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Wednesday, 1 November 1911

Senator ST LEDGER (Queensland) . - A distinct question was put to the Minister by Senator Cameron. To a certain extent it has been answered by the statement that postal voting is going to be abolished. But the Minister has not answered the statement that under the system proposed numbers of electors will be excluded from the exercise of the franchise. I do not think that at any time in the history of the development of the franchise, until now, in the Commonwealth, where we have absolute adult suffrage, any community has gone back on the progress made. The present Government are the first to ask Parliament to go back. These points were raised on the second reading, and have been emphasized in Committee; and, although the supporters of the Government are aware that it is intended by this Bill to deprive people of votes, by reason of their age and infirmity, they still persist with the proposal. The Minister in charge of the Bill has heard the reply of the Leader of the Opposition to a charge of corruption on the part of a previous Administration, and he has not a word to say.

Senator Millen - The Minister of Defence can laugh.

Senator ST LEDGER - Entrenched behind the numbers opposite, the Minister of Defence can continue tosmile all the time. But to-day is for honorable senators opposite, and to-morrow, possibly, for honorable senators on this side. . I have not had much parliamentary experience, but within my reading and experience of parliamentary usage and practice I never heard of a charge of corruption against a previous Administration, refuted by a Leader of the Opposition with a challenge to the Government to say how true it was, being left unanswered by Ministers. The Minister in charge of this Bill has resumed his seat without a single word in reply to the speech of the Leader of the Opposition ; and his colleague, the Minister of Defence, smiles at the position.

Senator Pearce - I was not smiling at that, but at the honorable senator's tragic gestures.

Senator ST LEDGER - There is something to be indignant about.

Senator Findley - I did not make any charge against the Leader of the Opposition.

Senator ST LEDGER - The Minister introduced this Bill with a knowledge of past administration of the electoral law.

Senator Findley - I do not carry the Electoral Office about in my pocket.

Senator ST LEDGER - Of what use is it for the honorable senator to try to get out of the difficulty in that way? He has introduced an amending Bill, founded, it is to be presumed, on alleged defects of past administration. One of his supporters made a charge against a past Government of administering the Act corruptly. The Leader of the Opposition, who was a member of that Government, asks that that charge shall be substantiated.

Senator Findley - According to the honorable senator, whether the charge was correct or incorrect, I am responsible for it.

Senator ST LEDGER - Again the honorable senator is trying to evade the point. He has introduced an amending Bill, with a knowledge of past administration ; a charge of corruption in past administration has been made, and he has not a single word to say about it ; though he can reply to an honorable senator who made a charge from this side. The position, I should say, is unprecedented.

Senator Findley - The attitude the honorable senator is taking up towards me is unprecedented.

Senator ST LEDGER - It may be that, in the heat of debate, the honorable senator overlooked the strong charge made by Senator Millen.

Senator Findley - I did not. overlook anything. I did not make a charge, and I am in no way responsible for the charge that was made, whether the previous Administration was corrupt or incorrupt.

Senator ST LEDGER - The charge was made by one of the honorable senator's supporters.

Senator McColl - And it was made as a justification for the introduction of this Bill.

Senator Findley - By whom; not the Government ?

Senator ST LEDGER - By the honorable senator's colleague.

Senator Findley - I am not responsible for everything my colleague says. The Leader of the Opposition is not responsible for everything which an honorable senator opposite says.

Senator ST LEDGER - May I remind the Minister of the old proverb, " Silence gives consent' ' ? He has consented by his silence to the charge. He will not, or cannot, refute it, and he will not even go so far in connexion with a matter affecting parliamentary honour, as well as the honour of the Government, as to say that he will look into it. If this is the way in which the franchise is to be handled, and criticism from this side is to be met, deliberation in Parliament becomes a farce.

Senator Findley - I think the honorable senator might leave the Leader of the Opposition to defend himself. He is quite capable of doing so.

Senator ST LEDGER - With all respect for the Minister and Senator Millen, whether either or both can look after themselves, I have my case to look after. This matter, which should be conducted entirely free from party considerations, is being made the strongest of party issues. During the debate, the grossest charges of personal, as well as Ministerial corruption, are made, abuse of the postal voting system is alleged, and when no notice is taken of criticism, we have a right to ask whether Parliament is to be a deliberative assembly or a place in which, when the word goes forth from those who have the numbers behind them, a measure is to go through whether it is right or wrong, just or unjust. This is putting the franchise as it used to be put before - practically at the point of the bayonet.

Senator W RUSSELL (SOUTH AUSTRALIA) - But without the gag, as the party opposite used to give it to us.

Senator Millen - It was the honorable senator's party who introduced the gag.

Senator Pearce - But we never used it.

Senator Millen - No ; honorable senators opposite were not -game to use it.

Senator ST LEDGER - Are we to take these references to the gag as a hint that it is to be applied to those who are venturing to criticise this measure?

Senator Pearce - The honorable senator wishes to become a martyr.

Senator ST LEDGER - I hope that no one is trying to make a fool of himself. There is one thing which stands out very prominently in the discussion on this Bill. In Queensland, and probably also in the other States, it is the practice to proclaim polling booths in certain State institutions in which the aged and infirm are gathered together, so that by walking only a few yards, they may be able to record their votes. That practice is adopted at Dunwich, in Queensland, where there are, perhaps, over 1,000 aged and infirm people. Similar facilities should continue to be given to such people. It ought not to be a crime in the eyes of the State to be poor, and it ought not to be a cause of punishment that one is infirm. If we give 1,000 or 10,000 aged and infirm persons gathered together in public institutions facilities for recording their votes by providing polling booths at their very doors, surely we should extend a similar privilege to the aged and infirm who are not gathered in such institutions. The Minister will not take the trouble himself, nor will he give us the necessary time', to consider some amendment which, in the face of the alleged abuses of the postal voting system, would providenecessary facilities for such persons to record their votes.

Senator Findley - The Bill has been before the Senate for two or three weeksHonorable senators opposite evidently require a good deal of time to work out their suggestions.

Senator ST LEDGER - As the Minister will not do what is desired, we must conclude that if we had time to prepare suitable amendments, he would turn them down in just the same way as he has ignored our criticism of the Bill, no matter what arguments we might use in support of them. One might speak with the tongues of men and angels, but it would be of no. use.

Senator Findley - If I were in the honorable senator's position, I should suggest: an amendment, and not talk about it.

Senator ST LEDGER - Then in a deliberative assembly, those in power should speak, and those whose duty it is to criticise should not talk at all. The fiat hasgone forth in this matter of postal voting, and the Minister refuses by one word to- meet the challenge thrown out by the Opposition. In this particular case where a charge has been made he will not say he thinks that it is unfounded, or that he will inquire into it. It is characteristic of the method in which this thing is being bludgeoned through. It may be said that it is futile to speak, as it is impossible to get the Ministry to alter their decision, but still one must persist, because some of what is said will leak out, and some of it will be considered by the people outside. Apart from the injustice that the Government are doing knowingly, and without a shadow of defence for their shameful act, not one scintilla of evidence has come from the Ministerial side to support the charges that have been made.

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