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Tuesday, 15 November 1983
Page: 2700

Mr STEELE HALL(5.49) —If the Representation Bill is passed it will be a reasonable question to ask of the Senate in the future: What sort of a House of Parliament is it? Is it a House representing the States? The answer would have to be no, it is not a House representing the States. One could then ask the question: 'Is it therefore a party House, a House where parties are represented and where they make decisions in accord with their view as a House and in accord with the Government?' One would have to answer 'No, it is not a party House', because it would be a House of either of two kinds. It could be a House which was hung, with neither of the major parties in the Parliament having a majority, and with decisions being made by a smaller party sitting between the two major parties; or it could simply be a House reflecting a single issue of politics, with members elected because of their one interest in the community of Australia and being able to be elected to the Senate because of a lower quota. I say that because of the peculiar workings of the House in relation to what is proposed by this Bill. The effects of this Bill will occur for the reasons which I stated, and they are the reasons why the Liberal Party opposes this measure and will vote against it.

I believe that it is a test of the Government's sincerity about its desire now to increase the size of the Parliament to refer to the reasons why it suddenly found this to be a fashionable measure and one to be ardently supported. When the committee was set up by the Government to look into electoral matters in the community-the Joint Select Committee on Electoral Reform-there was not an intention by the Government to proceed with a measure to increase the size of the Parliament. No mention of this was made in the terms of reference of that Committee. Yet there was a factor that made the Government change its mind. What was that factor? It was evidence given to the Committee on behalf of the National Party of Australia which alerted the Government to the possibility that it could get the support of the National Party in this measure. The Australian Labor Party then, knowing that it had that support if it so proceeded, proceeded to look at the advantage to itself in the major metropolitan areas around Australia. Having done that study, it saw quite clearly that there was a major advantage for it electorally if it suddenly became an ardent supporter of increasing the number of members of parliament. That is why the Government became such a convert, such an active and ardent convert, to this proposal. It was simply because of the fortuitous gift that it got, of National Party support .

I regret that our colleagues in the coalition are supporting this measure. I have grave reservations about the consequence of the passage of the Representation Bill. I know that the Labor Party, as I have said, could not believe its luck in this matter. Let me point out what our reservations are. I have already said that it will not be possible for the government of the day to achieve a majority in the Senate if this Bill is passed. I will demonstrate directly how that will come about. This country, in a state of crisis at some time in the future, will have a government which will not be able to claim support in the Senate. It will have a government that will be thrown on the mercy of individuals who, I have said, will not be members of parliament in a number of cases because of widespread support in the community, but simply because of support on a single issue.

The Special Minister of State (Mr Beazley), by interjection or in speaking to this measure, may say: 'So what? The Labor Party has had a majority in the Senate on very few occasions'. I remind him that it did not have a majority in the Senate in 1975, either, and it would have liked to have had a majority. If ever there were evidence of what could happen in the future, it was what happened in that year. I put it to the Government that it is foolish in the extreme to tempt the future scene in the Australian political arena by setting up conditions which will automatically mean that no government will have a majority in the Senate and be able to control it in the future. Of course, in the long run it is not the political parties of this country which should be considered as simply being inconvenienced by this move; it is the nation which will suffer. It is the nation, in the face of economic or physical crisis, which will not be able to respond as it ought to respond, by having a clearcut decision in the Senate.

I mentioned the mechanics of what was proposed in relation to the Senate. I will mention some figures to support this view. The fact is that since the introduction of proportional representation in the Senate in the late 1940s, there has been only one occasion in 33 or 34 years when, under this Bill, a government would have had a majority in the Senate. This fact must be faced by the Government and the House. In 1975, in Queensland, the incoming Government, the two coalition parties, received 57.3 per cent of the Senate vote. The quota for the enlarged parliament will be 14.28 per cent. It will simply mean that a party with just under 43 per cent of the total vote will get half the number of Senate vacancies for that State. It is most likely that a polarisation will take place in Australian politics under the details that have just been passed in the amendments to the Commonwealth Electoral Act. That will mean that there will be a great chance that the major parties, the coalition and the Labor Party, will get half the number of Senate vacancies each. There is a very great chance of that happening over a number of elections. If it does not happen, minor parties will hold the balance. It is certain that unless there is a landslide such as occurred in 1975, which seldom occurs, no government will have a majority in the Senate. I would like the Minister to address this matter when he speaks in reply , because that is what the details and facts of previous elections tell us. The Government is setting up a position where no party can expect to have a majority in the Senate. As I have said, that is a most serious matter for Australia.

Some people have considered this matter in depth in the past. Members of the House would remember that in 1967 there was a referendum on the issue of breaking the nexus, because the government of the day did not want to proceed with increasing the numbers in the Senate, but it did want to proceed with increasing the numbers in the House of Representatives. It made that decision in a fairly considered way. On one important issue it had the support of the Opposition which was then led by Mr Whitlam. It is interesting to read in Hansard the speeches made in 1967 when this issue was debated. For the edification of the Minister, I will read an excerpt from the speech by the then Prime Minister, Mr Harold Holt.

Mr Leo McLeay —He is pretty edified already.

Mr STEELE HALL —There is a quote which suits the honourable member who interjected, because his Party was also represented in this debate, and I will read it to him directly. Mr Harold Holt said:

Unless the nexus is removed, a significant increase in the size of the House of Representatives cannot be made unless the number of senators is also increased proportionately.

That is something we all know, about which much debate has ensued over the years . He continued:

To enable the Senate to continue to opeate on a basis similar to that on which it is operating at the present-that is, with an uneven number of senators standing for election on every occasion in each State-the minimum increase is twenty-four. This would mean increasing the size of the House of Representatives by some forty-eight members. No-one in this Parliament-nor any member of the public would want this result. Nor do we as a government.

. . . .

The purpose of the proposal is to seek from the electors approval to alter the Constitution so that, as the growth of the Commonwealth's population demands, this Parliament can legislate for a modest increase in the size of the popular house . . . The possibility of a deadlocked Senate could be increased, and there are other factors which, in the view of the Government, make this a less desirable course . . .

This was one of the prime reasons why the then Prime Minister, Mr Holt, would not agree to an increase which would allow the election of even numbers of senators. At the time, Mr Whitlam was the Leader of the Opposition. His contribution to the debate included the following:

To minimise the chances of even division between Government and Opposition parties and thus a stalemate on all legislation in the Senate, an extraordinarily complicated system is proposed . . .

Nobody really believes that it is necessary to have an increase in the Senate in order to make that chamber more effective.

He too illustrated his concern for the effects of an election of even numbers in the Senate, and a party winning 43 per cent of the vote in any particular State and getting half the number of senators. It is totally irrational to think that, as a matter of principle, this Government would support a proposal which would allow 43 per cent of electors to give a party 50 per cent of senators. It is totally wrong in principle, and not to be supported.

One could ask the direct question-one which will influence the public-as to what this will cost. One can get reasonably reliable estimates of this. I suppose that, given the multi-billions of dollars that go through this House, honourable members are not very impressed with the figure of $5m to $6m as the direct cost of increasing the numbers of members of both Houses by the numbers proposed in this Bill. It is, however, a factor that ought to be mentioned. The figure is not less than $5m in direct costs, for salaries and support staff, outside of what is provided in this House as accommodation. I noted today a Government member asking-a member from the Left of the Party and the right of the Speaker-in this chamber when the Government will reduce taxation. I am sure that however minimal the Government might view the additional expenditure of $5m plus, it does not fit in with the Labor Party's back bench question today as to when we can expect a reduction in taxation.

Of course, that is not the real question at all. We know that a growth in the size of Parliament is only the cover of the book. It is an incentive for Parliament to expand its activities. It gives a lead to the community for an increase in the bureaucracy. It is the stamp of approval on an increase in the bureaucracy. Honourable members know very well that when the Federal Government sneezes, Canberra grows. It is as simple as that. It will reflect on and rub off on the community. The bureaucracy will inevitably grow if this Bill is passed. It will grow at a time when the community is very aware of the need for economy in industry, in commerce and in many other directions.

We have only to look at the economic conditions in the community today. I ask you, Mr Deputy Speaker: Is this a time to increase the number of members of parliament? On 27 August General Motors-Holden's Ltd announced the sacking of 633 employees? On 27 August Leyland Motor Corporation of Aust. Ltd announced that it would close its Enfield plant in Sydney and put off 350 automotive industry employees. On 1 October Malleys Ltd sent 170 people to the dole queues. On 2 November a survey of the 229 retrenched people following the closure of Email Ltd's Sydney factory a year ago showed that only 26 per cent have found suitable full time or part time work. On 2 September blame was laid for the continuing pressures on coal exporters and the retrenchment of 270 people from the mines in New South Wales. It was announced in August that in the last 18 months Bradmill Industries Ltd had retrenched a total of 2,000 people, leaving a work force of 5,000 around Australia. Do I need to go on quoting from that miserable set of statistics? Is this the time, therefore, to ask for an increase in the number of members of parliament, to say to the community: 'You have to retrench. These are the economic realities of this community. To survive you have to get your costs down. You have to get people off the payroll'?

I visited Tasmania a fortnight ago and interviewed representatives of three industries fighting for survival. Their fight is based on capital investment. Less investment means fewer people employed. If employers do not retrench people they will go broke. It is easy to pass a Bill through this House and the other place to expand the activities of Parliament by 25 per cent-or whatever the figure is. That is a ridiculous proposition, and absolutely absurd at a time when everyone else is tightening his belt.

Let us ask the people what they think about this. Let us ask the public of Australia. The people gave their view, of course, way back in 1967 when, in rejecting a proposal to break the nexus between the Houses, they gave a clear cut indication that there ought not to be more members of parliament. Two months ago 76 per cent of people disagreed with increasing the number of members of parliament and 13 per cent agreed. Seventy-three per cent of ALP supporters disagreed and 80 per cent of Liberal-National Party supporters disagreed.

Mr Hodgman —Where is the consensus?

Mr STEELE HALL —As my colleague interjects, where is the consensus on this issue ? I have read out figures illustrating the deplorable economic circumstances and described the public's view of what should occur.

A claim is also made by honourable members that they are overworked. A further claim, of course, is that they do not see their electorates as much as they used to. That is absurd. It is nonsense. Any study of past amentities enjoyed by members of parliament and any knowledge of how they traipse around their electorates today would obviously prove the point that they now see and contact their electors more than they have ever done before. That is an undeniable fact. It is interesting to read of the conditions they once enjoyed. In 1952 a study was made of the amenities of members of parliament by the Committee of Inquiry into the Salaries and Allowances of Members of the National Parliament. Eight pounds was allocated for the postage costs of honourable members. I quote from the report:

The present allowance for stamps is #8 a month. It is in excess of members' needs, in some instances, very much in excess. We recommend that it by reduced by 50 per cent to #4 a month and this notwithstanding recent increases in the cost of postage.

That recommendation was made in 1952, but that was the standard then.

Mr Leo McLeay —Was that one of Harold Holt's speeches?

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Drummond) — Order! The honourable member for Grayndler, I believe, is on the list of speakers for this debate. He will have his opportunity to speak at a later time. He will cease interjecting.

Mr Leo McLeay —I was wondering what the source was.

Mr STEELE HALL —I gave the honourable member the source. It was a report by the Committee of Inquiry into the Salaries and Allowances of Members of the National Parliament. If the honourable member is not satisifed with that he can borrow my copy afterwards, which will save him looking in the Library. That was the standard then. If we are to compare the contact that members of parliament had with their electorates then with the situation obtaining now, there is only one conclusion one can make, and that is that members of parliament have much more contact with their electors now than they had then. They had one secretary then. The Committee recommended that that secretary be shared and that the services of secretaries be reduced. That was the standard then. It is simply unreal to say that honourable members do not contact their electorates as they used to. With modern amenities, modern travel, unlimited telephone facilities, unlimited air services and enormous postage allowances they do, in fact, contact their electors very widely indeed. That is not an issue; it is a myth from the past.

I know that members of the Electoral Reform Committee and others have made something of the comparisons internationally. They have looked at the scene in the United States of America, the United Kingdom, Canada and elsewhere. Only one real comparison can be made and that is with the United States where there is a comparable federation in that sense. If the rules of this Government were applied in the United States, we would have a situation in which there would be 2,500 members of Congress. How absurd can this Government be? It is a nonsense to make international comparisons in that fashion.

The only path that the Government should take if it wants to proceed down this line is the path of putting the nexus to the community. It will get an answer from members of the community as to whether they want an increase in the number of members of parliament. The Special Minister of State, who is seated at the table, can be contemptuous as the Minister in control of this Representation Bill. He can be contemptuous of the 76 per cent of the public who do not want this measure. I do not believe that this Bill is a democratic response to community desires. This is not a marginal decision and it is flouting community opinion. This decision has been taken simply for selfish reasons of political gain. Given the fortuitous support of the National Party the Labor Government perceives an electoral advantage especially in the city of Sydney. That is why it is proceeding with this legislation.

In the last few minutes available to me I want to read my dissenting report from the Committee's report. I wish to read it because I take it that members of the community do not very often read these reports. I said in that report about the size of parliament:

There are 189 Members in the Federal Parliament and 562 Members in the six State Parliaments.

Collectively therefore 751 Members of Parliament serve the public and compete for political approval. They are joined by 19 Members of the Northern Territory Assembly and the Australian Capital Territory Assembly of 18.

Quite obviously the different Parliaments operate with their own Constitutions and State Administrations are confined to their own borders.

However, they are all part of a federal system and Commonwealth electors are also State electors.

The public view is that there are politicians all over the place and one has only to attend public functions to find this to be often the situation.

Taking all 788 politicians including members of the two Assemblies into the calculation, Australia has a Member to each 12,000 electors.

The public would rightly be offended if the size of Federal Parliament was increased at a time when many businesses are reducing the number of their employees because of recession.

An increase in Members would inevitably swell the bureaucracy and put a stamp of approval on its growth when much of Australia is asking for smaller government.

My view does not hold that there should never be an increase. Population growth will make this desirable probably at the end of the century.

In the meantime, Members of Federal Parliament and the public would be well served by an increase in electorate office staff.

The Remuneration Tribunal, in its 1977 report, strongly advocated that an additional staff member be allocated to members of parliament. I believe that the previous Government was deficient in not moving in that area. I believe that this Government should move in that area.

Mr Griffiths —But you don't want an increase in the size of the bureaucracy. You can't have it both ways.

Mr STEELE HALL —The honourable member puts forward a silly argument. He knows what I am arguing. I am arguing that the increase of a staff member for each member of parliament will save the expenditure of untold millions that would occur if the numbers of members of parliament were enlarged in both Houses. My dissenting report continues:

In the meantime, Members of Federal Parliament and the public would be well served by an increase in electorate staff.

The work load of electorate offices is continually increasing as media influence and Member involvement in it grows.

Additional assistance in this way for Members to fulfill their representational role will allow them more time for their legislative and parliamentary duties.

In particular, more country electorates should receive more special assistance related to multiple office needs and travel allowances.

As I said earlier, I am astonished that the Government would so ignore the words of one of its own people from a previous parliament, Mr Whitlam, who clearly said in a debate on the matter that, in his view, there was a danger of a deadlock in the Senate if an even number of members was allowed to be elected. I am amazed also that the Government should ignore advice given during that same debate by the then Prime Minister, Mr Harold Holt, who dwelt on the same question. Now, at rather short notice and for quite fortuitous reasons of political advantage the Government is moving in this direction.

To ignore the lessons of history and the good advice given by people who have dealt with this matter at lenght I believe is to put Australia in very great danger of having, as I have said, as a possible result a Senate with no government majority-a known factor. I understand that the Government must have made an assessment and it must have decided that it was not necessary for the good government of Australia even to allow the election of a majority in the Senate. I happen to believe that it is a good thing basically for a government to have a majority in the Senate. Whilst one contends, of course, for political superiority in every leg of politics, in theory and in practice one has to allow the government of the day the ability to govern. My record on that in matters of money Bills in the Senate is quite clear. But, as I have said, this Government is taking direct measures which will not only militate against it but also prevent it from happening. I believe that is an utterly negative approach to the need that Australia will have in the future for positive government.

Having said that, I get back to the point that, if no government is able to get a majority, quite obviously the Senate will be governed by a conglomerate of one major party receiving or buying the support of a smaller group or the mainstream of Australian politics will be directed by senators elected on single issues by the Australian community whereby a reduced quota can put them in Parliament on those issues. If that is to be the case this Government is to be utterly condemned for its cynical approach to this matter. If this Bill is passed, the future must be considered in the light of further changes that will have to be made at some time to ensure that the Senate again becomes representative, or to allow the possibility of it becoming representative of public opinion, so that a government might be given a majority as has occurred in the past and should occur in the future.

I again say that I regret that this Bill has been introduced. I regret that the Liberal Party will be opposing this legislation in isolation and that the National Party will support it. However, it is a fact of life. I can only hope that, when the debate takes place in the Senate, the issues that we have raised in this chamber become paramount in those discussions and that the Bill may yet fail.