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Wednesday, 4 April 1973
Page: 1083

Mr LAMB (La Trobe) - I support clause 3 of this Bill. It is unjust to uphold an electoral system which is biased either for or against any section or area of electors. It is the intention of the Opposition to perpetuate that injustice with an argument based on rural weightage. Clause 3 sets out to remove that injustice. Rural weightage is a bias against urban Australians and has acted against urban dwellers who have formed the majority of this country for more than 50 years. Let us examine the main argument for rural weightage. The Opposition asserts that unless we have small rural seats it will be impossible for members to service or interview their electors. However most electors write or telephone their member of Parliament. The request for a personal interview on some matter is infrequent. Most requests are those that are best filled by the member acting as an ombudsman or by a regional ombudsman. Most of these activities are completed by telephone, telegram or letter or by personal interviews with the Minister or government departments. The aim of the Country Party in this debate is to confuse electoral service with parliamentary representation. I remind that Party that we are debating an Electoral Bill not a services and property Bill. Moreover the incidence of problems encountered by the member is not directly related to the number of voters in an electorate but to the social environment that produces these problems and to the alternative avenues of redress open to the electorate - a mixture of lobbying power and wealth.

What electorates provide most of these ombudsman-type activities? It should be obvious that the most densely populated areas will provide the most work. The most disadvantaged areas, as measured by lower socioeconomic groupings, are precisely those less likely to have alternative channels of representation or redress. These areas are the electorates with higher percentages of migrant population, greater incidence of poverty and higher than average levels of pensioners or oneparent families. Members of this House do not represent only those electors who voted for them or even just the electors; they also represent those who do not have the vote those migrants who have elected not to take out Australian citizenship and the thousands of children too young to vote. Would any honourable member deny them representation? Where are these people more likely to live? Not in the country but in the city and rural-urban electorates - in places like Mount Druitt, in the electorate of Chifley, where 70 per cent are under 14 years and in my own electorate of La Trobe, which covers more than 1,000 square miles, with the second largest voting population in Victoria and with a fair percentage of migrants and an above average population of pensioners and one-parent families. It has 2 people for every one on the electoral roll. I represent twice as many people as the number of voters would indicate. The Melbourne electorate is worse off. There, 2 voters represent 5 people. But in the rural electorates - for instance, Corangamite or Wimmera - each 3 voters represent only 5 people. This scale must surely undermine, if not completely destroy, the argument that country electorates should be smaller in numbers of voters than other electorates.

Examine any of the arguments used to support rural weightage and the only conclusion that can be drawn is that it benefits the Liberal and Country parties - the parties that represent the better off and the best lobbied interests. It is not an exaggeration to say that under the present Act these interests are overrepresented. Furthermore this Parliament does not represent land areas; it represents people - not places but faces. Is it any wonder that the nomination of the Country Party for a new national anthem has as its first line: Gwydir still yet Gwydir'? The way to guarantee that the people are equally serviced by being equally represented is to ensure that there are sufficient resources and facilities available to the member to carry out his duties - more facilities and backup personnel rather than more dollars or voting power to the individual member.

There is no case for preserving those iniquitous factors contained in section 19 (2) of the Act which the Distribution Commissioners are required to observe. These are factors based on remoteness, sparsity of population and the area of the electorate. Factors that allow a party which gains 8 per cent of the votes to enjoy 16 per cent of the parliamentary representation have no place in an Electoral Act that should enshrine the basic democratic principle of one vote one value. Clause 3 of this Bill attempts to maximise that principle. To persevere with an electoral distribution which denies the voters the right of determining which people or parties represent them in Parliament is a denial of democratic practice.

The Joint Committee on Constitutional Review in 1959 certainly saw it in this way for it regarded a tolerance for certain electorates of 10 per cent above or below the quota as sufficient to do justice to rural interests. The Committee also considered that the device of creating substantial disparities in the number of enrolled voters and so securing for a political party greater representation than it should have is, to quote the words of the Committee, 'in all its forms thoroughly subversive of the democratic process'.

The amendments made to the Electoral Act in 1965 showed that the Country Party was prepared to ride rough shod over democracy to ensure its political survival. The loading of 20 per cent was the price at which its coalition partners, the Liberal Party, valued democracy in bowing to this demand. Yet, with this contribution to history behind it, the Opposition during this debate has declared that it does not reject the concept of one vote one value. What hypocrisy! The Opposition's defence is that there is no time at which that can be achieved in all its pristine purity. So rather than work towards its stated objective it prefers to reject the whole objective. Either it believes in one vote one value or it does not. The Opposition cannot have it both ways. One vote one value means, logically enough, that areas or boundaries be drawn to ensure that each voter in an electorate has as much influence as any other voter in that or any other electorate.

Of course, with a growing and mobile population it would be impossible to achieve this at any single point in time. For practicality it is necessary to set a tolerance, the maximum of which will be a compromise between the ideal of exact equality and that variation which can be rightly charged as weightage in favour of an electorate or electorates. Under the existing legislation the maximum figure is 20 per cent above or below the quota. The Country Party acknowledges this as a weighted figure, for its whole argument rests upon it. But there are no factors which overshadow the argument for one vote one value. There must be a compromise and accordingly this clause provides for a 10 per cent variation. This allows a variation between the smallest and the largest electorate of 20 per cent. The Act at present allows a 40 per cent differential. Any greater variation than 20 per cent would be in conflict with the constitutional requirement common to both Australia and the United States of America that members of the House of Representatives should be elected by the people. This does not mean they should be elected by privileged groups or privileged paddocks but by the people.

Realising the contradiction in its argument, the Opposition falls back on the spurious argument that with a tolerance of only 10 per cent above or below the quota we would be causing a frequency of redistribution that would undermine the work of the Distribution Commissioners. A changing and growing population is not an argument against more frequent distribution but an argument in favour of it. In any event, redistributions will be held only after each census. How else would the Commissioners accurately measure changes in population? The Deputy Leader of the Opposition (Mr Lynch) would rather cloud the issue and allow one electorate to be twice as large as another than speak in defence of the principle of one vote one value, the most basic principle of democracy.

The Westminster system of government is meant to be both representative and responsible. Not only must this Parliament be representative by observing equal electorate representation so that urban, country and fringe areas are represented equally, and so that socioeconomic groupings are represented equally, but it must guarantee that as far as practicable one man's vote is equal to the vote of any other man, no matter where he lives. To be responsible means that the Government must receive the majority of votes cast by the people and a change in electoral support must be reflected by a change of parliamentary support. This sensitivity can be preserved only when the voting system and electoral boundaries express the principle of one vote one value. I commend the clause to the Committee.

Sitting suspended from 6.15 to 8 p.m.

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