Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Friday, 8 December 1905

Mr CHANTER (Riverina) - I shall confine my remarks to indicating one or two matters to which I should like honorable members to give consideration, and which I hope will be discussed at greater length in Committee. In the first place, I intend to invite the Committee to abolish the fee of 5s. which is charged when persons lodge objections with a view to purifying the rolls. I think that every one who knows that a roll is being stuffed, or that an attempt is being made to stuff it, should be free to give the electoral officers information on which they can act. The Bill provides certain safeguards in regard to voting by post, to prevent the abuse of the system; but no provision is made for punishing those who improperly use our postal voting machinery. All the applications signed in the presence of witnesses should be filed, and kept with the other documents used during elections, for purposes of record, so that, if any person has improperly used the postal voting machinery, the fact may be discovered, and he may be punished.

Mr Bamford - The postal voting machinery was grossly abused at the last election.

Mr Frazer - Is it not possible to apply verbally for a postal vote?

Mr CHANTER - No. Such applications must be in writing, and should be filed for reference by the Department, or in any proceedings which may be taken for the invalidation of an election. I presume that every honorable member knows of cases occurring at the last election in which persons who were practically living alongside polling places obtained and used postal votes. The Bill requires reasons to be given in applications for postal votes, and where the statements made in such applications are untrue, those making them should be punished. I intend also to ask the Committee to make it imperative for a divisional returning officer to recount the votes when good and substantial reasons are given for a recount.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - What would the honorable member call substantial reasons?

Mr CHANTER - I would instance what occurred at the Riverina election in 1903. There were five assistant returning officers in addition to the Divisional Returning Officer. Each of the assistants counted the votes for his subdivision, and forwarded his, certificate to the Divisional Returning Officer, presumably with aview to a final scrutiny. It was ascertained prior to the declaration of the poll that a mistake had been made in the count at one particular place. Upon this coming to my knowledge, I reported the matter to the Divisional Returning Officer not once or twice, but several times, and the assistant returning officer who was concerned also called attention to the mistake. Notwithstanding that, the Divisional Returning Officer absolutely declined to reopen the parcels sent to him, and declared the poll upon the statement made to him in the first instance, and afterwards corrected by the assistant returning officer. I should call that a substantial reason for having a recount. It should not be left to the discretion of the Divisional Returning Officer to refuse a. recount in such a case. The law should be mandatory. Then, again, a very similar case occurred in Tasmania, but the results were different. It was suspected that a mistake had been made, and upon a request being made to the Divisional Returning Officer, he ordered a recount, and thus did justice to all concerned, and probably effected a saving of thousands, of pounds. This may appear to be a small matter, but, in view of what has happened, it is well worth the consideration of the Committee. I shall ask honorable members to consider the question that has been dealt with at some length, and very ably, by the honorable member for North Sydney - the question of the limitation of expenses of candidates. I am indifferent as to whether the limit is fixed at £1 or £10,000, but care should be taken to see that the specified amount is not exceeded. The provision now in the Act was so applied at the last election that the proceedings were farcical. While several candidates strictly complied with the requirements of the law, and probably thereby lost a large number of votes, others who had no scruples very largely exceeded the limit, not only in regard to their own personal expenses, but also in respect to amounts that were spent on their behalf, in some cases to the extent of thousands of pounds. It is, desirable that this abuse should be guarded against, and I shall ask honorable members to seriously consider Whether we should not adopt the practice of the British Parliament, which is also partly followed in South Australia. It is of no use to ask a candidate to sign a declaration before a justice of the peace to the effect that he has not exceeded the limit of £100 allowed by law, and to ask him to give details of the expenditure and supply vouchers for every item of £2 and upwards, if the declaration and the particulars are to be packed away in some vault to which no one can obtain access. If an unscrupulous candidate becomes aware that his false declaration will never be seen after he has attached his signature, he can sign it with impunity and give any particulars that may occur to him. Will it be believed that when I asked for a copy of the schedule of expenditure furnished by my opponent at the last election, my request was refused? I first of all applied to the Department, and they declined to allow me to see the document. I then asked honorable members to move in the matter with a view to having an order made by this House that the statements of expenses, including my own, should be laid on the table. I was informed, however, by the highest authority, that it was not possible, even by that means, to attain my object, and I had to abandon my efforts in that direction. No one beyond the officers of the Department and the candidates themselves can knowanything as to the contents of the statements furnished. It would be quite possible if the particulars were published for information to be given to the Department, upon which action could be taken against candidates who had violated the law.

Mr Webster - Unfortunately, no adequate punishment is provided for.

Mr CHANTER - Then such provision should be made. Without doubt, all honorable members desire to keep our elections as pure as possible. The practice of the House of Commons is to give the fullest publicity to the statements furnished by candidates. Not only are they published in the Gazette, but also in the newspapers. In South Australia, a similar course is adopted. The public are made aware of the whole of the facts, and, if they have any reason to believe that the statements are inaccurate, can give the information necessary to enable proceedings to be taken. When the Bill reaches the Committee stage, I shall invite honorable members to make amendments which I hope will greatly improve the law. I shall also ask honorable members to revert to the system which has been adopted in all the States, and which was followed in the first instance by the Commonwealth', of referring disputed returns to a Committee of this House, instead of to the High Court. I can look back over a fairly long political life, and I cannot recollect one instance - no matter how strong party feeling may have been - in which a Legislative Committee has failed to do absolute justice in the case of a disputed election.

Mr Webster - The system in New South Wales was scarcely perfection.

Mr CHANTER - No, but it approached perfection. All the parties were in a .position to come before the Committee and plainly state their case. The Committee had power to examine witnesses on. oath, and to take all the evidence they desired. They made their report to Parliament, which reviewed the whole position, and then declared whether the election was valid or otherwise. All this could be done at very small expense to the parties to the dispute. When the Act was under consideration, the honorable member for North Sydney warned us that it would be a mistake to transfer to the High Court the jurisdiction in the matter of disputed elections. He had obtained some knowledge as to the expense incurred in England in invoking the aid of the Law Courts for the settlement of these disputes. He urged that we should adhere to the old practice, which, so far, had not been abused.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I have never seen any substantial injustice done.

Mr CHANTER - Nor have I. I say most emphatically that, although this Parliament was supposed to have enacted the Federal electoral law, the honorable member for Melbourne and myself had to bear the cost of making its purpose plain. When I tell honorable members of the expense to which I was put, they will see the absolute necessity of making some change. The intention of Parliament when it intrusted the High Court with the settlement of election disputes was to make the procedure as cheap as possible to the petitioner. It also stipulated that the Court should be guided by considerations of equity and good conscience, without reference to legal technicalities. In my innocence, I thought it would be quite possible to lay my case before the High Court in my own way, and without incurring great expense; but I found that, owing to the rules of the Court, I could not make a move without legal assistance. I was legally hobbled from the outset, and I could do nothing without employing all the force and machinery of the law. Moreover, it seems to me to be impossible for a Court, constituted of members of the legal profession, to decide a matter upon the lines of equity and good conscience, instead of upon legal principles. I do not wish to reflect upon the High Court, for which I have a great respect, but I am merely giving the House the benefit of my experience. I have embodied my views upon this question in certain amendments which have been printed, and to which I ask honorable members to give their careful consideration. I shall reserve any further comments under this heading until the Bill has reached the Committee stage. I am perfectly satisfied that I snail then be able to place before honorable members facts which will induce them to refer all disputed elections to a tribunal appointed by this House, and responsible to it.

Mr Wilks - To a body nominated by Mr. Speaker?

Mr CHANTER - Yes. With all due deference to the High Court of Australia, which has been constituted a Court of Disputed Returns, I say that it is absolutely impossible for its members to divest themselves of the effects of their legal training. The proceedings in connexion with the case in which I was so deeply interested showed that the Court' was unconsciously biased by its own rules. Those proceedings were prolonged to an unreasonable extent, and finality was not reached until they had been carried into two States, and a large expenditure had been incurred. This delay and expense would be avoided if such cases were decided by a Parliamentary Committee. At a later stage, I trust that honorable members will assist me to give effect to my views upon this matter.

Suggest corrections