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Wednesday, 2 November 1904

Mr FISHER (Wide Bay) - I do not agree with the honorable member for Parramatta that a Commissioner would administer the electoral law more efficiently than it is now administered by Ministerial control. I do not approve of the suggestion that we should appoint a person outside Parliament to deal with important and complex matters of this kind, and take from him responsibility which now attaches to Ministers. Party Government has given opportunity for the display of a good deal of fair-mindedness on the part of members of various Administrations. It is a singular commentary on the question which has been raised- that nothing has been said during this debate on the important matter which was discussed last session - the disfranchisement of electors which would come about if the present distribution of seats were allowed to continue.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The matter has been discussed.

Mr FISHER - The Prime Minister resigned his seat last session rather than remain in a Parliament which had rejected a redistribution scheme. One would have thought .that the first measure of a Government at whose head he was would' be to bring in a Bill to correct the anomalies against which he inveighed.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - A Bill is not necessary. The right honorable gentleman's complaint was that the redistribution of seats which was necessary had not been made.

Mr FISHER - The right honorable gentleman protested against the action of this House in rejecting a scheme of redistribution put forward by a Commissioner appointed by the then Government. He resigned his seat in order to emphasize what he considered a departure from the true principles of representative Government.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - He said that the Government of the day should have asked for a new scheme of redistribution, if they were not prepared to accept the original scheme.

Mr FISHER - I understand that he thought that the Ministry of the day were all but political manipulators of the worst type. The right honorable gentleman would not have taken that extreme step unless he considered that there was great danger of abuse, amounting to little short of political corruption. We have no guarantee that >the condition of affairs then complained of does not still exist, and, in view of the possibility of an appeal being made to the electors within a very short time, the remedy should be applied without] delay L 'think, (however, tha't /the Prime Minister absolutely failed to substantiate the statements he then made. So far as my own electorate is concerned, the number of votes polled was greater than that recorded in the Brisbane division, which had a very much larger number of electors on the roll, and where greater facilities existed for exercising the franchise. Another important matter is the necessity for securing uniformity in regard to the Federal franchise throughout the Commonwealth. In Victoria- and New South Wales, certain persons are included in the calculations made for the purpose of arriving at the number of representatives to which the States are entitled. In Queensland, the same class of persons are excluded from the calculation, and I do not see why the operation of any State law should prevent the whole of the States from being treated upon the same footing.

Sir George Turner - The Constitution provides for that.

Mr FISHER - The Constitution provides for uniform treatment, but a certain interpretation has been placed upon one of the Queensland Acts, which disentitles that State to (have included in the count certain classes of aliens. The whole question turns upon the interpretation of the word "all," in section 25 of the Constitution, which reads as follows: -

For the purposes of the last section, if by the law of any State all persons of any race are disqualified from voting at elections for the more numerous House of the Parliament of the State, then in reckoning the people of the State or of the Commonwealth, persons of that race resident in that State shall not be counted.

The whole of the population of Victoria, New South Wales, and Tasmania are counted for the purpose of arriving at the proportionate representation to which those States are entitled. Queensland has 18,038 aliens, South Australia 2,805, and Western Australia 4,999, who are not included in the count. Our contention is that some of the aliens in Queensland, of the class excluded, do exercise the franchise, but the point has been taken that that applies only to the case of those who have a property qualification, and that, therefore, under the provision in the Constitution, all persons of the race to which they belong should be excluded from the count. If all the States were treated alike, and all the aliens were excluded from .the count, New South Wales would, according to .the returns compiled upon the 30th June, 1903, be entitled to twenty-six representatives, Victoria to twenty-two, instead of twenty-three. Queensland to ten. instead of nine, South Australia to seven, and Western Australia and Tasmania to the minimum number, 5. I contend that a wrong interpretation has been placed upon the Constitution, and that Queensland is, in consequence, being deprived of its full representation. I think it is highly desirable that the Government should be in a position to present reliable statistical information to honorable members, so that in dealing with matters of this kind, we may feel assured that we are upon safe ground. I am glad that the Government favour the establishment of a Statistical Department, which will enable Ministers to present accurate statistical data to Parliament. I hope that the earliest opportunity will be availed of to introduce a Bill to provide for the redistribution of seats, and the proper representation of the various States. I heartily approve of the proposal, which I understand has found favour with the Minister of Home Affairs, namely, that of re-grouping within the various districts the assistant returning officers, and investing them with larger powers. The divisional returning officer is at present the only person who can exercise the full discretion allowed to electoral officers under the Act in regard to permitting electors to exercise the franchise when they are absent from the districts for which they are enrolled. I hope that a larger number of assistant returning officers will be appointed at convenient centres, and that such officers will be invested with all the powers of a divisional returning officer, except that of exercising the casting vote . I am sure that such an arrangement would prove economical, and would at the same time serve the convenience of the electors. I am not here to make loud complaints about the way in which the last election was carried out. I think that, taking everything into consideration, the results were satisfactory. That, however, would be no justification for continuing a system that might be improved, and I look forward with some interest to the introduction of a Bill which will cover all the suggestions that have been made by the Electoral Committee.

Mr. BROWN(Canobolas). - I understand from the Prime Minister that probably an opportunity will be afforded later on to discuss the report of the Electoral Act Committee. Some correspondence has passed between the Victorian Electoral Officer, Mr. Outtrim, and the Department of Home Affairs, on matters similar to those dealt with by the Committee, and as Mr. Outtrim was not examined by the Committee, I would ask the Minister to consider the advisableness of laying, the correspondence on the table, so that it may be discussed in conjunction with the report.

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