Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Thursday, 21 June 1906

Mr GROOM (Darling Downs) (Minister of Home Affairs) . - The honorable member who moved this motion stated that he desired to introduce it in an inoffensive form, that he desired to obtain an expression of the opinion of the House, and not in any way to take up the attitude of dictating to the Government the exercise of His Majesty's prerogative. After all is said and done, what is aimed at is an early dissolution of the House, involving the exercise of the* Royal prerogative, which, as a rule, is exercised on the advice of His Majesty's Ministers. On the face of it the motion is certainly inoffensive, and should not necessarily introduce party politics; but under cover of it the honorable member has made a few remarks which seem to indicate that it has been introduced from his own political stand-point. He suggested, for instance, that if the elections were not held at the time he desired certain persons in the community would not have an opportunity to express their opinions on important questions, anil that, as a result, the judgment of the electors might be different.

Mr McColl - That is a pure fabrica-tion.

Mr GROOM - If I have misunderstood the honorable member I withdraw the statement ; but I understood1' him to say that the country will be called upon to decide serious issues, and that if the elections are held in the month of December, certain electors being unable to express their opinions, a certain other section of the community will have better chances. Under cover of this innocent motion the honorable member also indicated that the Government were not expressing their opinions upon the absolute facts before them, but were under the control of a certain political party in this House. I think that that statement was made clearly enough, and I can inform the honorable member that no single member on this side has approached me as Minister of Home Affairs with any suggestion as to the date on which the elections shall be held. When the Electoral Bill was being considered last year, I made the statementand I think that the Prime Minister made a similar one - in reference to a motion brought before the House bv the honorable member for Echuca - that all that could be done would be done to expedite the holding of the general elections at the earliest date practicable. That promise has been kept in view ever since. It is the desire of the Government that the general elections shall take place at the earliest date practicable, and the fixing of the polling day will not be determined by political considerations of any kind.

Mr Robinson - This will be the first Ministry in the world which has acted in such a way.

Mr GROOM - Then we shall be setting an example for the honorable and learned member, perhaps, to follow. It must not be forgotten that, in making preparations for a general election, we were faced with the difficult problem of how to put the representation! of New South Wales and Victoria on a proper, definite, legal basis. We brought in the Representation Bill, and it was passed by this House.


Mr GROOM - I think that it was. Our action was acquiesced in and supported by even the members of the Opposition-

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Of course ; but the Bill was not necessary.

Mr GROOM - It was absolutely necessary. It laid down certain conditions.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - When a previous redistribution was proposed, Ministers did not think such a measure necessary.

Mr GROOM - - Because the figures did not show absolutely the need for an alteration in the representation.


Mr GROOM - It is a fact. Of course, the honorable member is entitled to his ' opinions ; but we considered the measure necessary to remove all doubts, and to put matters on a clear, definite, legal basis. Our object was to give to each State the representation to which it is entitled, and, while the honorable member may disagree with me as to the need for the measure, I am sure that he is of opinion that its object was a good one. The Act was assented to on the 23rd November, 1.905 ; but before that we had taken steps to bring its provisions into operation, and, on the nth December, proclaimed the date for an enumeration. Immediately that had been done, copies of the Act were sent to the States Premiers, inviting their cooperation, and, on the 23rd December, letters had been forwarded to the Statisticians of the States, asking them to get in readiness all necessary figures and information. The enumeration of all the States was completed .in time to allow of the issue of the necessary certificates on the 12th January of the present year.

Mr Johnson - These things should make it easy to expedite the holding of the general elections.

Mr GROOM - I refer to them to show that I have done all that I could to expedite matters.

Mr Mcwilliams - Why was the reorganization of the office left so late?

Mr GROOM - That is another matter, with, which I shall deal later. When we knew what the representation of each State should be, we communicated with the Commissioners whom it was proposed to appointto make the necessary redistributions, got their consent to act, and supplied! them with all necessary data, so that, before the end of February, their commissions had been issued, and they were at work. We received the report from Western Australia on the 1 8th, and that from Queensland on the 20th April, white the New South, Wales report was received on the 3rd, and the Victorian report on the 16th May. In the meantime, acting on the assumption that Parliament would accept the redistributions without- alteration. we had communicated with the Governments of the States, asking for the services of the police in connexion with the readjustment of the rolls by the assignment of electors to the new polling places. It has been said that the electoral distributions went through this House because of a collapse ; but it was not due to a collapse that we put them through the Senate in the same week.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Have any of the rolls been printed?

Mr GROOM - No; because we have not yet received from the police the information that must be obtained before any printing can be done. In Victoria, the report was made only quite recently, in fact a couple of months or so ago.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The services of the police are required, I suppose, to arrange the electors according to the polling places ?

Mr GROOM - Yes. Of course, a number of alterations hare had to be made in Victoria because of the reduction of the number of divisions from twenty-three to twenty-two. The police are engaged in assigning electors to the most suitable polling places in the new divisions. Some of the old polling places have been absolutely cut in two.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - A border lini: has divided them.

Mr GROOM - Yes. This is not work which could be clone in a day or two, and it is impossible to say, when so many contingencies have to be taken into account, on what date, three or four months ahead, the elections can be held. We have about 5,000 registrars throughout Australia, some of them acting in the suburbs of Melbourne and the adjacent country, and others as far away as the northern parts of Queensland, Port Darwin, and the remote places in Western Australia. In the Grey division of South Australia, the chief centre is Petersburg, and if the divisional returning officer wishes to correspond with the registrars in the Northern Territory, which forms part of that division, his letters have to be sent half way round the Continent by sea, and the replies returned over the same enormous distance. Maranoa is an immense division of which the boundaries have been changed, and the police are now in its outlving districts in search of information. Even where divisional boundaries have not been altered, we are irvine to get the most up-to-date information before reprinting the rolls.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - When is it proposed to begin the printing of the rolls ?

Mr GROOM - The registrars have been asked to send in, as soon as possible, all information available; but the Chief Electoral Officer cannot yet say when the registrars of a State like Western Australia will be able to comply with that instruction. After this information has been sent to the Commonwealth electoral officers of each State, true copies of the rolls will have to be prepared, and these will be sent to the various Government printing offices. Thus it will be seen that the preparation of the rolls cannot be materially hastened bv the employment of extra assistance, though instructions have been given to employ additional hands wherever that may be necessary to secure expedition. When once the copies of the rolls are in the hands of the various Government Printers, it will be possible to make an estimate of the time which will be required to print them, though experience shows that these estimates will not be accurate to within a week.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The printing will take seven or eight weeks.

Mr GROOM - In one State it will take ten weeks.

Mr Mcwilliams - It should not take so long.

Mr GROOM - In Victoria the Government Printing Office has to cope with a, the work entailed bv the printing and publication of the records of this and the State Parliament, and the printing of She electoral rolls will be a very heavy additional burden.

Mr Crouch - The police have not yet started to work in Victoria.

Mr GROOM - They started some time ago.

Mr Watson - Are they going round New South Wales, too?

Mr GROOM - Yes. Instructions were issued some time ago, and they are now collecting information.

Mr Watkins - Are they collecting fresh names?

Mr GROOM - Thev make their usual annual canvass on the 1st July. We have asked them, whilst they are making their annual canvass, to make a comparison with our rolls, and to send us such additional information as will enable us to bring our rolls up to date.

Mr HUME COOK (BOURKE, VICTORIA) - Is that being done in Victoria?

Mr GROOM -- No. In Victoria they have not an annual collection, as in New South Wales. We are merely taking advantage of the electoral machinery that they have in that State.

Mr HUME COOK (BOURKE, VICTORIA) - Will not the Victorian Electoral Department work with the Commonwealth Department ?

Mr GROOM - Yes, and we intend to utilize the State electoral machinery as much as possible.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Will the New South Wales Electoral Department work with the Commonwealth ?

Mr GROOM - Yes, and all the necessary instructions have been given. In Queensland a collection has recently been made, and we find that many additional names can be placed upon our rolls. We find that in Tasmania there are many additional names on the State rolls, and we have asked the assistance of the -police in the compilation of our rolls, in order that they may be rendered as complete as possible. In every State we are endeavouring to make the rolls as perfect as possible. All this is causing a very heavy strain on the Department, and extra work beyond anything that was contemplated. We hope that when we arrive at electoral uniformity, and the State and Commonwealth authorities are able to co-operate, there will be an annual collection throughout the Commonwealth, as is now the case in New South Wales. I am merely mentioning these facts to enable honorable members to realize the enormous difficulties in the compilation of the rolls, and in the readjustment due to the desire on the part of the Government to give each State the representation to which it is entitled. The officers of the Department have had to work extremely hard, and the Acting Chief Electoral Officer, Mr. Bingie, who has been doing the electoral work, in addition to discharging his duties as chief clerk, has laboured so assiduously that he has injured his health. I think that it is only due to that officer, who has been working admirably, and w.hose reputation may be affected if the Electoral Department has not accomplished all that has been expected of it, to mention what has been done. I have only, so far, reached the stage of printing the rolls. After the rolls have been printed they will have to be distributed throughout the length and breadth of Australia.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - It is understood that the printing of the rolls will take about ten weeks ?

Mr GROOM - Yes, I understand that the work will occupy that time in Victoria i.

Mr Mcwilliams - Ten weeks seems to be a ridiculously long time.

Mr GROOM - The Victorian printing office has three rolls to print, and if I can arrange to have the work done in less than ten weeks, I shall do so. All the State printing offices have clone their best to print the rolls expeditiously. They have been working up to their full capacity.

Mr Mauger - They are working up to ten and eleven o'clock at night in the Victorian office.

Mr GROOM - In connexion with the publication pf the reports of the Electoral Commissioners, I gave instructions that wherever the Commissioners required assistance it was to be at once granted to them. Therefore, there was no excuse for unnecessary delay in that direction. When the rolls are printed, thev will have to be distributed all over Australia. If, for instance, we printed the Western Australian rolls here, thev would" have to be despatched to that State, and some of them would have to be sent along the northern coast as far as Wyndham. Sir John Forrest.- Why should they be printed here?

Mr GROOM - Because it was found last year that it was not practicable to have them printed in Western Australia. It is my desire to have the rolls printed in Western Australia, and, if satisfactory arrangements can be made, I shall see' that the work is done there.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - All that the Minister is saying shows that there is an impossible centralized control.

Mr GROOM - Nothing of the kind. My predecessor authorized the printing of the rolls in Melbourne, and I think that be acted quite properly under the circumstances. The printing could not be done in Western Australia. I am merely relating a few facts which are inconsistent with the statements made bv the honorable member. The distribution of the rolls will occupy a considerable time; but if the elections can be held on or about the date mentioned in the motion - the question as to whether it is practicable will, of course, have to be decided by the Governor in Council - every effort will be made in that direction. I have here a complete table showing exactly what has been done. The Commonwealth electoral officers have been working day and night, including Saturday nights, in order to push on with the work.

Mr Mcwilliams - -Why was not the office reorganized at an earlier date?

Mr GROOM - I do not know. I think that the permanent appointments should have taken place before I took office. When I assumed control, I found that all the most important offices were filled by gentlemen who had been temporarily appointed. In Queensland we had an excellent official, who was borrowed from the Postal Department. He was carrying out the work efficiently, but he was unable to continue to do so without interfering seriously with his ordinary duties. It was, therefore, necessary to appoint a man who could' devote the whole of his time to the work. I found it necessary to have a Chief Electoral Officer, and to appoint in three of the States Commonwealth permanent electoral officers. These appointments would have been necessary even if the Electoral Office had been administered through the Postal Department. We still hope that the States Governments will come into line with us, and do away with the necessity for two sets of officers to perform practically the same work. We have been in communication with the States Governments, and a Conference of the States and Commonwealth electoral officials has been held, with a view to ascertaining if we cannot harmonise our arrangements ;and save a large sum of money. If we succeed in this direction, we shall have a more efficient system of registration, and better rolls, and also effect considerable economies. I mention these facts in order to show honorable members the difficulties which would beset the Chief Electoral Officer if he were told that the election must take place by a certain date.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The Minister has not mentioned that all the arrangements have been upset owing to his having declined to take notice of what another Government had done.

Mr GROOM - That is not so. I had such a regard for the State represented bv the honorable member that, when I found that its representation rested on an unconstitutional basis, I preferred to place it on a legal basis that could not be questioned. .

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The Prime Minister is responsible for that, owing to the mistake that was made in connexion with the distribution.

Mr GROOM - No, he was not. All that happened was that certain statistics were published that did not reveal the necessity for a distribution.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - But the Government went through the process of redistribution.

Mr GROOM - That was done on the assumption that the action was constitutional, but doubts were subsequently raised. I think that the representatives of Victoria fully appreciate the value of the opinion given bv no less a person than Mr. Irvine, who advised that the then proceeding was unconstitutional.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - He advised that it would be unconstitutional under any circumstances to give New South Wales an extra representative, whilst taking one away from Victoria.

Mr GROOM - I do not think so; he questions the unconstitutionality of acting upon the figures that were published. Since then the necessary legal basis has been sup- . plied. Last year the honorable member for Echuca asked that we should arrange to hold the election at the earliest possible date. I promised the honorable member that I would endeavour to do so, and I think that I have given sufficient evidence to show that that promise has been kept, and that it will be honoured. As we move forward we shall endeavour to arrange for the holding of the election at the earliest possible date. In fixing the date, we shall1 have to look at the matter from an Australian stand-point, and must not be unduly influenced by consideration for Victoria, for New South Wales, or for any other State. If it is found that owing to the harvest in Victoria it ,is impossible for the farmers to go to the poll upon the date of election, it will be a matter for consideration whether some system should not be devised to enable them to record their votes by the machinery of the ballot. The honorable member for Echuca is not the only champion of the farmers. There are honorable members on this side of the House who are direct representatives of the farming section of the community, and who have studied their interests perhaps even more closely than the honorable member has done. It would be well for the honorable member to consider whether his present course of political action is likely to conduce to the interests of those whom he is desirous to serve. We have always borne in mind the interests of the farmers, and will continue to do so, because we recognise that they form one of the most deserving sections of the community. We have, however, to consider the interests of the whole of the electors, and have to fix a date that will be best for all concerned. That matter is now receiving consideration. If honorable members express the opinion that the election should be held at the earliest possible date, thev will merely be declaring themselves in favour of that which has already been done, and is still being carried out bv the officials administering the Department, both at the head office and at every branch throughout the Commonwealth.

Suggest corrections