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Thursday, 23 August 1984
Page: 234

Senator GARETH EVANS (Attorney-General)(11.05) —The Opposition's position on this matter can only be described as one of sheer hypocrisy and bloodymindedness. What the Opposition is really saying by its latest turnaround on the issue of referendums in general and the simultaneous elections proposal in particular it seems is that it will only support a referendum proposal if it can initiate it. The facts in this respect speak amply for themselves. The Opposition parties opposed simultaneous elections when they were in Opposition in 1974, but when they were in Government in 1977 they put the proposition forward as their very own proposal. They vacillated-(Quorum formed)

I am indebted to the Opposition for creating an audience for me to explain yet again the bloodymindedness and hyprocrisy of the Opposition's approach to this referendum question. I repeat that the Opposition parties opposed the simultaneous election proposal in 1974, put it forward when they were in Government in 1977, vacillated all through 1983, opposing it at the Adelaide Constitutional Convention but finally deciding to support it in Parliament at the end of last year, and now, once again, the wheel turns full circle and, back in Opposition, they oppose it again. One is reminded in this respect of the Opposition's performance at the Adelaide Constitutional Convention when Senator Durack ditched his own proposal for family law reform. His justification for the current turnaround is quite transparently opportunistic. We are told first that simultaneous elections should be combined with a four-year term, that interchange of powers is too unimportant to support, but he then seeks to transfer the opposition's cynicism to the Government. The whole thing just totally lacks credibility. In the course of the debate it was advanced by Senator Durack that the simultaneous elections proposal was acceptable when it was contained in the package of five proposals, including the four-year terms, but on its own it is now not acceptable. This, with respect, is just nonsensical . The four-year terms proposal, although it would undoubtedly reduce the number of elections, did not, of course, guarantee that the Prime Minister would not go to the polls early. The fact that that proposal is not included in the present package does not change matters at all. There is not the slightest validity in the argument that the former package of five proposals in some way provided some restraint on the Prime Minister's right to call an early election, but that the simultaneous elections proposal when it is put by itself removes that constraint .

The difficulty that I and the Government have had in proceeding with the concept of fixed term parliaments, which we still very much support in principle , is that this has proved to be a concept that has not won strong cross-party support. It is not yet a concept that can be said to be fully understood by the electorate in the way that is clearly the case with the simple simultaneous elections proposal which has now been before the electorate twice. The real reason for members of the Opposition opposing this now is the forlorn hope that they can gain some kind of political mileage out of arguing against it during an election campaign in which they have no other discernible policies to win them any kind of support.

We are confronting now, with this performance over the last two days, the Opposition's fourth conversion in the last decade on the subject of simultaneous elections. If there was ever any principle involved in their calculations one would expect either a closely reasoned argument to be advanced or at least some sort of convincing or resounding declaration of faith. In fact, we have had neither in this instance. At least the position advanced by the Australian Democrats through Senator Macklin and Senator Jack Evans and also supported in this instance by Senator Hill had some credibility about it from a principled point of view, to the extent that the Democrats' position was one of opposition to simultaneous elections unless combined with the concept of fixed term parliaments. Against that background of both unfamiliarity by the electorate and a lack of cross-party support, it cannot realistically be supposed that that proposal would win support at a referendum. It is for that very practical reason that the Government has decided to take things a step at a time-to put in place a system of simultaneous elections and to keep, as a possibility for the future, should the mood, the atmosphere and the political climate change, the possibility of moving towards fixed term parliaments. Certainly, if support for fixed terms grows over time in the way that developments recently in Victoria and South Australia suggest that it might well do, that matter will be something that will be reconsidered by the Government.

It does not make sense, as is proposed in the second reading amendment motion from the Democrats, to put two separate proposals to the electorate concurrently , one a simple simultaneous elections proposal of the kind now before us and the other a more complex fixed term proposal, because they would be mutually inconsistent rather than cumulative in the way in which they would operate if passed, and create all sorts of difficulties for the conduct of the referendum ballot accordingly. This is a difficulty we have had to face before with alternative proposals being mooted on the same subject matter to be put before the electorate at the one time. Simply, the proposition that is being sought to be advanced by the Democrats in their second reading amendment does not work and cannot be made to work, I do believe, whatever justification for it might be thought to exist in principle.

One unhappy thing I notice missing from the contribution of the Democrats to this debate-one is not surprised that it is missing from the contribution of the Opposition-is the fact that support for simultaneous elections was very strongly given at sessions of the Australian Constitutional Convention, most recently and most particularly in Adelaide last year. There was a strong measure of cross- party support and cross-Government and Opposition support at that Convention for the concept of simultaneous elections. If we want to ascribe any weight or significance to that continuing process of constitutional reform carried out in that forum we should, I believe, give some weight or, if we will not give weight , at least acknowledgment, to that fact.

I come back to the sheer transparent hypocrisy of the Opposition on this issue which reaches right into all the various arguments that have been advanced against this proposal in the course of this debate. I think the best way of demonstrating that hypocrisy is to quote back at the Opposition remarks that have been made by senior Opposition spokesmen on this issue over recent years. First of all, on the question of whether a referendum should be held in conjunction with an election at all, we are now being told by Senator Durack that the Government should put the proposals separately from the election. When the previous referendum package was before the Parliament, however, we had some Opposition members arguing that the referendum proposals should be put in conjunction with the election. For example, we had Mr Anthony saying on 20 October last year in the other place:

There is no urgency about any of these Bills. The referendum could be held when the next Federal election takes place or, probably more appropriately, with the half Senate election that will take place some time before July 1985.

On that same question of the timing of these things in conjunction with elections, I think it should also be said and put on the record that referendum proposals are very commonly being put at the same time as elections and there is nothing remotely unique or innovative about the proposal to do so on this occasion. One of the most notably successful examples of this was the social services referendum held in conjunction with the 1946 election. There are significant cost savings to be made in combining referendums with elections, of a kind that the Opposition has normally in other times been keen to press upon us. It is not giving the electorate credit to suggest that people will not be able to separate referendum matters out from electorate matters. It is a purely opportunistic, transparently cynical argument that has been advanced in this respect by Senator Durack on this occasion.

Let me take another matter that has been the subject of debate. This is the question about supposedly giving the Prime Minister power, by virtue of this simultaneous elections proposal, over the Senate which he does not now have. In 1983 Mr Anthony very effectively scotched this argument by pointing out that a Prime Minister can already create the circumstances for a double dissolution and by so doing call out the whole of the Senate. He said that again on 20 October in the House of Representatives. In 1977 Mr Sinclair went further. He argued that the simultaneous elections proposal would ensure not that the powers of the Senate would be reduced in any way but that they would be enhanced. That was the proposition he stated on 17 February as recorded on page 204 of the relevant Hansard, the argument there being based, I think quite correctly for once from Mr Sinclair, on the greater accountability that it would provide for the Senate. We also had in 1977 Senator Durack on the same subject, as recorded on page 195 of the Senate Hansard for 17 February of that year, saying:

Apart from the benefits of public convenience and savings on expenditure the proposal will benefit the Parliament. By ensuring that the people's will is reflected simultaneously in both Houses, it will provide a more satisfactory electoral basis upon which the government of the country can proceed.

Then again the same Senator Durack, who was waxing indignantly lyrical in opposition to this measure here yesterday said on 12 October 1983, as recorded on page 1431 of the Senate Hansard:

The Opposition acknowledges that a real problem has existed in Australia for the last 20 years and, in particular, since an early election was held for the House of Representatives in 1963. As a result of more frequent double dissolutions that have occurred in 1974, 1975 and, more recently, in early 1983, the two Houses have got out of phase. There has been and there now is a potential for them to be well and truly out of phase again because, after a double dissolution, half Senate, the short term senators, may well have to face the electorate well before the expiration of the existing three-year term of the House of Representatives.

That was out of the mouth, as I have said, of Senator Durack just a few short months ago. We have had constantly asserted on that same general theme the argument-Senator Crichton-Browne put it vigorously, as did Senator Hill-that simultaneous elections may lead to more, not fewer, elections because without the restraint of half Senate elections occurring at three-yearly intervals, it is said, a Prime Minister again can call an election whenever he wants to. As to this, let me say that the record since the 1960s shows the reverse of this to be the case. On a number of occasions since then an early House of Representatives election has been called because without such an early election the people would have been faced with the huge expense and inconvenience of a half Senate election followed shortly after by a House of Representatives election. In other words, history shows that the trigger for early House of Representatives elections has commonly been the prospect of facing the country with a separate half Senate election, just as it is the case why we have to have an early election on this occasion. Separate half Senate elections are a burden on the people. They cost a great deal of money and they do not bring about changes in the government. For that reason they ought to be avoided at all costs. We ought not to have a repetition of the nonsense that has plagued this country's electoral system for the last decade or more.

Let me go on to say something quickly about the interchange of powers proposal in respect of which again we have had some breathtakingly cynical arguments advanced by Senator Durack and others in the last two days. We are told by Senator Durack that on the one hand the interchange of powers proposal is unimportant and on the other hand the real reason for putting it forward is so that the States will be empowered to levy excise duties. As to the latter bit, coming from an avowed federalist as Senator Durack is supposed to be, it seems to me just a little bit rich to cast the criticism in those terms, particularly when one also recalls that the Australian Constitutional Convention has a sub- committee on the fiscal powers question, on which the Opposition is vigorously represented by one of its front bench members, which committee has, with the endorsement of that Opposition spokesman, actually gone so far as to recommend a constitutional alteration quite explicitly to allow the States to levy excise duties.

The Government's view, on the other hand, has been that the advantage of the interchange proposal now before us is that that provides a framework for flexible negotiation between the Commonwealth and the States, the Commonwealth, of course, having a quite legitimate interest in the national interest in ensuring that any State taxes do not damage in that sense the national interest.

The real point to make about the interchange of powers proposal is that it is not just some exotic piece of technical law designed, as Senator Durack said on one occasion, adopting his grovelling populist mode, to be of benefit only to the politicians and not to the people. In that respect, I dismiss for present purposes the crudeness of the argument but simply say that that statement is not true either. The real and most immediate utility for the interchange of powers proposal, if it can be put on the statute books, is in the area of family law and industrial relations which has created notorious difficulties because of the inability of the Federal and State constitutional constraints to enable rational legislative solutions to problems that, by their very nature, are national in character and are not capable of being divided into Federal and State boxes and are not capable of a national solution because of the present limitations on Federal and State power respectively. That is one classic area in which the kind of machinery provision which we are proposing here will not be merely of an abstract or esoteric benefit to those whose business it is to analyse the Constitution. The provision is likely to promote very real and immediate benefits to the people of Australia generally. I shall conclude by making some reference to the pious invocation of principle that we heard from the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Peacock) on 20 October 1983 in the other place. About the last package of constitutional referendum proposals debated by the Parliament he said:

All the proposals are useful; indeed, some are very necessary. If carried, the changes will help to ensure that the Constitution is modern and relevant to Australia's needs, or more modern and more relevant to those needs. This ought to be an objective shared by both sides of the Parliament.

That was Mr Peacock in 1983; it is now 1984, and he and the Opposition are, as I said, adopting a stance of opposition, in the case of the interchange of powers, to something they have supported, along with every State government and, for that matter, State Opposition during the 10 years going back to 1983. They are opposing this proposal, and they have changed their minds for the fourth time in 10 years on the subject of simultaneous elections. Once again, they have moved to a stance of outright opposition.

It is the case, because of the procedures of section 128 of the present Constitution, that oppositions share a responsibility with governments to ensure that the Constitution is kept under review and is able to be changed when change is demanded, when sane and rational considerations demand that that be so. What is at stake here is not the Government's but the Opposition's good faith. What is at stake in this referendum campaign that is looming is not the reputation of the Government but the reputation of the Opposition. This week we are seeing in the Opposition's response to this legislation in the Parliament the same sort of crude, destructive, negative approach to constitutional reform that was so visible in its performance under Mr Peacock at the Adelaide convention in 1983 where what was sought was the short term political advantage, the quick headline , the crude grab at whatever media interest was passing by rather than any kind of thoughtful, constructive, rational approach to changing and reforming the difficulties of the Constitution that have beset this country ever since Federation. To respond in that way to these kinds of issues does not win respect or credibility. Mr Peacock and his Party will find that when this matter is taken to the people. When they campaign in the way that has been foreshadowed by their contributions in Parliament they will not win any respect from nor gain any credibility in the community at large. The community at large will appreciate, as it does already, that these are moderate and sensible proposals.

Senator Martin —They haven't in the past.

Senator GARETH EVANS —The community has demonstrated that fact. At the most recent opportunity to test their feelings, 62 per cent of the community nationally showed that attitude. I am confident that, notwithstanding the bloodymindedness, cynicism, opportunism and hypocrisy of the Opposition's approach on this occasion, these referendum proposals not only will be put to the people but will succeed.