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Thursday, 19 May 1904

Mr SPEAKER - I point out to the House that it is impossible for any honorable member to speak to the question when' conversations so many and so loud are proceeding within the Chamber. I must ask honorable members to give attention to the honorable member addressing the Chamber.

Mr G B EDWARDS (SOUTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I am afraid that the motion is being discussed at rather an inopportune time.

Mr Fisher - An opportunity for its discussion at this juncture has been given to suit the convenience of honorable members opposite.

Mr G B EDWARDS (SOUTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - At the same time, the subject is one which should receive consideration. There is another motion on the notice-paper which deals with the same subject, and might be held to be wider in its scope than is this motion,' but I still think that it would be wise to adopt the course I propose, because of the very valuable assistance which the suggested inquiry would give in the future consideration of the reform of our electoral law. During the recent elections the utmost friction and difficulty occurred, not only in those cases where the decisions were subsequently challenged in the High Court but in every electorate throughout the Commonwealth, and, to a great extent, the failure to obtain a sufficiently full expression of opinion from the people to be regarded as a national verdict was caused by the inadequacy of the machinery provided for the enrolment of electors and for the collection of votes. In city and country alike, numerous difficulties were encountered by the officers intrusted with the administration of the Act. Every one of those with whom I have spoken - intelligent and picked officials - have admitted to me that they have found difficulty in interpreting the Act, or in discovering instruments for carrying out its evident intention. The postal voting provisions caused many serious difficulties, and I amof the opinion now, as I was when the Electoral Bill was before us, that, without greater safeguards, the postal voting system provided for is open to the grossest abuse. I do not say that it was. greatly abused during the recent elections, but our experience then is sufficient to show that it may be largely abused during subsequent elections. Difficulties also arose in regard to the application of Form Q, and many of the other forms provided for in the Act. In regard to those provisions, too, there is great danger of. abuse. The provision, for example, for limiting the amount to be expended by candidates in contesting elections is notoriously insufficient to carry out the end we had in view. It is, in fact, inoperative in every respect. For my part, I made a return of my expenses in accordance with the requirements of the Act, but I am given to understand that many honorable members have made no returns whatever, and I am further informed that if they fail in this respect, or if, upon their furnishing particulars, it is found that their expenses were in excess of the maximum allowed by the Act, there is no power to punish them or to declare their seats vacant. When we were discussing the Bill I pointed out that if we could not enforce such a provision it should not be embodied in the measure. The Bill was recommended to us by the honorable member for Hume as the most perfect piece of legislation of its character ever introduced into any Parliament. The honorable member resisted all efforts made by myself and others to safeguard the postal voting provision, and stated that the matter had received such careful consideration that it was quite unnecessary to adopt additional precautions against abuses. Yet I should think that the honorable member himself must now admit that the Act requires amendment. If this be granted, and if a Select Committee be necessary, the inquiry would be made in view of the actual operation of the Act during the recent general election. We should, however, go further, and issue a commission to some one to visit other countries where they have had as great or even greater experience than our own in regard to the secret ballot system. Such a Commissioner could bring back to us such information as would enable us to consider how far we could make use of the' modern improvements adopted in other parts of the world. It would be impossible for me to indicate the nature of these improvements in detail, but with regard to the forms adopted for preventing undue influence and bribery, for precluding candidates from incurring undue expense, for recording votes, and for insuring as large a vote as possible, it may be taken for granted that the "United States, Germany, Belgium, and even Great Britain itself would, as the result of their experience, be able to give us practical assistance.

Mr Fisher - Does the honorable member propose to allow the .Commission to travel to the countries mentioned?

Mr G B EDWARDS (SOUTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Certainly, but I do not for a moment suggest that any undue expense should be incurred. Next to the late Treasurer, I am probably one of the most economical members of this House.

Mr Watson - ' And the present Treasurer.

Mr G B EDWARDS (SOUTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - And the present Treasurer. I do not wish the Government to incur anY unnecessary expense. My suggestion is that some intelligent official whose experience in electoral matters may be regarded as qualifying him for the work should be selected as the sole Commissioner to obtain this information. I am' not prepared at this stage to say who should be appointed, but I believe that a fully competent officer could be found. It would not be necessary to appoint more than one Commissioner. It may be urged that such information as I have indicated could readily be secured by means of written communications with the Governments of the countries referred to, but such particulars as could be obtained by that means might be derived from the books in our library, and would be of very little assistance to us. What we require is that a qualified officer should visit the countries mentioned, and interrogate the officials there with regard to the working of their electoral systems, and should, if possible, see an election in progress. Many of the States of America, have, amongst other things, adopted mechanical contrivances, which not only register the votes recorded, but enable the declaration of the .poll to be made almost simultaneously with the closing of the doors to the public. Just as we, in some' of our public institutions have turnstiles for registering the number of visitors, and for indicating immediately the doors are closed the number of persons who have passed through during the day, so, in the case of the voting machines to which I have referred, when the last man has passed through and the. doors are closed, the indices can be unlocked, and the officials can at once see how many votes have been cast for Brown, Jones, or Robinson, and who has been elected. ' This is not a chimerical idea. Such, machines are in use, and, according to writers in the magazines, have made a saving equivalent to their whole cost in the course of three elections. If that be so, we should, as common-sense individuals, consider whether it would not be desirable to introduce similar machines into the Commonwealth. These contrivances have one important point in their favour. They entirely do away with disputed and informal votes, because once a vote is registered by the machine it cannot be recalled. The moment the voter manipulates the machine he records his vote, and no question can be raised as to the way in which he has exercised his right. This may, at first sight, appear to be a disadvantage, but honorable members will, upon reflection, recognise that the reverse is the case. The worst that can be said about informal votes, is that, according to the law of averages, they are likely to inflict as great a hardship upon one candidate as upon the other. Therefore, by eliminating them altogether in the way suggested we should do no harm, but save ourselves a great deal of trouble. Such machines' would be less liable than the methods which we at present follow to lead to the accumulation of informal votes. There will always be more or less illiterate voters who will be confused as to what they are to do with the pencil and the ballotpaper placed in their* hands. Such persons will not know whether the cross should 1be placed on one side or the other, or whether they should strike out the name of the person for whom they wish to vote, or the names of those whom they do not favour. This is almost the sole source of informal votes. With the machines, informal votes would be impossible, and, moreover, the liability to informality would be reduced to a minimum. It would be almost impossible for a man who had intelligence sufficient to lead him to the polling booth to make a mistake when this machine was placed before him, and he was called upon to operate it by passing through a stile, touching a button or pulling a lever. I regret that I cannot give the House the fullest information with regard to the construction of these machines, but they have been described in the' press, and it appears to me that two of those which have been in operation are simplicity itself. The returning officer attends , the polling booth as usual, and the machine is shown to the scrutineers on both sides before operations are commenced, in order that they may see that the indices are really starting from zero, that the machine is in working order, and that it moves only one point upon each touch of a button or pull of the lever, as the case may be. Then the returning officer and scrutineers stand on one side, and the voter, when he comes forward, steps on to a small platform, and by that very act causes a curtain to be drawn round him. When the voter is thus screened from the observation of the electoral officials, he is enabled to touch a button, or pull a lever, and record his vote in the direction he desires. His action in operating the machine causes a bell to ring, and upon hearing this the returning officer immediately throws the mechanismout of gear, so that the elector cannot record more than one vote. It is only when the machine is released upon the retirement of the voter that it can be rendered fit for use by another voter. Then, at the end of the day, instead of the voting papers having to be examined by a number of tired officials, who are frequently too worn out to count accurately, all that is done is to open the doors covering the metal indices under the machine in order to see how many votes have been registered for Smith, Jones,

Brown, or Robinson. The whole matter is then over, and no controversy can take place as to the number or character of the votes recorded. If a man happens to vote for Brown, instead of Robinson, he must put up with the consequences, and, according to the law of averages, it will probably be found that the result will be better than at present, when every vote has to be examined and is declared informal if it has upon it a pencil mark a little at variance with what is prescribed by law. We should avoid the necessity of having to refer to the High Court, as in the case of the recent Riverina election, such questions as whether a cross should be placed upon the right or left side of the ballot-paper what constitutes a square, or the effect of an extra mark upon the paper. We should get rid of all this trouble at one stroke. It is only fair to mention some of the arguments which might be used against such a promising method of recording votes. With regard to cost, I have already intimated that in California and other States the expense has been so slight that in some of the larger electorates the machines have paid for themselves in the course of three or four elections, owing to the saving of labour and time they have insured. I recognise that, whilst this might apply to large pollingplaces, it would hardly pay to use such machines at every polling-place throughout the Commonwealth. I would urge, however, that up to the point at which it would pay we ought to use the machine, and that beyond that we should retain our present system. I could furnish instances of the absurdity of relying upon the present system. The polling is concluded at 6 o'clock, and those who are interested have to wait until half -past 10 or n for any information regarding the result. Then, perhaps, in the case of an urban constituency, the returning officer has to come out and state that the numbers are approximately so and so, but that he cannot furnish an accurate return, because his officials are so worn out and dissatisfied that he is bound to give them a rest, and allow them to resume the count on the next day. Frequently, we do not obtain the definite results of urban elections until noon of the following day- As contrasted with that system, under which a heated and excited populace are required to wait foi several hours, we should, with the machines, be able to post the results almost simultaneously with the closing of the doors of the polling booth. . I think that would be a distinct advantage, which would compensate us for the expense incurred in procuring the machines for use in at least the large city and suburban electorates. Apart from this, there are many other points which we shall be bound to consider as time goes on. For instance, there is the question of compulsory voting. The members of this Parliament, as well as the citizens generally, are dissatisfied to find that so few electors take the trouble to record their votes. This apathy on the part of the electors is largely due to the difficulties that are placed in the way of many of those who desire to become enrolled, and to record their votes, with the result that they become disheartened and take no further interest in the elections. On these grounds I think that the appointment of a skilled and intelligent Commissioner, who would visit various countries and obtain valuable information that would assist us in framing machinery which would lead to the enrolment of the greatest number of voters, and afford the fullest facility for electors to vote, would be of muchadvantage. I do not say that I am in favour of compulsory voting; but I certainly think that something should be done to induce electors to record their votes. The compulsory system has been adopted in Belgium, with the result that the number of non-voters has been reduced to 6 per cent. There a man who fails to go to the poll is mulcted in a small fine unless he is able to give some reasonable excuse for his neglecting to vote. As we all know, the percentage of voters who . absent themselves from the polling places in some of the States is something like 60 per cent., instead of 6 per cent. Such a state of affairs is deplorable. In a country professedly democratic from east to west, and north to south, it is most regrettable to find persons who have the freest and most democratic Constitution in the world displaying so little interest in it that they do not trouble to record their votes at a general election; and the House will, sooner or later, have to consider whether it is not desirable to adopt some system of compulsion or inducement in order that we may secure a clearer expression of opinion on the part of the electors' than we now obtain.

Mr Fisher - What lines does the honorable member say should be followed?

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