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Thursday, 24 February 1977
Page: 467

Mr COHEN (Robertson) - It ought to be one of the simplest things in the world to draw up a democratic process that is acceptable to all the people on both sides of this House. But that will only be achieved when there is full acceptance of the principle of one vote one value. I listened with interest to the arguments of the honourable member for Evans (Mr Abel) and previous speakers in this debate on the proposed amendment that Distribution Commissioners in making any proposed redistribution shall ensure that no division with an area of S000 square kilometres or more shall have at the time of a redistribution an electoral population which is greater than the electoral population of any division with an area of less than 5000 square kilometres. That is a rather wordy description, but in essence it means that this legislation will continue to maintain the principle that some people in the community are entitled to bias in their favour to make up for some deficiency that exists within their electorate.

I agree with the honourable member for Evans that the person who represents a seat like Kalgoorlie and the person who represents a seat like Evans, a small inner city seat, have disadvantages but we on this side of the House have always expressed the view that those disadvantages should be compensated for by giving the person greater access to the electorate by way of travel facilities, increased staff and so on. I am one who would be quite happy to see members living in very large electorates given almost unlimited assistance. But the point I want to take up with previous speakers and in particular the honourable member for Evans, is that once we depart from a principle of equality of votes where does it end? We now have a 10 per cent tolerance either way. We used to have a 20 per cent tolerance. Now we have this 5000 square kilometre criterion.

There is nothing to stop a government that has control of the numbers in the House of Representatives and in the Senate from passing legislation which makes the difference virtually anything it likes-20 per cent, 30 per cent, 50 per cent or 1000 per cent. If the Government has the numbers it can do it, and of course, it has been done in the various States. That is what concerns me. What happens if there should be an autocratic, authoritarian government which decides that it will lose the next election, whips through a redistribution and stops what we call the democratic process. I am one of those people who have seen the evils committed by Labor Governments in Queensland and I do not think that all Labor governments in the past have been saints. I am not referring to this House because in the past the very few redistributions that have been undertaken by Labor governments in the federal sphere have been very fair, but some State Labor governments have done equally bad things. It has been done in Western Australia, Victoria and most of the other States barring Tasmania, which has the one truly democratic State Legislative Assembly because it has a proportional representation system. What concerns me is that a government can do this. It can go ahead and redistribute itself into government more or less ad infinitum and we have seen it done in the other States. The simple fact is that even if the Labor Party did get the majority vote- I agree that at the moment it would not be a legitimate government in Queensland, Western Australia or Victoria because it does not have the majority vote- it still could not win office. It could not win in any of those 3 States if it obtained 50.1 per cent of the vote.

All I ask in this democratic country is that if a party obtains the majority vote, it be in government. The history of this Parliament is that there is a bias in favour of the Liberal- National Country Party coalition. It is not enormous. It is nothing like the bias that exists in Queensland but it is enough to deny the Labor Party government when the result is close.

Mr Abel - Ninety-odd seats to thirty-six.

Mr COHEN -I am not arguing about the legitimacy of the Government at the moment. It won an overwhelming majority at the last election in 1976. 1 am arguing about the legitimacy of the Government in 1954, 1961 and 1969. The result in 1954 was not the fault of the LiberalCountry Party coalition. It was the fault of the Labor Government which drew up the boundaries in 1949. The worst Gerrymander against the Labor Party was done by the Labor Party in 1949. But it has been maintained by succeeding governments and in 1 96 1 the Labor Party should have been the legitimate government. It had a clear mandate from the people but it failed to win because of the electoral system, not the malapportionment which gave the other side an inbuilt majority of three or four seats. In 1969 it was touch and go. The Labor Party lacked a majority- my recollection is that it was by 7 seats- yet it obtained a majority of the vote. In 1972 the Labor Party should have won by a greater number of seats than it did and in 1974 it should have obtained a bigger majority than 5 seats. I suppose it is a pointless exercise, but I believe that I am a true democrat. I believe that if the other side of the House wins, it should be the government and alternatively, if this side wins, it should be the government.

I think that this Bill is an improvement on the past although I do not like a lot of things contained in it, for which the Opposition will oppose it. It is an improvement because at least the 10 per cent variation that the Labor Party introduced when in government has been maintained. Eventually in this country I want to see the power to change the electoral laws and the power to undertake redistributions taken out of the hands of politicians. There ought to be a statutory authority. The Electoral Office should be a statutory authority employing permanent public servants to draw up electoral boundaries which they present to the Parliament and which cannot be changed by the Parliament. Seats should be decided by the law of one vote, one value, as they are decided by the Constitution, and whatever boundaries are drawn up by the Electoral Office, whether it be at three or five or seven-year intervals, should be the ones that apply. The elections would be fought on that basis. Some of the things that were said about the Labor Party's redistribution were outrageous. Some members of this House who are now on the Government side stomped the country and told grotesque untruths about the redistribution and yet all political scientists of repute in Australiapeople who really understand what redistributions are-said that the Federal redistribution undertaken by the Labor Government was eminently fair. Malcolm Mackerras, a man who was previously a member of the Liberal Party and is one of Australia's most eminent political scientists said that it was an extremely fair redistribution and that it redressed the bias that had existed in past redistributions. But Government supporters, who were then in opposition, stomped the country. They made claims that were simply outrageous that the Labor Party was putting forward electoral processes that would keep it permanently in office.

They were able to do this because the vast majority of the population do not understand redistributions. That is not to their discredit. The vast majority of politicians understand what is happening but if one asks them to explain what effect a distribution has in each individual electorate or State, they could not do it. A member will know what is happening in his electorate and in the neighbouring electorate- probably there is selfinterest involved in that- but he does not really have the knowledge, nor does he take the time, to study every single electorate closely to see whether it is 100 per cent fair. If he does not do it there is no way in the world that the general population will undertake that sort of study. I doubt whether there are 100 people in the nation who could sit down and look at a redistribution and say accurately whether it is fair or unfair. They would have to work on somebody else's interpretation of that redistribution. Another important point that I want to make is that I wish that the Government had the courage to go to the people to reintroduce the question of the breaking of the nexus between the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Mr Hodgman - The people threw it out.

Mr COHEN - The honourable member for Denison says that the people threw it out. That is quite right. If honourable members cast their minds back to that 1967 referendum, they will recall that the Government did not introduce legislation to increase the size of the House. It first went to the people and some Democratic Labor Party and independent senators conducted a quite dishonest campaign amongst the people of Australia, saying that the Government was trying to increase the numbers of members of Parliament. It was not. The Government can, as we all know, increase the size of the House of Representatives tomorrow. It is within its powers and it could do it tomorrow if it introduced the legislation. However, of course, it has to increase the size of the Senate. What the Government, supported by the Labor Party, was trying to do in 1967 was to increase the size of the House of Representatives without increasing the size of the Senate. It was, in fact, a referendum to decrease in the long term the number of politicians but these quite dishonest politicians went out, campaigned and reversed the question. The proposal did not get much support from the media and it was defeated. If, as the honourable member for Denison (Mr Hodgman) says, it is not possible to change that question and that we would have the same sort of dishonest arguments if we went to the people again, the answer should be to increase the size of the Senate.

To me it is patently absurd that in 1949 there were 123 members of the House of Representatives and that 28 to 30 years later there will still be 123 members. If we are concerned about the size of some seats, surely the best way is to increase them. I do not want to see any country seat abolished. I do not want to see a decrease in the number of country seats by maintaining the number at 123 and because of the increase in the urban population. It will make the seats that we now have bigger and bigger. This must go on. Kalgoorlie will get bigger and Kennedy, Leichhardt and all other country seats will get bigger. What is wrong with increasing the size of the House of Representatives to 144 members and increasing Senate representation to 12 senators from each State? The argument against that proposition is that the result of Senate elections will always be a 3:3 split and so you will never get a decision. I think that is nonsense.

At the last double dissolution election everyone said that the Labor Party had to achieve a 5:5 result. We achieved that result in one State and the result was 6:4 in every other State. What could be done is simply to divide the States into electorates for the purpose of Senate elections. They could be divided into 6 electorates; they could be divided into 2 electorates. If they were divided into 2 electorates, that could be done by having half the population in each and having 3 senators elected from each part. In the case of Queensland, 3 senators could come from, say, the north and 3 senators could be elected from the southern part of the State. Frankly, I think it would be a better thing if senators, instead of just representing a whole State, represented a particular area which was more of interest to them. There are all sorts of combinations and computations. But we are stuck with 123 members because of what Malcolm Mackerras described as the High Court lunacy when referring to its recent ruling. I am surprised that the Liberal and Country Parties have not looked at that possibility.

It has been said that a government would be scared of public disapproval if it increased the number of politicians. Surely we have got enough gumption to go to the people and say: We are going to increase the size of the House of

Representatives from 123 to 144 members', or something like that After 30 years surely we can justify a small increase in the size of this House. The States are doing it. Every time they have a redistribution, which is every 3 or 4 years, they add a couple of electorates. If there is an argument for fewer politicians, it ought to be an argument for fewer State politicians. As the member for Robertson, I represent the Gosford- Wyong area which has a population of 90 000. There are almost 3 State electorates within my boundaries, and the State members who represent those electorates have the same salary and almost the same conditions as I have. Who has the easier job? The New South Wales Legislative Assembly has 99 members, which is almost as many as represent the whole of Australia in this place. I think that the situation is patently absurd.

Finally I want to express my concern to the Attorney-General (Mr Ellicott) about this question of the election at large. I am surprised that nothing more specific has been spelt out in that regard. Perhaps the Attorney-General is proposing that some subsequent legislation will be introduced to clarify the position. I understand that the Chief Australian Electoral Officer does not know what he would do if there were an election at large. I am also concerned at the possibility of an unscrupulous government at some stage or other deliberately deciding that it will not carry out a redistribution and have an election at large because it may benefit from it Let me give an example. In 1969, 1972 and 1974 New South Wales strongly voted for the Labor Party. In 1972 we got about 27 or 28 of the 45 seats in that State. Let us assume that we had narrowly missed out on achieving office and that the present Government was in power and it decided that if an election at large were held it could be assured, under proportional representationthis is what I assume an election at large would be because I cannot see any other way of doing it- of about 42 per cent to 45 per cent of the vote. That means it must get almost half of the seats. So a government could decide not to carry out a redistribution in a particular State because it was assured of picking up 4 or 5 seats in an election at large. Maybe I am drawing the long bow; maybe I am looking at obscure possibilities; but it is a distinct possibility, and it concerns me.

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