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
Tuesday, 4 December 1973
Page: 2406

Senator WRIGHT (Tasmania) -We are dealing with a Bill the subject matter of which a committee of which I was a member in 1959 considered and made a report. That committee was constituted by a joint agreement of all parties then represented in the Parliament. This committee was supposed to represent a formidable approach to the issue of constitutional review reform. Of course, the committee brought forth one mouse which was successfully scotched in the nexus referendum. The Bill that is now before us is related to another proposal put forward by the committee. I think it is pertinent to consider what may have taken place in the intervening 14 or 15 years since that committee made its report. Undoubtedly the project of 1959 had become pointed in one direction- to alter the status and the operation of the Senate. Several proposals were then put forward not only in regard to simultaneous elections, which is the subject of this Bill, but also one to avoid consulting the people on a deadlock issue. There were other proposals. But undoubtedly the pre-occupation of the proponents of that constitutional review program was, in some way, to make the Senate conform.

That was the situation in 1959. In the 10 years following 1949, the Senate, under the old system of voting, was almost a rubber stamp of the government of the day. Elections held under the block system were so designed to automatically produce a majority in this chamber for the party which had been voted into the majority of places in the House of Government. So long as this system was maintained it was immaterial whether or not simultaneous elections were held. Between 1949 and 1959 we had only the slightest indications of independence of thought in this chamber. There were a few- and they were growing- and it could be foreseen that if this chamber operated according to its independent judgment life would not be so happy and so complacent for governments in another place. As one of the members of that committee in 1959 1 took the responsibility of dissenting from the majority report of the committee that favoured the proposal for simultaneous elections. At that time the Senate was still a place of potential promise, a place where policy could be influenced and in some cases evolved.

The Senate at that time remembered that it was constituted by the Constitution in a different fashion from the House of Representatives for the very purpose of having a different approach on proper matters. As Senator Withers said in the course of his speech this afternoon, unless there had been a different approach and a different constitution of the Senate there would never have been any Federation. In the 1890s when Federation was being discussed it had first to be determined whether the 6 States would come to the conventions. It was only on the basis that each State had equal representation in the Senate, or the States House as it was called then, that there was the beginnings of interest and agreement. Despite the experience of 70 or 80 years and with all that velocity of development that has taken place those 6 States remain 6 entities and will continue to do so with their own different and independent outlooks for the time that we have experience in politics. The peoples of those States, and not the Governments of those States, are joined here in Canberra and are represented by senators. On the occasions when State interests are at issue the Senate is quite capable of so emphasising the State issues as to be an important outlet for State political points of view. No government in this place would dare move in regard to an industry, such as the sugar industry in Queensland, without being satisfied that the senators from Queensland were in agreement with the proposal. This would be the case also in regard to island shipping for Tasmania or the apple industry of which Tasmania produces 70 to 80 per cent of Australia's exports in this field. So I simply make the point clear that in 1959 honourable senators represented State interests and had some influence on the Government of the day.

The second point I wish to make about the constitution of the Senate is that honourable senators are elected for a term of 6 years. That, in the minds of the thoughtful framers of the Constitution, would give, and it has given to this place, a stability that is not available under the Westminster system to the House responsive to the responsible Government down below. It was a great experiment that was designed to try to reconcile all the demands of responsible government and all the experience of responsible government with a federal system of government. It had not been essayed in America. The people who assembled at our conventions were quite conscious of the challenge of making the system of responsible government operate.

If we were to turn our minds for a minute to the changes that have come about in the operation of responsible government since 1900 we would see that the Prime Minister who took his lower House to the country at that time purely for political purposes would be scarified by the electorate, but today it has become the convention. At that time if the Prime Minister took his Party to the country on other than some important policy issue he would be condemned for that alone. Today Mr Heath, Mr Whitlam and Mr Trudeau are sniffing the wind not for the purpose of ascertaining whether there is an issue worthy of an election but for the purpose of ascertaining whether the breeze is blowing favourably and whether it would be propitious to go to the country. Hence Mr Whitlam 's nervousness and, in a sense, hesitation in the aura of the recent election in New South Wales. He just wants to know what his chances are. Irrespective of whether he had another 3 months or 2 years of his 3-year term to run he would, if he thought it was favourable for party political purposes to do so, force an election. That sort of thing is condoned. That attitude has been engendered by the predominant influence which the political commentators have over the situation today. Parliament has allowed them to take over the expression of political will and has not required them to write the political will as expressed by parliamentarians. In an era in which such a system has been developed it is doubly important to maintain the importance of a fixed term of election for the House which has to oppose a government which has a majority. That is most important if we are to have stability of government and a degree of responsibility.

Having given the Senate that 6-year term the Constitution founders said: 'There is only one event in which the Senate can be dissolved'. I should think, relying on memory, that that event would have been debated more than any other single issue in the Convention debates. In what circumstances can the States House be dissolved so that the Government, recruited in the main from the two or perhaps three most populous States, could overawe the Senate? Because the wilting of the Senate that took place between 1 900 and 1 949 had not been experienced in 1 900 and because it was expected to be a bulwark of State rights, it was decided that the Senate should not be subject to the whim of Whitlam or any other person who occupies the position of head of government. Whoever he may be, the Senate is not to be at the whim of the Prime Minister of the day as to whether it is to be struck down and dissolved. But if the House of Representatives puts an issue to the Senate and the Senate rejects it or fails to pass it and the House of Representatives proposes it to the Senate a second time, it is possible for the Prime

Minister of the day to go to the GovernorGeneral and get a provision for the double dissolution of Parliament a simultaneous dissolution of both Houses. The issue upon which the Senate has stacked its existence is then made prominent in the minds of the people. That issue then can be expected to be determined by the people with that in mind.

As I stand here and remind myself of the arguments that persuaded me in 1959 to dissent from the views of the other eleven, it is not much wonder that I stood my ground because as I restate the arguments I am more than ever convinced that the Senate needs the constitutional stability and safeguards to which I have referred. But I do not approach the matter in 1973 with the same experience before me as I had in 1959. The intervening 14 years of experience have been most pregnant from the point of view of exhibiting the political potential of which this chamber is capable. There are some in the Senate who think that the committee system began in a recent era. If they were to study the debates they would learn that a very patient campaign carried on through the 1950s and accentuated in the early 1960s resulted in the gradual acceptance by the Government of a committee system in the Senate. For example, many years ago it was suggested that we should have Estimates Committees of the type we have now. If I may direct an observation to you personally, Mr President, and not to you as the occupant of the Chair, you will remember a very important committee was set up when it was proposed to amalgamate and, indeed, emasculate the amendable Bill of appropriation. In that and in the Estimates Committees the Senate has shown its strength with regard to the examination of appropriations- a strength not always maintained, a strength which was miserably and disgracefully ruined last week when we had an impulsive guillotine thrown upon us at half past four in the afternoon of the last day upon which the Government could get appropriation, so it was said, and enough members of this chamber were prepared to go along with it to enable a social party to begin at ten past six in the afternoon. Those who do not see that the programming of Parliament requires the Appropriation Bill to come on a month before it has to go through are sadly blind to the degree to which, simply by maneouvring, the power of the Senate over appropriation can be thwarted. But enough of that.

I am saying that in the Estimates Committees the Senate has grown in strength. We had a suggestion the other day that if the Senate probed too far in the Estimates Committees we would have to reconsider their existence. So said Senator Murphy who, in halcyon days, claimed to be something of a protagonist of those committees. I do not think that the Senate will ever allow the Senate committee system to be terminated. Through not only the Senate committees but through other committees dealing with the innermost and most dynamic fields of policy the Senate has been probing and expressing opinion and carrying into effect policy that in 1959 it was never dreamed would be the responsibility of the Senate. If my dissenting report is perused- I had not looked at it for 10 years until I brought it in here and I had not thought of this remark- it will be seen that I quoted there that in its first 50 years of existence the United States Senate was made light of and that jests were made that the senators could be found going to the House of Representatives to observe the proceedings there, and that they were insignificant and of no account. I prophesised that the first 50 fameless years of this Senate would reproduce the American experience. Since the constitution of our select and standing committees the Senate has had a great impact upon policy. I believe that it is probably the most formidable agency for responding to the people's will when the Government submits its legislative program to Parliament, due to some extent to the lack of real political perception of the media, and to some extent to the people.

If in 1959 it was essential to maintain the separate independent status of the Senate for its proper purposes, in 1973 it is ever so much more important to do so. I rise briefly to expound a point of view which although not very much listened to in this place is, I am sure, appreciated by those who out of principle make constitutional study their preoccupation, that it is necessary that we remind ourselves from time to time of the reasons why these differences exist. If we should fall victim to the myopia that seems to be clouding the outlook of the present Prime Minister (Mr Whitlam) and vote for a Bill that is designed to make the Senate the echo of a government party on the hustings every time an election is held for the House of Representatives, it would mean, I think, that we would be doing less than our duty.

A dissolution of the House of Representatives takes place as I have pointed out, not only because of matters of high principle that have been debated in Parliament. It may take place because of the purely fortuitous circumstance that leaders disagree. If there were today an ambitious contention between 2 members of the governing party in the House of Representatives, the

Government might fall. Half of the Senate is to go to an election next year. Suppose that we had an incident similiar to the one that we witnessed this morning involving the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs (Senator Cavanagh) and the Government nominee on the board of Applied Ecology Pty Ltd (Senator Georges) arising from the dismissal last week by the directors of the Government expert, Dr Bustard, after which the Government yesterday presumably summoned up its courage and said: 'No, we are going to keep Dr Bustard but we are going to remove the directors'. If we were a Party of a government that might very well create in Caucus tomorrow morning such a situation that there would be an election which would take the other House to the people. I would like to think of them going along the beach like a group of turtles following the whimsies of Mr Whitlam 's whimsicality.

So I just pause for a little silent pity towards the author of this proposal; and the more so when I reflect on how he has masqueraded as a constitutional constructor. A constitutional convention was in the wind when he came into office, and he said he would support it. He went along and, after certain discussion, he produced a great idea. 'In the Constitution, I have pointed out', said Mr Whitlam to the assembled Convention in Sydney, 'it is possible only for the States to refer matters to the Commonwealth. I suggest the reciprocal process should operate: It should be possible for the Commonwealth to refer matters to the States'. What a magnificent condescension! How original! If honourable senators recall the piece of paper- the statement, or whatever it is called- that they put out after these conventions, this was the great idea. Then Caucus met and it said: 'We are not going to have any of this funny business. We want a referendum on prices'. And it said: 'We won't have anything on incomes'. No. But next week Mr Prime Minister said: 'Unless you include incomes, I am finished '. So, Mr Hawke being silent, Caucus succumbed, and we are told a great impression was produced. And then the Democratic Labor Party took a hand in it- and of that I will say nothing.

The difference between the 2 referenda has been referred to by Senator Webster briefly when arguing about suspension of the Standing Order. He was required to confine himself to the title and its truth. I just want to reinforce what he said by reference to the way the convolutions of Mr Whitlam 's constitutional mind go. He has come forward out of Caucus, not with a proposal to control incomes as was agreed to about prices, but a constitutional proposal with respect to incomes. In the course of the second reading debate, Senator Murphy said: 'I want you to know that this power, if given, will not be exercised always in a negative sense. It will enable the Australian Parliament to give those guarantees which hitherto the States alone have given'. Always curious to know how these great minds work, I asked a question. I was told quite frankly that it would enable the Australian Parliament to fix the basic wage and to legislate, possibly, for hours of work and for sick leave, annual leave, long service leave and all the other safeguards of wages. That was the second contribution by Mr Whitlam to this process of constitutional study.

It is like a boy licking his fingers after eating a toffee apple. Mr Whitlam has made a couple of proposals and he says: 'We might do a little more of this making constitutional proposals'. So we have these 4 sticky proposals which will be before us this afternoon. We have before us now this proposal dealing with simultaneous elections. This must be the joke of the whole session. As Senator McManus has pointed out so clearly, if bringing the elections of this Parliament into gear is the desideratum of those who are concerned about the expenditure of $2m in order to consult the people in the election of the Senate, is that mere waste or gross extravagance in relation to the purchase of 'Blue Poles'- blue, black or brindle; I do not care what it is called- which is a bit of duco stuck on canvass and for which the agent's fee was $100,000? Dear, oh dear, the economic sense of the Government which deters it from going to the people. Let us both go together. Let us go on this occasion, now that the Senate has stipulated the things upon which it is in definite disagreement and registered its stand so that double dissolution circumstances have occurred. The opportunity faces the Government now, if it has the courage to go to the country and so bring the elections for the Houses together. But a government which manages turtles and the purchase of a painting such as 'Blue Poles' as it does will not do so.

It offered $8m towards the cost of draining Lake Pedder and resuscitating a button grass plain in order to form a warm habitat for 6 varieties of broad tongued rats or other things that are found there. The other day my good friend Senator Webster reminded me of these things. I was advocating a national view in relation to the seas and submerged lands. Senator Webster was taking a State view. I turned around and said to him 'Troglodyte', in happy memory of the visit which we paid to New Guinea, where we saw the mud men. I pictured the fiat, muddy floor of Lake Pedder and thought that one word would be sufficient for understanding. The poor people up in the Press Gallery say that I turned in acrimony. God help us. May they acquire a little humour and broadness of outlook. This Government offered $8m to drain Lake Pedder which is a magnificent body of water, 93 square miles in area and 50 feet in depth. It is the loveliest and the major water storage in the southern hemisphere. The Government offered $8m to drain that. Yet it wants to avoid a Senate election because that will cost $2m. Do honourable senators think that that is prudence? Do honourable members think that is real political intelligence? I hope that we will be able to reflect these views properly before the country shortly.

I support the proposal that this Bill be subjected to the scrutiny of the Senate Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs. That Committee has representation from all sections of this Parliament. It would be interesting to see just what the Government members on that Committee, on sober consideration, would say. It is my experience that committee operations bring forward a detachment from partisan or party considerations. I think that an objective report from the Senate Standing Committee on this issue at this time would be most valuable for the record and as a guide to this chamber. For myself, I would prefer to see the Bill go before the Committee; but, if not, I think that it should be defeated.

Suggest corrections