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Tuesday, 20 August 1996
Page: 2686


Senator ALSTON (Minister for Communications and the Arts)(5.12 p.m.) —This is an absolute shambles. If ever the moral and intellectual inadequacies of an opposition leader have been exposed, it is today. The Leader of the Opposition in the Senate (Senator Faulkner) got himself worked into a fury with confected outrage about our doing what they did in 1990. He complained bitterly about Senator Knowles, who is a good friend of Senator Colston, actually having the cheek to nominate him. Then of course we had all this outrage about the fact that somehow we can equate pairs in a secret ballot with normal pairs in a division, where the vote is quite transparent. As Senator Harradine made so very clear, there is a fundamental difference, and the opposition has clearly declined to answer the point.

It is not only that, of course. We have also had an extraordinary concession that somehow that argument is unanswerable. So all of Senator Faulkner's outrage is now out the window, and what are we left with? A proposition that we should adjourn until such time as everyone is present. What does that mean? Take an anarchist like Senator Carr, who will be very unhappy if democracy prevails. What if he chooses to absent himself from the chamber? We would never get around to a vote on this issue. It is an absolutely ludicrous proposition.

The trouble is that Labor is a victim of their own tyranny. They have never accepted the concept of a secret ballot. They cannot understand how anyone cannot toe the party line. You get the chop, you get expelled from the party, if you vote against it. The very reason they bring in show and tell is that they do not accept the legitimacy of people exercising their own personal vote.

As we know, the standing orders do not provide for pairs in a secret ballot for the very simple reason that people ought to be entitled to exercise a personal view about whom they want as their presiding officers in this parliament. Yet what we are being given is a demonstration of Labor's absolute intolerance not only of dissent but of anyone who would dare to challenge the rule, the iron law, of those in charge of the party.

It does not work that way. The Senate was not designed to accommodate that system. It is a private arrangement. As we know, pairs are there for the convenience of the parties. They were assigned on this day on the usual understanding that they would apply when there were divisions, when there were transparent ballots. They have never been used in this chamber for the purpose of effectively causing a secret ballot to be a non-secret ballot. That is what you are trying to do.

The tragedy is that Senator Faulkner is so bereft of any intellectual ability to cope with the argument about the difference between a secret ballot and an open ballot that he basically has to concede the point, not address it in any shape or form and come up with something else that the real opposition leader tells him he better give a run. That is a tragedy and it certainly pulls the rug out from any of the arguments we have heard this afternoon.

We got very sick of being lectured when we were in opposition about the morality of somehow the wheel will turn and if you do not do the right thing now you will suffer in government. We got that lecture from Senator Robert Ray on referring bills to legislation committees, if you recall. That was precisely what he was on about ad nauseam when they were in government. What happened when we came to the Telstra bill and the Australian Workplace Relations Bill? Of course they were referred to references committees—in other words, an absolute and flagrant breach of all that Senator Robert Ray lectured us about.

What do we find again today? My recollection is that, if Senator Robert Ray was not Manager of Government Business back in 1990, he was certainly a major player. We have not heard one squeak of a defence about how he justified the ballot that is effectively being re-run today. In other words, convention is something that suits him, in terms of an intellectual or debating point. It has nothing to do with real life—as far as the Labor Party is concerned—where you live or die on the strength of numbers. That is all you understand.

But we understand secret ballots to have a lot more to them than that. They are an opportunity for people to express their real views. We cannot force people to vote, and you should not either. But that is what you try to do. You try to ensure that somehow you cut people back. When Senator Sherry chose to absent himself, you could have explored the consequences of that. You knew full well what was going to take place in this chamber this afternoon.

When Senator Hill accommodates you absolutely, what do you do? You once again want to change the rules. So you now have an absolutely nonsensical proposition before the chair. It just simply exposes the way in which you cannot address issues on principle. You cannot accept the fact that what is happening now is something that is entirely of your own creation, both internally and externally. You ought to wear that result. Democracy is a lot healthier than you are prepared to give it credit for. (Time expired)