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Thursday, 6 October 1927

Senator NEEDHAM (Western Australia) . - I listened.yesterday with a great deal of interest to the speech of the Minister when moving the second reading of this measure. The honorable gentleman complimented the Joint Committee on Electoral Law and Procedure on the excellent work it had performed and the recommendations it had made in connexion with our electoral laws; but he intimated that the Government could not seeits way clear to accept some of those recommendations. In many directions our electoral laws could be improved. For instance, those sections which deal with elections to the Senate could, with advantage, be amended. I realize, however, that if I were to refer to many of the defects in our existing electoral legislation I should be discussing matters which are outside the scope of the measure now before us. I have carefully perused the bill, and realize that it embodies, to a greatextent, the recommendations of the committee to which reference has been made, and of the officers of Electoral Department. It is principally a machinery measure. I propose to refer to four matters with which it deals, namely: signed articles, the reduction in the hours of polling, postal voting and gifts, donations, and contributions by members of Parliament. Clause 25 provides

Section one hundred and sixty-four of the Principal Act is amended by adding at the end thereof the following sub-section: - "(3) This section shall not apply to the publication in a newspaper of -

(a)   A leading article; or

(b)   An article in a newspaper which consists solely of a report of a meeting, and docs not contain any comment (other than comment made by a speaker at the meeting) upon an}' candidate, or political party, or the issues being submitted to the electors."

This amendment opens up a question, which is not only important, but also very controversial. When the electoral law was altered to make it compulsory that all articles appearng in newspapers for a certain period prior to an election, and until the return of the writs, should be signed, I was a member of the Senate, and assisted in passing the amendment. Nothing has occurred in the intervening years to make me change my opinion. I supported the amendment of the law at that time to compel writers of leading and other articles in the newspapers during an election campaign to sign their names to them. My reason for doing so was that parties were subjected to a vast amount of misrepresentation in newspaper articles, and the members of the party to which I belonged were particular sufferers in that respect. The fact that the writers of articles have been compelled to sign them has, I think, been the means of reducing a great deal of the misrepresentation that previously existed. As a matter of fact, "misrepresentation" is a rather mild term to use. All sorts of statements were made to vilify the Labour party, and place the objects it had in view in a false light before the people. I have no reason to think that that particular antagonism has diminished in the slightest. I venture to say that if this check on newspaper writers is removed there will be scope for active writers in the interests of their parties and in the dissemination of their party propaganda to go beyond the bounds of ordinary f airplay, and to so put their case before the electors as to confuse them and prevent them from giving a really clear and intelligent vote on election day. There is certainly a qualification in the proposal containing the bill. If any comment is made on the subject matter of a report the article must be signed. But I am not at all in favour of either the recommendation of the Select Committee or the Government's proposal. Evidence may have been brought forward in favour of it, but I know no just reason why the law should be altered in this regard. The provision in the act has helped to make political contests fairer; it has helped to put the views of all candidates clearly before the electors, and, after all, it is the duty of all parties to give to the great jury which on election day will decide the personnel of Parliament all the facts necessary to assist them in arriving at their verdict. I have come to the conclusion, therefore, that I cannot support the proposed amendment. In this regard I wish it to be clearly understood that whatever comments I may make on this measure, however I may vote, I am speaking and acting for myself. Honorable senators of the Labour party differ in their views in regard to this bill, and the electoral law generally. For my own part I cannot support an amendment which will mean the elimination of the obligation to sign articles in newspapers during an election campaign. Another important amendment seeks to reduce the hours of voting.

Senator Thompson - "We find that the six o'clock closing hour works well in Queensland.

Senator NEEDHAM - Probably it does, and the Commonwealth system of having the poll from 8 o'clock in the morning till 8 o'clock at night has also worked well. I know no valid reason why the hours of polling should be reduced. It must be remembered that we provide for compulsory voting in our electoral law. Therefore, we should not restrict the facilities given to the people to comply with the law. I cannot see what those in charge of polling booths will gain by reducing the polling time by one hour.

Sitting suspended from 6.30 to 8 p.m.

Private business taking precedence after 8 p.m.,

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