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Tuesday, 15 November 1983
Page: 2715

Mr PEACOCK (Leader of the Opposition)(8.55) —I oppose the proposals we have before us to extend the size of this Federal Parliament and I do so for three fundamental reasons. Firstly, I believe that instead of focusing on increasing the size of the Parliament to cope with its existing work load, we should look primarily at reducing the size of government and the work of this Parliament. Secondly, I do not believe that we can support a reduction in the size of electorates, in effect voting ourselves an easier job, at a time when Australia is facing such difficult economic circumstances and when so many Australians are being asked to tighten their belts. Thirdly, I do not believe that we can support an increase in the number of parliamentarians when that proposition was never put to the electors and quite clearly flouts the wishes of the great majority of Australians.

Before I go on to develop these points I want to put to rest the allegations that have been made by the honourable member for Prospect (Dr Klugman) and the honourable member for Maribyrnong (Mr Griffiths) concerning the amendment moved on 4 May by the honourable member for Boothby (Mr Steele Hall). They allege that the honourable member for Boothby spoke in favour of an increase in the number of members of parliament. He did not. I will read what he said at page 206 of Hansard of 4 May:

I must say, though, that there are some limitations on the motion put forward by the Minister that I seek to remedy by the amendments which I have moved. The first amendment seeks to add to paragraph (1) (g) of the motion the words 'and numbers of members of Parliament'. I have included this as an additional point of study and recommendation for the Minister's consideration because the number of members of parliament is a very important aspect. It is a subject of great concern to some people. If this is included in the terms agreed to by the Minister it would allow members of the public to give their views as to whether there should be more members of parliament, whether the status quo should be retained or whether there should be fewer members of parliament.

Honourable members opposite can criticise the honourable member for Boothby for the principle of his argument if they like but they cannot criticise him for putting it forward.

Mr Griffiths —Keep reading.

Mr PEACOCK —I will keep reading after the duplicitous remarks that the honourable member for Maribyrnong came out with tonight. Both he and the honourable member for Prospect were downright dishonest. The downright dishonesty of their remarks is exceeded only by their duplicity and they ought to be nailed for it. I will go on and they will see that the honourable member for Boothby was expanding on this point that it ought to be examined. Having said that we should look at whether there should be more members of parliament, whether the status quo should be retained or whether there should be fewer members of parliament he said:

Every member of this House in moving around his electorate would have heard views one way or the other on this issue. I recommend to the Minister for his consideration, and I hope acceptance, this addition to paragraph (1) (g). Because of the obvious value it would be to the community--

that is, to get that reference in (1) (g)-

I hope that he can see his way clear to express an opinion on this quite important matter of the number of representatives in this House and the other House.

He got that accepted and, when he had listened to argument, he put in a dissenting report. He had it examined and he put his opposition in a dissenting report. Then he came in, consistent to the end, arguing the case against additional members for the Parliament. The tortuous form of logic that the honourable member for Maribyrnong so dishonestly intrudes into this debate speaks for itself as to why he ought not even to be in this Parliament if he cannot tell the truth.

Mr Griffiths —You won't be in the Parliament much longer.

Mr PEACOCK —Selective misquotation is an attempt at selective morality and that is what--

Madam DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mrs Child) — Order! The House will come to order.

Mr PEACOCK —I will not have my members berated by his dishonest remarks.

Mr Griffiths —You insipid little man.

Madam DEPUTY SPEAKER —Order! The honourable member for Maribyrnong will cease his interjections. The Leader of the Opposition will resume his seat when the Chair calls for order.

Mr PEACOCK —If this creature that has taken his place in the Parliament seeks to misquote any members of my Party he will get it back even more forcefully than I have given it to him tonight. The measure before us raises significant issues of principle which the logic of this tortuous creature was unable to put forward tonight when he talked about unpopularity.

The work of this Parliament, of course, is important. Indeed, the importance of the Parliament in our democratic system of government cannot be overstated. We need governments to do what cannot be left to individuals and the private sector . We need governments to protect the weak and to protect individuals under the law. We need governments to do those things, but only those things. Parliament is the central institution in our system of government; for not only is the Government drawn from the elected members of the Parliament, but it is also the role of the Parliament, its constitutional role, to protect people from capricious use of the power of government.

Taxes cannot be levied and moneys cannot be spent, except with the approval of the Parliament, on behalf of the people. Laws cannot be imposed to constrain the behaviour of individuals without the approval of the Parliament, on behalf of the people. The responsibilities of members of parliament are great and demanding. We are charged not only with protecting the interests of the people against the capricious use of power but also with ensuring that what governments do, they do efficiently, effectively and equitably. Although there is a natural tendency to focus on the activities of members in the two Houses, in Question Time and in debates, as all honourable members are all too well aware, these are only the most visible dimension of the tasks of representation and scrutiny with which we are charged; tasks which include the work load in our own electorates, in our party organisations, in committees of the Parliament, and so on.

I am conscious of the burdens placed upon members of parliament who are also Ministers or the holders of some other office. These positions are often very time consuming and, without effective organisation of time, may on occasion limit one's ability to meet the legitimate needs of constituents. I think all members of my Party and the National Party, at least, seek to ensure that this does not happen. However, I do not believe that this gives rise to a need for an expansion in the size of Parliament. On the contrary, I believe that these burdens and pressures can be better met by alternative mechanisms. It is essential that our Parliament is adequately equipped to perform the tasks with which it has been charged. To be sure, all dimensions of our activities have been growing greatly, but we should not uncritically accept, as the Special Minister of State (Mr Beazley) did last week, that we need more politicians to cope with an unstoppable increase in the business of the Government. We should instead be considering whether the growth of the business of government can be held back.

The work load of politicians has increased partly because the government is increasingly intruding into a whole variety of new areas. There is little doubt that, given the current Government's desire to regulate and control what should be individual decisions and to intrude into areas that should be the responsibility of State governments, the list of areas with which politicians will have to become familiar will increase dramatically during its term of office. An interventionist Labor government will ensure that there is sufficient work to keep any number of politicians busy. The facts are that government intervention has already gone too far and that the growth of regulation, in particular, should be rolled back. In other words, rather than expand the work to suit the large number of politicians Labor will make available, we should hold back the growth of government to reduce the burden on our existing politicians, and the burden on Australian taxpayers.

Too often and for too long the community has ignored the cost of government intervention and regulation. Between 1970 and 1979-I choose those dates to encompass both Labor and Liberal governments-there were 2,988 new laws enacted by this Federal Parliament and 4,980 new regulations were introduced. The community has to understand and adhere to those laws and regulations. That, in itself, is a challenge. It also has to pay the bills. The bills are increasing all the time. So instead of considering increases in the size of the Parliament to cope with this level of activity, the people of Australia have a right to expect that we should be considering ways in which we could reduce this level of activity, produce a smaller government and reduce the burden on both industry and taxpayers. As the Minister indicated last week, the ordinary back bencher is today expected to be conversant with new policy trends and to be a watchdog holding the government accountable to his or her constituents. An increase in the number of parliamentarians will not achieve this. It will happen only if governments vacate areas in which they should not be involved. This is the only way to reduce the burden on individual back benchers. It is the only way to enable them to represent their electorates even more effectively. It is the only way to ensure the effective operation of this Parliament.

Part of the reason the work load of the Parliament has increased is that it has taken over responsibilities more properly the function of other levels of government. Put simply, there has been a tendency for power in this country to become more centralised with Federal governments acquiring power at the expense of the States. Australia's federal system is a recognition that political decision-making must be as close and as relevant to individuals as possible. If it is not, if political power is concentrated in Canberra, then the danger of a central government overlooking and, indeed, being insensitive to the needs of the community become very great indeed. Without an effective devolution of political power there are no checks and balances. That simple fact is being forgotten.

One of the simplest and most effective ways of reducing the work load of members of parliament would be to limit the activities of this Parliament to those which are the proper responsibility of the Commonwealth and to leave to the State parliaments those matters which are more properly their function. There can be no doubt that if this Parliament vacated those areas of intrusion into the affairs of individuals that can be left to the individuals themselves and vacated those areas that are, more properly, the responsibility of State parliaments, the work load of individual members would be substantially reduced. We should be looking to make our Parliament more cost effective, for example, by removing duplication of the work of State parliaments rather than simply increasing its costs. Indeed, I would have thought that this point would have appealed to the Government; it has said so often that the burden of restraint during a time of economic hardship should be shared equitably throughout the community. It has used this argument to justify the taxes it has threatened or imposed on so many people in the past eight months. It has used this argument to justify its threats against those income earners not covered by its deal with the unions. What are those people supposed to think when the Government ignores its own advice? They will not see a larger parliament as the road to more effective government; they will see it as a sign of a profligate government whose belief in restraint is simply superficial. They will see it as a government which wants to make life easier for politicians at a time when sensible commentators are urging everyone else to tighten the belt and make us more competitive. They will see it as a government which talks about equitable sharing of the burden but which really believes that some are more equal than others.

The Government's National Economic Summit Conference, if nothing else, at least showed that the Government believes that symbolic acts can affect real economic decisions and actions. I believe that the proposal to enlarge the Parliament could easily become a potent economic symbol, a symbol which could jeopardise the efforts of those urging restraint on the rest of the community. It is, in our view in the Liberal Party the last thing we need at this time of conomic difficulty when the real need is to create the private sector jobs which will remove our tragic unemployment problem, not to set up symbols of public extravagance which may hinder the achievement of this crucial objective. In introducing this measure on 2 November, the Minister referred to the fact that people have 'become cynical about their politicians', a fact which he attributes to their being 'placed in the position of not being able to serve their constituents, let alone play an active role in their national Parliament'. But there can be no measure more calculated to heighten that cynicism than to take action which is directly contrary to the wishes of the electors of Australia.

Before the 5 March election the Australian, Labor Party issued a comprehensive document entitled 'Labor and the quality of government' which dealt with the role and functioning of parliament. But nowhere in that document did Labor indicate that it intended to enlarge the size of parliament. Labor knew, as it knew in so many other areas where it made undertakings and broke them, that such a proposition would never attract the people's support. The proposition to enlarge the Parliament has been put to the people before and they have indicated clearly their response.

In 1967 the referendum proposal to break the nexus between the size of the two Houses was largely fought on the issue of whether the size of Parliament should be increased. The people resoundingly defeated that proposal.

Mr Beazley —Not in Western Australia; it was fought on State rights.

Mr PEACOCK —I was participating in it. I do not know whether the honourable member was muking or puking. I respected his father as a participant in the Parliament. If he were here today he would confirm that the argument that was adduced against us time and again on that issue was that there should be no more politicians. Any poll taken since that referendum has produced a similar or worse result. The gallup poll published in October of this year showed that 76 per cent of the population was against the measure now before us and that only 13 per cent was in favour of it. The Minister concluded his remarks when introducing this measure with the comment:

This is a matter of principle and, as such, must outweigh any short-term unpopularity that may attach to the legislation.

Important matters of principle are involved in this measure. One of those princples is the accountability of the members of this Parliament to the electors who put them here. Simply put, there is no mandate for the measure before us-no mandate whatsoever. If a mandate were sought it would not be granted.

Let us look at the facts outlined in the dissenting report by the honourable member for Boothby (Mr Steele Hall) to the report of the Joint Select Committee on Electoral Reform. He pointed out:

There are 189 members in the Federal Parliament and 562 members in the six State Parliaments. Collectively therefore 751 members of Parliament serve the public and compete for political approval. They are joined by 19 members of the Northern Territory Assembly and the Australian Capital Territory Assembly of 18. Quite obviously the different Parliaments operate with their own constitutions and state administrations are confined to their own borders. However, they are all part of a Federal system and Commonwealth electors are also State electors. Taking all 788 politicians including members of the two assemblies into the calculation, Australia has a member for each 12,000 electors.

Given these facts, one can understand why the majority of the public is so opposed to yet more politicians. On no reading of these figures could I or my Party depart from that widely held view. The question before us undoubtedly raises matters of great principle-that I do not deny. But the issues at stake are not as simple as the Minister implied in his speech last week. The question we should be asking is not whether the work load of the Parliament has reached a level at which additional representatives are required. The question we should be asking is whether the work load of the Commonwealth Parliament has been pushed beyond the level which is required for responsible and responsive government. The question we should be asking is whether the Commonwealth has intruded into areas and activities for which it has no proper responsibility. Time and again the people have made it clear that they do not want more parliamentarians. Time and again the people have made clear that they do not want higher taxes and bigger government. Time and again the States have made clear that the Commonwealth has increasingly intruded into their areas of responsibility.

If the Government really wanted to ensure that the people's interests were adequately represented by their Federal members, and if it really wanted to ensure that Australia's system of government was truly responsive to the needs of the people of Australia, it would be looking at how to return to the States those functions which are appropriately theirs. It would be looking at how to return to the private sector those functions which are appropriately located there. It would be looking at how to restore economic growth and prosperity to the Australian economy and not at how to make more work for more members of parliament at a cost to the Australian people.