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Monday, 11 December 1905

Mr BATCHELOR (Boothby) - I think it would be wise for the honorable member for North Sydney not to proceed with his proposal. As a matter of fact, Parliament is not the most fitting tribunal to decide such a question. Those who are administering the Electoral Act ought to be the best able to say to which Department of the Commonwealth the electoral work should be attached. I interjected just now that most of the work of the _Home Affairs Department is in connexion with some other Department. As a matter of fact, the Home Affairs Department practically has no staff, except the electoral staff and the public works staff, the latter of which is almost entirely confined to preparing plans and specifications. The work of the electoral branch has to be done practically through1 States officers. If that work is taken away from the Home Affairs Department, it will be deprived of a very large portion of its functions, and at the same time additional burdens will be piled on to the shoulders of the Minister who already has to supervise the largest Department in the Commonwealth service.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - - There is always an honorary Minister in the Cabinet.

Mr BATCHELOR - It may not be convenient to make the honorary Minister an assistant to the Postmaster-General. I do not know that we should secure more satisfactory results by transferring the electoral branch' of the Home Affairs Department to the Post and Telegraph Department. The officials would not be brought in touch through their work with the rest of the officers of that Department. It does not follow that we should thus secure any greater homogeneity than at present. Probably in a few years, when more Departments are taken over and are administered by the Home Affairs Department, it might be wise to make such an alteration. I would also draw the attention of the honorable member for North Sydney to the fact that in some States the greater part of the electoral work is not done by postal officials. In South Australia a good deal of it is done by outside officers. But more and more there is a tendency to have the work done by officials of the Post and Telegraph Department, in consequence of which it may at some time be necessary to transfer the work -formally to that Department.

Mr. GROOM(Darling Downs - Minister of Home Affairs). - Of course, the electoral work is entirely above party, and in its administration we desire to do what is absolutely the best for the Commonwealth as a whole. I have been looking into the working of our electoral machinery since I have been administering the Home Affairs Department, and I find that it is in an absolutely unorganized condition. When I took over the administration we had no permanent electoral officials. We had no Chief Electoral Officer, and practically at the end of this year the Department will be without a proper staff of trained officials. No matter to what Department the Electoral Department is attached, it will be absolutely necessary to have a Chief Electoral Officer and officers throughout the States to supervise the officials who do our electoral work. In each instance, we have to take the best men we can get in the Commonwealth Public Service for these positions. I have given a considerable amount of thought to this matter, and have come to the conclusion that the sooner our Commonwealth electoral machinery is put upon a clear, solid, and permanent basis the better it will be for the Commonwealth as a whole. For the last four years, we have had temporary men doing what should be the work of permanent officers. No matter which Department takes over the work, it will be essential for it to have a permanent staff for electoral affairs. At the present time, the whole of the electoral machinery has been organized by the officers of the Home Affairs Department. The honorable member for North Sydney has suggested that we should take a test vote to indicate the opinion of the Committee that the electoral work should be transferred to the Post and Telegraph Department. I think he will agree with me, however, that to hand the work over to the Secretary of the Post and Telegraph Department and his accountants and staff just now would be to invite failure in connexion with the next general election.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Not necessarily. The work would be transferred when the Minister was ready to do it.

Mr GROOM - One difficulty that has occurred, in reference to the transaction of electoral business, has been that some postal officials have objected to having this work imposed upon them. Most of our public servants have given most loyal and efficient service in connexion with the Electoral Act. But the difficulty arises when officers are asked to take upon themselves certain work, and they practically object to do it, because they consider that it is outside the scope of the particular duties which they are engaged by the Commonwealth to perform. I have, however, arranged with the Postmaster-General that a general instruction shall be given that Commonwealth servants co-operate with their officers in fulfilling Commonwealth duties generally. That is to say, if a post-office official is appointed to act as a divisional returning officer, and the men under him are not fully engaged, instead of outside assistance being called in and extra expense involved, they shall give him assistance in carrying out his work. Seeing that we have a general election coming on, and that a distribution of electorates must take place within a short time, with possibly a second alteration of the rolls, it is impossible just now to promise to make a. transfer of the Electoral Department to the Post md Telegraph Department. But I can promise that if I am allowed to go into recess holding my present position, I shall look into the matter very carefully.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The honorable gentleman need not be afraid : we are going to deal very fairly with him.

Mr GROOM - With that assurance. I will agree to allow this clause to be amended in the way that the honorable member desires.

Mr. DUGALDTHOMSON (North Sydney). - Recognising that at this stage of the Session, this matter cannot be properly thrashed out to a conclusion, I am willing to accept the Minister's assurance. He will find, if he inquires, that some of the work that is being done by subordinate officers under postmasters, is being done on the basis that the postmasters give to their subordinates the amounts that they receive for the work. That is a most unsatisfactory state of things.

Mr Groom - That is so ; it is not right.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Anxious as I am to see the Commonwealth Electoral Department working efficiently, as it ought to do, and must do, if it is to be successful in such a large area as the whole of Australia, I feel satisfied that the Minister will, after an examination of the facts, recognise that there is a danger of failure owing to the work being done through two Departments. The element of personal responsibility is lacking. The Department, which has a magnificent staff all over Australia, must be directly responsible. I am willing to accept the Minister's assurance. I move -

That after paragraph a the following new paragraph be inserted : - "(aa) by omitting the words 'for Home Affairs,' and inserting in lieu thereof the words of State administering the Act.' "

Amendment agreed to.

Clause, as amended, agreed to.

Clauses 5 to 7 agreed to.

Clause 8 -

(1)   The Governor-General may appoint three persons in each State to be Commissioners for the purpose of distributing the State into Divisions in accordance with this Act.

(2)   The persons so appointed shall be respec tively a Judge of a Court of the State, the SurveyorGeneral or head of the Survey Department of the State, and the Commonwealth Electoral Officer for State, unless the GovernorGeneral, by reason of any such persons not being available, or for other reason appearing to him to be sufficient, thinks fit to appoint other persons instead of any of such persons.

(3)   Each Commissioner shall hold office during the pleasure of the Governor-General.

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