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Friday, 20 October 1911

Senator O'KEEFE (Tasmania) . - There are only three points in the measure before the Senate which appeal to me as being of very great importance. Senator Millen, who launched an exceed ingly severe criticism of the measure yesterday, has dealt with the question of compulsory voting. Other honorable senators opposite have shown, by interjection, that they have the idea that compulsory enrolment is of no use without compulsory voting. I cannot understand why that objection should be urged. If there is the slightest chance of compulsory enrolment conducing to a larger percentage of votes being recorded at an election, it will certainly have a beneficial effect j and I am convinced that the proposed amendment of the law will tend in that direction. I should like to think that we could, by legislation, make compulsory voting effective. But I do- not think for a moment that any measure passed with that object in view would be effective. There is an old saying that you can take a horse to the water, but you cannot make him drink. In the same way you might, by law, compel people to go to the polling booth, even against their inclinations, but many who were so compelled might, out of a sheer spirit of obstinacy, spoil their ballotpapers. The question of compulsory enrolment, however, rests upon an entirely different basis. There are hundreds of men and women in the large centres of Australia who, at election time, find that their names have been left off the roll. Many will admit that they are themselves to blame, and they express regret for their negligence. Others are omitted through some dereliction of duty on the part of officials responsible for the compilation of the roll. If we institute compulsory enrolment, we shall do away with a great deal of that kind of thing. Therefore, this is a step in the right direction. I cannot understand my honorable friends opposite objecting if there is the slightest chance of bringing about, by this means, the casting of a larger percentage of votes at Federal elections.

Senator St Ledger - Who made that objection ?

Senator O'KEEFE - After every , election, the newspapers which support my honorable friends opposite contain letters complaining that people have been left off the rolls, and the journals themselves claim that a result adverse to them is due to the fact that a large number of electors have not voted.

Senator Millen - That is what Mr. Hughes said in connexion with the referenda.

Senator Sayers - Is any one on this side against compulsory enrolment?

Senator O'KEEFE - I have not said so, but a number of honorable senators opposite have said, by interjection, "What is the use of compulsory enrolment without compulsory voting?" I am trying to show that compulsory enrolment will probably tend to a greater percentage of votes being cast, whereas compulsory voting would probably be ineffective, because many persons who were driven to the pollingbooth, against their inclinations, would spoil their votes. At one time I thought that compulsory voting could be made effective, and if I could be satisfied on that point now, I should vote for such a proposal with both hands up.

Senator Millen - Does the honorable senator think that compulsory enrolment can be made effective?

Senator O'KEEFE - I think compulsory enrolment can be made effective.

Senator Millen - The honorable senator would have a policeman going after every elector to see that he was enrolled.

Senator O'KEEFE - I am satisfied that it would tend to a larger percentage of votes being cast at elections in the future. Honorable senators are aware that all the powerful daily journals of Australia supporting the party opposite have invariably claimed, after every political contest, that if 75 or 80 instead of 50 per cent, of the electors enrolled had recorded their votes the party opposite would have won.

Senator Millen - The honorable senator never heard me make that statement, because I have always contended, as I did yesterday, that the rolls are inflated, and the percentage of votes polled is much greater than appears from the figures.

Senator O'KEEFE - I have always urged the same contention. I am satisfied that, because of the neglect in making transfers of names from one roll to another, when people have moved from one electoral district to another, there are many names on every roll which ought not to be there. It is difficult to believe that the people of Australia, who are so keenly interested in politics, do not, to a greater extent than 50 per cent, of those enrolled, exercise the right to record their votes. That does not affect my argument, and, if honorable senators opposite really believe that the greater proportion of the big unpolled vote would be cast in their favour, they should welcome the adoption of a system which would tend to increase the percentage of votes polled.

Senator Millen - But the Government do not propose to do anything to make the electors go to the poll.

Senator O'KEEFE - They propose to introduce compulsory enrolment in the belief that that will tend to bring a larger number of electors to the poll. It is obvious that that will be the effect when we consider that at every election there are thousands of people who complain that they have been unable to vote because their names have not appeared on the rolls. The Leader of the Opposition in the Senate was apparently more concerned about another proposal in this Bill than about the whole of the rest of the measure. In his destructive speech yesterday afternoon, he denounced the proposal to abolish postal voting. The honorable senator did not hide his belief that it has been introduced from a party point of view.

Senator Millen - One could not hide it if he tried.

Senator O'KEEFE - The honorable senator is entitled to his own opinion on the subject, but if postal voting has been honestly carried out in the past, how will its abolition affect one party in politics more than another? The system was introduced largely for the convenience of invalids, but experience has shown that it lends itself to corruption.

Senator Vardon - Surely the real point is as to the justice of the matter?

Senator O'KEEFE - Senator Millen, and also Senator McColl, in dealing with the matter made the charge that the Government propose to abolish postal voting because they believe that the greater number of postal votes polled are recorded for their opponents.

Senator Millen - The point is, are honorable senators opposite prepared to disfranchise 29,000 electors?

Senator O'KEEFE - It is absurd to say that the Government propose to abolish postal voting in order to disfranchise 29,000 electors. Why does Senator Millen say 29,000?

Senator Millen - Because it is shown that 29,000 electors used the postal vote.

Senator O'KEEFE - Is my honorable friend so innocent as to believe that 29,000- electors were, at the last elections, too ill to go to the poll?

Senator Millen - It is not merely a question of illness. It is a question also of remoteness from a polling place.

Senator O'KEEFE - I have every sympathy for those who may be at some distance from a polling place.

Senator ALBERT GOULD (NEW SOUTH WALES) -Colonel Cameron.- The electors do not want the honorable senator's sympathy; they want their rights.

Senator O'KEEFE - They will get their rights. There is nothing in this Bill which will take away any of the electoral rights of any person in Australia. It will always be more convenient for some people to exercise their right to vote than for others, and there never was an Act of Parliament passed which placed every one on the same footing. Senator Cameron will recollect the rumours prevalent in Tasmania at the time of the last Federal election, and, doubtless, he will know that the postal voting provisions of the existing Act were largely taken advantage of by those who were able to run motor cars to remote portions of the State, carrying with them persons authorized to witness postal vote certificates, and so to secure votes that otherwise would not have been recorded. The facts about postal voting could hardly be stated without doing some persons great injury, but, without mentioning names, I can refer to cases that came under my own observation. I know of instances occurring in Tasmania where the postal voting provisions were availed of by domestic servants, who could easily have gone to a polling booth had they been allowed to do so. I will not say that they were absolutely prevented from doing so, but they were given a pretty broad hint that they might much more easily vote by post, and certain people came round and collected their postal votes, and these were nearly always cast on one side of the fence in politics.

Senator Sayers - The same old yarn, without any proof.

Senator O'KEEFE - Senator Sayerscomes from a State which has had a very significant experience of postal voting. Perhaps the honorable senator will be able to explain how it was that after a trial of a system which extended, I think, over only one election in Queensland, the Government that introduced the system subsequently abolished it.

Senator Rae - And not a Labour Government either.

Senator O'KEEFE - I understand that it was not a Labour Government.

Senator Sayers - If the honorable senator will mention the Government to whom he refers, we shall know what we have to deal with.

Senator Millen - The honorable senator should make a candid admission that he knows of the matter only from Senator Rae's interjection.

Senator O'KEEFE - I beg Senator Millen's pardon. The matter is one which has been frequently discussed in the Senate between representatives of Queensland and of the other States. There must have been some good reason why the Government that introduced the system in Queensland subsequently did away with it. We have heard all sorts of rumours on the subject, and, doubtless, some honorable senator from Queensland will be able to tell us how much truth there is in these rumours. The postal voting provisions were inserted in the Commonwealth Electoral Act as an experiment. Many members of this Parliament agreed to the proposal as an experiment.

Senator Sayers - Did not Senator O'Keefe support it? I have been looking up Hansard.

Senator O'KEEFE - I believe I did, and the honorable senator will probably find that if I spoke upon the matter at all I supported the proposal because I believed it would extend the facilities for voting. I did not believe at the time that it would increase the opportunities for corruption, but, so far as I can gather, it has operated in that direction. It has been contended that the majority of the postal votes have hitherto been cast against the present Government party, and that that is the reason why the Government are proposing to abolish the system.

Senator St Ledger - That must be mere conjecture.

Senator O'KEEFE - I am glad to have that admission from Senator St. Ledger. He will, no doubt, remember that Senator Millen made the charge more than once. He said that the proposal to abolish the system was a party move, and Senator McColl went further and described it as politically dishonest and corrupt, because the majority of the postal votes were recorded against the party now in power.

Senator St Ledger - I think they were myself.

Senator O'KEEFE - Has it struck honorable senators who take that view that it is a trifle suspicious that at the last Federal election, when, for all- practical purposes, there were only two parties beforethe country, one party should get a substantial majority of the votes personally recorded, and the other such a large majority of the votes recorded by post?

Senator Sayers - It is all coming out now.

Senator O'KEEFE - I am using the argument which was used by my honorable friends opposite.

Senator St Ledger - What is the honorable senator's inference from it?

Senator O'KEEFE - My inference is that there must have been some peculiar work going on in connexion with the postal voting, because, in the case of votes personally recorded, there are no opportunities for corruption.

Senator Sayers - Yes, there are.

Senator O'KEEFE - No, there are too many safeguards provided under the Act to permit of corruption in the case of personal voting. Our friends opposite do not like the proposal to abolish postal voting, because, in their view, the majority of postal votes has hitherto been cast against the Labour party. I say that this appears strange in view of the fact that a very big majority of the personal votes were cast for that party.

Senator Vardon - A very large majority.

Senator O'KEEFE - Yes, a considerable majority. A considerable majority of Labour members were returned for another place, and at the last Senate election there was, apparently, no room in the Senate for a single honorable senator representing the other side. Out of eighteen seats contested, not one honorable senator representing the party opposite was returned. It would be interesting if we could find out how many of the postal votes recorded were due to sickness or remoteness from the nearest polling place. I have many friends in the backblocks of Tasmania, who reside miles from a polling booth, but I say it is not too much to ask people who are interested in the government of the country to travel 7 or 8 miles to a polling booth once in three years to record their votes.

Senator Sayers - They may have to travel 50 or 60 miles in Queensland to do so.

Senator O'KEEFE - The pioneers, for whom Senator Millen expressed so much sympathy yesterday, are usually men who will not let the loss of a day's work or the travel of a few miles prevent them from recording their votes. Many of my friends have walked 15 miles in bad weather to record their votes for myself and other candidates on the same side. Whether their views on politics be right or wrong, it is clear that they value their political rights so highly that they are prepared, if necessary, to make a little sacrifice once in three years in order that they may record their votes. If it could be shown that more than half of the postal votes were recorded because of sickness, or because people could not get to the nearest polling booth, I am satisfied that the Government would not have introduced a proposal to abolish postal voting. The experience of honorable senators on this side has been the same in every instance, though honorable senators opposite appear not to have had a similar experience. Our experience of the operation of the postal voting provisions of the present Act is that very many of the 29,000 referred to by Senator Millen could have gone to a polling booth, and those who were employed in canvassing for such votes might have been saved some little trouble, and, perhaps, expense. The Electoral Act was not framed to suit these people, but to suit those who place some value upon their political privileges and rights. The system was introduced as an experiment, and it is because its tendency has been to corruption that it is now proposed to abolish it. I do not think that my honorable friends on the other side would make such a great song about the postal voting system if they were not satisfied in their minds that it has been of service to them. They will find that, in the future, it will not assist either party. I am sure that they want the elections to be conducted cleanly, and free from anything which might conduce towards corruption. That being so, they ought to welcome, as we do, the proposal to abolish postal voting.

Senator St Ledger - We do not want to disfranchise anybody.

Senator O'KEEFE - It is not a question of disfranchising any person. Every man or woman in Australia who is above the age of twenty-one years, and outside the walls of a gaol or lunatic asylum, can get enfranchised.

Senator St Ledger - Yes, but they cannot vote.

Senator O'KEEFE - Every adult person who is qualified for enrolment can be enrolled ; but, for various reasons, some persons are not able to record their votes on polling-day.

Senator St Ledger - What are you going to do for them?

Senator O'KEEFE - We can do nothing for these persons, except by opening the door to corruption such as was practised at the last election.

Senator Vardon - Why do you not prove that charge?

Senator O'KEEFE - The honorable senator must know of cases where some women have had postal votes taken away by a bit of chicanery or smart electioneering practice, when they might easily have gone to the polling-booth. Would he attempt to bring up these persons, although he knows them, and got votes from them, and make them prove a case at the expense of losing their billets? He knows that their positions would not be worth an hour's purchase if they came and gave evidence.

Senator St Ledger - An invalided woman to come here and give evidence 1

Senator O'KEEFE - I am not speaking of an invalided woman, but of probably more than one-half of the 29,000 persons who obtained postal votes at the last election. I am referring to those who used 'the system when they had no need to do so. That is why it is to be abolished. When our honorable friends on the other side get into power, probably they will revive the system ; but I am very pleased to think that, in the meantime, the old system will be tried again. I honestly believe that the abolition of the postal vote will do away with corruption. I do not believe in corrupt practices at elections. I do not claim for a moment that the corrupt practices come from one side only. I know that some supporters of myself and the party I belong to are not above resorting to corrupt practices. It would be absurd for any one to claim that political corruption is only practised on one side at an election. I know that the provision for the postal vote has been used corruptly by both parties, and certainly in a way which was not intended when it was enacted. The system was introduced in order to assist two classes only, viz., the invalid and the elector who would be too far away on election day to go to the pollingbooth except at great loss and trouble. The postal vote has been abused to such an extent that its abolition is now proposed, and I think it is a good proposal, too. The only other provision of the Bill in which I take any great interest is the one curtailing the licence of the press in printing or publishing political matter. I do not believe in trying to muzzle the press too much, because, after all, unfairness on the part of a newspaper will, in the end, react against the party which it is attempting to assist. In Melbourne, for instance, we have had instances of the grossest unfairness in politics, and I do not" believe that any of my honorable friendswho are most bitterly opposed to theLabour party will indorse the actions or the tactics of the Melbourne newspapers onthose occasions. Will they, for instance, indorse the action of a big journal here which, a few years ago, tried its hardest to keep a certain man out of the Senate? To use an every-day expression, it had the knife into this gentleman for a long time,, politically speaking. Amongst other causes, perhaps, was a very big lawsuit which he had with the newspaper. It went to this unfair length that, although this gentleman addressed some thousands of persons in Melbourne on the night before the election, there was not one line about his address in its columns next morning, whilst opposing candidates, who only addressed a few hundred persons, received long notices. That is party warfare.

Senator Sayers - No, it is personal warfare.

Senator St Ledger - What has that to do with the franchise?

Senator O'KEEFE - It has not anything to do with the franchise, but it certainly has something to do with a clause of this Bill which seeks to control to some extent the unfair tactics which big newspapers have been guilty of. I have cited that case merely as an illustration of the extreme lengths to which big journals are prepared to go, and I suppose will continue to go, in support of their party.

Senator Sayers - You admit that it was a personal affair?

Senator O'KEEFE - It was perhaps more personal than political. My honorable friends know that this journal is most unscrupulous in its methods. It does not care what kind of methods it uses to kill a party or a candidate, and to advance the interest of the candidate whom it is supporting. It is a case of party warfare, which, in the end, I believe, reacts in favour of the person whom it tries to hit.

Senator St Ledger - It was helping the Labour party not long ago.

Senator O'KEEFE - It had a very short spell of political sanity, and then it dropped back into a state of political aberration. It must not be forgotten that, in past 'elections, State and Commonwealth, the Labour party have suffered to a greater extent from press unfairness than has the other side in politics. But a time may come - and I believe that it will come within a very few. years - when the other side may be subjected to the same kind of unfair treatment by newspapers which are engaged in fighting the battles of this side. The time has gone by in Australia, I think, when there will be only one class of newspaper literature. In both Hobart and Adelaide we have a daily newspaper which is a recognised and straight-out supporter of the Labour party, and I hope that, within the space of about a year, we. shall have a Labour newspaper in Sydney, and that it will be followed quickly by the establishment of a Labour newspaper in Melbourne, Brisbane, and Perth.

Senator Walker - Do not forget that you have a very strong weekly advocate - the Bulletin.

Senator O'KEEFE - My honorable friend knows that, in electioneering, a weekly advocate is not of any use compared with a daily advocate, because the daily liar can get in six lies to the weekly liar's one lie. In the very near future I believe we shall have, on each side of politics, powerful journals, largely supported, and with an immense circulation, instead of, as at present, the newspapers being mostly on one side. Will not a provision of the kind I am discussing act fairly to both sides in politics? If honorable senators opposite are not going to openly champion the cause of unfair criticism or unfair tactics by newspapers, what objection have they to our trying to make the newspapers a little fairer than they have been?

Senator St Ledger - Because the provision does not cut both ways.

Senator O'KEEFE - Undoubtedly it does. Will it not cover any newspaper which may happen to be supporting our side? Will it not, for instance, cover the Daily Post, in Hobart, or the Herald, in Adelaide - two straight-out supporters of the Labour party - just the same as it will cover the Age and the Argus, in Melbourne, or the Herald and the Telegraph, in Sydney, or the Register and the Advertiser, in Adelaide?

Senator St Ledger - No.

Senator O'KEEFE - Why not?

Senator St Ledger - Oh, you know why.

Senator O'KEEFE - There is no word in the provision which relates to a particular newspaper. At present there are some newspapers on the Labour side, and many newspapers on the anti-Labour side; very probably in the near future, there will be more newspapers on the Labour side. But even now this provision covers all news papers alike. Do my honorable friends intend to openly support anything in the shape of unfair tactics such as we charge against the newspapers which have been fighting us so bitterly but ineffectively, as the results have shown, during the last quarter of a century ? We have thriven on this kind of abuse.

SenatorSayers. - And you will fall on it, too.

Senator O'KEEFE - We may fall some day ; but, so far, all this fighting has only helped us. The Labour party has not attained its present prominence in Commonwealth and State politics by reason of the assistance of daily newspapers. It has progressed in the teeth of their opposition, and that fact is perfectly well known. When, in the course of a few years, we have large daily journals supporting the Labour party in the big cities of Australia, as well as in the State capitals, this provision will be a very useful safeguard for my honorable friends. At all events, it aims at only one thing, and that is to keep unfairness out of newspaper control or tactics or policy as much as possible.

Senator St Ledger - How will it keep unfairness out of newspapers?

Senator O'KEEFE - It will curb, as far as we can, the power which newspapers have used in an unscrupulous way, not for any particular party, but for all parties. My honorable friends opposite ought to welcome these proposals, as we do. I have occupied quite enough time. I welcome this amending Bill, and, most particularly, the three provisions which I think are, after all, its crux.

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