Joint Sitting Of Parliament: Whitlam’s Opening Speech

Following the May 1974 double dissolution election, the Senate continued to reject six pieces of legislation. Under Section 57 of the Constitution, a joint sitting was held to resolve the deadlock.

The legislation sought to establish the Medibank universal health insurance scheme which is now known as Medicare. Another bill aimed to establish one-vote-one-value in electoral distributions. Another provided for Senate representation for the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory, whilst the final bill established the Petroleum and Minerals Authority.

This is Whitlam’s opening speech to the Joint Sitting. He specifically deals with the introduction of one-vote-one-value in electoral distributions through establishing a maximum 10% variation in voter numbers in House of Representatives seats.

  • Listen to Whitlam’s speech (8m – edited)

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Proceedings of the Joint Sitting, as transcribed by Hansard.

The Chairman – Members of the Senate and members of the House of Representatives, before proceeding to the business of the Joint Sitting, I feel reference should be made to the historic nature of this Joint Sitting. This is the first Joint Sitting of the Senate and the House of Representatives convened by His Excellency the Governor-General pursuant to section 57 of the Constitution for the purpose of resolving disagreements between the 2 Houses. It is, accordingly, an occasion of great constitutional significance in the history of this Parliament.

The Joint Sitting will now proceed to deliberate and vote upon each of the 6 proposed laws named in the Proclamation by his excellency the Governor-General, dated 30 July 1974, which has been read by the Clerk. The proposed laws are:

  • Commonwealth Electoral Act (No. 2) 1973
  • Senate (Representation of Territories) Act 1973
  • Representation Act 1973
  • Health Insurance Commission Act 1973
  • Health Insurance Act 1973, and
  • Petroleum and Minerals Authority Act 1973.

The CHAIRMAN – I now call on the first proposed law, namely, the Commonwealth Electoral Act (No. 2) 1973, and pursuant to rule 11, I propose the question:

That the proposed law be affirmed.

The question is now open to debate. Pursuant to rule 8, no member may speak for more than 20 minutes and, pursuant to rule 18, each speaker speaking on the question “That the proposed law be affirmed” shall speak from one of the lecterns provided near the table. I call the honourable the Prime Minister, Mr E G Whitlam.

Mr WHITLAM (Werriwa – Prime Minister) (10.38) – Mr Chairman, I support the motion. This is an historic and unprecedented, a sobering occasion. We are witnessing for the first time a Joint Sitting of the House of Representatives and the Senate of Australia. It is the first time that the members of both Houses have sat together as a single legislative body. It is the first time that the proceedings of Parliament, of either House, have been televised to the nation. I welcome the opportunity thus provided for the Australian people to see the workings of their Parliament at close hand, to consider the Bills now before us and to reflect on the reasons why this extraordinary Joint Sitting of Parliament has come about. For, momentous as the sitting is, the reasons for it are not a matter for pride. It has come about because of the repeated refusal of the Senate to pass legislation which has been approved by the House of Representatives – the people’s House, the House where alone governments are made and unmade. It has come about because despite two successive election victories by the Australian Labor Party, despite the clear endorsement by the Australian people at the elections only 11 weeks ago of the Party’s policies and of the specific measures now before us, the Senate and the Opposition are still resolved to obstruct the Government’s program and to frustrate the will of the people. Not the least of the effects of this obstruction has been to delay the business of government while great and pressing national issues demand attention. Let it be understood that this joint Sitting is a last resort, a means provided by the Constitution to enable the popular will – the democratic process – ultimately to prevail over the tactics of blind obstruction. The Constitution provides that if the Senate in certain circumstances twice rejects Bills passed by the House of Representatives, the Governor-General may dissolve the Parliament and new elections may be held. That is what happened last April and May. The Constitution further provides that if, after a double dissolution and fresh elections, the Senate still obstructs such a Bill a joint sitting of both Houses may be held to consider it. That is what is happening now. Even the Sitting itself, an event clearly envisaged and provided for by the Constitution, has been subject of a desperate last minute, last ditch legal challenge by our opponents. Now, at last – at long last – after sustained stonewalling and filibustering the Parliament can proceed to enact these essential parts of the Government’s legislative program.

Before dealing with them, however, I want to speak as gravely as I can of the implications of this long process of obstruction. The repeated rejection of this Bill is part of a pattern of obstruction adopted by the Opposition since the Australian Labor Government came to power. It has been rightly described by Sir Robert Menzies as a falsification of popular democracy. Writing in 1968, Sir Robert said:

It would be a falsification of democracy if on any matter of Government policy approved by the House of Representatives, possibly by a large majority, the Senate representing the States and not the people could reverse the decision.

Mr Chairman, we have seen in the history of this Bill one example of such a falsification. It is fitting that the first Bill to come before this first Joint Sitting of the Australian Parliament should be designed to strengthen the equality of popular democracy in Australia. The essential purpose of this Bill is a simple one. It is to enshrine the principle of one vote, one value. It will establish equality of representation as the paramount objective when electoral boundaries are drawn. To resist that simple, clear and basic principle of democracy we have had this long campaign of obstruction.

Specifically, the Bill provides that in any electorate the number of voters shall be not more than 10 per cent or below the average number of voters in all the electorates of the State concerned. At present, a variation of 20 per cent is permitted. In other words, we shall be reducing the permitted variation from one-fifth to one-tenth. We shall be ensuring that the number of voters in each electorate is much closer than it is now to the ideal of equality. We shall thus be removing from the electoral law much of the scope now afforded for malapportionment and gerrymandering of electorates.

I invite honourable members and honourable senators to consider how flagrantly the number of voters varies between the different electorates at present. Remember that the greater the variation the more the value of a man’s or woman’s vote is diminished or inflated. In New South Wales twenty of the 45 electorates are more than 10 per cent above or below the average quota. Four of them are more than 20 per cent above the quota and 2 of them are more than 20 per cent below it. In Victoria there is a variation greater than 10 per cent in 14 of the 34 electorates and a variation greater than 20 per cent in 7 of them. In Queensland there are 9 of the 18 electorates that depart by more than 10 per cent from the quota and 3 that depart by more than 20 per cent. In South Australia 4 of the 12 electorates depart by more than 10 per cent from the quota and 2 by more than 20 per cent. In each of these States the quota for an electorate is about 64,000 voters. Yet in New South Wales the enrolment between the largest and smallest electorates varied by 35,000 votes. In Victoria it varies by 38,000 voters. In Queensland it varies by 43,000 voters and in south Australia it varies by 31,000 voters. Throughout Australia and even within particular States some people’s votes are worth 40 per cent more than others – in fact, up to 90 per cent more than others. That is unjust. It is a denial of the very essence of democracy and a travesty of the electoral process.

What we are now proposing – this reduction in the permissible variation between electorates – was first proposed 15 years ago by the Joint Committee on Constitutional Review established by Sir Robert Menzies in 1956. It was a Committee that included members of all parties in the Parliament. The Liberal party members were Sir Neil O’Sullivan; Sir Alexander Downer, son of one of the founding fathers of Australia’s Constitution, a Minister, later High commissioner to Britain; Mr Justice Joske; and Senator Wright – now one of the opponents of this legislation. The Country Party was represented by the Honourable David Drummond and Mr Len Hamilton. That Committee – that all party Committee on Constitutional Review – unanimously recommended exactly the measure that we are now putting forward, briefly at the end of 1958, and with full reasons at the end of 1959. I remind honourable members and senators of the Committee’s words:

The Committee feels constrained to say, however, that the one-fifth margin on either side of the quota for a State which the Act allows may disturb quite seriously a principle which the committee believes to be beyond question in the election of members of the national Parliament of a federation, namely, that the votes of the electors should, as far as possible, be accorded equal value. The full application of the margin each way to two divisions in a State could result in the number of electors in the other division. Such a possible disparity in the value of votes is inconsistent with the full realisation of democracy.

The Committee recommended that the Constitution be amended to provide that:

…upon the subdivision of a State into electoral divisions, the number of electors in a division in a State should not exceed by more than one-tenth, or fall short of by more than one-tenth, a quota ascertained by dividing the total number of electors in the State by the number of members to be chosen in that State.

On repeated occasions since 1959 the Labor Party, now twice confirmed as the Government, has sought to amend the Electoral Act to establish in legislation the principle which the Committee believed should be enshrined in the Constitution itself. This is the objective of the legislation now before this Parliament – to implement by law a proposal endorsed by the distinguished committee of both Houses and all parties as a constitutional amendment 15 years ago. Our proposals are the culmination of a long campaign of debate and action inside and outside the Parliament. When we moved the proposals as amendments to Electoral Bills in 1961, 1965 and 1968 Liberal and Country Party members defeated them. When Senator McKenna in 1964 and Senator Murphy in 1968 and the honourable member for Grayndler, the father of the Parliament, Mr Daly in 1971 introduced the proposals in private members’ Bills, the Liberal and Country Party Ministers would not allow a vote to be taken upon them.

Finally, in May this year, the Government submitted a referendum to the Australian people seeking to have the principle of electoral equality entrenched in the Constitution. We sought then to introduce equality on the basis of electorates of equal population. The Constitution always has provided that the number of electorates in the several States shall be in proportion to their populations. The present Bill, of necessity, relies on a different test of equality – the number of voters in each electorate. The Leader of the Opposition (Mr Snedden) has supported that principle. He did so when he opposed our referendum. On 5 May the right honourable gentleman, in a considered Press statement objecting to the principle of equal population electorates, stated:

If the so-called democratic elections referendum was passed it would allow electorates to be based not on the number of voters but on the number of people. This represents a fundamental departure from the principle of one vote one value – the only right and proper principle on which to base electoral redistributions. Australia’s electoral system must be based on the underlying principle that the voter has an equal say compared to any of his fellow voters.

He may now have the grace to acknowledge that our legislation will promote precisely that principle.

I shall deal briefly with 2 other aspects of our legislation. The variation of 20 per cent from the quota, which we intend to reduce, has been provided in the Commonwealth Electoral Act since Federation. In 1965, however, the then Government amended the Act to oblige the electoral Commissioners to depart from the quota of electors to a much greater extent than before. What had been a reasonable discretion allowed to the Commissioners became a direction to them to do what is neither reasonable nor democratic. They were obliged to consider a whole host of factors which gave undue weighting to remote or sparsely populated electorates. Yet these electorates are all much less extensive than they were before the expansion of the parliament in 1949 and telecommunications and transport connections with them and within them have immeasurably improved. In our legislation we propose to remove many of these factors from the list of considerations to which the Commissioners must pay regard. We believe, in the words of the great Chief Justice Warren of the Supreme Court of the Untied States of America in 1964 -

The fact that an individual lives here or there is not a legitimate reason for over-weighting or diluting the efficacy of his vote. The complexions of societies and civilisations change, often with amazing rapidity. Representation schemes once fair and equitable become archaic and outdated. But the basic principle of representative government remains and must remain unchanged. The weight of a citizen’s vote cannot be made to depend on where he lives. A citizen – a qualified voter – is no more or no less so because he lives in the city or on the farm.

The proposal in the Bill is, we believe, a fair and just proposition. It leaves the Commissioners with a very reasonable degree of discretion. We also propose to allow for more frequent redistributions. The Act will be amended to provide that a redistribution may be directed whenever, in one-fourth of the electorates in a State, the number of voters differs from the quota by one-tenth or more.

We believe the purpose of this Bill to be a clear and honourable one. Its basic principles have been recognised by the Supreme Court of the United States for 10 years and by an all-party committee of our Parliament for 15 years. It affirms the Government’s belief that every person’s vote is of equal value no matter where that person lives. It affirms our belief that all men and women should be equal in making the law as they are before the law. It gives to those who sit in this Parliament at this historic Joint Sitting of this Parliament the opportunity to stand up and be counted, to say whether they believe in these democratic principles and, above all, in the supreme principle of one vote one value. For its content and its implications, for its real value and its symbolic importance, for its contribution to the cause of democracy in a world where democracy seems daily more frail, I commend this Bill to honourable senators and members.

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