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Friday, 8 December 1905

Mr ROBINSON (Wannon) - I do not intend to detain the House at any length in discussing this measure. There are, I believe, a number of desirable amendments in our electoral law proposed in this Bill. These, I think, should be carefully scrutinized by honorable members, in view of the very trying experiences of most candidates at the last general election. Upon that occasion, I think that a number of us received hints as to the manner in which the Act requires to be amended. Certain practices which were then adopted seem to me to involve a great deal of delay and needless worry. For example, in Victoria, the method of counting the votes was totally different from that which was previously adopted in this State. The result was that candidates were kept on the "grid-iron" for very much longer than was necessary, and the suspense of their friends and relations was also needlessly protracted. I see no valid reason why the method which was formerly adopted in Victoria should not be again resorted to. Under it, the practice was to count the number of votes recorded at each polling-place, and to send it on to the returning officer for the district. Thus the grand total of the votes cast at the various polling-places could be very speedily "ascertained. But under the system which was followed at the last general election, the returns of the different booths were grouped, with the result that an immense amount of duplication occurred, not in the actual counting of the votes, but in the records which were made public. As a candidate who represents a scattered district, I can assure the House that it is not a pleasant thing to be kept upon the "grid-iron" so long. Every honorable member must sympathize with the honorable member for Riverina in the very trying experience through which' he passed at the same election. We all recognise that it is a very serious matter when an honorable member, through' no fault of his own. is subjected to the enormous outlay which he was obliged to incur in litigation, and in contesting a second election. . At the same time, I cannot see my way to support his proposal to refer all disputed 'elections 10 a Parliamentary Committee instead of to the High Court. The experience which the Federation had of an Elections and Qualifications Committee was not of a hopeful character. Honorable members will recollect that, during the first Commonwealth Parliament, a petition against the return of an honorable member was. presented in another place. The proceedings connected with the hearing of that petition were of .such a prolonged, expensive, technical, and partisan character, that they convinced a great number of honorable members that it was highly desirable to refer the decision of all such cases to a judicial body. It was that experience which led honorable members to depart from Hie old system, and to insert in the Electoral Act a provision that all disputed elections should be determined by the High Court. It is only natural to assume that a Committee selected from both sides of the House - when the question at issue is one which is open to debate - will be capable of being influenced by party considerations. In Great Britain it used to be the practice to refer disputed elections to a Parliamentary Committee. That practice, however, was deliberately abolished bv the House of Commons, which transferred its privileges in the matter to a judicial body in which it was thought the public would have greater confidence. I know that there is to be found in the records of the Victorian Parliament a case in which the return of Mr. Levien, for Geelong, was disputed.

Mr Mauger - That was a verv bad affair.

Mir. ROBINSON.- Most decidedly it was. The petition against his return 'was heard- by a Parliamentary Committee, and that case shows how - during the heat of a great political contest - a tribunal of that kind may be influenced bv party considerations. We should guard against that possibility, and, therefore, I am not prepared to support the honorable member for Riverina in the step which he contemplates. If, however, some procedure can be adopted which will reduce the cost of a reference to the High Court, I shall be very pleased indeed. Experience frequently shows that bodies of laymen are, themselves, the most technical of individuals. I remember being connected with a parliamentary petition before an Elections and Qualifications Committee in Victoria, and', without reflecting in the slightest degree upon its members^ I can say that they took an extremely technical view of certain sections of the Constitution - a much more technical! view than would have been taken by a Court. That experience is by no means uncommon. When laymen are placed in positions which require them to give decisions upon legal or quasi legal questions, they frequently record extremely technical decisions. The question of offences against the Electoral law is also dealt with in this Bill. At an early stage of the sittings of this Parliament, I expressed the opinion that we should provide, in a more comprehensive fashion, that candidates guilty of certain offences should be unseated. If honorable members will look at the existing Act, they will notice a list of offences for which certain punishments are prescribed. Those punishments do not seem to me - although they are severe enough from a monetary stand-point - to be by any means adequate. If it is desirable to restrict the expenses incurred by candidates at elections, I hold that the individual who exceeds the limit prescribed by law should be liable to lose his seat instead of being punished by a trumpery fine, as he is at present. The Minister informs me that it is proposed that if a candidate commits an illegal act, which is likely to affect the result of an election, he shall forfeit his seat. That, I think, is a most desirable amendment. Prior to the last election it appeared to me that, although the existing Act purported to provide for the infliction of heavy penalties for certain breaches of the law, and to provide a very severe code for the conduct of elections, yet in actual practice there was nothing to prevent a wealthy and unscrupulous individual from absolutely disregarding most of those provisions. For my own part, I think that the cost of elections should be kept as low as possible, because the Federal constituencies are so large that a new candidate must necessarily have a fairly hard row to hoe. In the interests of the public, every man should have an opportunity to contest a seat. There is one other matter to which I wish to refer. I should like to know what is the necessity for providing for voting by post when we allow those absent from the districts in which they reside to use the absent voters' certificates, or what are known as " Q " forms. Let me put a concrete instance of the position before the House. At the last general election I was 150 miles from the district in which I reside. I therefore proposed to vote by post, and actually applied for a voting by post form. I found, however, that to comply with all the red tape provisions relating to voting by post would mean that my ballot-paper would not be lodged in time. I therefore went to a polling booth, which, as I have said, was 150 miles from that in respect of which I was enrolled, and voted for both Houses on the absent declaration form. In that way I. was able to record my vote promptly, and without any great expense to the Government, whilst there was a total absence of the red tape rules relating to voting by post. If every man who is absent from his own polling district can avail himself of the absent declaration form, why should we have voting by post?

Mr Page - A man working on a railway line some distance from a booth might be able to vote, but what would be the position of his wife and adult daughters if voting by post were abolished.

Mr ROBINSON - That is a good point. I admit that there is some justification for the system of voting by post, so far as it relates to females. It seems to me, however, that the system should be lightly availed of by men who are absent from the district in which they reside, because the absent declaration form offers them a readier means of exercising the franchise.

Mr Salmon - Voting by post is to accommodate a man who cannot go to any polling booth. -

Mr ROBINSON - Polling booths are so numerous that it is almost impossible for a man to avoid being near one of them.

Mr Salmon - But the honorable and learned member would not abolish voting by post?

Mr ROBINSON - I would not, since I have ascertained that in the case of female voters it might be largely used. From their point' of view it ought to be retained. It seems to me that the provisions of the Act relating to the issue of absent voters' certificates were not sufficiently well known at the last general election, and that consequently many persons were debarred from voting, because they believed it too late to secure voting by post forms. These are matters, however, that can best be dealt with in Committee, and I, therefore, shall not further detain the House.

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