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Thursday, 19 August 1993
Page: 373

Senator CHRIS EVANS —I thank the Senate for its cooperation in allowing me to make this, my first speech. Having sought and received much advice about the appropriate form of a first speech, I have received quite varied and different suggestions. I hope what follows does not offend any established practices, but I have found it impossible to think of anything worth while to say that is, if not controversial, at least highly political.

  May I first pay thanks to those whose support has allowed me to take up the great honour and opportunity of representing Western Australia and the Australian Labor Party in this parliament. While I thank the people of Western Australia for my election, I do not delude myself that, given the Senate electoral system, they have expressed any great confidence in me personally. I come here by virtue of the endorsement of my political party. To its members, supporters and trade unionists I offer my thanks and commit myself to honour the trust they have placed in me. In particular, I wish to acknowledge the support of the Miscellaneous Workers' Union, the United Firefighters' Union and the many party members who have assisted me in my political development.

  I was the sole Labor senator elected at the last election to replace Senator Pat Giles and Senator Peter Walsh who both retired. Both senators made enormous contributions to Australian political life. While no-one would argue that they are not very different characters with diverse interests, I nevertheless hope to emulate some of the qualities each brought to the Senate. On my retirement, if I were to be fairly described as a feminist champion of social justice with a reputation for financial responsibility and an abhorrence of humbug and privilege, I think I could retire well pleased.

  On a personal level, I would like to acknowledge my family for their support and my father and my sister who are in the gallery this evening. My father, a Welshman, brought us to Australia with the intention of moving on to Canada. We never did get to Canada and I am sure he never imagined his son would one day sit in the Australian parliament. It is of course long overdue that a Western Australian Labor senator with Welsh heritage was elected. The Irish and occasional Scot have dominated the ALP ticket for far too long.

  Despite the pressure of political life and the tyranny of distance I am determined to honour my commitment to be a good husband to Miriam and a good father to Dylan. I hasten to mention before the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator Gareth Evans, is unduly maligned that I am no relation to the honourable senator. Nevertheless, I am opening his misdirected mail in the hope of intercepting invitations to foreign parts. There must be some positive side to being the other Senator Evans.

  In preparing this speech the temptation was to roam far and wide outlining my views on the world. I am afraid to say I have only in part resisted that temptation. I have chosen to make some comments on three of the public debates dominating Australian political life. While not claiming a unique perspective on these issues, I do wish to contribute something to the debate.

  In structuring this speech I have identified common elements to my approach when addressing these and other issues that will come before the parliament: firstly, that there exist fundamental inalienable human rights that must be paramount in our considerations and that those rights must be protected and enhanced by any legislative action we take; secondly, that we must defend those fundamental rights against attempts to subjugate them to propositions designed to protect privilege, property, discrimination or inappropriate power; thirdly, that notions of states' rights should not be given pre-eminence over human or people's rights; fourthly, that the federal government should not shirk exercising its full constitutional power to legislate whenever that is required to protect those basic human rights; fifthly, that our legislative approach must be guided and give effect to international law and Australian treaty obligations. These are the principles on which I base my remarks today on the issues of constitutional reform, the High Court Mabo decision and industrial relations.

  I am disappointed that in 1993 so much that I had thought of as accepted principle in Australian politics is having to be reargued in the context of these debates. In June 1993, the High Court, in ruling in the case Eddie Mabo v. the state of Queensland recognised native title rights for Aboriginal Australians and rejected the notion of terra nullius. This ruling confirms what any fair minded Australian must accept—that the process of European settlement has dispossessed Australia's Aboriginal people of their land and denied them justice. The High Court's decision establishes this historical fact in Australian law.

  The Prime Minister has quite rightly recognised the importance of the High Court decision and sought to build on that decision in order to provide a more substantial and binding basis for reconciliation. I commend the government's determination to legislate to bring certainty to the question of titles while protecting and enhancing the rights of Aboriginal people as recognised by the High Court. This debate has unfortunately generated some of the most ill-informed public comment in living memory. Those who seek again to remove the legal rights of Aboriginal people in order to placate the vested interests which they represent are beyond contempt.

  In my own state of Western Australia, we have seen a particularly virulent attack on the High Court's decision and senators could be forgiven for gaining the impression that all Western Australians are hell-bent on denying Aboriginal people justice. However, the vast majority of fair thinking Western Australians support the recognition of Aboriginal rights and a lasting reconciliation between indigenous people and other Australians.

  Unfortunately, sections of the Western Australian branch of the Liberal Party have championed the most hysterical arguments against the High Court's decision. They have claimed that 80 per cent of Western Australian land is subject to claim and that even Perth suburban backyards are under threat. These claims have been calculated to spread fear and division. Thankfully, rational voices within the Liberal Party have spoken in opposition. The member for Tangney, Darryl Williams QC, and former senator and member for Pearce, Fred Chaney have, to their credit, opposed their state colleagues and defended the High Court's role.

  The High Court's Mabo decision does raise issues that will require considered legislative response from this parliament. The government will introduce legislation that will bring to the matter the certainty that is required. Some, of course, would argue that the uncertainties raised by the High Court decision require us to trample on the rights of the Aboriginal people in order to give certainty to national and international investors. The need for certainty must be balanced, however, against the need to protect the rights of Aboriginal people and the need to maintain our international human rights reputation with our neighbours.

  In 1988 during Australia's centenary celebrations I was fortunate to study at the London School of Economics. During my stay there I witnessed a large anti-Australian rally protesting over the treatment of Aboriginal people. I was at first affronted and shocked that people could view our treatment of Aboriginal people in the same way we view the treatment of, say, black people in South Africa. Upon calmer reflection, I could see that our record on Aboriginal imprisonment, child mortality and poverty could reasonably be compared with those countries which we ourselves hold in contempt for their human rights records. An Australia Day function I helped to organise was boycotted by many of my African and Asian student friends for those same reasons. For the first time I was exposed to the increasing belief and concern within the international community that Australia had failed to live up to its responsibilities and obligations to its own indigenous people.

  It is worth noting that Sydney is favoured to host the 2000 Olympic Games partly due to the international concern over the poor human rights record of the People's Republic of China. Make no mistake that the attitude of many African and Asian nations to Sydney's bid is influenced by their concerns regarding our record on the treatment of Aboriginal people.

  Australia's international political reputation and trading future will be damaged by any lack of resolve in facing up to the challenges of our responsibilities to the Aboriginal people. The High Court's Mabo decision recognises the fundamental human rights that have been denied Australia's indigenous population. The government must remain firm in its resolve to implement its commitment to justice for Aboriginal Australians.

  I turn now to industrial relations reform. This government has, through the accord process, presided over a transformation in industrial relations practice in this country. By a cooperative and constructive approach, the government has achieved real reform at the same time as ensuring record low levels of industrial disputation. The industrial relations system now encourages greater flexibility and productivity without diluting the commitment to the fundamental rights of workers that are the cornerstone of the Labor Party approach.

  The Labor Party is committed to further reform and believes that, with the development of real enterprise bargaining, further improvement can be achieved. But we totally reject arguments that there exists any justification to go down the low wage, low skills path driven by attacks on workers' rights.

  It is tragedy that, despite the recent real reforms in Australian industrial relations, some groups in society have reverted to the propagation of discredited 19th century ideas with their basis in the old master and servant acts. These ideas have been adopted in different forms by some branches of conservative parties in Australia. We in the Liberal Party—I am sorry; we in the Labor Party—

  Honourable senators—Ah!

Senator CHRIS EVANS —At least I am on the right side of the House. We in the Labor Party are being forced to defend principles we thought agreed in the early years of this century and broadly accepted as part of the Australian social fabric. The Minister for Industrial Relations (Mr Brereton) is currently preparing to bring legislation into the parliament to expand the government's industrial relations reform agenda. The government will encourage the extension of enterprise bargaining, at the same time as protecting and enhancing our commitment to fair minimum conditions and standards for all Australian workers.

  Unfortunately, the government's capacity to achieve further constructive change has been severely hindered by the actions of conservative state governments. Industrial legislation in New South Wales, Tasmania, Victoria and now Western Australia has attacked basic principles and working conditions developed over 90 years of Australian industrial relations practice. The cooperative tripartite approach encouraged by Labor has been turned on its head by regressive attacks on the most fundamental of workers' rights and working conditions. The continued development of enterprise bargaining and the future of cooperative federal-state relations are called into question by these developments in state legislation.

  The trade union movement and working people generally have cooperated with the federal Labor government to implement its reform agenda. That change has been painful and difficult for many. The fact that they have largely accepted the change is a credit to them. As a community, we cannot expect the trade union movement to cooperate in change and the development of enterprise bargaining if, at the same time, its very existence is being threatened by conservative governments. The union movement will be forced to adopt a defensive position and devote its resources and energies to protecting its members' rights and conditions.

  The progress of enterprise bargaining under federal awards will clearly be adversely affected. The impact of regressive state government legislation has already been felt in this parliament. The Kennett government's industrial relations legislation has provoked much debate here already and has seen the federal government respond in order to protect Victorian workers.

  The recent industrial relations workers compensation legislation introduced by the Western Australian Court government may also require a response from the federal government. While a cooperative federal-state approach is Labor's preferred option, we will not tolerate the erosion of fundamental workers' rights implicit in the Western Australian legislation.

  The Western Australian legislation is less honest than the Victorian equivalent but arguably more radical. The legislation purports to be about workplace agreements, but in effect its whole intent is to promote individual contracts—contracts based on the unequal power relationship between an employer and a single worker.

  The Western Australian legislation is an attempt to reduce working conditions by excluding unions from the industrial relations process and destroying the protection offered by the award system. The legislation reduces the protection offered to workers to little more than that provided by individual contracts under common law. It brings with it secrecy provisions which ban the disclosure of the details of an individual contract. It aims to deter unions from challenging the making, or indeed the contents, of workplace agreements. It even introduces punitive action directed against unions seeking to protect their members by moving to federal awards. This legislation will deny Western Australian workers the fundamental right to organise and bargain collectively. It is totally unfair and un-Australian.

  Today thousands of Western Australian workers rallied and marched through the streets of Perth as part of their continuing campaign against the legislation. They were protesting in defence of their basic rights—rights that we accept as part of the very basis of Australian society.

  The Western Australian legislations attack on workers' rights to organise may well, in my view, be in contravention of Australia's obligations under International Labour Organisation conventions. In particular, they would seem to contravene the principles underpinning conventions 87 and 98, which deal with the right to organise and bargain collectively. I endorse the government's commitment to improve the process of ratifying more of the ILO conventions.

  There is an increasing need for the fundamental code of international labour standards enshrined in the conventions to be accepted by Australia and adhered to by all Australian governments. In particular, ILO convention 154, the convention concerning the promotion of collective bargaining, should have been ratified by Australia long ago. That convention was passed in 1981 and has the effect, among other things, of recognising the role of unions in collective bargaining. This is a principle thought self-evident in Australia until recently, but one which is directly challenged by the Western Australian government's legislation. I understand that the convention would have been ratified but for the states dragging their feet. The federal government may well need to review its processes for ratifying conventions if the states are unwilling to ratify appropriate ILO conventions within reasonable time lines.

  Conservative state governments should not doubt the commitment of the Labor Party to protect worker and trade union rights. The states' right to pass laws relating to industrial relations will not prevent Labor from guaranteeing the central role of trade unions in the protection of workers' rights and the protection and improvement of their working conditions.

  I turn now to the current debate over constitutional reforms in Australia. The Labor Party is committed to reforming Australia's constitution in an endeavour to make it more relevant and more in tune with political reality. It is important that our constitution and institutions reflect that development in Australian society. Some opponents to change cling to the sanctity of the original constitution as if it were holy writ. However, the constitution has progressively been amended and interpreted over the past 90 years. Many of the notions upon which the constitution was founded are now regarded as the antithesis of democracy. The electoral rights of women and Aborigines were not provided for in the original constitution.

  The Labor Party believes that now is the appropriate time in Australia's development to sever our links with the monarchy and establish an Australian republic. That republic must, however, be built on proper democratic foundations. In order for that to occur, the principle of one vote one value must be one such foundation.

  The rural vote weighting that still exists in a number of Australian parliaments is an undemocratic hangover from the time when ownership of property was a qualification for an entitlement to vote. In my own state of Western Australia outrageous malapportionment in both the Legislative Council and Legislative Assembly continues to act as a blight on the democratic process in that state.

  In the 1993 state election vote weighting in favour of country areas was almost two to one in the Legislative Assembly and up to 3.4 to one in the Legislative Council. In practical terms, this means that the votes of 44,000 people in the city are regarded as being equivalent to the votes of 13,000 people in the country in the conduct of elections for the Legislative Council in Western Australia. In the lower house the figures are similar, with roughly half the number of voters required to elect a country member to the Legislative Assembly as are required to elect a metropolitan member. This is not equal suffrage.

  Both the Queensland Electoral and Administrative Review Commission and the Western Australian royal commission have advocated reform. The Western Australian royal commission recommended that a commission on government review the electoral system for representation in both houses of parliament. When commenting on reform of the Legislative Assembly, the commission said:

The democratic principle by which the majority of votes in the Assembly determines the formation of the Government is generally and properly understood to require as close to equal value in the votes of electors as is possible.

The commission went on to say:

Whether the present electoral system is one which properly reflects the democratic basis on which a House of Government should be elected is a matter which warrants examination.

  The Conservative parties in Western Australia have enjoyed a majority in the Legislative Council ever since the chamber was established. Despite the gradual extension of the franchise and political reform around Australia, the Conservatives in Western Australia refuse to yield to pressure for proper democratic elections. The Court government's cynical backing away from the implementation of the royal commission's recommendations confirms that those reforms will not be implemented for the state parliament. The Western Australian electoral system is corrupt. The Western Australian parliament has not reformed itself in almost 100 years; it will not do so now.

  The recent interpretations by the High Court concerning implied rights confirm me in my view that the federal parliament has the power to legislate to establish the principle of one vote one value for elections for all Australian parliaments. I urge the government to give very serious consideration to such legislation.

  Australia must honour its obligations that flow from our being a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In that covenant, article 25 states:

Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in Article 2, and without unreasonable restrictions—

(b)to vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors.

Article 50 of that covenant goes on to say:

. . . the provisions of the present Covenant shall extend to all parts of Federal States without any limitations or exceptions.

Australia's obligations are clear. While no-one would argue that some tolerance should not be allowed in the electoral system, it cannot be argued that the sort of malapportionment which I have identified provides in any way for equal suffrage.

  The parliament is confronted by these simple facts: the current Australian electoral system allows for election to its parliaments by means of unequal franchise; judicial inquiries into corruption of the political process in two states have called for reform to bring about equal franchise; the Constitutional Commission in 1988 recommended reform in this area; Australia's international treaty obligations require us to establish equal suffrage; and the federal parliament has the constitutional power to legislate to ensure equal franchise for all elections for all Australian parliaments. It would be wrong for us not to take action to rectify this last remaining undemocratic practice in the election of Australian parliaments. Federal legislation is urgently required to establish the fundamental democratic principle of one vote one value.

  In drawing to a conclusion, I thought it worth while in this my first speech to set out the approach to issues that I intend to adopt in matters that come before the Senate. I also wanted to contribute to placing the government's general approach to these issues within a philosophical framework. I think the Labor Party has paid too little attention in recent years to redefining and expressing its philosophical approach to issues.

  The world has changed rapidly and our experience of it and of long-term government has undoubtedly changed us. There is a need for Labor to re-examine and restate its philosophical approach as we respond to modern challenges. I have also framed my contribution today in response to my concern at the particularly narrow and parochial politics Western Australia has become notorious for. I do not exclude my side of politics from that criticism.

Senator Panizza —You had 10 years in power.

Senator CHRIS EVANS —I remind Senator Panizza that I just said that I do not exclude my side of politics from that criticism. There is a need to counter the parochial and often mean spirited nonsense that is propagated under the heading of states rights. People have rights—not states.

  The High Court has increasingly come to the view that the constitution is a people based constitution rather than one based on the traditional federation of the states and Commonwealth entities. It is an attitude I commend. The Chief Justice of the High Court, in responding to his critics, said this:

. . . the Constitution contemplates a flexible balance of powers and that it does not expressly preserve the position and powers of the states free from federal interference. They tend to assume, quite wrongly, that the Constitution preserves in some way or other the actual balance of powers, or the actual federal-state relationship as it existed at some undefined time shortly after the Constitution came into operation.

The parliament of Australia should never allow fundamental human or people's rights to be subjugated to narrow state interests.

  Honourable senators will conclude from these remarks that I am not a great advocate of the doctrine of the Senate as a states house. That doctrine, I think, like the role of the monarchy, has outlived its usefulness. The Senate is very much a party house. Unlike some of my colleagues, I do not argue for the abolition of the states. They are constituent elements in our federal structure and are not necessarily a major impediment to our national development. That is not to say that issues of duplication, waste and accountability must not be resolved; nor does it mean that we must not deal with issues from a strong national perspective.

  Abolition of the states is not on my agenda. An Australian republic established on democratic principles of one vote one value with a truly representative Senate is a far more important objective. At the risk of offering gratuitous advice, I would like to end by quoting Hubert Humphrey, who once said to his party:

It is time for the Democratic Party to walk out of the shadow of States' rights and into the bright sunshine of human rights.

I think that is good advice for us all. I thank the Senate for its patience.

  Honourable senators—Hear, hear!