Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Full Day's HansardDownload Full Day's Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Wednesday, 14 November 1973
Page: 3320

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER -Order! I have not participated in this debate. I ask the honourable gentleman to apologise to the House for the remarks he made about the Chair.

Mr SNEDDEN - Mr Deputy Speaker, I did not make remarks about the Chair; I made remarks about the honourable member for Corio.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER -I suggest to the honourable gentleman that he referred to 'the Deputy Speaker who is now in the chair and who seeks to push the Speaker out of the chair'. I ask the honourable gentleman to apologise for those remarks. They were not about the honourable member for Corio.

Mr SNEDDEN - Mr Deputy Speaker, in deference to the continuance of this debate, I apologise and in those terms.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER -Order! I ask the honourable gentleman to apologise unreservedly.

Mr SNEDDEN - I beg your pardon.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER -I ask the honourable gentleman to apologise unreservedly.

Mr SNEDDEN - You wish me to apologise to you?

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER - No, to the House.

Mr SNEDDEN - I apologise to the Chair. Mr Deputy Speaker, the long title of the Bill ought to be changed. We will not have the opportunity to pursue our amendment to it.

This Bill purports to require an amendment of the Constitution in order to have simultaneous elections. That is rubbish. It is just not true. As I said before, it needs only a decision by the Executive, the Government or the Prune Minister to have a House of Representatives election with the Senate election, and there will be simultaneous elections. If the Government is worried about the people of Australia having to vote at elections too frequently, it has the cure in its own hands. Why will it not take it? The honourable member for Corio - you, Mr Deputy Speaker - speaking on a procedural motion a moment ago, said that this was a one clause Bill. There are 5 clauses in this Bill - not only 5 clauses, but a very significant and terribly important long title of the Bill. For this deabte we are to have a minimum of time and no opportunity to examine the clauses.

The simple fact is that, by the Constitution, the Senate has been given a position of power. It was given that power by those who founded the Constitution. It was debated at length and it was decided that the Senate should possess powers which are contained in section 53 of the Constitution. It makes the Senate a powerful House. It has had that power all its existence. If the Government wants to change the power of the Senate, why does it not do so directly? Why does it not change section 53 instead of trying to achieve a run down of the Senate by this rather murky method. As the Prime Minister said in his second reading speech, the major reason for this proposal is that there can be an occasion on which the government will have a majority in this House and a majority in the Senate. That is what the Government wants. That is its purpose. If that is what the Government wants, this is not the way to go about it. If the Government wants the power of the Senate to be reduced let it go "to section 53 and take away from the Senate the power to introduce any Bill or the power to disallow or reject any money Bill. The only power the Senate does not have is to amend or originate a money bill. If that is what the Government wants, let it be clear, open and frank about the matter. I have heard so much nonsense about open government but I have seen the prostitution of that concept by this Government in its short term of office and I know that the Government is fundamentally incapable of being plain, direct and honest, which is what it ought to be when dealing with the Constitution of this country.

In speaking to this Bill, the Prime Minister made a few points which should be mentioned. He said:

I do fundamentally question the present out of phase state of our electoral process, requiring us to conduct in each 3 -year period one House of Representatives election and one separate Senate election.

He knows that is not the case. There is no constitutional requirement for elections to remain out of phase. Why does he come into this House and put limitations on the opportunity for honourable members to debate? Is it so that he can make these half-truth statements and not have them contradicted? One can be led only to that conclusion. Giving his reasons for the constitutional amendment, he said:

Most of all, there is the benefit to the Parliament - the reflection in both Houses simultaneously of the people's will so that the Government and the Parliament may get on with the job.

The Opposition does not think that getting on with the job means guillotining these important measures. That statement discloses that what the Prime Minister really wants is a majority in the Senate and in the House of Representatives at the same time. Possessed of that power - a majority in the House of Representatives and in the Senate - there is no reason whatever why the Government cannot introduce and pass legislation which would return the Senate from its present proportional representation system to some form of election which would lead to the ludicrous position which it had in its earlier life when, at one stage, there were 2 Opposition senators to 34 Government senators and when, from 1946 to 1949, there were 3 Opposition senators to 33 Government senators. Is that the sort of proposal the Prime Minister wants? We know that the platform of the Australian Labor Party is for the abolition of the Senate. There is every reason to suspect that the real purpose of this Bill is to deprive the Senate, by a backhanded method, of the power which it possesses.

The further reason that the Prime Minister gave was that it was an election commitment of the Australian Labor Party. If it was an election commitment we are entitled to look at the entire platform. In the entire platform we will find that the Labor Party is committed to socialisation of this country, centralisation of power in Canberra and abolition of the Senate. For democrats in Australia that prospect is frightening to the extreme. Can one imagine a left-wing junta of this kind in total control, with no counterbalancing force of State governments and no counter balancing force of the Senate? We would become the greatest centralised power continent in the world. Do not forget that we are a big continent. We are very widespread geographically. We have States. In the future we will be, a country with many millions of population. Within the lifetime of most honourable members here the population of Australia will exceed 25 million and in the lifetime of the youngest honourable member here it is likely to approach 50 million. Do we want Australia in the future to be centralised in this fashion? Of course not.

There was another curious litle part of the Prime Minister's speech in which he said that another reason for the legislation is that it takes up the unanimous recommendation, dating as far back as 1958, of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Constitutional Review'. That is not a half falsehood; that is a complete falsehood. It was not a unanimous recommendation. Senator Wright, who is still a member of the Senate, put in a dissenting report. He made it perfectly clear that 'a 6- year term of the Senator is one of the strengths from which he derives his independence. Continuity of the Senate is regarded as a strength'. He went on to say:

There are, in my view, real objections to the provision that every time the House of Representatives precipitates an election one-half the Senate should go up for election too. Such elections of the House of Representatives may emanate from internal personal differences, alterations of party allegiances, or miserable party manoeuvres.

Further, the growing constitutional development of the right of Heads of Government to secure a dissolution of the popular House upon request, in my opinion, makes it imperative that the Prime Minister should not have the power to treat the States' House as an appendage of the Popular House and take one-half of the Senate to election at the will of the Executive Government.

The final sentence of his dissenting report is this:

The Senate would be better abolished than exist as an echo of the Federal Executive Government.

This point was picked up by Mr Odgers, the present Clerk of the Senate, in his very distinguished book entitled 'Australian Senate Practice' in which he says:

Having in mind the considerations which constrained the States, particularly the less populated States, to demand as the price of federation an Upper House with powers to exercise independent judgment in order to protect the interests of the States, it is inconceivable that those same States would agree to weaken the Senate by destroying its independence.

The Senate is often referred to as a States' House. Many people deny that it is a States' House and say that it is a Party House. It is true enough that it is a Party House, but that does not deprive it of the character of being a States' House because it so happens that the smaller States all have 10 senators.

Tasmania with 10 senators has only 5 members of the House of Representatives and probably would have only four if it were not for the special provision giving it a minimum of five. New South Wales also has 10 senators but 46 members of the House of Representatives. The whole basis of the compact of Federation was to allow the States, no matter how small, to exercise their voice through the Senate where the size of the States makes no difference to the number of senators. This is very important. The States have a right to look to the Senate and to know what the powers of the Senate are so that they can have the opportunity to press their views through the Senate - through the States' House.

The truth is that these 3 referendum proposals have been put together by the Government for the specific purpose of trying to confuse the issue at the next Senate election. The Government knows that at the present time it has no possibility of winning the next Senate election. It knows that it cannot convert the next Senate election into a majority for the Labor Government in the Senate. Because the Government knows that it is going to poll badly on that issue it wants to try to put forward some, what might be called, populist causes to confuse the issue. In putting forward the populist causes it is quite willing to put the questions on them in terms that I have described before as quite fraudulent. The long title of this Bill is not what the Bill seeks to do. This populist way of doing things is being followed so that people going to the Senate election will be, it is hoped by the Government, led to vote for the Australian Labor Party in the Senate election because they are supporting the referendum proposal which they have before them at the same time. But we will do all we can to make sure that the people of Australia fully understand the clauses of the Bill, the nature of the Bill and what it is all about.

It is interesting to recall to mind statements made by the Prime Minister just the other night when he was delivering a lecture; I have forgotten which lecture it was. On that occasion he repeated words that he had used earlier. He said that a government can live with a Constitution no matter what are the terms of the Constitution. He went on to say that the Constitution is not an alibi for a government's not pursuing the course it wishes to pursue. That is true in this respect. It is no alibi for the Government to bring on this referendum when it has the clear power in its own hands to bring about simultaneous elections as from next year.

This proposal - that which is called the simultaneous elections proposal - should be rejected on 2 grounds: firstly, because it is unnecessary; and secondly, because its adoption would be dangerous in constitutional and democratic terms. It is unnecessary because if the present situation is unsatisfactory it can be cured by a House of Representatives dissolution at the time of the next Senate election. Threats of a double dissolution have been made by the Government, by the Prime Minister and by his Ministers. This constitutional amendment process is unnecessary because the power is in the hands of the Government. It is also unnecessary because if it is sought to discipline a hostile Senate a double dissolution should be held. Section 57 of the Constitution specifically provides for it.

We have had threats of a double dissolution if we do not pass legislation. There have been 2 outstanding examples of that. One was in relation to the Conciliation and Arbitration Bill. We were threatened with dire peril if we did not pass it. What in fact happened? The Government accepted the Opposition's amendment. The other was in relation to the Commonwealth Electoral Bill. We were told that if we did not pass it we would be in dire peril and that a double dissolution would be forced upon us. The capacity for a double dissolution on that ground probably has now totally evaporated, simply because the Prime Minister failed to take advantage of the opportunity he had of asking for a double dissolution when it was rejected for a second time by the Senate. He has continually failed to do so since. The probability is that in constitutional terms that opportunity has now slipped from his grasp. The Prime Minister is glad it has slipped from his grasp. He would not want to argue that he had the right.

This proposal is dangerous because it will mean that the independence of the Senate and therefore its ability to play its proper role in a 2-chamber system will be impaired. In our democracy the Senate has been designed not to be a replica or a rubber stamp of the House of Representatives. To tie the Senate to the House of Representatives in the manner proposed by the Bill will tend to make it such a replica and therefore weaken its independence. If that is intended it should be put to the people directly by way of an amendment to section 53 of the Constitution and not in the fashion of this proposal, which seeks to take advantage of a temporary situation that it is in the Government's hands to cure and to argue that because of the temporary situation there ought to be a permanent change. It is dangerous because in weakening the independence of the Senate and reducing its effectiveness it would tend to make the Senate redundant. That would have an immense effect on the smaller States, as I have already pointed out.

It is part of the Australian Labor Party's policy, as contained in its platform, to abolish the Senate. This proposal is part of the strategy to achieve that objective. It is dangerous because the Upper House should not be dragged along behind the popular House. House of Representatives elections have had to be held frequently in the past to overcome internal problems. I instance what occurred in 1928, 1929 and 1931. Should there be a Senate election on each occasion when, for party political reasons and domestic internal matters, an election for the House of Representatives is forced? The Senate should not have to be submitted to an election at the same time. The proposal is dangerous because the Senate is a check on the authoritarianism of government. The Senate is the watchdog of government. The Senate is a protector - as it has proved on numerous occasions - of the fundamental rights and liberties of citizens. To weaken and to destroy the Senate is to impair this vital role. If the Government sees the Senate as a frustration, as an annoyance or as an inconvenience, this is part of the price we pay for democracy. Democracy is worth it.

I have been told that the Australian people have voting fatigue. I know that people do not like to have to go along frequently to vote and that, more particularly, the Party supporters do not like to have to go along frequently and put things in letter boxes, hand out how to vote cards and so on. But I believe that we are deceiving ourselves if we think that because of voting fatigue the Australian people will surrender any part of the democratic tradition of this country. They do not wish to surrender any part of that democratic status.

Mr Cohen - Why do you not give them a chance to decide?

Mr SNEDDEN - If a Senate is regarded as being excessively frustrating, the matter can be resolved by the double dissolution provision. What is the difference between an election for the House of Representatives and the whole of the Senate and an election for the House of Representatives and half of the Senate? The double dissolution would serve a purpose which is clear and understandable, but an election for half the Senate every time there is a House of Representatives election would have no real purpose other than to ensure a majority for the Government in both Houses.

If that is the real purpose, it should have been explained to the House and to the people explicitly, plainly and honestly. This Bill quite clearly ought to be opposed. I heard a canary call earlier: 'Why do you not let the people decide?*

Mr Fox - A galah, not a canary.

Mr SNEDDEN - I thank the honourable member for Henty for the correction. It is perfectly clear that the public relations machine of the Labor Party, which distorts everything, would represent any action on our part not to oppose such a proposal as being soft on it. We do oppose it. We will oppose it from this moment on. We will continue to oppose it right through to polling day. I believe that we will win; that is, that the referendum proposal will be defeated. I believe that it is the interests of the Australian people that we do win. All I ask of the Australian people is that they ignore the inanities of the kind we have heard today. I also ask that there be honesty by the Government in its presentation of the true purposes of this referendum proposal. The Opposition will play its part in making sure that it presents only what it believes to be a fundamental principle. If the people wish to change the present position, so be it; we will accept their decision. But we will do everything in our power to explain to the people why they should not choose to change the Constitution in this way.

I give notice that in the Committee stage of the debate on this Bill I will be moving an amendment that seeks to change the long title of the Bill. I ask those who are in control of the legislation for the Government to give further consideration to whether they think the long title of the Bill honestly puts its purpose. The way it ought to be put, quite clearly, is that it seeks to achieve the purpose provided for in clause 4, which seeks to insert new sections 12 and 13 in the Constitution that would give each senator a term of office which is 2 terms of the House of Representatives. That would be a much fairer way to present the question.

Suggest corrections