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Wednesday, 2 November 1904

Mr BROWN (Canobolas) - The right honorable member for Swan has attacked those who were responsible for the appointment of a Select Committee to inquire into the administration of the Electoral Department during the last general elections. As I moved for that Committee, I take all responsibility.

Sir John Forrest - I objected to the statements that were made, not to the appointment of a Committee.

Mr BROWN - If the right honorable member will compare my speech with the report of the Committee, he will find that everything that was said which led up to the appointment of the Committee has been fully substantiated.

Sir John Forrest - The report is favorable to the administration.

Mr BROWN - It is favorable to the administration of the Secretary to the Department, whose work was never questioned. It was the officer under him, who has the direction and control of the electoral branch, who was criticised.

Sir John Forrest - Paragraph 3 of the report says that the. causes of complaint did not justify the adverse criticism passed upon the Chief Electoral Officer.

Mr BROWN - I admit that a considerable amount of the adverse criticism levelled against the Department did not find expression before the Committee, because., although people will make charges very readily, they cannot be got to substantiate them. That happened on this occasion. However, making all allowances for that, the inquiries made by the Committee disclose that their appointment was fully justified. They elicited a large amount of information with regard to the directions in which the Act might be strengthened, and the weaknesses of the administration were also brought to light. In one case it was shown that the list for a polling-booth in the electorate of Macquarie should have contained 250 names. The list was sent down to the electoral office in Sydney, and forwarded .to the Government Printer, by whom it was set up.

Sir John Forrest - That was known beforehand.

Mr BROWN - Then the right honorable gentleman kept it very quiet.

Sir John Forrest - No, I did not. The Postmaster-General knew about it.

Mr BROWN - He brought the matter under .the notice of the Department, and caused an investigation to be made. The Electoral Department subsequently sent to the Government Printing Office a list of sixty names which did not appear on the first roll sent in. It was assumed .that these sixty names were to be regarded as supplementary to those originally forwarded, whereas the evidence showed that they had never been submitted to a Revision Court, but represented electors who had no right to be included in the list for that particular polling-place. The Government Printer com.municated with the Electoral Department - which the right honorable gentleman for Swan regards as such a model - and all the information he was able to elicit was that the list of sixty names was to constitute the roll for the polling-place referred to. The consequence was that the original list containing 250 names was discarded, and the list containing only sixty names was adopted. The district staff had done their duty, but through some mysterious muddling at the Chief Electoral Office in Sydney the wrong list was adopted^ and 250 persons who had resided in the district for years, and who were entitled to be on the roll, found themselves disfranchised. That was a very serious matter. It is true that no evidence was given to show that this mistake was due to improper motives on the part of any of the officials. The Committee were not in a position to ascertain how it came about. Another abuse was disclosed in connexion with one of the , Tasmanian electorates. One of the returning officers discovered that a number of names had been omitted from the roll submitted to the Revision Court. He constituted himself the revising authority, and took it upon himself to. supplement the roll to the extent required to repair the omission. That, of course, was distinctly contrary to the law, which requires that the lists must first be submitted to a Revision Court. A similar thing happened in the Hunter electorate. In one of the mining districts a large number of electors were left off the roll, and considerable friction resulted. The Electoral Officer in Sydney thereupon telegraphed to the officials in the district, instructing them to poll the votes of the electors whose names were included in the State electoral roll. That, again, was contrary to the law, and if any question had arisen the election would have been upset. Then, again, in the Riverina electorate, the Divisional Returning Officer, without executive authority, constituted certain polling places. In addition, two elections were upset by the High Court on the ground that the Electoral Department had committed breaches of the Act. All these cases tend to show that there was considerable ground for the complaints which led up to the appointment of the Committee. The Committee was not armed with power sufficient to enable it to make a thorough investigation. All that it could do was to accept the statements of those witnesses who were willing to give evidence. No oath was administered, and no special action was taken to sift matters. If future elections are to be conducted in the same way as the last, there will be further serious ground for complaint. Honorable members and the community generally were prepared to make every allowance for the electoral officials, but much of the difficulty that arose was due to the unnecessary delays in the head office, for which the Minister was chiefly responsible. But for the ability displayed by Colonel Miller, the Secretary for Home Affairs, the trouble would have been greatly intensified, and the causes of complaint much more serious.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Surely that is a most severe condemnation of the Electoral Department.

Mr BROWN - That is the way in which I regard it, but the right honorable member for Swan chooses to adopt a different interpretation, and to put the whole blame upon honorable members who asked for the appointment of a Committee. We recognised specially the excellent work performed by Colonel Miller, who, in spite of the fact that he had a hundred and one things to attend to besides those relating specially to the Electoral Department, performed many of the duties which should have been undertaken by the Chief Electoral Officer.

Mr Tudor - When is the report of the Committee to be presented?

Mr BROWN - I understand that it is on the table, and ought to be made available to honorable members very shortly.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - We shall then have lost our opportunity to discuss it.

Mr Reid - It can be discussed on the Appropriation Bill.

Mr BROWN - I think that the Government ought to afford honorable members an opportunity to discuss it, because it is a very important matter. Honorable members must know from their own experience, apart from any special report, that the manner in which the last elections were conducted was far from satisfactory, and I would urge that now is the time at which we should consider the necessary reforms. The officials in the various electoral divisions had good cause for complaint with regard to the instructions sent to them. It should be the aim of the Chief Electoral Officer to, as far as possible, maintain good feeling between the central administration and the divisional officers. Now it is alleged that, at a conference which- was held prior to the last election, and which was presided over by the Chief Electoral Officer, the Divisional Returning Officers were given to understand that they would be allowed a sum of £20 each for their conduct of the elections, and that thereafter they would receive a. permanent appointment carrying a fixed salary of £20 or £26 per annum. In accordance therewith the permanent appointments have been made, and the salaries have been fixed. But the other part of the undertaking has not been carried out. I may mention that there is a wonderful unanimity amongst the Divisional Returning Officers that the understanding which I have outlined was arrived at. Indeed. I know a number of officers who incurred expenses, which they expected to be recouped to them in this way. The Electoral Department, however, has practically repudiated the understanding. I am led to believe that the Chief Electoral Officer has forgotten all about it, and as a result of the action of the Department considerable friction has been created. I gather that some representations have been made to the Government upon the subject, and I trust that the misunderstanding will be cleared up to the satisfaction of the officials who conducted the election.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - To what expenses does the honorable member refer?

Mr BROWN - To the general expenses of the Divisional Returning Officers in connexion with the last general election.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - All those accounts have been paid.

Mr BROWN - The Department affirms that they have been, paid, but ihe Returning Officers deny it.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I have no accounts of the sort.

Mr BROWN - Has the Minister any claim from Divisional Returning Officers in the State of New South Wales for a bonus °f £20 as a special grant for carrying out their duties ?

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - There is such a claim, but I have no account for expenses out of pocket.

Mr BROWN - Upon what was regarded as an authoritative statement on the part of the Chief Electoral Officer, the Divisional Returning Officers did not keep any special account. They expected that the "bonus in question would cover these expenses.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Is that the matter to which the honorable member for Maranoa referred ?

Mr Page - It is a similar case.

Mr BROWN - It seems to me that, in its extreme anxiety to establish a record for economy in the conduct of a general election, the Electoral Department has done a gross injustice to some of its officers. I am willing to admit that some of the officers of the States piled up the expenses, but that remark does not apply generally. Upon the last occasion, the Electoral Department applied the pruning-knife so severely that if a general election occurred, considerable difficulty would be experienced in securing that efficient assistance which was obtained last year. These remarks bring me to the question of whether it is wise to confine the allotment of electoral duties to officers of the Commonwealth or a State. I know that previously the Government thought that thisshould be done, as it was expected that a larger measure of control could be exercised over these officers. It should not be forgotten, however, that whilst public servants may be very competent in the discharge of their own particular functions, a certain technical knowledge is required in connexion with the proper administration of the Electoral Department which those officers do not often possess. How could the Commonwealth do better than select those individuals who for years past have discharged similar duties on behalf of the States ? In New South Wales, I cannot recall a single case in which a State official was appointed to discharge Federal duties. The appointments were all made from outside the State service. As the result of long training, the State electoral officers possess a local knowledge which cannot be picked up by outsiders in a day. I will undertake to say that if it were not for the valuable assistance which these experienced officers rendered to the new Divisional Returning Officers the last general elections would not have been conducted as efficiently as they were. Instead of discouraging that assistance, we ought to encourage it wherever necessary, but we cannot do so by creating friction over small accounts. Certain payments were promised, which were afterwards repudiated.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Does the honorable member say that these officers would require £20 a year, in addition to an annual allowance?

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