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Tuesday, 14 October 1975
Page: 2049

Mr GARLAND (Curtin) -The Opposition has considered these 6 Bills and finds that they are identical with a Bill which was introduced into this House and which has been debated in some detail on 2 separate occasions. It was supported by the Australian Labor Party and opposed by the Liberal Party and the National Country Party of Australia. That being the case, it passed this House but did not pass the Senate on either occasion. The first point one must make is that it is surely a surprising and disturbing thing to see the Government engaged in this basically futile exercise when it has such great matters and great problems- mainly caused by itself- with which to concern itself. They are matters which affect the people. Opposition members are particularly concerned because we see a continuance of that endeavour to change the electoral laws of this country in order to suit the Australian Labor Party and nobody else. We had a Bill in front of us before- the Electoral Laws Amendment Bill- which contained a whole package of proposals. I have spoken on it twice before and so has the Minister for Administrative Services (Mr Daly), yet it is brought back to us today dissected into 6 pieces.

I hope you, Mr Deputy Speaker, will permit me to say very early in this debate, because apparently it is likely to be a long one, that the Opposition- and I believe I speak for all honourable members- wishes to express condolences to the Minister, the honourable Fred Daly, on the recent and sudden death of his wife and for that reason we understand fully why he cannot be here today. I might add that although I did not have the honour, I believe, of meeting Mrs Daly many have mentioned to me that she was highly regarded by all who knew her.

Nevertheless, we have in front of us serious matters and I must on behalf of the Opposition do my duty in speaking somewhat bluntly about them. I have already said some blunt things. I believe deeply that this Bill is one of a number of Bills by which it is intended to gain political advantage for the present Labor Government and the Australian Labor Party as a whole. They know that without the proposals in these Bills which seek to change electoral boundaries in this country they have very little hope of retaining at the next election many of the seats now held by Labor supporters. It is not a question of needing these proposals to win. They need them to survive. We only have to look, I suppose, at things like the scandalous overseas loans affair, the Government running out of money and how it has mismanaged the economy to see how great is its need to rig the electoral laws. Look at the example we had quite recently of the changes of boundaries which were included in several Bills, one for each State. Why is it that this legislation is before us again? We know that had the proposed boundary changes been agreed to the Labor Party would have won a greater percentage of seats in certain States and its percentage of votes -

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Dr Jenkins)Order!I think the honourable member will realise that I allowed him some latitude in his introductory remarks, but a request for a cognate debate has been refused and we are specifically dealing with Electoral Bill (No. 2) 1975 which deals with optional preferential voting. I would ask the honourable member to get to the subject of the Bill very quickly.

Mr GARLAND - Yes, I certainly take your advice, Mr Deputy Speaker. I was about to say that this Bill is a part of that package of proposals to which I referred. With respect, Mr Deputy Speaker, I say that it is part of the motives of the Government and it is part of a total package which needs to be mentioned if one is to explain fully the views of the Opposition in respect of it. I would like to add that- this was said in the last debate on this legislation- considering our opposition to a number of points but our agreement to others, we looked forward firstly to some sort of consultation. After all, would it not have been sensible to try to get some measure of agreement among the parties on electoral changes rather than to come here and present a confrontation situation now for the third time?

Mr Donald Cameron (GRIFFITH, QUEENSLAND) - Bulldozing.

Mr GARLAND - Yes, bulldozing. That is very true. That is exactly what the Government has tried to do.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER -Order! The honourable member for Griffith has no special privileges in this House. He is interjecting from the floor of the chamber. If he does so again I will take action. It is too frequent an occurrence.

Mr GARLAND - Secondly, no reason has been offered as to why the electoral proposals were divided into 6 Bills. I am disappointed about this division. The Minister took the opportunity of speaking 6 times- to the inconvenience of a large number of honourable members- on various aspects of the legislation. Each of the Bills contains a number of issues. The division is bad anyway. Instead of having 6 Bills we could have had 2 Bills, one covering proposals on which there was common ground and one containing proposals about which there was known to be disagreement. This division is bad because even having divided the proposals into 6 Bills there are still some points in some of the Bills that I will refer to later which the Opposition can find acceptable and others that it cannot.

This Bill refers to optional preferential voting at Senate elections. The Minister, in his second reading speech presented to this House on 28 August, and which appears at pages 709, 710 and 71 1 of Hansard, made a very partisan party political speech. It was not the calm, rational speech of one who is really after reform, as he said in one passage. It was a speech which expressed a great deal of intended confrontation. He spoke at one point about it being a more realistic and less cumbersome voting procedure. He spoke of it as being a non-partisan objective in spite of the abuse that he sprinkled liberally around in that speech. He said that the proposals are in no way designed to favour a particular political party. It is extraordinary that he should say this, knowing the opposition that has been expressed to this measure on so many occasions. He referred to certain assemblies- he mentioned them- which have this system, but for entirely different reasons. So I must say I was disappointed with the arguments he put up; one would have expected them perhaps to be stronger. I just mention reasonably briefly what the Opposition's view on this is, having referred to the motives which clearly exist and incidentally are to be heard discussed frequently in the corridors in this place among members of various parties.

The purpose of the Bill is to provide for optional preferential marking of ballot papers at Senate elections. As I said, this proposal was a part of the Electoral Laws Amendment Bill. The principal clauses of the Bill under discussion deal with how ballot papers are to be marked, what constitutes an informal ballot paper and the scrutiny of votes. Under the Government's proposal a voter at a Senate election will be required to indicate on his or her ballot paper preference for at least the number of vacancies to be filled. The voter may extend his preferences beyond the minimum, but this is the voter's option. The Opposition, of course, opposes this because it is the first step by the Government towards its aim of first past the post voting. That is what is really sought in this Bill. This was a compromise when the Labor Party, whose policy originally was for first past the post voting, decided that it was not saleable and that it would have to retreat from it.

What is intended in this Bill is to try to create a situation in which people are encouraged, if not at the first election then at a later election, not to go down the list of preferences and not to express a view about those candidates that to them are less favoured. That is, of course, the whole point of our traditional preferential system. The point and the fairness of it is that each person expresses a preference for each candidate on the ballot paper. He does not in fact have to mark the last one because clearly that candidate will come last, but he may do so. The basic fairness of that is this: If he votes No. 1 or No. 2 for candidates who, as it turns out when the votes are counted, are less favoured candidates, then, if he has to fill in the whole of the ballot paper, ultimately he has a say in determining which of the two most favoured candidates comes last or, in the case of the Senate, the two most favoured teams. That is the inherent fairness of that system and that is why Australia, which when its electoral systems were being set up was naturally interested in trying to achieve the fairest system- by the way, Australia was one of the first countries to give the vote to women and also to provide for secret ballots- adopted the system of full preferential voting. That system was fair and most likely to result in having the real wishes of the electorate recorded. Of course the Australian Labor Party does not worry much about fair systems. Its interest is in getting the maximum number of candidates elected whatever the system may be, particularly at the moment. So members of the Labor Party come along here with a lot of spurious arguments about the percentage of informal votes and so on. In one section of his second reading speech the Minister for Administrative Services said:

Of course there will always be a number of electors who fail to record a valid vote irrespective of the voting system.

That was ground out of him after about 6 columns of Hansard. I suppose that he felt that the rest of his speech had to be balanced up a little bit. Of course that is quite right. The percentage of informal votes is a factor but nevertheless it will never be extinguished.

Let me refer to this matter of the average informal vote in Senate elections. Let us all agree that because of the large number of candidates for Senate elections and perhaps in many cases because of the number of candidates whose names are not well known, there will be a significant number of people who will vote informally either unintentionally or intentionally. The average informal vote at Senate elections is about 10 per cent. I have in front of me the percentages of informal votes recorded at Senate elections since 1949. They are: 10.76 per cent, 7.13 per cent, 4.45 per cent, 9.63 per cent, 10.29 per cent, 10.62 per cent, 6.98 per cent, 6.10 per cent, 9.41 per cent and in May last year, 10.77 per cent. In spite of the fact that one State had, I think, 73 candidates, the fact of the matter was that the overwhelming majority of electors were able to work out quite easily how to vote formally. Of course the Australian people are quite intelligent enough to number a ballot paper if they want to. Anybody who has scrutineered and seen ballot papers being counted will know that quite a number of them are blank. A blank ballot paper shows that it is not a question of somebody making a mistake and having his vote ruled out; he does not want to vote. There will always be a percentage of those deliberately informal votes.

So an argument which attempts to encourage people into a first past the post system, which the Government hopes will aid its candidates, is of course a very weak argument. No doubt when this Bill gets to the Senate and perhaps this afternoon in this House others will continue to expose this argument. We are for a full preferential system which provides for each elector the right to express a preference in favour of every candidate on the ballot paper. After all, the Government cannot complain. The percentages of votes it has received in Senate elections have been represented pretty closely by the percentage of senators it has had elected. But I point out that the Australian Labor Party has not had great success in getting a majority of senators in the Senate. That, of course, is the real reason why it wants to change the system. The system does not suit it. It is not getting enough senators elected. That is the motive behind this legislation and every honourable member in this House privately knows that that is so.

Of course the argument in favour of the first past the post system is that it will aid the Labor Party. As I said, the Labor Party had that as a policy. It now tries to meet any opposition in the middle. Who can say, with the Government's interest in promoting propaganda in its own direction, what campaign would be waged, if that system were adopted, in favour of greatly simplifying the system, as the Government would say, and encouraging people just to vote for the Labor Party team and for no one else? The people do have rights and they must be protected. I say in respect to this Bill, and with more relevance in respect of a Bill to be dealt with later, it is important that individuals have the right of full expression of their vote and also the right to nominate. That nomination is part of their right. For the Government to criticise an election in which there happened to be more candidates than before and to say that that is a bad thing and confusing and so on is only to say that it does not want the system to proceed as it is. The Government wants to change it and to tighten the system in its interest. I believe that that is wrong both immediately and certainly in the long term.

In brief, that is why the Opposition takes this view. This Bills deals specifically with optional preference voting on ballot papers for Senate elections. The next Bill to be discussed deals with the House of Representatives. I conclude by saying that all the legislation is part of the one package. The principles embodied in this Bill were in the package of the Bill that was before this House on 13 November last year, again on 10 April this year and now in separated form we have it before us again. What an idea of priorities! The other and linked attempts to change the system are those electoral boundary alterations which now are embodied in Bills, though they were not previously, and also the attempt to bring in provisions in respect of donations plainly have emerged in the debate as an effort to improve part of the electoral process in favour of the Australian Labor Party. The Opposition opposes the Bill.

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