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Thursday, 13 May 1993
Page: 598

Senator KERNOT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (5.50 p.m.) —I do not agree with Senator Ray that this is a `trash' issue. It is not trash. It is quite serious and it is appropriate to discuss it. He made a humorous contribution, but it is a serious issue.

  We are debating this because of the inappropriate remarks made by the Premier of Queensland, Mr Wayne Goss. I understand that he is backing away from those remarks now and saying that it was just a throwaway line, but it really tells us a lot about his attitude to government—a government which is unfettered because in Queensland Wayne Goss is in a very special position; he controls the lower house of the only unicameral State in this country. It really is Wayne's world up there. It used to be the two Waynes until Mr Wayne Swan came down here as the member for Lilley. There are single house systems in the Northern Territory and the ACT, but Queensland is the only State with a unicameral system.

Senator MacGibbon —And a disaster.

Senator KERNOT —Yes, it is a disaster. A parliamentary majority in the Legislative Assembly in Queensland means that a Premier basically can act as a dictator with no checks and balances on his or her actions. There is a parliamentary opposition but it is really quite impotent; it just does not have the numbers.

  We can see that governments in lower houses can ruthlessly suppress debate, can use a guillotine as a matter of routine, not as a matter of absolute urgency, frustration and necessity. We have a guillotine motion in the House of Representatives this week, dealing with 30 pieces of legislation. In the Senate we have had four whole days of debate on Senate procedure and two pieces of legislation in two weeks. I have to say it makes me often gaze wistfully at the thought of a guillotine under these circumstances.

  Yesterday Question Time in the Queensland Parliament was closed down. This is a time when the Parliament of Queensland is supposed to be accountable to the people of Queensland. The Prime Minister, Mr Keating, has referred to Question Time as a privilege bestowed upon the Parliament by the Government. I wonder whether this means that both Mr Keating and Mr Goss believe that it is not the duty of government to be accountable.

  The beauty of a bicameral system is that no matter what a government chooses to do in the lower house there is still a chance to review legislation in the upper houses. To the extent that there is government control in the upper houses both in Victoria and Western Australia, perhaps we can say that the voters there may have made the choice. They may have said, `Yes, we trust the Government to have control of both houses'. But there will still be occasions when the Government can be defeated. The Prime Minister referred to probably the most famous example of this concerning the attempt by Jack Lang to stack the Legislative Council in New South Wales and then to abolish it. What happened was that those appointees enjoyed being on the Council so much that they refused to vote for its abolition.

  I suggest that the usual reason that conservative parties obtain majorities in these two upper chambers is the voting system employed. There is still nowhere near one vote one value in the Legislative Council in Western Australia and there are still problems in the Victorian voting system. This does not mean that the houses should be abolished as a result of that; it means that they should be made more democratic.

  Electoral laws are a classic example of why we need upper houses. My State of Queensland was governed for more than three decades by the National Party. It won because the previous Labor Government had rorted the electoral laws and introduced the zonal system. This was further refined by the Nationals, both by increasing the malapportionment and by some pretty well-known and breathtakingly blatant gerrymandering. I believe we had an undemocratic government for a decade. We still have a smaller zonal system operating there today. So I argue not in some abstract way but as a result of direct experience that upper houses are necessary to stop the debauching of electoral systems.

  There are other major areas which must be subject to review, not just electoral systems. Perhaps the most important issue here is the question of the constitutions of the States. State constitutions can be changed by a simple Act of Parliament in most States. Provisions can also be entrenched into State constitutions so that they cannot be reversed without a referendum.

  The third reason why we need upper houses concerns many other legislative decisions of government. State governments can compulsorily acquire property without compensation. They can massively increase the powers of government agencies such as the police. They can pass laws which threaten freedom of speech or expression. They can pass laws which include oppressive criminal laws. For example, just today the Queensland Government announced the siting of a radioactive waste dump at a place called Esk, a decision totally contrary to the views of the residents of that area.

  In this chamber we have had to work with the Queensland Liberal senators to bring to the attention of people in Queensland such issues as the casino tendering process, the alleged rorting of the Queensland Professional Officers Association superannuation fund, and the issue of Metway Bank. In many respects this chamber has acted as a de facto upper house for the non-existent Queensland upper house. I think the people of Queensland appreciate our existence.

  The simple point is that there must be checks and balances. Exactly the same holds true at the national level. This Senate is the only check on the Keating Government. I know it annoys him; it frustrates him, but it is absolutely and fundamentally necessary.

  Some will say that abolishing the upper houses is simply allowing governments to govern. I think that is rubbish. Government is an incredibly complex task. There are many hundreds of areas of public policy. It is just wrong to assert that voting for a government means that the elector accepts the policy of the particular candidate in every facet; of course the voter does not. For example, there are members of the public who vote for the coalition but, at the same time, favour Australia's becoming a republic.

  Electors choose their government on the basis of who would be better to run the State or the country. It does not mean that electors give that government carte blanche. Many would argue that the recent Federal election was a rejection of a greater evil, not a sign of great confidence in the present Government.

  There is a history attached to upper houses, as we know, and there is a history of Labor Party opposition. One can understand that because colonial upper houses were the first level of government. They were undemocratic and they were stacked with the rich and the powerful of the day. After the general public was granted the vote and lower houses were formed, there is no doubt that upper chambers frustrated democracy. But, I have said before, that is the voting system, it is not the existence of the upper house or the system of appointment.

  Senator Ray touched on the events of 1975. The powers of the Senate were misused in 1975 in my view. All Australian Democrats are on record as saying that the episode was a disgrace and that the power to block Supply should not exist. Since we have been in a position of balance of power here, that has not been an issue. But the answer is to reform the processes, not to destroy the Senate.

  The Senate was a necessary precondition for Australia's nationhood. It remains a necessary precondition for good government in Australia. It is true, as Senator Ray said, that this place is a party house and not a States house most of the time, but there are still some important exceptions. One particular exception is the issue of sugar, and Senator Bjelke-Petersen referred to this. National Party senators joined with the Democrats in the sugar tariff debate. But the same was not said for the Liberal senator who represents Queensland, Senator Macdonald, because he made a choice between representing party interests as against representing the State interests of the Queensland sugar growers.

  The fact that this chamber now operates in the same way as other chambers is no reason to abolish it. As long as the system of proportional representation remains, there will always be an effective system of review, which is essential for a democratic society. Mr Goss wants to abolish upper houses to get rid of some politicians. That might be a laudable aim. A lot of people in the community would probably agree with it. But if the aim is to lower the number of parliamentarians, it can be done in another way.

  The Democrats believe that there needs to be structural reform of the political system. We have a three-tiered system of government—local, State and Federal. There is not even constitutional recognition for local government. We believe that the three tiers of government can be cut to two. It seems that perhaps the obvious way to go is to get rid of the middleman by abolishing States. When I say that, I do not mean that Queensland will cease to exist. State boundaries could remain, which means that things such as Sheffield Shield cricket and State of Origin football could continue exactly as they do now. The nation would insist that we get our priorities right, I am sure. What we are proposing is that political jurisdictions be abolished.

  The system was appropriate a hundred years ago, when it was established, but it is outdated and inefficient now. Quite apart from the ridiculous idea that Australia is a collection of States instead of a nation, it is incredibly inefficient and wasteful to have duplication of government services. I think one of the great ironies of conservative philosophy is that conservatives are great supporters of States rights, but they will go to the wall opposing a bill of rights guaranteeing people basic rights. So people do not have rights but political entities do.

  Time and time again we hear that the people on the Opposition's side of the chamber want efficient public services. If that is the case, why do they not support the massive reform which rationalising the structure of government would bring? Why do they persist in supporting an inefficient, archaic structure? This system means that, to get the level of public services they are now enjoying, Australians are paying a lot more tax than they need to.

  Why do the champions of efficient government not really embrace efficient government? Why does the National Party not support the idea of enhanced regional government? The real issue in the Queensland bush is not the power of Canberra; it is the power, dominance and remoteness of Brisbane. Why should people in Mount Isa be ruled from Brisbane? Why should people in Cairns or Rockhampton or Townsville be controlled by bureaucrats in Brisbane?

  Senator Macdonald has talked about the need for a new State in North Queensland. The kind of system that I am proposing means that we can have a national law where appropriate and a local law where appropriate, instead of the current situation in which artificial State borders delineate legal systems.

  With the exception of Senator McMullan and Senator Reid, all members of this chamber hopped on a plane for a couple of hours to get to the ACT. The law here is radically different in many ways from that of the States. There are acts which are legal here which are crimes in some of the States. Who can possibly know what all the laws are for? For example, labelling laws differ from State to State for the same products.  By contrast, does anybody seriously suggest that we are worse off now because we have a national system of regulation of companies? We have a more efficient and effective system of regulation. It is not dominance by Canberra; it is protection of the community from the dominance of stupid parochial interest acting against the national interest.

  I was very pleased to see that the Business Council of Australia has addressed this issue. It has not given details of its preferred model, but it has called for a reduction in the number of levels of government from three to two. Given that we have a national government, I think that what it is proposing is fairly obvious—and I agree with it. More efficient government means less cost for industry and more jobs.

  I cannot understand why Senator Macdonald is against this logic, but I will join with the Opposition in defence of the review role of the Senate. It plays an important—indeed, vital—role by questioning the Government, whether it be in the estimates committees or the legislation committees. Indeed, at the moment the Senate is the only body which can effectively review the actions of the Goss Government—although it cannot force it to do anything.

  Let us just look at why Wayne Goss, in a throwaway line, thought first of the powers of the Senate. He just loves operating without the checks and balances of an upper house. He has no upper house. He has government control of all committees. If somebody such as Peter Beattie criticises him, he gets rid of Peter Beattie and starts to wind down the CJC or gets rid of the Electoral and Administrative Review Committee. He has an unhealthy control of media reporting. He attempts to discredit the former police commissioner, and he suppresses allegations and information about the level of ministerial intervention in the current police force. It is very frightening. With the greatest of respect to Senator Flo Bjelke-Petersen, I really think that Mr Wayne Goss is slowly metamorphosing; all he needs is the corks on the hat. The Fitzgerald process that we have been through in Queensland seems to count for nothing. The people in Queensland have nowhere to go except to this Senate.

  The Democrats support the thrust of this motion; however, we do not believe in States rights because we believe that people—not political entities—have rights. We are not interested in attributing false motives to the Prime Minister. Whatever he really believes, and whatever his longer term agenda really is, yesterday he said unequivocally that the Government will not be pursuing the abolition of this place. It may be for the totally expedient reason of not muddying the republican debate, but he is entitled to have that declaration believed until we see otherwise. He is entitled to change his mind as well.

  Let us not lose sight of the issue. I believe that it is in the long-term national interest to review the functions and duplication of the tiers of government. I will not be opposing the Prime Minister's comments in that respect. If the motion is amended in the manner indicated in my amendment, which has been circulated in the chamber, the Democrats will be happy to support it. We can streamline the talkfest—we can and should be more disciplined in the amount of talking we do in this place—but we cannot easily replace a genuine house of review. I seek leave to move my amendments together.

  Leave granted.

Senator KERNOT —I move:

1. After "That", omit "the Senate, mindful of its role to protect the rights of the States and all individuals", substitute "the Senate, mindful of its role to protect the rights of all individuals".

2. Delete paragraph (d).