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Thursday, 23 August 1973
Page: 344

Mr LYNCH (Flinders) - The significant but disguised objective of the legislation before this House, the Commonwealth Electoral Bill (No. 2), is in fact to entrench the Australian Labor Party in Government for a long period of time. It is a Bill which has been opposed by the Opposition parties in this House, and we will oppose it again. The Opposition completely rejects the Bill because it is unfair, discriminatory and unworkable. It is also superfluous because the present Commonwealth Electoral Act has effectively ensured practical adherence to the principle of one vote one value, and in so doing has produced electoral justice as judged by that criterion.

The existing legislation provides for a 20 per cent tolerance in the quota which remains the ideal level suited to the nature and direction of Australia's population development. In essence, the Bill seeks to reduce the permissible variation from the electoral quota from one-fifth to one-tenth, revise the factors which the Distribution Commissioners must consider when redrawing electoral boundaries and provide that a redistribution may be directed whenever the numbers of electors in one-quarter of the divisions of a State differs from a quota by one-tenth. The Opposition rejects the Bill because the Government seeks to change legislation which has worked effectively and impartially, without putting forward a single convincing or coherent reason for making the change. The Minister for Services and Property (Mr Daly) in introducing the Bill, spoke more volubly than sincerely of the necessity to establish the principle of one vote one value. It is a grossly misleading smokescreen. As I have already noted, the Government's real objective is to redraft what is a demonstrably fair and equitable Electoral Act so that it can be manipulated to provide the party in power with a long term electoral advantage.

This Parliament and the Australian people are still unaware of the Government's detailed intentions regarding the Electoral Act. We know, however, that the Government seeks to redraft the entire document. The Minister told us this much in his second reading speech when he quoted from a speech which he himself delivered in this House in 1971. He told the House that Labor regarded the Commonwealth Electoral Act as outdated and outmoded and that upon the election of a Labor government immediate steps would be taken to redraft the Act. According to the Government, the amendments proposed by this Bill will mysteriously ensure that all votes will have equal value. Of course, they will do nothing of the sort. I repeat what I said when this Bill was introduced initially: The Liberal Party supports the principle of one vote one value. In doing so we recognise that the efficacy of policies relating to voter distribution can be measured by the degree to which the size of electorates tends toward this ideal.

We emphasise that the existing Act has a remarkable record when judged against this standard. It should be clearly understood that I refer to the same standard as that which is espoused by the Government. The previous Liberal-Country Party Administration left on the statute book legislation which worked equitably and impartially. But that legislation did not derive from some new formulation devised by a recent Liberal-Country Party coalition government. It dates back virtually to the beginning of our Australian Federation. What the Labor Government is seeking to change are principles which were enshrined in legislation by previous Labor Prime Ministers - as well, of course, as Liberal and Country Party Prime

Ministers - who accepted them as essential and integral parts of Australia's electoral law. The onus therefore lies very much with the Government to explain why these principles are wrong now if they were right then and have remained right throughout more than 70 years of Federation. This it has failed to do.

The true test of equitable electoral legislation is that the Party which obtains the majority of votes shall also receive the majority of seats. This happened in all cases under distributions which were made during the record term of the previous Administration. There could be no better example than the Federal election held in December 1972 when the present Government received 49.6 per cent of the votes of the Australian electorate and, as a result, received 53.6 per cent of the seats. That result was achieved on boundaries which were drawn by the former Liberal-Country Party Government. It provides a convincing refutation to Labor Party claims that it went into recent elections for the national Parliament competing not only against the anti-socialist political parties in this country but also against an Electoral Act which they allege is unfair. The claim that the existing provisions of the Act are biased against the Labor Party is completely unsupportable.

We must contemplate the Government's reasons for repeating this charge so loudly and so frequently. Perhaps its objective is to condition the electorate for its serialised redrafting of the Electoral Act which, on the basis of this shoddy piece of legislation, we can suspect will be biased heavily in Labor's favour. By continually repeating the slogan 'one vote, one value' the Labor Party is attempting to confuse the public and to portray itself falsely in the role of a champion of electoral justice. It is a hypocritical exercise viewed against the true import of this legislation.

I mentioned before that one vote one value is a principle to which we can all subscribe. However, it is not possible to incorporate that principle perfectly or absolutely into any voting system. A redistribution made today which produces a situation of equality in Australia's many electorates will be out of balance before the descriptions of the new boundaries are back from the printer. Some people would come on to the roll of an electorate; others would be removed.

We have movements of people in Australia which are unparalleled anywhere else in the world. There has been a continuing high level of migrant intake for something like a quarter of a century, subdivisional and housing developments, and the construction of high-rise buildings leading to population concentrations. There are movements of people right throughout the country in connection with the development of new industries and towns. So therefore it is necessary to have a tolerance factor that is large enough to take account of this situation and which at the same time enables the equality of the vote to be preserved. A tolerance is essential also to allow for the preservation of this type of equality for a reasonable time. So 20 per cent is a desirable tolerance, but 10 per cent is unfair, unreasonable and undesirable. Twenty per cent will provide the commissioners with the flexibility they require in drawing boundaries and will enable them to cater adequately for rapid electoral growth where necessary.

It should also not be overlooked that the 20 per cent tolerance is not a mandatory factor, but it is only a provision. It is left to the Distribution Commissioners to apply the provision if necessary, in accordance with section 19 of the Act. In fact, in the distribution carried out in 1968 the Commissioners of the day put some 90 of the 125 seats in the House of Representatives within 10 per cent of the quota - above or below; some 27 seats were between 10 per cent and 15 per cent, and the balance, some 6 seats, were 15 per cent above or below the quota. These figures illustrate that the Distribution Commissioners approach their task with objectivity, and use the 20 per cent provision only when that is necessary because of the special nature of particular electorates. I refer, of course, to disabilities of remoteness, distance, sparsity or density of population, or the area of a division. If the Labor Party has its way, the conscientious administration of the provisions of this Act will be placed in jeopardy.

As well as ensuring that we have fair and impartial elections, current Australian legislation measures up more than favourably with electoral law in force in comparable countries overseas. In Canada - a country with many similarities to Australia - the relevant Act, the Redistribution of Representation in the House of Commons Act, passed in 1965, provides for a variation of not more than 25 per cent. In Britain, these matters are not spelt out in detail. Constituencies vary from 40,000 electors to double that number without any apparent difficulty whatever. At the last election in France, constituences ranged from 25,000 to 150,000 electors. In the United States, the landmark cases which were recently before Chief Justice Warren, as in Wesberry v. Sanders in 1964, defined the meaning of 'as nearly as practicable' as a percentage of the order of 15 per cent variation from the quota. If that interpretation were applied in Australia, some 117 of the 125 seats in this Chamber at the time of the last distribution would have been within that tolerance: only 6 seats would have been above that figure.

So, on the basis of international comparison, Australia has a favourable record in this respect. We observe the principle of one vote, one value more effectively than the countries I have just mentioned to this House. Its expression through the ballot box in Australia is far more equitable than in those countries. In fact, Australia's electoral law - and the manner in which it facilitates the expression of the political wishes of the Australian people - will stand up to the closest scrutiny. The existing Act has a remarkable history in terms of fairness of distribution, if tested by the criterion that the party or coalition of parties most preferred gains the most seats. Only once since 1949 has the party or group of parties with a majority of votes failed to receive a majority of seats in the House of Representatives. The only exception was in 1954, when the Australian Labor Party and the parties supporting it secured some 51 per cent of the vote but failed to achieve government. It should be noted, however, that the 1954 election was contested on boundaries drawn in 1948 in the Calwell redistribution. Surely the members now on this side of the House cannot be held responsible for that redistribution.

On every other occasion until 1972 the antisocialist parties outpolled the Labor Party and its supporters. It is surely testing public credulity for the ALP to claim that the existing provisions of the Act are biased against or work unfairly towards the Labor Party. But the current Labor Government is determined to have a redistribution and is resolute that it will be based on terms that militate to the advantage of the Labor Party. In words of the Minister for Services and Property earlier this year:

A redistribution of electoral boundaries will be carried out 'come hell or high water'.

The redistribution that the Government considers so urgent is to be carried out not because a redistribution is required but because the Labor Party wants to tip the electoral balance in its own favour. There is no need at this time for a redistribution, except in Western Australia where there has been very rapid population growth. If there is any urgency in having a redistribution at this time it is purely to serve the cynical political motives of the Labor Administration now in power. The fact that a general redistribution is not required at this time is itself a tribute to the Act as it stands. The current boundaries were drawn in 1968. Since then there have been 2 Federal elections; but still, in the view of the Opposition parties, redistribution is not required, because the Act has worked efficiently. It has provided the distribution commissioners with sufficient tolerance and flexibility to draw boundaries that can survive a reasonable period of time and thus ensure some stability of representation in this Parliament.

I turn now to those electoral divisions which have always been recognised by the Commonwealth Constitution and by this Parliament as special cases'. I refer, of course, to the Tasmanian seats, to the territorial seats and to the large, sparsely populated country seats. Previously, all parties in this Parliament had recognised that these seats have special difficulties or problems, and that allowances should be made when providing for their representation in this House. It would be interesting to hear the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr Barnard) - whose seat of Bass, with only 42,120 enrolled voters, is the smallest in this Parliament from any State - argue that Tasmania is not a special case and that all electoral divisions in Australia should be of equal size.

Mr Anthony - One vote, one value.

Mr LYNCH - One vote, one value, as my colleague the Leader of the Country Party has said. It would be equally compelling to hear the honourable member for the Australian Capital Territory (Mr Enderby) argue that the Capital Territory is not a special case. We certainly did not hear such a proposition from the Labor Party before 1966, the year that the number of voters in the Australian Capital Territory first equalled the average number in other electoral divisions. How could the honourable member for the Australian Capital Territory argue that all electoral divisions should be equal in size when, prior to the election last year, he called for 2 seats for the Australian Capital Territory? Each of these seats would have been about 20 per cent below the size of the average mainland seat in the House. The honourable member for the Australian Capital Territory apparently sees nothing wrong with a 20 per cent tolerance, so long as fi operates in his favour. I believe that the honourable member for Kalgoorlie (Mr Collard) and other honourable members with large electorates have good reason to argue a 'special case'. The Kalgoorlie seat, for example, occupies some 90 per cent of the area of the State of Western Australia, with all the concomitant difficulties of communication, transport and personal contact with his electors.

Under the Bill before the House, however, the problems faced by the honourable member for Kalgoorlie and the difficulties faced by his constituents in contacting their Federal representative will, of course, be ignored. The same is true of the members and electors in the large rural electoral divisions with their special problems and difficulties. These mean nothing to the Administration now in power because apparently on this question and in so many of the other basic areas that concern the interests of the men and women on the land it is prepared to cause those electors and those persons to be stabbed in the back because of the wanton disregard by the ALP in this House of the real needs of the people on the land.

Mr Anthony - Never a truer word was spoken.

Mr LYNCH - Never a truer word, as my colleague says. That that is the case is a simple derivation from the fact that on the Government benches in this House there is not one person who has earned his living as a rural producer. The fact is that they do not understand the problems of the people on the land. Contrast the Labor Party's approach in government to that in opposition. It is an illuminating exercise and it reveals a double standard.

The present Prime Minister (Mr Whitlam), in a letter of 6 March 1968 to the chairman of the distribution commissioners for New South Wales, said:

I submit that whatever variations you feel it desirable or necessary to make in the number of electors you propose for divisions, there is one overriding consideration you should bear in mind. No distribution should permit a situation where a party or coalition which secures a majority of the votes does not secure a majority of members of the House of Representatives.

Never has the Prime Minister been more correct. This is the test of the fairness of distribution: Not whether one seat is a few percentage points larger or smaller than another; but whether the party or group of parties most preferred by the electorate gains the greater number of seats. This, as the Prime Minister has said, is the overriding consideration. That concept would be destroyed if this Bill were allowed to become law. The Opposition parties believe that this is a bad Bill which does not deserve to be passed through the national Parliament, which is unfair, which is contrary to any sense of equity in the cause of electoral justice and which is unworkable. We on this side of the House will continue to oppose the Bill with all vigour.

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