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Thursday, 21 June 1906

Mr SPENCE (Darling) . - I fully expected that when the question as to the date upon which the elections should be held was raised, consideration would be given to the interests of all classes of electors. Instead of that, it appears that a certain number of farmers in Victoria - a small percentage of them - desire that a date shall be fixed that will be suitable to them, without paying consideration to any other class. I wish to enter my emphatic protest against this attempt to show favour to one class over another. We are here to represent, not any particular section of the community, but the whole of the humanity of Australia. We represent the electors, not as they are associated with the possession of property of one kind or another, but merely as men and women, and every elector is entitled to equal consideration. The first suggestion that the elections should be held in October, to meet the convenience of the farmers, was made bv the Farmers and Property Owners' Defence League. In the interests of a much more numerous class, whom I thought were entitled to equal consideration. I addressed a letter to the Prime Minister objecting to the elections being held in October.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The Minister stated that no attempt had been made to influence the Government in regard to the date of the election.

Mr SPENCE - Honorable members are too fond of insinuating that the Go- vernment are liable to be influenced by members of the Labour Party. I merely wrote a letter containing a statement of fact, namely, that October would be the most unsuitable month that could be selected so far as the shearers were concerned.

Mr McLean - What about class representation now ?

Mr SPENCE - The principal sinner in that respect is the leader of the Opposition, who has expressed his approval of trie attitude assumed bv the Property Owners' Defence League. Now we find the honorable member for Echuca, the deputy leader of the Opposition, and the honorable member for Gippsland, taking up a similar attitude. The honorable member for Gippsland' had a good deal to say about the imposition of a tax upon the farmers. I do not know who is going to make such a proposal.

Mr McLean - The honorable member's leader has announced his intention to do so.

Mr SPENCE - No, he has not. He has announced that he is in favour of taxing the big estates.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - And he has, at the same time, indicated that the States Parliaments will look after the taxation of the smaller men.

Mr SPENCE - Nothing has been said by any member of our party in advocacy of a tax upon farmers. In dealing with this question, we should consider what date will prove most suitable for all parties. Unfortunately, any date in the latter half of the year is unsuitable for a certain proportion of the electors. I believe March would be the best month to select. I have no objection to the fixing of a date that would be convenient for the farmers, but I claim that the interests of other classes must also be considered. If the_elections were held at harvest time, many more farm labourers than farmers would be disfranchised, and, if in October or November, many thousands of shearers who could not take advantage of the postal vote, would be unable to go to the poll. The farmer, who has a home, and a postal address, is in a much better position to avail himself of the facilities for voting by post than is the nomadic shearer or shed hand, who does not know when he will have to change his address. A shearer cannot tell definitely when the shed! in which he is engaged will cut out, or the shed to which he will next proceed, so that there are practical difficulties in the way of shearers availing themselves of the postal vote. In New South Wales shearing begins in July or August, and is in progress in some parts of that State at the end of the year. The great bulk of the shearing, however, is done in September and October, whilst shearing in Victoria practically begins in October. In New South Wales and Queensland the shearing sheds are great distances apart, and in many cases three weeks are occupied1 before a reply can be obtained to a letter despatched from one of the shearing sheds to the metropolis. We find that there is something behind this movement ostensibly in> the interests of the farmer. What is now being proposed is merely a means to an end. The honorable member for Echuca began his address by referring to the influence exercised by the Labour Party, and to the desirability of bringing about a radical change in this Parliament. I should like to know why this reference should be made to party politics in connexion with the subject now under discussion. It is apparent to me that an effort is being made to fix such a date that a large number of those who vote for labour representatives will be disfranchised. It seems to me that it would be disgraceful if such a result were brought about.


Mr SPENCE - The honorable member for Parramatta, who cheers my statement, was one of those who were responsible for the introduction of party politics into this discussion.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I merely replied to the remarks made by the honorable member for Bland.

Mr SPENCE - The idea underlying this movement for the holding of the elections at an earlier date than previously is to, if possible, weaken the Labour Party, and I strongly protest against any assistance being lent to those who desire to bring about that result. I do not wish to see the supporters of any party disfranchised. I think that equal opportunities should be given to all classes. The farmer may be put to some slight inconvenience in proceeding to the poll at harvest time ; but, unless the weather conditions are quite exceptional, he runs very little risk of loss. The farm labourer, who has to stop work in order to record his vote, loses his pay, and that is an important matter to him. In these days of improved machinery the farmer runs little or no risk. Then, again, we know very well that a comparatively small number of crops ripen simultaneously, and therefore only a small percentage of farmers would be harvesting on election day. In fact, if the Government could arrange for the election to take place on a wet day, the farmers would have no right to complain. The Government, in dealing with this matter, must consider the whole of the Commonwealth, and not take into account the conditions which prevail in any particular district. The harvesting season varies in different parts of the Commonwealth, and a date that would be convenient for the Victorian farmers might be extremely unsuitable for those located in other places. If the elections are held at an early date, as has been suggested, thousands of shearers - there are 16,000 shearers in the New South Wales union alone; - will be disfranchised.

Mr McLean - The honorable member must know that there are far more farmers than there are shearers.

Mr SPENCE - There are not. The honorable member knows that what I say is perfectly correct. There is, a percentage of farmers only who are interested in the holding of the elections at a certain period of the year. I need scarcely point out that all the shearing sheds do not start operations upon the same d'are, neither do all the farmers commence reaping their crops simultaneously. I maintain that the agriculturists who engage in harvesting at a particular period of the year comprise but a limited number of the farming class. The latter need not lose a single vote if they choose to exercise it. Upon more than one occasion we have heard the leader of the Opposition use strong language in speaking of those who were careless, and apathetic enough not to record their votes. It 'is quite a new thing to learn that the farmers were prevented from voting at the last election.

Mr Robinson - I know hundreds qf farmers who were prevented from exercising the franchise.

Mr SPENCE - Hitherto the complaint has been that they were too careless to vote. Have honorable members forgotten the evidence which was taken by the Electoral Commission? Have they forgotten the statement made by various witnesses that members of the capitalistic class would not take the trouble to cross the street in order to vote, unless they were paid for sio doing ?

In my own electorate there is a very large number of shearers. These men are not apathetic. They would drive 50,' 60, or even 100 miles to exercise the franchise. They are live men and intelligent citizens of the Commonwealth. The farmers have buggies and horses, and every facility to enable them to attend the polling-booth, and I repeat that the percentage of those whose operations would prevent them from recording their votes! in November or December is verv small. I was rather suspicious when I learned that the leader of the Opposition was eagerly jumping at the chance of holding the elections in October. But this afternoon, the honorable member for Echuca has given the show away. He has told us that the object of the move is to strike a blow at the Labour Party, with a view to restoring the two-party system in this House. Is not that practically a confirmation of my statement that if the elections are held in October or November a large body of men who .are notoriously labour supporters will be disfranchised?

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Did not the honorable member for Bland say the other day that we were working for the restoration of the two-party system?

Mr SPENCE - -I do not mind if the Labour Party sweeps the polls and becomes the dominant party in this Parliament. But what has that to do with the date of holding the next general elections? I say that no party considerations should be allowed to obtrude themselves in the discussion of a motion of this character. I never anticipated that ideas of that character would find expression in the National Legislature. Whilst we must consider the occupations of the people to the extent of seeing that the general elections are fieldi at the time which is suitable to the majority, we should go no further. I am quite prepared to leave the fixing of the date of the elections in the hands of the Government.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Which, of course, means leaving it in the hands of the Labour Party.

Mr SPENCE - That is merely one of those platform cries which members of the Opposition so frequently use to gull the electors. The same honorable relations exist between the Labour Party ' and _ the present Government as existed in New South Wales between that party, and the Government of which the honorable member was a Minister. I challenge him to say that there was anything dishonorable in the relations between those two parties.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I have heard such things suggested, and promptly repudiated.

Mr SPENCE - The honorable member is sometimes very suspicious without good cause. I maintain that any time between July and the end of the year is an inconvenient one at which to hold the elections, because it is at that period that the industrial activities of country residents are the greatest. Of the classes that are inconvenienced under the existing arrangement, the farmers have the greatest opportunity of taking advantage of the electoral provisions for voting by post. For that reason the later in the year that the elections are held the better. I have no doubt that the Minister will procure information from various farming districts of the Commonwealth.

Mr McLean - With due regard to the honorable member's letter.

Mr.SPENCE.-The honorable member for Gippsland seems to entertain the idea that somebody else is always anxious to secure concessions for a particular class. I am sorry that I should be called upon to act: as a missionary in any endeavours to enlighten him. T. say that if the elections are held in October, more persons will be disfranchised than if they are held later in the year. I have not heard that any large number of farmers were prevented from voting at the last election, although I am aware that some of them were very apathetic about the exercise of the franchise. I trust that the motion will be rejected. The honorable member who brought it forward should be content with having had the matter ventilated. I quite admit that the most suitable period for all parties at which to hold the elections would be about March. Taking the Commonwealth as a whole, it will be found that a considerable number of electors will be disfranchised, no matter when the elections are held. I hope that this matter will be left entirely in the hands of the Government. Assuming that the motion be carried, what effect can it have? It seems to me that, having ventilated the 'matter, the honorable member for Echuca might well withdraw his proposal. He must know that the Government will select the most suitable date upon which to hold the elections. The brunt of the attack made by members of the Opposition this afternoon has been directed, not against the Ministry, but against the Labour Party. If the Opposition wish to see only two parties in this House, why do they not join the Labour Party and wipe out the Government? We have heard of such things having been done in connexion with the States Parliaments in the past, but I hope that in the higher and purer atmosphere of Federal politics, of which we heard so much in preFederation days, no such suggestion will be made. Hence my protest against these references to party views. We should, I think, make ready for some change in the Constitution,fixing the election at an earlier period. I shall not go info that matter, which involves very much more than the mere alteration of the date of the election. Honorable members will agree that it would be necessary to alter the time when a senator should be assumed to have taken his seat. It would be manifestly unfair that a senator elected in March should be unable totake his seat until the following January and that in the meantime, the State concerned should be represented by a man who might have been rejected by the electors. There are bigger questions involved than the mere date of election, but the matter is one which we must face, if we do not desire that the elections shall continue to be held at a most unsuitable time. Honorable members know that at one time we gave up nearly six months of our legitimate term of office, and it is now agreed that we were rather foolish to do so. The elections were first of all held in March, and that practice should have been continued. We took the course we did in order to save the money of the people of the Commonwealth, but we have never had any thanks for doing so. On the contrary, complaints are frequently made that our expenditure is extravagant. It would be wise, I think, for us to revert to the previous position, and the necessity for some alteration should not be lost sight of by the Government. I have suggested what I believe would be a remedy for a condition of things which is admittedly unsatisfactory, and which would enable the elections to be held at a time which would be convenient for the majority of the electors.

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