstained from voting.. We are members of an organization which proclaims that although there may be special protective measures for. indigenous persons in any country, those persons should not thereby be deprived of the rights of citizenship. I greatly regret that, after consultations with the federal departments concerned and with the State governments, the. Commonwealth Government has said, that it does not propose, for various pretexts or reasons, to ratify this convention. There is no question that the world as a whole will think that Australia is falling down on its obligations until it gives aborigines a vote for both Houses of this Parliament, in every State and in both Territories. They have it in one Territory now. Why not in the other?

I have been speaking about the reenactment of this blot in our electoral legislation. I now wish to direct the attention of the House to a lost opportunity to modernize our electoral machinery with respect to those matters which could have been done by statute, which would not require constitutional reform, and upon which the Constitutional Review Committee reported. The Constitutional Review Committee reported to the Parliament on 1st October, 1958, with summary reasons, and on 26th November, 1959, with very full reasons, on several subjects which concern this statute. I cannot understand why the Government did not carry out these recommendations when bringing this bill forward. It is no secret that the honorable member for Canning (Mr. Hamilton), who was a member of that committee, and who, as Parliamentary Secretary to the former Minister for the Interior (Mr. Fairhall), was particularly concerned in drawing up a new electoral bill, had proposed to make these reforms in that legislation. I expect that all members of the Constitutional Review Committee will accept our amendments on these subjects. The" committee recommended proposals for regulating, the appointment of distribution commissioners, and for ensuring that there were no' gerrymanders either by

[REPRESENTATIVES.]

lapse of time or by distortion of population - that is, that there would be electorates of approximately equal size - and that redistribution of electorates would take place at intervals of no more than 10 years. This recommendation was unanimous. It was strong. It was a recommendation by equal numbers of the Government parties and of the Opposition parties, including senators as well as honorable members of this House. I need hardly remind honorable members that the members of this House whom the Government parties- elected were the present Minister for Immigration (Mr. Downer), the honorable member for New England (Mr. Drummond), the honorable member for Canning (Mr. Hamilton) and the former honorable member for Balaclava, Mr. Joske, who is now a. distinguished member of the Commonwealth Industrial Court.

I repeat that these recommendations were unanimous as was the recommendation concerning the census of aborigines. There is no question that a basic feature of electoral reform should be equal electorates. I'n dealing with that subject, the Constitutional Review Committee had this to say -

The Committee feels constrained to say, however, that the one-fifth margin on either side of the quota for a State which the Act allows may disturb quite seriously a principle which the Committee believes to be beyond question in the election of members of the national Parliament of a Federation, namely, that the votes of the electors should, as far as possible, be accorded equal value. The full application of the margin each way to two divisions in a State could result in the number of electors in one division totalling 50 per cent, more than the number of electors in the other division. Such a possible disparity in the value of votes is inconsistent with the full realization of democracy.

To give an illustration, if the quota were 40,000, a distribution would be permissible which gave one electorate 32,000 electors and a neighbouring one 48,000 electors. The evidence before the committee made it quite clear that it is easy to have a distribution where the margin is no more than onetenth; that is to say, where, for instance, the variation is from 36,000 to 44,000.


Mr Thompson - It is usually less than thar.

Mir. WHITLAM; - lit is. In fact, there are a minute number of cases where, at the time of distribution, the one-tenth margin is exceeded. It may be said that some electorates will become unduly large if there is to be a margin of no more than one-tenth, but in actual fact no electorate distributed within that margin would be nearly as large as the electorates which honorable members represented in this place as late as 1949. The committee also said -

The adoption of a maximum margin of onetenth would make a very material contribution towards preventing possible manipulation of the divisional structure of a State for political purposes.

The other factor is that a re-distribution should take place at no greater intervals than ten years. From South Australia, we learn of the electoral distortion which can flow from having no re-distribution. For a quarter of a century there was no redistribution in South Australia and in consequence, some city electorates came to have three times the population of other city electorates and some country electorates three times the population of other country electorates.


Mr Forbes - What about New South Wales? In that State we have an excellent example of gerrymandering.







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