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Friday, 24 August 1984
Page: 349

Senator DURACK(11.31) —Mr President, those of us who have concerns about suspending the Standing Orders and those of us who might be happy to suspend the Standing Orders for 21 days or some other period are placed in rather a difficult position. No particular urgency has been established in regard to the passage of these constitutional alteration Bills. The Government has been talking, since it was elected, about Bills to alter the Constitution and, as I pointed out when I spoke in the second reading debate on this Bill, the Government announced at the end of April 1983, in the very middle of the Constitutional Convention, its intention to hold in August 1983 referendums in relation to fixed term parliaments and the interchange of powers, amongst other things. Bills to that effect were introduced into the Senate in May 1983. Before they were disposed of, the referendums set down for 20 August were postponed during the winter recess last year.

Subsequently the Government announced-I cannot remember exactly when it did so- that it was abandoning the fixed term parliaments proposal and substituting a package of proposals for the four-year term, simultaneous elections and other proposals introduced in May. That package of proposals was passed by the Senate and the Government announced that it would be holding a referendum on those matters in February of this year. Towards the end of last year or early this year the Government announced that it was abandoning those referendum proposals. From the date of that announcement until the middle of April this year we could not ascertain the Government's intentions on the subject of constitutional reform. We asked questions of the Attorney-General (Senator Gareth Evans) and could not get the answers from him.

Then in the middle of April this year the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke), when performing some social purpose, told us that there was going to be a proposal for a referendum on simultaneous elections-and nothing else. This created quite a flutter. I remember that it resulted in my being woken early the next morning by the Press wanting to know what we thought about it. At least I was grateful that the Prime Minister had answered a question on the subject on which we have been unable to get an answer from the Attorney-General, who was strangely silent . The only other subject on which he is strangely silent is the contents of the proposed Bill of Rights. The only two subjects he was ever silent on were the two centrepieces of his election policy-constitutional reform and the proposed Bill of Rights. Despite the Prime Minister's statement, he would not even tell the Press that day what the proposals were. We could not get any further information from him until towards the end of the autumn sittings when he introduced this Bill and the interchange of powers Bill. We have been debating those Bills and at this stage have voted only on the simultaneous elections proposal.

Now we are told that the Standing Orders of the Senate which require a call of the Senate should not be proceeded with because of the urgency of these proposals. Mr President, I hope you will enlighten me but, as I understand your ruling, if the motion for the suspension of the Standing Orders is passed there will be an order for a call of the Senate forthwith so that no motion for an order for that call of the Senate will be moved. I do not quite follow how that happens, but at all events we are in your hands, Mr President, as to the procedures. If this motion to suspend Standing Orders is now passed, an immediate call of the Senate will be made without any further motion. I am debating on the basis that that is the case. The Opposition's view is that there is simply no justification whatever for suspending the standing orders requiring a call of the Senate. There are ample precedents for a call of the Senate. There are also admittedly precedents for a call of the Senate to be taken forthwith.

Senator Gareth Evans —You moved them all yourself.

Senator DURACK —We have also opposed them. I have been here a little longer than the Attorney-General and I can remember very clearly that we opposed the suspension of the standing orders for a call of the Senate in 1974. The Attorney -General is apparently suggesting that decisions of the Senate should always be made by blindly following what has been done on previous occasions.

Senator Gareth Evans —In accordance with some principle; it helps.

Senator DURACK —No judgment should be exercised by the Senate, according to the Attorney-General, in relation to why there should be a suspension of Standing Orders. All he says is: 'This has been done in the past. We will do it today'.

Senator Gareth Evans —You did it when you were in government.

Senator DURACK —Of course it has been done in the past, but there was good reason. We never did anything in government without good reason. The Attorney- General is proposing to suspend Standing Orders without good reason. He has not advanced any reasons, except that it has been done before. That is not a reason. It is a precedent and a justification perhaps for doing it, if there are good reasons to do it. But there are no good reasons. There are also precedents for a call of the Senate-as recently as 1974 and on many other occasions. As no reasons have been advanced by the Attorney-General why Standing Orders should be suspended-there obviously are no good reasons for them to be suspended-and as there is certainly no urgency about this matter judging from the pathetic history of constitutional change in one form or another that the Attorney- General has been floundering around with since the Government came to office, the Opposition will oppose this motion.