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Wednesday, 30 May 1984
Page: 2121

Senator SIBRAA(11.26) —Unlike the previous speaker I shall be brief and to the point. I must say that if the views we have heard from Senator Walters this morning are the views of the Liberal Party throughout Australia, that Party will remain in Opposition for a very long time. I was Chairman of Estimates Committee E. I really do not know what I did to deserve that honour. However, I have been a member of Estimates committees, both in government and in opposition. The things that Senator Walters complains about this morning have been happening for years. Meetings have been adjourned for further information; officers attend the meetings without knowing answers; answers arrive weeks later ; departments, like the Department of Defence, have been guilty of supplying late answers ever since I have been a member of the Senate. When in Opposition, former Senator McLaren and others complained about the very same things that Senator Walters complained about this morning.

Senator Walters complained also about the attitude of Senator Gareth Evans towards Estimates Committee E. Let me say to Senator Walters that by comparison with the attitudes of Senator Withers when he was Minister in charge of an Estimates committee, Senator Evans acts more like a choir boy. When Senator Withers was in charge of an Estimates committee he would answer that he had not read the papers, and he stopped public servants from answering questions. Though we complained about his actions, in the same way that Senator Walters complains about Senator Evas, I think they are tactics often used by the Government of the day.

As I say, I was the Chairman of Estimates Committee E, and we dealt with the Department of the Special Minister of State. I wish to refer to only one matter and it is relevant to the Australian Electoral Commission. It is relevant because a question was asked about that matter during the hearings of that Estimates Committee. It concerned the Richmond by-election held earlier this year. On 29 February 1984 I asked this question:

Is the Minister aware that during the recent Richmond by-election the Commonwealth Electoral Officer for Richmond ruled that only two scrutineers for each candidate would be allowed at each polling place when the votes were counted. As some polling places had more than two polling booths, was this ruling a breach of the Commonwealth Electoral Act? If that was the case, will the Minister ensure that it does not happen in the future?

On 1 March 1984 Senator Evans, representing the Special Minister of State, provided an answer as follows:

The Australian Electoral Commission has advised that the Divisional Returning Officer for Richmond did rule that each candidate was entitled to be represented by only two scrutineers at each counting centre. The Australian Electoral Commission has further advised that this ruling was quite consistent with the provisions of section 130 of the Commonwealth Electoral Act as it applied to the Richmond by-election. That section provides as a general rule that a candidate is not entitled to be represented at the scrutiny at a particular counting centre by more than one scrutineer. . . .

I disagree completely with that interpretation. I cannot remember that happening in the past. I have been involved with Federal elections and State elections in New South Wales since 1961, and in my experience that particular ruling has not applied.The answer continued:

The section goes on to provide that the Divisional Returning Officer for the division may increase the number of scrutineers.

The Special Minister of State has advised that the problem Senator Sibraa brought under notice should not arise in the future. One of the many electoral reforms effected by the 1983 amendments to the Commonwealth Electoral Act was an amendment to section 130 to ensure that a candidate was entitled to be represented at the scrutiny at the counting centre by as many scrutineers as there are officials engaged in the scrutiny or counting of ballot papers at that centre.

I believe that this was the practice which applied many times in the past. But that section has now been tightened up. I am pleased that the necessary amendment to section 130 will be effected for the next election. However, I still query the Richmond returning officer's instructions that only two scrutineers would be allowed for each candidate at each counting centre. I make this point because the Commonwealth Electoral Office's internal manual and also the 1980 scrutineers' rights, duties and powers leaflet published by the Australian Electoral Office make it clear that each candidate is to be allowed one scrutineer at each table. I just want to explain that a table is regarded under the Act as a polling booth. Therefore, it seems wrong to me that a candidate at a polling place-now we are talking about a school or a hall-with, for example, four tables can be allowed four scrutineers during the hours of polling and then be told at 8 p.m. that in this case only two scrutineers will be allowed to watch the count. This ruling in the Richmond by-election meant that the Labor Party in some instances could not get an accurate distribution of preferences on the night. On the day following the election when the National Party of Australia was claiming an estimated 3 per cent decline in the Labor vote I was disputing the figures and, although I was ultimately proved to be correct and in fact there was a swing to the Labor Party, it took until the official declaration of the poll to get the exact figures.

I can understand the pressure that the returning officer in Richmond was under to get an early result and also the fact that he did not expect the seat to go to preferences. I think this was the first time ever that the seat has gone to preferences. However, I believe it would have been better for all concerned if the votes cast at each polling booth-that is, at each table-had been counted at that table and, therefore, an accurate preference distribution could have been obtained by the scrutineers that night.

In the Lowe by-election in 1982 where there were 12 candidates and the distribution of preferences could have been vital, the Labor Party was able to obtain, as was the Liberal Party, an accurate preference distribution from every polling booth in the electorate on the night. As I said earlier, I am pleased that this section of the Act has been amended so that the problem will not arise at the next and subsequent Federal elections.