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Thursday, 17 February 1977

Mr FRY (Fraser) - I want to speak fairly briefly about the Constitutional Alteration (Referendums) BUI which particularly concerns my constituency which encompasses the people of the Australian Capital Territory and of course the people of Jervis Bay which is a part of my electorate. The Bill also applies to the people of the Northern Territory who have never had the right to vote in referendums. I think it is very appropriate that this BUI should come forward now particularly in view of the recent High Court decision which stated in a ruling about the relationship between the number of electors and the number of seats in the House of Representatives that the people in the Territories could not be regarded as people of the Commonwealth. This is a most difficult ruling to understand but the learned gentlemen of the High Court made that ruling for the purpose of arriving at the number of seats for each State in the House of Representatives. The Court said that the people of Canberra, the 200 000 people here, and over 100 000 people in the Northern Territory were not people of the Commonwealth.

This judgment highlighted a situation which was not generally understood by a lot of people in the Commonwealth at large but it was very well understood by the people in the Territories, particularly the people m Canberra, because we have always been very conscious of the fact that as far as the Constitution is concerned we are regarded as something less than full citizens. We have always had to fight very hard indeed for adequate representation in this Parliament and it was not until a Labor government came to office that we did get adequate representation and the principles covering representation were conceded. We have never had the right to express our point of view in the 30-odd referenda which have been presented to the other people- the real people of Australia- since Federation. We have never had that privilege. While the number of people in the Territories was insignificant the voices of their representatives could be ignored with political immunity but of course we have long passed that stage.

There are now over 200 000 people in the Australian Capital Territory. There is more than half that number- over 100 000, I believe- in the Northern Territory. We applaud the Government's response in accepting a principle which, as I said, has been accepted by the Australian Labor Party for many years. Unfortunately, this principle was denied by the present Government when it was in Opposition. When we tried to pass this legislation earlier it was obstructed in the Senate. The population of Canberra is now approaching half the population of our smallest State, Tasmania. Tasmania has large numbers of elected people. It has 10 senators. Canberra has only two. I think it is a reasonable prediction that in the foreseeable future the Australian Capital Territory will catch up and possibly pass the population of Tasmania. I think it is inappropriate that such a large number of people should be ignored in the Constitution or should be regarded in any way as something less than full citizens.

I take this opportunity of saying what a high regard I have for the wise and learned ruling that was given in this House yesterday by the Speaker in which he confirmed the status of myself and other elected Territorial representatives in this House. He removed, at least for the time being, any doubts which we may have had in this regard. I think that was a wise ruling. I have no doubt that it would be endorsed by the large majority of fair-minded Australians. I have some doubt, of course, that it would be accepted by some members of the High Court. They may have dissented from that ruling if they had had the opportunity.

Mr Martyr - We will get them when they are seventy.

Mr FRY - Yes. I must commend the Speaker on the very wise ruling he made yesterday and express our appreciation for it, even though we have been elected by people and we represent people who are regarded by the High Court as something less than Australian citizens.

There is no doubt that all these issues should receive an affirmative response from the electorate at large. The first 3 issues have a direct interest for all Australian citizens. The right of a vote in a referendum for the Territorial citizens is of direct concern only to those people living in the Territories. I have heard it suggested that people in the more geographically remote or isolated States in Australia, such as Western Australia or Queensland, may be tempted to vote against this proposal simply as a means of registering some sort of political protest against the centralisation of power in Canberra. Whatever their justification may be for making such a protest against Canberra as the seat of the Parliament of the Commonwealth, whether it be directed against one or other of the political parties, most people would agree that there can be no genuine justification for using this issue to deny fellow citizens a fundamental right which they themselves have enjoyed since Federation. I have confidence that my fellow Australians in those States will be generous enough to concede that we should have that right.

I am confident that most Australian citizens will see Canberra not only as the seat of the Commonwealth Parliament and the national capital but also as a community of 200 000 people, many of whom have moved here from other States. We live under much the same rules, conditions and laws as other people in Australia. Of course, some people think that everything is bright and beautiful in Canberra. I can assure them that it is not, especially since this Government has been in power. Many of the little perks that went with Canberra have disappeared and, in fact, the conditions we live under are in some instances much worse than in other parts. We pay more taxes per head than anybody else in Australia. The cost of living is the highest in Australia by far. People should not be fooled into believing that everything is bright and beautiful in Canberra. It might have been when the Labor Government was in power but it is certainly not that way now.

Probably the most ironical aspect of the denial of the right of a referendum vote to citizens of the Territories is that many of the descendants of the original citizens of this country, the Aborigines, reside in those Territories and these people are being denied a vote in referenda. Many of them reside in the Northern Territory but I also have a group in my electorate at Wreck Bay in the Jervis Bay area who are included in this category. I appeal to all voting Australians to support this move to see that their fellow citizens in the Territories are given the right to vote in referenda so that they can exercise the same democratic rights as all other voting citizens and express their points of view of issues which concern them as much as they concern other citizens of the Commonwealth. While the acceptance of this proposition will remove one of the main obstacles to full citizens' rights to Territorial citizens it will not remove the doubt cast on the validity of Territorial representation which was implied in the remarks of the Chief Justice in the recent High Court judgment. In this regard I must commend and support the efforts of the honourable member for Canberra (Mr Haslam), and his colleagues to to have this doubt cleared up. I hope they will continue with their efforts and at some stage it may be considered by a future Constitutional Convention so that this doubt is removed altogether.

Whenever we are debating Constitutional matters there is always a temptation to quote our founding fathers. In conclusion, I should like to quote briefly one of our greatest founding fathers, Alfred Deakin, whose name is commemorated in this city. It is appropriate in considering matters affecting the Constitution. He said:

We should seek to erect a constitutional edifice which shall be a guarantee of liberty and union for all time to come to the whole people of this continent . . .

I emphasise the stress he puts on the words union for all time for the whole people of this continent'. It is absolute nonsense that, as some members of the present Government said when they were in opposition, it was never intended by the founding fathers that people in Territories should be citizens of the Commonwealth. It was always intended. Many quotations of the founding fathers show that it was intended that that should be. We should be a union and that there should be no distinction and no such thing as first or second class citizens. Alfred Deakin also said:

Wherever we can detect a Federal interest or power we should provide for it in advance without waiting for public clamour or the long agitation leading up to an amendment of the situation. We should provide in advance for all conceivable Federal contingencies, strengthen the Federal Government and trust the Federal Parliament to use its powers wisely.

I suggest that the Federal Government is using its powers wisely in recommending to the people of Australia that they accept these 4 alterations to the Constitution. Obviously the Constitution was intended to be amended. We provided for these contingencies and we are now exercising those rights as laid down under the Constitution to make the amendments by way of referendum. I commend all these issues to the people of Australia.

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