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Thursday, 19 May 1904

Mr BROWN (Canobolas) - I move-

1.   That, in view of the unsatisfactory manner in which the last general elections were conducted throughout the Commonwealth, a Select Committee be appointed to investigate and report upon the administration of the Commonwealth Electoral Act, arid to report results of such investigation to this House.

2.   That such Select Committee consist of Mr. Batchelor, Mr. Fowler, Mr. Groom, Mr. Mauger, Mr. McCay, Mr. McDonald, Mr. Poynton, Mr. Sydney Smith, Mr. Storrer, Mr. Dugald Thomson, Mr. Maloney, and the mover.

3.   That such Committee have power to send for persons, papers, and records, and that four be the quorum of such Committee.

I think that honorable members will agree with me that it is very desirabl'e to secure efficient administration of cur Electoral Act. We have placed upon our statute-book one of the most liberal and democratic measures, and our desire is that every adult «in the Commonwealth should not only have the right to vote, but also possess every facility for exercising that right. If our object is to be attained, .the legislative enactment must be accompanied by efficient administration. I am willing to admit that the Electoral Department has had considerable difficulties to overcome. They had to apply a new system, and to contend against the misunderstanding which necessarily attended the introduction of conditions differing from those with which the electors of the various States were previously familiar. In other words, they had to educate the people to the point of enabling them to- take full advantage of the facilities provided. Further, there were inexplicable delays in connexion with the redistribution of the electoral divisions, and the preparation of the rolls, and these deprived the officers of the Electoral Department of that ample time which was necessary to enable them to make perfect arrangements for carrving out the election. Then the Government, for reasons which have been strongly condemned, decided not to proceed with the work of redistributing the electorates in Victoria and New South Wales, and therefore a large amount of work performed by the Department proved to be absolutely useless. Whilst making every allowance for these difficulties, however, my observations have led me 'to the conclusion that the Department was lamentably lacking in- its administrative work. It is because of this, and because of the vital importance of having an efficient Department to administer matters relating to the exercise of the Commonwealth franchise, that I feel impelled to ask for an investigation. I do not wish to say too much with regard to matters of detail. It will be sufficient to point out that, as the outcome of the defective administration of the Department, two elections have been declared void on technical grounds ; and we may fairly assume that if present conditions are allowed to continue there will be a much larger number of appeals to the High Court in the future. This is a matter which should engage the .serious attention of the House. I was in the very fortunate position of not being called upon to contest an election, but I could plainly see from the way in which the arrangements were carried out that there would have been ample room for any one who wished to move in the direction of having an election declared invalid. For instance, it is provided in the schedule of the Act that a candidate shall be nominated by at least six electors whose names, polling places, places of residence, and numbers on the roll shall be given. I postponed my visit to my electorate for the purpose of nomination until the very latest date, and, upon calling upon the returning officer, found that he was not in a position to supply me with the numbers on the roll opposite the names of the electors who had signed my nomination paper. The roll was still in the hands of the Government Printer, and was incomplete, and it was only by making a special arrangement that I was able to obtain the particulars necessary to comply with the requirements of the Act. If I had been a country candidate, and unable to bring myself into close touch with the Government Printer in Sydney, the probabilities are that I should have been unable to furnish all the information required, and that my nomination might have been declared informal , on that account. Then, again, when it transpired that there would be no contest in my district, so far "as the House of Representatives was concerned, the Chief Electoral Officer seemed to overlook the fact that a poll would have to be taken for the purposes of the Senate election, and issued instructions to the returning officers to the effect that all their expenses should be reduced by about 50 per cent. The result was that, in common with many other honorable members, I have been put to a great deal of trouble in my attempts to secure the payment of the fees due to the officers employed in connexion with the election. Although months ago I was told by the Minister for Home Affairs that all payments had been made, and was also assured by the officers of the Department that everything had been settled, I discovered weeks afterwards that nothing had been done. Upon making a closer investigation, I was informed that some small hitch had occurred, and that if upon investigation everything was found to be in order payments would be made within two or three days. A month afterwards, however, I was told that the account were still unsettled. Some of these accounts still remain in the same unsatisfactory condition, a fact that displays a lamentable want of competency on the part of some one in the Department. I know that from the very outset it was the intention of the Department to select officers for this work from the Public Service of the Commonwealth. It was felt at the time that the duties could be discharged by officials of the Postal, Customs, and other Departments who were under the direct control of the Government of the Commonwealth; but I pointed out to the Minister in charge of the Department, as well as to the House, that great difficulties would arise if the. Government insisted upon giving immediate effect to their proposal. I drew attention to the fact that the officers of the service, however competent they might be, had not the experience necessary to fit them for so .complicated and extensive a work, and I strongly recommended the Department to utilize the services of the old State officials, at least to the extent necessary to secure efficiency at the then approaching elections. That suggestion was, to some extent, adopted ; but as the result of a recent visit to my electorate I do not hesitate to say that State officials who were engaged in connexion with the elections are so greatly dissatisfied with their treatment, that unless the Department is prepared to keep faith with them to a greater extent than was the case in connexion with the last elections, their services will not be at the disposal of the Government at the next. These are important matters which call for strict investigation, and if, upon inquiry, the charges made can be substantiated, the remedy should be applied. I have, so far, dealt only with the administrative machinery of the Electoral Office, and when we come to consider the position of the electors themselves - the people who are vitally affected - we discover that their grievances are intense. In the first place, as the result, apparently, of the outcry that persons had removed from country districts to various cities only to return to their old homes as the result of the breaking of the drought, it was taken for granted that these changes had occurred on a larger scale than was actually the case. The result was that, in dealing with the revision of the" rolls . relating to all the cities, the Department endeavoured to strike off as many names as it could, and apparently paid no regard to the equally important duty of ascertaining whether those who were qualified to vote were duly enrolled.

Mr Batchelor - Where was this?

Mr BROWN - In the cities. Cases came under my notice in which persons who had shifted from one street to another in the same electorate were struck off the rolls, and were not afforded an opportunity to rectify this blunder. A great many of those who inspected the rolls as originally compiled, and found that their names had been duly enrolled, went to the booths on polling day satisfied that, as they had not received any notice of objection, they were qualified to record their votes. Judge of the surprise of many of them when they discovered that, as the result of the action of the Department, the names had been removed. As the result of the extraordinary way in which the Department allotted the electors to different polling booths, an even more remarkable state of affairs existed in many of the provincial districts. Electors were expected to vote at the polling booths on . the rolls for which their names appeared ;' but it was open to them to vote at any other booth in their own division by signing the form Q. The allotment was made, however, in such a way that it was by no means uncommon to find the members of one family, all residing in the one house, allotted to two or three different polling booths. A case came under my notice in which an elector in my division journeyed to the polling booth, some six or seven miles distant from his residence, at which he had been accustomed to vote at State electionsHe was allowed to record his vote; but his wife was informed that her name, &s well as the names of other members of the family, were not on the roll for that booth. They mentioned the matter to me, and I discovered that the wife's name was on the roll for a polling booth fifteen miles away from her residence. It is difficult to understand what basis the Department adopted in making these allotments. The experience of the settler to whom I have referred was a common occurrence, and this system, in my opinion, led to the disfranchisement 'of a greater number' of persons than did any other difficulty which the electors encountered. Electors who were accustomed to vol* at certain polling booths for State elections found on applying for their voting papers that their names were not on the rolls for those booths, and the presiding officer in many cases did not take the trouble to ascertain whether their names were on. the rolls for any other booth. They were simply told that they were disqualified, with the result that, although their names appeared on the rolls for other booths, they were disfranchised, being unaware that they had a right to vote under form Q. This state of affairs obtained throughout the country electorates, and to so great an extent that it reflected much discredit on the Department. It discloses an inefficiency on the part of some one, which, had it not resulted in the disfranchisement of hundreds of electors, might have been excused, but which in the circumstances demands the strictest investigation. Incidents of this kind that came under my own observation must have been fairly common throughout New South Wales, and I think that they were largely responsible for the reduced polling returns. The appointment of the Chief Electoral Officer of the Commonwealth has already been severely criticised in this House, and I do not propose at this stage to enter into a discussion of the matter. I have only to say that, in view of this criticism,, and of the dissatisfaction which obtains as the result of the way in which the department conducted the last elections, a Select Committee should be appointed in fairness to that officer himself. It must have one of two results. It will either show that the administration of the Department in connexion with the elections was inefficient, and that the criticism levelled against it was largely justified, or that, as the Minister responsible for the appointment contends, the Chief Electoral Officer is efficient.

Mr Cameron - Does the honorable member propose that the work of the Select Committee should stop at that point?

Mr BROWN - I propose that it shall deal with the question of administration.

Mr Cameron - Is the Select Committee to have power to make suggestions for the amendment of the present electoral law?

Mr BROWN - I think that the committee should have ample power to do so. .

Mr Cameron - Then the honorable member should provide for it in his motion.

Mr BROWN - I understand that the Department has fully investigated that matter, and that the Minister has certain proposals to put before the House. It is for that reason that I refrain from bringing this phase of the matter under special review. I have no doubt that if the Committee feels, as the result of its inquiries, that the defects of which complaint has been made were due to the faultiness of the Electoral Act, it will be open to it to suggest amendments. If it is to be of any great value it must cover a large range of inquiry. I should prefer the appointment of a Royal Commission that would be able to visit the different States, and investigate all these matters far more thoroughly than it is possible for a Select Committee to do. I recognise, however, that it is practically impossible for a large Select Committee to visit the different States so as to inquire into all these matters as fully as is necessary in order to place the Department in possession of the whole of the facts, and I am satisfied the Committee will elicit information that will demonstrate the necessity for radical changes, either in regard to the control of the Department or the legislation under which the Department is conducted. If the Ministry do not see their way clear to appoint a Royal Commission, I must rest satisfied with a Select Committee.

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