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Wednesday, 2 November 1904

Mr LONSDALE (New England) - I can support, to a very large extent, the remarks of the honorable member for Canobolas as to promises that were made to Divisional Returning Officers. I am unable to say that they were promised a grant of £20, but it cannot be denied that a promise was given that they should receive some allowance to cover the expenses to which they were put. The Divisional Returning (Officer for New England, who practises as a solicitor at Tamworth, has complained to me of the position in which he was placed by the action of the Department. He informs me that, from the time of his appointment until the eve of the election, one of his clerks was continuously employed in the work of preparing for the poll.

Mr Poynton - Were these promises made by letter?

Mr LONSDALE - I cannot say. I saw a telegram sent to the Divisional Returning Officer for New England, inviting him to meet the Chief Electoral Officer in conference with other Divisional Returning Officers in Sydney, and at that conference, I understand, that some promise was made that a grant sufficient to cover the cost of preparing for the election would be made. I am unable to say whether that promise has been fulfilled ; but the Divisional Returning Officer for my electorate informs me that he has received no remuneration for the work performed by him. The Minister should make some inquiry to see whether these officers have been treated in the way of which they complain. An inquiry would certainly set the matter at rest. A great deal of work was carried out by these officers, who were not appointed until practically the last moment. It will be remembered that postmasters were at first appointed as (Divisional Returning Officers, but that at almost the last moment their appointment was revoked, and the work handed over to officers who had formerly carried it out. Owing to this action on the part of the Department, the 'Divisional Returning Officers had to make special efforts to carry out all the necessary arrangements to enable the election to be legally conducted. It may be that many of these difficulties were due to defects in the Act, which was passed very hurriedly. I know that the provision that an elector shall vote at his own polling booth would have resulted in one half of the electors of the New England province being disfranchised, had not a liberal supply of Q forms been sent to the polling places.

Mr Brown - The difficulty was largely due to the way in which the electors were allotted to the different polling places.

Mr LONSDALE - That is so. The allotment* was made not by local men, as it should have been, but by some one in Sydney, who apparently adopted a rule of thumb method in carrying out the work. On one occasion, I met a gentleman at Tamworth from whom I was anxious to obtain some particulars as to the route to be followed by me in order to visit a certain part of my electorate, and in the course of conversation, he told me that he would vote at Limbri. I replied that there was no polling place there, and he then said that he would vote at Moonbi. On turning to the roll for that polling place, I found that his name did not appear on it, and, as the result of our investigation, we found that fifty-one persons whose names should have been on the rolls for Limbri or Moonbi were not accounted for. I at once telegraphed to the Sydney office.

Mr Watson - Were they supporters of the honorable member?

Mr LONSDALE - The gentleman to. whom I was speaking was opposed to me ; but I believe that every man, whether he be an opponent or a supporter of mine, should be afforded every facility to exercise the franchise.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Did the honorable member really hunt up the names of men who were opposed to him?

Mr LONSDALE - I do not say that, but I knew that the gentleman in question was opposed to me. At my request he furnished me with a list of those whose names should have appeared on the rolls for Limbri or Moonbi, and I sent them on to the Electoral Office in Sydney. I inquired whether there was any other polling place in respect of which these names might have been enrolled, and finally we discovered that they were on the roll for Niangula. In order to reach that polling place a number of electors had to travel across the ranges, although there was a more convenient polling booth only five miles from the district in which they lived. I sent a telegram to this effect to the Electoral Office in Sydney, and pointed out that unless a number of Q forms were sent up one-half of the electorate would be disfranchised. This blunder was made by the Electoral Office in Sydney. . I believe that the police made a satisfactory collection. As a matter of fact, I was informed by the police who made the collection in another part of my electorate that many of the names sent in by them had not been placed on the rolls. To my mind, the police are the most suitable persons to collect lists, and, so far as I am aware, they have always carried out this duty satisfactorily. An effort should be made to combine to some extent the work of the Electoral Departments of the Commonwealth and of the States in order to reduce expense. It does not seem to be necessary to make separate collections for the States and for the Commonwealth rolls. The one setting up of type should also be sufficient. Of course, the boundaries of the Federal and of States electorates are not the same, but the names set up for the States rolls might easily be transferred . to the Commonwealth rolls. If the Federal and the State Electoral Offices were to a large extent combined, the work would be done more effectively and cheaply than at (present. I admit that the Committee itself could not make such a change, but the Minister might well inquire into the matter, and see what could be done in this direction, for it would be well if the rolls could be prepared and sent out from the one office. I agree that the redistribution of electorates should be taken in Hand as quickly as possible, so that we may have as far as practicable uniformity of representation in this House.

Mr. JOSEPHCOOK (Parramatta).- I congratulate my honorable friend who has just resumed his seat on the possession of some peculiar qualities. I have always had a kindly feeling towards him, and I think we have abundant evidence that he is a good old Christian. That must be said of any man who goes looking for electors who will vote against him. This is the first time that I have heard of a candidate asking an elector who he knew would vote against him, to get his name placed on the roll. Had I anticipated that the debate would be prolonged, I should have made, in the first instance, a somewhat extended reference to the point which I originally raised as to the desirability of appointing an independent Commission to administer the electoral law of the country. Honorable members have incidentally paid some very- fine tributes to the merits of the Public Service Commissioner. If he does his work well, and other Commissioners are working well for the interests which have been intrusted to them, surely the administration of the electoral law might be intrusted to Commissioners.

Mr Poynton - The Public Service Commissioner is a very costly luxury.

Mi, JOSEPH COOK. - I do not agree with my honorable friend. I do not think the work could be put into better or more efficient hands. Honorable members forget the vast difference between the States services and a service which extends over the length and breadth of the Continent. My impression is that to efficiently administer and control the electoral affairs of the Commonwealth is as difficult and exacting a task as is intrusted to any public servant. It is a very different thing from the control of States electoral arrangements. When one recollects the varying conditions under which the Commonwealth electoral law has to operate, and remembers the different habits and customs, electorally speaking, of the people of Australia, he must admit that it is a matter of the greatest difficulty to make our electoral administration run smoothly. I have never found fault unduly with the conduct of affairs at the last general elections, because I recognise that it was a matter of supreme difficulty to get our electoral machinery into proper working order then. But as I realize the great importance and difficulty of electoral administration, I think that we should select for the control of the Department the best man whom we can find, and pay him an adequate salary. Instead of doing that now, we employ as Chief Electoral Officer a man to whom we pay £300 a year, while we give his chief clerk £50 or £60 a year more.

Mr Mauger - Is not that because the Chief Electoral Officer receives a pension from a State?

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I believe that it is ; but it is nevertheless disgraceful for the Commonwealth to sweat him on that account. It has nothing to do with the Commonwealth whether this officer does or does not receive a pension from a State. Whatever services he renders to the Commonwealth should be fully paid for. I hope that the Government, in re-organizing the Department, will see that the services of the best man available are secured, and that he will be given carte blanche to do the best he can for us. I say that because I believe that an independent officer could do better for us than we could do for ourselves. Particularly is that so in regard to the redistribution of electorates. We have not enough information to judge properly in regard to that work. The right honorable member for Swan admitted that the Commissioner who prepared the redistribution scheme for Western Australia just prior to the last general elections is a man of ability and experience, for whom he has the greatest respect, and yet he told us that he should have done this, that, or the other, instead of doing what he did. The more knowledge honorable members have about electoral matters the greater will be the differences of opinion in regard to any proposed scheme, and the greater the need for an independent officer who can finally settle the matter.

Mr Fisher - Does the honorable member propose to intrust the whole of our electoral machinery to a Commission?


Mr Fisher - If that were done, no one would be responsible for errors.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The Commissioner would be responsible just as the Public Service Commissioner is responsible, and could be indicted if he did wrong. I would make the salary of the Commissioner subject to the annual appropriation of Parliament, which would give Parliament control over him. I do not think he should be placed beyon'd Parliamentary criticism or control j but he should be left absolutely free in connexion, with the vital work of redistribution.

Mr Poynton - If what the honorable member proposes were done, the Commissioner would not be removed from political influence.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) -- He would be so far as his immediate work was concerned. That work would be reviewed afterwards, when his salary came to be voted.

Mr Watson - Under such an arrangement, there would be as much political influence as there is now.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I do not think so. The Commissioner's work would have been finished by the time his salary came to be voted, and we should have secured the advantage of free action on his part in. regard to the redistribution of seats. The honorable member for Maranoa objects to my proposal, because of something which occurred in Queensland in connexion with the appointment of a Commissioner. The officer to whom he referred, however, was appointed by the Government. My proposal is that Parliament, not the Executive, should choose the Commissioner, and leave him free to do his work as he thought right. There should be more than one Commissioner, or, if only one Commissioner, a staff of State inspectors, because our Commonwealth electoral machinery requires constant policing and attention during every month of the year. For instance, in my electorate at the last elections over 600 informal votes were polled. In some parts of the electorate Assistant Returning Officers treated as informal votes which were not treated as informal in other parts of the electorate, and in two places where' the number of votes cast was the same, there were 120 and twenty informal votes respectively., It is important 'that we should have uniformity in regard to a matter of that kind, otherwise, at a close election, it would be the officers in charge of the various booths, and not the public themselves, who would determine who should be chosen.

Mr Poynton - The instructions which are now issued provide for uniformity.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - It often happens that two officers will interpret the same instructions differently. I suggest that an electoral inspector should be appointed for each State, whose tin.e would be occupied in seeing that the returning officers all understood their instructions in the same way.

Mr Poynton - There is no need for inspectors in South Australia to prevent the casting of informal votes.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - That may be because there are only seven electorates, in South Australia. In populous States like New South Wales and Victoria, or where a State is as large as Queensland is, and population is scattered all over , it, there would be ample work for inspectors. The greatest need, however, is that the Department shall have an efficient head, and that no political influence shall be used. There should be both continuity of administration, and uniformity of method, so far' as they can be secured. I do not see how that is possible while the Department is under the control of Ministers who are here today and gone to-morrow. The honorable member for Maranoa, for instance, told us of a case in which the right honorable member for Swan, when Minister of Home

Affairs, decided to give a Queensland officer a bonus of £20, which the honorable member for Boothby, who succeeded him, reduced to £7. If decisions may be altered in this way through Ministerial interference, it shows that there can be no continuity of administration, whereas both continuity and uniformity are essential to efficiency. If they are secured, and a good man is placed in control of the Department, we shall have done all that human ingenuity can contrive for electoral administration.

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