Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Wednesday, 1 November 1911

The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN (Senator Givens (QUEENSLAND) - I think the honorable senator has referred to that matter very frequently.

Senator ST LEDGER - I will now proceed with another point. I have sometimes complained to the Department officially with regard to its administration of some portions of the Electoral Acts. I think the centralized administration which has prevailed for such a number of years has made the officials, and sometimes the Ministers, unable to appreciate the vast difficulties people in the back-blocks have to overcome in order to exercise the franchise. We have in our country as large a territory as Great Britain, France, Spain, and Portugal, with some other place thrown in, and only one small portion is settled. Settlement is going slowly but surely into the back-blocks, and it is an absolute impossibility, without spending hundreds of thousands of pounds, to provide polling places in those parts into which settlement is gradually going. Under the present Act a person residing over 5 miles from a polling booth is able to vote by post. Is there any one in his senses who is prepared to say that that is not exactly what ought to be done? Here is a rather extraordinary position. The Ministry have provided that every adult person in Australia who is away from his or her division on polling day, if strong enough to get to any polling booth anywhere in the Commonwealth, shall be allowed to vote. At first sight that is a generous application of further voting facilities. I have no objection to that under proper safeguards. The Ministry give to persons who are strong and healthy, who may be thousands of miles away from the division in which they are enrolled, the opportunity to vote; whereas persons who are in their division, but who are 30 or 40 miles away from a polling booth, are being deprived of' an opportunity of voting. It frequently happens that a man and his wife have a farm 5 or 6 miles away from a polling booth. It is absolutely impossible for the woman to. leave her children and go with her husband to vote. Either the man or his wife must stay at home for the purpose of looking after the household, and because of that, one of them is deprived of the opportunity of voting. On the other hand, able-bodied men and women who are travelling are to be allowed to vote at any polling booth. These people may be about to shake the dust of Australia off their feet, and they may be able to vote just before departing, whereas thousands of people in Australia who are bound to their little farms or holdings, will not be able to vote. In those cases either the wife or the husband must stay away from the polling booth to look after the household. If we disfranchise only a dozen people we do an injustice to that dozen people. We know that it is a physical impossibility for hundreds of men and women to get to the polling booths. The Ministry practically say to those people, "' If we concede to you the privilege of using a postal vote properly, and of using it without the slightest undue influence, other persons will abuse it or use it corruptly." To take away the right of a man or a woman to vote is to inflict the greatest political or social injustice that can be inflicted on that man or woman. It is "utterly ridiculous for the Ministry to pretend that in this Bill they are acting in consonance with the spirit of Democracy or the spirit of the Constitution. Time after time we have asked, " Give us specific instances of abuses under the postal voting system." If the Ministry were to give those specific instances of abuse, the Committee might be able to devise some conditions by which those abuses would be guarded against. We have asked for specific instances, and we have had charge after charge made, and those charges have broken down. Then the last refuge is the suggestion of personal corruption - first, through one's self; second, through one's party ; and finally and most dastardly, through the Government which we supported. Surely the

Minister has some reason for his action in introducing this proposal. Apparently he is going to bludgeon it through in the face of this criticism. Let us take it that there are 30,000 postal votes exercised at an election. By passing this clause we will actually disfranchise a number of electors equal to a large constituency. The average constituency has under 30,000 electors. In connexion with the representation of the back-blocks electorates, which is most important to us, not a shadow of proof of any charge of abuse has been put forward. It is at the people in those electorates that this clause strikes. By this clause settlers in the back-blocks, and especially the small ones, with 300 or 400 acres, who are some distance away from a polling booth, will be deprived of the opportunity of voting.

Senator Pearce - More postal votes are exercised in the big towns than in the country.

Senator ST LEDGER - Is that any reason why the people in sparsely-populated districts should be deprived of the privilege of postal voting? It does not matter whether or not the people in centres of population have abused the postal voting provisions, we ought to give every facility to the people in the back-blocks to record their votes. Abuses of the postal voting provisions may have been perpetrated in Melbourne or other places, but is that any reason why we should flog the backs, politically speaking, of the sellers in the backblocks ? That is the statement of the Minister of Defence now. Say there had been three or four, or a dozen, elections upset in large centres of population owing to corrupt practices in connexion with the postal voting system, does the honorable senator say that that is a reason why people elsewhere should be punished ? Is not that a Chinese method of dealing out punishment? In China, if something goes wrong in the Customs at Hankow, they cut off the head of a man at Canton. What is the burden of the song of the Minister in charge of the Bill ? He said that something went wrong in Melbourne, and because of that he is going to punish the people in the country districts. Even at this late hour I ask the Government to withdraw the clause, and give us time to consider the matter, if the amendment of Senator Walker is not acceptable to them. Their attitude towards the Opposition shows a spirit of almost Caesarism. I feel sure that the public will recognise that we on this side are standing by the franchise as it was laid down in the Con stitution. I have not imported any political or party issues into the debate, I have charged no Government with corruption or failure to administer the Act, but I have pointed out that this measure will do a gross injustice to many persons. What have we got from the other side? Only smiles. There was a time when people had to' fight for the franchise, and when it was obtained it was so used as to make our Empire what it is. But this is the first time in the history of a constitutionallygoverned country, either within or without the Empire, where the Government have sought to curtail a franchise based on adult suffrage, and to curtail it on such grounds as would be scorned and laughed out anywhere outside, say, of China, which has its own method of doing justice.

Suggest corrections