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Wednesday, 30 November 1983
Page: 3066

Senator GARETH EVANS (Attorney-General)(9.27) —Mr Acting Deputy President, I know it is a matter of great disappointment to all senators to have to turn our gaze away from this private war between Senators Jack Evans and Crichton-Browne and to refocus our attention on the Commonwealth Electoral Legislation Amendment Bill, but the time has now come to wind up this second reading debate. The Bill we have been debating is a huge, sprawling Bill of some 187 pages and 156 clauses, and the debate has reflected that character. So many arguments have been canvassed and swapped about in the course of the debate that it would be fruitless to try to pick them all up at this time. No doubt matters of detail can be addressed at the Committee stage. However, I do think it is appropriate to rebut briefly some of the wilder assertions contained in the second reading amendment which has come from the other side of the chamber. It is even more empty than the usual rhetorical flourishes to which we have become accustomed. The second reading amendment seeks to add words, including the following:

. . . the Senate . . . deplores those aspects of the legislation which attack individual freedoms . . .

The difficulty about that proposition is that the Opposition has not indicated in any systematic or even coherent way any aspects of the Bill which do attack individual freedoms. The basic individual freedom in a democracy is the right to vote and the whole thrust of the Bill is to extend and to protect the franchise and to make its exercise more effective.

The Bill contains provisions to enable people to vote who were previously disenfranchised. For example, it contains provisions relating to the enrolment of itinerants, to the protection of enrolment and thus voting entitlements of Australians overseas, to the special arrangements that are made for quadriplegic electors, to the voting facilities for Antarctic expeditioners and to mobile polling for electors in remote areas and hospitals. The Bill also makes provision to make the voting process easier-another thoroughly worthwhile democratic aspiration. For example, there are the provision for party affiliations to be put on ballot papers and the provisions to simplify voting at Senate elections.

The second reading amendment goes on from there to request the Government to withdraw four particular matters from the whole scope of the legislation, namely registration of political parties, the introduction of the list system of voting , the public funding of political parties and the disclosure of political donations. That is, I suppose, a pretty fair representation of what such opposition there has been to this Bill in the second reading debate has focused upon. The registration of political parties is, of course, being proposed for two basic purposes. It is not only being proposed because of its association with the requirements of the public funding system, party registration being the most efficient way to administer such a public funding scheme which provides payments to political parties, but also because party registration is a necessary incidence of any scheme providing that party affiliations go onto ballot papers. It is the most simple and efficient way to implement that proposal.

The party registration scheme includes provisions for registering party names and for verifying party endorsements. It will, therefore, avoid problems which could otherwise arise; for example, two candidates each claiming to be endorsed by a particular party, or two parties, each claiming the right to a particular name. Party registration is not the first instance of official recognition of political parties. I think that has been overlooked by many critics of this concept. The existing Commonwealth Electoral Act contains references to political parties and since 1977 political parties have even been recognised in the Constitution itself. There is nothing that follows so far as government or bureaucratic interference in the administration of political parties is concerned from the mere fact of their registration pursuant to these provisions.

The second matter which attracted indignation of those opposite and which was reflected in the second reading amendment was the introduction of the list system of voting. Far from threatening preferential voting, which seemed to be one incidental aspect of the attack here, the proposed system of ticket voting, however, preserved it since a voter by adopting a registered party ticket as his vote automatically ensured a full distribution of his preferences according to his party's wish. The Opposition might suppose, and this was suggested at odd points during the debate, that ticket voting distracts the voter's mind from the whole motion of allocating preferences. Yet, in reality, that is exactly what the average voter already does under current arrangements when he simply copies, and nearly everyone does, a how to vote ticket onto his ballot paper.

Informality and full preferential voting go hand in hand with many voters, especially when voting for the Senate, having their vote rendered informal as we all know by some innocuous and quite innocent mistake. By requesting that the voter need complete only a minimum number of squares should he choose in the case of the Senate not to use detailed count-out type voting, which is the essence of list voting, and by ensuring that his ballot paper remains in the count as long as his intention can be ascertained, the Bill seeks to make a vote count wherever possible and to reduce the informality rate. Therefore the Bill makes provision for all those sorts of contingencies that are likely to arise in practice without any detriment to the principles involved.

As to public funding and public disclosure, the arguments in essence I think can be summarised as follows: The key argument in favour of public funding, to repeat, is that it guarantees the integrity of the political system. Without it, governments might fall under the unhealthy influence of clandestine economic interests either local or overseas. This is most likely to happen if political parties have to rely on such interests to provide them with funds in the conduct of election campaigns. By permitting parties which enjoy the faith of the public to receive some public funds to cover campaign expenses, we spare them the temptation of accepting funds from sources which on account of the size of the donations in question might later expect or demand some preferential treatment from the parties they have helped.

It is not only the integrity of the system that is assisted in this way but also the fairness and equity with which it operates. Public funding does ensure that different parties offering themselves for election have a more equal opportunity to present their policies to the electorate. Without it, worthy parties and worthy candidates might simply be quite unable to afford the huge sums necessary to make their policies known. Public funding contributes in this way to the development of an informed electorate.

Senator Chaney —Like the No voters.

Senator GARETH EVANS —It lends vigour to the electoral process rather than detracts from it, as in the case of Senator Chaney who is slouching on his couch at the moment and jeering in his usual fashion. It re-inforces the centrality of parliamentary elections to our democratic system.

Finally, I think it can be said that public funding obviously contributes to equity by coping, or helping to cope, with the problem created by the mounting costs of political campaigning due to the increased use in particular of television as a medium of communication. It is worth noting, to scotch at least one other canard that reappears in this debate, that in the overseas countries in which schemes have been established to provide for public funding of parties and candidates the numerous problems that have been anticipated by its opponents simply have not been realised.

The other side of public funding is, of course, disclosure of political donations, and that is the last matter that gets a prominent mention in the second reading amendment now to be voted on. Public disclosure of donations, of course, informs the public about both the source and amount of finance raised and spent by respective parties and candidates seeking office or by others seeking to influence the result of the election. It highlights gross disparities . It helps to keep elections free from the taint of corruption. Donations which are contingent on the exercise of future influence are thus avoided. I believe, the Government believes and those on the other side who support this concept believe that public disclosure will restore very substantially public confidence in political parties and the party system. It is consistent with the whole approach that is increasingly quite properly being adopted on all sides of parliament to open government. It is a weapon against the promotion of sectional interests by governments. It is only political donations for Federal election purposes and not those for party maintenance purposes which are required to be disclosed. So it squarely relates to the operation of the political process.

That is an endeavour to canvass in less than 10 minutes the basic arguments which do run through this debate so far as the major issues are concerned. The matters contained in this Bill are major, worthwhile, long overdue reforms. The Bill, with some minor exceptions only, is very much the product of cross-party effort on an historically unprecedented scale and that says much, I believe, about the basic health of our political and parliamentary systems. I thank all honourable senators who have contributed to this debate for their contribution. I thank in particular those who said nice things about the Bill and those who have been working on it. I commend, accordingly, this very important Bill to the Senate.