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Wednesday, 26 April 1961

Mr BRYANT (Wills) .- It is wonderful to sit here and hear the honorable member for New England (Mr. Drummond) expressing democratic thoughts in their finest flowering - thoughts such as one vote having one value and every one having the right to vote. Those thoughts came from a member of the Australian Country Party behind whom sits the honorable member for Mallee (Mr. Turnbull), who has persistently advocated a greater say for country voters and has contended that country electorates should have fewer voters. The Country Party persists in the perpetuation, in the States, of legislative councils elected on a restricted franchise, and, in Victoria, of plural voting in municipal elections. It is fine for supporters of the Government to rise and give expression to such high-minded philosophies about voting, knowing that, when they go back to their own States and take part in the counsels of their party, what they say here will not affect, by one whit or one jot, the actions of those parties.

What has been said, of course, applies in a way to the voting rights of the Australian aborigines. The honorable member for New England expressed fine sentiments about this matter, but when he is faced with the need to take action he is the first to back away and leave the whole matter in some dusty pigeonhole. Throughout his speech the honorable member mentioned very few points that were not extremely conservative. He gave some encouragement to the Minister for the Interior (Mr. Freeth) to do something more dramatic. The Minister, at this stage of his ministerial career, which I believe most Australians hope will be interrupted at the next election, could have brought forward some really constructive proposals to modernize the Australian electoral system, because it is the very vehicle by which democracy in Australia will survive. In the light of informal voting in Senate elections, and what happens in relation to postal voting there is no doubt that there is a lot to cause concern in the mind of any person who seriously considers Australia's electoral law. Whilst every amendment of the law which is designed to improve the method of voting is to be commended, we feel a little disappointed at the fact that the Minister has not adopted a more experimental and adventurous attitude on this occasion.

I desire to refer particularly to the voting rights of aborigines. The honorable member for Farrer (Mr. Fairbairn) chose to take to task the Deputy Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Whitlam) on this subject. The honorable member thought it was mean of the Opposition - that it was quibbling, that it was taking a mere technical point - in the face of the appointment of a select committee to inquire into the voting rights of aborigines, to press for the amendment that has been circulated. Psychologically, the appointment of this select committee represents a remarkable advance on the part of the Government. Its action in appointing the committee is a major breakthrough. It is an admission that an injustice exists and that it is time some action was taken to remove that injustice.

As I recall the terms of reference of the select committee, it is to submit its report to the House by 31st October. If the present Parliament runs for the full period of three years it will be dissolved towards the end of November, or early in December. What does that mean? It means that the report of the select committee is not due to be tabled until after the House will have ceased to meet. The previous Parliament was dissolved on 14th October, 1958, preparatory to the holding of an election on 22nd November. That Parliament last met on 2nd October of that year. So the date by which the report is to be submitted, which I hope was chosen more by accident than by design, will fall after the Parliament has ceased to exist. We know what well may happen. As 1 have said, the appointment of the committee is, psychologically, an admission that something ought to be done in relation to the voting rights of aborigines. So I hope the members of the committee will take steps to submit their recommendations early enough in the next sessional period for them to be implemented. Despite the fine sentiments that have been expressed by honorable members opposite, it is too much to hope that they will vote for the Opposition's amendment.

Let me explain why the Opposition is submitting the amendment at this stage. Despite the remarks of the honorable member for Farrer, the Opposition is not indulging in a quibble. The fact is that we on this side of the House are faced with an amendment of the Commonwealth Electoral Act in the following terms: -

An aboriginal native of Australia is not entitled to enrolment under Part VII. unless he -

(a)   is entitled under the law of the State in which he resides to be enrolled as an elector of that State and, upon enrolment, to vote at elections for the more numerous House of the Parliament of that State or, if there is only one House of the Parliament of that State, for that House; or

(b)   is or has been a member of the Defence


The Labour Party sincerely believes that the aborigines of Australia have been done down on their just rights, and that they are entitled to this simple, basic civil right. We will not be a party to supporting the perpetuation of this injustice. To deny aborigines the right to vote is an injustice. It is a racial law. It is not designed by people who have a racial complex but, in fact, that is how it works out.

We have in Australia at the moment a situation in which aborigines in New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania - if any move to that State - and South Australia have the right to vote. What tests are we applying in this case? Are we saying that they are to be denied the right to vote because they are illiterate? No, we certainly are not. Recently in Western Australia I met a young aboriginal man who was a teacher. He had been through high school, had qualified for admission to teachers' training college, had passed through the college and was qualified as a teacher. He was aged 23 years. But he had not the right to vote.

Mr Freeth - Has he applied for citizenship rights?

Mr BRYANT - No other Australian has to apply for the right to vote if he is in that situation. This man refused to pay the fee of 10s. I do not necessarily support him in adopting that attitude, because I believe that one may as well accept the right to vote and use all the strength one can. But in fact the aboriginal people have a strong feeling against this kind of discrimination. That young man is deprived of his voting rights or of his citizenship rights in Western Australia because he is of aboriginal descent, not because he is illiterate or because he cannot manage his own affairs. He has been entrusted with most important duties, but he still may not vote. I am not charging the Minister, in particular, with being responsible for perpetuating this kind of thing.

Mr Thompson - Could he vote if he lived in Adelaide?

Mr BRYANT - He could vote if he lived in Adelaide or Melbourne, or -if he lived in New South Wales or Tasmania. This is a challenge to the Parliament. I do not think we ought to permit this sort of thing to continue. We do not propose to move an amendment simply as a quibble or an attempt to challenge the Government. We must decide whether we are prepared to vote for the continuation of this position in our electoral law, and I say I will not do so. My colleagues on this side of the House hold exactly the same view, and we have the support of the whole of the Australian Labour Party and the Labour movement. These are anomalies which no Australian ought to allow to continue. Any aboriginal with any sort of sophistication or sensitivity is offended by them, and he is justly offended.

What are the reasonable tests that may be applied? Honorable members on the other side of the House have said that an aboriginal, in order to be permitted to vote, must be informed. Do we apply that test to any one else? Of course we do not. It is a simple fact that a person may come to this country from Malta, may live here for six months and, although he may have only a token knowledge of the language, may enrol as a voter because of his rights as a British subject. This does not apply only to those who come from Malta. Any one who manages to be accepted under the immigration laws, even though he may have very little knowledge of our language and may have no knowledge at all of Australian politics - he may not be literate even in his own language - may enrol. No test is applied to him. Therefore, I say that we do not apply the test of literacy or political information to anybody else. Do we apply these tests to aborigines because they are nomadic? We know full well that many aborigines deprived of voting rights under these laws are not nomadic and are capable of handling their own affairs.

Mr Pollard - The Minister should agree with that.

Mr BRYANT - Yes. I know that the Minister is well informed and is charged with the high responsibility of administering this legislation, but 1 am sure that this point has not been brought home forcefully enough to the consciousness of those who designed these laws. Therefore, I ask the Minister to-night to examine this proposition thoroughly before he finally decides to reject it out of hand.

Mr Freeth - That is why we have appointed a select committee.

Mr BRYANT - The select committee will have its duties to perform. It could well consider how the electoral system should function and how the duties imposed on electoral officers should be carried out, if we passed a law to give voting rights to all aborigines. What are the difficulties? Do we refrain from giving voting rights to aborigines because they are primitive? Since 1902, I think, aborigines in South Australia have had the right to vote. In South Australia, there are some thousand or more fairly primitive aborigines. So the degree of primitiveness does not affect the position. The argument that aborigines should not have a vote is invalidated on that count.

We have allowed the dead hand of history to restrain us in these matters, and we have allowed the judgment as to whether aborigines may vote to rest with the State parliaments. However, this is a sovereign parliament. If the Queensland Parliament decided to-morrow that aborigines in Queensland could vote, those aborigines would be entitled to vote at the next federal election, select committee or no select committee. A bill was brought forward in the Western Australian Parliament some two years ago by the Labour Party there. It was a bill to give full citizenship rights to aborigines in that State. It was thrown out by the members of an Australian Country Party minority in the Legislative Council, because the time was not right in their view, but if the bill had been passed every aboriginal in Western Australia would have been entitled to vote. For 60 years we have allowed the initiative on electoral matters to rest with the State parliaments. As a sovereign parliament, we should not allow that state of affairs to continue nor should we allow the historical conservatism of State parliaments to be the deciding factor as regards laws that should be initiated in this Parliament.

Let us consider the position in Queensland, where a large number of sophisticated aborigines still come under the relevant act for various reasons. They live on Palm Island, where living conditions are idyllic. If they stay on Palm Island, they may not obtain exemption from the act. Unless they have exemption from the act, they may not vote. According to the honorable member for Bowman (Mr. McColm), there are 1,500 aborigines on Palm Island. In the ordinary course of events, I suppose this means that there are 500 or 600 adults. Of those 500 or 600, many would have been educated in schools since 1919 and many of them would be literate. If the Queensland Parliament were to pass a law to-morrow to permit them to do so, they could vote.

The question of voting rights for aborigines is a simple straightforward one, and this Parliament should not hesitate to act. It could well then take steps, by regulation and otherwise, to protect the right of an aboriginal to cast a free and untrammelled vote. A resolution to this effect was passed at the last federal conference of the Australian Labour Party, which was held in Canberra only a few weeks ago.

Many anomalies are created by the present law. Recently I mentioned the position of a black-tracker from Cooktown, who took up residence in Melbourne. He can go on the electoral roll in Melbourne and he can vote there. If he had stayed in Queensland, he would not have been able to enrol. When the next federal election is held, if he is still in Victoria he will be able to vote, but the moment he returns to his reserve in Queensland, he will lose the right to vote. No Australian Government ought to allow these anomalies to continue. I make the plea to members of this Parliament to throw out their inhibitions on this question and really face up to it. Administrative action may be needed later, but surely the electoral law can be amended to ensure that the anomalies do not persist.

As the honorable member for Fremantle (Mr. Beazley) has pointed out, we live in a colour-conscious world and in a raceconscious world. If the test to be applied to a person is whether he is an aboriginal, we have a racial law. We in Australia have no reason to be ashamed of our aboriginal race. 1 am pleased to say that the great mass of the Australian public holds this view. The Parliament ought to be an initiator in these matters. It ought not to drag its feet behind public opinion, but should lay down principles on which the public can form opinions. I am sure I speak for my colleagues when I say that is the reason we will not be put in the position of voting for a perpetuation of the present state of affairs, no matter what the report of the select committee may be. I should like an assurance later from the Minister that he will jog the select committee along - I know three members of it hold the view that I have expressed - so that it will produce a report in ample time for this Parliament to consider it. After all, it is important that a select committee of this Parliament report to this Parliament and not to the next Parliament. As I have pointed out, 31st October may well be a date after that on which this Parliament has been dissolved. Certainly, if we can judge from the evidence of the past, the Parliament will have ceased to meet by that date.

I have dealt with the principal matter on which I wanted to speak to-night, but I should like to comment on several other points that have been raised by honorable members on this side of the House. We have circulated a number of amendments which we propose to move. One concerns the alteration of electoral boundaries. I believe, as the Constitutional Review Com mittee believed, that the provision initially included in the Commonwealth Electoral Act, which provided for the revision of electoral boundaries when the number of electors varied by one-fifth from the quota, is now out of date. With electorates of 40,000, one-fifth represents 8,000. So, it is possible for electorates to vary from 32,000 to 48,000. This, of course, is against democratic principles, and it is against the general principles on which this Parliament has operated from its very inception. Since federation, this Parliament has been much more democratic in its electoral system, its electoral laws and the drawing of electoral boundaries than have most of the State parliaments. We suggest that, in view of the availability of statistical information these days, one-tenth is quite adequate.

By interjection earlier, the Minister pointed out the difficulties that we face incarrying out a re-distribution without a census. But these days there is a very full documentation of people through municipalities and in other ways. Our electoral system is in some ways one of the world's, most comprehensive and most effective. It should not be difficult to discover howmany people live in a particular districtIn my view the boundaries of electorates; on the fringes of Melbourne and Sydney should have been revised long ago. This matter of boundaries could be serious tothe member representing Wills, which isa small metropolitan electorate.

Mr Barnard - And a very good one.

Mr BRYANT - Yes, a very good electorate and well represented, if I may say so. It has a long tradition of good representation. It is important to keep the principles to which I have referred before theParliament at all times. The electoral laws, are the machinery by which democracy ispassed on and upon which we rely for its operation. If we tolerate the continuanceof a principle which by no stretch of the imagination is one vote, one value, we stand against the very principle on whichthis Parliament has been based since its inception. We suggest that honorable members opposite give earnest consideration to the recommendations of the Constitutional Review Committee. To simplify matters we propose to move certain amendments during the committee stage.

It has been suggested that candidates for Parliament should ballot for position on the ballot-paper. All honorable members should study closely the figures cited tonight by the honorable member for Batman (Mr. Bird). Those figures showed that in the twelve electorates in which its candidates appeared in first position on the ballot-paper the Australian Democratic Labour Party - which is neither democratic nor Labour - polled 16.9 per cent, of votes, whereas in the 21 electorates in which its candidates were not in first position on the ballot-paper, it polled only 13.5 per cent, of votes. We should take all steps available to us to remove the possibility of chance deciding the result of an election. What I am suggesting will involve me in great sacrifice. Ordinarily my name is in first place on the ballot-paper, but I am prepared to concede, in the interests of democracy, that it is time a more scientific approach was made to the positioning of names on ballot-papers. There are many reasons why people should give their first vote to Bryant. The honorable member for Hume (Mr. Anderson) is interjecting. I can well understand his addiction to the present system. We on this side of the chamber know where the Australian Country Party stands on matters such as this. It will fight to the last to retain any system that gives it an electoral advantage.

Some scientific consideration should be given of ways to overcome the problem to which I have referred. Many suggestions could be made. One is that names be placed at random on the ballot-paper so that in effect each candidate would have an opportunity to be on top of the same proportion of ballot-papers. As a means of overcoming this problem we suggest that candidates should ballot for positions on the ballot-paper. Plenty of historical precedents exist for balloting for positions of this kind. If we go back to the days of the Athenian democracy we find that many selections of people for public positions were made by balloting. It is not a case of bringing the chance of the race track into the selection of members of Parliament. What I have suggested involves using scientific methods to produce an overall Australian result.

We suggest that polling booths should close at 6 p.m. There is every evidence that this would not be a disadvantage to voters. The closing of polling booths at 6 p.m. has worked effectively in Queensland, where there has not been any significant diminution in the percentage of voters at State elections as compared with Federal elections. The passage of time has reduced Saturday work and increased the mobility of the voter. The benefit of a shorter polling day should be conferred upon the electoral office and all persons associated with it.

The number of informal votes cast in the Senate elections should cause great concern to every honorable member and to the community at large. At the last Federal election 142,000 voters out of a total of 1,400,000 in Victoria cast informal votes in the Senate elections. The informal votes represented approximately 10 per cent, of all votes cast.

Mr L R Johnson - A candidate with the name " Informal " would have won a seat in the Senate.

Mr BRYANT - Yes. In fact, he would have done better than the Democratic Labour Party candidates. Of course, they are both informal in a way. The high proportion of informal votes is a matter of immediate concern to anybody who believes in the principle of one vote, one value. It is of concern to everybody who wishes to see that all votes are recorded properly. The amendment that the Opposition proposes to move will require electors to vote only for the number of people necessary to fill vacancies. If there are twenty candidates and five positions are to be filled, an elector will vote for the five persons of his choice. I have often been puzzled by the philosophy behind the present system. I walk into a polling booth and wish to vote for Senator Cameron, Senator Hendrickson and Senator Kennelly. I do so, but my ballot-paper may become informal because I have forgotten to put the number 18 against a candidate named McMullin or Freeth, who may represent the republican party. The situation is nonsensical. If electors indicate their preferences for the required number of senators to fill the number of vacancies, that should be sufficient to validate their votes. If we believe in the lofty phrases about the right of the people to cast their vote and the protection of that right, it is logical that we should make the operation inside the polling booth a simple one.

I represent one of Melbourne's industrial areas. My electorate is one in which some polling booths are teeming with people throughout polling day. The largest booth in my electorate handles about 6,000 voters. That is about 500 voters an hour or eight or nine every minute throughout the day. Those voters return the present member by a substantial majority and they are to be congratulated upon their choice, but when they come to cast their votes for the Senate they make an extraordinary number of mistakes. Why they cannot produce the same result for the Senate as they do for the House of Representatives is beyond me, but I think that the mechanics of voting in Senate elections are difficult.

Mr Freeth - It could be that the electors are not very interested.

Mr BRYANT - Yes. We have a policy about the Senate, too. A lot of voters enter the polling booths at dusk. They may be in a hurry. They are handed a thin complicated ballot-paper. My first plea is that more polling places be set up with facilities for people to sit and record their votes. In my opinion fewer informal votes would be cast if people could enter a polling booth and sit quietly at a table while they filled in their ballot-papers. If they make a mistake they should be able to obtain a second ballot-paper from the officer in charge of the booth. Printed in large type at the foot of the paper should be the words " If you spoil this ballot-paper ask for another one ". That would not cost a lot of money. The ballot-paper should be printed on thin card instead of paper. It would then be easier to write on. Spaces on the ballot-paper for recording numbers should be enlarged. It would not matter how big they were. The ballot-paper should be easily read. Pencils used in the polling booths should be sharp and numerous. The voter should be able to sit quietly while he carries out the task which is one of his most important civil duties. The matters to which I have referred are machinery matters and I hope that the Minister, who has been very attentive to-night, will take steps to ensure that voting at the next Senate elections is simplified.

The matters that I have raised need no more than a practical application of com mon-sense procedures. What I have suggested are the things that we on this side of the House would want to see done if we had control of this matter. When I am working at my desk I like to have my papers in an orderly fashion. I like to be able to see clearly and to write clearly. I like my pencil to be sharp. I like the paper on which I am writing to be firm. I submit that the suggestions I have made to-night should be implemented at the next Senate elections. Let the Senate ballot-paper be a card that will not crumple easily. Let it be sufficiently large for names to be read easily. Let there be printed upon it the following words: " If you spoil this ballot-paper ask for another one ". If these suggestions are adopted, and particularly if voters are required to vote only for sufficient candidates to fill existing vacancies, the number of informal Senate votes may well be reduced. Those are the principles of democracy, and I am sure this House could well turn its attention to these things. We on this side of the House say that we cannot possibly support the insertion in the act of an amendment which perpetuates the injustice against the aboriginal people of Australia. The select committee on the voting rights of aborigines has been given a date on which to submit its report to Parliament, but we say that may well be after this Parliament is dissolved. We believe that the polling hours ought to be reduced. We believe also that the question of informal votes in Senate elections ought to be tackled in a challenging way and every possible step taken to reduce the number of informal votes. Unless the Minister does these things, I do not believe he is carrying out the high duty with which he is charged as the Minister responsible for our electoral machinery, which is the basic part of our democratic system.

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