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Wednesday, 9 November 1983
Page: 2525

Mr WILSON(6.08) —In this debate I draw attention in particular to one matter of concern that I have with the Commonwealth Electoral Legislation Amendment Bill. My colleague the honourable member for Boothby (Mr Steele Hall) referred to it in his speech. The Government, in introducing this Bill, has shown its concern and awareness of the implications for the Constitution of the representation in the House of Representatives from the States. High Court decisions have made clear the manner in which fractions of quotas are to be apportioned to the States so the original States are to be represented in this House by the number of members in proportion to the population of all the States with a quota determined and applied to the population of the States. In fact this legislation goes one step further than previous legislation because it takes account of the problem that could arise if shortly before an election a State either became eligible for an additional member or two, or, because of rapid population shifts, became ineligible for as many as were previously allocated and had to have its representation reduced by one of two members.

But no formula is applied to the provisions dealing with the Territories. In the Committee debate I will ask the Special Minister of State (Mr Beazley) whether he will accept amendments to apply principles to representation from the Territories in a manner similar to the principles applied to the States. The representation in the Territories is dealt with in different sections of the Constitution. Section 7 of the Constitution, in dealing with the States, provides that in the Senate, unless the Parliament otherwise provides, each original State shall have six senators and an equal number of senators, whether it be six or some increased number, and the number of senators cannot be reduced below six. The Constitution further provides that the senators from a State must be chosen by the people. In the House of Representatives the number of members must be as nearly as practicable twice the number of senators. They must be chosen by the people and the seats must be allocated in proportion to the populations of the several States.

It is interesting to note in that section that the Constitution does not refer to the several original States but to the several States which rather implies that, should a new State be created, the Constitution may well require that it be represented only in proportion to its population. In the case of the House of Representatives there is a further proviso which states, in the case of original States, that no original State can be represented in this House by fewer than five members.

I have been a delegate from the Parliament to a number of constitutional conventions. On the agenda for the Perth Constitutional Convention, for the first time there was a proposal in my name that was aimed at amending sections 121 and 122 of the Constitution. These two sections deal with representation in both Houses of Parliament from new States and from the Territories. As those sections are worded at present, there is no obligation upon the Parliament to require that members or senators from the Territories be chosen by the people. In fact they are, and I believe there should be a constitutional guarantee that they always will be so chosen. Likewise, in the provisions relating to the Territories, no formula is laid down as to how the numbers of members or senators from a Territory shall be determined. It is my view that the representation in this House from a Territory should be in proportion to the population of the Territory, applying to the population of the Territory a quota similar to that worked out to determine representation in this chamber from the original States.

Likewise, it is my view that the representation in the Senate should be the two senators that each Territory now has but should increase above two only as each Territory achieves a growth in population so that it is entitled to another senator to match additional members in accordance with the ratio of one senator for two members in this House. In a sense, it is a reverse nexus but, while the nexus remains, in the interests of the proper representation in this chamber and in the Senate of the people of the original States, similar limitations should be placed upon the number of senators and the number of members that there may be from the Territories.

The Bill before the House provides that there shall be two members of the House of Representatives from the Australian Capital Territory and one from the Northern Territory. It makes no provision and lays down no formula about what would happen if the population of, for example, the Australian Capital Territory were to rise to a level that would entitle it to three members on the quotas applicable to the States. Such a formula should be written into the legislation so that the Parliament and the people of the nation can be assured that the Government is genuine when it says that it wants representation in this chamber from electorates that have similar quotas and electorates with tolerances not exceeding 10 per cent. Therefore, I will in the Commitee stage be urging the Special Minister of State (Mr Beazley) to consider accepting an amendment that would enable this formula to be written into the legislation. Likewise, I hope that he will agree to limit the number of senators from the Territories in a similar manner. If he agrees to both those things it will be evidence of the Government's good faith in its desire to ensure that, to use its phraseology, there is one vote, one value.

I will have a further opportunity to explain in some more detail those recommendations. It would still be my hope that the item on the agenda of the Constitutional Convention which has been deferred for further consideration would one day achieve a situation whereby these guaranteed rights of the people of the Territories, together with the limitations on the number of members and senators from those Territories in accordance with a population and nexus formula, are written into the Constitution. I will be using my best endeavours to ensure that at an appropriate time that important matter is considered by the Constitutional Convention.

I now turn briefly to talk about the important function of the electoral commissioners, for their function is one of vital significance to the future of the Australian democratic system. To a significant extent the future of our democratic system is in their hands. If the representation in parliament is to reflect truly the wishes of the people electoral boundaries need to be drawn in such a way that they are truly sensitive to public opinion as expressed through the ballot box in elections for this House. The electoral commissioners are required to take into account a number of factors when they draw boundaries, but they are not called upon to give an explanation as to the manner in which those proposals take account of the criteria that are contained in the legislation before this House at this time. They, therefore, will in fact have a very wide discretionary power, the exercise of which can make our country either more or less democratic according to the manner in which they exercise those powers.

The term 'gerrymander' is very often used by the Australian Labor Party to describe what is, in fact, malapportionment. The term 'gerrymander' when correctly used describes a number of practices aimed at the manipulation of divisional boundaries to secure unfairly a disproportionate influence at the elections of some party or group of candidates. Gerrymander in its strict sense does not mean malapportionment. Boundaries drawn in a way which can bring about a result which is highly sensitive to public opinion and which does not necessarily bring about a result that gives a disproportionate influence can be achieved with electorates of different sizes. We have come to accept the fact that it is desirable that electorates should be as nearly as possible equal in size in terms of the numbers of electors. When the term 'gerrymander' is used in its strict meaning it is assumed that electoral divisions comprise an equal number of electors and that their boundaries are manipulated to concentrate one party's votes in as few electorates as possible, while spreading the dependable majorities of another party over as many seats as possible.

Although the electoral commissioners are expected to be politically impartial, the paradox is that the Electoral Commission will not be able to perform its task fairly unless it takes into account and has some regard for voting patterns . The Electoral Commission, in drawing up its plans for a redistribution, should take care to ensure that a disproportionate influence is not given to one party. Therefore, it needs to take account of overall voting patterns if changes in electoral boundaries are to bring about, from the electors' point of view, a fair result rather than the reverse. It is possible by drawing boundaries a given way to secure for one party an influence in terms of seats disproportionate to the votes cast throughout the nation, a State or a region. Electoral commissioners will, however, be concerned with States and they should take account of the proper balance of political representation so that they do not gerrymander the electorates even though there are a similar number of electors within each electorate. If there is to be electoral justice notice must be taken of the voting patterns otherwise, unwittingly, the consequences of a redistribution could be to favour unfairly a particular party when the objective should be to favour none. The number of seats won by any party should be a true barometer of public opinion in a nation, within a State and within a region.

It will be argued that an electoral system based on single member electorates may give a winning party a bonus of seats proportionately greater than its total percentage vote. If the system is to be truly democratic the pivot point at which a party can gain a majority of seats-with or without some sort of bonus- should be as close as possible to the 50-50 mark not merely in first preference votes but in two-party preferred votes. I was very pleased that I had the opportunity today of hearing the remarks in this House of the honourable member for Port Adelaide (Mr Young) for he affirmed that it was his view, and he had previously said that it was his view, that the important thing is that government should change hands at the 50-50 point. I want to quote him. This was a speech he made when he held ministerial responsibility as Special Minister of State. On 4 May this year, as recorded at page 205 of Hansard, he said:

As I have said publicly, the laws that will be brought into this Parliament and approved by this Government will mean that if conservative parties of this country get 50 per cent of the vote plus one they will be the government but if the Labor Party gets 50 per cent plus one it will be the government. That is the way it ought to be.

That is the real challenge to electoral commissioners, to ensure that as they draw the boundaries within each State each of the major political groupings in this country has the opportunity to achieve government on a 50-50 split of the two-party preferred vote. My time has nearly expired. I want to make one further point, and that is that my views about the need to simplify the preferential system are no different today than they were nearly 10 years ago when we had a similar debate on this matter. I think it is important that electors be enabled to express their views clearly and that their votes can be counted. If they want to express their views in accordance with a party's how to vote card their right to do so should be made as easy as possible. In conclusion I again ask the Minister whether he will give consideration to the point I made first concerning the representation from the Territories.