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Thursday, 7 June 1984
Page: 2737

Senator WALTERS(12.03) —As usual, a little power has gone to the head of the Attorney-General (Senator Gareth Evans). He would absolutely wipe democracy out of the Senate. What he just said is that, if less than 5 per cent of senators vote against the Government's proposed referendum, the people of Australia should be denied any knowledge of the No case being put.

Senator Gareth Evans —Rubbish. There is $2.5m that will still go to that eccentric minority to present its No case.

Senator WALTERS —Now that less than 5 per cent of senators is called an eccentric minority because those people do not agree with what the Attorney considers appropriate. They get the normal funding. I asked the Attorney by way of interjection whether he said that they would not get any funding and he replied: 'Yes, that is right'. So I presume what he is now saying is that they would get the ordinary equal funding by the Commonwealth Electoral Commission. Is that right?

Senator Gareth Evans —Yes, of course. I have been talking about promotional funding over and above that.

Senator WALTERS —Fine. We will have a letterbox drop of all voters with the Yes- No cases. Then we will have a saturation of television and media promotion by the Government. There will be no more money spent on the No case if that eccentric minority of less than five senators dares to vote against the proposal put by the government of the day. I believe that every senator is equal; that is what democracy is all about. But that eccentric 5 per cent, according to the Attorney, is not equal. They have no right to have additional money to put their case to the people of Australia. That to me seems a most undemocratic situation. The Attorney talks about a significant minority and a non-significant minority.

The Attorney made it very clear how he feels about a democracy when last year he slid in the expenditure of public money for the Yes case only; he slid in that extra amount. Honourable senators may recall that at that time I asked the Attorney why he had not made this disclosure that money had been set aside by the Government before the appropriations were passed. Why did the Government hide it in the slush fund of the Minister for Finance? Why did the Government not come clean and say that the money available for the referendum to be held was itemised in those appropriations? His comment at that time, as recorded in Hansard, was: 'You did not ask. I would have told you if you had'. That sort of statement comes from the Attorney-General. He talks of freedom of information, open government and honesty within government. He can call it anything he likes. I am hunting to find the most parliamentary word I can use to describe the Attorney's method of hiding, not only from this chamber but also from the people , the intention of the Government. He just sprang it on us and hoped that it would not be noticed. That was not the only case. He also changed the voting paper. No previous decision had been made about that. It was not debated in this place but he did not even have the decency to put the regulations down. It had to be leaked to us that this was the sort of thing he was up to.

The Attorney ignores completely the Constitution, which makes it very clear that not just a majority of voters, but also a majority of States, have to pass any referendum. Of course, in his inimitable fashion, he says that the No case wins only because of the strident opposition from the strident vocal minority and that for some reason that strident minority wins. He says he cannot quite understand it because, of course, the Yes case is reasoned debate. He says that the No case is supported by a strident minority but the Yes case is reasoned debate. It depends on whether one believes in the Constitution. The Constitution does not state that the minority wins only because of a strident opposition. It states indeed that the majority of Australian voters do not necessarily win a referendum; it has also to be agreed to by a majority of States. I believe that is the most important aspect that we should be looking at. I think the Attorney forgets that when we became a unified nation the various States only entered Federation because of the reasoning behind referendums.

As has already been said, the Australian Labor Party caucuses its members. They have never had an opportunity to vote on a referendum as their consciences tell them. They are caucused and they must vote the way they are told to. We on this side of the chamber are not caucused. We can vote according to our consciences and indeed we do. In the past we have differed from our Party. A small group of senators from this side of the chamber has been able to convince the Australian population of the error of an affirmative decision on simultaneous elections particularly, and that that would be the worst way that voting could possibly go .

Senator Robert Ray —You will force us to an early poll this year.

Senator WALTERS —This irritates the Attorney and I see it also irritates Senator Robert Ray very much indeed. They do not like the fact that our Party is able to make a free choice. Now they want to be able to overcome the Liberal Party philosophy of enabling its senators a freedom of choice when voting by saying: ' Well, your Party can allow you a freedom of choice to vote, but we will not allow you an equal amount of money to put your views to the people. If your Party cannot caucus you, we will try to take a hand and we will make sure that your views are not put across to the public in an equal fashion'. This is exactly what the Attorney is doing at the moment. I am glad to see that the Australian Democrats will also not have a bar of the proposal. There are other areas on which no doubt I will have a few words to say, but that is all I have to say at the moment.