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Wednesday, 21 November 1973
Page: 3626

Mr BRYANT (Wills) (Minister for the Capital Territory) - If I were not normally a charitable socialist fellow I would, of course, think that my colleagues opposite were simply trying to have 2-bob each way, as the saying goes; in other words, that they would not give votes to the people of the Territories if it came to a single straight-forward vote on the issue in this place. In fact, if the Government had brought down 2 referendum Bills they would not have supported them either. But I will be kind enough today to say that perhaps they are on our side on the question of counting every Australian as being equal in this case, especially when they are not going to stand up and be counted themselves.

This afternoon we are taking a step to integrate the people of the 2 Territories - the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory - into the Australian electorate, at least for the counting of their numbers in referendums. There can be no argument against that proposition. It is strange that we have taken so long to get around to it. I am only voicing, on behalf of the people of the Australian Capital Territory, their wish to participate in these matters. Over the last 5 or 6 weeks I have attempted, as Minister for the Capital Territory, to explain exactly why, on so many issues, the people of the Australian Capital Territory do not need to have a say.

But one could not deny their right to be counted as a part of the Australian numbers system. Therefore this is a pretty important step.

I hope that my colleagues opposite will not take the step of interfering with the free will of the people of Australia on some argument that the majority view of half of the States is not enough. I cannot understand it myself. I have listened to the comments of my colleagues opposite. If they were to carry their argument to its logical conclusion they would have to say that we must have a majority in every State. I heard them speak as though their hearts bleed for the Tasmanians. If in this way we were going to take away the right from one fragment of the people of Australia, surely that fragment is just as important as any other. Therefore we are back to the laws of the Medes and the Persians - the law written years ago must not be changed. Honourable members opposite ought to be moving to amend the Constitution to provide that it can be changed only by a majority of the States. Why should the Tasmanians be inflicted with the will of the other 6 million voters in Australia? Their argument is, of course, nonsense. Anything that is written in which makes it difficult to change a rule is against the general procedures of the time and, I think, a bad general principle.

What are some of the things about which my colleagues opposite argue? Firstly, I say - I am sure that this is in the spirit of the national way of looking at it - that we are moving to a greater direct responsible attitude by the Commonwealth towards both individuals and institutions, but there is only one way in which we can do that, that is, by taking the various steps that we have initiated over the last few weeks so that the Government can deal directly with individuals and with collections of individuals gathered, as they may be, in municipalities and so on. There has been a change in the way in which the Australian Government has been associated with the government of this country. Until recently - the procedures started during the term of office of the previous Government - it was, generally speaking, the abstractions with which we dealt here at a Commonwealth level. That was certainly the case until the social services referendum of 1946. But we are now accepting direct responsibility for individuals as such. The Government must be clothed with the authority and it must have the machinery to do so.

I cannot understand the weepings, wailings and gnashings of teeth by honourable members opposite about centralism and all the rest of it. I think that only shows how much they are living in the past. For instance, the Deputy Leader of the Australian Country Party (Mr Sinclair) had to say something about timing. He said that we are now in the position where a Constitutional Convention is under way and it is bad timing to step in now. I have listened to my friends opposite for 17 years. Before I became a member of this Parliament I suffered under them for 40-odd years. For most of my life I have been ruled by people such as they. It is never time. They would all be revolutionaries as long as the revolution is tomorrow week and not today.

Mr Katter - You told us that it is time.

Mr BRYANT - That is right. The people of Australia said it was time and the people of the electorate of Wills said emphatically, as they have been saying for years, that it was time. In politics one does what one has to do today because one knows perfectly well from one's experience that tomorrow one will be a member of the former Government if one is not careful.

Mr Bourchier - Those are the truest words you have ever said.

Mr BRYANT - Honourable members opposite have had more recent experience than I of being members of a former government. I have no doubt that they will have a long period of time in which to learn what it is like because the citizens of Australia will become aware of the pettifoggery honourable members opposite have introduced into one of the most considerable areas of Australian activity, that is, Australia's own constitutional exercises. How on earth honourable members opposite can justify the opposition they have expressed to some of the reasonable propositions the Government has put forward in this respect in the last few weeks, I do not know. Frankly, now is the time to launch into a constitutional change. It may well be that some of the propositions put forward may not be accepted.

It is my view that the referendum system ought to be used more emphatically and more often and that the people, if we can establish the system, ought to be consulted more regularly about matters of great moment. I would like to see it used much more effectively at local government level. We are, in fact, talcing a major democratic step in placing these ballot papers before the citizens of Australia and asking them to make judgment upon the questions. In some areas honourable members may well have doubts as to whether they would vote for the propositions put forward. I am emphatically in favour of the proposals that have been put forward in the last few weeks. Plenty of people who think about politics in the same way as I do have had doubts about some of them. But I can think of no reason whatsoever why such propositions should not be put forward. So we must proceed to do so now.

It has been a long, slow haul since the 1890s. After listening to the remarks of my colleagues opposite, I cannot understand how we ever federated. Just imagine the arguments they would have put up 80 years ago. Just imagine the honourable member for Chisholm (Mr Staley) stepping out of the ivory towers of Toorak in 1893, as he does now. He would have said: 'Look, you cannot do that. You will be interfering with the sacred rights of us Victorians if you make us join with those people from north of the Murray'. It is one of the miracles of Australian public life, considering the fact that there are still people like that here, that 80 years ago we were able to have Constitutional Conventions and to enhance the tremendous document that is the government arrangements of Australia, as a result of the vote of the people of Australia. I just do not know why so many of them have gone down hill so far in the last few years. When one hears what they have to say one must admit that what happened is one of the astonishing exercises in Australian politics.

Let us examine some of the other things that were asserted by honourable members on the other side of the House, particularly by the Deputy Leader of the Australian Country Party. They are a notable bunch of democrats. One has only to consider the way in which they have rigged every electoral boundary in Australia and how they have prevented people from voting in Legislative Council elections throughout Australia to see how they would be worried about such matters. He said that this was a direct and overt expression of the Australian Labor Party's thirst for power, or words to that effect. Those are magnificent words. Of course, they are all part of a cliche to try to stampede the people into voting no. Then he talked about the power of the States. I wonder what he meant by the word 'power'. One of the great exercises in which he and his colleagues indulge is the enshrining of the

States of Australia as some sort of holy writ. Let us examine them and see what they are like. Let us examine, for instance, the recent return to office in New South Wales of the Liberal-Country Party Coalition.

Mr Bourchier - What a victory.

Mr BRYANT - It was achieved without the majority of the people voting for it. If one were able to enshrine the arguments of other honourable members opposite he would have to say that that is not a true vote. Fifty-one per cent of the people of New South Wales have not said 'Let us have Askin. We will have to have other elections until we find out'. Perhaps, on their views, we should proceed until we get an absolute majority voting for somebody. But, of course, they are not going to do that. The number of times the Liberal and Country Parties of Australia have achieved an absolute majority of the votes is minimal indeed. Of course, what honourable members opposite have established is that they are more concerned with power than with people. They are continuously enshrining the State governments and even the municipal councils as having greater heart, feeling and sensitivity about people than this Commonwealth Government. The Australian government has made some great errors in the past, but in general it is based upon adult suffrage, no matter how much tinkering goes on from honourable members opposite.

But just consider the records of the State governments and municipal councils when it comes to the arbitrary and capricious exercise of their power over people. Their bulldozers will knock streets of houses down, their governments will hang and flog, and they will rig electoral boundaries and gerrymander the whole system. Honourable members opposite cannot make any case for preserving States' rights or anything else. The operation here today is one of the continuous steps we will have to take to bring the Australian Constitution into this century. As I said at the beginning of my speech, one can only wonder at the enormous persuasive capacity of our predecessors 80 years ago who managed to convince the Australian people - I suppose there were people like honourable members opposite representing them then - to federate into one nation. This legislation represents more of the long, hard steps we must take to bring the Constitution up to date. By their argument about the majority of the States, honourable members opposite are simply enshrining dotted lines on the map as, again, some form of holy writ. To honourable members opposite, things that were drawn on the map over a century ago by the boffins of Whitehall represent more than national sentiment. So, I hope the House will vote unanimously for these procedures and that honourable members will all get out and start to work among the people of Australia to accept a national attitude towards the Australian Constitution.

Question put:

That the Bill be now read a second time.

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