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Thursday, 17 February 1977
Page: 240


Mr BRYANT (Wills) - I support the comments of my friend, the honourable member for Robertson (Mr Cohen) about the sanctity of the document- the Constitution. The document is, after all, just another creation of men. It was relevant and valid at the time of its creation. Many parts of it have served the country well for 70-odd years but increasingly a large amount of it has become irrevelant and must be changed. So much nonsense is talked about it. It is elevated as my friend from Robertson says into some holy writ in such a way that the citizenry is unwilling to alter it. It has been erected into a temple which must not be altered. The time has come for the community at large to take a deep interest in the Constitution, to study it, to be informed about it and to change it. I will do everything in my power to see that there is a Yes vote on the 4 questions in my electorate. I hope that every other member of this Parliament will do the same. The duty in the end devolves upon the members of this House. There may be some foot dragging from the people in the Senate but we on this side of Parliament ought to get to work this weekend and organise institutions of com.paigning so that the referenda pass.

There is no doubt in my mind that the major error tha we have committed in the past is failure to educate the community about the Constitution, failure to get them to understand its principles and to understand what it is all about. They must be prepared to consider it effectively to the point of change. I think that the first issue we have before us is the citizens' right to know and how this Parliament will face the problem of letting them know. Legislation of course requires that there will be a Yes case and a No case. I believe that the document itself belongs to the community at large-the citizens. It is not the property of political parties. It is not the property of government. It ought not to be left to the political parties to put out the case. There should be a governmental operation to ensure that the citizens get the case put before them effectively. I believe that there ought to be a bureau for constitutional consideration and change, a small unit somewhere in the Government, whose job it is to continually inform people what the Constitution is about.

This haphazard approach upon which we are embarking- this is just part of a continuing series- will not get us very far. I am afraid that we may even not get the passage of these referenda unless we do something explicit about them. I know that throughout a great deal of the Commonwealth my colleagues opposite in particular have done a great deal to advantage their politics by confusion and by ignorance. They have maintained the situation that way. I am reminded tonight of the haphazard way in which we go about this matter by just looking at the Hansard of the day on which I first sat in this Parliament- 15 February 1956. The GovernorGeneral said on that occasion:

My advisers believe that the relations between the two Houses should be reviewed.

Quite a section followed which I would like to read but I have undertaken to my friends opposite not to speak at length so that we can get these Bills through this House and over to the other place. I believe that the changes about Senate elections are rational and necessary. I have some doubts in my own electorate that it is not to our advantage to have separate Senate elections because of the difficulty for the great migrant population to fill in ballot papers. I believe that it is also necessary to accustom people to vote rationally, so I think that is a necessary change.

I turn now to the question of the retirement of judges. It is a pity that such a thing has to be written into the Constitution by referendum. On the question concerning fellow citizens in the Territories, it is absolutely essential that they be made part of the whole system. It is a disgrace to the Australian political system that we even have to consider a referendum dealing with the filling of casual Senate vacancies. It is a reflection on my colleagues opposite who are part of the political system which created the crises 2 years ago that these Bills have to be introduced. Those people who say it is a cynical exercise are correct. I think it is an election-dodging exercise so far as Senate elections are concerned. I believe it is an effort on the part of my friends opposite to ensure that they never get caught in the same jam as we were in regard to the filling of Senate vacancies, and it is made as the people in the States vote increasingly for State Labor governments. Despite this cynicism, the legislation is necessary.

I put to the people who are listening and to the members of this Parliament that the continuity of change is essential for the good government of this country. We live under the most undemocratic constitutional document probably in existence. It is hard to imagine any other constitutional document which would confer upon one person, an appointed official, the powers which now lie with the Governor-General. He can dissolve the Parliament; has done so. He may prorogue the Parliament. He can decide on the meetings of Parliament. He can appoint and dismiss Ministers; he has done so. He can withhold assent to Bills. He can decide on messages of appropriation. He is the commander-in-chief. I am not suggesting that he will do all those things in the immediate future, but at midday on 11 November 1975 I did not think he would do what he did then. I believe that our Constitution is the most undemocratic constitutional document. I invite honourable members opposite to go to the Library and find some other person anywhere in a democratic society who has that authority.

There are other changes. We should embark upon a campaign to reduce the power of the Senate. It is a threat to the continuing stability of government, as the Governor-General said in 1956. He had a speech written for him by that other leading democrat, Sir Robert Menzies as he now is. It is essential that we change the numerical relationship between the 2 Houses. I think that is most important. It is nonsense that at times such as this, with the population increasing, we should be reducing the number of members of parliament. With the demands upon this Parliament increasing, we are reducing the number of members. A campaign is needed to get the message across. We need control of the economy. I think we need some machinery for co-operation rather than confrontation with the States. I say emphatically that the most important thing-I suggest the Attorney-General (Mr Ellicott) give thought to this- is the establishment of some machinery for a continuing campaign and information about the Constitution to the people of Australia.

I remind the House of our exercises in this regard. As my friend from Robertson said, I was an active participant in the campaign to change the Constitution and the powers of this Parliament in relation to Aboriginal people. We launched a campaign here, with petitions in May 1957. We kept it up with questions in the House, debates throughout the country, petitions from one end of the country to the other and meetings from one end of the country to the other. It was carried successfully, with a 93 per cent vote in 1967-10 years later. On the other hand, the nexus question was thrown to the people almost without any notice. I thought it would be carried. The political parties in my electorate- the Liberal Party and the Labor Party-supported it. A week before the referendum was to be held I was talking to some of my very solid Labor supporters. They said: 'We will vote no'. I said: Why?' They said: 'We do not want to increase the number of members of Parliament'. I explained the technical question about the Senate. They said: 'Is that true?' I said: 'Yes'. I ran off a few hundred leaflets over the weekend but they did not have any great result. The Australian Democratic Labor Party's formidable campaign defeated the referendum. We were not prepared for it. I hope we do not fall into that trap this time. I hope we will set up an apparatus, adequately supported by government sources, to make sure that these referendums are carried.







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