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Thursday, 28 September 1972
Page: 1356

Senator WITHERS (Western Australia) - I rise to enter this debate because I assume I am one of the 5 Government senators referred to on page 759 of Hansard by Senator Murphy when he first introduced this Bill. Honourable senators opposite who have been speaking to this matter have been rather praising themselves with each trying to say that he has been in support of this proposition longer than the other. I suppose I have been in support of this proposition for longer than anybody because 1 am one of the few people in Parliament who had a vote at 18. That was in 1943. So when everybody talks about being in favour of this since 1968 or 1962 or some other date, I say that 1 was in favour of it long before people here ever thought about ii. I bad the privilege of voting at the age of 18 in the 1.943 election. At that time I thought I was old enough to exercise a judgment. The government of the day - not one of m)' political persuasion - thought that I was old enough to have my head shot at so I suppose it was reasonable that 1 should have the right to mark a piece of paper. The Liberal Party in my State of Western Australia has been in support of this matter for a number of years, lt was a Liberal-Country Party government in Western Australia which was the first State government to give a vote to those in that age group.

This has always had the support of my Party organisation. This was reaffirmed at our State conference last July. But I hasten to add that that is not binding on me. 1 cannot be directed by my State conference any more than I can be directed by my parliamentary party colleagues and. least of all, by the leader of my parliamentary party or his colleagues who sit with him on the ministerial bench.

Senator James McClelland (NEW SOUTH WALES) - That is why the honourable senator is always voting so independently, is it?

Senator WITHERS - Senator James McClelland., if I had crossed the floor only once - I have done at least that on a very important clause of a Bill which the Government introduced in this place - that will he far more times than you will ever have the courage to vote against a caucus decision of your Party.

Senator Murphy - The honourable senator said that his Party did not have caucus decisions.

Senator WITHERS - That is right.

Senator Murphy - Then how can he be put in that position?

Senator WITHERS - That is a fairly shallow argument.

Senator Murphy - Senator James McClelland has voted with me against the majority of our colleagues on various matters.

Senator WITHERS - In an open vote?

Senator Murphy - Yes, in here.

Senator WITHERS - Come now, Senator Murphy, in an open vote?

Senator Murphy - That is what the honourable senator is talking about. Thai is the only way he has ever voted, in an open vote.

Senator WITHERS - I always do have an open vote and I will exercise it as and when 1 please and not to please anybody else. I suppose that one of the real tests of a democracy is whether a person sent here by his electorate is allowed to vote as he thinks best for his electorate or whether he should vote as he is told to vote by somebody who has not been elected. I think that is important. It is important to me. I still believe that it is important to the Australian electorate. But I come back to the Bill, and I suppose there is some merit in talking about the Bill although that is a fairly strange procedure in the Senate these days. Most of Senator Murphy's arguments in favour of this proposition revolved around a couple of matters, not that I disagree with all that he said. At one stage he said:

There appears to be a general view in Australia that there ought to be a reduction in the voting age as soon as possible.

I think that view is acceded to. I do not know what one means by 'a general view'. I have found as many people opposed to that proposition as 1 have found in favour of it. Where I do take issue with most of the speakers who have participated tonight is on the basis that 18, 19 and 20-year-olds at the moment are better than any other 18, 19 and 20-year-olds we have ever seen. Frankly, 1 am bored to tears with that argument. Why do we accept the proposition that that modern bracket - even if we like to call it the post-war generation - is better than its fathers or forefathers? I have yet to see any evidence of it. I trust that nobody will give me the argument that they are the best educated generation ever. They have been at school longer, I grant that, and at enormous expense to the taxpayer to whom, generally, they are pretty ungrateful-

Senator Mulvihill - Do you not think that they have short cuts to knowledge?

Senator WITHERS - Staying at school does not impart wisdom or knowledge. They have been at school longer, but I doubt that they are any wiser and I doubt that they are any better educated. So do not give me the argument that on that basis they should have the vote. The other night Senator Hannan gave us an interesting dissertation on repatriation, starting with the Emperor Hadrian. If one looks right through the course of history one finds that there have been many people, even within this age group and younger, who assumed enormous responsibility in their own day and age. The honourable senator talked about the Romans. I could talk about the Macedonians - not the Croatians, because that is dangerous. Was not Alexander the Great the man who, at the age of 24 years, sat down and cried because there were no more worlds to conquer? He did very well between the ages of 18 and 21, not merely in his capacity as a tactitian or fighting soldier, or what have you-

Senator Mulvihill - He had a great teacher though, did he not?

Senator WITHERS - Is the honourable senator thinking of Brucephalus which was a great horse? I do not know who the great teacher was. In addition to running an army Alexander the Great was running an empire. In those days the loyalties within one's army were kept basically as a result of the power of personality of the commanding general, plus the opportunity for loot, rape and a few other things. I do not know in which order they came. He was able to achieve this as a young man. I remember as a schoolboy learning that the Black Prince at the Battle of Cressy, at the age of 16 years, was given by his father a wing of the battle to command and acquitted himself very well. When we talk about 18-year olds, they always have had responsibility. The next in line has always been able to come to the throne at the age of 18 in the United Kingdom, male or female. So it was recognised long before the power of the legislature resided within the parliament that a person was able to come to power and exercise enormous responsibilities and duties at the age of 18.

Senator James McClelland (NEW SOUTH WALES) - There are fewer and fewer opportunities for ascending to thrones.

Senator WITHERS - It depends on how one interprets 'throne', but there may be fewer and fewer opportunities.

Senator James McClelland (NEW SOUTH WALES) - Youth really has to look elsewhere, does it not?

Senator WITHERS - The throne is but a symbol of ascension to power. I do not know that it is necessarily vital to sit upon either a wooden chair at Westminster Abbey or a peacock throne in Persia to exercise despotic power. I recall that there have been other people who had responsibility while they were young. Pitt the Younger was Prime Minister at 24 and I know that he had the vote at the age of 21 years. He was not doing badly for a youth. It is very difficult these days to produce a member of this Parliament at the age of 24, let alone a Minister and least of all a Prime Minister. We seem to be getting older and older.

Senator James McClelland (NEW SOUTH WALES) - Do you think we might be better off with a Prime Minister aged 21?

Senator WITHERS - We might be. Certainly we would be better off with a Leader of the Opposition of that age because he might be more in tune with the times and more sensitive to community responsibilities. But my Party always has been sensitive. My Party is the only one which endorses women and puts them into this place so that women may have a voice in the Parliament.

Senator Mulvihill - We had one during the war years.

Senator WITHERS - I quite recall that Senator Dame Dorothy Tangney was a very distinguished member of this Parliament until her own party cut her throat by putting her in third position on the Party ticket some 4 or 5 years ago. That is what the Labor Party thought of female representation. We have generally elevated our women candidates to first or second position on the ticket to make sure that they could come into the Parliament. Even within our Federal organisation we. have encouraged youth by making certain that within the Federal Party structure of the Liberal Party, the Young Liberal Movement shall have permanent voting representation, something which I understand the. Young Labor Movement has not. So when we talk about the responsibilities of youth we should talk about it right across the board. I now come to the point towards which one should have been building up the tension: Will I or will I not support the Bill?

Senator Mulvihill - To be or not to be?

Senator WITHERS - That is right, to vote or not to vote.

Senator Little - Never mind the Bill. What about the amendment?

Senator WITHERS - I thank the honourable senator for remindng me. I shall come to the amendment. I am not canvassing the ruling of the Chair, but I think it is a great pity that paragraphs (2), (3), (4) and (5) of the amendment should have been discarded because personally I would have voted for (2), (4) and (5) whereas I would not support (1), (3) and (6), if that is any consolation to my friends in the corner. As to the part of the amendment that remains I am constantly fascinated, mixing with members of Parliament as 1 do, that there is some confusion as to what the various systems of voting are. I must take issue with my friend and colleague Senator Marriott who said that governments that win do not change voting systems. That might be the experience in Tasmania, but it is not the exerience in other parts of Australia. The Labor Party has said, and it makes no secret of it, that if ever it gets the opportunity - even if it gets it in one place it will not get it here - it will adopt a first past the post system, not because it is more democratic but because it will best suit that Party's ends. Nobody today would argue that if we have a compulsory enrolment and compulsory voting we must have also first past the post voting. This is one of the phoney arguments that are kicked about throughout the discussion on first past the post voting. Perhaps it is reasonable to have first past the post voting in the United Kingdom and in the United States because in both countries there is voluntary enrolment and voluntary voting, but to suggest engrafting a first past the post system onto the Australian electorate which has compulsory voting and compulsory enrolment is in my view a phoney suggestion. If anyone propounds the argument that we should use the first past the post system which is used within the United Kingdom, and the United States, surely we must adopt the other 2 propositions also. We have had preferential voting in Australia since about 1923 or 1924.

Senator Little - It has been adopted in many countries and called the Australian system.

Senator WITHERS - That is right. It may not be the most perfect system - very few systems are perfect - but it is nearer to perfection than the first past the post method. I know that the House of Representatives does not necessarily reflect the vote of the electorate in the primary vote, but I think that within the Australian electoral system, once the preferences have been distributed, the House of Representatives tends to reflect the electorate. This cannot be said for Parliaments which indulge in the first past the post system.

Senator Mulvihill - What is wrong with the Parliament at Westminster? Do you suggest that it is gerrymandered?

Senator WITHERS - No, I do not say that it is gerrymandered. However, I do not think it reflects the opinion of the electorate. 1 well recall, when people talk about the great victory of the Attlee Labor Government in 1945 that, from memory, it won about 60 per cent of the seats on about 45 per cent of the vote. People tend to forget that the Attlee Government never achieved a majority vote. The Conservative Party attracted a fairly large vote and most of the remaining seats, and the Liberal Party, which received a big swag of votes in the middle, won about 6 seats. Nobody can tell me that the House of Commons between 1945 and 1950 represented the primary vote of the 1945 election. I do not think the United Kingdom system ever does reflect the primary vote. Nevertheless,

I accept that because that is the way they want it. They are entitled to have it. They like voluntary enrolment and they like voluntary voting. I have never heard the Labor Party espouse either of those latter propositions. In fact, as I recall it, the Labor Party has always pushed for compulsory enrolment and compulsory voting because that is the only way in which it can flog its supporters to the polls. It was the argument it propounded for years in my own State of Western Australia with respect to the Legislative Council. The Labor Party objected to the property franchise, voluntary enrolment and voluntary voting. I remind honourable senators opposite that it was a Liberal-Country Party Government which first gave the adult franchise compulsory enrolment and compulsory enrolment to an Upper House. We have the peculiar situation these days where upper House members are elected on exactly the same franchise, by exactly the same people and on exactly the same day, yet the Labor Party says that an upper House should not be entitled to frustrate the will of the lower House. Of course, people do odd things in elections.

Senator Mulvihill - Is there not a disparity in the electoral districts of Western Australia?

Senator WITHERS - I will tell the honourable senator about some of the peculiarities that go on in voting. One particular upper House province in Western Australia consisted of 3 House of Assembly electorates. The Labor Party candidates won by handsome majorities in the 3 Assembly electorates. On the same day, under the same franchise, the Liberal candidate won by a handsome majority in the upper House province. I do not know how one can explain it, but that is what happens. Is the Liberal Party member of the upper House not just as entitled to say that he reflects the opinion of the electorate as much as do the three Labor Party members of the lower House? That is an example of the confusion the Labor Party indulges in over electoral systems.

The nations which have attempted to introduce proportional representation system in elections for their lower Houses have often struck some difficulty. I suppose the classical situation was in France in the 1920s and 1930s when, due to a tremendous number of parties and a proportional type of voting within the lower House, the average government lasted either 6 weeks or 6 months, I forget which it was. There was enormous instability. I think we saw an example of this same instability after the War. Similar instability has been racking Italy in many directions. This leads not only to inefficiencies of government but also to something worse. I think it will be found that in most of those countries where the parties in the lower House are unstable the bureaucracy of necessity must assume more and more the responsibility of power. So, in those countries eventually the parliamentary system falls into disrepute and the bureaucracy takes over. It is even possible to get onto such a disreputable state with a multi-party system on a peculiar franchise that conditions are ripe for a military takeover. These are some of the dangers of such a system. Although I do not necessarily say that they could arise in Australia. The Westminster system requires that the Government in the lower House should have a majority. It should not depend upon the support of individuals grouping and regrouping and moving around the chamber.

Under the Westminster system there must be a strong government and there must be a strong opposition. I suppose that if there has been any defect in the Australian system over the last 23 years and the government is not as good as it ought to be, it is because the Government has had such a crummy Opposition - and it still has of course. The better the Opposition, the better the government. Of course that is what this Opposition has never been able to realise. Every time its members complain about the poor performance of the Government they ought to look at their own performances. I repeat that poor Oppositions make for poor governments.

Senator James McClelland (NEW SOUTH WALES) - Are you telling us that we have got a poor Government?

Senator WITHERS - I said if the government has not been as good as people would have wanted it to be-

Senator James McClelland (NEW SOUTH WALES) - You said that we have a poor Government, did you not? Are you admitting it?

Senator WITHERS - I said that poor Oppositions tend to make for poor governments.

Senator James McClelland (NEW SOUTH WALES) - And you said that we are a poor Opposition.

Senator WITHERS - Terrible.

Senator James McClelland (NEW SOUTH WALES) - So you are a poor Government.

Senator WITHERS - We would be a better Government if you were a better Opposition.

Senator James McClelland (NEW SOUTH WALES) - You are a poor Government on your own admission.

Senator WITHERS - No. That is the corniest old trick in the world. The honourable senator ought to be able to do better than that. I thought he had been in practice a lot longer.

Senator McManus - It is just as well that the Democratic Labor Party is good.

Senator WITHERS - I grant the honourable senator that. It has been one of the better things that have happened in this chamber. If there is an argument for the retention of an upper chamber - for the retention of the Senate - I believe that proportional representation should be the system of voting applied because the upper House is not the House of government. It is not this chamber which should make or break governments.

Senator Cavanagh - Tell us how the honourable senator is wasting time.

Senator WITHERS - Senator Cavanagh should be the last person to talk about wasting time. He kept me out of bed till midnight last night by going on and on and on in this chamber. Yet now, when for the first time this session I have been desirous of making a 30 minute speech on a Bill in which I am interested, he complains that I am wasting time. I trust that I will never hear Senator Cavanagh stand in this chamber again and talk about the rights of senators to discuss a Bill or to discuss some matter that is before the chamber.

Senator Cavanagh - You are destroying those rights.

Senator WITHERS - Senator Cavanagh ought to be ashamed of himself. He has lectured us ad nauseum about the Government seeking to take away the rights of honourable senators by trying to cut down speaking times; yet, as I have pointed out, on the first occasion I have attempted to speak on a Bill since we resumed on 15th August he would deny me the right to speak for 30 minutes. I am ashamed of Senator Cavanagh. I thought he and I were the last of the parliamentarians left in this chamber. I thought Senator Cavanagh and 1 were the only ones left who were still guarding the senatorial system.

Senator Georges - We are going to speak on the motion for the adjournment of the Senate, if it is of any interest to the honourable senator; so keep going.

Senator WITHERS - If Senator Georges likes to take up some of my time, why should I not take the opportunity away from him? I come back to what I said before. I believe that there is a real argument for 18-year-olds having the vote. I believe that the age of majority ought to be reduced to 18. The former LiberalCountry Party Government in Western Australia was the first to initiate many of the steps in this direction. It allowed those of the age of 18 to sign building society mortgages. From memory, it allowed them to enter into certain contracts in relation to land. It gave youths of 17 the right to hold a licence to drive a lethal weapon in the form of a motor car. I think all States are gradually but determinedly moving towards a reduction in the age of majority to 18. It is a pity that the voting age is not linked to the marriage age. If the Commonwealth is to reduce the voting age to 18 it should also bring the marriage age down at the same time. I do not see why there should be a distinction. I welcome the work the Attorneys-General have been doing in gradually lowering the age of legal responsibility to 18.

I wonder how genuine this Bill is at this stage. Why was it not introduced at the beginning of the year? There has been a wealth of experience in Western Australia showing that 18-year-olds are capable of enrolling and voting.

Senator Murphy - This legislation was introduced several years ago.

Senator WITHERS - It was introduced and thrown out, but it has been left to lie around. As far as I am concerned the whole of the Labor Party's approach to the question of votes for 18-year-olds has been phoney. The challenge to the High Court of Australia was left almost to be used as a quasi-electoral issue. I suppose it must have been terribly disappointing to the Labor Party that the High Court sat so early and ruled so decisively. We had at that time the statement that a Bill would be introduced on the day we came back. We came back on 1 5th August. I think we got the Bill on 13th September. Senator Murphy is at liberty to bring these matters in whenever he so desires, but to expect support from this side of the chamber for what is obviously a phoney election stunt is far too much for anybody to swallow. It is no use the Opposition coming into this chamber saying that 2 of my Western Australia colleagues will be supporting this measure. I do not know who those honourable senators are. It is none of my business who they are. Merely because honourable senators on this side of the chamber state in public what their attitude is the Opposition seizes upon this as a lovely issue on which to embarrass the Government.

Debate interrupted.

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