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Wednesday, 5 September 1906

Senator McGREGOR (South Australia) . - I have a vivid recollection of the framing of the first Constitution by the Federal Convention, and also of the submission of that Constitution to the people of Australia. One of the strongest objections all over Australia to the first Constitution was that it was not elastic enough' - that there was no possibility of amending it except by wading through almost a sea of difficulty.

Senator Trenwith - That was because the American Constitution was in the mind of the people.

Senator McGREGOR - It was because what has been described as the cast-iron principle of the Constitution of America, was embodied in it; and that first attempt to bring about Federation failed. There was a Conference of Premiers held, and an amendment was effected in clause 127, now section 128, of the Constitution, making it possible under any circumstances to amend the Constitution; and a majority of the people of Australia in every' State accepted that Constitution as amended. I may say that I voted against the 'Constitution as first proposed, but in favour of the second, for the reason that the latter gave power to the people, almost despite the Parliament, to amend it. To-day we have Senator Symon', in his jocular way, ridiculing the Bill because it proposes only a trifling amendment. Apparently the hon orable senator would permit the Constitution to be pock-marked with little defects from the first section to the last, rather than amend it - he would decline even to administer a dose of medicine, being satisfied with nothing short of amputation.

Senator Trenwith - Or decapitation.

Senator McGREGOR - Or decapitation. Why was the Constitution made elastic? Was it not that it might be amended? Senator Symon has repeatedly referred to' the proposal to add six months to the term of sitting senators, or senators who may be elected at the next election. Is that proposal really so calamitous, or one of which we need be ashamed ? In answer to an interjection - there had to be an interjection first - the honorable senator said he did not impute any motive in this connexion to honorable senators who proposed to vote for the second reading.

Senator Sir Josiah Symon - The honorable senator is misrepresenting me. I never imputed that motive at all.

Senator McGREGOR - I do not say that the honorable senator did. In reply to an interjection, the honorable senator said! that he did not impute any motive, but in his references to the remarks of Senator Trenwith he kept " rubbing it in, as he said." Why? Why is a mustard plaster applied if not to irritate? The idea must have been running in the mind of the honorable senator or we should not have had the continued repetition of the statement we heard from him. It has been said that we are altering the Constitution in a wa\ that may not suit a majority of the people. It is acknowledged that late in the year is not convenient for an election, particularly in the case of the agricultural population. It has been repeatedly said that if the last election had not been held so late in the year, the country would have been saved the calamity of such a strong Labour Party within this Parliament. If there be any truth in that contention, honorable senators on the other side ought to be willing to make any arrangement to secure the largest possible number of voters at the poll. All' that is proposed now is to provide machinery whereby the people of Australia may say whether they will have the elections in October, November, or December, or in March, April, or May. That question will have to be answered one way or the other by a majority of the people in a majority of the States; and surely there is nothing very criminal in such a proposal. I notice that each honorable senator argues as though the State he represents is the only one to be considered ; but, as Senator Trenwith pointed but, we desire to fix a time most suitable to the whole of the people. In my opinion, so far as the southern States of South Australia, Victoria, New . South Wales, and even Western Australia, are concerned, October would be a most convenient month, though for Queensland it would be highly inconvenient. In the latter State October is the height of the sugar season, when any stoppage of the mills would result in considerable loss.

Senator Walker - March would also be a verv inconvenient month in Queensland.

Senator McGREGOR - I am not suggesting that the month should be March, but I dare say Queensland senators will agree with me that the latter end of April or the beginning of May would be a most convenient time for the northern State. Can any honorable senator show that the time I have mentioned would be inconvenient to the other States? Senator Symon has told us that of late years the weather has often been wet in May; but as a matter of fact in South Australia there are not ten wet days in May, and the people there would be very glad of a little more rain. If the latter end of April or the beginning of May would suit every other State, and suit Queensland better than any other time, why should the Constitution' not be altered? "No," says Senator Symon; "you must not alter the Constitution; it is too sacred a thing."

Senator Sir Josiah Symon - I said nothing of the kind.

Senator McGREGOR - The honorable senator said that we ought not to alter the Constitution unless in regard to some great principle.

Senator Sir Josiah Symon - I said that we should not alter the Constitution for a trifle like this.

Senator McGREGOR - The Constitution was made elastic, so that alterations might be carried out in the interests of the people. Throughout the Constitution we find in many sections the words " until Parliament otherwise .provides. " The tenure of a senator is not a very important matter, and I ask why the words I have quoted were not used in this regard.

Senator Sir Josiah Symon - Does the honorable senator not think that it was not meant to amend the Constitution for such a trifle?

Senator McGREGOR - The omission shows that the framers of the Constitution did not think anything about the matter. They got over these sections as quickly as possible; but they inserted "until Parliament otherwise provides " in regard to much less important matters. Had the words been inserted, we should have been saved all our present trouble. Some honorable senators have said that the dissolution of another place would disorganize all the arrangements under the Bill. But are we not in that position now?

Senator Sir Josiah Symon - The position is not bettered by the Bill.

Senator McGREGOR - A dissolution of Parliament would disorganize matters now.

Senator Best - It might or might not.

Senator McGREGOR - It might or might not, and in just the same way it might or might not if an alteration were made fixing the date of the elections for April or May. But if a dissolution did alter it, I am satisfied that, in the interests of economy, the members of the Federal Parliament would see that the dates of the elections of the two Houses were brought together again as soon as that could be effected, as it certainly could be by degrees. That is what would be done under existing conditions, and. in fact, under any circumstances. If this alteration is made, it can only be with the consent of a majority of the people in a majority of the States.

Senator Best - And the majority of the House of Representatives.

Senator McGREGOR - And a majority of both Houses of the Federal Parliament. We are only proposing in this measure to ask the people whether it would be more convenient for them to have the Federal elections held in March, April, or May, or in October, November, or December. If they give an answer, the change, if a change is desired, will be effected, and it will be according to the will of the majority of the people; it will suit the convenience of the majority, and we shall hear no more about it.

Senator Lt.-Col.GOULD (New South Wales) [5.17]- - From some of the arguments that have been adduced, one would be inclined to think that this Bill proposed not only a desirable, but a very simple, alteration in the Constitution. I have every sympathy with honorable senators who wish to fix the date of the elections at such a time as will enable the largest number of the electors to record their votes. We all deplore the fact that many of the electors take so little trouble to record their votes. I admit that it is a reasonable proposal to fix the date of our elections at a time that will be convenient to the electors, and that we should make any alteration which will bring about that result and which can be made without any great difficulty. If we were able to deal with a matter of this kind without any amendment of the Constitution, many of our difficulties would be removed. Whilst it is true that we can amend the Constitution in any way we think fit, alterations of the Constitution are always very properly regarded as matters of very grave importance, and they should not be undertaken without serious reason.

Senator DAWSON (QUEENSLAND) - Is it not a serious reason that the whole of the electors should be provided with an opportunity to cast their votes.

Senator Lt Col GOULD .- It is no doubt desirable that they should be given that opportunity.

Senator DAWSON (QUEENSLAND) - It is not merely desirable ; it is a verv serious matter.

Senator Lt Col GOULD .- I say that it is desirable that we should not seek to amend the Constitution unless verv serious questions are involved. In Quick and Garran's Annotated. Constitution, I find the following remarks made under the of " Alteration " : -

Where a community is founded on a political compact it is only fair and reasonable that that compact should be protected, not only against the designs of those who wish to disturb it by introducing revolutionary projects, but also against the risk of thoughtless tinkering and theoretical experiments.

Senator Trenwith - But not against the desire of the parties to the compact.

Senator Lt Col GOULD - I am willing to admit that honorable senators opposite do not regard this measure as "thoughtless tinkering" with the Constitution. But unless it can be shown that it will attain the object for which it is proposed - that it will bring about a condition of affairs in the future which will afford a better opportunity to the electors to record their votes than they now have - it must be so regarded. If the measure is merely to change the date of the elections from one month to another, and the difficulties sought to be overcome are as likely to arise in one month as in another, the measure must be held to be thoughtless tinkering.

Senator Drake - It removes ore difficulty by creating another.

Senator Lt Col GOULD - Exactly. What was the object of the founders of the Constitution? It was that, as far as possible, the Senate and the House of Representatives should be elected concurrently, and should occupy the same time in dealing with matters appertaining to the Commonwealth. I admit that it is always possible that a penal dissolution may take place, which would destroy the symmetry of the scheme. But, as it at present stands, the Constitution clearly contemplates that the two Houses shall be elected together, and that each shall continue without change of -personnel for a period of three years. We are now in the sixth year of our existence as a Commonwealth, and we have had no penal dissolution during that period.

Senator Henderson - We might have four during the next six years

Senator Lt Col GOULD - The House of Representatives, in the first Parliament, lasted for the full period of three years, and is now completing a second period of three years, and the elections for the two Houses will again take place together. I assume that this Bill will be passed, and, for the sake of argument, that the Parliament to be elected at the end of this year will continue in existence for three years. In these circumstances, we shall find ourselves in this anomalous position. Certain senators who will be elected in the month of November or December will continue to hold office for six years and six months, and honorable senators who under existing circumstances have three years of office to run will continue in office for three years and six months.

Senator Best - That is so.

Senator Lt Col GOULD - The members of the House of Representatives elected at the same time will have only three years of office, and will then have to go to their constituents again, and the new Parliament will meet before honorable senators who have three years and six month's of office to run have completed that term of office. Members of the Senate, whose time is about to expire, will then be taking part in legislation brought forward by a Parliament that is newly elected, so far as' the House of Representatives is concerned, and, as Senator- Symon put it, the new senators will be waiting to take the cloaks as they fall from other men. If, on the other hand, we do not pass this Bill, both Houses of the

Federal Parliament will go before the electors at the same time under normal conditions. Now I take the case where a dissolution takes place, and I admit at once that that throws the whole of our machinery out of gear. In such a case it will be impossible to again secure the concurrent election of the two Houses, unless the dissolution of the House of Representatives should take place just at the time when an election for the Senate ought to take place under the new law. It has already been pointed out that under section 9 of the "Constitution -

The Parliament of a State may make laws for determining the times and places of elections of senators for the State. and in section 5 it is provided that -

After any general election the Parliament shall be summoned to meet not later than thirty days after the day appointed for the return of the writs. "Under the Commonwealth Electoral Act the writs are to be returnable within sixty days after their issue, and Parliament must meet within thirty days after they are returned. So that under no conceivable set of circumstances is it possible for us to overcome the difficulty I have pointed out in the event of Parliament expiring by effluxion of time. If Parliament expires by effluxion of time, and the elections are held on the 31st December, the new Parliament must meet bv the end of the following month of March. That is assuming that the writs are issued and made returnable within sixty days after their issue.

Senator McGregor - An amendment of the Electoral Act would put all that right.

Senator Lt Col NEILD (NEW SOUTH WALES) -Col. GOULD. - It would not put it right except so far as the return of the writs is concerned. Our Electoral Act provides that -

The date fixed for the nomination of candidates shall not be less than seven days nor more than twenty -one days after the date of the writ. and -

The date fixed for the polling shall not be less than seven days or more than thirty days after the date of nomination. anc -

The date fixed for the return of the writ shall not bs more than sixty days after the issue of the writ.

Then we have the provision in the Constitution requiring Parliament to meet within thirty days after the return of the writs. Senator McGregor contends that the Commonwealth Parliament can alter its electoral law, but I ask honorable senators if it is within the bounds of probability that any Parliament would amend the electoral law so as to permit of a delay in the meeting of Parliament until six months after the date of the election ?

Senator McGregor - That is not what I meant. .What compels an election of the House of Representatives at the end of the vear?

Senator Lt Col GOULD - The fact that its term of office expires at the end of the year.

Senator McGregor - But it does not.

Senator Lt Col GOULD .- The House of Representatives is elected for a period of three years, and the term is reckoned from the date on which honorable members take their seats. My argument is that after such a disarrangement as I have referred to, until we had some great change in connexion with the House of Representatives, we should not be able to bring about again the concurrent election of members of both Houses. As the law stands, the elections for the House of Representatives takes place at the end of the year.

Senator McGregor - Not necessarily. They might take place in April or in May.

Senator Lt Col GOULD .- So far as I know, there is no proposal to alter the law in that respect.

Senator Keating - It is not a question of law so much as a question of practice.

Senator Lt Col GOULD - No practice adopted will enable a newly elected House of Representatives to continue in office for more, than three years. That could only be done by legislation, and would involve an amendment of the Constitution. I contend that, as we cannot always make the elections for the two Houses concurrent, it is desirable that under ordinary circumstances they should take place in November, December, or January, rather than in May, June, or July. Honorable senators talk about the difficulty of getting persons fo vote; but that would not be overcome by enacting that the electors shall go to the polls and vote for the members of one House at one period of the year, and for the members of the other House at another period. Another point is that the Bill, if passed, would involve an alteration of the Parliamentary Allowances Act of 1902. It will be remembered that section 48 of the Constitution says -

Until the Parliament otherwise provides, each senator and each member of the House of Repre- sentatives shall receive an allowance of ^400 a year, to be reckoned from the day on which he takes his seat.

The Parliamentary Allowances Act contains this provision-

The allowance to each senator under section 48 of the Constitution shall be reckoned -

(i)   in the case of a senator chosen to fill a place which is to become vacant in rotation, from the ist day of January following the date of his election.

It will be seen that this Bill, if passed, would involve the necessity of altering that Act. Because, if a man were elected in May, or June, or July - in fact, at any time during the year - his allowance would not become payable until the ist January in the succeeding year. Of course, I admit that that law could be altered ; but there it stands. Unless the Parliamentary Allowances Act were altered, the retiring men would receive their allowances up to the 30th June, and then the parliamentary work would be taken part in by the new men who would not be entitled to any allowance until the ist January following. I am pointing this out, mot as an insuperable objection, but as a subsequent alteration which must be made. Unless we provide that all elections shall take place after the 30th June, it will be most unwise to alter the time for holding the Senate elections. Even if there were circumstances which strongly pointed out that necessity, I have not heard that there is any intention to alter the date for holding the elections for the other House. I take it that, if the members of that House wanted an alteration they - would be inclined to make the period of their representation shorter, rather than, longer, in order to escape the objection which would otherwise be raised throughout the- country, that they had attempted to extend their term of office by six months. If the members of the other House were to' shorten the period of their representation by six months, then, instead of having a difference of six months between the elections, we should have a difference of twelve months. I think that, in framing this Bill, sufficient consideration has not been given te the whole subject. When any honorable senators propose to amend the Constitution in any respect, they ought to be perfectly satisfied in their own minds, first, that it is a most desirable amendment to make, and, secondly, that it can be accomplished without inconvenience or injury to public interests. I have failed to dis cover how the proposed alteration could be said to come within that category. If my honorable friends will look at the Constitution as a whole, they will see that the difficulties are such that, by passing, this measure, no permanent benefit could accrue, because at some time or other we should find that the Houses were not working together harmoniously, but in such a way as to bring about confusion in legislation.

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