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Whitlam Proposes Optional Preferential Voting

This is Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s Second Reading speech on the Electoral Laws Amendment Bill 1974 (No.2).

Amongst other things, the bill sought to introduce optional preferential voting.

This was the second time the bill was passed in the House of Representatives, following its earlier rejection by the Senate. The bill went on to become one of the constitutional triggers for the 1975 double dissolution election. With the election of the Fraser government, the bill was never enacted.

Hansard transcript of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s speech on the Second Reading of the Electoral Laws Amendment Bill 1974 (No.2).

Mr WHITLAM (Werriwa) (Prime Minister) – This Bill is now being debated in this Parliament for the second time. It was first debated over 4 months ago. The Bill includes many provisions which were proposed by the Minister for the Interior, the Minister in charge of electoral matters in the previous government, in a bill which he introduced in March 1971. The other provisions cover matters which were shown to be urgently in need of correction by the double dissolution election a year ago. When the Bill came into this Parliament for the first time last November it was totally opposed by members of the Opposition in this House and in the Senate. Nevertheless, I want to be fair in these matters. The Opposition moves, however slowly, because now it says that it will accept, by and large, the amendments made by this Bill, which in fact reproduce those in its Bill of March 1971. So we move on to that extent.

In respect of the other matters which were shown to be urgently necessary last May, the Opposition has now circulated 47 amendments. I believe that the whole approach of the Opposition to this electoral Bill illustrates its dilatory tactics and its specious arguments. I shall indicate the contents of the Bill and the timetable. As the Minister for Services and Property, (Mr Daly) pointed out when he first introduced the Bill, it is designed to give the people a more democratic and efficient electoral system. The Bill is identical to the Bill which he introduced into this House on 13 November 1974. Opposition members voted against the whole of that Bill on 25 November. Three days later it was rejected in the Senate on the second reading; there was no debate in Committee, no debate clause by clause, no amendments. Yet that Bill contained, as the present Bill contains, 16 proposals which were originally embodied in legislation introduced in March 1971 by the previous Government. No debate ever ensued on that Bill. It was not withdrawn; the then Government never got around to debating it. It was still on the notice paper when the Parliament was dissolved at the end of 1972.

In a moment I shall deal with the more substantive provisions of the present Bill. Before doing so, I ask honourable members to look briefly at some of the 1 6 proposals which the Opposition rejected last year and which were contained in the legislation that it introduced over 4 years ago. The Opposition made no effort when the Government brought it on for debate to preserve the clauses of the Bill which reproduced the ones that the present Opposition had introduced in March 1971. Those clauses were just thrown out. The proposals which the present Opposition made in March 1971 and which this Government made last November included provisions for improving voting facilities for patients and inmates of hospitals, convalescent homes and institutions, franchise rights for representatives of a government or public authority who are posted overseas, and the prohibition of members of the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly being elected to the Australian Parliament while still members of that Assembly. There were also provisions for candidates to declare changes of name, for banning misleading how-to-vote cards, for granting candidates a defence on charges of gift giving, for the renaming or renumbering of streets, for the regulation of electoral posters in certain places, and more realistic penalties for breaches of the electoral law. It appears that those matters now are acceptable. Second thoughts have induced the Opposition under its new leadership to accept at last matters which it proposed over 4 years ago.

During the second reading debate in this House last November members of the Opposition called for a joint all-party select committee to examine the whole field of electoral reform. That in itself was an unnecessary delaying tactic in view of the Opposition’s previous approval for many of the measures in the Bill. Further attempts at delay were still to come. In the Committee stage no attempt was made to move any amendments, to remove anything that was objectionable in the Bill or to insert any improvements in the Bill. On the third reading the honourable member for Moreton (Mr Killen) moved that the Bill be delayed for 6 months. That is the technique for killing a Bill. The honourable member for Mackellar (Mr Wentworth) went one better. He suggested that the delay be 9 months. He did not want to kill the Bill, he wanted a full gestation. The Opposition could not even agree on the time required to examine the Bill, half of which was its Bill. The honourable member for Moreton also made much of what he claimed was the Government’s unwillingness to allow consideration of the Bill in Committee. Yet when the Bill moved to the Senate on 28 November the Opposition voted against the Bill being read a second time. Under the Constitution, the votes being equal, the Bill was rejected. The Opposition prevented the Bill from being considered in Committee in the Senate. That is, some Opposition members wanted an examination committee of the House of Representatives. When the Bill went to the Senate and the Opposition could have done something about it, it prevented that course being taken. So much for the Opposition’s belief in opportunities for full debate.

As honourable members know, the principal reform proposed in this Bill is for optional preferential voting. Optional marking of preferences is a refinement of the present exhaustive preferential voting system. The arguments for this reform have been well rehearsed and are easily grasped. The reform will make for speedier counting of votes. It will make the task of voters less ardous and less confusing. It will reduce the number of informal votes. It will strengthen the democratic principle by allowing voters to allot preferences only for candidates they wish to elect while still permitting them to cast their preferences for every candidate if they so desire. The change involves no derogation from voters’ democratic rights; in fact, it will enhance them. It affects no particular party. Its sole objectives are greater simplicity, greater clarity and greater speed.

Australia’s electoral system is the most tedious in the world – the most protracted in the world. It is scandalous that the nation was without a Parliament for 3 months last year after the dissolution on 10 April. I do not believe that anybody could criticise the efficiency of the Electoral Office in counting the votes, but under the laws we made in this Parliament it was impossible to get a new Parliament until 3 months had elapsed since the previous Parliament had been dissolved. This was largely due to delays in counting the votes cast at the election on 18 May and the complicated preferential system in use at that election, especially for the Senate. Honourable members will recall the widespread exasperation and disgust in the community over the complexity of the ballot papers and the protracted nature of the count. (Quorum formed)

There was a remarkable unanimity of feeling on this question. The ‘Sydney Morning Herald ‘ in an editorial on 2 May 1974, before that election, said:

Formidable demands of unprecedented severity will be made on the knowledgeability, patience and physical stamina of voters. … On May 18 some Australians will certainly be envious of the simplicities of the US voting system. . . . Perhaps the quickest and easiest relief from the ordeal others now face would be to introduce the optional preference system (favoured by a section of the ALP, including Mr Whitlam). Under this it would be mandatory to number, say, only 10 squares instead of the 73 now essential in NSW. Think of it: 73. It’s incredible.

After the election, in an editorial on 25 May, the ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ said this:

If we are to continue to have compulsory voting and thereby remain unique in the English-speaking world, there is an overwhelming case for simplifying the mechanics of voting. Most experts agree that it is utterly unnecessary to force people to fill in every square. With 73 candidates, it should be made obligatory to fill in only the first 10 or 12, and voluntary thereafter. (For a half-Senate election, five or six should suffice). A very high informal vote, as is now indicated, makes a mockery of the compulsory voting provision.

In a further editorial on 14 June, the ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ said:

It took 11 days before Australians could be quite certain that Labor had retained control of the House of Representatives; it took 1 6 days before the exact size of its majority was established. These facts, combined with continuing uncertainty about the Senate result and the consequent delay before the new parliament can sit, added point to Mr Whitlam’s comments, at the declaration of the poll for his seat of Werriwa yesterday, about our electoral system. He described it as absurdly complicated and said that a country should not have to be without a parliament for three months. There will be very general agreement on those points . . . … Mr Whitlam drew attention to the time that will be needed to complete the counting for the Senate poll, and noted that the first time the new parliament can meet will be July 9- with July 16 or July 23 distinct possibilities. He was quite right to describe this, mildly, as not very satisfactory; and after their recent experience with outsize Senate ballotpapers most people will heartily agree with his view that voters should be required to fill in only as many squares on such ballot-papers as there are vacancies- that is, as in New South Wales on May 18, 10 out of 73. Next time- who knows?- There may be more than 73 candidates.

On 4 June, the Melbourne ‘Age’ said in an editorial:

It is absurd that people, parties and Parliament should be kept in suspense for days as to who definitely won the May 18 elections, for a fortnight as to the size of the Government’s majority, and for several weeks as to the crucial balance of power in the Senate. It is absurd that at least 10 per cent and possibly nearer 20 per cent of electors should have their Senate votes rejected as informal because the task of filling out their mammoth ballot-papers correctly has exceeded their understanding or exhausted their patience. Whatever its merits, the electoral process has shown itself to be too complex and cumbersome to work efficiently and fairly.

The process is at its most exasperating in the election of senators, although proportional representation produces, in theory, the most accurate reflection of the popular will within each State. In practice, more than half a million Australians will have been disenfranchised because of the long columns of unidentified candidates and the obligation to number them off without exception in consecutive order of choice. And the more candidates listed on the ballot-paper, the longer it takes to count, check and calculate results. The procedure could be- and certainly should be- significantly simplified and speeded up without abandoning the advantages of proportional representation.

On 14 June, the ‘Age’ published a further editorial. It said in part:

The point at issue- and it has been demonstrated beyond dispute by the May 18 elections- is that the present electoral system is absurdly complicated. It is so complicated that even five weeks after the election we still do not know how many seats the Government has won in the Senate. It is so complicated that 12 per cent of Senate votes in New South Wales were discarded as informal. If people are to be compelled to vote at all, then at least the process should be modified so that it is easier to understand, simpler to operate and quicker to produce results. This is precisely what the Government intends to do, and in a manner which is perfectly straight-forward and sensible. It is called optional preferential voting . . .

Optional preferential voting is exactly that and not anything else in disguise. Not that there is anything inherently sinister in first-past-the-post voting; This is the system used in Britain and most other democratic countries. Nor is there anything sacrosanct about preferential voting; it was introduced in Australia for no other purpose than to accommodate the Country Party and to avoid splitting the antiLabor vote, and it proved so unsatisfactory in Senate elections that it was superseded in 1 948.

But preferential voting for the House of Representatives and proportional representation for the Senate have proved reasonably fair and generally acceptable- and the Government does not propose to abandon them. There is nothing radical, mysterious or underhand about optional preferential voting; it improves- not destroys- the essential qualities of the present systems. It simply means that voters will not be obliged to place consecutive numbers in every square on the ballot paper to ensure that their vote will be counted. They need vote only for as many candidates as there are vacanciesone in each House of Representatives electorate and normally five on each Senate ticket. But voters who wish to rank all or several candidates in order of preference may do so and their preferences will be taken into account. The choice is theirs.

Another important proposal relates to the printing of party affiliations of candidates on ballot papers. This has obvious benefits for electors, allowing them at once to ascertain the parties the candidates are representing. In conjunction with that proposal we also propose the registration of political parties for purposes of identification and the printing of affiliations on ballot papers. There is nothing novel in such a procedure. It is widely practised overseas. Without going through all the countries which require or permit the party affiliations of candidates to be placed on the ballot paper, it is enough to point out that they include Austria, all the Scandinavian countries, West Germany, India, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Britain and the United States of America- not a bad democratic line-up.

The Minister for Services and Property said during his second reading speech last November:

Australians can be justly proud of their electoral machinery. We have not suffered the electoral malpractices common to many other countries.

There is, however, no reason for complacency. This Bill is designed to speed up the electoral process, prevent possible electoral malpractices before they occur and improve voting facilities where they have been lacking.

The Opposition had an opportunity in Government to amend the Act with proposals with which they were in favour. They never got around to voting on the Bill. More than 4 months have passed since we introduced the present Bill. If the Opposition could claim in November that they needed more time to consider the Bill they certainly cannot claim that now. We have learned from experience that our electoral system does not meet the needs of our democracy. We cannot tolerate the situation where people are kept without a national Parliament for 3 months. We should not compel people to vote for scores of candidates whom they have no opportunity of identifying. We have made our electoral system a farce throughout the world. At least we ought to learn from our experiences and the examples of others.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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