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Thursday, 29 March 1973
Page: 938

Mr CROSS (Brisbane) - This is an important piece of legislation. Bills affecting the Commonwealth Electoral Act, which of course means Bills affecting the future of many members of this House, are something that we all subject to a great deal of scrutiny. But it follows in the nature of things that we all tend to look at them from our individual political point of view because, as I said, our own future is tied up with such legislation. This has been a very interesting debate. The question has been asked why the Labor Party has introduced this legislation at this time, why it has not deferred the legislation until after the next election. Of course, the facts of the matter are quite clear. I was in this Parliament in 1965 when many of the measures that are subject to alteration in this Bill were incorporated in the Act. At that time the Labor Party, then in Opposition, indicated its implacable opposition to the features that we endeavour to withdraw tonight. I refer, for example, to the 20 per cent permissible variation and other features that were then incorporated into section 19 of the Act. No person who was in the House at that time would be under any illusion that these sections of the Act were completely repugnant to the Labor Party and that the Labor Party was committed to removing them.

The Labor Party is committed to a system of fair electoral laws and fair redistributions. The reason why these measures are being submitted to this House at this point of time is that we are very conscious of the fact that we do not have a majority in the other place - the Senate. So we wish to institute as many electoral reforms as may be possible so that if a challenge does come to us from the other place on an issue of importance we might proceed to an election or to a double dissolution, if that is necessary, and might do so on fair terms. We would be betraying the interests not only of people who voted Labor at the last election but of those people who live in the cities and who voted Liberal if we did not make every possible endeavour to carry out these electoral reforms as early as we might in the present Parliament. There is some urgency about this Bill because an electoral redistribution must be held in Western Australia, lt is, of course, desirable that a redistribution be carried out in all of the other States as well.

I would like to compliment the honourable member for McPherson (Mr Eric Robinson), on his maiden speech tonight. I find it passing strange that he should make this speech on the Commonwealth Electoral Bill (No. 2). As the President of the Liberal Party in Queensland for the time being he knows, as well as anybody else, how much his Party has suffered from the discrimination in Queensland of electoral boundaries which are gerrymandered in favour of the Country Party. Notwithstanding the internecine fighting between the two Government parties in Queensland - the Country Party, which is the majority party, and the Liberal Party - the President of the Liberal Party came into this place tonight and betrayed the interests of the Liberal Party and those people who voted Liberal at the last election in the same way as he and his fellow committee members and parliamentarians of his Party in the Queensland Parliament betrayed the interest of the people who voted Liberal in that State.

I would like to deal with some of the questions raised by the honourable member for Wimmera (Mr King). He suggested that if there was to be some consistency about the Labor Party's approach we should do something about a situation where the number of senators from Tasmania was the same as the number of senators from the more populous States, such as New South Wales. He said that Tasmanian members should look at the position that they were putting themselves in by voting for this legislation when the numbers in that State justified only 4 seats. I am sure that all honourable members realise, and 1 am sure that the honourable member for Wimmera realises, that these are matters quite outside the legislative control of this Parliament because they would involve amendments to the Constitution. Tasmania was an original State, and as an original State it was guaranteed 5 seats. If the population of Tasmania, by plague or some other disaster, declined to 20 electors, under the Constitution it would still be entitled to 5 seats in the House of Representatives, and each of those seats would presumably have 4 electors. They certainly would with a redistribution carried out under this amendment.

Leaving those things aside, the Australian Labor Party in government as in opposition stands for a fair Commonwealth Electoral Act and a fair redistribution. I make that point again and it cannot be made too often. This Party has suffered from electoral gerrymanders in every State except Tasmania. In Queensland since 1959 it has suffered from a cruel gerrymander. I am not denying that the boundaries in Queensland prior to 1959 were loaded in favour of the Labor Party. When I was a member of the Party, although not a member of Parliament at that time, I felt this was unfair and 1 said it was unfair. 1 am on public record as saying that. We have had a lot of experience since, but the facts of the matter are that the boundaries in Queensland have been gerrymandered against the Labor Party.

Mr Cooke - Tom Burns said they were fair the last time - until after he lost the election.

Mr CROSS - Let me answer that. On 3rd August 1957 when the present Government was elected in Queensland- known popularly as Black Saturday - the now governing members were so surprised that they were not quite sure what to do for a while. But they came around to a system of electoral gerrymander. The then Premier, now Sir Francis Nicklin, invited Sir Thomas Playford, a man of considerable experience in the matter of electoral redistributions, to come to Queensland and give them some advice. They came up with a system whereby Queensland was carved up into 5 zones: a metropolitan zone, a southeastern zone, a western zone, a nothern zone and a provincial cities zone. We had the position where electorates in the areas thai supported the Australian Country Party contained small numbers, while the provincial cities, which overwhelmingly voted Labor, were given either one electorate or two, irrespective of the size of those cities. There were 28 State electorates in the metropolitan area. This system has been improved to some extent in the last redistribution but it still discriminates against people who live in the cities. I felt ashamed hearing the speeches from Liberal Party members. Any member of the Liberal Party who votes for a gerrymander that favours the Country Party votes against his interests, the interests of the Liberal Party and the interests of people who vote Liberal. That is the Queensland experience and it is the experience in all the other States. The tragedy of it is - the people of Australia realise this - that the Liberal Party is so lacking in leadership in matters of this kind that it will not stand up for the people who support it. It portends a sad future for the Liberal Party, because people will not vote for a party that will not get up and fight for what it believes in.

The Liberal Party, in its platform, its policy and its expression of views on many occasions in this Parliament has stood for a principle approaching one vote one value. My Party's proposals do not take the matter that far because it recognises the disabilities suffered by people in the larger seats. There ought to be some discretionary power, some flexibility, and some trust reposed in the Commonwealth Distribution Commissioners. I hope that no-one is going to suggest that the Commonwealth Distribution Commissioners who are appointed for the redistribution will not carry out their duties as well as other Commonwealth Distribution Commissioners have in the past. I do not believe that there has ever been a Commonwealth electoral gerrymander in the same way as there has been a gerrymander in my home State of Queensland. Certainly it is important for the Labor Party, for the standing of this Government and for the people of Australia that a gerrymander should not be carried out this time. There certainly will not be a gerrymander carried out this time.

I completely repudiate any suggestion which reflects on the integrity of the Distribution Commissioners in past redistributions or in the future. They have carried out their work honestly and well within the framework of the law as it exists. Our function as a Parliament is to see that the guidelines laid down for the Distribution Commissioners are in the interests of the people of Australia and in the interests of proper representation in this Parliament.

Let me deal now with some of the matters that have been advanced principally by the Country Party members. We were told about the disabilities suffered by people in those giant seats. In our time we have had Labor members representing many of those giant seats. The largest electorate in this country is represented very well by the honourable member for Kalgoorlie (Mr Collard). Labor Party members represent the electorates of Darling and Grey. In our time we have held the seats of Kennedy and Maranoa, and doubtless we will again. We have held several of these vast country seats and we have held them well. Labor members have suffered from some of the disabilities in country seats that the Country Party members talked about. But these disabilities have narrowed in many instances, with better communications. In recent times in this Parliament we have had some discussion about improved postal facilities in country areas. I agree that they are not good enough but they are certainly a lot better than they used to be, and they are improving all the time. There are other ways of rectifying the disabilities of country members besides carrying out a system of discriminating against people because they live in cities or near cities.

I would like to pay a tribute to the Minister for Services and Property (Mr Daly). 1 think that honourable members will recognise that we have, never had a Minister who has been so sympathetic to the needs of members in terms of facilities being made available to them in their offices and in other ways. The present Minister is presiding over this Commonwealth Electoral Bill. He has corrected many of the disabilities that honourable members have suffered. The various parties have been asked to appoint members to an amenities committee to look at some of these problems and to make recommendations to the Minister. He will give sympathetic effect to those recommendations if it is at all possible for him to do so.

We have heard talk about the disabilities of distance in the country areas. That can be overcome by such things as charter flight rights and better communications. In an electorate such as the Northern Territory which is a bipolar electorate it might be possible to provide an office for the honourable member for the Northern Territory in Alice Springs in addition to his office in Darwin. There are many things that can be done to bring country people into closer contact with their elected representatives. Country electorates have a great advantage over city electorates in that their populations are by and large stable. The people are there. A member can make, contact with the people in his electorate. They are fairly stable communities, or certainly in relative terms they are stable communities. So there are not only disabilities associated with country seats but also advantages.

As a member for an inner-city seat 1 would like to repudiate the idea that all the disadvantages accrue to country seats. For a start those members who represent city seats under the present system represent a greatly inflated population. At the last redistribution the Brisbane seat was about 15 per cent above the quota. By and large the inner-city seats contain the greatest number of migrants. These people do not have a vote. Many of them have not sought citizenship, either because they have not been here long enough or because: they have exercised their right not to seek Australian citizenship. Nevertheless, they have problems which cause them to come to the office of a member of Parliament and seek some rectification. They come in with their migration problems, their problems of sickness benefits or unemployment benefits and the like. They have to be serviced. The great numbers of these people are in the city seats. They are not on the electoral rolls. Many of them are not reflected in the ballot box, but they still have to be serviced and that is a disability that accrues substantially to those members who represent city electorates.

The other point that I should like to make relates to the very question of accessibility to a member. I am not reflecting on Country Party members when I say that. I have always believed that most members of this Parliament work very hard in accordance with their own political lights and do their best for the electors of their own electorates. I agree that a member in a country electorate has to travel around from time to time to the various communities in his electorate, but if he has an efficient secretary and an efficiently conducted office much of his work can be carried out by letter, because most people would be used to writing to him. In city electorates, electors and non-electors pour into the member's office. I can say, quite frankly, that very often I spend my whole day interviewing people and at the end of the day wonder how I can get my work done. There are disabilities which accrue also to people who represent city electorates. I make the point again that these disabilities can be overcome other than through the Electoral Act. Surely it is important to all people who live in this country, wherever they might live, that we have a fair and just Electoral Act.

The matter of a redistribution has been brought before the House as one issue. The question of votes for 18-year-olds was brought before the House quite separately. It is the

Minister's intention, as he has stated, to bring down legislation later to tidy up administrative matters associated with the Electoral Act which is very much in need of review. The present matter is being dealt with separately because it is controversial. It is very important that we have a decision on this in both Houses of the Parliament as soon as possible so that the Government will have complete flexibility in the event that it faces a challenge in the Senate to go to the people of Australia. It should not have to do so half way through a redistribution. That would be a very unfortunate thing. The Government has been challenged to go to an election on this matter. The last election that I can recall being fought on the question of a redistribution was the one at which a Labor government won office in Victoria in the early 1950s. The overriding issue of that election was the question of a redistribution. Probably we do not present these things to the people of Australia as much as we should in our policy speeches, but the people of Australia believe that we should have a fair electoral system.

One of the reasons why the Labor Party has done so well in South Australia and continues to do so well is that eventually, after many years of gerrymandered electorates in that State, as a result of which the people could not carry out their wishes through the ballot box by electing a government, feeling built up to the extent that Labor in South Australia attracted a vote which is among the highest in the Commonwealth. The same position is building up in Queensland. In Brisbane and in the provincial cities there is increasing resentment with the Country Party and its gerrymander in that State. The same thing is happening throughout Australia. When we go to the next election it will not be on the question of boundaries only. So many things have happened in the past. Many people who voted against the Labor Party at elections have done so because of fears that have been built up about the Labor Party, the fear that allegedly it would destroy the American alliance, sell out Australia to Peking and Moscow, and destroy all morality in the community. Honourable members know all these stories. In recent elections many people have voted other than Labor because they believed some of the things that were spread about by Labor's political opponents. Many people have voted for the Democratic Labor Party or for the Australia Party. I believe that at the next election these people will be voting in most cases for one of the major parties. If they like the Labor Party they will vote for it. The people who last time voted for the Australia Party next time will probably choose between the Liberal Party and the Labor Party.

I do not know whether Professor Aitkin's study was right, but it suggests that many people who have voted for the DLP in recent times have been estranged Liberal voters. I believe that at the next election that section of the DLP vote will sort itself out between the Labor Party and one of the other major political parties. The Labor Party does not need this legislation to enable it to win the next election. We will win it on our record, whenever the election might be held. This Bill represents a step taken early in the Parliament for a redistribution to give Australia fair electoral laws which will ensure that throughout Australia any one man is as near as possible to being equal to any other man when he goes to the ballot box. This is a great principle. It is a principle for which a fight went on for well over 100 years. It is a principle which was won in this country at one time. Other principles of electoral justice have been fought for. We have property franchise and we still have anachronistic electoral systems for the Upper House in most States, but surely in the national Parliament we should be setting a lead for the States. I include my own State of Queensland in that remark. In this Bill we do just that.

Debate (on motion by Mr Drury) adjourned.

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