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Wednesday, 21 November 1973
Page: 3622

Mr STALEY (Chisholm) - One wonders what one can assume from the constant attendance in this House this afternoon of a total of one or two members of the Labor Party about the regard of Government supporters for this measure which the Government has put before us.

Mr Killen - It is certainly not enthusiasm.

Mr STALEY - There is little enthusiasm. Perhaps, Mr Deputy Speaker, Government members intend to draw a veil of secrecy over the operation in which they are involved in this Bill; perhaps they simply do not care. Even the charms and the eloquence of the honourable member for Moreton (Mr Killen) could not beguile them out of their private chambers.

This is a Bill which, as other honourable members have said, basically seeks to do 2 things. It seeks to extend to all electors the right to vote in a referendum and it seeks to reduce the requirement that there should be, in addition to an absolute majority of electors in favour of a proposed amendment to the Constitution, also a majority in a majority of States supporting such a proposal. This Bill, in seeking to do these 2 things, offers us not only a bait but also a hook. The bait is highly succulent, tender and juicy. We agree completely with the remarks of Government supporters that it is a fundamental democratic principle that all electors should have the right to vote in a referendum. I do not think there would be a member of my Party or indeed on my side of the House who would depart from that principle. I was puzzled by the remarks of the honourable member for Hawker (Mr Jacobi) about what might happen to this legislation in another place.

Mr Jacobi - What about the Country Party there?

Mr STALEY - That is a matter for another day in another place. But I will have to see it before I believe it.

The bait is offered that, by passing this Bill and supporting this referendum on which the Bill is based, we should give votes in a referendum to all electors in this country. We would love to be able to do it. We regret that this is merely a bait which is placed upon a hook - a hook which has some lack of attraction for us. The hook is in a way another one of those hooks which suggests that the Labor Party would, if it could, hang federalism by the neck until it was dead. Further, the Government has thrown a veil of secrecy over its operations. The basic and short statement which is contained in the Bill and which will be put before the people can only mislead the people as to the question on which they will be casting a vote in the referendum. The Bill is entitled as a Bill for an Act to facilitate alterations to the Constitution. That is a general statement. No detail is given as to what sort of alteration is envisaged. It could be stated as an alteration of the Constitution to enable a referendum to be passed if there were a majority in three out of the 6 States or something like that. It could be stated in a dozen words at the most.

We go on and find that the other half of the proposition which is being put to the people is spelt out. It is odd that one part of the proposition is spelt out in detail while the other part warrants no detail whatsoever in the mind of the Government, the other part being, of course, to allow electors in Territories as well as electors in the States to vote at referendums on proposed laws to alter the Constitution. That is nothing other than an attempt to draw a veil of secrecy over what is being done to mislead the people as to the vote they will be making at the referendum. We strenuously object to this sort of thing.

Constitutions, by their very nature, should be hard to change, precisely because they are in effect the rules which govern the Government of the country. Honourable members opposite might say that in Britain the Constitution can be changed easily by a majority in the Houses of Parliament. If they have a mind to say this, I would remind them that in Britain the Constitution, at least in important particulars, is changed only after the most lengthy deliberative proceedings in their Houses of Parliament. Britain does not change its Constitution with anything like the reckless abandon with which the Government in this country these days seeks to change the Australian Constitution, and indeed, in some respects, even the Australian way of life. The Constitution is always a most serious document, because it governs the Government of the country. In a federal system it is even more important that there should be safeguards surrounding the Constitution. It is unimaginable that one would have a federal system without building safeguards of that federal system into the Constitution because there has to be some way of reconciling the obvious conflicts which will occur in such a system from time to time between all the parts or the governments of the system.

If at the time of Federation those who looked to the future felt that the small States mightbe in some peril at the hands of the predatory large States, today it is all the States who feel that they are in some peril at the hands of the predatory central government. That was not a question when the Constitution was drawn up. Few thought at the time of Australia's Federation that the basic governing role of the States was in any real doubt. There was a thought, of course, that the big States could in certain particulars dominate. Nobody really for a moment thought that the States as basic governing units were threatened by the system. It is true that Alfred Deakin, with remarkable prescience, talked of the way in which the small States would be drawn into the orbit of the large and of the way in which the power of the new Federal Government would increase. He talked of the States being tied to the chariot wheels of the Commonwealth, and we all know those great words. As I say ,there was remarkable prescience, but the fact remains that at Federation there was no thought that the States were in dire peril of their existence.

At the time of the Constitution, as a matter of convenience, the founding fathers sought to deal with the troublesome and absurd matters which were summed up as the barbarism of borderism. They sought very often economic goals, but there was no thought that our system would ultimately become a unitary system. My point is that even then, under no real threat, the founding fathers provided for a majority of the States in a referendum as a sensible way to provide for democratic dealings between what would be regarded as equal members in a partnership who had decided for certain important and overriding reasons to come together to form a federal union but for other purposes to retain their separate existence. This after all is to this day what federalism is all about. It is about the decision to sink certain differences for certain common purposes while retaining a measure of pride in one's own existence.

Today the spirit in which the Federal Labor Government acts is what sadly disturbs so many Australians. The logical extension of the remarks of the Prime Minister (Mr Whitlam) in his opening speech in this debate is that an ordinary majority of all electors would suffice for the passage of a referendum. There is no particular magic in there being a majority in three out of the 6 States as he is suggesting with the support of his Party. There is no magic at all in this. There is indeed much more magic in the proposition that there ought to be a majority of States that would assent to anything that is as basic to a constitution as are the powers between and among the several States of the union.

It is a very odd thing that in 1973 the constitutional safeguards of the federal system should take on a new significance, but they do. They take on a new significance because we live today in what we might loosely describe as days of big government. Government is no longer a thing that you could do in the afternoon between a good lunch and those other things that gentlemen used to do in .the evenings and sometimes still do, even in this House, in the days when the British Constitution comprised the monarch, the parliament and the foxhounds. Today we live in different days. We live in days of big bureaucratic government, when big government poses a quite new threat to individuals. Only today we have been talking about such threats in government bureaucracies and the use of secrets. This means that we must take a fresh look at those sorts of things which safeguard individual rights and which safeguard a system which provides checks and balances aimed at safeguarding individual rights.

It always strikes me as a sad and quaint thing that the Australian Labor Party rails so much against the 'inherent conservatism of the Australian people' and that it rails against the Australian people for only being decent enough to pass 5 referendums. What it fails to see is that this is a measure very often of the wisdom of the Australian people and the basic good sense of the Australian people, who are healthy disrespecters of government and who, if they are healthy disrespecters of all government, are particularly healthy disrespecters of Canberra based government. They are healthy disrespecters, as Australian people, of big government, because they are basic respecters of the rights of individual people.

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