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Wednesday, 26 April 1961


Mr BIRD (Batman) .- In the opinion of very many people the time is ripe for a review of Commonwealth electoral procedures. The effluxion of time has demonstrated the need for many important alterations in the act. For example, there have been changes in the voting methods out of which have emerged serious faults. Realizing this, the Government should have used this bill to remedy a situation which is crying out for alteration but, unfortunately, for reasons best known to itself, the Government has not availed itself of this very timely opportunity. There is not much business on the notice-paper and a week or possibly a fortnight could have been devoted to bringing the Commonwealth Electoral Act up to date. It is to be regretted that the Government has not seized the opportunity that has been presented to it.

In 1956 the then Minister for the Interior, the honorable member for Paterson (Mr. Fairhall) invited suggestions from members of all parties and from interested bodies outside the Parliament for amending the act. A number of suggestions were made both inside and outside the Parliament by people who thought that the act was far from perfect, but unfortunately the intention of the then Minister apparently was thwarted, because, despite the fact that he issued his invitation five years ago, the legislation now before us is the first of its kind to be presented by the Government since then.

The time is overdue for a conference of all electoral authorities - Commonwealth, State and local government - to discuss differences in electoral procedures and to agree on a uniform procedure. At present, each public body is responsible for the enactment of its own electoral procedures and, because of the differing natures of the various public bodies, the mind of the public is confused. I suggest that if the authorities concerned could thrash out between themselves what is required in the interests of simplicity, much good could result. Unfortunately, the proposals contained in this bill are relatively minor in character. Some of the proposals to alter certain procedures are overdue, but they are not of major consequence. It is a pity, as I have said, that the Government did not use this opportunity to make some major alterations of electoral procedures.

I think I state a truism when I say that all parties agree that, in the interests of democracy and for its proper functioning, voting methods should reflect the real views of the electorate. The only way to get the real views of the electorate is to ensure that voting is as free as possible from informality and invalidity. I believe I can prove that such is not the position at present. Unfortunately, a number of electoral procedures tend - not deliberately but by operation - to cut across the cherished principle that democracy, in the finest sense, is a wide expression of the views of all the electors. To achieve that end, the procedures at all times should be simple, not involved, as they are now. We should ensure that all types of people clearly understand the methods of voting. We should always remember that we must cater for the simplest type of intelligence. I have no doubt that if members of this Parliament voted for the Senate, there would not be an informal vote, but we must remember that, unfortunately, there are people outside the Parliament in all walks of life who do not possess the necessary knowledge to make a vote formal. However, they are citizens of the Commonwealth of Australia, paying taxes, and they should not be debarred from expressing their electoral ideas simply because they do not understand a rather involved voting procedure.

Many people, for various reasons, tend to become agitated and confused when they enter a polling booth. Elderly people become flustered, and so do many young people. Judging by the way that people rush out of the polling booths in my electorate, wanting to know what it is all about, many of them are not clear on what they should do. If democracy is to function at its best, it must not place any obstacles in the way of a true expression of opinion. The first thing we should do to make certain that the people understand the method of voting is to institute a uniform method of marking ballot-papers. What is the position in Australia to-day? In Queensland, the State elections are based on the principle of first past the post. In federal elections, we have preferential voting for this House, and for the Senate we have proportionate representation. In those examples, we have three methods of election, every one dissimilar from the other. Surely we can devise a uniform method that people will understand so that they will not be confused when they go from one State to another or turn from voting in a State election to voting in a federal election or perhaps in a municipal election.

I was very disappointed to find that the Government had not used this opportunity to alter the polling hours. Some years ago, I took part in a State election in Queensland, and I was impressed by the polling hours, which were from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. I am satisfied that those hours could be adopted without loss of efficiency and without inconvenience to anybody. If the hours for voting were from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. there would still be people coming in late to vote. If a train runs an hour late, there is always somebody running to catch it. With the advent of the motor-car - and one in every three and a half people in Australia owns a motor vehicle - people can get to the polling booths more quickly and easily than they did in the days of bullock drays and horse-drawn vehicles. I do not want to annoy members of the Australian Country Party, but I would point out that in the cities, since the abolition of Saturday morning work in many industries, a great many people who used to vote between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. now vote in the morning. That is what happens in myelectorate. Before we had Saturday morning closing, there was a terrific rush between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. at the booths. Now, however, you could fire a cannon down the street outside any booth in my electorate after 6 o'clock and you would not hit anybody. They would all have voted before 6 p.m.

The electoral officers work inordinately long hours on a job that entails a lot of mental work, and by 8 p.m. they have just about had it. If polling hours were reduced by two, the result would be greater efficiency on the part of the electoral offices and that would be all to the good. Country voters, who have motor cars, can get to the polling booths more quickly than they could when they had to ride a horse. The Government, in my opinion, should have used the opportunity presented by this bill to make the polling hours from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

There has been some controversy on how the position of a candidate's name on the ballot-paper affects the result of an election. I took the opportunity to obtain some figures on this question. They show that there is not the slightest doubt that a candidate who is placed first on a ballotpaper has an electoral advantage. I am not saying that a candidate must win because he is placed first on the ballot-paper. The honorable member for Farrer (Mr. Fairbairn) said he knew of a candidate who was placed first on the ballot-paper but finished last in the poll. To get a fair comparison, you should take candidates belonging to one political party, who face the electors with the same policy. I suggest that there is a difference of 3½ per cent. in the vote if a candidate is first on the ballotpaper, and I will prove it so far as Victoria is concerned.

I have studied the votes cast for the Democratic Labour Party candidates. This is not a large party, but it obtained quite a number of votes in Victoria at the last federal election. There are 33 federal electorates in Victoria, and Democratic Labour Party candidates had their names placed first on the ballot-paper in twelve of the electorates. The percentages of the total votes obtained by those candidates were as follows: -

 

Of a total of 538,879 primary votes cast, the D.L.P. candidates in first place on the ballot-paper secured 91,509, or 16.9 per cent. That is one side of the picture. Let us look at another side. In Victoria, D.L.P. candidates were not placed first on the ballot-paper in 21 electorates. The percentages of votes they obtained in those instances were -

 

In those 21 electorates, the D.L.P. candidates gained 117,481 primary votes out of a total of 866,520 - or 13.5 per cent. When the candidates of that party were at the top of the ballot-paper, they obtained, on an average, 16.9 per cent. of the total votes, but when they were in other positions they averaged only 13.5 per cent. of the total votes.

Honorable members might say that that is an isolated position. Let us look at the results in New South Wales. I am indebted to the honorable member for Watson (Mr. Cope), who made an extensive survey of the position in that State and is to be commended for exposing the position last year in the discussion of the Estimates. The honorable member for Watson has given me these figures. In New South Wales, at the last federal election, D.L.P. candidates were at the top of the ballotpaper in fifteen electorates. Of 612,000 votes cast, those candidates obtained about 55,000, or 9 per cent. Democratic Labour Party candidates were placed in other positions on the ballot-paper in 25 electorates, and of1,063,000 votes cast, they obtained about 51,000, or 4.83 per cent. The difference in New South Wales is 4 per cent. and in Victoria almost 3½ per cent. Surely after hearing those figures, the Government should recognize that being placed first on the ballot-paper does give a candidate some electoral advantage.

Now let us have a look at the votes polled by the Communist Party at the Senate elections. We cannot make a comparison of the voting for the House of Representatives because the Communist Party puts up very few candidates for election to this House. The only way to obtain a true assessment of the voting is to compare the votes polled by candidates who stand at every election on a uniform policy. That being so, the only way to obtain a true assessment of the votes polled by Communist candidates is to take figures relating to Senate elections. In Victoria, at the 1953 Senate election the Communists occupied first place on the ballot-paper and polled 3.48 per cent of the votes. In 1958, they occupied fourth place and polled 0.89 per cent. of the votes. So, in1958, they polled less than1 per cent. of the votes as against almost 3.5 per cent. in1953! The same position obtained in Queensland. There, the Communists held first place on the ballot-paper in the 1955 elections and polled 4.13 per cent, of the total votes cast. In 1958, when they occupied third place, they polled only .94 per cent, of the total votes cast. Surely, in view of those figures, honorable members opposite will not say that being first on the ballot-paper does not give a candidate some preferment or privilege! I am fortunate to have a name starting with the letter B. At five elections my name has appeared first on the ballot-paper and I have always looked upon this as giving me some advantage. I remember that in 1946, a metropolitan electorate not far from mine was held by a Labour candidate whose surname also started with the letter B. Another candidate changed his name by deed poll to the same name as the sitting member. As the sitting member's christian name was Frank and that of his rival was Allan, the latter appeared first on the ballot paper. Despite the fact that he did not have one person handing out how-to-vote cards for him, he secured over 4,000 votes. I mention this to prove that many people are so indifferent about their voting that they merely place their votes in the order in which the candidates names appear on the ballot-paper.


Mr Freeth - Did he get in?


Mr BIRD - No. As a matter of fact, he lost his deposit, for which I was thankful. But the fact remains that that candidate was able to poll 4,000 votes without any organization simply because his name appeared first on the ballot-paper.

I should like now to make some reference to the method of voting for the Senate. I am entirely dissatisfied with the present method because in my opinion the number of informal votes cast under this method absolutely negates the principle of democracy. For example, in New South Wales at the 1958 elections, the number of informal votes cast in all House of Representatives electorates was 55,041 while the number of informal votes cast in voting for the Senate was 244,828. In Victoria, the number of informal votes cast in connexion with the House of Representatives was 35,114 and for the Senate 142.416. In South Australia, the numbers were 15,619 for the House of Representatives and 36,677 for the Senate. In Queensland, there were 22,532 informal votes cast in connexion with the House of Representatives and 53,431 in connexion with the

Senate. In Western Australia, the number of informal votes cast in connexion with the House of Representatives was 12,305 as against 32,427 in connexion with the Senate and in Tasmania the figures were 7,005 for the House of Representatives and 19,271 for the Senate. The total number of informal votes cast throughout Australia was 147,616 in connexion with the House of Representatives and 529,050 in connexion with the Senate.


Mr Cope - Over half a million informal votes for the Senate!


Mr BIRD - Yes, over half a million informal votes for the Senate. Surely no government could be satisfied with a position such as that. Certainly this Government should have seized the opportunity, when preparing this bill, to do something to simplify the method of voting for the Senate. But it has done nothing.

As one who has made a close examination of the position while acting as a scrutineer, I should say that most informal votes cast for the Senate are declared informal because the voters have failed to put numbers alongside the names of every candidate. There can be no doubt about that. Any person who has been a scrutineer at Senate elections knows that that is the main reason. Another reason for informal votes is that often elderly people become confused. They may put down eight numbers correctly, then become confused and put down two nines, so that, upon completion of the paper, they have voted for seventeen instead of eighteen candidates. Again, in many polling places, unfortunately, after dark the light is not the best. The booths are gloomy, people cannot see properly, and they unintentionally vote informally. Surely the Government can see that the present method is entirely unsatisfactory. It works all right for the House of Representatives, but it does not work all right for the Senate.

When examining the figures relating to Victoria, I was appalled at the difference between the number of informal votes cast for the House of Representatives and the number cast for the Senate. I shall not mention all the figures, but in the Balaclava electorate there were 960 informal votes for the House of Representatives and 3,500 for the Senate. In the electorate of

Ballaarat, the informal voting was 610 for the House of Representatives and 3,156 for the Senate. Strangely enough, in the electorate of Wannon, where the number of informal votes cast for the House of Representatives was the lowest of all electorates, the proportion of informal votes for the Senate was considerably higher. The figures were 534 for the House of Representatives and 3,750, or seven times as many, for the Senate. That pattern was followed in most of the country electorates in Victoria. For instance, in the Bendigo electorate, where the number of informal votes cast for the House of Representatives was 584, the number cast for the Senate was 3,843. In Gippsland, the figures were 810 for the House of Representatives and 4,853, or six times as many, for the Senate. In Mallee they were 818 for the House of Representatives and 4,864, or almost six times as many, for the Senate. In Murray, they were 1,066 for the House of Representatives and 5,260, or five times as many, for the Senate. In Wimmera they were 658 for the House of Representatives and 3,722, or five and a half times as many, for the Senate.

In the metropolitan electorates, where the number of informal votes for the House of Representatives was higher than in the country, the number of informal votes cast for the Senate was still four times greater. I should say that the main reason for the relatively high number of informal Senate votes in the country electorates is that how-to-vote cards are not distributed at many of the booths, with the result that electors make mistakes through lack of guidance. But when we look at the appalling number of informal Senate votes cast in Victoria - 142,416 compared with 35,114 for the House of Representatives - surely we are entitled to say that the Government should not be satisfied with a position such as that. I cannot understand why the Government makes no attempt to so improve the method of voting for the Sen;te that the average person will not make any more mistakes when voting for the donate than he does when voting for the House of Representatives. The amendment foreshadowed by the Labour Party would provide a solution to the problem. As the Deputy Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Whitlam) explained the Opposition will propose an amendment to provide that a vote for the Senate shall be valid if preference is indicated for the number of candidates required to be elected. That is, if there are five vacancies in the Senate - which is the usual happy position - an elector will cast a valid vote if he indicates preferences for five candidates. That means in effect that he would vote for the party by placing the figures 1, 2 and 3 alongside the names of the three candidates representing the party for which he wanted to vote and then place the remaining two numbers against the names of other candidates to whom he wished to give some preference. I am confident that if this system were adopted there would be a sharp decline in the present astronomical number of informal votes. Under the present system there will always be an excessive number of informal votes. The voters include people of all standards of intelligence, people with failing eyesight, elderly people, and people who have become sick at a time when it is too late to arrange for a postal vote. The result is that thousands of electors mark their ballot-papers correctly up to about ten or twelve, then make a mistake and so vote informally. I suggest that no amount of logic can be produced to justify the present u-pardonable position. And unpardonable it is! The Government knows the circumstances. It has had ample time during the past five years to prepare a bill to correct the position. This House has on the notice-paper only a couple of bills which are supposed to engage our attention for two weeks. I do not know what we shall be discussing. Here is a matter of major importance that has been by-passed or forgotten, whether conveniently or not I do not know. I am extremely sorry that the Government did not decide that this was a chance to bring in a bill for electoral reform. The Government must agree that the high percentage of informal votes for the Senate is most unsatisfactory. It means that many people are disfranchising themselves because of the complicated nature of the ballot-paper, as it appears to them.

The bill deals with a number of minor matters, but it does nothing to eliminate major faults. In some ways its provisions are satisfactory. The honorable member for Fremantle has pointed out the difficulties regarding postal votes. The bill attempts to clarify the situation where two canvassers are outside the gate of a block of land, in the middle of which a building stands. The bill requires canvassers to stay 20 or 30 feet away from the gate, whereas formerly it was possible to stand up against it. I have an idea that this provision will be honored more in the breach than in the observance. However, when it comes to important matters, the Government has discreetly forgotten about bringing them before the House. Surely Government supporters are cognizant of the fact that certain changes are well warranted. I am completely at a loss to understand the Government's attitude. The Parliament has a duty to devise simple methods whereby electors can elect members. It has been amply demonstrated that present electoral practices appear complicated to very many thousands of people. Parliament's job is to devise machinery which does not confuse the electors. This bill proposes to do nothing in that direction.







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