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Tuesday, 4 September 1906

Senator CLEMONS - The honorable senator will understand that-I do not contend that that is the only reason for the introduction of the Bill, but we should seriously consider that that is a consequence which will follow the passing of this measure.

Senator Findley - We are not asking for this Bill. The country is asking for it.

Senator CLEMONS - The Senate is going to pass or reject the measure. The country has not asked that sitting senators should have their term of office extended for six months, or that incoming senators at the next election should have their term extended for the same period.

Senator Keating - That would be an incident of the proposed alteration, unless we postponed the operation of the measure for six years

Senator CLEMONS - That such a consequence should be incidental to the passing of the measure, even though it should not be a reason for its introduction, should be sufficient to induce honorable senators to hesitate to support this Bill. I do not desire to repeat the arguments previously used against the Bill, but one of the first good grounds advanced for opposing the measure was that, under the Constitution, power is reserved to each of the States to fix the date of its own Senate elections. The passing of this Bill will not in any way abrogate that provision, because it is not here proposed that the Constitution shall be so amended as to take away that right from the States. That being so, this measure will be rendered entirely inoperative should any State, or the whole of the States, decide to determine the date of the Senate elections for themselves. Another good ground for refusing to pass the Bill is that the first penal dissolution will entirely destroy its value. We cannot legislate in the Senate on the assumption that there will not be a penal dissolution of the House of Representatives. So far as we can predicate the future, such a dissolution is bound to come sooner or later, and if it should arise within the next three years the whole of the advantage sought to be gained by this Bill will be destroyed. Senator Pulsford raised an important question affecting the Constitution in connexion with the allowances to members of the Federal Parliament, which this Bill does not meet. I do not propose to repeat the honorable senator's observations ; but I remind honorable senators that the point raised is important in the discussion of this measure.

Senator Stewart - What was it?

Senator CLEMONS - I need not repeat Senator Pulsford's observations in detail ; but, if Senator Stewart will look the matter up, he will find that the provisions of this Bill are in direct conflict with the provisions of the Constitution in. respect to the allowances to members of the Federal Parliament. The reason assumed for the introduction of this Bill is that it is desired that the elections shall take place during some time of the year that will not be inconvenient to farmers. If honorable senators take into consideration the area of the continent of Australia and Tasmania, they will find that there is no month in the year which for . the purposes of the elections could be held to meet the convenience of all the farming electors in the Commonwealth. If we were to alter the date of the elections from December to March, whilst we might convenience farmers in one State, our action might be inconvenient to' farmers in an other State. No one who knows the conditions of Australia will deny that, while March might be a convenient month in which to hold our elections in Victoria, it would be distinctly inconvenient for Queensland electors. Further, I say that the farmers, as a class, have no right to expect the Federal Parliament to seek to alter the Constitution merely in order to meet their convenience. We, as a Parliament, have no right to cajole the people into voting at elections by trying to discover for them a suitable time to go to the poll It is the duty of every elector in the Commonwealth to record his vote, and I do not think we are asking too much of the farmers of Victoria when we invite them to go to the poll in. November or in December once in three years. What idea of his duty as a citizen of the Commonwealth can any elector have if once in three years he will not sacrifice an hour to record his vote at a Senate election.

Senator Keating - It may mean a day to some men.

Senator CLEMONS - Let it be so; and is the value of the franchise of so little account that a farmer is entitled to raise a personal grievance because once in three years he is asked to put himself to a little inconvenience in order to exercise it? In my opinion, it is absurd to say that we shall fix upon one month of the year rather than another in order to enable individual citizens to go to the poll. Seeing that they are asked to go to the poll only once in three years, it should not be too much to ask them to attend to their duties as citizens in this respect on any date, or in any month of the year. The Bill is introduced bv Ministers with the avowed object of altering the date of our elections ; but I am convinced that it is supported with the view of amending the Constitution. I do . not know what reason we have to assume that honorable senators opposite are so desperately anxious to secure the convenience of the farmers that they are prepared to go the length of proposing an alteration in the Constitution in order to give effect to such an object. I do not pretend to have so particular an interest in the farming community as to desire to alter the Constitution in order to give them facilities for voting. I believe there are many members of the Senate who desire that the Constitution shall be amended, and this reason for amending it is as good, as another, and, \n their opinion, is just good enough. I have little hesitation in saying that if the Bill be passed, it will be, not because it will convenience a few electors, but simply because it will afford an opportunity to alter the Constitution. If honorable senators who rely upon .the ostensible reason for the introduction of this Bill as a justification for voting for it would but listen to reason on the subject, they would change their minds as to the desirability of passing it. There can be no doubt that, if we alter the date of our elections by this means from December to March, we shall inconvenience a certain number of the citizens of the Commonwealth. No member of the Senate will deny that March will be an inconvenient month to many of the electors.

Senator Stewart - Who are they?

Senator CLEMONS - Senator Stewart should, know them as well as I.

Senator Mulcahy - The same might be said of any month in the year.

Senator CLEMONS - That is just the point I aim making. There is bound to be some body of electors in each of the States to whom any particular month would not be as convenient as some other month. When it is certain that the passing of the Bill will involve inconvenience to many electors, it is ludicrous to propose to alter the Constitution for such ai purpose. Honorable senators are aware that the machinery provided for the alteration of the Constitution is very cumbersome and complicated ; and is it worth while to put it in motion in order merely to consult the convenience of a number of electors when we know that what we propose to do will inconvenience other electors? I do not believe that honorable senators who support the measure do so for that reason. If it is not for that reason, then let them come out into the open and say what their reason is. I am firmly convinced that, in their opinion, it is thought desirable that the Constitution should be amended, not only in this direction, but in many others. If the Bill were passed, the opportunity would then be immediately seized to say, " Seeing that all the machinery for altering the Constitution will have to be put in motion, we might as well submit to the people the question of amending it in half-a-dozen other directions."

Senator Findley - Suppose that were the case, each Bill would have to pass both Houses.

Senator CLEMONS - If that is the case, I shall be no party to making the Bill the means to such an end. I am not going to pretend, in mere hypocrisy, that I wish to convenience certain electors, if what I really want to do is to get the Constitution altered in a dozen different ways.

Senator McGregor - It cannot be altered without the consent of the people.

Senator Trenwith - And it cannot be submitted to the electors without a Bill having been passed.

Senator CLEMONS - Once this Bill was passed, the reason which many members of the Senate and the other House may have for objecting to a referendum of the people being taken on other matters in the Constitution would be seriously weakened. They would be told at once, " The people will have to be consulted on the question of altering the date of holding the Senate elections. Seeing that a referendum of the people must be taken on that point, and that certain expenditure must be incurred^ why not submit to them at the same time other questions?"

Senator McGregor - Will not the majority of the people have to agree to the proposals ?

Senator CLEMONS - I know, as honorable senators generally know, that the object of the Ministry in introducing the Bill is not to convenience the farmers, for that is a mere idle pretext-

Senator Keating - This is the' first time that I have ever heard that consideration urged.

Senator CLEMONS - No doubt it is the first time that the Minister has ever Heard it urged here, but I am sure that it is not the first time that he has .heard it urged elsewhere.

Senator Keating - I can assure the honorable senator that this is the first time I have ever heard it urged anywhere.

Senator CLEMONS - I accept my honorable friend's assurance. But he must recognise that we could not give a stronger argument to those who wish to submit an alteration of the Constitution in other directions than the fact that we have already passed a Bill which provides for the holding of a referendum for that purpose. It would be asked at once, " As you are going to consult the people, why object to ascertaining their will on other points at the same time, and so save expense?" That is the very great danger I see in passing the Bill. In consideration of what is expected to be gained by its enactment, if anything is to be gained, are we going to run that risk? Are we going to ask the people, as well as the Parliament, to incur the risk of altering the Constitution in a dozen directions, under the pretext of getting something for the farmers, and not for every class -of electors ?

Senator Findley - The honorable senator's opposition is not so much to the Bill as to what might happen if it were passed.

Senator CLEMONS - I have stated my reasons for opposing the Bill. Even if it contained a provision that no referendum should be taken on any other subject for a period of ten- years, the Bill would standselfcondemned in its essence. It is a Bill to give six months' additional tenure to honorable senators. It is not worth a flip of the fingers, because it is over-ridden by certain provisions of the Constitution. It is a measure which a penal dissolution of the other House would convert into wastepaper. There are a dozen good reasons why on its mere merits it should be thrown out. Nevertheless, I am perfectly certain that, for various reasons, Senator Findley and others will vote for its second reading.

Senator Findley - I shall be on safe ground when I vote in a direction opposite to the honorable senator.

Senator CLEMONS - The honorable senator will be on perfectly safe ground in so doing if he wishes to attain his object. If. as I believe, he wants the Constitution altered, not for this reason, but for other reasons, he will vote for the second reading of the Bill, in order to achieve those other objects, which from his point of view are vastly more important than the conveniencing of a few farmers in Victoria. I do not imagine that, whatever any one else mav do, he will make the idle pretence that he wishes to .see the Bill passed in order to help Victorian farmers. I shall oppose the Bill at every possible stage, because on its merits its passing would be discreditable to the Senate. I wonder that honorable senators cannot realize that if it were passed, when the history of the Commonwealth came to "be written the historian would have to record that the first time its great Constitution was ordered to be amended was on the occasion when it was thought desirable, amongst other things, to add six months' tenure to the term of those senators who were then legislating, and to give a tenure of three years and six months to their successors.

Senator Findley - It will not cost the country any more.

Senator CLEMONS - It may not, but is that a reason for altering, the Constitution ? Was the American Constitution ever altered under a pretext of that kind? Let us remember the great fight which took place before it was altered. Could any American nowadays read the history of his country with pride or pleasure if he had to recognise the fact that the first time its Constitution was altered was to increase the tenure of the senators under an idle pretext? Granted that honorable senators have a right to pass the Bill, what would be the result? The result would be simply to alter the date for the election of senators.

Senator Higgs - Could we not put against that argument the fact that during the first Parliament the members of the other House freely cut off four or five months of their tenure?

Senator CLEMONS - My only concern is to uphold the credit of the Senate. If the members of the other House did what my honorable friend has said, let us follow their example, but we shall not be doing that by voting six months' more tenure to ourselves.

Senator McGregor - Could we not take off six months' tenure? That would effect the same object.

Senator CLEMONS - I would not. as the honorable senator knows, make the question of tenure an excuse for altering the Constitution. It is asserted that it is very desirable to alter the date for holding the Senate elections, and that, therefore, the Constitution must be amended. That is not necessary. Under the Constitution as it stands; the elections for the Senate can be held in any month from August to December. Does not a choice of any one of the five months meet all requirements"? Would not any one of those months answer just as well as the month of March?

Senator McGregor - I think that the month of October would be better.

Senator CLEMONS - In that case, is the honorable senator going to support the Bill in order to produce the one avowed result of altering the date of elections to March?

Senator Mulcahy - There is no necessity to alter the Constitution if the month of October would be better.

Senator CLEMONS - Not the slightest necessity.

Senator McGregor - I was only expressing my own opinion.

Senator CLEMONS - When Senator McGregor and others admit that October is a better month than March, are they going to vote for the second reading, of this Bill?

Senator Dobson - It would be necessary to alter the time for holding the sittings of Parliament.

Senator CLEMONS - If we are going to consult the convenience of a class, or of members of Parliament, what reason is there for not meeting earlier in the year? I know of no reason why Parliament should not assemble in February instead of in May. If it met in February and sat until the end of August - which would represent the duration of a session - it would leave six months available to the Executive for choosing a date for holding the elections.

Senator Mulcahy - The fact that the financial year ends iri June mixes up things a little.

Senator CLEMONS - Yes ; but so would this Bill, if passed. Senator Millen pointed out the other day that one of the chief objections to its enactment as it stands is, that it is in conflict with the termination of the financial year, but that could be got over in any case. I submit that the scope which is offered to us at present for holding the elections is ample to meet the requirements of every class of citizens in every State. I go further, and say that in my opinion the Senate has no right to consider an V particular class of the community when it is fixing upon the date for holding the elections. It is absurd that we should attempt to practically briber - because it is a species of bribe - electors to go to the poll.

Senator Mulcahy - That is not the case.

Senator CLEMONS - It is almost going that far. It is practically saying to the farmers. " We recognise that, under existing arrangements, you have good and sufficient reasons for not voting." I do not hold that view. Seeing: that the elections occur only once in three years, a man, whether he be a farmer or not. has no excuse for not recording his vote. For this reason. I do not think that the Senate is justified in sanctioning a referendum, to the people in order to fix a better date for a particular class to vote.

Senator Dobson - Do not call it a bribe, and so spoil a good speech.

Senator CLEMONS - I have not called it a bribe in the ordinary sense, but it is an approach to that. What are we doing? We are dispensing special privileges to a particular class.

Senator Dobson - I do not think it is a privilege. We are endeavouring to meet the general convenience.

Senator Drake - Giving special facilities to one class.

Senator Trenwith - If it injures the facilities of no other class, what objection can there be?

Senator CLEMONS - We have already agreed that if we alter the date to suit the convenience of the farmers, we are certain to inconvenience some other class.

Senator Drake - We have not heard from them.

Senator CLEMONS - As Senator Drake says, we have not heard from them. But I am sure Senator Trenwith will recognise with me that it would be easy for many other classes to allege just as good and satisfactory a reason as the farmers have alleged.

Senator Trenwith - I suppose that if a day were chosen every other day in the year would be more convenient to somebody else.

Senator CLEMONS - There is not the slightest doubt that it would. Surely it is a serious thing to alter the Constitution for the ostensible purpose of suiting the farmers. For the reasons I have indicated, I shall oppose the Bill in every possible way.

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