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Wednesday, 9 November 1983
Page: 2533

Mrs CHILD(6.53) —The Commonwealth Electoral Legislation Amendment Bill 1983 represents far and away the most sweeping reform of our electoral system for more than half a century. In fact, from 1949 to 1983 the conservative parties have resisted any changes at all. We have almost dragged them screaming into the twentieth century. There can be no doubt that the passage of this legislation will result in a more democratic, more accessible and more easily understood electoral system. The fact that such legislation had to be introduced by an Australian Labor Party Government speaks volumes about the basic nature of Labor's opponents. Anti-Labor government has held office in Australia for three years to every one year of Labor government. The same anti-Labor government has always paraded itself as the champion of liberty and freedom. It has persistently maintained that the Labor Party is a party of collectivisation and forced labour, caring nothing for the rights of the individual. In reality, of course, Labor governments have demonstrated a consistent commitment to maintaining and expanding individual rights. One of the most basic of these rights is the right freely to choose and dismiss governments. Universal suffrage is not in itself a sufficient guarantee of that right. Electoral systems theoretically based on universal suffrage can still contain many impediments which either deliberately or inadvertently frustrate that right. These impediments can include gerrymanders, malapportionments, unequal access for candidates to the electors and complications in the voting system which promote informality and thereby distort the democratic process.

Labor's opponents have always opposed reforms and designs to democratise the electoral system. They have done so because, historically, they have always represented elite groups, anxious to avoid sharing too much of their power and influence with the hoi polloi. Labor is not afraid of democracy. Labor is not afraid of the voices of ordinary men and women.

Our opponents claim that this legislation is basically designed to gain a partisan advantage; that we are pushing it merely to advantage Labor. In one sense I guess that they are right. This legislation will advantage the Labor Party. Any legislation which ensures that the electoral system is truly reflective of the will of the people will always advantage the Labor Party. So there we see the reality. The more democratic the system, the better off Labor will be. The less democratic the system, so much the better for Labor's opponents.

I referred earlier to a number of impediments which can operate to frustrate the basic right freely to choose and dismiss governments. The legislation currently before the House will go a long way towards overcoming many of these impediments. I will list the more significant changes for the benefit of the House. The establishment of a truly independent Electoral Commission will take the drawing of electoral boundaries and the general operation of the Electoral Act out of the hands of politicians. This step should go a long way towards overcoming the inevitable cankerous wrangling which accompanies every redistribution. It is the nature of opposition parties to accuse the Government of attempting to rig the boundaries. Sometimes they even believe the allegations they are making. With an independent Electoral Commission, such allegations should cease as they will have no credibility.

The process of redistributions will not be subject to the approval of either House of Parliament. In addition, the timing of redistributions will similarly be out of the hands of the Parliament. No future Commonwealth Government will be able, like the Premier of Queensland, to whistle up a redistribution whenever it suits it. Of course, Mr Bjelke-Petersen's latest attempt at whistling up did not turn out too well. I am sure that an independent Electoral Commission would also be inclined to bite him on the leg.

The second significant change relates to the introduction of public funding and public disclosures of donations. Our opponents have attempted to portray public funding of political parties as a typical socialist plot to extort money from the pockets of electors as a means of ensuring that the Labor Party will win every election. I have not noticed too many socialists winning office recently in Japan or the United States of America, yet these are only two of many democracies which employ public funding. Honourable members would be well aware of the political scandals which have erupted in both these countries as a result of corrupted funding of parties and candidates precipitating the introduction of public funding. We should not kid ourselves that the same thing could not happen here.

Public funding and public disclosure are essential steps to protect the integrity of the political process. Under the 'grab what you can' system currently operating in Australia, anything is possible. The cost of political campaigning has exploded to such a degree that every party machine spends most of its time struggling to pay off its ever-increasing debts. In a healthy political system, parties would concentrate on researching and developing policies and training well-informed candidates capable of carrying them out, rather than frantically thinking up new ways of squeezing money out of people.

Our current system is not only inefficient and time consuming but also undemocratic. Today money is the most important determinant of a political candidate's ability to communicate with the electors. There was a time when public meetings and door-knockings were effective means of communication. These days people do not go to public meetings because they are all at home watching television. Meanwhile, the enormous increase in the size of electorate has reduced the effectiveness of door-knocking. There just is not enough time to reach any more than a comparative handful of voters. I know that because I spent some five years knocking on the doors in Henty. Now that I am a member of parliament I simply do not have the time to get around to communicate with my voters, however much I would like to do so. I still think it is the best way of campaigning. But times change and we move on. While Australians are resistant to change I think the time has come when we have to open our eyes a bit and look at what is happening in the world today. No one, either on this side of the House or on the other side of the House, can get round to knock on those doors. With the best will in the world we cannot manage it.

Today, if candidates or parties cannot afford extensive television, radio and Press advertising they might as well not bother to nominate. If the quantity of the message is to be more important than the quality, something has to be done to ensure equity in the quantity of advertising. An electoral system where the major means of mass communication are dominated by one party or candidate on a two, three or four to one basis as happens consistently in Australia is democratic only in name.

Public funding and public disclosure will serve to clean up the political process. As the Special Minister of State (Mr Beazley) in his second reading speech stated:

The price of public funding is a small insurance to pay against the possibility of corruption.

They will also serve to make the process fairer so that, hopefully, the winning candidates or parties will be the ones with the best arguments, not the fattest cheque books. In many other respects this legislation will make the voting process simpler and easier to understand. The new procedure proposed for the marking of ballot papers will substantially reduce the incidence of inadvertent informal voting. This particularly applies to the migrant voter.

Frankly, the changes in this respect do not go as far as I would like. I am unable to understand why any voter should be compelled to express a preference beyond that which he or she wishes to express. I have only one wish when I go to vote and that is to vote for the Labor Party. I am forced to list my preferences or my vote becomes invalid. At least this new situation will be an advance on the current situation where an elector is forced to choose between Senate candidates from the flat earth society and the radical bomb throwers and collectors, or lose his or her entire vote.

Finally, the idea of a ballot for a position on the ballot paper is not new; it is done for the Senate. It is certainly more democratic than putting us in alphabetical order. It is not by coincidence that 23 of the 49 members opposite have surnames covered by the first quarter of the alphabet. On this side of the House 15 of our members are covered by the last quarter of the alphabet. We are all aware of the value of the donkey vote. After all, in 1974 when the Liberal Party of Australia in my electorate decided to drop Max Fox who had served that Party very well for 19 years and go for someone whose name started with 'A', it did not do so because of the quality of the candidate; it did so because it needed 2 per cent to win the seat. The donkey vote gave it an extra one per cent . If we ballot for position, whether we are in the 'A', 'B' or 'C' category at the top of the alphabet or down in 'X', 'Y' or 'Z' categories, we are all going to have an equal chance. I commend the Bill to the House.