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Thursday, 2 November 1911

Senator KEATING (Tasmania) . - After the division that was taken on the amendment proposed on the motion for the second reading of the Bill, it seems to be hopeless to expect the Government to reconsider the step which they are inviting Parliament to take, of abolishing voting by post. At the same time, I do not think we ought to allow that step to be taken without registering a protest. In addressing myself to the amendment proposed on the motion for the second reading - an amendment designed to emphasize the fact that what we should seek in an amendment of the electoral law is to extend, rather than to curtail, facilities for voting - I referred to the fact that there were 29,000 odd votes cast by post at the last general election, and in making reference to that number, I said that they represent, in strength, practically a constituency .

Senator Findley - The extraordinary thing is that half those postal votes were recorded in a small State - that of Victoria.

Senator KEATING - My honorable friend may rest assured that I shall not fail to deal with that aspect of the matter before I finish. In looking through the figures in connexion with the last general election, I find that in New South Wales the largest number of votes was recorded in Dalley, where 26,143 votes were cast, and that the smallest vote was in Cowper, where 13,109 votes were cast. In Victoria, the largest vote polled was in the electorate of Bourke, where 30,959 votes were recorded, and the smallest poll was in Wimmera, where 17,774 votes were re corded. In Queensland, the largest vote was in Herbert, where 23,184 votes were recorded, and the smallest in Kennedy, where 14,076 votes were cast. In South Australia, the largest and the smallest votes respectively were Wakefield, 18,342 ; and Adelaide, 15,363. In Western Australia, Swan topped the list with 25,302 votes, while Coolgardie is at the bottom with 13,834 votes. In Tasmania, in the Denison electorate, 12,701 votes were recorded, and in, Wilmot 9,966 votes were recorded. Taking the constituencies polling the greatest number of votes in each of the six States, we find that Bourke, where 30,959 votes were cast, was the only electorate in the Commonwealth which polled as many votes as were recorded by post. We find that the constituency recording the greatest number of votes in Tasmania - Denison, with 12,701 votes - did not poll 50 per cent, of the votes recorded by post. The Honorary Minister has just reminded me, although I did not need reminding of it, that not all of the 29,000 odd postal voters were persons who necessarily depended upon postal voting to register their votes ; that they were not all persons who might not have voted otherwise, and that, therefore, they were not all persons who would be disfranchised by the abolition of postal voting. I have not forgotten that. But let my honorable friend not forget that those 29,000 odd electors did not represent the whole of the people who might have voted, and voted only by utilizing the postal voting system. They did not represent the large number of people for whom the then existing facilities were not sufficient. There were many others who were unable to register their votes, and many who would have been unable to do so no matter how easy the conditions or how great the facilities.

Senator Needham - The honorable senator had a chance to extend the facilities when he was a Minister.

Senator KEATING - My honorable friend's recollection must be very meagre. When I was a Minister I did introduce a measure which extended the facilities and multiplied the opportunities for postal voting, at the same time surrounding those opportunities with safeguards. We were then taking a step in the right direction - a step forward. Now we are asked to take a step backward - to get out of line with ourselves, out of line with our States, out of line with every institution of a representative character in the Commonwealth. Here

I may give an illustration. I said last evening, when Senator Lynch was speaking, that, notwithstanding the fact that he asserted that this system of postal yoting was the creation of the Labour party, it had actually been in existence in Tasmania before the Commonwealth came into being. We used the system of postal voting in connexion with the referenda on the Federal Constitution in 1899 and 1900. The system was applicable to the first Tasmanian Federal elections. In connexion with the Tasmanian University, the system of postal voting is used in regard to the election of members of the Council by members of the Senate. I, as a member of the Senate of the University, receive a postal ballotpaper in connexion with each such election. That is an example apart altogether from political elections. So successful has the system been in Tasmania, that it has been extended to institutions removed from ordinary politics. In making reference to the figures relating to electorates, I have pointed out that the largest votes at the last election ranged from 30,959 in Bourke, Victoria, down to 12,701 in Denison, Tasmania. The smallest polls ranged from j 7,774 in Wimmera, Victoria, to 9,966 in Wilmot, Tasmania. Those figures, of course, do not represent the voting strength of the constituencies. The enormous vote given in Bourke represents only 75.40 per cent, of the total number of electors on the Bourke roll. In Wimmera the vote represents 57.31 of the voting strength of the constituency. In all those instances the number of votes represents only a percentage of the full strength of the roll. I have a right to assume, therefore, that the 59,000 odd votes recorded under the postal system represented only a proportion of the persons who were eligible to vote under that system. So that when I stated that we were practically disfranchising one whole constituency, I erred well within the mark. 1 should have been more correct had 1 said that we were in effect disfranchising the strength of two constituencies.

Senator Lynch - Does the honorable senator mean to say that the whole of those 29,000 persons cast their votes by post legitimately In accordance wilh the spirit of the Aci ?

Senator KEATING - I shall not neglect to deal with that point. Of the 29,000 odd voters, it may rightly be said that a certain proportion would have been able to vote at the ballot-box if they had «ot been permitted to vote by post. What that proportion is I am not prepared to say. I doubt whether the Minister in charge of the Bill, or any other honorable senator, would hazard a conjecture. But, putting aside altogether the proportion who would have been able to vote otherwise had the postal voting system, not been in existence,. I venture to say that the remainder of the 29,000 represents only a proportion of the persons who would have been disfranchised if there had been no postal voting system in existence. I instanced Herbert as the constituency which recorded the largest number of votes in Queensland, and Kennedy as the lowest. Herbert's record was 23,184 votes, and Kennedy's 14,076. By a singular coincidence, in each of those cases, the total vote polled represented 61.53 of the voting strength of the constituency. It will therefore be seen that 14,076 represents 61 per cent, of the total voting strength of the Kennedy constituency. Consequently the total voting strength of Kennedy does not equal the total vote recorded under the postal voting system. . In Wakefield, the top constituency, in South Aus tralia, and in Adelaide, the lowest in the State, the percentages were respectively 58.91 and 53.17. In Western Australia, Swan polled 64.26, and Coolgardie 55.74. In Tasmania, Denison polled 64.57 per cent.., and Wilmot 55.92. We have to reckon in those percentages the number of postal votes cast. We also have to remember that a large proportion of those votes were brought to the poll by excitement and by all the influences that operate in connexion with elections. Is it not reasonable to assume therefore that the 20,000 votes by post represented a like proportion of- the eligible persons who might have voted under the postal voting system? Therefore I say again that I am well within the mark when I assert that this proposal of the Government will disfranchise the equivalent of one constituency in the Commonwealth. Indeed, I make bold to say that I should be nearer the mark if I were to assert that the abolition of the postal voting system will disfranchise the equivalent of two constituencies. Now I will come to the point which Senator Lynch has . suggested. He asks me whether it is not my view that a proportion of the 29,000 persons who voted by post cast their votes illegitimately. 1 am not in a position to answer the question. Statements have been made hereduring the course pf the debate which makeme inclined to say that nobody should.; liereckless enough to assert that th.e whole of. the votes were cast legitimately.

Senator Millen - Would the honorable senator be prepared to say that the whole of the votes at the ballot-box were cast legitimately?

Senator KEATING - I should not. What I think we are entitled to know is this : What proportion of those 29,000 votes were cast illegally, illicitly, and wrongly ? Has that proportion been ascerfained by a calculation, or have the officials any ground for making an assumption ? We have no information whatever on the point. We simply have generalizations. Before we take the step of disfranchising thousands of electors it is essential that we should know that the evil is so great that by no less drastic means can it possibly be prevented. These are the most drastic means that could be taken to remove the alleged evil whose existence we have evidence of only in vague generalizations, and the extent of which no one has even attempted to estimate. In connexion with the amendment to which I referred just now in response to Senator Needham, I would point out that in 1906 an election was held under the Electoral Act of 1902, as amended by the Act of 1905. As I have said already, the Act of 1905 not merely recognised the postal voting system, established under the Act of 1902 and once previously used in 1903, but it extended the facilities for the use of that system by adding to the list of persons eligible to witness applications for postal voting papers. In every way the members of the Senate and of another place not only recognised but extended the operation of the principle. In 1906 a general election was held. After that election a number of prosecutions took place under the authority of the Minister for various alleged electoral offences, and not only offences charged in connexion with voting by post. I have some idea, but I should like to know certainly, what was the number of the alleged offences in connexion with which it was thought desirable that prosecutions should be instituted at that time. I have very vivid personal recollections of the time. A number of complaints of alleged offences against the Electoral Act in various particulars were submitted to the Department from the several States. I can say unhesitatingly that in every instance the data supplied was submitted to the Crown Law authorities of the Commonwealth, and in no circumstances, no matter who the person was, or to what party he or she belonged, was any quarter given. Whenever there was the slightest chance of successfully maintaining a prosecution, a prosecution was ordered. I have in mind one particular instance... The case was submitted to the Department, and brought under my notice as Minister of Home Affairs charged with the administration of the Electoral . Act. I asked that further inquiries should be made, and' further information was forwarded. At this stage representations were made that it would be a harsh thing to prosecute, and that no Bench could possibly find the prospective defendant guilty. The papers were sent on to the Crown Law Department for advice. While advising that a technical prosecution lay, the Crown Law Department expressed some doubt as to theultimate success of a prosecution if it were instituted. The papers came back to me, and believing that if there was any doubt at all I should regard the public interest as of more importance than, in that particular instance, a private and temporary misfortune, arising from a prosecution, I ordered the prosecution. Here again I was confronted with difficulty. When the papers went on to the Crown Law Department so that the necessary steps might be taken to prosecute for the alleged offence, it was found that in the centre of population where the prosecution was to lie there was not a single member of the legal profession who would consent to represent the Commonwealth in the matter. The person against whom the offence was alleged was very popular and highly respected. Her case seemed at the first blush to be one of extreme hardship. The offence charged against her was that she had loitered in a polling booth after having been requested by a police officer, acting under instructionsfrom some one in authority, to remove from it. She refrained from moving out of the polling booth as she was bound to do under the law. It was pointed out, and subsequently abundantly proved, that she was very deaf. But these were matters, not for the Minister, but for a Court to settle. When we got to the stage of prosecution every legal gentleman in the centre of population declined the brief. I instructed the Crown Law authorities to retain counsel in Melbourne to go forward to the centre of population in question and prosecute. The prosecution took place, and it was successful. Whatever may have been the merits or demerits of the case the lady in question, prominent and popular though she was, and afflicted, as 1 have said, was found guilty and penalized to the extent ofa£5fine,and about the same amount in costs. If there were these flagrant violations of the law in regard to postal voting in connexion with the 1909 elections and the referenda in 1910, where are the prosecutions? Senator Long last night made reference to what might be called a wholesale list of breaches of the provision of the Act at the Denison election. That was in 1906. I had charge of the Department just after that election, and was associated with the large number of prosecutions. I had no recollection, while Senator Long was speaking, of ever having heard of the cases to which he referred.

Senator Long - The honorable senator can rest perfectly satisfied that he never got one of those votes either.

Senator KEATING - That may be, but the point is that the case never came under the notice of the Electoral Branch of the Home Affairs Department. I have since made inquiries, and so far as I can ascertain there is no record of any complaint in respect of those alleged offences.

Senator Vardon - What were the Returning Officer and the scrutineers doing?

Senator KEATING - I was going to say that the Divisional Returning Officer for Denison is a very able man, and a man who, I believe, justly enjoys the confidence of the community. I believe that if the circumstances to which Senator Long referred came under his notice, and were recognised by him as breaches of the electoral law, the Home Affairs Department would have been very speedily and fully informed of them.

Senator Long - If there had been any hope of invalidating the election action would have been taken, but there was no inducement to take action against individuals.

Senator KEATING - I had been saying, in the absence of Senator Long, that numbers of alleged breaches of the Act in various particulars were reported, and in every instance in which there was the slightest ground for believing that a prosecution would be successful it was ordered. I fail to see that there can have been much real cause for complaint in respect of the alleged breaches of the Act of which we have heard in vague generalizations in the course of this debate, unless some evidence of them can be supplied in the shape of action taken by the Department. The Electoral Act is to-day as it was in 1906, and if the offences of which we have heard so much took place in connexion with the last referenda or the last general election, Ministers must have been singularly remiss in their duty in not instituting some prosecution. Senator Long has stated that he intended at some time to ask for all the papers received by the Department in connexion with alleged violations of the Electoral Act. I hope he will do so. I should be glad if honorable senators had fuller information as to alleged breaches of the Act in the past, and the action that has been taken on them. But I certainly think that this is a tardy recognition of the right way to proceed with the amendment of the law. The information should have been placed before the Senate before we were asked to deal with the measure. If it had been supplied before its introduction here, or soon afterwards, honorable senators would have had an opportunity of considering whether or not there had been such flagrant breaches of the Act as to justify the drastic course which we are asked to follow. It has been asked more than once during this debate, why the innocent among those who have availed themselves of this system should be punished as well as the guilty ; but so far I have not heard the slightest attempt from the other side to justify that course. It is suggested - not in so many words but in effect - that it is a. question of choosing the lesser of two evils, but instead of choosing the lesser evil the Government have chosen the evil which they think will pay them best. There is no means of balancing one evil against the other. We know what the evil of this disfranchisement will be. We recognise that a large proportion of the 29,000 - which, as I say, does not represent the full voting strength of those who were entitled to vote - will be unable to vote by any other system than the one now in force. We recognise that the abolition of postal voting will disfranchise them. We canweigh the extent of that evil, but we cannot weigh the alleged evil which it is intended to obviate by abolishing postal voting.

Senator W RUSSELL (SOUTH AUSTRALIA) - Oh ! Intimidation do you mean?

Senator KEATING - Nobody on the other side has chosen to give us even the wildest guess at the extent to which intimidation has been carried on in regard to postal votes. And, if he did, one would have to consider to what extent similar practices have been adopted in connexion with votes which are not postal votes, and then one would have to conclude how far such practices were associated with any system of voting, postal or otherwise. But we are simply asked, on the ipse dixit of the Minister, that certain intimidation and wrongful practices have existed, to sweep away postal voting - a system' which, Senator Lynch told us last night, he and his friends anxiously looked forward to the establishment of some years ago. Having tried the system in 1903, and extended it in 1905, we tried it in its extended form in 1906, and when it is decided to abolish it, surely we should have some substantial grounds shown for taking that step. Have any substantial grounds been advanced? None beyond vague generalizations, to which I referred. Their accuracy can be gauged by the fact that if the evils exist, so far as prosecutions were concerned the Minister stood idly by and took no action.

Senator Story - The honorable senator must know that the evils exist ; that corrupt use has been made of postal voting.

Senator KEATING - I know that corrupt use has been made of every kind of voting, and that wherever corruption has reared its head it has been shot at by those who felt the responsibilities of administration. If corruption reared its head so frequently in connexion with the last referendum, or the election of 1909, we would have naturally looked for a whole list of prosecutions, but we have not anything of the kind. What is the use, then, of indulging in vague generalizations, and saying, " We know that this evil exists. We have instances of it existing, but we have not sufficient evidence to go forward with a prosecution."

Senator W RUSSELL (SOUTH AUSTRALIA) - In that year we had a weak, vacillating Government.

Senator Sayers - Oh ! It was the Government he supports.

Senator KEATING - I think that my honorable friend sitting at the Ministerial table must be saying to himself, " Save me from my friends."

Senator W RUSSELL (SOUTH AUSTRALIA) - The country saved us.

Senator KEATING - We are now asked by the Government to which my honorable friend has just referred to abolish the system of postal voting-

Senator W RUSSELL (SOUTH AUSTRALIA) - Oh, not the same Government.

Senator KEATING - Weak, vacillating, inept, or remiss in duty they certainly were.

Senator W RUSSELL (SOUTH AUSTRALIA) - It was the jellyfish Deakin Government.

Senator KEATING - We find that, if these abuses were so rife, the Government absolutely stood motionless in regard to them, and that it was left for my honorable friend, who is supporting that Government, and this proposal, to dub them in the words, which he has just employed-

Senator W RUSSELL (SOUTH AUSTRALIA) - But we turned you out.

Senator KEATING - I do not thinkthat any one will deny, after listening to the figures given yesterday by Senator Findley, that one of the most seriouseffects in the way of disfranchisement will be the disfranchisement of the prospective mothers of this country. It is not necessary to labour this point.

Senator Lynch - It has been laboured, though.

Senator KEATING - t do not think so, except by the Minister. It has not been singled out.

Senator Lynch - It has received a very good threshing.

Senator KEATING - After listening to the figures quoted by the Minister, the great surprise to me was that he did not realize the gravity of the step which we are asked to take. He seemed to think that it was unimportant; that the proportion of persons who would be so situated was, comparatively speaking, so small that we could afford to neglect consideration of it altogether.

Senator Findley - I dealt with the whole of these people who had voted by post at the previous election, and I mentioned that incidentally because it had been, mentioned by members of the Opposition.

Senator KEATING - I know that ; but the honorable senator seemed to imagine that the proportion of these persons to the total number of 29,000 odd was so inconsiderable as to merit nothing more os less than neglect, as far as the right to vote was concerned. I take it the other way. What is the use of our going into heroics about extending the franchise, about adult suffrage, about conferring: upon our womenkind the inestimable boon and privilege of selecting their representatives to make the laws of the country iwhat is the use of all the rhodomontade, because that is all it would be, when we hold out this absolute bar and disqualification to the exercise of the privilege? We are asked to say that the exercise by woman of her highest natural function, the discharge of. her most important civic and patriotic duty, shall, and must, be an absolute bar to the exercise of this right which we boast we are conferring upon the other sex. If it is an advantage to give to the girl who has just attained her majority the right to vote, is it not equally important and advantageous, is it not equally our duty, to see that the same right is preserved for the mothers of the nation? With one hand we are asked to give the franchise to the women, and with the other to take it away at the most critical and most important occasions in a woman's life. No justification has been put forward for this proposal, and the disfranchisement of any section of the community, large or small, must be justified on the most solid grounds. No solid grounds have been advanced for that disfranchisement, nor for the other disfranchisement which will necessarily follow the abolition of postal voting. 1 think that Ministers will have cause before long to regret this backward step which they are taking. No Government, least of all the Government which is in office to-day, should have committed itself to such a course. There can be no justification for the disfranchisement of a constituency, however small, perpetually; and I think that the Government realizes that there can be no justification. It has offered none, apparently it will offer none; and I think it will realize, before long, that this is a step which it will have very great cause to regret.

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