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Wednesday, 5 December 1973
Page: 4306

Mr MCMAHON (Lowe) - Rightly, the Prime Minister (Mr Whitlam) has confined his remarks to one clause of the Bill, clause 2 (c), which proposes that section 128 of the Australian Constitution should be altered in order to make it easier for a constitutional change to be brought about in the manner set out in proposed new section 128 of the Constitution. Regrettably, the Prime Minister failed to mention the fact that, when the Bill was first debated here and later in the Senate, the Opposition requested that the title of the Bill should be amended in order to make clear the purpose of the legislation.

Mr Whitlam - The long title.

Mr MCMAHON - Well, the title. The title, in fact, is very short. If the Prime Minister wishes to call it the 'long title', let him use that phrase. But title is good enough because it is the title of the Bill. I do not think that an adjective needs to be attached to it. In any event, the Prime Minister did not touch on the question of the title or the long title of the Bill. In a few moments I shall explain the reasons why the Opposition believes that the title does not accurately set out the thrust and tenor of the Bill itself, why it is capable of deceiving people - it is capable of deception - and why the amendment that the Opposition proposed here and which the Senate carried should be accepted. In other words, it is our strong belief, fortified by everything that we have heard since 21 November, that the 2 amendments proposed by the Opposition here and carried in the Senate should stand. Consequently, we should agree to the amendments that have been made, after most mature and careful consideration, by the Senate.

The Prime Minister stated that one of the two critical changes that we seek to achieve relates to clause 2 (c) of the Bill which provides for an easier method of altering the Constitution. It proposes that the words 'in a majority of the States' be omitted and the words 'in not less than one-half of the States' be substituted. In section 128 of the Constitution, as it now exists, is a requirement that before the appropriate papers can be placed before the Governor-General for his signature assenting to a referendum proposal on behalf of the Queen, there should be a majority of electors in all the States as well as a majority of electors in a majority of the States in support of that referendum proposal. The Government wishes to omit the words 'in a majority of the States' and put in their place 'in not less than one-half of the States'.

The sum total of these proposals is that as the Constitution stands a majority of 4 out of 6 States together with a majority of all the eligible electors will need to vote in favour of any proposed alteration to the Constitution. I have no doubt whatsover that if honourable members read the Constitution - particularly if they read the various debates that took place prior to the Constitution being accepted and, much more importantly, if they read Quick and Garran, the recognised authority on constitutional matters - they will find that there are various reasons why we should insist on the principle of a majority of people in a majority of States supporting a referendum.

We must accept that the Constitution is a deed of trust, or a compact between the States and the Commonwealth and between the people, the Commonwealth and the States. As it is a compact between the States and the Commonwealth the strongest precautions should be taken to ensure that changes are not made to the Constitution without proper consideration and thought by the people. This compact should truly reflect the fact that we live in a federal system of government and consequently that changes should not be made which would deprive the States of power and give it to the Commonwealth. Without at least a majority of people and a majority of people in a majority of the States supporting the proposals. That is the first point I make.

I believe there are good reasons for recommending that the Government should accept the amendments suggested by the Senate. While I believe that a Constitution such as ours must always be regarded as a document that is dynamic, alive and capable of being changed to meet the changing environment, changing economic and social circumstances, a changing culture, changes in our international status and relations and the growth of a greater national spirit, I do not believe that changes should be made to it unless such changes have received mature consideration by the Australian people. The people should not be rushed into making a hasty decision that they may regret when the consequences of their decision become apparent as a result of legislation that is passed by the Government that succeeds in getting a referendum passed.

The Opposition takes the view that the Government's proposals should not be agreed to. Adequate time was not available to debate this matter when it was first before this House. There has been such a rush of legislation that I have previously called it in the House a diarrhoea of legislation'. Few of the measures that have been introduced to the House have been either adequately prepared and publicised or well thought out by the Government. The Prime Minister's own attitude during the Committee stage was a clear indication that he was ill prepared to debate the matter. He obviously does not know very much about it because he had to read nearly every word he said.

Mr Uren - Rubbish!

Mr McMAHON - It was rubbish. What we heard from him was rubbish.

Mr Uren - You are being pompous.

Mr MCMAHON - You talk about pomposity! That is all you have. In any event, that is the first point I make. My second point relates to the title - or, as the Prime Minister chooses to call it, the long title - of the Bill. I do not think either description matters very much but the shorter title of the Bill is the one that appeals to me. The long title to the Bill describes this legislation as 'A Bill for an Act to facilitate alterations to the Constitution and to allow Electors in Territories, as well as Electors in the States, to vote at Referendums on Proposed Laws to alter the Constitution'. I do not believe that the words 'to facilitate alterations to the Constitution' adequately reflect the thrust and the intent of clause 2

There is one other critically important factor we must remember, namely, that the title of the Bill will, in fact, be put on the ballot papers or each section of the ballot paper, and it is that and that alone which the people will read. Therefore, if they read something that does not honestly reflect the thrust and substance of the referendum proposal, they could be misled, lt could be considered an act of deceit, and I do not believe that, willingly, the Prime Minister would want to be involved in an act of deceit of this kind when a matter as important as a referendum proposal is being considered. Therefore, we want acceptance of the original proposals made by the Opposition in this House. First, relating to the substance of the Bill, we want clause 2 (c) struck out and the words 'to facilitate alterations to the Constitution' removed from the title.

I wish to make one other point which, admittedly, is not associated with the amendments before the Committee. I want to emphasise, because the honourable member for the Northern Territory (Mr Calder) is present, that there is one other part of the Bill of which we strongly approve and which we would like to see go through at a referendum. We want to give a vote to the people of the Northern Territory.

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