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Wednesday, 11 April 1973

Mr COHEN (Robertson) - Last night in the New South Wales Parliament the Liberal and Country Party Government introduced a Bill for electoral reform. Only a few days ago we debated in this House an Electoral Bill to bring about one vote one value. During that debate we heard most hypocritical speeches from speaker after speaker from the Liberal and Country Parties. They used such words as 'gerrymander'.

Mr King - I rise to a point of order. I find those words objectionable.

Mr Keogh - You have every reason.

Mr King - I ask that they be withdrawn. I do not like being called a hypocrite.

Mr SPEAKER - Order! The honourable gentleman did not say that the honourable member for Wimmera was a hypocrite. He said that the speeches were hypocritical. That is not an imputation.

Mr COHEN - The Bill introduced into the New South Wales Parliament proposes the third redistribution of State electoral boundaries in 3 terms. Not so long ago the Liberal and Country Party confreres in this House of the New South Wales Government supporters were saying that a redistribution by the Federal Labor Government was held too often if it was held every 6 years. Apparently it is quite acceptable for their Liberal and Country Party colleagues in the New South Wales Parliament to hold a redistribution every 3 years. Apparently it is not acceptable if we do it every 6 years. In the debate in this House we heard expressions like 'gerrymander', 'end of democracy' and similar nonsense, yet similar action is being taken much more frequently than is contemplated here.

Some Liberal Party members claimed that they had been gagged and that the Bill had been guillotined ruthlessly through this House. I will show how ruthlessly we applied the guillotine. In the debate there were 34 speakers over a total of 12 hours 27 minutes. In the time that I have been in this Parliament only one Bill has been debated at greater length. That was a Bill relating to compensation. In the last 3 years no other Bill has been debated for more than 7 hours. On the Electoral Bill we permitted debate lasting 12 hours 27 minutes. I might add that it was almost an hour more than the LiberalCountry Party Government permitted for a Bill to go through in 1965. What utter humbug is this, Mr Speaker? The cousins of these same people ran through a Bill, to coin a phrase, in the dead of night in 3 hours last night, the final stage being reached, I believe, at 4 o'clock this morning. The Minister for Services and Property, who is at the table, is indicating that that is right. We heard such terms as 'fascists' and 'ruthless gagging of free speech'. Honestly, honourable members opposite must think that the Australian people are utter fools and that they will accept the sort of nonsense that went on in this House when the Commonwealth Electoral Bill was debated when they find what happened with an electoral Bill in the. New South Wales State House.

Mr Hewson - You are not saying anything about the tolerance.

Mr COHEN - We are just getting on to that. Thank you very much for reminding me. I have seen from the intelligent expression on the face of the honourable member that I need a straight guy, and he is the man to do the job. We were talking about reducing the tolerance from 20 per cent above and below the quota. May I remind the honourable member that his colleagues in New South Wales are talking about increasing it to 20 per cent not across the board, but 20 per cent above and 20 per cent below above the separate quotas that are to be established for the country and for the city. So in fact, I understand, there will be 33 country seats and it will be possible to have an electorate 20 per cent below or 20 per cent above the quota for the country. In the city where, I understand, there will be 36 seats, electorates may be 20 per cent below and 20 per cent above the quota for the city. So in fact there will almost certainly be a situation in which smaller seats will have about 16,000 voters, as Temora now has, and in larger seats there could be well over 40,000 voters, as there now are in The Hills. In fact what is happening in New South Wales is far, far worse than the Commonwealth situation. It is not a 20 per cent tolerance. It is closer to 40 per cent or 50 per cent and could be 100 per cent.

At the 1971 State elections the New South Wales branch of the Australian Labor Party received 51 per cent of the 2-party preferred vote. It is clear that since then the fortunes of the Liberal and Country parties have declined. In all the results recorded since then in House of Representatives elections, State by-elections and Senate elections they have polled considerably worse. They have defeat staring them in the face, and in the traditional conservative tory fashion there is only one solution to save a government from defeat and that is to draw the boundary lines so that it cannot lose. All the crocodile tears that were shed on the other side of the House make me sick, and it makes me even sicker when I see what is happening in New South Wales.

Let me quote Malcolm Mackerras. We all know Malcolm. He is a man who has devoted his life to the study of psephology, who until a few short years ago was a member of the New South Wales State executive of the Liberal Party. He has written many books. He is highly respected for his judgments and his studies in this matter. He stated on the Brian White radio show today that the New South Wales gerrymander that exists at this moment is worse than that in any other State, and he is amazed that so little has been said or done about it. I suppose that in a sense we can blame ourselves because we have not been vociferous enough in denouncing it. We have almost accepted in certain parts of the Labor Party that gerrymander is the norm and that inequality in voting is part of the price of defeat. I do not accept it, and I will, as I have done in recent weeks, raise this matter more and more often.

The situation has become so serious in every State except Tasmania - we would remedy the situation in South Australia if we had control of the Upper House - there is gross inequality in electoral justice. I know that my colleague, the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs (Mr Bryant) and also the Minister for Services and Property are concerned about this matter. I propose to recommend to our caucus that we investigate the possibility of taking this matter to the Australian people. I do not think we can tolerate a situation any longer that continues to keep out the rightful government. I believe that the Labor Government should consider going to the people on a referendum, a Bill of Rights for the people of Australia, which will include in it an assurance that each legislature in Australia provides a guarantee to each citizen of universal and equal suffrage. This is something that should have been done a long time ago. I am surprised that it was not done earlier. I believe that the concept of universal and equal suffrage would be supported unanimously across this country. If the States in which the Liberal and Country parties have control continue to deny to the people of those States their rights there is only one possible answer: We must go to a referendum. An opportunity presents itself at the forthcoming Senate election not only for this House but also for each legislature, both upper and lower, in each of the States. 1 intend to move that way when the opportunity presents itself in the caucus and in the party and I hope that my party will take that opportunity to bring that referendum about.

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