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Thursday, 23 August 1906

Mr GROOM (Darling Downs) (Minister of Home Affairs) . - I move -

That the Bill be now read a second time.

The object of the Government is to enable the majority of the electors in the various constituencies, through the medium of the ballot-box, to record the order of their preference in respect of the several candidates who seek their suffrages. It is my opinion that the electors should be given an opportunity of expressing their opinions of the various candidates so as to secure representation of majorities, in order that the laws which are enacted by their parliamentary representatives may truly reflect the views of the majority of the electors. That is the object of the Bill. The fundamental principle underlying our electoral system, so far as the House of Representatives is concerned, is that of single electorates. The whole of the Commonwealth has been divided into single electorates, and the principle of the Electoral Act is that there shall be, as nearly as possible, an equal number of voters in each constituency. Of course, as honorable members are aware, a variation is allowed' from the quota under certain conditions. That is the fundamental principle underlying representation in this House - that we shall have single electorates in accordance with the provisions of the Electoral Act. This Bill does not seek to interfere with' that principle, but it aims at affording the majority of- the electors in each of the electoral units throughout the Commonwealth an opportunity of recording the order of their preference in respect of the candidates who present themselves for election - the idea being that each successful candidate may represent a majority in the electorate. The Bill has not been introduced from any party motives. It is a measure which is submitted, upon its merits. We constantly hear the statement made that in Australia we should endeavour to secure the enactment of laws which truly reflect the will of a majority of the people. In other words, appeals are constantly being; made for majority rule.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - We shall have to get the electors to vote before we can insure that.

Mr GROOM - I am aware that that is the objection which is raised by those with whom the honorable member is associated politically. At the present time, it is quite possible that a member of this House may tie returned by a minority.

Mr Thomas - Does this Bill provide for compulsory voting?

Mr GROOM - No. It is not our desire to compel an elector to record a vote against any candidate, but we do desire to afford every elector an opportunity to record his vote in such a way that he may express his opinion upon the merits of the candidates. Under this Bill it .will be entirely optional with him whether he does that or not. If he chooses to abstain from doing so, we can utter no complaint.

Mr Higgins - Is not that the system which is in vogue in Queensland?

Mr GROOM - I will deal with that point presently.

Mr Page - I hope that the Minister will give the House his experience as a lawyer of the Queensland system.

Mr GROOM - I have no objection to giving my experiences in that connexion. Several alternative schemes have been suggested. For instance, it has been suggested that we should adopt what is; known as the " second ballot," with the French system as a model. But I do not think that that system can be considered a. satisfactory one from an Australian stand-point. Under it an election takes place upon a certain day. A number of candidates present themselves, and no candidate can be elected unless he obtains an absolute majority of the votes recorded. If he does not secure an absolute majority, a second poll is taken at a later date. No restriction is imposed as to the number of candidates who may come forward, and upon the second ballot the individual who heads the poll is declared elected irrespective of whether he has obtained an absolute majority of the votes cast or not. That system has been adversely criticised. Another suggestion was that in the event of no candidate securing an absolute majority at an election, we should take a second ballot at a later date and allow the electors to pronounce their verdict in respect of the claims of the two candidates only who headed the first poll. But honor-, able members must recollect that we have to provide an electoral system for a continent in which the population is exceedingly scattered. It will readily be recognised that if we adopted the system which I have just outlined, a period varying from a fortnight to eight weeks - according to the exigencies of the case - would have to elapse before the second poll could be taken. Take the electorate of Grey as an example. The chief polling centre in that constituency is Petersburg, situated in the southern portion of South Australia, but a great many other polling places are located in the Northern Territory, so that before we could get the electoral machinery into operation to enable the second ballot to be taken a long interval must necessarily elapse, during which there would be confusion, turmoil, and uncertainty. It therefore seemed to the Government that there are very grave, practical, difficulties - apart from the question of expense - in the way of the adoption of a second ballot. It would be found that the expense of holding a second election in a division would be quite as great as in the case of the first election. I have taken the trouble to ascertain the number of constituencies which would have been affected at the last election if the system had been in vogue. I find that there were no less than thirteen.

Mr Page - That is not many.

Mr GROOM - It is a fair number, considering that there arc only 75 constituencies all told.

Mr Page - What were the names of those constituencies ?

Mr GROOM - There were two in Tasmania, two in Queensland, and nine in Victoria.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Were there none in New South Wales?

Mr GROOM - No ; but there is just as much chance of a New South Wales constituency being affected in the way I have indicated as there is of an electorate in any other State. The other day the right honorable member for East Sydney made certain suggestions as to why this particular measure had been introduced. I wish to assure him that this Bill has not been submitted as the result of any outside influence.

Mr Reid - When did the Government decide to introduce it?

Mr GROOM - It has been under consideration for some time. The right honorable member is very sensitive when motives are imputed to him, and is always desiring us to credit him with angelic sweetness. Under the circumstances he ought not to object to credit others with a little touch of that purity which characterizes himself. The right honorable member has recently concluded a magnificent tour, during which the one principle which he strongly advocated was that of majority rule. Upon every platform he has appealed to the electors to speak at the ballot-box as a majority in order that laws might be enacted which would truly reflect the popular will.

Mr McLean - Was it his speeches which converted the Government ?

Mr GROOM - There is no need for the Government to send any of its members to address meetings at the various centres which have been visited by the right honorable member. His speeches have had a very natural effect.

Mr Reid - Yet the supporters of the Government would not have granted me leave of absence if they could have avoided it.

Mr GROOM - We find that wherever the right honorable member goes he does the work of the Government admirably. I do not think that he disputes the proposition that he has been expressing a desire for majority rule, and we are asking him now to assist us in placing on the statute-book a measure which will enable a representative of the majority of the electors in each electorate to be returned to this House.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - If it be shown that the Bill will not enable that to be done, will the Government abandon it?

Mr GROOM - Our contention is that the Bill will enable the will of the majority to be expressed. This could not be done, except at very great expense and inconvenience to the electors, bv means of a second ballot. The Bill is necessary to enable the electors to accomplish at the one operation all that they could do by means of a second ballot.

Mr McDonald - How many members of theQueensland Parliament represent a majority ?

Mr GROOM - The contingent vote has been in operation in Queensland for some time.

Mr Johnson - Has it been used?

Mr GROOM - Yes.; it has affected, no less than five electorates.

Mr Thomas - In fourteen vears.

Mr GROOM - That is so. If. the principle be a sound one, there is no reason why the Commonwealth should refrain from adopting it, simply because it has not been availed of to any extent in Queensland. We ask honorable members to express their opinions upon the inherent merits of this measure, which is admittedly a non-party one.

Mr McDonald - The number of members of the Queensland Parliament who represent a minority vote is greater than the number representing a minoritv in this Legislature.

Mr GROOM - It is true that in Queensland the contingent vote has not been exercised as fully as was anticipated, but still the Statute in question remains in force. All democrats ask for majority representation. I do not think that there is one honorable member of this House who would say that he desires to hold his seat as the result of a minority vote .

Mr Higgins - Are there three or two" parties in. the Queensland Legislative Assembly ?

Mr McDonald - There are now four parties.

Mr GROOM - I do not interfere with State politics, and have not attempted to classify the number of parties in the Queensland Legislative Assembly. Let us assume, however, that there are three. In some instances the contingent vote has been exercised there, and a different result obtained on the second count. We do not desire to restrict the choice of the electors; our desire is that there shall be no interference with their choice, and we think that we ought to give them the widest possible selection. This Bill has been introduced with that object in view. At present the choice of the electors is restricted. If there are three candidates for one electorate, the electors are able to exercise their choice in respect of only one of the three. Thev have no option. The result is that a candidate may be elected who represents only a minority of the electors. That state of affairs may be removed by the adoption of the system provided for in this Bill. I have circulated amongst honorable mem.bers a memorandum showing exactly the method pursued under this measure.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The example given in that memorandum does not necessarily show majority rule.

Mr GROOM - It illustrates the working of the principle. Under the Queensland system), if four candidates stand for a single electorate, the elector exercises his option by casting his primary vote for the candidate of his first choice. Having done that, he may place the figures 2, 3, and 4, in the order of his preference, opposite the names of the other candidates. But when the scrutiny is made cognizance is taken only of the first two candidates on the poll ; the other two are declared defeated.

Mr Poynton - Supposing that an elector does not exercise the option offered him under this Bill, and votes for only one candidate ?

Mr GROOM - Under the Queensland law an elector may cast his primary vote for one candidate, and refuse to exercise his option to declare his order of preference for the remaining ones. Under the Queensland system the two candidates lowest on the list are declared to be defeated, and the contingent vote is allotted to the first two, according to the preferences. The one who secures the larger vote of primary and contingent votes, when added together, is declared elected. This Bill, however, embodies a modification of the principle. When there are four candidates under the system proposed in this Bill, the candidate who is third on the poll might, after the preferences have been taken into account, be placed first on the list. We propose to allow every elector to exercise;, in addition to his primary vote, a contingent vote. The elector will vote for the candidate of his first choice by putting opposite the name of such candidate the figure 1. If there are three other candidates, he will place opposite their names, in the order of his preference, the figures 2, 3, and 4. If, on the first count, it is found that one candidate has obtained an absolute majority - that is, one more than half the number of votes polled - he can be said to truly represent the majority of the electors, and he is accordingly declared duly elected; but if no candidate obtains an. absolute majority it becomes necessary to strike out from the count the candidate lowest on £He list. The reason for this is that the electors have pronounced their judgment - thev have shown that he is the least favoured- and accordingly he must drop out of the count.

Mr Higgins - But the man who is last on the first count might be first on the second.

Mr GROOM - The first votes only are taken into consideration. As I have said, the candidate lowest on the list drops out, and all the ballot-papers on which No. 1 has been marked opposite his name are taken into account. The contingent votes of the electors who voted for the candidate who is lowest on the count in the first instance, are then distributed among the other candidates not excluded.

Mr Poynton - What value is placed on the second vote under this Bill ?

Mr GROOM - In, the case I have citer it would have the same value as a primary vote, because it would represent the opinion of the individual elector as to who should be chosen to represent him. Under this system the result will be the same as if a. second ballot were taken.

Mr Poynton - Then there is no proportional value?

Mr GROOM - No. The system amounts really to a series of plumping votes, enabling the absolute will of the majority to be obtained in the final selection of candidates.

Mr Poynton - How can that be possible while the elector is allowed an option ?

Mr GROOM - -We do not compel the electors to vote. Even if we provided for a second ballot, we could not compel them to go to the poll a second time.

Mr Batchelor - Nor could we compel them to go to the poll at the first ballot.

Mr GROOM - -That is so. The experience of France in this respect has been rather remarkable. I find, on inquiry, that in some instances the number of electors who vote at the second ballot is exceedingly small - far below the number voting at the first. We desire to enable the electors to secure ait the one operation the full advantage of a second ballot, without incurring the great expense and inconvenience which a second ballot would involve. The scheme is practical, convenient, inexpensive, and effective.

Mr Johnson - The intention is all right; but there is a difficulty as to the method.

Mr GROOM - The method will be found satisfactory.

Mr Johnson - -There is a difference of opinion on that point.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Will it not offer a premium to organized parties to abstain from casting their second votes, whilst inducing others to give second votes in favour of their candidate?

Mr GROOM - We have cliques and organizations in connexion with every election.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - That is why the system has be&n abandoned in Queensland.

Mr GROOM - -It is still used in some instances. If some electors fail to exercise their option, that is np reason why the electors generally should be deprived of the right to have a voice in the final selection of their representative.

Mr McLean - Have the electors asked for this Bill?

Mr GROOM - The honorable member's party has asked for majority rule, and we think that we should give the people an opportunity to secure it.

Mr McLean - This Bill will not secure majority rule.

Mr Thomas - We shall have to change the opinions of the people before we obtain majority rule.

Mr GROOM - In the first place, the primary votes are counted, and the candidate lowest on the count is excluded. Thenthe preferential votes on the ballotpaperscast in favour of the candidate lowest on the .list are taken into consideration on each successive count until after one, two or three counts, as the case may be, a candidate who truly represents the will of the majority is returned. Successive counts are made until a candidate obtains an absolute majority, the lowest candidate or each successive candidate in turn being excluded.

Mr Higgins - If the fourth man is struck out of the list, are his No. 2 votestreated as first votes?

Mr GROOM - They are. The tables in the statement circulated demonstrate this. The same principle applies after the third man on the list has been struck out of the count, and only two candidates remain. The preferences of all the electors who have voted for the third and fourth candidates are taken into consideration in allotting .the votes to the two remaining candidates. Each ballot-paper is counted in every count, so long as a preference is indicated on it. The method is simplicity itself. An elector receives a ballotpaper bearing the names of all the candidates with a square opposite each, and all that he has to do is to record his preference by placing the figures 1, 2, 3t and ,4, opposite the names. As the honorable member for Barrier very properly reminds me. a labour plebiscite was recently taken ii> Victoria to select three candidates for the Senate at the next general election. Twentythree nominations were received, and the members of the political labour leagues recorded their votes in the order of their preference. Notwithstanding; the number of candidates, there was but a small percentage of informalities.

Mr Thomas - As there were twentythree candidates in that case, and on lv three were required to be selected, why should it not be possible to apply this system to elections for the Senate as well as for the House of Representatives?

Mr GROOM - No trouble will be experienced bv the electors. They have onlyto place the figures 1, 2. 3. 4, and so forth, opposite the names of the candidate? in the order of their choice. But a great many questions have to be considered in dealing with any alteration of the method of voting for the election of senators.

For instance, it has to be determined whether the representation shall' be proportional, and which of a number of systems shall be adopted. The discussion and settlement of these questions would occupy a great deal of time, and our desire is to do now what is practicable under the circumstances ; that is, to apply the principle of preferential voting to the election for representatives in this House, where each member represents a single electoral division. Of course, if the Senate is prepared to deal summarily and quickly with the system under which its members are chosen, and to provide for preferential voting in this Bill, we see no reason why they should not; but we think that so many conflicting questions must be dealt with before any alteration of the present system can be agreed upon that we are not prepared to go further than is provided for in the Bill.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Then there will be two systems of voting on. the same day, and in the same booths.

Mr GROOM - Yes; but I do not think that that will create any practical difficulty.


Mr GROOM - Experience shows that the electors exercise the franchise very intelligently, the informalities being relatively very few.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - There will be two different ballot-papers.

Mr GROOM - On each ballot-paper can be printed directions showing how it must be used.

Mr Johnson - Some of the electors may think that, in placing the figures 1, 2, 3, or 4 opposite the names of candidates, they are allotting to them so many votes, and will thus be led to indicate a preference contrary to that which they really desire to show.

Mr GROOM - I think that a short explanatory note printed on the ballot-papers will make the system clear to every elector. I am not aware that the mistake to which the honorable member refers has ever arisen in connexion with this system of voting, which will accomplish what honorable members profess to desire - majority rule.

Mr.Johnson. - That is what it will not accomplish.

Mr GROOM - I have explained the principles of the measure, and have shown that it. will not be difficult for the electors to exercise the option allowed to them, while the counting of the ballot-papers will be simple. All that the elector will be concerned with will be the marking of his ballot-paper in the order of his preference, and the ballot-papers will be counted by the Divisional Returning Officers, according to a system which is simple, and should not permit of mistakes. If the House will take this measure into its serious consideration, and discuss our proposals on their merits, we shall, I hope, pass a Bill which will do a great deal for the accomplishment of what we all desire - the making of the laws of Australia a true reflex of the views of its people.

Debate (on motion by Mr. Johnson) adjourned.

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