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Thursday, 17 February 1977

Mr ELLICOTT (Wentworth) (AttorneyGeneral) - in reply-I am very grateful to the honourable member for Hughes (Mr Les Johnson). Indeed, I am very grateful to all members for the way in which this debate has been conducted. There have been moments when there has been some looking backwards but basically this has been a very constructive debate. One of the reasons for the hurry in relation to this matter is that these Bills have to be passed by next week. They have to go to the Senate. The intention of the Government is that a referendum on these matters be held on 2 1 May. Under the Constitution a period of 2 months must elapse before there can be a referendum. It must be held within a period between the expiration of 2 months and the expiration of 6 months after the passage of the Bills through both Houses. I am grateful to all members of the House for being prepared to co-operate.

One of the main matters raised by members is the fact that the Government, when in Opposition, opposed the simultaneous elections referendum. There are a number of very good reasons why the Government's attitude has changed. Honourable members will remember that in May 1974 those referenda were put to the people at a general election. The simultaneous elections referendum was part of a number of referenda. If honourable members recall, some of those referenda were of a nature that clearly no government of our political persuasion could agree to. Two of the better referenda, namely, that relating to simultaneous elections and that relating to electors of the Territories being able to vote on referenda, were mixed up with others. Therefore, in an election atmosphere there was little chance of being able to put matters to the electorate, in a way that would have enabled it to appreciate properly the various referenda.

Mr Bryant - I take a point of order. We have surrendered our rights to speak and have reduced the length of our speeches, on the suggestion that the Bills have to pass the House by 9.15. The Attorney-General is taking up time by trying to explain his inexplicable behaviour in the past.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Lucock)Thereis no point of order.

Mr ELLICOTT - One of the referenda related to the Commonwealth taking over local government borrowings. Another related to electoral divisions being divided not according to the number of electors but according to equal numbers of people. That would have been a most confusing electoral division to have because the principle of one vote one value would not have been even approximately achieved. Probably under that proposal there would have been a SO per cent differential instead of one of 20 per cent. That was the sort of referendum that we had in 1 974. Was it any wonder that the previous Government could not sort the good from the bad. That proposal was like so many things that the previous Government did- some of them were good but they were mixed up with the bad so often.

Honourable members will remember that the previous Government also attempted to control the upper Houses and the electoral systems of the various States. As a result, it was not possible for the then Opposition to approve of these referenda. Now the right thing is being done. The referenda that we are now proposing are to be taken to the people in a proper atmosphere. I would suggest that the right time in which to hold a referendum is not at the time of a general election. The best time to hold a referendum is when people can give proper consideration to the matters that are being raised, when they are able to analyse the arguments, and decide what is the appropriate thing to do. That is precisely what the Government is now doing. These questions will be put in an atmosphere which is isolated from the heat of political battle that inevitably surrounds an election.

I think also that the events of 1975 support the desirability of the simultaneous election proposal. If the Senate is prepared to exercise its power to force the House of Representatives to the people, I believe that at least half of the senators ought also to face the people at that time. If this is done I believe that the Senate will be made a better and more responsible body. Some people will argue that such a proposal would detract from the Senate's power. I do not believe that it would. Rather it will make the Senate more responsible.

Another matter that makes the simultaneous election proposal much more significant now is the fact that it was discussed and approved at the Australian Constitutional Convention in Hobart. As honourable members who were at the Convention will recall, this proposal was passed on the voices and it therefore appears to have had the unanimous support of all of who were there.

I would like now to draw attention to an argument I put forward in my second reading speech, namely as to the savings that will be made if simultaneous elections are held. At current costs a half Senate election would cost $5. 5m and a House of Representatives election would cost $5m. A joint election for the House of Representatives and half of the Senate would cost $6m. It is true that a referendum may cost $5m to $7m. Bearing in mind that we can anticipate at least 4 elections between 1978 and 198 1, obviously simultaneous elections would lead to a great deal of saving in public expenditure as well as in convenience to the public.

A number of points have been raised and I shall try to deal with them very quickly because we have very little time in which to pass these Bills. The honourable member for Hindmarsh (Mr Clyde Cameron) -

Mr Armitage - The Attorney-General is supposed to wind this up by 9. 1 5 p.m.

Mr ELLICOTT -I want the vote to start in about 2 minutes. The honourable member for Hindmarsh very seriously raised a couple of matters for my attention. He was concerned with the introduction of the concept of political parties into the Constitution and he asked whether laws could be passed by the Parliament to define them. If the provision in respect of casual vacancies is accepted, it will in fact have the effect of giving to the High Court should the occasion arise the definition of a political party. The Government understands, and I believe that all honourable members understand, what a political party is. If we do not understand what a political party is, I doubt whether we understand what anything is. The problem of definition is not a very real one at all.

Questions were raised about what would happen to various senators whose seats were vacated. I do not want to refer to particular senators, but under the proposal if the seat of an independent candidate elected by the people is subsequently vacated, the Government or Parliament of the State he represented is responsible for filling his vacancy. They could choose anybody who had the qualifications of a senator to replace him. So under the proposal there is no binding provision relating to political party governing the replacement of an independent senator. In the case of a senator who changes his party the State parliament would choose a candidate from the Party to which the ex-senator belonged when he was elected. The basic principle is that the will of the people should prevail. This principle ought to be translated into the replacements following a casual vacancy.

We have, of course, adopted the view that the reason for the casual vacancy has no relevance. Indeed it has not. It may be that what brought about the casual vacancy can give rise to a great deal of public debate, as it has in this Parliament in the past. But that has nothing to do with the implementation of the principle, namely, that the people's will ought to prevail in respect of the replacement. The fact that a senator vacates his seat for some unsatisfactory reason has nothing to do with the people. They choose a Liberal man, a Labor man, a National Country Party or an independent. That is what ought to be reflected in the act of replacement.

Mr Les Johnson (HUGHES, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I rise to order. Mr Speaker, prior to your resuming the Chair the Opposition was given an indication that it was imperative that this legislation should go to the Senate by 9. 1 5 p.m. On that basis the Opposition yielded or relinquished its opportunity to participate in the debate. May I now seek, through you, from the Minister an indication whether that requirement is no longer necessary in which event Opposition members would be prepared to speak on the third reading of the legislation?

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