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Thursday, 27 October 1904

Mr MCDONALD (Kennedy) - The other day I asked the Prime Minister whether a certain statement which appeared in the Melbourne Age newspaper was correct. That statement had reference to the number of persons who are said to be off the rolls, and was in the form of an interview with the right honorable gentleman on the subject. It appeared to me, on reading that interview, that the Prime Minister sought to excuse the Government for not going to the country at the present time, because of the fact that there are between 300,000 and 400,000 qualified electors whose names are not on the roll, and who consequently would not now be able to vote.

Mr Reid - I did not mention that as the only reason - having a majority is another reason for not going to the countrv.

Mr MCDONALD - The less theright honorable gentleman says about his majority the better, and I think he recognises that fact. We remember the remarks of the Prime Minister the other evening, when an honorable member stated that if the Government did not take a certain course, he might be compelled to take action. Attention has already been called by the honorable and learned member for Parkes, and by the honorable member for Coolgardie, to the evasive manner in which questions asked by honorable members are answered by Ministers. In the newspaper interview to which I have referred, the Prime Minister, speaking of the States of Victoria and New South Wales, said -

That means that there are 300,000 or 400,000 persons who, if an election were held now, would be off the rolls, or in a place which is equivalent to being off the rolls.

I take that as a clear and distinct statement that he knew that between the States of New South Wales and Victoria, there were that number of people not on the rolls.

Mr Reid - I never made any such statement, as I explained the other night. It is manifestly absurd.

Mr MCDONALD - I asked the Prime Minister a question on this matter, in perfect good faith, because I felt that there was a mistake. In reply to that question, the right honorable gentleman, after my quoting the words of the interview, said -

The report is a-correct one, but I was careful to understate rather than overstate the figures furnished to me by tlie officers of the Electoral Department.

The Prime Minister now describes the statement as manifestly absurd, though in his reply to' me, he said he had understated the figures.

Mr Reid - The use of the word "off" is a mistake. I did not mean that those people are off the rolls altogether, but that they are not on their proper rolls at the present time.

Mr MCDONALD - I understood the right honorable gentleman, to infer that when an elector changes his address his name is removed from the roll.

Mr Reid - I did not mean to conveythat they were off the roll, but that they were off the roll in respect to which they would have to vote.

Mr MCDONALD - -But even if a man changed his address he would be able to vote just the same. He could, if necessary, make use of a Q form. It appeared to me that a statement such as that made by the Prime Minister would certainly have a misleading, effect upon the public, and that it ought to be corrected at the earliest possible opportunity. Further than that, I considered that if such a large number of persons were disfranchised some further investigation should be made into the Electoral Department, and that the whole of the officers should be removed as speedily as possible. Nearly twelve months have elapsed since the last election, and now we are led to suppose that the rolls are in such a state that in the event of another election between 300.000 and 400,000 persons would be unable to vote. That would be a very serious state of affairs. Suppose that instead of securing a narrow and questionable majority., the Government had been defeated upon the recent want of confidence motion ? We should not have been in a position to carry on the business of the country, and our Electoral Department would have been so paralvzed that no election could have taken place. The sooner some alteration is made in the method of compiling the rolls the better. In my opinion the Electoral Department should be placed under the administration of a commissioner, who would be beyond the control of the Government.

The Prime Minister has advanced the unsatisfactory condition of the rolls as one of the reasons why we should not go to the country at the present time.

Mr Johnson - I do not think that that is a fair inference to draw.

Mr MCDONALD - I think it is, because the Prime Minister gave that as one of his reasons for not asking for a dissolution.

Mr Reid - Yes, that was one of the reasons; but there are several others.

Mr MCDONALD - Parliament has no right to be dependent upon the action of the Government in a matter of that. kind. We are elected directly by the people, and, therefore, anything connected with the compilation of the rolls, upon which the exercise of the franchise largely depends, should be placed entirely beyond the control of the Government. If we placed the Electoral Department under the control of a commissioner we should be able to hold him responsible for effective administration in the same way that we look to the AuditorGeneral to see that our financial affairs are properly ordered. The commissioner would be in a position to keep the rolls right up to date, and if he failed in that respect we should soon require to know the reason why.

Mr Johnson - That system would cost a great deal more than the present one.

Mr MCDONALD - I do not know that it need involve any great outlay. At the present time we have a Chief Electoral Officer, whose salary is certainly not a very large one. The amount paid to him might be slightly increased and fixed as the salary of the commissioner, who could work with the staff now employed, and enlist the assistance of the Postal and other Departments in connexion with the compilation of the rolls, and the performance of the work required from time to time.

Mr Johnson - Would the honorable member continue the present system of collecting the rolls?

Mr MCDONALD - I am not prepared to enter into details.

Mr Mcwilliams - That is where the trouble occurs.

Mr MCDONALD - I do not think it is the only cause of the trouble. The present system of collecting the rolls by employing the police is a very good one. There is no doubt that at the last election some confusion arose through the Department being called upon to conduct an election earlier than had been expected. The present system of collecting the rolls might be continued, but everything must not be left until the last moment. At the earliest possible moment the Government should make arrangements for the holding of Revision Courts at stated intervals If the electors were encouraged to come forward at certain stated times they would render valuable assistance to the Electoral Department in making the rolls complete. At present honorable members are continually receiving letters from persons who desire to have their names placed upon the rolls, asking when Revision Courts are to be held and what steps they are to take. There appears to be no uniform system at present.

Mr Mcwilliams - Does not the honorable member think that the existing system wouldmeet the case if there was a really good man a.t the head of affairs?

Mr MCDONALD - I do not know that it is my place to offer any remarks upon that point at this stage, because the Government will have ample opportunities of dealing wth the matter.

Mr Mcwilliams - Does the honorable member consider the present system a faulty one?

Mr MCDONALD - Yes, I do. I think that , the Department should be placed under a commissioner and thoroughly reorganized. My principle object in rising was to refer to the statement of the Prime Minister that between 300,000 and 400.000 persons would be disfranchised if an election took place at the present stage. Since the right honorable gentleman has stated that he did not wish to convey that meaning. I do not desire to press the matter anyfurther. I hope that steps will be taken by the Government to make the rolls complete at the verv earliestpossible date.

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