The rights of citizens

The basis of democracy is to have regular elections at which citizens have the right to choose who amongst them will form their government. The most complicated forms of democracy are the federations in which citizens have to choose both National Governments and State or Provincial Governments.

In the United States of America, the oldest, richest and strongest of the federations, citizens know the precise date on which all elections, Federal and State, take place. US elections are always held on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November. All citizens know which elections will be held on that day each year.

In Australia citizens in most States now know the exact date on which there will be State elections but nowhere in Australia do citizens know when there will be Federal elections. All they know is that, under a 1918 law, a State election cannot be held on a Federal election day. The 1918 law should be repealed.

In promoting the rights of citizens the performance of Labor’s federal parliamentarians has been dismal, in fact abysmal. They don’t seem to care that in Australia, as in Britain, the national elections are held on the date which the incumbent Prime Minister calculates will give the biggest advantage to his party. In this way he restricts the capacity of the alternative government to choose candidates, prepare policies and plan campaigns.

On 10 October 2005, seven and a half months ago, the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters recommended four-year terms for the House of Representatives. It had made the same recommendation in its reports after the 1996, 1998 and 2001 Federal elections. Labor should respect the key role that Michael Danby, the MHR for Melbourne Ports, has taken for nearly five years as Deputy Chair of the Committee. The Committee recommended that proposals for four-year terms be put to the Australian public at the Federal elections due in 2007. If these proposals are successful, it is intended that they come into effect at the commencement of the parliamentary term following the subsequent Federal elections due in 2010. The Committee pointed out that only the House of Representatives and the Queensland Legislative Assembly retain three-year terms and that the other five State Assemblies have adopted four-year terms.

The arithmetic is compelling. If Labor wins a majority in the House of Representatives at the 2007 elections, it could still be frustrated by a Coalition majority in the Senate. The terms of all four Democrat senators and two of the four Green senators will expire on 30 June 2008. I know that I am not the only member of the Labor party who can be criticised for forgetting the names and terms of senators; the corollary is that not all senators are memorable. In 2004 19 Coalition senators were elected but only 14 Labor senators; they will continue to serve till 30 June 2011. Nobody believes that at the 2007 elections Labor can overcome this disparity by winning five more senators than the Coalition. The prospect is that, after the 2007 elections, Coalition senators could act against a Labor Government in the same way as their predecessors acted in 1974 and 1975.

The Labor policy is for simultaneous fixed four-year terms for both Federal Houses. Don’t our shadow ministers remember the policy? Don’t they understand it? Don’t they support it? Is it incompetence, negligence or indulgence? Some may be indulgent towards Senate colleagues who already enjoy fixed six-year terms and, if members of the House of Representatives win four-year terms, might aspire to fixed eight-year terms. Every citizen who respects the principle of responsible government wants to prevent a repetition of the Colston situation in Queensland, where a senator had been elected as the representative of a political party and, after an election three years later, deserted and opposed that party. That situation would be aggravated if senators were elected for eight years.

In contrast to the inexplicable and unforgivable delay in responding to the Joint Standing Committee’s recommendations on four-year terms, much earlier action has been taken on other recommendations by the Joint Standing Committee. On 8 December 2005 the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Electoral Integrity and Other Measures) Bill was introduced in the House of Representatives, not by a cabinet Minister or by a Minister who is not in the cabinet but by a parliamentary secretary. The bill was debated on the evening of 29 March by a Labor and a Liberal member and for two hours after noon on 30 March by three Labor and two Liberal members.

On 8 February 2006 the bill had been referred to the Senate Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee. The Senate Committee received 53 submissions, including two from Queensland’s Attorney-General and Minister for Justice, Linda Lavarch. The Senate committee’s report was tabled on 28 March, two months ago. When Parliament resumed for the Budget session on 9 May, the bill was at the top of the House of Representatives Notice Paper as the first order of the day under Government Business. It was debated for a few hours on 9, 10 and 11 May. Amendments were gagged and defeated. The House passed the bill at 11.10p.m. on 11 May. The bill will probably be discussed by the Senate in three weeks time.

We have now passed the mid-point between the 2004 and the 2007 national elections. Referendum proposals must be submitted to the electors in each State and Territory not less than two nor more than six months after they have been passed by an absolute majority in each House of the Parliament. The issue is urgent.

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This is an edited extract from a speech given at the opening of Kevin Rudd’s electorate office on May 28, 2006

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