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Thursday, 17 November 1983
Page: 2856

Mr WELLS(11.15) —In February next year the Australian people will have the opportunity to vote on five proposals to alter the Australian Constitution. Of these, the two most contentious are the proposal to introduce simultaneous elections between the House of Representatives and the Senate and the proposal to lengthen the parliamentary term to four years. This debate, as honourable members who have spoken previously have mentioned, is an adjourned debate. Some excellent and fine contributions have been made by honourable members on both sides. I note the speech of the honourable member for Eden-Monaro (Mr Snow) who has spoken recently, the contribution from the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Peacock) and a very fine speech from the honourable and learned member for North Sydney (Mr Spender). This proposal to alter the Constitution in these five ways has attracted a considerable level of bipartisan support. I thank honourable members opposite for their rationality and for their willingness to look at this in a bipartisan manner.

One of the issues which were raised by my honourable friend from Eden-Monaro was that of cost. The first, and I think the most salient, point which will be to the fore in the minds of many of the Australian people will be the actual cost of these referenda and the results of their implementation. Madam Deputy Speaker, I have sought permission from the honourable member for Higgins (Mr Shipton), the Opposition member who is at the table, to incorporate in Hansard a table, which I have also shown to you. I therefore seek leave to incorporate in Hansard the table concerned.

Leave granted.

The table read as follows-

Comparative cost of Federal Elections, 1984-94, first assuming Houses continue out of phase (Columns 1 and 2), second assuming constitutional change brings them back into phase (Column 3), third assuming constitutional change introduces four yearly elections (Column 4).

Total of first two columns is the cost if referenda not carried. Total of third column is the cost if referendum for simultaneous elections only is carried. Total of Column 4 is the cost if referendum for 4 year terms is also carried.

Column 1

Column 2

Column 3

Column 4

House of House and

Infla- Represent- 1/2 Senate

tion 1/2 Senate atives House and 4 yearly

Factor* Election Election 1/2 Senate elections

$ million $ million $ million $ million 1984

1.000 16.5 1985

1.100 18.7 19.3 19.3 1986

1.210 1987

1.331 22.0 1988

1.464 24.9 25.6 1989

1.610 28.2 1990

1.771 29.2 1991

1.948 33.1 34.1 1992

2.143 1993

2.357 38.9 41.3 1994

2.593 44.1 45.4

Total 1st Total Total two columns 227.4 Column 3 124.4 Column 4 88.8

* Inflation factor based on a constant 10% compounding factor.

Mr WELLS —Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. The table, which I have had put together, demonstrates quite clearly that there will be massive savings to the taxpayer if these referenda are carried. The first referendum seeks to bring elections for the two Houses back into line. The honourable member for Denison ( Mr Hodgman), who has just spoken, pointed out that there have been only four elections when the Senate went to the people separately from the House. But the trouble with those four was that they were four more or less in a row. They were during the Menzies period; at least most of them were. We are facing a situation in which the Houses are out of phase. They could remain out of phase for the next 10 years. I am sure that even the honourable member for Denison would accept this. If that did happen, the cost to the Australian taxpayer in terms of the elections alone would be $227.4m. That is assuming eight elections, four for the House and four for the Senate, between 1984 and 1994. If, however, the Houses were brought back into phase by the passage of the first referendum, that is, the referendum to bring the Houses back into phase, the cost to the taxpayer would be $124.4m. That would be a saving of $103m over the course of the next 10 years.

If, however, the other important and contentious referendum were carried, namely, the referendum to extend the parliamentary term to four years instead of three, that would involve a cost to the taxpayer of $88.8m over the 10-year period compared with the $227.4m over the 10-year period if neither referendum were carried. That means a saving, if both referenda are carried, of $138.6m. A lot can be done with $138.6m. That represents $14m a year approximately, not allowing for inflation. A lot can be done for the Australian people with that amount of money. When the minority of honourable members opposite, such as the honourable member for Denison and the honourable member for Bass (Mr Newman), who spoke some weeks ago in this debate, put forward their ideas and their objections to the introduction of simultaneous elections and extension of the term of a parliament's life, they put forward very expensive suggestions indeed. I say to those people who are inclined to accept the story which is being put forward by the minority of honourable members opposite that if they wish to buy that story it will cost them. In fact, it will cost them $138.6m. My honourable friend from Eden- Monaro also made some points about the costs of the referenda. His figures are a little more conservative than mine. The honourable member for Eden Monaro is noted for being a very cautious man. The figures that I have obtained are based on an inflation-indexed factor taken over the period 1984 to 1994 and on statistics for the base figures provided by the Australian Electoral Office.

Having said that massive savings for the taxpayer are available if these referenda are carried, I would like to consider the questions of principle involved. I deal firstly with the referendum to bring the elections of the two Houses back into phase. I can do no better than to quote from the speech by the honourable member for North Sydney who said during this debate:

When the times are out of phase there is a very great inducement to the government controlling the lower House, as it always does, to do something political and irresponsible at the time when a mid-term Senate election is called.

In other words, the election atmosphere is more or less continuous. The government is responding to an election situation rather than responding to the needs of government. Too frequent elections mean that government is constantly carried on in a campaign atmosphere. This is the antithesis of good government.

Objections to the proposals to bring the two Houses into phase came from the honourable member for Denison and the honourable member for Bass. The honourable member for Denison, in his more in sorrow than in anger persona, said that he did not like this erosion of the independence of the Senate. The honourable member for Bass said that the proposal to bring the two Houses into phase was destroying the system of checks and balances which made the Senate completely independent of the House. However, he also said that he did not wish the Senate to be independent of the electorate. During the last debate, the honourable member for Bass said:

Again, it will destroy part of the checks and balances system, including the fixed term as a balance to the unfixed term of the House of Representatives.

However, he went on to say:

I recognise the case for a four-year term for this House but I could not tolerate a senator having an eight-year term. That would make him almost completely independent of the electorate.

So, on one hand, the honourable member does not want senators to be independent of the electorate but he does want them to be independent of the House. Nothing in the legislation will stop the Senate from being a check or a balance to the House. All that is implied by the legislation is that, if the Senate acts as a check and a balance, it might have to face the electorate along with the House. The two honourable members I referred to made it clear that they did not mind the Senate having to face the people. So nothing will stop the Senate from continuing to be a check and a balance to the House of Representatives. Nothing will stop the Senate from being the useless pain in the neck that it always has been. The checks and balances will remain. What will change is that, if the Senate exercises this power to be a check and a balance, it will have to face the people of Australia. That, in the words of the honourable members who spoke against these proposals, is 'nothing to the harm'.

The view of the honourable member for Bass and the honourable member for Denison that the Senate should not be completely independent of the people sits rather illogically with the tender concern they express for a Senate of the future which acts as a check and balance and then has to pay the horrific consequence of facing the people. As far as the simultaneous election proposals are concerned, I would like to make it perfectly clear that the role of the Senate as a check and balance will not be eroded. The role of the Senate in that capacity will remain. All that will change is that senators will have to pay the electoral consequence of acting as a check and a balance and face the people of Australia.

I have referred already to the further massive savings which could be obtained if the second referendum were carried, that is the referendum to increase the length of the parliamentary term of the House of Representatives to four years. I turn again to questions of principle. Once more I can do no better that to quote from the speech by the honourable member for North Sydney who said:

Governments should have a chance to implement their programs. In particular, when governments are new I think it is necessary that they should have a chance, in the interests of the mandate that they may have been given, to implement their programs.

Yet new governments always go through a learning process. When a government comes to office it is almost immediately faced with the need for campaigning. Very frequently there is little chance for a government to deal with housekeeping matters and to attend to good government in the absence of an immediate election. Australian governments are plagued with too frequent elections. They are plagued with an inability to implement their mandate without having a constant eye to opinion polls and popularity ratings. We need a chance for some governing to be done free of an election climate. In the present climate, no governing in the last seven, 10 or even more years has been done free of an election climate.

Some concern has been expressed by certain honourable members opposite, including the honourable member for Denison and the honourable member for Bass, about the legislation which seeks to extend the parliamentary term of the House of Representatives to four years. That concern is not so much because of the very sensible increase in the term of the House of Representatives to four years but because this would involve an eight-year term for the Senate. The honourable member for Bass pointed out that this would make senators independent of the electorate. I quote his own colourful prose. Without referring to any particular senator, he said:

It would give him such a continuity of service that we might as well put him on the Public Service payroll . . . That continuity would allow him to not be answerable to the electorate.

But the point which the honourable member for Bass misses out in this remark is that most senators-and he was not talking about a particular senator-are not answerable to the electorate now. Senators are not answerable to the electorate unless they happen to be last on the Australian Labor Party or coalition tickets in any Senate election. If they are number 1 to 4 on the preselection list for Labor or the coalition parties they are guaranteed election anyway. Most of them do not face the people. I do not want to give the honourable member for Bass, who is away from Canberra on parliamentary business at the moment, a lesson in logic during his absence, but his argument commits the fallacy of division. It does not follow from the fact that the Senate has to face the people that any particular senator faces the people. The only senators who are in any way in danger of losing their seats in the Senate are those who are last on the Liberal Party, National Party of Australia or Labor Party ticket.

If honourable members opposite are serious in wanting the people's representatives in the Senate to be answerable to them, what they should be arguing for is a change in the method of electing the Senate. They should be arguing instead, perhaps, for the abolition of the Senate. We do not need the ossification of the Senate, but its abolition if the ideas of the honourable member for Bass in regard to making the Senate representatives are to apply. In short, the argument about giving senators eight-year terms is neither here nor there. Senators do not have to face the people most of the time anyway unless they happen to be the last on the ticket. It is totally irrelevant to say, as the honourable member for Bass said, that it is a shame to give them such continuity of service. They have it anyway, and they do not have to face the people.

The other contentious Bill-it is contentious only in the minds of a few of the honourable members opposite-is the Constitution Alteration (Advisory Jurisdiction of High Court) Bill. These constitution alteration Bills were debated by the Leader of the National Party of Australia (Mr Anthony), in fact. It is not clear to me whether he was damning the Bills with faint praise. I think that rather he was praising the Bills with faint damns. The Leader of the National Party seems to be, in most respects, of one mind with the Leader of the Opposition in supporting these Bills. The honourable member for Denison argued on several grounds against the moves to allow the High Court to have advisory jurisdiction. One of these reasons was the danger of overloading the Court. I assure the honourable member for Denison that the High Court is not particularly overworked. He pointed out that declaratory judgments are available in concrete situations. It would be better if the court were able to declare without having to go into concrete situations because these concrete situations are expensive. It costs money to go to the High Court. It wastes a lot of the time of various arms of government, and we would be better off without this.

I realise that it is presently contrary to legal practice for courts to pronounce on hypothetical matters. This is a salutary doctrine. It preserves the court's judicial, as distinct from the legislative, function. By deciding only the cases before them as distinct from deciding a range of future possible cases , as we do in this House, the courts preserve that function. However, there are massive savings in expenses if parties to a constitutional dispute avoid the shadow boxing that goes on when neither party knows how legislation will be interpreted. It is the taxpayer who foots the bill for constitutional conflicts, particularly State and Federal conflicts. It is better if the issue is speedily settled by having the relevant provisions interpreted by the High Court.

In conclusion I would like to say the following: Efficiency of government, the saving of taxpayers' money and sensible, rational representation, all require the passage of these Bills. The first Bill about which I spoke, namely, the Bill to bring the two Houses back into phase, will save the Australian taxpayer $103m . A saving of $138.6m would be available if the other referendum proposal, namely, the proposal to make four-yearly elections the rule, is introduced as well. Further savings will be available if an advisory jurisdiction by the High Court is permitted. The arguments which have been raised against this are nothing as compared with the logic and rationality which has permeated the arguments in particular of the Leader of the Opposition and the learned honourable member for Sydney. The bipartisan support which these Bills attract is a symptom of their value, their rationality and the sensible nature of the proposals. I commend the Bills to the House.