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Tuesday, 15 March 1927

Senator THOMPSON (Queensland) . - I move -

That the report from the Joint Committee on Electoral Law and Procedure presented to the Senate on the 3rd March, 1927, be adopted.

As honorable senators are probably aware, the Joint Committee appointed last year to inquire into matters relating to electoral law and procedure has now completed its investigations, and has presented its report to Parliament. The committee took evidence in every State of the Commonwealth, and in doing so selected places where the conditions differed. The time occupied in conducting such an exhaustive inquiry certainly was not great when compared with that taken by some royal commissions and select committees. Our work, which commenced in June, was completed some weeks ago. The expenditure incurred can also be regarded as reasonable. We found a high degree of efficiency on the part of the officers employed. By men of all shades of political opinion, it was admitted that the proceedings under the Commonwealth electoral law were superior to those under the enactments of the States. It was admitted on all sides that the members of the electoral staff of the Commonwealth were men of high calibre, fair in their dealings, and helpful to a degree; nevertheless, the committee has made recommendations which, it hopes, will further increase the existing efficiency. The report contains a summary of the committee's recommendations. 1 shall not weary tho Senate by reading them all, but I ask honorable senators to give the report their careful consideration. They will find it a fund of information, which must be of interest to every elector. I suggest that, published in hand-book form, would find a ready sale. The first of the committee's recommendations was the result of much earnest thought and inquiry. It reads -

That the qualifying period of residence prior to" enrolment be three months instead of one, and that the period for the removal of names from the roll be increased from one month to three months.

The underlying reason for that recommendation was the difficulty experienced by the migratory members of the population in connexion with removal of their names as voters. In Queensland, particularly, migratory workers experience considerable difficulty in obtaining correct enrolment; but the trouble is not confined to that State. The committee's recommendations should remove some of the present disabilities. Another reform recommended is -

That the work carried out by the PostmasterGeneral's Department for the Electoral Department be made part of the ordinary duties of the postal officials and be performed in the usual departmental hours - the consequential financial adjustment to be made between the two departments.

The committee found that, although the work of the department is performed efficiently, there is a feeling on the part of some postal officials that the electoral work interferes too much with their duties as postal employees. Probably the heads of the two departments might not favour the recommended arrangement ; but the committee is firmly of the opinion that much good would result from its adoption. The financial adjustment should not bc difficult. Those honorable senators who are acquainted with the form of the present enrolment claim card will agree that it is cumbersome, and contains much redundant matter. The committee, therefore, recommended -

That the amended form of- enrolment claim card submitted by it, providing for all information on one side only, and for only one signature of the elector, be adopted.

The form of card recommended contains all the information which the committee considers claimants should supply, and its use should remove many of the present informalities. A further recommendation is -

That the Commonwealth electoral rolls should be reprinted annually, and that the supplementary rolls, which, should show removals and additions, should be printed at least every six months.

The committee, has been assured that its recommendation is practicable, and would entail very little additional cost. As to its desirability, I think there is no difference of opinion. As a result of the consideration given to the question of postal voting at Commonwealth elections, the committee has made several important recommendations, the first of which is -

That tho minimum distance at which postal votes may lie exercised be 5 miles, instead of 10. lt was pointed out that a voter who lives fi mile's from a polling booth has to make a journey of 10 miles to record his vote. The committee considers that its recommendation in this respect is reasonable. It, also recommends -

That provision he made that an application for a postal vote may he witnessed by any elector on the roll, but that the act of voting shall be witnessed by an authorized witness as at present.

That reform is long overdue. At elections for members of shire councils and various public institutions a ratepayer may v.itness the signature of a person who claims fi vote. The committee considers that in connexion with Commonwealth elections applications for postal votes should be witnessed in a similar manner. The committee found that the existing provisions in respect of authorized witnesses to the actual postal vote worked harshly in many instances. It therefore recommended -

That the list of authorized witnesses be extended to include all legally-certified midwives, all matrons and nursing sisters in charge of public hospitals or public charitable institutions, bush nurses, station owners or managers, overseers or foremen of group settlements, surveyors in charge of survey gangs, persons in charge of railway or other large construction camps, commissioners for declarations, mail contractors, and assistant lighthouse-keepers.

Honorable senators will agree that that recommendation is a step in the right direction. . A further recommendation -

That an extension of time for receiving postal votes of seven days bo allowed, provided that the envelope containing the ballot-paper boars tho clear impression of the postal dato stamp of a date not later than the polling day, will enable a large number of postal votes which are now rejected to be taken into consideration. As the gMt difficulty confronting the committee in this connexion was that of ensuring that the date of posting the voting paper should be clearly marked on the envelope, the advice of the director of postal services, Mr. H. P. Brown, was sought. He informed the committee that very little difficulty would be experienced in making the date stamp perfectly legible. With that safeguard, the recommendation is a .desirable reform. The compulsory signing of leading articles in newspapers received the earnest consideration of the committee. The consensus of opinion among witnesses connected with the newspapers of Australia, both in the cities and in the country, was that the present legislation requiring such articles to be signed should be abolished. That the committee has recommended. But in respect of other articles, it has recommended -

That the provisions of the act relating to tho signing of ali articles (except leading articles), letters, circulars, advertisements, and dodgers on and after tho date of issue and before the return of the writs bc retained.

That any reports that contain any comment by the reporter or newspaper, either in the head lines or the report during election time, should be signed.

Under the heading "Polling Facilities," the committee has made a number of recommendations, the first of which is -

That the hours of polling be from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.

The hours of polling at present are from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., which means that the officials on duty at the polling booths are required to work strenuously for a period of twelve hours. after which many of them continue till midnight counting the figures. The committee considers that the long hours impose too great a strain on the electoral officers, and seeing that in Queensland the hours of polling are from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., and in some of the other States from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., it concluded that to close the polling booths one hour earlier, than at present would be a desirable reform. For the reason that frequently "How-to-vote" cards are placed in the ballot-box, the committee has also recommended -

That all "How-to-vote" cards should be printed in card form.

To distinguish them from the ballotpapers, a different colour is suggested. The committee also recommends -

That organizations issuing "How-to-vote" cards shall print upon them in bold lettering an intimation that this card must not be left in the polling booth nor placed in the ballotbox.

The evidence in relation to canvassing in the vicinity of polling booths was somewhat contradictory. At present canvassing may not take place within 20 feet of a polling booth. Many witnesses expressed the opinion that the distance should be increased to 100 yards; others that no canvassing should take place on polling days. Honorable senators will realize that to prevent canvassing on polling days is impossible. The committee's recommendation, which it believes will meet the position, is -

That the Act be amended to provide that canvassing or other acts referred to in section 171 shall be prohibited within 50 feet of the polling booth.

The committee believes that interested persons are in the habit of telling electors that their names are not on the roll. As in its opinion such persons should not go unpunished, the following recommendation is made : -

That the act be amended to provide for tho imposition of a penalty on all persons other than electoral officials telling the electors on polling days that they are not enrolled.

The enforcement of that penalty may be difficult, but the committee has faith in the ability of the department to deal with the situation. A recommendation which has been made largely in the interest of blind persons reads -

That section 120 of the Commonwealth Electoral Act should bc amended to provide that if any voter satisfies the Presiding Officer that he is unable to vote without assistance, the Presiding Officer shall permit any person appointed by such voter to accompany him into the voting compartment to mark, fold, and deposit his ballot-paper for him, this provision to be applied to blind and physically incapacitated electors, but not to illiterate voters.

AN amendment of the existing legislation along those lines is desired by the various organizations for the blind throughout Australia. Some members of the committee were of the opinion that the Presiding Officer should accompany the blind voter into the cubicle; but leading officers of the different blind institutions, and the honorable member for Fawkner in another place (Mr. Maxwell), strongly opposed any such provision. As the result of its investigations, the committee felt that no harm, but much good, would result from the adoption of its recommendation in this respect. Another recommendation is -

That no motor car or other vehicle shall lie hived on behalf of any candidate or any political organization on polling day except for the exclusive use of incapacitated electors, the presiding officer to be informed in writing, not later than polling day, of the number of cars to be employed for such incapacitated electors.

That, except in the ease of cars hired or otherwise secured for the use of incapacitated electors, no motor cars or other vehicles shall approach within 50 feet of a polling booth.

That will be a drastic alteration about which there is a considerable difference of opinion, and it may or may not be accepted by Parliament. A further recommendation is -

That in large polling centres booths should be established for other divisions, and, in exceptional cases, special machinery should bo provided to meet the requirements of any considerable number of electors who are out of their division or subdivision on polling day.

That is intended to give improved voting facilities for such places as Fremantle and Perth, Rockhampton - Range and City - Brisbane and South Brisbane, to mention only a few. If it is adopted, electors who may have to leave their place of residence too early in the morning to vote in their own subdivision, will be entitled to vote directly at the more convenient polling place in another subdivision. With regard to the counting of votes, the committee has recommended -

That the local count of votes should he made available to the public at the same time as the figures are wired to the capital cities.

We . had many complaints, especially in country centres about the existing arrangement. Apparently it is an instruction to presiding officers not to make known the result of the scrutiny locally, but to telegraph the count to the Returning Officer for the State so that, to cite Rockhampton as a concrete example, Brisbane is in a position to know the local count earlier than Rockhampton. This state of affairs should not be allowed to continue. The act clearly intends '.hat local information should be made available as soon as possible. Another recommendation of the committee relates to donations or gifts by members of Parliament or candidates. We advise -

That the act bc amended to provide that no member of the Federal Parliament shall offer, promise, or give directly or indirectly, any gift, donation, or prize to or for any club or other association or institution, except hospitals, institutions and associations for charitable purposes, schools, and war memorials.

At present, there is a good deal of latitude allowed. This recommendation, if adopted, will protect members of Parliament from importunate electors acting in the interests of local cricket or football clubs or other kindred associations. Invariably the appointment of a member of Parliament as vice-president of such organizations means a contribution of a guinea or so. If all such demands were complied with a member would have very little of his parliamentary allowance left at the end of the year.

Senator Needham - Does that recommendation apply to candidates who are not members?

Senator THOMPSON - No, but the act provides for new candidates. We have not stated a penalty as we think that the Crown Law Officers will be able to make a reasonable suggestion. On the subject of informal voting the recommendation of the committee is -

That the names of the parties to which candidates belong should be shown on the ballot-paper.

This subject, caused a good deal of thought. The recommendation if accepted, will prevent a considerable amount of informal voting. The electoral authorities stated that the only reason that could be advanced against the recommendation was the possibility of some fantastic party of one being in the field ; but the committee believes that the adoption of the recommendation will reduce considerably the heavy percentage of informal voting recorded at every election. On the subject of absent voting, the committee recommends -

That electors who vote as absent when they could have voted in their own polling places and sign a declaration untruthfully, should he deemed to be guilty of an offence, and subject to penalty accordingly.

There was a great outcry in Queensland at the last election because of the extent to which the absent voting facilities of the act were availed of. A large number of electors made an untruthful declaration, and improperly voted as absent voters, chiefly because it suited their convenience to do so. We want to check the practice, because it leads to a tremendous amount of unnecessary work on the part of the electoral officials, and will continue to do so unless it is prevented in future. With regard to joint rolls, the recommendation is -

That negotiations between the Common- monwealth and the States of New South Wales, Queensland, and Western Australia should be pursued until the system of joint rolls is made uniform throughout the Commonwealth.

We found a general desire for the adoption of joint rolls throughout the Commonwealth, but, unfortunately, only three of the States have adopted the system. A fourth is preparing to come into the scheme, and I believe that a fifth State is in a reasonable frame of mind; but Queensland, I fear, is adamant in its objection.

Senator McLachlan - Why?

Senator THOMPSON - Because of the changes made so frequently in State electoral boundaries, a large slice of one electorate being added to another, and large numbers of workers being moved about very freely. Those States that have joint rolls declare that they would not revert to the former system in any circumstances. I hope, therefore, that eventually there will be the same uniformity in all the States. Electoral officials informed us that discrepancies inthe divisional or subdivisional boundaries of Commonwealth and State electorates were not an insuperable difficulty. I come now to the suggestion to the committee for improvements in the electoral law and procedure. We recommend -

(a)   After the receipt of the reports from the divisional returning officers bythe Commonwealth Electoral Officer in each State, a conference should toe called by him at the State capital city of all the divisional returning officers in the State to consider with himthe various suggestions mode.

(b)   After this conference has been bold, the Commonwealth Electoral Officer should make a report tothe Chief Commonwealth Electoral Officer of the proceedings andthe conclusions arrived at. The Chief Commonwealth Electoral Officer would then have the suggestions of the officers of each State before him in a concrete form, and in this way ho would be kept in intimate touch with the reasoned views of his officers throughout the Commonwealth.

(c)   Upon the receipt of the reports from the various States, the Chief Commonwealth Electoral Officer should convene a conference of the Commonwealth electoral officers at the capital to consider finally the views of the State conference.

Electoral officials informed us that many suggestions for ' improvements in the working of the law had been made, but asthey had received no response they were under the impression that all the work and trouble they had been put to had not been properly appreciated. We found, however, that all the suggestions were given careful consideration, but that only in the event of their adoption was the officer responsible for them advised.

If the procedure we recommend is adopted, suggestions made by officials who ure actually doing the work will have proper consideration. I hope I have made it clear to honorable senators that the committee has put up a good case for the recommendations it has submitted, and I trust also that the Government will take the necessary action, to give effect to them.

Debate (on motion 'by Senator Sir William Glasgow) adjourned.

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