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Wednesday, 6 June 1984
Page: 2707

Senator HILL(10.01) —I rise to put the Opposition's position in the second reading debate on the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Bill 1984 and the Commonwealth Electoral Legislation Amendment Bill. The Commonwealth Electoral Legislation Amendment Bill amends the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, the Commonwealth Electoral Legislation Amendment Act 1983, and the Representation Act 1983. It follows the major overhaul of Commonwealth electoral legislation which took place late last year. The Senate will remember the Bill that contained in excess of 150 clauses which we passed towards the end of last year. In the Bill that we have before us tonight we have a very large number of further amendments. Although camouflaged somewhat in the form of schedules, the variances from the existing legislation cover in excess of 100 further changes.

The amendments contained in this Bill enable the renumbering of provisions of the principal electoral Act and provide for, as stated in the second reading speech of the Attorney-General (Senator Gareth Evans), a number of machinery changes. We certainly acknowledge that there are many machinery changes in this Bill, but there are also some substantive changes. I bring to the attention of the Senate the major provisions as seen by the Opposition. They include provision for members of the defence forces and service personnel who are currently overseas, together with others accompanying them in official capacities, to register as eligible overseas electors prior to the issuing of writs for the next general election. Amendments made under the 1983 legislation, while providing for those going overseas to retain their enrolments if a divisional returning officer is notified, did not take account of those already overseas. Although this Bill no doubt seeks to remedy that anomaly, it is an anomaly of a substantive nature which clearly should have been included in the legislation of last year.

The Bill provides for a change in the format of the Senate ballot paper. The amended ballot paper will no longer contain alphabetically sequential letters opposite the names of group candidates. I understand that that has come pursuant to a recommendation of the Joint Select Committee on Electoral Reform which has been meeting now for a considerable time. The Bill allows for claims for enrolment or transfer of enrolment to be lodged with an Australian electoral officer in addition to the divisional returning officer. It allows for the establishment of separate registers of candidates for each Senate general election and House of Representatives election and by-election. It requires candidates seeking registration to do so prior to the closure of nominations. Additionally, it provides that parties and candidates requiring to receive public funding will be required to register for such funding before the issue of the writ and by the close of nominations.

The Bill incorporates the substantive provisions of electoral and referendum regulations regarding absentee voting into the principal Act. It allows the scrutiny of Senate ballot papers to be conducted at a central point in each State or Territory, an amendment we would have thought was a matter of common sense. It clarifies the status of all surplus votes for elected candidates in a Senate election. It provides for the transfer of surplus votes for an elected candidate to constitute a single, separate transfer of votes. It provides additionally for the exclusion from the existing provisions of the disclosure of gifts of an entirely personal nature received by a candidate during an election campaign. Finally, it amends the Act to allow enrolment claim cards to be destroyed where a record of their particulars is kept on microfilm, microfiche or another approved form. We think that is simply updating the procedures in accordance with modern technology.

The Bill will not be opposed by the Opposition. However, the Opposition is particularly concerned about the extent of the Bill in that it contains in excess of 100 changes to legislation which was passed only a few months ago. We believe that reflects the incompetence of the Government. It should not be necessary for the Government to bring massive pieces of legislation to this chamber and to follow them only a few months later with an equally massive set of amendments. With that reservation as to the method of handling this matter, as I indicated, the Opposition will not be opposing the Commonwealth Electoral Legislation Amendment Bill.

The other Bill to which I must refer is the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Bill 1984. This Bill brings referendum legislation in line with the provisions of the new electoral Acts which were passed late last year. One might somewhat cynically ask how it is possible to bring it into line with legislation so passed when we have before us already a massive number of amendments to that existing Commonwealth electoral law. Nevertheless, that is what the Government is seeking to do. As the name of the Bill implies, it deals with the machinery of a referendum. The Attorney-General claims that these provisions will simplify the administration of referendums, particularly when they are held concurrently with elections. We think these provisions will allow for some simplification when referendums are held concurrently with elections.

That raises a matter touched upon in the last few days in this chamber. We still do not know whether referendums are to be put at the general election we anticipate being held late this year or early next year. The Senate will remember that only a few months ago we passed five referendum Bills dealing with simultaneous elections, four-year terms, advisory opinions, interchange of powers and miscellaneous provisions. We were expecting that referendum to be put to the people in February of this year but it was called off by the Government because it was unsure that the Yes case would be supported. In other words, the Government determined that, because it was not certain that the questions would be upheld, they should not be put to the people.

That raises the question of the money expended on those referendum proposals which did not get to the people. I understand, for example, that $1.25m was spend on paper alone. Although I am sure it will be said that paper can be used for some other purpose, that is a significant expenditure of Commonwealth money when, for political reasons, the Government decided not to proceed with putting the referendum to the people. That was contrary to the spirit of the Constitution in that the Government in effect determined: 'We will put a question only if we get the answer we want'. It is the Opposition's view that that is not the role of government. Referenda are to be determined by the people . The people should have access to adequate information to make the decision. They should not be treated as an arm of government.

That leads me to raise the disgraceful attempt to spend $1.25m of taxpayers' money to promote only the Yes case. I think that is the matter that Senator Jessop just mentioned. The Government intended to do that without recourse to any legislation and notwithstanding that the Referendum (Constitution Alteration ) Act 1906 appears to be premised on an equal presentation of both cases. I remind the Senate, although I am sure honourable senators are familiar with the provisions in the Act, that a Yes case is put out by those who support that case and that a no case is put out by those who oppose it. Those cases are put out in a particular form as prescribed and are paid for by the State. But this Government on that occasion decided that it would abuse the system by utilising taxpayers' money-$1.25m-simply to promote that side of the case it wished to be successful. The Senate will recall that we were successful in moving an amendment to that Bill, with the support of the Australian Democrats, as I recall it, and I think Senator Harradine--

Senator Macklin —It would have to have been us.

Senator HILL —I am reminded that it would have to have been, and it was a very wise decision by the Democrats on that occasion. We stopped the Government from abusing its responsibility in expending taxpayers' money in that unsatisfactory way. We will again move an amendment at the Committee stage to ensure that in relation to this Bill there is a provision which will prohibit the Government from attempting to behave in that totally unsatisfactory way again.

There have been some improvements to the electoral laws. The Opposition certainly accepts that some streamlining has arisen out of the worthwhile work of the Joint Select Committee on Electoral Reform. No doubt some of those improvements will flow down to this Bill and as far as streamlining amendments are concerned, of course we applaud such amendments. Other improvements are contained in the Bill. That the Yes/No case be dispatched not less than 14 days before voting day rather than the current strict rules whereby pamphlets may reach electors months before a referendum is something we applaud. So we see an improvement in that regard and we duly give credit. The Government has carried through the spirit of lodging returns of expenditure, although only by publishers, broadcasters and printers. We have considerable reservations about the necessity of that invasion of privacy and it is something that we will certainly re-examine when returned to Government. However, we accept that the Bill does preserve the basic elements and the broad approach which is at the heart of the current system. It will therefore not be opposed by the Opposition at the second reading stage.

I foreshadowed that at the Committee stage we will seek to prevent the Government abusing the referendum procedure by funding one side of the argument. I wish also to foreshadow that in the Committee stage we will move three amendments to delete reference to the position of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. The Opposition warmly welcomes the decision by the Cocos (Keeling) Islands to integrate with Australia but we express our real concern that this Government, contrary to the principle of consultation about which we hear so much, is including the Cocos (Keeling) Islands within the Northern Territory for referendum purposes, without any consultation. We say that there should be consultation with the occupants of the islands as to whether that is their wish. It may be that rather it is their wish to be incorporated for electoral purposes within the Australian Capital Territory. Some would argue that that would be more appropriate, being the base for the Minister who has responsibility for the Territories. It may be that it would be more appropriate that they be associated with Western Australia, with which they have had close links for a long time- links of communication and links through families that have moved and now live in Western Australia. It may well be that that would be the preferable choice. If that is their choice it should be respected notwithstanding that it may provide some complications with regard to the need for a referendum to that effect. The Cocos (Keeling) Islands Self-Determination (Consequential Amendments ) Bill 1984 is being dealt with separately. It deals with the general election consequences of those from the islands whereas the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Bill 1984 also incorporates the integration system for the purposes of a referendum. That is why I raised the matter when we are discussing the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Bill. Tomorrow, when we get to the Cocos ( Keeling) Islands Bill, the debate will have to be revived to deal with electoral issues. I will be moving amendments in both those areas in the Committee stage of the debate; otherwise the Opposition will not oppose this Bill.