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Tuesday, 17 June 1902

Mr A McLEAN (GIPPSLAND, VICTORIA) - I did not expect that we should reach this measure to-night, and I a?n certainly not prepared to deal with it in the manner its importance demands. But it would not be well for the second reading to pass without a word or two of discussion. I went through the Bill when it was first distributed, but we cannot remember all the provisions of a large number of measures, and unless we know when the debate is to be resumed we cannot be properly prepared. The impression on my mind is that there is a great deal in the Bill to commend it to favorable consideration. It contains a great many, useful provisions, to- one of which I should like to direct particular attention. That is the provision dealing with the proportion of representation to be given to the great centres of population and to the country districts. I understood the Minister for Home Affairs, in introducing the , Bill, to say that the Government were favorable to the adoption of equal electorates, though I think the Bill provides that that principle may be departed from in certain cases to the extent of 25 per cent.

Sir William Lyne - Below or above onefourth or one-fifth.

Mr A McLEAN (GIPPSLAND, VICTORIA) - We should place clearly on the face of the Bill what we mean to do as to the proportion of representation. It would be a fatal mistake to adopt anything approaching a system of equal representation. Those who know me will not suspect me of any desire to give to property or territory that representation which, I think, should be exercised by individuals alone. I have on all occasions, from the very commencement of my Parliamentary career, opposed anything in the form of plural voting, and I have always advocated, the system of adult suffrage. My desire is that every section of the community shall have an equal voice in its government, but if -we adopt the system of equal electorates, that wholesome principle cannot possibly be given effect to. If honorable members consider the advantages which the metropolitan population possess over the scattered population of the country, they cannot fail to see the force of what I say. In the first place the country population is so scattered that people cannot get together to discuss matters of mutual interest. They are split up into different political sections, one person scarcely knowing, what are the views of his next neighbour. In the metropolitan districts the people are all aggregated within a small area, and can readily meet to discuss public questions. They can form associations of various kinds, and give effect to their views in a manner utterly impossible in the country. Large numbers of people in the country districts have to travel long distances to the poll, and in consequence many are unable to vote. In 1 the metropolitan districts every person lives within a short distance of a polling booth, and can exercise the franchise without any personal inconvenience. All the head officials of the State are in the great centre of population, and the business of Parliament is conducted there. People who live in the metropolis have every opportunity of seeing their representatives and Ministers, and can exercise an influence in legislation that is utterly impossible for the people in the country. Even in horseracing we have to call in the services of a handicapper to place the animals on an equal footing, and we know that in shooting the man who fires at 500 yards aims at a bulls-eye three times the size of that aimed at from 200 yards. The same principle holds good in politics, people who live in remote districts being at a great disadvantage as compared with the compact population in the cities. When we were dividing Victoria into federal electorates we gave to the country districts, with a population of 700,000 or a little under, fifteen electorates, while we gave eight electorates to the metropolitan area with a population of close on 500,000. At that time the present Treasurer pointed out that my Government had unduly favoured the metropolitan districts, and contended that there should have been a greater disparity between the representation of metropolitan and country electorates. I should like to know what the Treasurer thinks of this proposal to have practically equal electorates. I feel sure that he cannot be in agreement with it. Victoria sent 29 members to the House of Representatives and the Senate ; and notwithstanding the fact that the country districts have fifteen electorates as against the eight allotted to the metropolitan districts, there are only eleven members who can, by any stretch of the imagination, be regarded as country representatives - that is, country representatives who reside in the country, and have their interests there - while the metropolis has returned eighteen members in both Houses. There are twelve members in the House 6f Representatives who are permanent residents of the town, and who cany on their business or professions there, although only eight electorates have been allotted to the metropolis. The country electorates have not sent one man into the Senate : and unless we make a very great disparity between the representation of the country and the representation of the towns, the latter will exercise almost the whole of the influence brought to bear upon legislation. Honorable members, especially those who know my political career, will credit me with not desiring to give advantage to any section of the community. I only wish to give to the country districts that preponderance which is absolutely necessary to place them on something like a fair footing. This becomes even more important seeing that in the future women will have the right to exercise the franchise. I am one who from the first day I entered Parliament has supported the claims of women in this connexion. At the same time, we know that there are far more women in the metropolitan districts, in proportion to the total population, than there are in the country. If we give anything approaching equal electorates we shall largely increase the political power of the great centres of population, which I maintain already exercise too much influence on the Governments of the various States, and of the Commonwealth. It is scarcely fair that Melbourne and suburbs, with a population of 500,000, should have eighteen members in the two Houses of the Federal Parliament, as against eleven members from country districts, with a populatian of 700,000. I hope no one will think for a moment that I wish to convey that the Melbourne gentlemen who represent country districts do not represent them well and faithfully. But I do say that they, being intimate with all the conditions prevailing in the metropolis, are naturally in a position, whilst not neglecting the wants of their constituents, to render that help to metropolitan representatives which a country member pure and simple would not be able to render, owing to his want of knowledge of local conditions. Precisely the opposite prevails in regard to the country districts. Although there are many honorable exceptions, and some in this House, we cannot reasonably expect a permanent resident of a city to have as much knowledge of country matters as a person who is always intimately associated with them. Therefore, regarding the matter from every stand-point, I maintain that unless we insert a provision in the Bill setting forth clearly what shall be the basis of representation for the metropolitan and country districts, the country will be completely submerged. I sincerely hope that when we get into committee, alterations will be made that will give effect to these views.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Is the honorable member opposed to the principle of one vote one value?

Mr A McLEAN (GIPPSLAND, VICTORIA) - No. I say that if we give equal representation to town and country, we shall not have one vote one value. I have been endeavouring to show that people residing close to the seat of government, who can always get together and exchange their ideas, who can reach the polling booth without travelling any distance, and who can come to Parliament House and impress their views upon the Government and honorable members generally, have an enormous advantage over the residents of scattered country districts. I desire to give to the scattered country districts an advantage of numbers in proportion to population that will bring them on a footing of equality. I do not want any more, but I think it only fair that the people of the country should be on a footing of equality with those of the metropolitan centres, and in proportion to their numbers have the power to influence legislation to the same extent as electors in the metropolitan districts. That is all I desire, and I think that my honorable friend will admit that there is nothing unfair in that.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - How would the honorable member secure it ?

Mr A McLEAN (GIPPSLAND, VICTORIA) - By giving a larger representation, in proportion to their numbers, to the country electors. Even if that is done, we shall still have a number of town men representing country districts. I do not say that that is always undesirable, because we know that many town men represent country districts well and ably. There is the honorable and learned member for Indi, for instance, a professional gentleman residing in Melbourne, who represents his country constituency in a most creditable manner ; but who, by reason of his association with city matters, is able also to give a helping hand to representatives of the cities. When the Commonwealth Constitution was before the people, one of the grounds upon which I opposed it was that the country districts would be unrepresented in the Senate, which, in most matters, has as large powers as has the j House of Representatives. My prediction ' has been verified to the very fullest , extent. There is not one single country member from Victoria occupying a seat in ' the Senate, the whole of our representatives there coming from the metropolis. My honorable friend must see that that gives an enormous advantage to the metropolis, and I can assure him that that influence has not been unfelt in the amendments of the Tariff which have been suggested in another place. I refer to that matter only to point out the effect of giving undue representation to the metropolitan districts. I have not read the Bill lately, because I did not think it would come on to-day ; and, therefore, I am quite unprepared, and am speaking only from the impressions which were left on my mind after reading the measure when it was first distributed. According to my recollection, there is a provision in the Bill for the appointment of three commissioners for each State, to divide it into electorates.

Sir William Lyne - I said that it would not follow that there would be three fresh commissioners for each State.

Mr A McLEAN (GIPPSLAND, VICTORIA) - But the Bill provides for three commissioners for each State. I must remonstrate with my honorable friend. No honorable member has a greater respect for the Minister for Home Affairs than I have, and I think he knows it ; but I must say that he is too anxious altogether to augment the importance of his own department. At every possible opportunity he creates sub-departments, and appoints officers at high salaries. I think that arises from the largeness of my honorable friend's heart ; but at the same time I cannot see the necessity for appointing eighteen highlypaid commissioners to do what the Minister in his own department, with the assistance of his own officers, could accomplish just as well as any commissioners.

Mr McCay - The Government ought to take the responsibility.

Mr A McLEAN (GIPPSLAND, VICTORIA) - Yes. The Government ought to submit proposals to us, and then the whole matter would be thrashed out on the floor of the House. There is a superstition amongst some honorable members that an irresponsible person can do work very much better than one who is reponsible for it. I do not know why the department for Home Affair?, without the appointment of a single outside person, could not take I the responsibility of dividing the Common- 1 wealth into suitable electorates. When Parliament has laid down the numbers that are to form the basis of representation in towns and country, it is very easy to count the number of electors within any given area, and to make the divisions as fairly as possible. In country districts, let the department approximate the number as nearly as possible. In districts where the population is very scattered, I would certainly give a larger proportion of representation ; I would allow fewer electors in respect of every member to be returned. There is no difficulty in the matter. I hope that the Minister will abandon that part of his proposals, and take due notice of these points, with a view ito doing what he may think fair and just when we get into committee. Another part of the Bill makes provision for electors changing their districts. Of course it is absolutely necessary that every reasonable facility to vote shall be given to a person who changes his place .of residence after the compilation of the rolls ; but we must be careful that we do not leave that provision open to abuse by allowing electors to .change their electorates within a very short date of polling day. To do that would be to enable one electorates to lend electors to another. If it 'was thought necessary to do so, it would be very easy for a certain number of the population to shift from one electorate to another immediately before an election. I think that the Bill makes provision for votes being recorded by electors who shift to another electorate within not less than one month from polling day, but in any case, to do justice to every person, to let him record his vote legitimately, and not to give undue facilities for the removal of electors from one district to another for some political purpose, is a matter which requires careful consideration. I do not remember any other points winch impressed me when I read the Bill, but probably I shall have a good deal to say on the details when we get into committee. With the exception of a few points of the kind that I have referred to, I think that on the whole the Bill is a very good one, and can be made a very workable and liberal measure.

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