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Wednesday, 14 October 1964

Senator COHEN (Victoria) .- I desire to raise a number of matters relating to these estimates. I refer first to Division No. 115 - Administrative, and draw attention to the failure of the Government to move ahead with some essential law reforms which have been promised for a long time. Taking these in order of public interest, I shall commence by drawing attention to the very long time that the Parliament and the people have had to wait for the much discussed and much foreshadowed restrictive trade practices legislation. A number of years has elapsed since we first heard of the Government's intention to introduce this legislation, the scheme of which was placed before the Parliament in December 1962 by the former AttorneyGeneral, Sir Garfield Barwick. Since then there has been a spate of public discussion on the subject, but we are still awaiting the legislation. It is difficult to anticipate the form that the legislation will eventually take, if indeed it is introduced at all. but I think it is fair to say that obviously an agonising re-appraisal of the legislation is going on in the Government's ranks. It is plain that a great deal of pressure is being applied to the Attorney-General (Mr. Snedden) and the Government either to abandon the legislation altogether or to water it down so much that in the end it will be an ineffective instrument for dealing with restrictive trade practices, the existence of which is recognised beyond argument throughout the community.

I do not want to refer to particulars of the evidence that is being given at the present time before a commission of inquiry which was appointed by the Government of Tasmania, but it is quite obvious that the considerations which originally agitated the Commonwealth Government when it foreshadowed its scheme to deal with restrictive trade practices are rampant throughout the community and that the people want solid and effective action to be taken. We do not know how much longer we must wait for legislation that will give the Parliament an opportunity to discuss the precise proposals that the Government has in mind. One can only say that, looking at the estimates for the Attorney-General's Department, we are still without any provision for expenditure on any scheme that would be embodied in any such legislation. Whether the legislation will be introduced this year or next year, if at all, seems to be very much a matter of speculation. 1 repeat that certainly no provision is made under the head of administrative expenses for the implementation of any such scheme.

There are, of course, other matters in respect of which the Government has failed to take steps although new legislation to deal with them has long been foreshadowed. I refer, in particular, to the bankruptcy law. In the Governor-General's Speech of 4th August 1954, a bankruptcy law review committee was promised. That committee was appointed on 23rd February 1956. It signed its report on 14th December 1962 and in February 1963 the former Attorney-General circulated the report to honorable senators. The Minister's statement accompanying that report expressed the hope that a bill would be presented to the Parliament later in that year. We have not seen the legislation yet. We do not know what the Government proposes and we are still waiting for legislation which would introduce desirable and necessary reforms into a very important branch of the law.

I refer next to the question of copyright. In 1954, again, a copyright law review committee was promised in the GovernorGeneral's Speech. That committee was appointed in September 1958. It signed its report on 22nd December 1959 and it was circulated to the Parliament on 18th April 1961. In April 1962, the former AttorneyGeneral told the Deputy Leader of the Opposition who had asked a question in another place that he hoped to introduce legislation in regard to copyright by the autumn session of 1963. Again, we are still awaiting legislation on this important branch of the Law. There are, too, international conventions in the same field of copyright that have to be adopted and ratified. The Parliament is entitled to ask the Attorney-General what the Government's intentions are in respect of each of these long foreshadowed reforms.

Dealing generally with the question of constitutional review, I think it is very plain that the Government shows no interest whatever in this matter. It is almost five years since the report of the Joint Committee on Constitutional Review was presented to the Parliament. During those five years we have not had so much as an indication of the Government's attitude with respect to the wide range of proposals put forward virtually unanimously by that all-party Joint Committee on Constitutional Review. Surely this is a matter which should no longer be ignored by this Government. The report of the Joint Committee on Constitutional Review was comprehensive and balanced. It dealt with matters of great national importance covering wide areas of the nation's economic activity and it suggested some vital constitutional reforms so that the National Parliament could be equipped with powers which would enable it to discharge its duty in the economic sphere particularly more effectively than it has done up to date. We have waited but we have never had an indication from the Government that it is actively interested in the broad proposals. We have now an opportunity to give effect to some of the proposed reforms through bills which were introduced in the current session by the Leader of the Opposition (Senator McKenna) and are now before the Senate. Surely we should have from the Government a positive sign of its interest in moving the nation's affairs forward and of its attitude to the important matters raised in Senator McKenna's Bills. The Bills deal with the terms and rotation of senators, the number of senators and members of the House of Representatives, the division of States into electorates, and disagreements between the Senate and the House of Representatives, all matters on which the opinion of the Joint Committee on Constitutional Review gave the lead to the Parliament. Indeed, it was proposed by the Leader of the Opposition in introducing the Bills that the matters contained therein should be given an expeditious passage so that they could be put to a referendum of the people at the same time as the forthcoming Senate election. Obviously that view is not acceptable to the Government.

How long must we wait before we receive an indication of the Government's attitude? The Government is treating the Parliament with scant courtesy. It is virtually consigning to the scrap heap a report which is distinguished by the care and attention it paid to the many problems with which it dealt. Is it to be the practice of the Government in matters affecting law reform that it will merely turn a cold back on careful proposals which have not emanated in a party sense from the Opposition but have resulted from years of work? In the main the proposals carried the support of the distinguished members of all parties who were privileged to belong to the Joint Committee and to share in its recommendations. We should not be placed in the position of having to wait endlessly, without apparent hope of an answer, for the Government to show by its response that it has formed a view about these matters. If the Joint Committee was worth while appointing, it must have been because it was the view of the Parliament that these great issues and constitutional questions which affect defence and the life and death of the country in an economic sense, were of wide public interest and worthy of the serious attention of the Parliament. One can only draw the conclusion from the long silence of the Government and the many missed opportunities in response to questions asked by the Opposition that the Government has lost interest and does not desire to see the Parliament clothed with powers which would enable it more effectively to discharge its role in the second half of the twentieth century.

The report of the Joint Committee draws attention to the complex nature of the problems and sets out considered recommendations. As members of one of the. two Houses of this Parliament, surely senators are entitled to be told what is the Government's attitude. The Opposition - the Australian Labour Party - has made it perfectly clear that it will support in their entirety the recommendations of the Joint Committee. lt is now up to the Government to say whether it will act on the view of members on its own side of politics who have endorsed the recommendations and have subscribed generally to the policy views set out in the report.

The Australian people should have an opportunity to adjudicate, to vote upon the recommendations which deal with such important issues. I ask Senator Gorton, as the Minister representing the AttorneyGeneral, to give us an assurance that these matters are under active consideration and that in the course of the present sessional period we will have an opportunity to discuss at least the Bills which are now before the Senate - Senator McKenna's Bills - which deal with critical questions of relationship between the two Houses of the Commonwealth Parliament. It should not be too much to ask that at least some statement on the Government's attitude be made. If the Government is opposed to the proposals, let it say so. Let it not treat the Parliament with scant courtesy and make it wait year after year for the opportunity to have an open discussion on the subject. That is the plea that I make. 1 invite the Minister to give the Committee a serious reply and not merely say that these arc policy questions on which the Government will indicate its attitude in due course. We would like to know what the position is. We want to know and we are entitled to know whether any active attention is being given to these problems.

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