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Tuesday, 6 December 1983
Page: 3318


Senator WATSON(8.08) —I rise to speak briefly on the Referendum ( Constitution Alteration) Amendment Bill 1983 for two purposes. Firstly, I wish to raise two issues with the Attorney-General (Senator Gareth Evans), which arise from the inclusion of certain voters from the Northern Territory. Secondly , I place on record my position in relation to the referendum proposals. I was not in the Senate for all the voting that took place with respect to the referendum proposals, as I was the deputy leader of the Australian delegation attending the Inter- Parliamentary Union conference in Seoul at the time. Therefore, I wish to state quite clearly my position in relation to those referendum proposals, because I think there has been some confusion in the media 's reporting of where I stand on them. I wish to give notice that I am firmly behind the attitude of the Premier of Tasmania, Robin Gray, in supporting a No case. This technical Bill is designed to facilitate the referendum which will take place on 25 February next. I must also deplore the Government's attitude in allocating money to only one side, $1.25m to the Yes case. This is an additional amount, which is directed only to the Yes case. The argument for this is that there will be plenty of money coming from other sources to support a No case. I do not think this is the argument. Our traditional position in Australia in relation to referendums is to give equal weight to both the Yes case and the No case. It is a matter of history and fact that Australians tend when in doubt, to vote No. Despite the fact that the questions that are to be put to the electors are designed to solicit a Yes answer, I think many Australians, if not given an adequate explanation, on a prima facie reading of the referendum Bills would be inclined to vote Yes.

As my colleagues Senator Archer and Senator Walters mentioned earlier, these are some of the insidious features of the Bill. The Government's intentions are not entirely clear to the electorate, purely by a simple reading of the questions that are intended to be placed upon the referendum sheet. Many Australians would welcome a four-year term, rather than a three-year term, but a lot more would reject an eight-year term for senators. It would be far too long a term. For example, it would give a non-performer too long an opportunity to remain listless on the back bench. There is a need to be motivated by the needs of the electorate. It would tend to put too many senators far too far removed from the feelings of the electorate.

On the other hand, the Bill could be read by many in the community as a continuation of a transfer of powers away from the States and to the Federal Government, thus creating an increase in central responsibilities and central directions, and an increase in the powers of the Federal Government to the detriment of the States. I would totally deplore that.

To be successful, the referendum must be passed not only by a majority of voters but also by a majority of States. Without looking too hard into the crystal ball, at this stage I believe that Tasmania would certainly be voting No . It would be voting No on the basis of the discriminatory treatment that it has received from the Federal Government recently. Under this amendment, to some extent there would be an equating of some of the status of the Territories and the States. It is fairly important to realise the distinction between these two, since it is not the issue that those who reside in the Territories are of a second-class nature. At the heart of the matter is really the issue of our Federal system and the impact upon that system of such an amendment. The Federal Government can exercise far greater influence and possess far greater jurisdictional rights over the Territories as against the States. A Territory is not a State and it possesses very few of the burdens of a State. An argument can be made that the Territories are not enjoying this sole preserve of States without their attaining Statehood. If the Territories, especially the Northern Territory, become States, they can claim such right to be included fully in the referendum proposals.

If the Northern Territory votes can affect the national vote yet have no impact upon the votes of the States, will this not in some way be potentially upsetting to the conduct of the referenda? That is the first question that I pose. The second question is this: Could not the total vote of the nation be swung in a direction that is opposite from that which would otherwise be obtained from a majority of voters in the States? I would welcome a response from the Attorney- General on those two issues.