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Wednesday, 21 November 1973
Page: 3610

Mr DALY (Grayndler) (Minister for Services and Property) - Over the years, the demands of the Australian people to update their ageing Constitution have been frustrated by the over-rigid requirements which must be met before change can occur. Of 26 proposed amendments put .to the people since Federation only five have met these requirements. Those passed related to Senate elections - submitted in 1906; State debtssubmitted in 1910; again State debts - submitted in 1928; social services - submitted in 1947; and the more recent one concerning the counting of Aborigines in reckoning our population, which was submitted to the people in 1967.

We believe that .the existing provisions relating to the passage of a referendum, which require a majority of the electors voting in 4 of the 6 States, as well as an overall majority of the total voters of Australia, are too rigid - more rigid, indeed, .than could ever have been contemplated by the founding fathers. However, these provisions can clearly lead to anomalous results. It is possible, for example, for a referendum to be supported by a twothirds majority of the entire Australian electorate - a cleaT mandate - and yet fail to be passed because of the geographical distribution of these electors over this great continent. This proposed amendment, if approved by the people at the referendum, will mean that future amendments to the Constitution will require the approval of the majority of the voters in only 3 of the 6 States, in addition to the existing requirement of approval by a majority of the voters of Australia as a whole. The practical effect of this proposed change will be to bring the requirements closer to a simple majority than the present requirement, which in effect is a two-thirds majority of the States.

This is not a radical change. It will not of itself usher in a new era of easy altreation to the Constitution. In fact, had these provisions applied since federation only 2 additional referendums would have been carried. They are the organised marketing of primary products and the industrial employment referendums of 1946. These received an overall vote of 50.57 per cent and 50.3 per cent respectively but were supported in 3 States only, namely, New South Wales, Victoria and Western Australia. On only one occasion has a proposed amendment been approved by more than 50 per cent of the Australian electorate as a whole but carried in less than 3 States. That was in 1937 when the aviation referendum was not passed. It was carried in Victoria and Queensland only, yet it received the overall support of the Australian electorate - a 53.56 per cent vote in favour.

In 1900 the great constitutional authorities of the day Quick and Garran - I hope the honourable member for Moreton (Mr Killen) will see that my legal knowledge is improving - had this to say at page 993 of their book entitled 'Annotated Constitution of the Australian Commonwealth':

The preparation of a proposed amendment and its approval by an absolute majority of members in each House, or by an absolute majority of members twice in one House, is merely a preliminary act in the amending procedure. The principle element in the process is the submission of the proposal to the electors.

This is precisely what the Government proposes to do - that is, to let the electors determine whether they want to ease the rather rigid requirements which have hampered the updating of this 72-year old document.

The Joint Committee on Constitutional Review in 1958 and again in 1959 - as the Prime Minister (Mr Whitlam) stated - recognised the vital interest of the people in proposed Constitutional alterations. The Prime Minister outlined the views of this all-party Committee in his second reading speech, but I merely quote the first few lines:

If a clear majority of the electors who vote at a referendum are in favour of a proposed law, their will should not be frustrated because seperate majorities of electors have not been obtained in a majority of the States. It is, in the Committee's opinion, more in accord with democratic principle and the developments since Federation that it should be sufficient to obtain separate majorities in at least one half of the number of States.

This amendment is long overdue. It will bring the Constitution more into line with the social and political realities of this day and age.

The second purpose of this Bill is to give electors of the Australian Capital Territory, including Jervis Bay and the Northern Territory, the right to vote at constitution referendums. A survey of the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory population over the period 190M973 shows the changes that have taken place. I state them for the House. In 1901, the population in the Northern Territory was 4,81-1. The Australian Capital Territory, being in New South Wales at that time, no figures are available. On 30 June this year, the population in the Northern Territory totalled 95,600 and in the Australian Capital Territory 168,400, a grand total of 264,000. Projected populations for the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory indicate that by 1990 there will be 745,000 persons in the Australian Capital

Territory, and 275,000 persons in the Northern Territory, a total of 1,020,000. By the year 2000, there will be 1,300,000 persons in the Australian Capital Territory alone, if present population trends continue. These figures are provided by the National Capital Development Commission and the Department of the Northern Territory.

This fundamental growth and change indicates that in the future, unless this change is made, countless thousands of Australians will be denied their right to vote at the ballot box for changes in the Constitution. It is incredible that this Labor Government should have to take steps to remove the undemocratic, anomalous and unnecessary provision in the Constitution which denies this fundamental right at this date to 130,700 Australian voters. It should have been removed years ago. It would have been removed years ago but for the tardiness and indecision of previous governments, and that is a charitable view of their inactivity. This contempt of the political rights of the citizens of the Territories was seen again recently in the opposition to our attempts to obtain Senate representation for the people of these areas - the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory.

Surely, the Australian Country Party must support a referendum to ask the people to give a vote in referendums to all people of our mainland Territories - the Australian Capital Territory, including Jervis Bay, and the Northern Territory. The honourable member for the Northern Territory (Mr Calder) has a question on the notice paper and continues to make weird noises in support of this proposal. Of course, this does not mean that they will support the legislation because we have the example of their vote on the Territory senators legislation. In this House on the first occasion they voted with the Government in favour of it, and then their counterparts in another place voted to defeat the legislation. It was almost a Laurel and Hardy production. Of course, the honourable member for the Northern Territory was the leader of the band in this sham show of support.

Then, on the second occasion, the Country Party in this House and the honourable member for the Northern Territory again expressed support for the proposal - on the voices, mind you; they would not divide - but again rejected it in another place. This, of course, is sham fighting. The Country Party cannot have it both ways. It is a case of put up or shut up.

The Country Party and its Northern Territory member scream for more representation for country districts and in this House support legislation designed for this purpose. Then, in another place, by the ruthless use of numbers, the same Country Party rejects the proposal. They cannot have it both ways. Now they are being asked to let the people decide the issue, and I suggest that they give up their trapeze acts and vote in accordance with what they say are their established political principles. I am aware that Country Party Ministers did make representations on 2 occasions to the then Liberal-Country Party coalition Government in support of this proposal but, of course, their views went unheeded and they died on the vine in their earnest endeavours.

There are no sound reasons why the electors of these Territories should not have a voice in referendums, and there are good reasons why this right should be extended to them. The political rights of all Australians are diminished while some of our citizens are denied the right of fully participating in the governing of the nation. It would be an indictment of our democratic system of government to allow this discrimination to continue on the basis of geography.

The restriction of the right to vote in constitutional referendums to the citizens of the States is a consequence of the desire of the framers of our Constitution to protect the small States. But they could not have envisaged the growth that has taken place, and will continue to take place, in the Territories. Certainly, it would not have been their intention to disenfranchise at this date 130,700 Australian citizens and, in later years, thousands more. Again, we are reminded that Quick and Garran identified the qualified electors as the custodians of the delegated sovereignty of the Commonwealth.

Our proposal is that the votes of the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory electors be included in the national aggregate vote. This would not only mean that the referendum result would be more democratic, it would also give a better national reflection of the views of the Australian people. Further, it in no way infringes on the principle that the States have a separate interest to be protected with respect to constitutional change.

The present situation is not only undemocratic and archaic; it is also anomalous. Not all Constitutional referendums directly involve the interests of the States, or the powers oi State governments. Surely issues such as the rights of individuals, or the nature of parliamentary government, are of vital concern to all Australian citizens. What possible justification could there be for excluding residents in the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory from expressing an opinion on questions which affect them at least as much as other Australians? For many years, the citizens of the Territories have demanded this right to vote in referendums. Their claims were strongly put at the time of the last referendum in 1967 when clearly they felt very deeply, as did all Australians, about the rights of the Aboriginal people.

The citizens of the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory merely seek the same rights as other Australians. To a great many residents who come here from other States, it is a shock to learn that they are denied a basic democratic right, once they cross the artificial frontier. These electors do not seek any special political privilege. They have taxation commitments, defence responsibilities and other obligations similar to those enjoyed by the people of the States. They have the same interests in the working of the Australian Constitution as other Australian citizens. It is high time this anomalous discrimination perpetuated under Liberal-Country Party governments ended.

All this legislation does is to seek the approval of the Parliament to give the Australian people the right to say whether their fellow men and women in the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory, including Jervis Bay, shall have the right to exercise their vote in referendums. Surely no democrat can oppose this proposition. Surely no person who believes in democracy can be opposed to it. It should receive the support of all fair-minded citizens, and in view of that I commend the legislation to the House.

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