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Monday, 11 December 1905

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Ever since we began to discuss electoral matters in the Chamber, I have been in favour of intrusting the redistribution of seats to persons outside Parliament. In the first speech I made on this subject, I advocated very strongly that the work should be intrusted to Commissioners, because, as I stated then- and I have seen no reason for altering my opinion. - 1 did not think that it could be done so satisfactorily b'y the House as by independent expert Commissioners, who would be quite removed from those political considerations which always weigh with honorable members whenever they are called upon to deal finally with these questions. Some honorable members have objected to the action of the Senate in inserting this provision, but I do not think that should influence' us at all. If, on its merits, the proposal is a good one, the fact that it has received the approval of the Senate should be a recommendation rather than otherwise. I am not sure but that the Senate is entitled to make a pronouncement even upon a question of this kind. After all it affects the States as States, as well as the Commonwealth as a whole. The honorable member for Wide Bay will recollect that when the last redistribution was made, some States were dealt with and others were not, and a question of relative injustice as between State and State arose. It would seem as if matters 'affecting' the States as such, in their relations to other States, might well be considered by the Chamber which specifically represents the States. With' regard to the remark of the honorable member for Wide Bay as to the action of Parliament on the last occasion, I stated that there was no change so far as I was aware between the conditions which were supposed to justify the action of the Chamber then and those now prevailing. The latest figures show that the drift of population has not altered very materially, but that the relative inequalities in New South Wales are as great as ever they were, notwithstanding that the drought is supposed to have broken, and normal conditions to have been restored. The honorable member answered me on that point by saying that there were special reasons for rejecting the distribution in his own S'tate. I would remind the honorable member that that furnishes an argument in favour of referring the matter to Commissioners, whose decisions would be final. The honorable member not only rejected the scheme for the distribution of seats in his own State,, because of some inherent difficulties which were apparent to him, and because of inequalities which would have arisen if the decision of the Commissioners had been confirmed, but he forthwith proceeded to deal with New South Wales, as to the internal arrangements of which he knew very little indeed. We are not sufficiently acquainted with the conditions prevailing in every part of Australia to enable us to arrive at an accurate judgment.

Mr Fisher - Unfortunately, our difficulty was with the Commissioner.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I am aware of that, but on the merits and the facts as they affect each State we do not know enough to enable us to arrive at an accurate determination. For that reason I think we ought to refer the matter to experts who know all about the internal arrangements of the States, who have given them special study, and whose decisions will be based upon the best knowledge and the most reliable data. I am not sure mat even if we possessed the requisite knowledge, we should be the best tribunal to decide these questions. There is an old and wholesome rule that we should have nothing to do with the final judgment upon matters in which we are particularly interested. I do not think that we are a sufficiently impartial jury to be intrusted with the work of apportioning our own electorates - when that apportionment means so much to us individually. We must have an unconscious bias, and even when we have brought our best consideration to bear, we cannot be certain that we are as free from bias as we ought to be. Nothing is more vital to the people of Australia than a fair apportionment of the electoral power of the Commonwealth, and we cannot guarantee that result unless we arrange for a distribution by persons who will not be influenced by political feeling or by considerations as to how the arrangement of parties in this Chamber will be affected. Therefore, it seems to me that we shall act wisely if we intrust the work to experts. May I remind honorable members that we have already had experience on both sides. In New South Wales, the last redistribution of seats was made by independent Commissioners. That was satisfactory, so far as I know. I have not heard of any complaints whatever.

Mr Chanter - That redistribution was subject to the revision of Parliament.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The honorable member is mistaken. I am speaking of the last redistribution of seats in New South Wales. The final result was not subject to the revision of Parliament, nor was it determined by Parliament. What the New South Wales Parliament did - and we might follow their example with advantage - was to specially select three Commissioners to do the work. I do not think that these appointments should be left to the Governor-General.

Mr Groom - The State law required that the redistribution should be approved by Parliament.

Mr Chanter - When the single electorates were redistributed, the decisions of the Commissioners were submitted to Parliament.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Yes, but on the last occasion three Commissioners were specially appointed by Parliament, and were intrusted with the final determination of all matters relating, not only to the reduction in the number of electorates, but also to the limitation of their boundaries. That arrangement worked satisfactorily, andI think we might very well adopt a similar course, instead of providing that the GovernorGeneral shall appoint a Judge, the Surveyor-General, and the Electoral Officer of the State, to do the work. We could deliberately select three Commissioners, and leave the final determination to them, feeling that in our collective ca pacity we should not be able to bring such knowledge or experience to bear. If the clause be retained I shall certainly seek to amend it in the direction I have indicated.

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