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Thursday, 9 December 1976

Mr SCHOLES (Corio) - I move:

(1)   That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into and report on-

(a)   the conduct of elections for the Australian Parliament;

(b)   the role of the Australian Electoral Office;

(c)   the extent to which political party organisations should be recognised and made accountable in electoral legislation;

(d)   the funding of political parties and candidates, and

(e)   the funding and recognition of political parties and laws relating to political parties in countries comparable to Australia.

(2)   That the committee consist of ten members, five to be nominated by the Prime Minister and five to be nominated by the Leader of the Opposition.

(3)   That every nomination of a member of the committee be forthwith notified in writing to the Speaker.

(4)   That the committee elect as Chairman of the committee one of the members nominated by the Prime Minister.

(5)   That the committee elect a Deputy Chairman who shall perform the duties of the Chairman of the committee at any time when the Chairman is not present at a meeting of the committee, and at any time when the Chairman and Deputy Chairman are not present at a meeting of the committee, the members present shall elect another member to perform the duties of the Chairman at that meeting.

(6)   That the committee have power to appoint subcommittees consisting of three or more of its members, to appoint a Chairman of each sub-committee, and refer to any such sub-committee any matter which the committee is empowered to examine.

(7)   That five members of the committee constitute a quorum of the committee, and a majority of the members of a sub-committee constitute a quorum of that subcommittee.

(8)   That members of the committee who are not members of a sub-committee may take part in the public proceedings of that sub-committee but shall not vote or move any motion or constitute a quorum.

(9)   That the committee or any sub-committee have power to send for persons, papers and records.

(   10) That the committee have power to move from place to place.

(11)   That any sub-committee have power to move from place to place, adjourn from time to time and to sit during any sittings or adjournment.

(   12) That the committee or any sub-committee have power to authorise publication of any evidence given before it and any document presented to it.

(13)   That in matters of procedure the Chairman or Deputy Chairman presiding at the meeting have a deliberative vote and, in the event of an equality of voting, have a casting vote, and that, in other matters, the Chairman or Deputy Chairman have a deliberative vote only.

(   14) That the committee be provided with necessary staff, facilities and resources.

(15)   That the committee in selecting particular matters for investigation take account of the investigations of other Parliamentary committees and avoid duplication.

(16)   That the committee report as soon as possible and that any member of the committee have power to add a protest or dissent to the committee 's report.

(17)   That the foregoing provisions of this resolution, so far as they are inconsistent with the standing orders, have effect notwithstanding anything contained in the standing orders. (Notice given 1 December).

The proposal I have put forward is for the establishment of a select committee to inquire into electoral matters. The proposal does not envisage such matters as redistribution and the major matters covered by other electoral legislation, but it envisages a general approach to elections, the conduct of elections, the role and organisation of the Commonwealth Electoral Office, the relationships of political parties to the Electoral Act, and also an examination of the role, recognition and responsibilities of political parties within the electoral laws of other countries with comparable parliamentary systems to our own. Every member of this House and most people who have had experience with elections will be aware of quite a number of unsatisfactory aspects of our electoral laws. Quite a lot of them are archaic and could well be amended. There would be unanimity within the House for such amendments.

Unfortunately, governments from both sides of the House have pursued alterations to the manner in which we conduct our elections. The structure of the Commonwealth Electoral Act has been the personal property of the government of the day. In fact, it is most likely fair to say that the Electoral Act ought to be prepared by people who do not have a vested interest in protecting their positions. Politicians would be about the last people to make an objective judgment on the Commonwealth Electoral Act or on the manner in which they confronted the electors. Be that as it may, it is not likely that any government will accept that proposition. I think it is not unreasonable that the Electoral Act should be subjected to continual scrutiny and recommendation by members of Parliament and that they should seek to acquire general agreement on where the Act could be updated and alterations made to improve and, wherever possible, simplify our electoral procedures.

I should like to make one or two remarks concerning areas in which I think the whole House would agree alteration should be made but in which we have never actually got around to making alterations. The procedures for applying for postal votes are extremely complicated, even though they are meant to apply to people who are sick or aged and to large numbers of people who only once in their life are going to tackle filling in those forms. There would appear to be no justification whatsoever for not adopting a more simplified procedure and, certainly, a more simplified form on which people can apply for a postal vote and return their postal vote for counting.

The placing of names on the ballot paper historically has been almost a case of people with surnames beginning with the letter 'A' or 'B' not wanting a change to the system but people with surnames beginning with the letter 'S or 'V wanting change. I take advantage of the name of the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs (Mr Viner), who is sitting at the table. Most likely, both he and I could have lost our seats in recent years because of the alphabet.

Mr Young - What about the seconder?

Mr SCHOLES -I did not know that the seat of Port Adelaide was one in which the Electoral Act would be of much importance. I thought the honourable member who holds that seat would have a majority of about 12 000 votes. It would seem to me to be a fairer proposition- there is no fair propostion, even though we have heard about round ballot papers and the like- if people were required to draw for their positions on the ballot papers. At least then everyone would have a chance of getting a high position on the ballot paper, which is desirable in a tight election and in a marginal seat.

Any honourable member who is interested ought to ask the Minister for Administrative Services (Senator Withers) for copies of all the forms which normally are used in the Australian Electoral Office. I think something like forty or fifty of them are used to put people's names on the electoral roll. There are 3 different forms to challenge people's rights to have their names on the roll. These should be able to be modified to a considerable extent. Similarly, there is the issue of the 'How to Vote' cards. This seems to me to be one of the great wastes of money- it creates a tremendous amount of litter- to provide guidance in a system which we believe is too complicated for the general public to understand. It is not unreasonable that each candidate should be able to put forward his order of preferences to the Electoral Office within a reasonable period of the close of nominations and that that order of preferences should be included in the Act and listed in every polling booth so that when people go into the polling booths they have before them the order of preferences desired by each candidate.

That brings me to the third problem, which is the recognition in the Electoral Act of political parties. A lot of guff is spoken about the incorporation of political parties, etc. It is an accepted fact that there are political parties. It is accepted de facto in Senate elections where groupings are used. It should not be beyond the wit of this Parliament to devise reasonable proceduresproposals have been put before the Parliament in recent years- whereby the names of political parties and the association of candidates to those parties can be recognised at least to the extent that the names can be utilised in an electoral office. It is a strange thing that, whilst we do not recognise that a candidate is a candidate for a particular political party, we require the political party to provide returns on expenditure and other matters in relation to election campaigns. So apparently we recognise political parties but we pretend that we do not. They are things which I think are worthy of examination by members of this House and, wherever possible, unanimity should be sought.

On the matter of the closing times of polling booths, in one or two States now the closing time is 6 o'clock but in the Commonwealth it is 8 o'clock. There seems to be no real reason why some agreement could not be reached on that particular point. These issues relating to the Electoral Act are not terribly important but in total there are quite a number of them. I believe it is proper that the Parliament as a whole should deal with these issues and make recommendations.

The motion which is before us envisages dealing with the matter only as it affects the House of Representatives. I should think that senators would want to examine their own electoral laws as far as the election of senators is concerned. I hope that they will do so fairly quickly because the level of informal votes which is taking place in Senate elections is destroying any claim that the Senate is a representative House. The level of informal votes is running at something like 10 per cent. That is far too high and indicates not that people are not capable of or do not want to vote, but that the system is too complicated and therefore is denying people their right to vote.

I should like to talk about one or two other matters but we have only 12 minutes left for this debate and I should like to leave some time for the seconder to this motion. However, I make the point that in future the problems involved in conducting election campaigns in Australia are going to grow. People are going to demand results far more quickly than they are able to get them now. In the last general election, if I may make the point, it took just on 3 weeks to settle the final seat in the House of Representativesmy seat. If the election result had been close we would not have known who was going to govern the country until that period had elapsed. In a situation of, say, economic or another form of crisis, that would make the position of government impossible. It would place the nation in a rudderless situation.

It should be possible for us to get beyond the horse and buggy stage whereby 10 or 12 days after an election people are not able to say even how many votes there are still to be counted, let alone when they are likely to arrive. In fact, as late as the day of the distribution of preferences in the last general election, 20-odd votes turned up. I know that the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs found a very important bundle of votes which apparently no one knew existed. These are areas in which the electoral procedures should be cleaned up and should be cleaned up fairly quickly. I do not suggest that there has been any improper practice, but the Electoral Act needs careful examination and it should be examined by people on the basis of trying to seek agreement on what can and should be done to improve our electoral system.

The other matter, which is going to be one of the big issues in the future, is that of financing election campaigns. If we do not do something about this matter in the future- and it is not a popular subject- we will reach the situation which, I believe, obtains in some countries already, in which the members of the Parliament are agents of those who finance election campaigns rather than representatives of the people who elect them. That would be an undesirable situation. Elections cannot be conducted without money. It will be necessary to look at means by which the amounts of money required to be spent can be reduced. Some of the surplus activity that takes place could well be done away with. I commend the motion to the House. I believe that it proposes a means by which we can seek to have unanimity and agreement on those changes which are necessary or those which we feel are desirable. In controversial matters, or matters on which agreement cannot be reached, obviously the Government has the numbers to enforce its will, but, wherever possible, I believe that an agreement should be reached on electoral matters.

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