Wednesday, 24 February 2016
Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016; Second Reading
Thank you, Acting Deputy Speaker. I hope five years in this place is not considered too long term. I rise this afternoon to speak on the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016. I would like to start by making an observation. Those who framed our Constitution back in the 19th century did an absolutely amazing and wonderful job. They delivered our nation one of the strongest democracies in the world. I do not think that they could have envisaged the wealth that has been created in this country over the last hundred years or the massive increase in prosperity that the average citizen enjoys today compared to back in the 19th century. I would say that when they framed our Constitution, the lifestyle and prosperity the wealthiest Australians enjoyed would be well below the lifestyle and prosperity enjoyed today by the average Australian.
The reason our Constitution, our nation, has been so successful is that our system of government, everything in our Constitution, has been designed to prevent undue concentrations of power, to prevent a small group being able to concentrate power in their hands, to ultimately hand the power to govern this country back to the people. When the framers of our Constitution were thinking about how our government should work—that we should copy the Westminster system and have the equivalent of the House of Commons and call it, as we do here, the House of Representatives, because we here are effectively representatives of the people. Each of us represents in this parliament an electorate of around 100,000 voters, and we have a system to ensure that that stays so that each of us represents a similar population of people.
I am thinking that the questions they would have asked themselves are, what powers should the Senate have and how should our senators be elected? In thinking about what powers the Senate should have, no doubt the framers of our Constitution looked at the English House of Lords, where they were simply appointed but had limited powers to block and frustrate the will of the House of Commons. Likewise in Canada, although they have a Senate, the election of the Senate is by appointment; it is not an elected body. In fact, the first Canadian Prime Minister described the role of the Senate as simply 'a sober second thought' to governmental legislation. In New Zealand they had a Senate as well, and that was appointed, not elected, yet in 1950 the New Zealanders decided to do away with their Senate altogether.
When it came to our Senate, the main purpose was for it to be something similar to the Westminster system in England. But of course one of the concerns the framers of the Constitution had was to protect the interests of the smaller states. So we can say that our Senate, across the hall on the other side of this building, is hardly democratic when Tasmania elects the same number of senators as New South Wales. Tasmania with a population of 500,000 provides 12 senators, yet New South Wales, with a population 14 times that, also provides only 12 senators. For someone in New South Wales, when their vote comes to the Australian Senate it is worth one 14th of the vote of someone from Tasmania. Therefore, it is important that our Senate realises its place as intended by the framers of our Constitution: to be a house of review, not a house of blockage. And I am sure the framers of our Constitution could not have envisaged a way that the current Senate has been gamed, and that is exactly what we have seen happening.
Antony Green, the ABC election analyst, said in his evidence to the joint standing committee inquiry into the 2013 election that the Senate:
… has produced results that were engineered by the preference deals rather than by the votes cast by voters.
What he is saying is that we did not have a democratic result. Paul Kelly, writing in today's Australian, said:
Reform of the corrupt Senate voting system is a necessary step to restore a degree of integrity in the Australian Parliament, offer greater voter transparency, give more weight to first preference votes …
The need for change is clear, and that is exactly what the changes that are being proposed do.
Firstly, they introduce optional preferential votes above the line for voting. If someone wants to allocate their preferences they must be able to do so of their own free choice. The flaw with the current system—that someone can vote for a minor party or any party and vote 1 above the line and have no idea whatsoever where their vote will actually end up, because of the secrecy and lack of transparency in the preference system—is why this change is most important. To ensure that we have more transparency, the system will advise on the ballot paper for the voter to number at least six boxes above the line, in order of their choice. That gives someone ample opportunity to decide where their preferences go.
Secondly, to avoid a high rate of informal votes, if someone just writes 1 above the line then their vote will still be considered formal. I think that is something we should also consider for the lower house. In New South Wales, in the state elections we have optional preferential voting, but at federal elections we have compulsory preferential voting. I have scrutineered at elections, and you see people filling in 1 on the ballot paper, thinking they have voted for a particular candidate. Their intention to give their vote to that candidate is crystal clear, yet by having compulsory preferential voting we disenfranchise that person. But we are fixing that for the Senate. It is something that down the track we perhaps need to look at for the House of Representatives.
Thirdly, we will introduce the abolition of group and individual voting tickets, and we will introduce restrictions to prevent individuals from holding relevant official positions in multiple parties. That is to stop the gaming of the system whereby someone can be an official of multiple parties simply to harvest votes, to game our system and ultimately to game our democracy.
There is one provision I do have some concerns with, something we need to look at down the track, and this is the provision that allows for logos to be printed on the ballot paper. That is because of the mass confusion between the Liberal Democrats and the Liberal Party at the last election. I was standing and handing out at the booths, and many people came back to me after voting and said, 'I've made a mistake on my Senate paper. I meant to vote for the Liberal-Nationals, but when I looked at the big long ballot paper I saw Liberal Democrats and I put my vote there.' They wanted to run back into the polling booth and rip their paper back out of the electoral bin but were unable to, so I understand the reasoning for that. When we look at the names of some of these parties we had the Katter' Australian Party. Now I can understand that the Katter party's logo may be simply a large broad-rimmed akubra hat. We had the Social Alliance, and they may have the hammer and sickle as their logo on the ballot paper. Of course we had the marijuana party, and they would have a marijuana leaf or a large bong printed on the ballot paper. The Pirate Party could have the Jolly Roger, and I will leave it up to others' suggestions for how the Australian Sex Party should have their logo. But perhaps this is something we should look at and take some care at to make sure that the ballot paper does not look strange with all these logos over it.
In conclusion, I would like to reflect on the comments in this debate by the member for Brand. To quote from his speech I think is very telling. He said:
It is self-evidently the case that our parliament needs to act on electoral reform. It is self-evidently the case that our parliament needs to act to make sure that our voting system is transparent, effective and understood and that the voting process itself is a process where the voter is empowered to deliver a vote to the person that they wish to elect. The system needs to be fixed.
My view is that the current rules do need to be changed; the Labor Party's view is that those rules do need to be changed.
… … …
I lost the argument in my party room on Senate reform, so Labor will oppose the substantive reforms that are enshrined in this bill.
Then the Labor member for Brand said:
I think that is sad …
He is right. It is sad that the members of the Labor Party will not support this bill, because this is an important step we need to take to improve our Senate voting system and therefore our democracy. The member for Brand continued:
My party has moved that it will be opposing this bill and therefore I oppose this bill.
I think that is also very sad. An elected member of the House of Representatives is forced by his party to vote in this chamber against his will. On this side of the House if someone decides that they disagree with the legislation they can take the walk across and exercise what they believe in their heart and conscience. Yet members of the Labor Party are denied that opportunity. That is sad, and that is undemocratic. I congratulate member for Brand for his speech and for calling his own party out on this. The assistant minister will sum up very soon, and I hope that members of the opposition will not vote against this bill, because, as the member for Brand said, it would be a very sad day for our democracy if they do so. With that, I commend this bill to the House.