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Thursday, 19 May 1904

Mr BATCHELOR (Boothby) (Minister for Home Affairs) . - The tone of the debate and the reasonable attitude adopted by honorable members in urging that an inquiry should be made into the conduct of the last general election disarms any opposition on the part of a representative of the Department. No accusation has been made against any of the officers, but the request that an inquiry into the whole matter should ' take place has been preferred in the most reasonable terms. The motion, as amended, certainly contains nothing to which exception can be taken, and the personnel of the proposed Select Committee apparently gives satisfaction to the House. I was pleased to see the right honorable member for Swan rise to support this motion, because I certainly should have felt some diffidence in agreeing to a proposition that might otherwise have been regarded as a reflection on his administration. It is undoubtedly well that in criticising the Department, we should recognise the immense difficulties which confronted the officers and the very short period within which- they had to organize a scheme for conducting the elections on a uniform system throughout the whole of Australia. They had to make arrangements so that practically from Cape York to Cape Leeuwin, and from Geraldton to Melbourne; every elector on the roll should be able on the same day and between the same hours to record his or her vote at the polling booths provided. That giant task required some organization, and in dealing with the complaints we should certainly have some consideration for the difficulties which were encountered. It was not so much the work of organization itself as the short time in which that work had to be carried out that occasioned difficulty. Let me say that' some of the grievances to which reference has been made during this debate have already been removed'. The complaint as to electors who found that their names were not on the rolls is, as we all know, a perennial one. No matter what system we adopt we shall continue to hear such complaints ; but the Commonwealth rolls are certainly being brought up to a greater state of efficiency than was previously the case. When purging the rolls for the electorate of Melbourne of the names of those who, because of their removal to other districts, were not entitled to vote, we also arranged for the police to collect names that were not on the list, although they were entitled to appear upon them. It is no part of the duty of the Department to confine its attention to the removal of names from the rolls. What we desire is that every elector who is quali.fied shall be on the rolls.

Mr Maloney - The Government wish to build up as well as to destroy.

Mr BATCHELOR - We wish to remove from the rolls the name of every one who is not entitled to appear on them, and to see that every one who is qualified is included in the list. Great laxity is undoubtedly shown by the electors themselves. Many of them rarely take the trouble to ascertain whether their names appear on the rolls until an election is at hand. It is only at the last moment - generally when they go to the polling booth - that they make the discovery that their names have been omitted. The facilities offered to electors to ascertain whether they have been enrolled are very extensive, and should be sufficient for the purpose ; but in practice we know that they are not wide enough to maintain the rolls in an effective condition. Although the South Australian system boasts of many excellent features, I cannot say that even the rolls of that State are kept up to that standard of effectiveness that we should like to see. In the course of twelve months they are often found to comprise the names of many who should not be on the rolls, while the names of others, who have removed from one district to another, and have not taken the trouble to transfer their names from one list to another, do not appear on them. In view of the necessity for making some alterations in the boundaries of districts in New South Wales, as well as in Victoria, and, perhaps, in some of the other States, instructions are being issued to the police to purge the rolls of names that should not appear upon them, to collect the names of others that have been omitted, and, as far as lies within their power, to bring the rolls up to date. Some reference has been made to the Conference of electoral officers which recently took place in Melbourne, and I have to inform the House that nearly all the recommendations made by it have been adopted. One proposal deals with what has been a source of great difficulty - the fixing of the remuneration to be paid to assistant returning officers and other officials engaged in conducting elections. All assistant returning officers are not on the same footing. In some cases an assistant returning officer has but one polling place under his control, while in others he has sixteen or twenty, or even more, and has to travel over a large tract of country, and to transact much work that does not fall to others. In these circumstances it was difficult to fix a uniform charge, and it is due to that difficulty that so many accounts have been in dispute. Some of the electoral officers under the States system have received a very much higher rate of payment than have those of other States. In the endeavour to secure something like uniformity - because the attempt to secure uniformity had to be made - those electoral officers, who, under the State system, received a generous, and, in some cases, a lavish payment, as compared with that of others, felt that they had not been fairly treated. They expected the Commonwealth to allow them a similar remuneration, and did not think the payment made by the Federation was a reasonable one. That has been responsible for a large number of disputed accounts, more particularly in Queensland, where the scale of payments under the State system was much higher than that- in some of the other States. That applies to some extent also in . New South Wales. . It was suggested that, after the experience of the general election much better results might have been expected in the two by-elections which have since taken place, and any unbiased person will admit that there has been very great improve-

I ment. In the case of the last election held for Melbourne the administration was, I think, fairly satisfactory, and there was very little to complain about.

Mr G B EDWARDS (SOUTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Satisfactory in its results?

Mr BATCHELOR - It was highly satisfactory in its results, and it was satisfactory also I think from the point of view that reasonable facilities were afforded to electors to vote; also there was promptitude in the payment of accounts. It is too soon yet to say whether there have been any failures of administration in connexion with the second Riverina election. An officer of the Department was sent up to the district to organize the election, and, according to the latest report we have from the officers in that district, not a single hitch has occurred. I have no doubt that as the electors become accustomed to a form of registration and voting which is novel as compared with the practice of which they have previously had experience, all friction and grievance will quickly subside.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - They will subside if we have local responsible officers doing local work.

Mr BATCHELOR - The honorable member must be aware of the necessity for uniformity of method. So far as many matters are concerned, the practice must be uniform, and the difficulty of securing uniformity of practice where persons administering the Act have been used to an entirely different practice is so great that it is only, fair we should make allowance for the difficulties which naturally existed. I am pleased with the tone of the debate, and I am hopeful that the results of the investigation by the Select Committee will assist the Department and the public generally to a better knowledge of the best methods of conducting our elections. Our object, of course, is that every possible facility shall be provided to the electors to record their votes.

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