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Tuesday, 15 March 2005
Page: 118

Senator MURRAY (8:30 PM) —I rise tonight to speak about the campaign for one vote, one value in Western Australia. As many in the Senate are aware, the one vote, one value principle is one that has been strongly advocated by the Western Australian Labor Party over a very long time. It is a principle just as strongly resisted by The Nationals and some Liberals in WA because they well understand that it will lower the number of seats that they enjoy in the country.

Within an accepted tolerance, one vote, one value applies federally and in every state and territory except Western Australia. In their last term of government, Labor failed to get one vote, one value up in WA. The re-election of Labor in February and a reconfigured upper house with three fewer Greens and all of One Nation losing their seats does give Labor a chance to try again. Labor are apparently going to try to revisit the issue before the new MLCs—that is, the members of the Legislative Council—take office in May, which makes the present five Greens and Independent Alan Cadby key determinants of the outcome.

However, Labor look set to distort their approach. During the WA state election, now newly re-elected Premier Geoff Gallop turned his back on his government’s old electoral principle in order to shore up some of Labor’s regional country seats. In fear of losing seats during the election, Mr Gallop offered a self-serving compromise in which vote-weighting would be maintained only in the vast Mining and Pastoral region, where four of the five lower house seats are held by Labor. The South West region and the Agricultural region are entitled to ask why they, and not the Mining and Pastoral region, should have to abide by the one vote, one value principle.

The Greens and the Independent in WA’s Legislative Council not only have the opportunity to try and shape the final nature of vote-weighting in WA, to reflect one vote, one value, or something near it, but also have a golden opportunity to wrestle much-needed other electoral reform from a Labor government that would normally reject greater accountability but will be so desperate to get one vote, one value up that it could end up being made to do the right thing, even for the wrong reasons—if only the negotiators are tough enough.

With respect to the much needed changes to WA’s electoral laws, I refer particularly to the areas of political governance and funding and disclosure. On political governance I nominate three proposals which I think the negotiators should try to force from Labor. Party constitutional requirements should be enforced. Fixed terms should be enshrined through a WA constitutional change. One vote, one value should be introduced into internal party affairs, and control of a party should be vested in its members.

In the advertising area I would nominate the following as negotiating items: that government advertising should be subject to the guidelines as laid down by the Commonwealth Auditor-General and that there should be a prohibition of misleading and deceptive statements in political advertising. On funding and disclosure, my proposals would include that professional political fundraising should be subject to the same disclosure rules as political donations. I would also push for significant improvements in disclosure by clubs, foundations and trusts, and there should be a prohibition on donations that have strings attached. Anyone interested in seeing these proposals elucidated should see my minority report on the inquiry of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters into the 2001 federal election. Those would be the things I would want in return for a one vote, one value negotiation.

WA’s electoral system remains a study in inequality and is a prime candidate for much needed electoral reform. WA retains a zonal electoral system, with votes in regional and rural areas effectively having a greater value than those in Perth and some towns nearby. It is an anachronistic relic of an era of qualified franchise that seems still to be locked in place by the power that it gives to its beneficiaries.

In the Western Australian Legislative Assembly, non-metropolitan electorates account for 26 per cent of voters but for over 40 per cent of the seats. There are 17,283 voters in the Mitchell electorate, I am told, but only 9,415 voters in the electorate of Eyre—that is, a vote in Eyre counts for nearly twice that of a vote in Mitchell. In the state’s upper house, the malapportionment is even more pronounced. The average number of voters per member in the Mining and Pastoral region is 13,380. In the East Metropolitan region that figure is 53,509. So the vote of a person in the Mining and Pastoral region is worth nearly four times that of an East Metropolitan region voter. There are towns adjoining each other, just south of Perth, where the vote in one town is worth twice that of a vote in another town.

Yes, I do know the counterargument that is always thrown up: that Tasmanian voters have a massive voter advantage in their Senate votes compared to New South Wales, but that is between states. Within states, one vote, one value applies to Senate elections. Eight out of Australia’s nine legislatures broadly comply with the one vote, one value principle. If one vote, one value is good enough for the eight other legislatures, why is it not good enough for Western Australia, especially when it is accepted by The Nationals, the Liberal Party, the Labor Party, the Democrats, the Greens and every other party in those eight states and territories?

I must acknowledge the effort the Labor Party have put into furthering this issue. Since the 1960s Labor have been particularly strong on this principle in national and state elections, first introducing legislation in federal parliament in 1972 and 1973. Of course, we know that they were strongly influenced in that respect by the movement in America. By the nineties the one vote, one value principle had been introduced to all federal, state and territory electoral law, with the exception of WA.

In August 2002, in a speech at Macquarie University, Gough Whitlam described democracy in WA as a ‘monstrous misnomer’. At this time, WA Attorney-General, Jim McGinty, in a media release said that the ruling which disallowed the government’s electoral equality laws was very disappointing. He went on to say that the Australian Labor Party had stood for one vote, one value electoral equality for 100 years and did not intend to walk away from its commitment to that principle, remaining totally committed to electoral equality. As an aside but very much to the point, it is a pity that Mr McGinty does not apply one vote, one value in his own party, where, especially, nonmembers of his party are able to exert influence and have weight way in excess of many members.

Australia is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, article 25 of which confers the right ‘to vote and be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage’. We as Australians have an obligation in international law to ensure that basic standards of democracy are observed throughout Australia. It would not be appropriate for the federal parliament to set out every detail for the conduct of state and territory elections. However, it is appropriate for our national parliament to exercise the external affairs power in section 51(xxix) of the Constitution to ensure that a basic standard of democracy exists throughout the country to bring us into line with our international obligations, especially when we all feel very strongly about the rights and values enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Australia is an advanced democracy. We have come a long way in eliminating electoral privilege. We have come far from the days when huge sections of the community were denied the right to vote, and it is now accepted that the franchise should extend to all but a very few adults excluded on the grounds of incapacity or being in prison. Equally important is the principle that all votes should carry equal weight. It is untenable to resolutely defend the right of all Australians to vote, while at the same time supporting a system where the votes of some people in one part of the country count for up to four times the votes of others. Long ago I tabled my private senator’s bill before the chamber which was based on the recommendations of the 1995 WA Commission on government report and refers to the one vote, one value principle.

We think that one vote, one value should be introduced in WA. Hopefully, those holding the balance of power will not only ensure a good one vote, one value outcome but also ensure real electoral reform in WA on issues like funding disclosure and political governance. I do hope that those holding the balance of power heed the words I have spoken tonight.