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Tuesday, 14 October 1975
Page: 2055

Mr GARLAND (Curtin) -This Bill and Electoral Bill (No. 2) have the purpose of providing for optional preferential marking of ballot papers. Electoral Bui (No. 2) dealt with elections for the Senate and this Bill incorporates a similar principle for House of Representatives elections. If this Bill were enacted a voter would need to mark only one preference. This would apply also in an election to fill a single Senate casual vacancy, as outlined in Electoral Bill (No. 2). So voters may indicate more than one preference if they wish to do so but it is not necessary.

The Opposition opposes this measure on very similar grounds to those on which it opposed Electoral Bill (No. 2). When speaking to Electoral Bill (No. 2) earlier I mentioned that this Bill is one of six into which the previous Electoral Laws Amendment Bill has now been divided for presentation to this House for the third time. The Bill is part of a package of proposals to change electoral boundaries and electoral laws purely in the interests of the Australian Labor Party. I repeat that the Government certainly needs to manipulate this system and has shown dogged determination to change the electoral system in its own favour, because it realises that if the present fair system continues it will be thrown out of office for its mismanagement of the economy and for other matters.

This Bill is put forward with the basic argument that the present system is unfair, unwieldy and so on. It is a specious argument. The Minister for Administrative Services (Mr Daly) made separate second reading speeches on these Bills. The speeches contained a certain amount of invective. Of course we do not agree with the principle at all. We are convinced that this is an effort of the Labor Party to change the electoral voting system to a first-past-the-post system, a system under which a person need mark a ' 1', or an 'X' if the law permitted, against one candidate no matter how many candidates there are. That is enough to record a valid vote.

This is a departure from the long held principle in this country that every elector should express a preference for every candidate. That is important because an elector cannot know- he may have some idea- who will be the most favoured candidates. He may well vote for somebody who in the event receives few votes and has little hope of being elected. If the elector votes initially for a minor candidate and gives a preference to the full number of candidates on the ballot paper ultimately his preferences will be distributed. He will ultimately have a say in the election of the last person and in particular between the 2 last and most favoured candidates. I suppose one would need to qualify that by saying that if a candidate has an absolute majority- that is 50 per cent of the votes plus one- the preferences are not necessary but in most elections they are necessary and in all elections they may be necessary. This is an old principle.

I said earlier- and these remarks are just as applicable to this Bill as to Electoral Bill (No. 2)- that when Australia was forming its electoral laws and procedures it was very keen to do better than the systems overseas, many of which contained a number of unfair provisions. Australia was one of the first countries to introduce universal franchise, votes for women, secret ballot and full preferential voting. We have held to that system by and large. One or two smaller assemblies use the other system. In most cases, perhaps in all cases, they had a special reason- which is not applicable to elections for the House of Representatives- for adopting that system. So our first and primary point in advocating that Australia should retain the full preferential system is that it is a fair system which results in each elector having a say in who is to be elected. All the POllS and predictions aside, one cannot know who is going to win until the votes are counted.

One of the specious arguments used is that the optional preferential system would reduce the number of informal votes. One only has to look at what we are talking about to see that that is not a very powerful argument. I have a list which shows the percentage of informal votes cast in elections in this country since 1949. They are 1.99 per cent, 1.9 per cent, 1.35 per cent, 2.88 per cent, 2.87 per cent, 2.56 per cent, 1.82 per cent, 3.1 per cent, 2.54 per cent, 2.17 per cent, and in the election last year, 1.92 per cent. Between 2 per cent and 3 per cent of voters vote informally. Some electors do so deliberately. If one scrutinises the ballot papers when the votes are being counted one sees that some are blank, some are spoiled in other ways and some are amusingly not blank.

Mr Kelly - Some of them are rude.

Mr GARLAND - Some of them are very rude. I said that some were amusingly not blank. But the point is that some people do not wish to vote. Of course, there is no law to prevent them from failing to vote. What they must do is present themselves at the polling places and have their names marked off. There will always be some people who will vote informally. I suppose it is part of their democratic right to vote in such a manner. But it is a specious argument to try to claim that optional preferential voting is an important advance in this respect.

Of course, the motive behind the whole package of the proposals being put to this Parliament now for the third time in under 12 months is that the legislation if passed would greatly help the Australian Labor Party get more votes, and in the present political climate preserve more of its members when we next go to an election. Really, the argument that the Australian people cannot mark a piece of paper one to three or four or five -

Mr Riordan - Or seventy-three.

Mr GARLAND - The Minister is in the wrong debate. He is talking about the last Bill. Is the Minister telling me that we are going to have a ballot paper with 70 names on it for a House of Representatives election?

Mr Riordan - You could have.

Mr GARLAND - Well, you could have. But I believe that the Australian people would be able to work it out as they did in respect of the ballot paper for New South Wales Senate candidates at the last election. But this has never happened before in respect of a House of Representatives election. So what the Minister is putting to me now is as specious an argument as was put by the Minister for Administrative Services (Mr Daly) when he introduced the present Bill recently and similar Bills on 2 previous occasions. The Government just is not on firm ground. The Government really wants to produce a situation in which it can get from a few votes some sort of preferential treatment. It hopes that some people who vote for minor candidates ultimately will not have any preferential say because if this legislation were passsed the Government would further amend the law to provide for first past the voting. The Government would then be able to split the votes of its opponents even though those votes in total might exceed the votes for the Government candidate. The Government seeks to implement a system whereby fewer nonLabor candidates are elected to this place.

That is what the legislation is all about. The Government proposes to introduce an optional preferential system. Once it has encouraged people not to vote fully on the basis of a preferential system it will come back and say: 'Well, people do not want to use this system; we will change it to a first past the post system'. Of course, the Australian Labor Party had a policy of first past the post voting. However, it had to abandon this policy because it was found to be very unpopular. In fact, compaigns were conducted in this country in respect of such a system. Quite a big campaign was conducted a few years ago to try to get people to respond to this system. It was actually an attempt to say to people: 'Look, you do not want to have to go through this performance every two or three years of actually having to make the big effort of putting 5 marks on a ballot paper when you need make only one mark'. But the Australian people showed what they thought of such a proposal.

They reacted very adversely to such a suggestion. Some polls taken on the subject showed that Australians were very firmly in favour of a full preferential system.

The Labor Party realised that it would have to go around this matter in a more devious way. It decided that the change to first past the voting would have to be undertaken in 2 stages, the first of which would be to promote the principle of optional preferential voting. The motive behind all the attempted changes to the boundaries and the electoral laws to which I have referred is the Government's attempt to keep itself in power.

The present system is not really unfair. If one compares the percentages of votes that are cast for the Australian Labor Party with the percentages of Labor Party candidates who are elected one will find that the percentages are pretty close. I think that that is not a bad test of whether or not the system is working fairly. The honourable member for Port Adelaide (Mr Young) earlier said: 'Oh well, that cannot be right because after all in the last election for the House of Representatives Labor got a majority'. He did not say that it was a narrow one- but it was narrowand in the Senate it did not get a majority. One can see just how weak the Government's case is if the honourable member has to resort to arguments of that kind. In the first place, Senators are elected State by State. It so happens that some States are very antagonistic to the Labor Party and if they had not had equality of votes in the Seante they would never have joined the Federation in the first place. Secondly, so long as we are to have boundaries anywhere we will not have an exact representation of the percentage vote for a party across the whole State. There have to be variations, but what I am arguing is that the variations should be minor.

Not even the Australian Labor Party is suggesting a system for the House of Representatives such as exists in Tasmania where for a large area, or I suppose, to follow the logic of the honourable member for Port Adelaide, the whole State, you elect everyone on a proportional representation basis.

Mr Hunt - Even the Minister would agree.

Mr GARLAND - Yes, I am sure that even the Minister would agree with that. They are in brief the reasons why the Opposition puts forward in opposing the legislation again. I remind the House that this is the third time that legislation of this nature has been introduced in less than a year. It shows a very strange order of priorities when we have to involve ourselves in contesting a principle which has been contested so often before and about which our views are so completely known, when there are matters of great moment before the Australian people.

If the Minister is to introduce a former Bill which has been split into 6 segments and make 6 highly political speeches about them, of course the Opposition has to explain to the Australian people why it takes the view it does in opposing most of the measures. A pity it is that there could not have been right from the beginning some attempt to get agreement. If the Government was really genuine in this matter I believe it should have attempted to initiate a round table conference to try to get some agreement in respect of these electoral matters. I am at a loss to understand why the Government could not have done this and then put the matters on which agreement had been reached into one or more bills which could then be passed. The House could then debate those Bills which contain matters in respect of which the Opposition is opposed.

I just want to touch on one argument which seems to keep reappearing, though strangely not in the Minister's second reading speech on this occasion, namely the argument that the optional preferential voting system will be greatly beneficial because votes will be counted more quickly. Surely what we want to get is the right result. We want to know what is the feeling and the view of the electors. If that takes another few hours of counting obviously the exercise is worthwhile. We do not want to cut off certain votes and, as is proposed in later Bills, place other restrictions on the rights of people simply because it helps the Labor Party which argues that under such a system the result could be known by midnight of the day of counting. Perhaps it could help some of the commentators to be a little more accurate than they have been in the past. The important questions are: What is the will of the people? What is their real intention? How can we get the best result in accord with what they wish? This is not a question of machinery and I believe that the saving, certainly in respect of the election of the members of this House, is not worth considering. Nor is it worth considering in terms of the national effort and the system that we have set up in order to try to create the fairest possible parliamentary representative democracy. That is the view of the Opposition in respect of this Bill. It will oppose the legislation.

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