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Thursday, 31 May 1928

Mr THOMPSON (New England) .- I move-

That the following new clause be added: - 2a. Section forty-one of the principal act is amended -

(a)   by omitting from sub-section (1) the words " one month," and inserting in their stead the words " three months."

(b)   by omitting from sub-section (2) the words " one month," and inserting in their stead the words " three months."

I feel somewhat diffident in taking this action, because I understand that the Government is not prepared to accept the proposed new clause; but as a member of the Electoral Committee, which recommended that the act be amended in this direction, I feel it incumbent upon me to press the matter even to a division. The Electoral Committee gave very full consideration to this proposal. The fact that an amendment has already been agreed to extending from one month to three months the period which must elapse before a name can be removed from a roll, strengthens my claim for the acceptance of this new clause. As a matter of fact the one is a complement of the other. Of course it does not necessarily follow that the previous amendment relating to the removal of names from the roll depends for its administrative effectiveness upon the residential qualifications being three months instead of one month; but it is quite obvious that the adoption of that amendment removes a great deal of the objection held by the electoral officials to the residential qualification being three months' residence in an electorate. I invite honorable members to read the concluding portion of paragraph 25 of the report of the Electoral Committee. It deals with the question of migratory workers, upon which the previous amendment was based, and states -

The committee recommends that section 41 of the act be amended to provide that three months shall be the qualifying period of residence prior to enrolment instead of one month, and that the period for the removal of names from the roll be increased from one month to three months.

The Government turned down the former proposal on the ground, I understand, that the electoral officials had raised an objection to it. I know that on this side of the House there are many honorable members who hold very strongly the opinion that it is time some steps were taken to deal with the evil that hasgrown up in connexion with elections in Australia. I refer to the transference of large numbers of electors from one portion of the country to the other shortly before an election. Although it may not be specifically intended that they shall influence an election, that actually is the effect. I do not wish to raise a violent party issue on this question. I know, that honorable members opposite are adamant on the point that the residence qualification shall remain at one month. The electoral officials, I understand, take the. view that as the Commonwealth and the States, with the exception of Queensland, have come to an arrangement for the issue of joint rolls to be prepared and maintained by the Commonwealth, if my proposal were adopted they would have to deal with two residence qualifications : three months for the Commonwealth and one month for the States. They contend that it would enormously complicate the work of preparing the rolls, particularly as some persons having only the State qualification are migratory workers. Theysay that it would be much more difficult to make the necessary changes in the rolls with two distinct groups to handle. I discussed this question with various officials of the Electoral Department, and while I have every respect for their views, I do not agree that the proposal which I am making is unreasonable. It is claimed that the Commonwealth electoral system is the most efficient in the world. The select committee expressed this view in its report. It costs the Commonwealth a good deal of money to maintain the present system. We have 76 divisions, each with its permanent divisional returning officer and staff, and there is not the slightest doubt that the work is carried out in a highly efficient manner. There is also no doubt that, with the introduction of joint rolls, the work of the divisional returning officers will be much increased and more complicated; but surely the officials are the servants, and not the masters of this Parliament; and if, as a matter of policy, the majority of members hold the view that this change must be made, the Electoral Department should be expected to devise a way to overcome any technical difficulties that may arise in the handling in one roll of two groups of voters with different residential qualifications. Making all allowances for the objections to my proposal, I am unable to see one practical difficulty that really should prevent the amendment from being adopted. The electoral officials say that it is a matter of the rolls. Very well. To what extent are we dependent upon the printed rolls for the efficiency . of Commonwealth elections ? We know very well that there is no fixed period for the printing of the rolls. The work is done when the electoral officials are able to do it. Sometimes two years elapse before there is a reprint of the main rolls; but the officials are continually issuing supplementary rolls, and I maintain that the solution of all the difficulties that have been raised in connexion with my proposal lies in the supplementary rolls. It is obvious from what I have said that the main rolls do not count for a great deal, because they are continually changing. The movement of the Australian population is so great that electoral officials estimate that the alteration to the divisional rolls average 33^ per cent, per annum. In other words, the changes made in three years are equivalent to the preparation of an entirely new roll. To be effective, our main rolls should be reprinted at least once a year. This is not done. The Electoral Committee recommended that supplementary rolls should be issued once every six months, and I should like to emphasize that the most important of the supplementary rolls is the one that is issued just prior to an election. In the case of a Commonwealth election, advertisements are published in the press, and placards are issued ad- vising all persons entitled to enroll to make application by a certain date. It seems to me that it would be quite a simple matter for the electoral officials to carry that system a little further, and, if my amendment is carried, to intimate that persons with a residence qualification of three months must apply for enrolment by a certain date prior to the election. This would, ensure that every person entitled to vote for an election in connexion with the Federal Parliament, would be duly enrolled. In the case of a State election, the same procedure could be followed. An announcement could be made that persons with one month's residence qualification must apply for enrolment by a certain date. There would be two sets of residence qualifications, but all the electoral officials would have to do prior to a Federal election would be to issue notices regarding a three months' residence qualification, and prior to a State election, notices regarding the one month's residence qualification. The electoral officials also object, that because of the continual movement of the population, they experience great difficulty in keeping track of electors. They could get over that difficulty in a simple way, although it might mean a certain amount of extra printing, but that is inevitable under the system of joint rolls. In Victoria, where Federal and State electoral boundaries encroach upon each other, the practice is to print an addendum to each division. If my proposal is accepted, the joint rolls could be so printed as to indicate the electors with three months' qualification and those with the one month's qualification, or the letters " F " and " S " could be printed in the margin opposite the names of electors to indicate who are eligible to vote for Federal and who are eligible to vote for State elections. This would do away with the printing of an addendum to each subdivision. It is quite true that immediately the rolls were printed there would be a number of people qualifying to become enrolled as Commonwealth voters; but that happens now, so we should not be any worse off under the proposal which I am submitting.

Mr Fenton - What evidence has the honorable member in support of his earlier contention ?

Mr THOMPSON - I shall come to that later. Everything really depends upon the issue of a supplementary roll prior to an election. I think there are valid reasons why this amendment should be adopted. I am aware that honorable members opposite do not approve of it, but that is no reason why we, who can produce verse and chapter for our argument, should be afraid to advocate it. In my opinion, it is of vital importance that there should be some check upon the practice in certain States of transferring large bodies of voters, particularly navvies, into an electoral division about a month prior to an election, so that their names may be placed upon the supplementary rolls. In nearly every instance where this -packing of the electorate has taken place, the transfer of voters has been most pronounced just about a month before polling day, in order that the new voters may influence an election.

Mr Blakeley - The honorable member is making a very grave statement. What evidence has he to support it?

Mr THOMPSON - I am prepared to produce the evidence. What I am speaking of has been done in Queensland for fourteen years on a most scientific scale.

Mr Blakeley - Can the honorable member cite an instance of this practice in connexion with Commonwealth elections ?

Mr THOMPSON - I know that what I am saying is hurting honorable members opposite; it is about time that something hurt them. We know that it was done on a considerable scale in Western Australia just before the last election, and with Commonwealth money advanced for the construction of main roads in that State. It was done also in New South Wales in several electorates just before the last State election. It was openly stated in the. press in connexion with the Goulburn electorate, that Mr. Lang's " shock troops " had arrived.

Mr Blakeley - I remind the honorable member that the committee is discussing a. Commonwealth law.

Mr THOMPSON - What has hap pened in connexion with State elections may happen in Federal elections.

Mr PARKER MOLONEY (HUME, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Is this Government likely to do that?

Mr THOMPSON - This Government is not likely to do anything of the sort. But it does not follow that a government supported by honorable members opposite would knowingly do this. It might be done, even by a government representing the party to which I belong, without its being able to help itself. Certain railway works are now being started in various parts of New South Wales, and three or four electorates may be affected. The State Government of New South Wales, in order to give work to the unemployed in that State, may be forced to send hundreds of new voters into those electorates. These men may arrive there in time to have their names placed on the roll, and to sway the result of an election against the settled political opinion of the' permanent residents in those districts. A few months afterwards these workers may pass on to other districts, and the opinion that they helped to register at that particular election would not be representative of that of the permanent residents. Although this practice has been systematically carried out by various State Labour Governments for some years past, it is also liable to be done unwittingly by non-Labour Governments. It is significant that the one month's residence qualification enables this to be done on a fairly cheap scale; but, if that qualification were increased to three months' residence, a great deal more money would be required to put the scheme into operation wilfully. It would also prevent the possibility of the new voters being enrolled at the instigation of a government that did not realize what the effect of its action would be.

Mr Parkhill - They know what they are doing right enough.

Mr THOMPSON - There are certain railway works about to be started in New South Wales. The present Government in New South Wales is not likely to be actuated by a desire tobring about the" defeat of honorable members on this side ; but as these works have been promised,, that government is in honour bound to have them started, and it may have to draw a supply of labour from the cities where unemployment is rife. Possibly between the present time and the next Federal election, a sufficient num ber of new voters, who have no sympathy with the settled political opinion in the districts where those works will be in progress, may be enrolled in sufficient time to enable them to vote there.

Mr Blakeley - Then the honorable member suggests that we should stop building railways in the country districts !

Mr PARKER MOLONEY (HUME, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Confine public works to the cities.

Mr THOMPSON - I know that my amendment does not suit honorable members opposite; but if a person has resided in a district for three months he is more entitled to vote in that district than a mere newcomer who has been there only a month. After the lapse of three months he may fairly claim to be a permanent resident.

Mr Scullin - How the honorable member shows his love for the Australian workers !

Mr THOMPSON - I know that the proposal hurts honorable members opposite, and I am sorry to hear that the Government does not intend to support it. I am confident that if a majority of honorable members accepted it, it would bring about revolutionary methods in the conduct of elections in Australia. It would be the first blow struck at the pernicious practice of packing electorates. It would check Governments that do this deliberately, and it would also check those who unwittingly do it without being concerned about its effect on Federal politics. If the Government accepted the amendment it would be an incentive to State Governments, particularly nonLabour governments, to adopt the same practice. We might reasonably expect the Governments of New South Wales and South Australia, at least, to follow suit, and then we should have two States acting in conformity with the Commonwealth. The other State Governments could stand out if they wished. But it would not make any difference, because nobody would be disfranchised. It would mean a little extra work for the electoral officers; but not sufficient to justify us in postponing what is undoubtedly a muchneeded measure of electoral reform.

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