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Wednesday, 21 November 1973
Page: 3624

Mr SINCLAIR (New England) - It was of concern to me that the Prime Minister (Mr Whitlam) should introduce into this Parliament a number of significant Bills to initiate referendums to change the Constitution at a time when local government authorities, State governments and the Federal Government are meeting together in a constitutional review convention. Irrespective of the merits of each one of the Bills that have been submitted to us, it is important that the constitutional review convention be allowed and be seen to perform the charge which has been given to it. It is a unique convention; it is a unique gathering, in that for the first time in a meeting of this sort there are representatives not only of Federal and State governments but also of that important third tier of government. Because it is a unique gathering, I regard it as most unfortunate that Bills of this character, including the one before the House, are being initiated by the Prime Minister at this time.

The second point which concerns me relates to the several referenda Bills. I suspect that the motivation of the Prime Minister and of the Government is not simply to achieve the changes that are expressed in the respective Bills just for the sake of the particular format to which each one refers. We have dealt with several in this chamber and the one before us today changes significantly the way in which a referendum is in fact passed through eliminating the necessity for it to be successful in a majority of States and also enables persons in the Territories of Australia to vote in referenda. It is not on those merits that this Bill or the other ones are being put forward. I believe that each one of them is a direct and overt expression of this Labor Government's intention to divert more power to Canberra. Whether it be on 8 December when the people of Australia are considering a referendum on another matter or whether it be on another occasion when they consider the referendum which will flow from the Bill that is now before the chamber, the people of Australia must be conscious that each one of these measures is not presented just for the overt change of the Constitution in the way that the Bills suggest but rather in a covert fashion to ensure that additional powers can be exercised in Canberra. I suggest that through the exercise of those powers, the powers of the State governments and local governments will be eroded. Of course, in the implementation of the socialist platform of the Labor Government, the powers and rights of the individuals of this country will be eroded.

My third reason for concern with this Bill is the basis on which section 128 of the Constitution is to ki altered. I am apprehensive that in the ambit of the Parliament alone we should be recommending the submission to the electorate of a referendum to delete the necessity for a majority of the States to approve the passage of a referendum. I see that there is still a very real significance in State governments in Australia. If those States, particularly the smaller States, are to be given an opportunity to grow and prosper there needs to be some proceeding by which there can be some relative equality between States such as Tasmania and the larger States, such as New South Wales, which are bigger in population as well as in geographic area. Although we are one nation and although, as the Prime Minister said in bis second reading speech, this Bill, perhaps more than any other of the referenda Bills, seeks to achieve the concept of one nation, it is certainly true that there are variances between States in size, pressures, economic circumstances and social opportunities. As a result, I do not believe that it is suitable for us within this chamber alone to introduce a referendum to change this part of section 128.

I mentioned before my belief that if this Bill were to come forward it would have been better had it emanated or evolved from the discussions at the Australian Constitutional Review Convention. There is no justification for us in this Parliament to say arbitrarily to the States: 'We will no longer give you as States the opportunity through the application of section 128 of the Constitution to have a separate right in determining whether the Constitution should be changed'. Let me hasten to say that this Parliament must be - of course, under the Constitution it can be only through this Parliament - the organism through which a referendum can be referred to the people. But that does not mean that, when a constitutional review convention is meeting and when the States are the principal participants in that convention, they should not have been given the first opportunity to say whether they really believed that this sort of change was in their interests. Our taking an arbitrary judgment here over and above anything that the States want is likely to ensure that this particular measure is rejected by the people of Australia.

In terms of the intrinsic merit of the proposal, again I have some doubts. I am uncertain as to whether it is desirable, for the reason I mentioned before - the difference between the big States and the small States - to remove the requirement that there should be a majority of States as well as a majority of electors approving a referendum. The character of our Constitution is such that it has stood the test of time. For all that there have been minimal changes - the five mentioned by the Prime Minister to which the people have acceded - it is a Constitution which has been changed indirectly as much as directly. Those who follow the decisions of the High Court - in particular the recent decision in the concrete pipes case - will know the extent to which the application of the Constitution and the relative powers between Canberra and the several States have changed both as a result of those decisions by the

Court and also by the exercise of the taxation power by this Parliament. As a result the Constitution has changed quite significantly. I query the degree to which in this particular area there is a need for us specifically to change the Constitution to make constitutional change easier simply by the removal of the requirement that a majority of States should support the referendum.

The other thing that concerns me is the degree to which at this stage people within the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory are denied the opportunity to speak on a constitutional matter. I support wholeheartedly the part of the Bill which deals with that matter. The honourable member for the Northern Territory (Mr Calder), who has already spoken in this debate, has since his election to this chamber expressed his concern that the same opportunities should be provided for Territorians, whether they be in the north or here in the Australian Capital Territory, to express a view on matters that affect all other Australian citizens, for those that affect all other Australian citizens must equally affect them because they too are Australian citizens. Of course there are particular problems in the constitutional relationship between the citizen of a Territory and the citizen of a State. The particular relationship of the Government of the Commonwealth to the individual Territorian is different from its relationship to every other Australian citizen. I do not see that there is any validity any longer in our preserving a circumstance whereby those who are qualified electors in the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory are denied the opportunity to speak on referenda referred to other Australian citizens. Accordingly, the Australian Country Party completely supports that part of the Bill which ensures that there will be a vote for electors within the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory at referenda which will subsequently be submitted to the Australian people.

The other item within the Bill is largely a procedural matter and therefore I have no disagreement with it. But let me revert finally to that part of the Bill which concerns me most - that is, the degree to which at a time when the States, local government and the Commonwealth are meeting together, the Prime Minister should have initiated measures of this sort. I believe that it reflects little credit on him and his Government that he has not been prepared to participate within that Constitutional Convention in a meaningful way. Participation does not mean just attending the sessions of the conference; nor does it mean just standing up at those sessions and expressing the intentions of his Government. It means taking part in such a way that any recommendations and submissions from the Convention are considered by this Parliament, and Bills prepared and ultimately proposals put to the people if that should be the decision of this Parliament. This Bill, perhaps more than any of the others, demonstrates that the Prime Minister is not particularly concerned with the Convention; nor, indeed, would I suggest that he is really concerned with constitutional change, other than the extent to which it is going to enhance the powers which he and his colleagues will exercise. I believe that the Australian people need to take note of the degree to which that is the significant motivation which leads the Government to present this Bill to the House at this time, rather than any genuine concern about making constitutional change simpler and easier.

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