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Wednesday, 25 October 1905

Senator GUTHRIE (South Australia) - Is it quite clear that the justices of the peace in every one of the States could act as witnesses to those signatures? My impression is that in South Australia justices of the peace, who witness signatures of the kind, have in mast cases to charge a fee.; and I do not see why the electors in that State should be thus handicapped. There is in force in- South Australia an old Ordinance of the year 1843, which provides that a magistrate shall charge a fee for the performance of this duty, unless ft be proved to his satisfaction that the party is unable to pay by reason of his poverty, F rom the schedule to that Ordinance, we learn that, for witnessing the signature to a declaration, a magistrate must charge a fee of one shilling, which, however, is not retained by the magistrate, but is sent on to the Government, with a quarterly return. Such fees have been charged, to my knowledge, in a number of cases during recent years in South Australia. Justices of the peace who belong to the same political party as myself, may, with a clear conscience, remit the fees because of the poverty of the parties concerned, so that the charge would weigh more against the other political party. The Constitution demands that Commonwealth legislation shall be uniform throughout the whole of the States, and I ask what provision the Government nave made in the Bill to tha*end?

Senator Walker - Commonwealth law supersedes State law.

Senator GUTHRIE - Yes, when that is absolutely stated in a Bill, but the present measure is silent on the point. My only desire is to see the law made uniform, and I hope the Minister is able to give us some information on the point.

Senator' KEATING(Tasmania- Honorary Minister). - Senator Guthrie need be under no apprehension as to any want of uniformity in the application of this provision. It is not proposed to throw on the elector the obligation to make a declaration. The declaration referred to in the Ordinance is undoubtedly the ordinary statutory declaration of the State, which in South Aus* tralia, as in other States, supersedes in many instances the affidavit. The Bill merely provides that justices of the peace may attest a signature to an application, such as never could have been in contemplation by those who drafted or passed the Ordinance. It is not a declaration in the ordinary sense, and certainly not one which would come within the meaning of the words of the Ordinance. There is no obligation thrown on the elector to do more than sign the prescribed form. The witnesses are authorised to attest the signature to an application created by, and peculiar to, the Bill, and at the same time we confer on them no power to charge any fee. Even if we had a declaration provided for, and empowered the authorized witnesses to attest it, the Ordinance would not apply. Commonwealth legislation will supersede theOrdinance, and a declaration created by Commonwealth legislation would not be in any way affected by the State legislation which has been quoted.

Senator PULSFORD(New South Wales). - The clause limits the power of the authorised witnesses by providing that they shall not sign any application Unless they actually know the applicant. It would, therefore, be pitiable if we were to eliminate such important witnesses as justices of the peace or medical men ; and I see no reason to prolong the discussion on so simple a matter.

Senator GIVENS(Queensland).- Senator Millen says that he cannot see the logic or consistency of refusing to allow justices of the peace to witness a signature, while we at the same time invest them with power to sit as a court of appeal in certain cases. But the Legislature frequently invests Judges of the Law Courts with power to decide certain matters, while altogether re fusing to allow them to be parties in any transactions which may lead to an action. There is, therefore, no inconsistency on the part of those who wish to prevent justices of the peace witnessing these signatures,* while at the same time they are prepared to invest them with the power to try certain cases arising under the Act. Is it not a fact that no Judge will witness an affidavit in connexion with a case brought before him for trial? A justice of the peace, under this provision, might witness a claim which would subsequently come before him in carrying out his functions as a magistrate. The argument of Senator Millen in the circumstances is void of all force. With respect to the advisability ot permitting justices of the peace to witness the signatures of applicants for postal ballot papers we are all very well aware that they have in many instances in the past acted indiscreetly and injudiciously in connexion with duties imposed on them by the electoral law. Some have gone the length of signing application forms in blank. That is a very reprehensible practice, and can only be accounted for on the assumption that they did so for political purposes.

Senator Pulsford - The next clause would put men who did that kind of thing in gaol for a month.

Senator GIVENS - If I had my way some of them would be there for six months or longer. We know that the majority of justices of the peace are appointed for purely partisan political reasons. I know men on the commission of the peace in Queensland and in New South Wales whose only qualifications for appointment was that they possessed a certain amount of money and performed certain services for the dominant party in politics at the time of their appointment. I know also of men who are fitted in no way for the position to which' they have been appointed. I would ask honorable senators who are opposed to the amendment whether it is not a fact that the chief qualification required of justices of the peace by those who have had the power to appoint them has been that they should possess a certain amount of wealth and occupy a certain position in the district in which they reside? One does not hear of poor men being appointed to the commission of the peace, and it must be admitted that a man's fitness for the position does not depend on the possession of great wealthSome of the poorest men in the community are as well fitted to perform the functions required of a justice of the peace as are many men possessed of hundreds of thousands of pounds. I do not for a moment say that the majority of the magistrates of the Commonwealth do not faithfully discharge their duties as such. I do not say that the majority are not men of high character, but I ' do say that a large number of them are such strong political partisans that they should not be intrusted with any function whatever connected with the administration; of our electoral law. I shall, therefore, vote for the amendment.

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