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Wednesday, 2 November 1904

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) (Minister of Home Affairs) . - I have no objection to lay upon the table any correspondence bearing upon the questions dealt with by the Electoral Committee, but I should like the honorable member to indicate, privately, exactly what he means. I need hardly say that I shall give the matters to which honorable members have referred my most careful consideration. I believe that nearly every one of those matters has already had my attention. I quite agree with the remarks of those honorable members who supported the suggestion of the honorable member for Parramatta that it is necessary to give attention to the important matter of redistributing the electoral boundaries. I feel as strongly now as I did previously the necessity for conferring that equality of voting power which can. only be provided by some approximate equality in the distribution of the electors.

Mr Fisher - Allowing for a margin.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Of course the margin is provided by the Act.

Mr Mahon - When is that work to be done?

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - There has been no delay in attending to the matter. Of course it is necessary to ascertain with some degree of accuracy the number of electors in the different divisions throughout Australia before any redistribution of electoral boundaries can be effected. The collection of the rolls is now proceeding in some of the States, and it is completed in others.

Mr Tudor - In what State has it been completed ?


Mr Tudor - Has it been completed in Victoria ?

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - It is nearly completed in this State. In one or two other States, such as South Australia and Western Australia, where, owing to some difference between the States and the Commonwealth, delay was occasioned in the completion of arrangements for the collection of the lists, the work will occupy four or five weeks longer. When it is complete we shall have an approximately accurate return of the number of electors in every division of the Commonwealth. It will then be the duty of the Government to take the steps provided for in the Act by appointing Commissioners to whom the work of redistribution will be committed.

Mr Mauger - I hope that more than one Commissioner will be appointed for eachState.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The Act provides for the appointment of one Commissioner only in each State, and we must be governed in that, and in other operations, by the provisions of the statute. The necessity for amending the law is recognised by myself, as it was by my predecessors in office. There are some alterations which the Electoral Committee have recommended, there are others which have been recommended by the Department, and still others which have been rendered necessary by recent decisions of the High Court. There are others, again, for which the Government must accept responsibility when they are proposed, and which will possibly include an alteration of the administrative system under the Act.

Mr Mauger - What about an exhaustive ballot?

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I do not propose to discuss questions of policy at the present time, because to do so would enlarge the debate too much. Whilst I hold strong views as to the direction which anv reform should take, those views have not yet been submitted to the Cabinet. They have been purposely withheld, because I felt it was desirable that we should await the report of the Electoral Committee before considering the whole of the amend ments which we might decide to be necessary. It has been agreed that it is impossible to pass an Amending Electoral Act during the present session, but I can assure honorable members that the matter is receiving the very fullest consideration. Should I occupy my present position next session, I hope to bring forward an amending measure, dealing with all those matters which' have been brought under the notice of the House to-day. The honorable and learned member for Bendigo has alluded to the necessity of arranging for a proper supervision of polling places. He brought that matter under my notice some time ago, and, in view of a possible election, arrangements have been made for proper control at polling places, and for the exclusion of those who have no right within their precincts.

Mr Tudor - Was that complaint a general one?

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I do nof think so. I have received complaints from only one or two honorable members. Lax supervision occurred in isolated instances.

Mr Mauger - It. occurred in the city, too.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The Act may need some amendment in that respect. At the present time the powers conferred by it are scarcely large enough to prevent some undesirable things occurring at some of the booths. Then a number of honorable members have drawn attention to the rates which are paid to electoral officers. The honorable and learned member for Bendigo spoke of the low remuneration which was given to registrars. He quoted one instance in which a registrar received as low a sum as 2s. 6d. In this connexion I desire to say that it has been found desirable to pay these officers according tot he number of names which appear upon the rolls. In the first place, they are paid is. 6d. per 100 for entering up the names. Afterwards, for attending to their correctness, noting removals, making additions, &c, they are allowed 2s. 6d. per 100. These payments aggregate a considerable sum. If we increased the charge by is. per 100 it would mean an additional expenditure of £1,000 per annum. Where a registrar received only 2s. 6d., there could only have been 100 names upon the roll. It has been found that there are a great number of officers in the service who are ready to undertake this work at the rates quoted-

Mr Mauger - Surely that fact would not influence the Minister's decision.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Not necessarily, though I am of opinion that public work of this character ought to be performed by citizens in some cases for nothing. But as it is not the rule to accept services for nothing, a rate should be fixed which is reasonable.

Mr Tudor - Are the registrars paid 2s. 6d. per 100 for all the names upon the toll ?


Mr Tudor - Probably 80 per cent, of them would involve no work at all.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Exactly. I claim that we require further experience before we are justified in saying that the present rates are not sufficient. I believe that there were justifiable complaints regarding the payments to certain officers lor work performed upon polling day. In this connexion a new scale of fees is being arranged with which the officers so employed have expressed satisfaction, and which, it is believed, will remove the dissatisfaction which was experienced in some instances at the late general election. A question has also been raised in regard to the revision of the rolls. It is most desirable that that revision should, if possible, take place at certain specified times. But I would point out that at the present time it is quite undesirable to have a revision, and for this reason : if we are to have a redistribution of electoral boundaries, it is idle to incur the enormous expenditure of revising and printing the rolls for the present divisions.

Mr Tudor - Then how will the Minister be able to ascertain the number of voters in any particular electorate?

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - From the collected list. The old roll, with all its imperfections, will be taken and checked by the lists which are collected by the police, by the information supplied by Returning Officers, and by the applications received from electors. Those names which should not be upon the rolls will be struck off. Supplementary rolls will then be prepared, and the names which are not upon the original rolls, but which should be there, will appear upon these. Of course the re-grouping which is proceeding, will cause the alterations to be very extensive. We shall have to strike off from certain polling places upon the original toll a large number of voters, not because they are not resident there and entitled to exercise the franchise, but because of the necessity to include them in the group to which they properly belong. These rolls can be prepared for the Returning Officers. But,- however anxious we may be to produce a revised roll, it is manifest that unless we needlessly expend many thousands of pounds we cannot accomplish our purpose until the redistribution of the electoral divisions has been effected.

Mr Page - Will the Minister make, the necessary inquiries in regard to the population of Queensland, so as to ascertain whether that State is entitled to ten representatives ?

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - As the honorable member has mentioned it, I may say now, instead of later, that what he suggests will be done, and full attention will be given to the matter. A specific complaint has been made regarding an alleged promise to grant Divisional Returning Officers at the last general elections a bonus of £20 in addition to fixing their salaries. That matter was decided by ray predecessor. In justice to him I may say that he decided it upon the ground that there are in the Department copies of the letters which were sent to each Divisional Returning Officer when he was appointed, and which distinctly set forth that the allowance was to be at the rate of £26 per annum. He found no evidence of any promise that would alter the arrangement recorded in those letters, and unless I had information before me which he did not possess it would not be my duty to reverse his decision.

Mr Page - Some of them received the allowance.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - But not on that ground.. I shall explain to the honorable member what is the exact position. To reverse my predecessor's decision in the absence of fresh information would be to carry party government to an undesirable extent. I accepted his decision on the facts then, before him, but I shall be prepared to receive evidence either of an individual promise or of a general promise to the Divisional Returning Officers that an allowance of £20 would be made in respect of the election in question, in addition to the annual salary of £26. If such evidence were forthcoming, I should feel it incumbent upon me' as Minister to carry out the promise, although its fulfilment would involve the Commonwealth in an expenditure of from £1,100 to £1,200.

Mr Page - Some promise must have been made or they would not have been paid £7 to make up the extra amount.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - That payment was not made as the result of any decision arrived at by me. I intend to explain to the Committee the facts as reported to me in regard to the matter. The attention of the Minister was drawn to the fact that at the first election the work was very heavy - heavier possibly than it would be at any subsequent election, and it was claimed that there ought to be - and some said- it was promised that there would tie - an allowance of £20 to each Divisional Returning Officer in respect to that election. The Minister then said that he would grant an allowance of £20 in respect of the period from October, 1903, to March, 1904, but that from the last-named date the rate of pay would be £26 per annum. He came to this decision because it was during the period named the great bulk of the work involved by the holding of the general election had to be carried out. His decision really amounted to this : that they were to receive an allowance of £20 for that period, less that which they had already been paid as salary, his determination being that the payment of a salary was not to begin until after March, 1904. They were to receive the allowance of £20, less about £13 they would have received by way of salary, making a difference of £] 10s. 2d.

Mr Watson - They received that additional amount for the special work performed by them.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Yes ; the Minister took the view that no promise was made, and that, consequently, if they were to receive a special allowance they should not receive the ordinary yearly allowance. If this decision were to be taken as a precedent for paying an allowance of £20 to every Divisional Returning Officer at each election it would result in the Commonwealth being put to unnecessary expense. I quite admit that there may have been some special claims for consideration in connexion with the first general election. That fact has been recognised in dealing with Divisional Returning Officers, who were not in the service of the Commonwealth or a State, but those who were so employed have not received this consideration. This course was adopted, I believe, because it was determined, if possible, that none but State or Commonwealth officers should in future be employed as Divisional Returning Officers. Under this decision the services of those who are not members of the Commonwealth or a State service might not be required at future elections, and it was thought that as they would have been employed only during a time of hard work, and would not be acting at a time when merely routine work would have to be performed, they ought to be specially considered to the extent named. Whilst I must stand by the decision given on the facts then before the Minister, I have only to say that if the statement made by the honorable member for Canobolas can be supported by receivable evidence - I may say that it is denied by the Chief Electoral Officer - I shall consider that the Government are called upon to fulfil the promise; but until such evidence be forthcoming, I shall have to stand by the decision of my predecessor.

Mr Fisher - The honorable gentleman would need evidence to reverse the contention of the Chief Electoral Officer.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - He questioned whether the promise was made. The honorable member for Canobolas says that the Chief Electoral Officer must have forgotten that he made it at a Conference of Divisional Returning Officers.

Mr Watson - He would not have made such a promise without authority.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - If it were made, the Ministry should support it. We should not encourage officers to believe that an allowance will be paid to them, and then refuse to grant it ; but in the absence of proof of any such promise, I have only to point out that a letter was addressed to these officers, stating that the rate of pay would be £26 per annum. Allusion has been made to the appointment of a Chief Electoral Officer for Queensland. I believe that the appointment of an officer whose duty will be confined ,to the work of the Electoral Office in that State will prove an economy, rather than an expense. This officer was engaged in the Post and Telegraph Department, at a salary of £280 per annum, but he has been transferred to the Electoral Office at a salary of £260 per annum. He accepted the lower salary, because the transfer meant that he would be stationed at Brisbane, where he preferred to reside, whereas had he remained in the Post and Telegraph Department he would probably have been transferred to the country. The head of his Department has reported very favorably upon his qualifications, and speaks of him as an officer likely to render effective service in the Electoral Office. I have no hesitation in saying, from my experience of the Department, that if we have an officer giving his full attention to the electoral business of the Commonwealth in so large a State as Queensland - a State embracing a very wide area, and including a large number of polling places - we shall easily save his salary as compared with the results of having an officer giving only partial attention to the work.

Mr Page - When the Minister pays a visit to Brisbane I should like him to call at the office and to see what this gentleman has to do.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The honorable member is thinking of a period when the officer devoted only part of his time to the work. He is thinking of Mr. Woodyatt.

Mr Page - That is so.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Howcould he be in the Electoral Office all day when he was required in the Post and Telegraph Department?

Mr Page - It seems that the Post and Telegraph Department could do without him when he had to attend to electoral matters.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - But the calls made upon him were becoming so numerous that it was absolutely impossible for him to attend to his dual duties. How could we expect any election to be properly carried out unless the framework of the system had been properly prepared in advance? Over 800 registrars are required for the different polling booths in Queensland, and although the Department has been endeavouring to secure these men, I believe that so far only about sixty have been appointed. I am not blaming the electoral officer who has been acting in Queensland, for his attention has been so taken up with State matters that he has not been able to attend to this work ; but I have had to say that these appointments shall be made without further delay. I believe' that the attention given by an officer who is able to devote the whole of his time to electoral matters in so large a State as Queensland will not result in any loss to the Commonwealth. As a matter of fact, this change should save Queensland expenditure. I do not mean to suggest that the officer appointed is a more competent man than is Mr. Wpodyatt. Mr. Woodyatt is a very good officer, but we shall effect a saving by having a man able to devote the whole instead of only a part of his time to the duties of the Electoral Office in. that State. I quite agree with the honorable member for Eden-Monaro that an effort should be made to-co-operate with the States in regard to our electoral system. We would have to assimilate our franchise as much as possible, in order that that cooperation may be effective ; but in any event we must look to co-operation with the States to bring about the greatest saving in electoral matters to the people of Australia. We must recognise more and more that the Parliaments of the Commonwealth and of the States are acting for the one people, and that our franchise must come into line to a greater and greater extent. If this be done, co-operation between the States and the Commonwealth will increase.

Mr Mauger - An uniform franchise will be necessary.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Of course a uniform franchise would be desirable, but a great deal could be accomplished by mutual agreement between the States and the Commonwealth, even without a uniform franchise. I may say by way of illustration, that I struck out an item on the Estimates, as submitted to me, to provide for the expenditure of several thousands of pounds for ballot boxes for the Commonwealth, holding that the same boxes should be made suitable for both Commonwealth and State purposes.

Mr Brown - Is it not a fact that the New South Wales Government caused the alterations made in the ballot boxes for the purposes of the Commonwealth to be removed ?

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - They did, for the reason that the attachments which we had made to them were so clumsy that it interfered with their handling.

Mr Tudor - There was no necessity to have an attachment under the method of counting.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - A second locked lid has to be provided under the Act. I think that instead of inserting such a provision in the Act itself, we should have left the matter to be dealt with " as prescribed." An attachment has now been devised which will do away with the difficulty. It has no staples and no outside locks.

Mr Page - Which invention have the Government accepted - the one with the slide?

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Yes. An inexpensive alteration only will be necessary to make the State ballot boxes suitable for both Commonwealth and State purposes. There are a variety of ways in which we shall be able to co-operate with the States; and as regards some of the matters I hope an agreement will be arrived at during the recess. The honorable member for Canobolas raised the question as to whether it was desirable to confine electoral positions to States and Commonwealth officers. I do not intend to discuss that matter, as it involves a question of policy which will have to be put forward when the Bill to amend the Electoral Act is before us next session. There is something to be said on both sides Of the question. I have arrived at a certain conclusion ; but whilst I shall give every attention to the honorable member's remarks, I do not desire at this stage to discuss the matter.

Mr Brown - What about giving the control of the Department to a Commissioner?

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - That is another question of policy. There is something to be said for the proposal, but I could say a very great deal against it. I have formed my own opinion on the subject, and if that opinion receives the approval of the Cabinet, I shall be ready to discuss the matter here. The Commonwealth, however, should never lose its grip of the expenditure in connexion with Federal electoral matters. Those matters extend over such a range of territory, and embrace the affairs of so many polling-places, many of them in outlying districts, that if this Parliament has not a close grip of the expenditure, it might increase by tens of thousands of pounds.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - On the other hand, if it takes too tight a grip, it may destroy the efficiency of the Department.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I agree with the honorable member in that; there are the two extremes. I am not going to enter into any question of policy at the present time; but whatever system may "be adopted, it is important that the Commonwealth Parlia-- ment should have a tight and strong grip of the expenditure of the Electoral Department. Honorable members> will understand, when they are informed that there is an army of some 7,000 officials required to conduct the Federal general elections, and to carry on electoral work between elections, how a very slight increase of expenditure by, or upon each of those officials, would increase the expenditure of the Department very largely. I agree with the honorable member for Parramatta, however, that we should not push economy to an extreme, and thus cause inefficiency. There is a mean between the two extremes, and it should be adopted.

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