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Thursday, 28 November 1974
Page: 2933

Senator BAUME (New South Wales) - We are discussing the Electoral Laws Amendment Bill 1974. The stand that is to be taken by the Opposition has been made clear by our Leader and by Senator Missen. I wish to speak only briefly on a couple of provisions in the Bill. I hope that the Government will listen to some of the propositions that I will put to it. It is a pity that this is an omnibus proposal. It is a pity that so many different proposals are wrapped up in the one package. It has been made clear already by other speakers that we have only the option of accepting or rejecting the total Bill when it would have been quite possible to examine any one of the proposals or to have negotiated on them and to have found some basis of agreement in at least part of the Government's package. It has been made clear that we will not accept the Bill as it has been presented. Senator Missen has said- I agree with him and emphasise his position- that that is not to say that we are against all the proposals in the Bill. We are against the total package as it has been given to us, and we are against the way in which we have been given no time really to examine the implications of the Bill.

I wish to refer to only 2 points. I wish to refer to clauses 45 and 39 of the Bill. Clause 45 provides that voting for the Senate can be done by optional preferential voting rather than, as at present, by complete preferential voting. I would remind the Senate that this proposal might have been interesting if it had come from the Liberal side. Senator Missen has already had a few words to say about optional preferential voting or systems other than full preferential voting. Let us be quite clear. The present system that we enjoy is Labor's system. It is the system which the Labor Party uses, and it is a system which the Labor Party introduced. It is probably worth while emphasising the history of the type of voting for the Senate today.

In 1948 the Labor Government introduced a Bill to provide for the application of proportional representation to the election of senators. At that time we had already had preferential voting since 1919, it had always been full preferential voting and moves to consider optional preferential voting had been rejected. When the Bill to have proportional representation for Senate elections was introduced in 1948, the AttorneyGeneral of the day, Dr Evatt, in his second reading speech, was critical of any proposal to make voting optional. It is worth reminding ourselves of the words that he used. He said that in his view the requirement that voters must indicate the order of their preference for all candidates- I quote: . . might have the effect of continuing to produce a fairly high informal vote, it definitely precludes the possibly greater evil of exhausted votes- that is, votes which become exhausted in the process of transfer. . . one result of a system that does not require electors to vote for all candidates whose names appear in the ballot paper is that a candidate may be declared elected although the total number of votes credited to him falls short or the required quota. At the parliamentary election in New South Wales in 1922 and 1925, the exhausted votes, which far outnumber the informal votes, were the cause of much dissatisfaction and disputation.

Later on he amplified the point when he stated:

Under proportional representation a very low preference may become either an effective vote when candidates are excluded from the bottom of the ballot paper, or a fraction of an effective vote when candidates are excluded from the top of the paper.

I suppose the position is that the system that was introduced in 1 948 and vigorously defended by Dr Evatt is what one might call a Labor electoral system and we now find the Labor Party abandoning it with no real explanation as to why it is being done and no real statement to guide us as to the possible advantages. It is sometimes stated that if we introduce optional preferential voting for the Senate we may reduce the number of informal votes. Some information is available from elections for the Australian Capital Territory Advisory Council, as it was, from 1949 to 1 970, and it gives us some indication of what the effects have been in at least one electoral system. I have a table showing the effects of optional and complete preferential voting. I seek leave to have the table incorporated in Hansard.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Georges)- Is leave granted?

There being no dissent, leave is granted. (The document read as follows)-


Senator BAUME - If we examine the table we find that optional preferential voting in Advisory Council elections was introduced in 1959. In the table all election figures for 1949 to 1957 are complete preferential voting figures. We find that during that time a percentage of informal votes between 4 per cent and 9 per cent. We find that after 1959, when there was optional preferential voting, the rate of informality was between 8 per cent and 1 1 per cent. One may not say that it is a significant change. It certainly is not any significant reduction in the rate of informal votes.

Senator Webster - It is a change upwards, is it not?

Senator BAUME - It is a slight change upwards. I would not like to suggest that it is a significant change upwards in the statistical sense but it certainly does not bear out the proposition that by introducing optional preferential voting we will reduce the rate of informality. I have carefully stayed away from the question whether we should have optional preferential voting in elections for the House of Representatives. I have confined myself to Senate voting. I remind the Senate that more than anyone alse in Australia, perhaps with the exception of Mr Westerway, I had reason to understand the argument that the Senate election result was slow after the 18 May election.

Senator Missen - There are other experts around too.

Senator BAUME - I must say to Senator Missen that it took longer in New South Wales than anywhere else. It took 5 weeks to the day before we knew the result of the Senate election in New South Wales. For my part I would say that what we got was a fair result.

Senator Withers - It was a very fair result.

Senator BAUME - Thank you. The point we have to answer is whether it is better to get a quick result or whether it is better to get a result that accurately reflects the wishes of the electors. The argument that you will get a quicker result does not impress me really, and the argument that you will reduce the rate of informality lacks any evidence to back it up. All I have to say to the Government is that we require from it some basis of argument and some demonstration of logic to show why it wants to introduce optional preferential voting and what advantages this will have.

The only other part of the Bill to which I wish to refer is clause 39 which seeks to amend section 1 1 1 of the Act to provide that polling hours shall be from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., not from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. as at present. The only possible reasons for introducing this is to help the returning officers to get a quick result on election night. It has been argued that it is undesirable that people should have to wait. Again we have to look at the equity involved in the proposal. Is it fair, for example, that polling places should be closed at 6 p.m.? The people of at least 2 religions- not just the Jewish population of Australia which Senator Missen mentioned, but also the Seventh Day Adventist community- are severely disadvantaged by the electoral laws as they operate here. They should be able to expect that they have the right to go to a polling place and cast their cotes as other Australians do. I am not going to enter into the detailed arguments about what is being done to alter the right to cast postal votes. The fact that someone has the right to get a postal vote is not the same as having the right to go and cast a vote.

In many other countries around the world elections are held mid-week. They avoid holding elections on what is the sabbath day for at least 2 religious groups. Certainly those groups are small in number but the people concerned feel strongly about it and feel that the present situation is discriminatory. I have taken the trouble to find out how severely these 2 groups are affected. I remind honourable senators that sabbath for both the Seventh Day Adventist community and the Jewish community runs from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday. In terms of actual hours, it varies therefore at different times of the year. Sunset occurs at or before 6 p.m. from about 1 April to 23 September.

Senator Townley - Approximately where?

Senator BAUME - These are figures throughout Australia. We approached the Bureau of Meteorology and were given these figures as representative of what applies generally throughout Australia. Using standard time, sunset is never after 8 p.m. Using summer timedaylight saving- sunset occurs after 8 p.m. from about the end of November to the middle of February. That means that with the present arrangements under which the polling booths are open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. people of the Jewish faith or Seventh Day Adventists might be excluded from casting a vote themselves for about 10 weeks of the year, that is, between the end of November and the middle of February. Where standard time is used they are not excluded from voting because the polling places are always open for some of the hours following sunset. If we accept the proposition in this Bill that polling places will close at 6 p.m. it still will be before sunset for almost 27 weeks of the year. This proposition in the Bill, if it is carried, will make it impossible for people who adhere to those 2 religious faiths to cast a vote in person because it is their sabbath and they are specifically forbidden to carry out activities such as casting a vote on those days.

I raise that point simply for the consideration of the Government. Maybe some way can be found of amending its proposals or obtaining some other solution to try to ensure complete preservation of the rights of all Australians. People of every group have a right to vote and have a right to cast their own vote for themselves. It is not fair that it is so difficult at present for these people. I have been medical officer to a Seventh Day Adventist hospital for some years. People of that faith have to wait until an hour or half an hour before the polls close, and then there is a great rush on the polling places because that is the only time on election day when they are permitted under our law to cast their own vote. I intervened in this debate simply to make those 2 points and to join with my leader, Senator Withers, and other members of the Opposition in saying that the Bill in its present form is unacceptable and that I, with my colleagues, will vote against the Electoral Laws Amendment Bill 1974.

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