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Friday, 8 December 1905

Mr SPEAKER - Order ! I would point out that there is so much conversation proceeding in the chamber that it is difficult for me to follow the honorable member's remarks, and I can quite understand that those who have to record our proceedings will experience great difficulty in doing so. I ask honorable members, if they must converse, to do so in subdued tones.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - When I was called upon to consider the question of the amendment of our electoral law., I came to the conclusion that the necessary amendments were so numerous - covering as they did about 120 sections out of a total of 210 - that the only proper way of effecting them was by placing an entirely new Bill before Parliament. That Bill was prepared, and is in existence in the Department of Home Affairs at the present time. Instead of submitting" that measure, the Government have seen fit to deal with the question in the form of an amending Bill. The amendments which it foreshadows relate to 90 sections of the original Act out of a total of 210. By adopting the course which he has, the Minister has retained some defective sections in our electoral law which, under other circumstances, we should have had an opportunity of removing.

Mr Fisher - Thev can be amended in this Bill.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - That is so; but more time will be absorbed in discussing the Bill in its present form, and in making additions to it, than would have teen occupied' in the consideration of an entirely new measure.

Mr Fisher - Still, the amendments come within the order of leave.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Oh, yes. The difficulty that now confronts us is in dealing with the matter thoroughly at this late stage of the session. I quite agree that where the amendments required are limited in number, an Act should be amended in the way that is now proposed, but where they are numerous, the better practice is to submit an entirely new measure. I would also point out that some matters which might have been dealt with in an entirely fresh Bill - and which, as a matter of fact, were dealt with in the measure that T prepared - cannot be considered in connexion with this amending Bill, because its scope will not permit that to be done. For instance, I have given notice of my intention to submit an amendment relating to the disqualification of members attaching to the acceptance of fees for services rendered in their capacity as members; but I am very doubtful whether it will be in order.

Mr Page - It is a verv good amendment, too.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I think we ought to set an example to the States Legislatures in that matter. We ought (o be able to say that this Parliament is prepared to mete out punishment for actions which tend to the degradation of all parliamentary # institutions. I do not wish to anticipate the question which may arise in that connexion, but it seems to me that there is a danger that my proposal may be held to be outside the scope of the Bill. Again, the measure which I had prepared contained a provision declaring that the Court of Disputed Returns should also have the power to decide upon the qualification of honorable members. At the present time that tribunal can determine whether or not an election is valid, but I would also allow it to decide the question of whether a member is qualified to occupy a seat in the Commonwealth Legislature. That power is not possessed by the Court at the present time. The title of this Bill, which is merely an. amending measure, does not cover that matter, and un--. less some words can be added to it, such, for instance, as "for other purposes," I fear that the questions to which I have alluded cannot be dealt with. In moving the second reading of this measure, the Minister of Home Affairs stated that it was based almost entirely upon the report of the Conference of electoral officers which met some time ago, and upon the recommendations of the Select Committee, which inquired into certain electoral matters. Whilst the Bill contains a great many proposals which are the result of the report of that Conference, and of the recommendations of the Select Committee, I would point out that about half of the dozen principal amendments were not recommended by either of those bodies. One-fourth of them were so recommended ; but in respect of another fourth, the recommendations of the Select Committee have been departed from. Whilst those bodies made some very valuable suggestions, the Bill itself contains - as did the measure which I prepared - proposals which were not reported upon bv them, and others in which! there has been a variation of their recommendations. However. I do not intend to discuss the Bil! in detail, as I have no wish to occupy more time than is necessary. One of the most important amendments which I have foreshadowed is extremely simple. But there is more beneath it than, at first sight, appears. In clause 4, I propose to amend section 3 of the principal Act by omitting the words " for Home Affairs ''" with a view to substituting "of State administering the Act." I intend that amendment to test the views of honor-' able members upon a very important question. If the administration of the Electoral Department is to remain in the Home Affairs Office, there is no necessity for the amendment. But if, on the other hand, it is to be removed from that office, the House, by adopting the amendment, can clearly indicate that it is of opinion that the Department - for reasons which I shall state as briefly as possible - ought to be transferred to the control of the Post Office. The Select Committee which inquired into the working of the Electoral Act, strongly recommended that wherever it was possible to do so, officers of the Commonwealth Public Service should be employed in the administration of the Act. If effect is to be given to that recommendation, we must recognise that the Postal Department is the most suitable one to control the administration of the electoral law, because its ramifications extend all over Australia - not merely along its coastline, but also into the interior.

Mr Batchelor - The Customs Department also extends over the whole Commonwealth.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I do not say that the services of officers of the Customs Department could not be utilized in this connexion. But the Post Office reaches not merely the coast, but the most remote portions of the interior. If effect is to be given to the recommendation of the Committee in this respect, there is every reason why the Department, whose officers are responsible for the carrying out of the electoral law, should be charged with the control of it.

Mr Page - Ninety per cent, of the men who run the Electoral Department are members of the staff of the PostmasterGeneral .

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The honorable member is quite right in saying that a large proportion are.

Mr Wilks - Does not the honorable member think that the Postmaster-General has already enough to do?

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - With a Chief Electoral Officer, and a good staff, such as could be created in the Postal Department, the duties of the PostmasterGeneral, in administering the Electoral Office, would be very small indeed. In any case, if we decide that the Department shall be transferred to the Post Office, we can make any provision that may be necessary to give effect to our wishes. We can even go to the extent of allowing the 'honorary Minister in any Cabinet to act in the Post Office as the administrator of the Electoral Department. We can do anything that may be required to provide a sufficient staff for carrying out the Act, when we once decide the Department through which the law can be administered most efficiently. I think that I can point out reasons for the present unsatisfactory state of affairs - reasons which cannot be disputed by the Minister. In the first place, while some officers in the Postal Department willingly take up this work, others undertake it only with reluctance. We know that work unwillingly entered upon is not likely to be done so well as is that which is freely undertaken. However willing a postmaster may be to carry out his electoral duties, his operations are hampered, since under the present arrangement he is unable to secure the assistance of his staff ; not one member of it can be called upon to deal with work that is extraneous to the Department. But however hard he may work - and some of these officers have overworked themselves in carrying out the duties of their dual position - the fact remains that when he has become au fait with electoral matters, he may be transferred to another district, with the result that the electoral work of that division is liable to be thrown into a state of chaos. If two or three officers discharging these duties were transferred shortly prior to an election, and we cannot always foresee when an election is likely to take place, serious difficulties would arise. Another point is that one of these competent and enthusiastic officers might be replaced by a man who would less readily undertake these special duties. In any case his successor would know nothing whatever about electoral work, and some months would necessarily elapse before he acquired the requisite knowledge. In the meantime, he would be very apt to make serious mistakes. Officers of the Postal Department are discharging this work and giving greater satisfaction than would be secured by the employment of person* outside the service, 'and. therefore, I think it is a sensible proposition that it should be treated as ordinary departmental work; which every officer in that branch of the Public Service must be prepared to carry out. This system would lead to the building up of a magnificent staff of electoral officers. The boy entering the Postal Department would come into touch with the electoral branch, just as he now comes into contact with the money order branch, and at the age at which the mind is most receptive he would begin to learn the administration of the electoral law. As he passed from post to post he would acquire a wider and wider knowledge of the work, and finally in this way we should build up a staff ready to meet any emergency. We should have men with knowledge ready at any moment to fill vacancies caused by transfers or death.

Mr Page - And the men would be both competent and loyal.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - That is so. It must not be imagined that if the electoral branch were attached to the Postal Department the officers of that Department would raise any objection to the discharge of the duties appertaining to it. Many postal officials now object to the work only because it is superimposed upon what are regarded as their ordinary duties, and also because they are unable, in attending to it, to enlist the services of the staff surrounding them. Many of them hold that the special remuneration they receives does not sufficiently compensate them for the additional work which is thus thrust upon them. In many cases it does not. Where the time of a postmaster is fully occupied in attending to his postal duties, the special remuneration which he receives for attending to electoral matters is not by any means equivalent to the extra work thus imposed upon him. But if the administration of the electoral law were made part and parcel of the ordinary work of the Postal Department, the officers of that branch of the Public Service, instead of objecting to it, would be well pleased. They would recognise that it added to the importance of their Department, and strengthened their own position. Would any officer of that Department welcome a proposal to take from it the Money Order Branch? I am sure that none of them would. They would know that it would reduce the importance of their positions.

Mr Page - And, perhaps', lead to their receiving reduced pav.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - That is so. But if, on the other hand, the work relating to the Money Order Branch were now to be imposed upon them for the first time, and those charged with the duty of looking after it could not secure the assistance of even a youth in the Post Office to enable them to cope with the extra demands thus made upon them, they would naturally object. I am of opinion that the administration of the electoral law should be carried out by Government officials.

Mr Tudor - Postal officials?

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I have said postal officials, because the ramifications of the Postal Department extend, not only along the coast, but to every part of the Commonwealth. But I am now proceeding to make a comparison, between official and non-official, electoral officers. Experience has satisfied me that the recommendation of the Select Committee that officers of the Public Service, wherever possible, should be employed to do this work is a proper one. Although some public officers have failed to discharge their electoral duties as well as they ought to have done, their work, taken as a whole, has been undoubtedly superior to that of persons outside the Public Service.

Mr Batchelor - In some cases it has.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I am speaking, not of individual cases, but generally. I admit that some of the electoral officers outside the Public Service have done their work very well ; but I would remind honorable members that the responsibilities attaching to the administration of the electoral law of the Commonwealth are much greater than are those involved in the administration of the electoral law of a State. An infinitely greater area has to be covered, and the central control is not in such close touch with all its branches as is the central control of the States. It would be impossible to arrange for a satisfactory service by outside persons except at enormous cost. The remuneration that we allow for the discharge of duties relating to the Electoral Office is not sufficient to enable a man outside the service to give the whole of his attention to that work. In order to make a living, he must necessarily devote his attention to other matters. These men will not neglect other business in order to attend to electoral matters, and when they arc called upon to leave a district, either permanently or for a time, thev do> not hesitate to give up the remuneration which they receive from the Electoral Department. Whilst some excellent men outside (he Public Service take up this work - the only objection to their employment being that, as the remuneration is not sufficient to render it unnecessary for them to seek other avenues of employment, they may at any moment throw it up - others who undertake it are men who pick up any trifling addition to their income, where, and as best they can. In many cases, they are not capable of securing and holding permanent positions. The vagaries of this, class, and the deaths which take place in their ranks from time to time, are- liable to continually disrupt the sendee, because no one is being prepared by them to take their places. Many of them desire to' retain to themselves the knowledge of electoral matters which they have secured. They do not disseminate that knowledge, and, therefore, no one is being prepared to take their place. Then, again, they are more liable to remove from one district to another than are officers in the Department.

Mr Page - And some of them have very conservative views.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Quite so. When we employ such men, we have not the guarantee of their remaining in the service of the Electoral Office that we secure by utilizing the services of the officials of one of the public Departments.

Mr Page - We have really no claim upon them.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - That is so. As the honorable member reminds me, the remuneration which we give them is so small that in many cases they do not hesitate to give it up. When a crisis comes they say, " We do more than we .ought to do, having regard to what we are receiving."

Mr Page - That is the time when some of them threaten us.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - It is. We have a better guarantee that the work will be well done when we employ public officers to discharge these duties, since they know that their position and their salary depend upon their satisfactory service. The defect of the present system is that, while we have a guarantee as regards men now doing the work, we are not educating others to take their place when they are removed, or fall ill, or die. If we could not alter the arrangement, we might be able to endure it, but it presents great dangers, and we must on occasion feel the evil effects of it. Although every effort has been, and, no doubt, is being, made to improve the position, and to bring about a state of security, disturbing elements may introduce themselves at any time, when the system must break down at some point, which would be a very serious occurrence immediately prior to a general election. The simple remedy is to transfer the whole work of the Electoral Branch to the control of the Department whose officers are now doing a great deal of it under circumstances of unnecessary difficulty. I cannot see why objections should be raised to the change. As I provided for it in an amending Bill, which I had drafted when I was controlling the Department, and which is now among its records, it cannot be said that I wish to reduce the importance of the Minister- of Home Affairs, or to take a single feather from him, though, in any case, the importance of a Department should not prevent changes being made which' are in the interest of the community. Australia is an enormous continent, and, when a poll is being taken, votes have to be collected from settlers scattered sparsely through areas which are difficult to reach, and, therefore, our electoral system cannot be satisfactorily carried out without great intelligence and energy in its application. I would point out, however, that there are a number of matters not yet taken over by the Commonwealth, which' will naturally come under the administration of the Department of Home Affairs, and that there are others which might well be transferred to it from Departments which are more heavily weighted. I have always objected to the provision which is so put into our measures that " This Act 'shall be administered by the Minister of such and such a Department." I would rather leave it to the Cabinet to make such adjustments as they may think fit ; though, of course, it would not be well to make frequent changes.

Mr Batchelor - It is more a matter foi each Administration to deal with than to be determined bv Act of Parliament.

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