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Tuesday, 18 April 1972
Page: 1717

Mr Donald Cameron (GRIFFITH, QUEENSLAND) - A free vote is to be held on this subject and in view of the fact that hon ourable members have been extended what might be described as this privilege I believe that we have the right to speak our minds. That certainly is my intention. It has been suggested that members of this Parliament use petitions for political reasons^ - that they present them without any basis at all and just use them for political purposes. Back bench members of the House never really know whether they are on the right track. We work under a system of Cabinet government and only members of the Cabinet or of the Ministry have access to government files. For all the information they get, back bench members from both sides of the House might be likened to a flock of pigeons in Hyde Park being fed crumbs during the lunch hour. Members have available to them the processes of question time, questions on notice and letters to Ministers. The honourable member for Hughes (Mr Les Johnson) in referring to the petitions presented to the House said that members never received any advice from the Minister concerned with the subject matter of those petitions. I wonder whether he has ever written to those Ministers. During the last 6 years there has never been an occasion when a Minister has not acknowledged, in some way or another, a letter which I have written to him.

I believe that many a just cause has been raised in this Parliament by means of petitions. The House of Representatives Select Committee on Wildlife Conservation, which was established during the term of the previous Prime Minister, was the outcome of a campaign spearheaded by the honourable member for Henty (Mr Fox) when petitions about the conservation of kangaroos were presented to the House. Almost every honourable member was sick and tired of hearing about kangaroos, but that campaign got results. It was all very well for the honourable member for North Sydney (Mr Graham) to recall the big petitions which were presented in 1947 to the then Labor government on the matter of bank nationalisation. The Labor government ignored those petitions and 2 years later it lost office. The Labor Party has been out of office ever since and I do not see it being returned to power for many years yet.

The people of Australia are entitled to this form of protest. I am not saying for- one moment that what is being suggested today will deprive the public of a form of protest. However, just because a Labor government was wrong in the 1940s it does not give us an excuse to project such thinking into the 21st century. The honourable member for Ryan (Mr Drury) presented some interesting figures. He said that in 1969, 90 petitions had been presented; in 1970, 494 and 1971, 723. I ask all honourable members to keep in mind the last 2 figures - 494 and 723. Yet between 1970 and 1971 when the number of petitions was almost doubled, the time taken to present them increased from 8 hours 39 minutes to 8 hours 31 minutes - only 12 minutes more. I do not regard giving the public 8i hours or so in a full year as allowing it an excessive amount of the time of the Parliament. This Parliament exists because of John Citizen - because of the people whose right we question to sign a petition and to protest. Without those people there would be no Parliament. I repeat that, as far as I am concerned, even if we spend a little time each day on petitions, this is something to which the public is entitled and, in fact, is a fundamental right of the citizen.

We seem to forget that many of the petitions that have been presented in this House have taken hours and hours of the time of people who collect signatures, whether they be misled or whether they be on the right track. They have been prepared to give up that time to the process of collecting signatures to register the protests. We have now reached a stage where members of Parliament are to surrender to the Clerk of the House the right to present a petition. This change makes every member of Parliament, including the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, message boys of the Clerk of the House.

Mr Graham - Break it up.

Mr Donald Cameron (GRIFFITH, QUEENSLAND) - The people have a right to be heard. The honourable member for North Sydney says 'break it up', but he knows that the people have a right to be heard. When you stifle democracy you are in fact contributing to its very destruction. Australia, as a nation, has a history of people accepting the rule of law, except, as we know, unfortunately - and I do not wish to be political - for certain members of the Opposition who seem to specialise in the breaking of laws. We have a history of acceptance of the law, and I believe that that acceptance has been contributed to in some way by the systems of democracy which have existed in the past. If members of the Parliament have grown tired of bearing petitions, perhaps they should give extra thought to whether they are still suitable as members of Parliament, for the moment we stop listening to the cries and pleas of the people, I believe that we ourselves become somewhat ineffective. There is no denying that at times the time of this House has been wasted by schemes that have been dreamed up by certain members who wished to push a particular cause. But because some people have abused the system, is the entire system wrong? 1 for one do not believe so.

Perhaps there should be changes. These are the changes I would like to suggest. There should be a system of presenting petitions in which a petition that is presented, say, 20 or 30 times on one day, is read on only one occasion. Honourable members understand that the system is that the member has a choice of saying whether the petition be received or whether the petition be received and read. If a petition has been presented previously, most members of the Parliament have the common sense, or use their discretion, to accept that the petition should only be received, but there are some members who, for various reasons, insist not only on reading the abbreviated form of the petition, but also that the Clerk of the House be forced to stand up and read the full terms of the petition. If we do wish to make changes that are time-saving, this is the area where those changes should be made. It is in this area where the greatest waste of time happens on each occasion.

There is another suggestion I would like to make. It has been suggested that some members of the Parliament present petitions with only 4 or 5 signatures. When we have an issue that has created or generated a certain amount of public interest, we should require a minimum number of signatures for the petition to be presented - or combine petitions for the purpose. This in itself would also contribute to time saving. On the other hand, I am not suggesting that if a member walks into this House and says that his electors in Cooktown or some other part of Australia wish to put forward something, because there are only 10 signatures that person or those people should not have an opportunity to have their protest heard. This, we have been told, is a matter for open discussion. I am surprised when 1 look at the membership of the Standing Orders Committee - the Leader of the Opposition, the honourable member for Wills (Mr Bryant), the honourable member for Wilmot (Mr Duthie) and the honourable member for Corio (Mr Scholes). Looking at them quickly, I think that the Opposition almost has a majority of numbers. Why did this democratic body not think of some of these objections itself? 1 would like to hear an explanation of how some of these basic principles of democracy have been allowed to slip by and to be omitted from this report when we have such champions of democracy as the honourable member for Wills, as he tries to present himself from time to time. This is to be a free vote and I have no intention of supporting the suggested amendment on the question of petitions because I believe it is not in the best interests of the Parliament or the people of Australia. If members have grown tired of listening to the pleas of the people of Australia, they have one alternative and wc all know what that is.

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