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Wednesday, 1 November 1911

Senator ST LEDGER - One of the Minister's own supporters gave a strong reason why, in particular cases, the postal vote should be retained; but the Minister has not even had the courtesy to say to the Committee whether or not he will consider such a provision as will enable the people concerned - in this case women - to vote by post. Notwithstanding the fact, which he cannot repudiate or minimize, that a certain class of adults in the community will be disfranchised, he says that voting by post must be abolished. Have we had from the Minister, or from a single Ministerial supporter, a complete explanation as to why it is impossible to provide for those cases? We might provide that every woman in that position should be entitled to go before an officer, make a declaration as to her condition about which there could be no dispute whatever, and become entitled to a postal vote. Such a woman, of all the people in the community, is entitled to have that facility extended to her. Does the Minister mean to say that he cannot frame conditions to provide for that? Does he say that a woman in the condition which has been mentioned should not, if she goes before a medical officer in conjunction with a justice of the peace, and complies with such strict conditions as I have indicated, be allowed to vote by post? There is silence on the other side. The thing is so unblushingly unjust that, from the Minister down, there is no one who is capable of defending that position.

Senator Ready - The honorable senator is making enough noise.

Senator ST LEDGER - Why not? What is the good of Parliament, if, when an injustice of this kind is about to be perpetrated, there are not men in it who will make a noise about it? I am not going to apologize for the noise which I am making, if the honorable senator likes to call it noise, nor do I apologize for the length of time I am taking, because the statement of the Minister this afternoon proved that this proposal, root and branch, is unfair and indefensible, and is striking a blow at adult suffrage.

Senator W RUSSELL (SOUTH AUSTRALIA) - Are you in favour of adult suffrage?

Senator ST LEDGER - The honorable senator cannot defend the position which the Government have taken up. They say that if they allow the privilege of voting by post in the case which has been mentioned, it will have to be allowed in other cases, and that abuses will occur. . If you admit that argument, there is not a single institution, from this Senate down, that you cannot abolish.

Senator W RUSSELL (SOUTH AUSTRALIA) - You say we are going to disfranchise thousands of women. Were you in favour of women suffrage?

Senator ST LEDGER - That has got nothing to do with the position in front of us. The position is that an injustice is being done, by depriving of their franchise certain women, who are honorably entitled to vote. That is proved by the Minister's own statement. Let me point out that not a single word has been said on the other side as to the steps that might be taken, to enable these women to exercise the franchise by means of postal voting. It is the greatest humbug to say that the Minister or the officers of the

Electoral Branch cannot provide a form to meet cases of this kind. In every town throughout the Commonwealth medical officers could be appointed to deal with the matter. The medical officer, as a State or a Federal official, would take the responsibility of the statement which he would make in each case. We can easily make provision for the class of women in question to vote by post. It is simply an insult to our intelligence to say that the privilege of voting by post cannot be retained for these women. There are other considerations which arise in connexion with the clause. After a division has been taken in which the overwhelming strength of the Government has been shown, of course, the Minister and his supporters may say, " We will vote down the Opposition." Is that worthy of a democratic Government? Is it worthy of a Government which professes to exercise and to base their parliamentary rights and privileges upon adult suffrage. Is that a decent attitude to take? Will a single senator, on the other side, say that if he were allowed a quarter of an hour for the purpose he could not frame a schedule by which the persons to whom reference has been made so often would be protected? Not one of them. There is not a senator opposite who would insult his intelligence or the Government by saying that it could not be done within the time. Without allowing the Opposition, or even his own supporters, an opportunity to frame a provision, however strict or stringent it might be does not matter, the Minister wants to rush the Bill through Committee, although many senators on his side have expressed sympathy with our desire to retain postal voting for a certain class. He declines to afford to any honorable senator an opportunity to frame an amendment which would meet that particular case.

Senator Lynch - This is an awful waste of fireworks.

Senator ST LEDGER - Of course, the honorable senator thinks that anything which concerns adult franchise is fireworks.

Senator Millen - What he meant to say was that, inasmuch as this matter has been decided elsewhere, it is useless to discuss it here.

Senator ST LEDGER - Exactly. The political death-warrant of a certain class of women has been decided upon, not by Parliament, but by the Caucus. If honorable senators on the other side had any real sympathy with that which they have expressed here, they would join with us in asking for time to see that those persons shall not be disfranchised ; in other words, to see that effect, is given to the speech of the Minister in charge of the measure. In a deliberative assembly proper reasons should be given for a proposal of this kind. There is no reason why a single senator on this side should not continue the battle on behalf of a class of women, and, indeed, of others, who live in the country. Ours is a reasonable request, but I hope that we shall not be thrown back on a parliamentary practice by which, sometimes, if we cannot get effect given to a reasonable request, we can show the Government the consequences of resisting our appeal.

Senator Pearce - Are you alluding to a "stonewall"?

Senator ST LEDGER - No j that is, 1 may remind the Minister, an unparliamentary expression. . .

Senator Pearce - I did not understand your vague allusion.

Senator ST LEDGER - It was not so vague that its intent was not understood. The Government and their supporters know that they are about to do an injustice.


Senator ST LEDGER - I would noi insult the honorable senator's intelligence, however little or great it may be, by saying that he does not know that an injustice to a particular class is going to be perpetrated by the Government. " O, franchise t how many crimes are committed in thy name." Honorable senators opposite will not even tell us that, after consultation with the officials, they have found out that they cannot draw up forms to prevent this, injustice to a class of women. They know that if the Minister, or an official, said they could not draft a schedule to meet this class of cases, they would say a thing which was not correct. No official dare to make such a statement.

Senator W RUSSELL (SOUTH AUSTRALIA) - What about the lawyers ?

Senator ST LEDGER - There is not a lawyer worth a cent, who could not, within ten minutes, frame a clause and a schedule which would enable this injustice to be averted-

Senator Findley - That is why the measures Of the last Government, composed mainly of lawyers, have been thrown out by the High Court?

Senator ST LEDGER - That has nothing to do with this question. The last

Government never attempted to take away the franchise from women, as this Government is doing.

Senator Rae - If you feel this alleged injustice so keenly, how is it you have not framed a clause?

Senator Millen - Our suggestion is to leave the law as it stands.

Senator ST LEDGER - What was the object of my amendment to the motion for the second reading but to secure to the House a further opportunity of considering the matter? The supporters of the measure on the other side admitted the injustice of disfranchising this class of citizens, and the Minister accentuated it. Naturally, one would have thought that a Minister or a supporter would have had an amendment prepared. If an amendment is in the mind of the Minister, or a supporter, what harm will be done by postponing the clause? I would remind honorable senators that men in outlying districts will be struck at by this clause just as severely as women will be. The very argument which is being used on behalf of women applies with added force to adults who are aged and infirm. It is absolutely unnecessary to say' that there are men and women who are not so aged and infirm that, on polling day, if they are more than 5 miles away, they cannot exercise their votes. This clause is, so to speak, the political death-warrant, so far as voting is concerned, to a considerable portion of the community. Apart from women, and a particular condition relating to them, every honorable senator opposite knows that there are other men and women to whom it is a. physical impossibility to vote except by post.

Senator Ready - The poor widow !

Senator ST LEDGER - Every time the honorable senator goes on the hustings he has the poor man, and the poor widow, too, on his lips; but when an argument is turned against him, he holds the poor or infirm man, or somebody else, up to derision. Never have I based an argument on class distinction, rich or poor, married or single. I have always tried to discuss a measure on bed-rock principles. There are many persons, women as well as men, who, by reason of distance, and age, and infirmity, cannot go to the polling booth, and these are the very persons who have not abused postal voting, if it has been abused at all. There are in the Commonwealth thousands of women who cannot get to the polling booth, and who can only exercise the suffrage by means of the post. It is not contended that settlers in the back- blocks have abused the privilege. If there is anything in the criticism from the other side, it is that citizens, male and female, in the towns have abused postal voting. When I asked for proof of their statement there was no sufficient proof forthcoming. How can we ask a woman or a man, old and possibly suffering from infirmity, which would not be technically designated as illness, to go 40 or 50 miles to a polling booth? In Queensland, I have known persons who were never able to exercise their right to vote, even for their particular district, by reason of distance, although, for the purpose of State elections, polling booths were amply provided. It was not until the Federal Parliament adopted the postal voting system that they were able to exercise their privileges at all. Have the Government any realization of the difficulties which confront settlers in the back-blocks? I have known a- man who, not having facilities for postal voting, travelled with his wife and daughters a distance of 80 or 100 miles in order to exercise the franchise. As postal facilities are extended - and we are spending thousands of pounds to extend them - the benefits which can be conferred upon the people by their means should be extended also. What benefit to the people is more substantial than a means of exercising a voice in the government of the country? Not a single atom of proof has been cited in justification of the abolition of postal voting as exercised in the back-blocks districts. No abuse or corruption has been hinted at. I hope that the Minister will give us some information as to whether hie is going to drive this proposal right through, or whether he will afford facilities for preparing a modification in accordance with which the aged, the infirm, and women may be enabled to vote by post.

Senator Long - The honorable senator has had the whole of last week in which to prepare an amendment.

Senator ST LEDGER - I have something else to do than put Government Bills right. It is the Minister's business to do that.

Senator Long - Cannot the honorable senator frame his own amendments?

Senator Rae - If the Government are satisfied with their Bill they cannot be expected to frame amendments.

Senator ST LEDGER - If a little time were allowed, I believe that I should be able to prepare an amendment which would meet the case. But what is the use of doing so if the proposals of the Government are to be pushed through despite evidence and argument?

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