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Thursday, 21 June 1906

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) . - I do not know that I can subscribe to the eulogiums which have been passed upon the leader of the Labour Party by the honorable member for Echuca.

Mr Watson - That does not concern the question under consideration.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I am aware that it does not. At the same time it concerns certain statements that have been made by the honorable member for Echuca, who, I fear, has not enjoyed an intimate acquaintance with the leader of the Labour Party so long as I have. My experience of the honorable member for Bland is that he is indeed a most useful man to his party, because, while believing in as extreme and ultimate a form of Socialism as any member of that party - as his own statements clearly show - he yet has such a smooth and amiable way of putting his doctrines before the country as to produce in the minds of the people an impression similar to that which is entertained by the honorable member for Echuca. For instance, only yesterday I was quoting a statement which the leader of the Labour Party made-

Mr Bamford - Irise to a point of order. Is' the honorable member in order in buttering up the leader of the Labour Party in this way, just prior to a general election ? I donot think that his utterances are at all relevant to the motion that is before the House.

Mr SPEAKER - I regret to say that I did not hear the last few remarks of the honorable member for Parramatta. There are such constant conversations proceeding in all parts of the Chamber that I frequently experience difficulty in following the utterances of honorable members. I must, therefore, ask them to cease their conversations, or else to conduct them in a much lower tone of voice.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I suppose that I shall be in order in replying to certain statements which have been made, and which were not ruled out of order. If honorable members* desire a specimen of the very 'cute and clever attitude which is adopted by my honorable friend, the leader of the Labour Party, they have merely to recollect his statements of a few moments ago. With that suave exterior of his, he laid a quiet claim to a purely class vote, andaccusedthe honorable member for Echuca of seeking merely to study the interests of that section of the laboring class known as the farmers. He declared that the honorable member spoke in the interests of the farmers, and he added that the Labour Party would secure the farm labourers' vote. He quoted figures to show that this was so. For instance, he said that 5,000 more votes were cast in the agricultural constituency which he represents at the last State elections than were recorded in his own favour at the general elections for this Parliament. It may be that that is the reason why he is leaving that district for a city constituency. If he feels so sure that all the farm labourers' votes will be cast in favour of his party, why is he leaving them and seeking a purely city constituency?

Mr Watson - The Commissioner has cut my electorate to pieces.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The people are still there.

Mr Frazer - As soon as he noted that the honorable member for Bland intended to contest a certain metropolitan, constituency, the honorable member for South Sydney bolted from it.

Mr SPEAKER - If there is one thing which is more disconcerting to a speaker than another it is constant interjections and cross-firing between honorable members who are not addressing the Chair. I ask honorable members to desist from that practice.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Another quiet bit of unction which the honorable member for Bland laid to his soul was that he had preceded the honorable member for Echuca in his agitation for an alteration in the date of holding the general elections. As a matter of Tact, when the leader of the Labour Party spoke last year upon this question, it was upon the motion of the honorable member for Echuca. He was not ahead of the honorable member for Echuca in any way. The leader of the Labour Party, under that mild and pleasant exterior which he successfully presents to most members of the Chamber, made this quiet claim for labour, which the more out spoken members of his party would never have dreamed of doing. I know quite too much of the method of propagandism adopted by him to subscribe to the great eulogies that have been heaped upon him from time to time by members of my own party. However, that may pass.

Mr Watson - It is altogether outside the scope of the motion, but it is as near to it as the honorable member usually gets.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I do not forget the honorable member's attitude the other night when he gave me the lie direct whilst I was making a quotation from his speeches.

Mr Watson - I did not do that.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I believe that the Government ought to facilitate the holding of the elections at the earliest possible moment, and so permit those who ordinarily vote with great inconvenience to vote as little under those natural disadvantages, which are inseparable from distance and other considerations as is possible. I am not quite clear in my own mind that the Government are treating this matter as they ought to do. The other day, in response to a request by a member of the Labour Party, the Minister of Home Affairs quoted a certificate which had been issued to him by the Electoral Office, and in which it was pointed out that the elections could not be held in October.

Mr Groom - The statement was made in reply to a question by the honorable member for Wimmera.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - All that was contained in the circular in question was of a negative character. An estimate of the difficulties which had to be faced in the Electoral Office had evidently been made to allow even of a negative certificate being furnished as to the earliest period at which the elections could be held!. Yet. when I asked the Minister whether his officers had made an estimate as to the probable earliest date at which they could take place, he declined to say anything except that he would institute inquiries into the matter. I submit that by this time the Minister ought to have a reliable estimate in his Department of the earliest date at which the elections can be held. If what the honorable gentleman has told us represents the whole of the facts of the case, it does not redound to the credit of the Department that, within a few months of the time when this Parliament must expire, it has no idea of what its electoral arrangements are.

Mr Wilks - The Department made a bungle of the elections upon the last occasion.

Mr McWilliams - There is a good man at the head of the Department now.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - That is all the more reason why it should be able to forecast the earliest date at which the elections can be held. The same muddle occurred at the last elections. Everything was in confusion, and thousands of electors were disfranchised. Certainly that was so in my own constituency, and I venture to say it was the common experience of honorable members. Since then three years have elapsed, but though we are within a few months of a general appeal to the people, we are told by the Minister that he cannot say when the necessary machinery for the conduct of the elections will be in readiness. That is a condition of things that ought not to exist, and the sooner it is remedied the better it will be for all concerned. Let us suppose that something occurred which necessitated an immediate appeal to the country. What would be the position? Would the Government say, "We cannot settle these issues"? Let us suppose that upon some vital question - going, it may be, to the very existence of our national life - a dissolution tookplace, would the Government come to the House, and exclaim. "I do not know when we shall be ready to make this appeal to the country"? All this is a confession of Ministerial weakness, and of departmental inefficiency. Certainly it is a confession of departmental unpreparedness. After five or six years of our Commonwealth life our electoral machinery ought to be in such a state of efficiency as to be ready for use almost at a month's notice. Instead of that, the Minister told us that the Department will not be ready in October, the month spoken of as the one in which the elections should take place. We know, also, that there has been a protest against the holding of the elections in October on the part of the honorable member for Darling. I presume that that hastened thesupply of the circular. It was a notification to the Government that they had better look out for October.

Mr Groom - That is incorrect.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - So we got a circular from the Minister that the elections could not be carried out in October. Presumably the honorable member for Darling is satisfied for the moment, but I should' like to know why we cannot be satisfied in the same way. By this time our Electoral Department should have reached such a state of efficiency as to be able to fix the probable date on which the electoral machinery can be used. Instead of that, the Minister does not know when it can be used ; he will make inquiries, but he has not the remotest idea. There is a careful estimate and an accurate conclusion as to October, and everything else is vague and in the air.

Mr McColl - Suppose there were a penal dissolution.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - That is precisely the case I am putting - some grave emergency arising requiring an immediate appeal to the people on some matter affecting their interests. According to the dictum of the Minister, a period of six months must elapse before the electoral machinery can be ready. All this is neither more nor less than a reflection upon the condition of things which obtains in the Department in regard to matters most vitally affecting this Parliament and the interests of the people. My own impression is the same as that of the honorable member for Bland, and I 'believe of honorable members generally, that the December date fixed for the Senate is the most inconvenient that could possibly be fixed. I urge upon .the Government the advisability of submitting a simple constitutional amendment fixing the date of the termination of a Senate term earlier or later than that now provided for. In all the circumstances it would seem that a later date is preferable to an earlier one - that is to sa.v. that a date in February. March, or April, would best suit almost the whole of the people of Australia. It is impossible to fix a date which will suit the interests of all the people, but we mav have a fair idea of what will suit the great majority, and in all these questions, which are matters of expediency and administration, it is the interests of the great majority that we ought to consult I am not quite sure whether what I have suggested should not be done at the forthcoming elections. Certain it is that until it is done we shall have to continue the holding of elections at a time when a great proportion of the people - for whom, in view of the natural disabilities under which thev labour, the electoral machinery should be stretched if* possible - will be unable to record their votes. Thev are under natural disabilities in this regard, arising from their remoteness from the polling booths and centres of population, and from the general conditions under which they live, and we should endeavour to modify and remedy those disabilities as far as possible bv means of our electoral machinery. Every one knows that some of our farmers must go from 10 to 20 miles to record their votes.

Mr Wilson - And even further.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - If, in addition to such a disability, we make it necessary for them to secrifice their crops and to suffer all kinds of inconvenience, we are imposing what is equivalent to a monetary penalty upon them, and the effect is, in many cases, just the same as if we had no equal franchise at all. A geographical hindrance does not materially differ in its effect from a legislative hindrance, and we might just as well disfranchise these people or give electors in towns two votes to- their one, unless they are given some facilities for recording their votes in the easiest, earliest and quickest way. Considered in all its ramifications, the matter is a very important one. It is said that an ounce of fact is worth a ton of theory, and I remember that at the last election I went to address a meeting of farmers in my own electorate. ; When I reached the place of meeting, although the meeting had been advertised, I found that there were only two assembled to listen to my eloquence. The explanation of that is-

Mr Groom - It does not need any explanation.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The explanation is that there had been four or five wet days, and the day on which I was to address the electors was a fine day. Many of them told me on the way to the place" of meeting that thev would not be present, as they could not afford to lose the day; it meant so much to them.

Mr McLean - Did the honorable member make a great impression on the meeting ?

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I did not hold a meeting, but I will tell honorable gentlemen the sequel of the visit. When the polling-day came I got all the votes in the neighbourhood but two. It is difficult in their busy_ seasons to get farmers to give attention _to political matters, and I suppose it is the more difficult where thev have confidence in their representative. One of the men who attended the meeting to which I have referred told me that the small attendance was a vote of confidence in me rather than otherwise, and so it turned out on the polling-day. I have mentioned this matter to show that natural difficulties are always dogging the farmer's life, subject as he is to seasons and climatic conditions. It is not fair that, in addition to natural disabilities, we should impose disabilities upon country voters arising from defects of our legislative machinery. It is just the same as if we imposed legislative disabilities upon them. Under the Constitution as it stands, a legislative restriction is necessarily imposed upon these electors, and the sooner we can remove or modify it the better for the country as a whole. There is, I think, a consensus of opinion at the present time that the sooner an appeal to the people is made the better. We have the authority of the Prime Minister for saying, that this House, as at present constituted, cannot do useful work.

Mr Webster - -Why ?

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Because the Prime Minister has not the material with which to work. I should have thought that that had been made clear to the honorable member last night. The Prime Minister is quite impotent to do anything except by the grace and favour of men who do not believe in him, and who are prepared to put him to the sword at the earliest possible moment. That is the condition of affairs to-day. In other words, there is no such thins as responsible government set up. The Prime Minister says that there are three parties in the House, and that we cannot have responsible government with three parties. " Two is company and three is none," is the waypracticallly in which the honorable and learned gentleman describes the present state of parties in this House.

Mr Webster - Are the honorable member's remarks connected with the motion?

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I should think that the working of this. House is vitally connected with the matter of elections. I can conceive of ;no more vital consideration than the conditions existing in this House, and the possibility of remedying them by constitutional and legislative means. T say that the Prime Minister has himself furnished the best of all reasons why there should be an early appeal to the people, but no matter how great the urgency, we are told that we cannot do it, because the electoral machinery is not read\. That condition of affairs should be remedied, and the electoral machinery should be .ready whenever we wish to use it - within reason, of course, because we cannot expect the necessary adjustments to be made in a moment. I suggest that between now and October or November is a reasonable time within which to make the necessary arrangements. If the compilation of the rolls is in question, seeing that there are now no revision courts to trouble us, that should be merely a matter of the employment of labour for the purpose. The delimitation of the boundaries, and the fixing of polling- places are again merely matters of the employment of labour, and I submit that they should! not stand in the way of getting the electoral machinery ready at the earliest possible moment, in order that we may have those great issues settled which both sides of the House are professedly so anxious to have settled, and none more than honorable members opposite, who have declared this House to be an unworkable House, and who seek to dissolve existing parties into two, so that responsible government may be carried on, andi good and useful work, such as will lead to the building up and prosperity and stability^ of Australia may take the place of our present inefficient and unsatisfactory methods'.

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