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Tuesday, 27 October 1964
Page: 1298

Senator ANDERSON (New South Wales) (Minister for Customs and Excise) . - Senator Ormonde and Senator Cavanagh have raised questions in relation to the Commonwealth Electoral Act under Division No. 318. The Electoral Office is aware of the degree of informal voting that took place at the last Senate election. It was approximately 10.5 per cent, of the total number of votes cast. The Office is also aware that, as Senator Cavanagh indicated the degree of informal voting in some States was much lower than in other Slates. Without being informed of the actual reason for this result, I hazard a guess that the lower percentage of informal votes in South Australia was influenced by the fact that there were fewer candidates for that State.

The Commonwealth Electoral Act requires that a voter, when filling in his Senate ballot paper, shall indicate his order of preference of candidates. It is necessary for him to put a number against the name of every candidate on the ballot paper; in other words, he is required to complete the ballot paper. The purpose is considered to be served if he puts a number against every name but one. This creates the problem in relation to informal voting. I cannot agree with the reasons Senator Ormonde put forward for informal voting - 'for instance. blunt pencils and uneven tables. The presiding officer of a polling booth has certain obligations. He is required to see that his clerk and other assistants ensure that all the cubicles are always cleared of the materials provided by the different political parties to assist the voters. He has the obligation to make certain that pencils are sharp and that no unauthorised person goes into a cubicle while another person is voting. In fact, the procedures to be followed are set out very clearly in the regulations made under the Electoral Act.

The divisional returning officer is a permanent officer of the Electoral Office. He has the obligation of making appointments to the various polling, booths. He has to make certain that the people he appoints to the various booths either as presiding officers, ballot clerks, or officers handling postal votes, are competent to do their job. If there is criticism of the work quite clearly it is a criticism of the human element involved. Divisional returning officers are senior, and very responsible, public servants. They go to a lot of trouble in bringing their teams together - I know this of my own knowledge - and in instructing their teams in their duties. I suppose, in view of all the circumstances, that some polling officials are incompetent, but I do not agree that informal voting is caused by blunt pencils or by bad cubicles. I must admit that some of the polling booths to which we have had to go to vote in the past have been fairly obsolete. However, I am informed that quite a considerable effort is being put into bringing up to date this side of electoral arrangements which is borne out by the fact that efforts are being made to keep sharp pencils and provide Iaminex tops for tables. We can be assured that if there is to be an informal vote in future it will not be associated with the factors I have mentioned.

Reference was made also to the lighting in polling booths. Despite the progress that has been made in the provision of electricity to rural areas, there must inevitably be an odd booth or two, perhaps in the country, where emergency lighting has to be introduced. We all recognise that happens in some small booths in Australia. I am informed that the Minister for the Interior (Mr. Anthony) has set in train action to improve the lighting in polling booths. Divisional returning officers have been authorised to inspect them with the object of improving this facility. So, the Electoral Office is conscious of the need for some improvement in this regard. I am happy to say, in response to a query by Senator Ormonde, that the Minister recently stated that he was launching a publicity campaign, prior to the forthcoming Senate elections, to try to get across to the Australian voters the need for casting formal votes. That will be done through the medium of a short film that will be shown on television networks, by statements made over commercial and national radio stations, and by seeking the co-operation of the Press.

Reference was made by Senator Ormonde to the vexed question of people going to polling booths in their own electorates but not within their own sub-divisions and being told by the presiding officers that they must go to their own sub-divisions to vote. My understanding is that if an elector says that he will not be in his own sub-division during the hours of voting he may demand a vote at the booth at which he has presented himself. lt means, of course, that he will be casting an absentee vote. As we all know, absentee votes take a little longer to handle than do ordinary votes. I have some knowledge of this matter, because my experience of elections goes back many years, even to the lime when my father was in politics. 1 can recall handing out how to vote cards when i was a little boy of six or seven years.

As 1 said, an absentee vote takes a little longer to process, lt involves additional checking of the roll, signatures, declarations, the use of envelopes and so forth, lt is towards the end of the day that absentee voters lend to arrive. 1 repeat that if a person is able to say that he will not be in his own sub-division during the hours of voting he can get a vote at the booth at which he is attending.

Senator Ormonde - We can tell them they are entitled to a vole?

Senator ANDERSON - These people usually seem to come to vote between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. I have had the experience myself of telling people to go back and tell the presiding officer that they could not get back to their own sub-division, and there has been no more trouble. Reference was made to closing hours. I have my personal views on the matter, but as it is a matter of Government policy I do not wish (o embark upon a discussion of it at this time.

Senator Cavanaghreferred to Division No. 314 ; Acquisition of Sites and Buildings. Acquisitions affect all civil departments and divisions. Provision is made for acquisitions in all States. The detailed list includes acquisitions at Mascot in Sydney, in Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia an Tasmania. As Senator Cavanagh comes from South Australia, I point out that provision is made for the small sum of ?250 for the Mount Hope site and a final claim of ?813 in relation to the Adelaide airport. The provision for South Australia amounts to only ?1,063. The proposed expenditure COVerS items throughout the Commonwealth. I do not think there is any point in my detailing the items. If any honorable senator wished to mention a specific item, 1 could deal with that.

Sitting suspended from 5.45 to 8 p.m.

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