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Monday, 1 October 1906

Senator KEATING (Tasmania) (Honorary Minister) - As I stated in my, opening speech, this is wholly a machinery measure. It provides, not only for the method to be adopted in connexion with the forthcoming referenda, but for that which is to be followed in regard to any referenda which may be held hereafter.

Senator Clemons - The Minister is dealing only with referenda for the alteration of the Constitution.

Senator KEATING - Just so. Senator Pearce pointed out that it might be necessary to take a referendum with regard to some other matter. Section 128 of the Constitution deals directly with references to the people of proposed alterations of the provisions of the Constitution, and the Bill is intended to provide machinery for submitting questionsof that character. It would, however, be quite possible to precede a referendum upon any other subject by passing legislation embodying the machinery provided for in this measure as it stood on the statute-book, or with such modifications as might be necessary to meet the circumstances. It might be possible to deal generally with referenda other than those relating to alterations of the Constitution by passing a Bill embodying the principles of this measure, or some of them, with certain modifications. I see no objection to amending clause 7 so as to provide for immediately despatching a copy of the writ to the Governors of the States. Similar remarks would apply to Senator Pearce's criticism with regard to the absence of any provision empowering the Electoral Officer of the Commonwealth to appoint scrutineers. There may be some reason with which I am not familiar for not having made such provision, but, so far as I am personally concerned, I do not see why the Chief Electoral Officer, or the assistant electoral officers, should not exercise power similar to that reposed in the Governors of the States in regard to the appointment of scrutineers.

Senator Trenwith - The power to appoint scrutineers is vested in the States authorities merely to afford them protection.

Senator KEATING - There may be some objection of which I am not aware, or it may be superfluous to make the provision suggested by Senator Pearce. So far as Senator Pearce' s criticism of clause 27 is concerned, I would point out that the Commonwealth will not always necessarily be the defendant in the case of a dispute. Clause 26 provides that the validity of any referendum, or of any return or statement showing the vote, may be disputed by the Commonwealth, or by any State. The Commonwealth may consider that some irregularity has occurred, and that the true verdict of the people has not been returned, and they may regard it as necessary that the referendum should be inquired into, and its validity or regularity determined by a judicial tribunal. In such a case the Commonwealth would be the appellant,and a petition would have to be lodged and signed by the AttorneyGeneral, as the law officer representing the appellant. The criticism offered by Senator Drake would, perhaps, be more properly applicable to the policy of holding referenda relating to the alteration of the Constitution at the time of a general election. This is purely a machinery measure, whereas the honorable senator discussed a. question of policy. He suggested that the electors might be confused if two or three proposed alterations of the Constitution were submitted to them at the same time, and he has related his experience of the time of the last general elections in connexion with a matter submitted by administrative act to the electors of New South Wales. That cannot properly apply as criticism to this measure. It refers to policy as to when, and under what circumstances, to take the voice of the people upon a proposed alteration of the Constitution. That is the subject to which I submit the honorable senator's criticism of this Bill would be more properly applicable. I am not quite certain, but, if my memory serves me rightly, in the Dominion of Canada quite a number of elections are generally held on January 1st - sometimes legislative elections, sometimes municipal elections, and elections for other public bodies ; and I believe that of late years, the electors have also been consulted with regard to certain definite proposals, as, for example, the granting of what are called franchises by municipalities to private bodies. I think I have seen in the Canadian papers results of such elections. So far as I know, that method has not been found inconvenient. The contrary, indeed, has, I should think, been the Canadian experience. . The

Australian elector, as one who is called upon to take his part in the Government of this country, is in no way intellectually inferior to his Canadian cousin.

Senator Drake - Does the honorable senator say that the Canadian system in that respect has been a success ?

SenatorKEATING.- I think lithas been, and it is for that reason that in Canada the elector is called upon to carry out different electoral duties on one day. We also hope to find that method convenient when we are consulting such a large body as the aggregate Australian elector, and are submitting at one and the same time various subjects for his decision. An elector may not be very much interested in the personnel of the particular candidates for whom he has an opportunity to vote. He may, however, be very much interested in an' important proposal to amend the Constitution, and he will go to the poll to vote in respect of that. While there, he may choose also to exercise his franchise regarding the return of senators or a representative for the division in which he lives. On the other hand, he may not be very much interested in a proposed alteration of the Constitution, but may be interested in the personnel of the candidates offering themselves for election. He will go to the poll to vote for one of them, and beingthere he may also discharge "the other duty. From what I have seen of the Australian elector, I think he will take every opportunity to equip himself properly to discharge honestly and faithfully the duties devolving upon him. When the Constitution was being submitted to the people of the different States, they had, of course information furnished to them through the press, from the platform, and by means of discussions in various ways, for and against the acceptance of it. Later on, when certain alterations were made in the Constitution, some of which were purely textual amendments, while others were by way of addenda, the people were again appealed to. Copies of the Constitution containing the proposed alterations in different type - showing where words were proposed to be omitted or inserted - were circulated among the electors. I do not think that any honorable' senator . who is familiar with that campaign will say that the people showed themselves incompetent to deal with what were undoubtedly complicated issues.

With these facts in our minds, and recognising that this Bill has no particular application to any special submission of a proposed alteration of the Constitution to the people, but is intended to be in the nature of permanent machinery for ascertaining the will of the people hereafter, on any such submission, I can safely claim that the Bill is not one that is calculated to bring out any strength of party feeling. On the contrary, it is one in respect of which we can all unite in endeavouring to perfect it, so that referenda of this character in future will be taken in such a way that we can be assured that, as far as it can be definitely and fairly ascertained, the will of the people will have effect.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Bill read a second time.

In Committee :

Clauses1 to 3 agreed to.

Clause 4 -

1.   The provisions of Part X. (Voting by Post), Part XI. (the polling), and Part XV. (electoral offences) of the Commonwealth Electoral Acts 1902-1903 shall, so far as applicable, apply to the referendum as if it were an election of members of the House of Representatives, but subject to the modifications and provisions in this Act. (3.) In the application of Part X. of the said Acts-

(a)   the postal ballot-paper shall be in the Form A in the Schedule to this Act; and

(b)   Section118a shall be read as if the directions on Form A in the Schedule to this Act were substituted for those in the section.

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