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Wednesday, 18 June 1902

Mr BATCHELOR (South Australia) -The honorable member for Laanecoorie did not hold out a very attractive bait to the Ministry when he suggested that they should stake their official existence upon any proposal which they, after consultation with their officers, submitted to Parliament. I do not think there is very much difference from the point of view of Ministerial responsibility between the proposal of the honorable member for Gippsland and that of the Government. The amendment really provides that the Government shall submit the report of their chief electoral officer. Generally speaking, in each State that officer would be appointed as commissioner. Certainly in South Australia there is no man so fitted for the post as Mr. Sheriff Boothby. I am sure that before tabling any proposals in regard to cutting up South Australia into electorates, the Government would consult that officer. Probably they would adopt his distribution. Then why not appoint him commissioner, and let him report directly to this Parliament ? To my mind, the appointment of one commissioner seems to be the right thing. All the talk about gerrymandering is utterly beside the question. What is wanted is an outside commissioner who will report direct to Parliament. Should Parliament disagree with his report it can be referred back to him. But, on the other hand, I should be very sorry to see Parliament undertake the work of defining the boundaries of the various electorates - as has been done recently in some of the States, notably in South Australia, where something approaching gerrymandering certainly did take place, although it 'occurred in the House. The alterations made in some of the districts of that State are open to grave suspicion. At any rate, a very large section of the people consider that in connexion with them there was a deliberate piece of gerrymandering. I prefer that there should not be the slightest suspicion of anything of that sort occurring under the operation of this Bill. I say that the report of the commissioner should be laid upon the table of the House in the form in which it leaves his hands, and that any proposals to alter it should be made upon the floor of this Chamber. The adoption of that course would . effectually dispel all suspicion which might otherwise be entertained. I hope that the committee will adhere to the proposal for the appointment of one commissioner. More than one we do not need.

Mr. JOSEPHCOOK (Parramatta).I am sure that the committee are obliged to the honorable member for Laanecoorie for the certificate of character which he has given it. I hope that we are all honest. I trust that none of us merit the charges of meanness and dishonesty at which he has hinted, but of which I am sure we have never been accused by other honorable members. Certainly they have hinted at the existence of party feeling, and declared that political interests would claim attention if the work of distribution were undertaken by Parliament. If, however, the honorable member cannot see the distinction between meanness or dishonesty and party feeling, as it manifests itself from time to time in this Chamber, he should consider the matter again. All that has been alleged is that this House, by reason of its party composition, is utterly unsuited to undertake a work of this delicate character. We were also told by the honorable member for Gippsland, whose utterance was pitched in that high key which does credit to this so-called rarer atmosphere, that the work should be undertaken by a pure Minister who would not be susceptible to political influences, and that he should stake his official existence upon his immaculate scheme. I hold that the' responsibility of determining this matter is one above all others which the Ministry ought not to be saddled with. What particular knowledge of the topography of Australia has the Treasurer, the Attorney-General, or the Minister for Trade and Customs? We never knew before that those Ministers were geographical experts. Is it fair to ask them to accept responsibility for a scheme regarding which they have the most imperfect knowledge? This distribution should be undertaken in as impartial a way as possible. Some one should be appointed to perform the work who is absolutely free from party bias. There is no analogy - as was suggested by the honorable member for Gippsland - between Victoria and some of the other States. In support of my contention, I would point out that for year's past Victoria has enjoyed a settled protective policy. It is claimed that there are very few freetraders in the country districts. Therefore, there is no strong political feeling in the community, and consequently there can be no analogy between this State and those where such a feeling exists and causes parties to divide themselves into hostile camps, fighting for different fiscal policies. Neither is there any analogy between Victoria and, the larger States by reason of the difference in size. To quote this State as an example, where entirely different conditions prevail, is altogether misleading. Let me suppose that the honorable member for Gippsland knows an electorate in the country where sentiment is equally divided between free-trade and protection. Should there be a centre just outside the boundary line of that district, which might turn the scale in favour of his own particular policy, I will undertake to say that his unconscious bias would lead him very strongly to see a community of interests between that place and places within the electorate referred to. I. am not accusing the honorable member of dishonesty. I should be very sorry to do that. I believe that he is as honest as any other honorable member, and would strive to do his duty faithfully. I am speaking only of unconscious bias, to which he would be subject on account of his fiscal belief. Under such circumstances, I should naturally suspect any proposition coming from the honorable member. I should think that he had been susceptible to this bias, in spite of his efforts to free himself from it. We have no right to lay any honorable member under that suspicion. That is why we should appoint a commissioner who is not subject to party influences. What happened in New South Wales? Every one felt that there were inequalities in the scheme adopted there, but Parliament was assured by the commissioners who undertook the work of determining the federal electorates that they had made as fair a distribution as they could, owing to the diverse conditions operating in that State. So distrustful was the House of its ability to deal with the matter that it refused to touch a single line of their report. Therefore, honorable members left it severely alone, and with all its imperfections it was accepted as the best scheme that could be secured under the circumstances. It is not the honesty of the House that we distrust, but the want of knowledge on the part of honorable members, allied to the strong party feeling which may give an unconscious bias to any efforts they may make to apportion the electorates equally. On the whole, therefore, I think that we should adhere to the proposal of the Government. It is a geographical as well as a political problem which has to be solved, and Ministers have no right to be saddled with responsibility, since they cannot be expected to be seized of all the facts concerning which they are asked to accept that responsibility. I suggest to the honorable member for Gippsland that he should withdraw his amendment, and test this matter on some earlier words in the clause.

Mr A McLEAN (GIPPSLAND, VICTORIA) - I am quite willing to do that.

Mr DEAKIN - There need be no difficulty. It will meet the object of the honorable member for Gippsland quite well if he moves the omission of the words " the Governor-General," his desire being that the Minister shall undertake the work, and the Governor-General make no appointments. When that amendment has been dealt with, we can settle the number of commissioners, if any are to be appointed.

Mr Salmon - I think the honorable member for Parramatta said that I had hinted at meanness and dishonesty on the part of honorable members.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The honorable member for Laanecoorie remarked that he would like to go home if he had the views as to meanness and dishonesty which seemed to underlie the remarks of some honorable members.

Mr Salmon - I thought I had made it perfectly clear that I thoroughly believed in the honour of every individual member, and I conveyed a very fake impression if I used such terms as the honorable member has mentioned.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment (by Mr. A. McLean) proposed -

That the words " Governor-General," be omitted.

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