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Wednesday, 3 May 1961

Mr FREETH (Forrest) (Minister for the Interior) . - Mr. Chairman, we heard a great deal of discussion about this proposal at the second-reading stage this afternoon, and I do not propose to deal with it now at very great length. I point out that one of the reasons for this amendment adduced by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Whitlam) is a fear of gerrymandering. I do not know that the danger of gerrymandering will be reduced by multiplying the number of redistributions, because a greater number of redistributions will be the inevitable result of a reduction, in the way proposed, of the flexibility permitted to distribution commissioners. The present method of distributing electoral boundaries provided for in the principal act is, I think, one of the fairest that has been devised. We very rarely hear sustained with any great argument or heat a suggestion 'that there has been a gerrymander in the true sense of the word. Electoral boundaries are determined by distribution commissioners in each State, and their methods of procedure are defined in such a way as to leave it fairly clearly understood that they are the people who make the positive proposals. Objections to their proposals may be made, and can be heard, but in the ultimate the commissioners are the people who determine the electoral boundaries.

Mr Curtin - Who appoints the .distribution commissioners?

Mr FREETH - Those are fairly stock appointments. The Surveyor-General and the Commonwealth Electoral Officer for the State and an independent person are almost automatically chosen.

Mr Whitlam - That is a matter of practice, not of statute.

Mr FREETH - That is quite true: It is a matter of practice. It has become part of our pattern, and all three major political parties accept the fact that there has never been - at least, there has never been, so far as 1 am aware - any serious allegation of improper practice 'in the -fixing of electoral boundaries.

Mr Curtin - Oh, no! I say now that there are improper practices. I put that on record.

Mr FREETH - The honorable member says a lot of things, tout he produces no evidence to support his statements.

The Distribution Commissioners have ito consider a number of factors in the determination of electoral boundaries, Mr. Chairman. They are enjoined by the act to consider community or diversity of interest, means of communication, physical features, existing boundaries of divisions and subdivisions, and State electoral boundaries. We know from the reports that they make in conjunction with their proposals that they do take into account population movements and the trends in any particular division. To reduce the flexibility of the limits within which the number of electors in a division may be fixed would simply be to reduce the degree of account that the Distribution Commissioners can give to the other matters of which they are enjoined to take notice. That would -be one inevitable consequence of this amendment.

The Surveyors-General of the States were called before the Constitutional Review Committee and asked to give their views a'bout this proposal. Almost without exception, their attitude towards it was quite lukewarm. I think it would be fair to summarize the views of the New South Wales Surveyor-General in these terms: He thought that a margin of either 5 per cent, or 10 per cent, would not be practicable, but 'that a margin of 7i per cent, would be practicable, subject to a proviso that where the elector population density of any division is less than one-tenth of the average elector population density of the State, the margin may be increased, but it should not be in excess of 15 per cent. He wanted a different formula. The Victorian SurveyorGeneral said that there would be no insuperable difficulty in fixing a margin of one-tenth more or less, but that a margin of one-twentieth would be impracticable. He was not very keen about the proposal. The Queensland Surveyor-General saw no practical difficulty in coastal and city divisions, but said that the proposal was impracticable in respect of large western divisions which, even with a one-fifth margin, must take in coastal areas. He considered that there would be nothing to be gained but much to be lost in flexibility by any alteration of the existing margin. The South Australian "Surveyor-General -considered that restriction of the marginal allowance of one-tenth would be undesirable and that it certainly should not be reduced to onetwentieth. Except in some .State -divisions, narrow margins would quickly throw redistribution out of balance, wreck stability and necessitate frequent redistributions. So the story goes on. The Tasmanian Surveyor-General stated that practical difficulties exist where there is a natural boundary.

All the other aspects which Distribution Commissioners are asked to take into account in fixing electoral boundaries are made much more difficult to take into account if we reduce the flexibility of the limits within which the number of electors in a division may be fixed. That is one very great difficulty, especially, as I have already pointed out, in the situation that we now have in Australia, with a large migrant intake and a trend away from the inner suburban areas of the large cities to the outer suburbs. I agree with the Deputy Leader of the Opposition that all these things make the character of electorates change quickly enough. If the distribution commissioners have not sufficient flexibility in the margins to enable them to take into account all these trends when they first fix the boundaries, electorates will get out of balance far more quickly. With margins less than those specified now, electorates inevitably would get out of balance much more quickly than now, even with frequent distributions. We had a redistribution in 1955 - six years ago. In some parts of Australia, a redistribution is needed now, and we shall certainly need a complete redistribution immediately after the next census, which will be taken at the end of June next. We shall find that we have to have a redistribution within seven years at the outside after the last one. An interval of seven years between redistributions is not excessive. Indeed, it is fairly reasonable. If we are to have redistributions at intervals only half as great as that, or even more frequently, the voters of this country will be confused, and I do not think that that would be desirable.

The views expressed by the Constitutional Review Committee extended, I may say. also to a lot of other matters in respect of which provisions are not being written into the electoral laws or the Australian Constitution.

Mr Bird - None of the views expressed bv that committee is being given effect in the law.

Mr FREETH - That is right; none of them is being given effect at the present time. The Opposition's amendment might be worth closer consideration in association with all those other matters, but that is not practicable at the present time. Therefore, the Government cannot accept the amendment.

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