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Thursday, 17 November 1983
Page: 2859

Mr McGAURAN(11.33) -When considering constitutional alteration the Australian people have demonstrated a natural inclination to say that the wisdom of our founding fathers has stood the test of time and ought not to be interfered with. I am much attracted to this-dare I say it-conservative approach . But I recognise also the need for the Constitution to be both relevant and responsive to Australia's modern needs. On 25 February next year the Australian people again have to decide whether the Constitution needs updating to make it more adaptable to changes which have occurred in our society.

Apart from a reservation about the term of eight years for senators-a matter which I will address shortly-I support the proposed alterations. However, I add that my support is somewhat ambivalent. Indeed, it can be described as lukewarm for two major reasons. The first is the unnecessary cost to the taxpayer of introducing referendums separately in February 1984 away from a half Senate election or a double dissolution. My second reservation is the failure of the Government to address itself to the controversy surrounding the use of the external affairs power following the dams decision of the High Court of Australia. In regard to the unnecessary costs, to which I have referred, I understand that the cost to the Government-that is, the taxpayer-of these referenda next February is between $15m and $20m. It escapes me why the referenda cannot be put to the Australian people at the same time that the half Senate election is due late next year, or why they cannot be put at the next double dissolution or the next House of Representatives election.

Mr McVeigh —Far more sensible.

Mr McGAURAN —It is far more sensible as the distinguished honourable member for Darling Downs, who has been a member of parliament for some time, has just interjected. Furthermore, the cost of having these referenda at a half Senate or a House of Representatives election would be between only $3m and $5m. Let me address my remarks to the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr Lionel Bowen), who is seated at the table. I ask him whether he is able to say why this Government is spending unnecessarily between $15m and $17m next February. I am not the only one who asks that question. It is a question asked by many honourable members on this side of the House on behalf of the 750,000 unemployed in this country. As you would be aware, Mr Deputy Prime Minister, that is not a pious platitude. Some $15m or $17m could be put--

Madam DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mrs Child) —Order! The honourable member will address his remarks through the Chair and not to the Deputy Prime Minister.

Mr McGAURAN —Most certainly, Madam Deputy Speaker. Through you, I put it to the Deputy Prime Minister that the argument could be made that that money could be put to far better use in many different fields.

My second reservation, which I have already mentioned, is the deliberate failure by this Government to address itself to the implications for our federal system of government following the dams decision of the High Court and this Government's reliance on the external affairs power in section 51 (xxix) of the Constitution. The implications of that decision have been addressed by a number of honourable members on this side of the House. They have been ignored by members of the Government. This Government has demonstrated, particularly by the introduction of the sex discrimination legislation by the Minister for Education and Youth Affairs (Senator Ryan) in another place, that it is prepared to rely upon the external affairs power to the detriment of our system of federalism, to the detriment of the States. For those two reasons I am lukewarm about the timing and the scope of the referenda proposals next February.

I wish to address myself briefly to the five referenda proposals. The first, of course, is for simultaneous elections; the purpose being to reduce disruption and inconvenience for electors by eliminating separate, half Senate elections, as well as to ensure that the Senate more accurately reflects current public opinion and is more accountable to the people. I believe the advantages are clear and can be spelt out. Amongst a whole range of other advantages, the main advantage is to reduce the number of elections thereby minimising inconvenience to electors and cost to taxpayers. This will ensure that the Senate is more accountable and reflects the current wishes of the people. I must disagree with my colleagues and, I say with some liberty, my friends the honourable member for Denison (Mr Hodgman) and the honourable member for Bass (Mr Newman). I do not believe that a State will be disadvantaged by this proposal as the Senate naturally will retain all its present powers to review, amend or reject legislation from the lower House.

I turn now to the four-year terms of office for the House of Representatives. The purpose of this legislation is to introduce greater continuity and stability into the electoral system to enable governments to undertake longer term planning and to be more economically responsible. I believe that the advantages are most compelling. This should encourage governments, in particular, to undertake necessary measures which are in the best interests of Australia, which are initially unpopular but in the long term will be beneficial to the community . This is also in line with developments in the States. New South Wales, Tasmania and the Northern Territory have four-year terms. I understand that Victoria and some of the other States are moving towards four-year terms as well . The problem that I have-this matter has been addressed by other speakers-is the eight-year term for senators. In many ways that eight-year term for senators contradicts my earlier support that the Senate be made accountable to the Australian people.

Mr Hunt —Some of them will be long in the tooth by the time they finish, won't they?

Mr McGAURAN —Perhaps it can be said that some are already long in the tooth! Nonetheless, I believe the advantages for four-year terms for the House of Representatives and eight years for the Senate far outweigh the disadvantages.

The next proposal I wish to deal with is the interchange of powers. This will enable the Commonwealth Government to confer legislative powers on State governments over matters otherwise within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Commonwealth. It will also enable the Commonwealth Parliament to empower State parliaments to vest in federal courts, other than the High Court, jurisdiction in matters arising under State law. This proposal eliminates to a large extent the duplication of authority between the States and the Commonwealth. It has to be a voluntary arrangement. Therefore, if a single State wishes to refer a power to the Commonwealth it may do so but if the Commonwealth wishes to refer a power to the States the power has to apply to all States and all States must be in agreement. This appears to be a very commonsense arrangement and will result in better and more efficient government. The next proposal is the removal of outmoded and expended provisions. Many minor changes to the wording and minor provisions of the Constitution need to be updated or removed. The advantages are clear. They are not changes of substance but they will make the Constitution more understandable, easier to read and more in line with modern terminology. Perhaps it can even be said that this is a proposal well overdue.

I turn now to the final proposal, the advisory jurisdiction of the High Court. This proposal has attracted a great deal of comment within and outside this Parliament because its ramifications are of the utmost seriousness. Together with many other members I have had severe reservation about using the High Court to give advisory decisions. My reservation is, of course, that the High Court will give an opinion on a Bill before it has passed through the Parliament. Thus , it might be argued that the Parliament is subjugating its legislative duties to the High Court. My reservation is overcome by the Government's agreeing to an amendment put forward in another place by Senator Hill which provides that any referral to the High Court must be by parliamentary Act. Therefore, by virtue of this amendment, any referral will be debated in the Parliament and the Parliament will decide in what instances a referral is right and proper. For this reason I am able to support the referendum proposal.

In conclusion, I have no objections to the legislation other than to the terms of honourable senators to which I have referred already. However, I reiterate that the referenda are unnecessary at this time. The cost has to be borne in mind. It is a matter of priorities. Where do this Government's priorities lie? The Government stands condemned for not concerning itself with the greatest constitutional problem since Federation, that is, the effects on federalism of the Tasmanian dam decision. All the proposals for next February's referenda are quite insignificant in comparison. I condemn the Government, as do honourable members on this side of the House, for not proposing changes to the Constitution which may overcome the effects on States of decisions such as the Tasmanian dam decision.