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Wednesday, 3 May 1961

Mr WIGHT (Lilley) (4:22 AM) .You will remember, Mr. Chairman, that I have raised this issue from time to time in this Parliament during the last ten years. During every debate on the Estimates I have advocated that polling hours should be from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Whenever I have raised this argument I have been subjected to interjections from either the Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Calwell) or the Opposition Whip, the honorable member for Wilmot (Mr. Duthie). On each occasion I have been challenged by one or other of those two individuals, and have been told by them that the Labour Party would never agree to 6 o'clock closing. Honorable members can verify my contention by looking through the pages of " Hansard ". They will find that during the debates on the Estimates in 1958, 1957 and 1956, I suggested 6 o'clock closing on polling days, and that the Leader of the Opposition said the Labour Party would never agree to it. On those occasions I have pointed to the honorable member for Brisbane (Mr. George Lawson) and said, "There is one member who would most certainly support it."

It seems strange that the Opposition should suddenly change its mind. I wonder whether honorable members on the other side are sincere in moving this amendment, or whether they have brought it forward merely as a stunt, knowing that the honorable member for Farrer (Mr. Fairbairn) and other honorable members on this side, including myself, have continuously advocated a reduction of polling hours. I am inclined to believe that this amendment has been moved merely as a kind of a test. The Opposition has not proposed it with any sincerity, but merely to see what attitude will be adopted by honorable members on the Government side who have previously advocated the 6 o'clock closing. 1 am all the more convinced that polling hours should be from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. when I look at other amendments contained in the bill before the House. In the past an argument used against earlier closing of polling booths has been that members of certain religious organizations are debarred from voting before sunset on Saturday. We now find that the bill we are discussing will cover the position of those persons, and that they will be permitted to cast postal votes. That being so, there is now no tangible reason why polling booths should not close at 6 o'clock.

I disagree entirely with the Minister's suggestion that polling hours might well be extended. Let us remember the people who work at the polling booths, to whom the honorable member for Lalor (Mr. Pollard) made some reference. The officers employed by the Electoral Office start work at the booths before 8 a.m. They have to be there early in order to prepare the booths. They are then required to sit at their tables, doing a boring and tedious job, until 8 p.m. They work for twelve hours continuously, without any respite. They even eat their meals at their tables while continuing to do their work. When the poll is closed their job is by no means finished, because we expect from them an optimum degree of efficiency in counting ballot-papers accurately. They continue to work until midnight, and they are lucky if they get home by 1 a.m. In other words they work for a minimum of seventeen hours a day.

The CHAIRMAN - Order! I ask the committee to come to order. There is a constant cross-fire of comment in all parts of the chamber. If honorable members have no consideration for the honorable member who happens to be speaking, at least they might show some consideration for the members of the " Hansard " staff who are trying to record the speeches at this late hour. I suggest that the committee come to order and that honorable members desist from interjecting.

Mr WIGHT - As I was saying, Mr. Chairman, these employees must work for a minimum of seventeen or eighteen hours a day. It is not reasonable to expect any human being to give of his best if he works for that length of time. I remind the House that these officers are required to exercise particular care and to be extremely accurate in counting the ballot-papers.

Let me emphasize my three main points. First, we have dealt with the position of people who, because of their membership of certain religious organizations, are precluded from voting before sunset on Saturdays. Secondly, it is unreasonable to expect people to work so many hours in one day. Thirdly, in a great many polling booths, even in metropolitan areas, there is no adequate illumination by electric light, and the electoral officers are required to struggle along in the dim light of hurricane lamps or other substitutes. It is impossible to conduct a ballot with full efficiency in those circumstances.

The honorable member for Moreton said that 6 o'clock closing has been the order of the day in Queensland since 1916, and that every one has been able to cast his vote without discomfort and without difficulty. He has said that the system has worked with the maximum of success in that State. The only reason why we have not been able to persuade the Commonwealth Government or other State governments to adopt the system is that those governments have not looked closely into it and tried it out. I know that if the Commonwealth Government were to adopt 6 o'clock closing, every other State in the Commonwealth would follow suit, because they would see that the system leads to greater efficiency, and that the votes are counted at an earlier hour. Finally, the acceptance of this proposal would represent a humane gesture by the Government towards its employees.

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