Tuesday, 12 February 2019
Electoral Legislation Amendment (Modernisation and Other Measures) Bill 2018; Second Reading
It's always a pleasure to follow my friend the member for Rankin, particularly when it's on legislation such as this bill, the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Modernisation and Other Measures) Bill 2018, which goes beyond the individual issues that we debate in this place to the wider questions of how we safeguard the operation of and confidence in our democracy. The bill which is before us now, as the previous speaker, the shadow minister, made clear in his remarks, responds to the work of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, of which I've been the deputy chair for the life of this parliament. The provisions contained in the legislation before us go to two reports of that committee.
Before turning to the terms of the legislation we are debating, I should acknowledge the work of all my colleagues on that committee and in particular both chairs—Senator Reynolds, who has moved on to another role within the government, and Senator McGrath; my Labor colleagues Senators Ketter and Brown and the member for Oxley, who brings great insight to his contributions to this committee as well as all of his other roles in this place, of course; and Senator Rhiannon—the former Senator Rhiannon, I should say—who made a tremendous contribution to the work of this committee and to it functioning, as it has to do, as a genuinely multipartisan safeguard of our shared interest in the functioning of Australia's representative democracy.
I think this point is worth emphasising here, because when we deal with electoral legislation we are not dealing with the sorts of arguments that generally characterise our engagement in this place, where we bring to the parliament—to this chamber and to the other place—our concerns based on our values, our ideological viewpoints, as we test propositions that shape the lives of Australians. There must be, or there should be, real contest over those propositions if we are all to do our job. But we need to have a framework that is agreed through which we can play out these arguments. How we have regard to the most fundamental framework—other than the Constitution—of the operation of our representative democracy is a matter that requires particular care and attention on the part of all members and senators. These are, of course, critical foundations of Australia's democracy.
It is disappointing in that regard that, as we debate this significant piece of legislation, the speakers list indicates that no government members will be making contributions to this debate. This is disappointing because this is an important government bill, and I'm somewhat at a loss as to why, other than the Special Minister of State, there has been no interest among government members in contributing to this debate, although that appears to be a factor that sadly—as you'd be well aware, Deputy Speaker—is not unique to this bill. It seems to be reflective of a broader pattern.
Again I reiterate that these provisions are of critical importance to how our democracy operates and how Australians can have regard to that. The bill before us deals with three substantive matters. There is, most obviously, part of a response to the issues that relate to the disqualification of a significant number of members and senators by reason of the operation of section 44 of the Australian Constitution. Schedule 1 is the relevant component of the act that deals with this aspect.
This was a matter that the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters spent quite some time considering, in particular through an extensive report released last year entitled Excluded. I was pleased that this report ultimately demonstrated the very large measure of consensus across the parties represented on the joint standing committee and that it took a broad view of the impact of section 44 in terms of not just the narrow issue of the qualification or otherwise of individual members but also the implications of this provision, as interpreted by the court, on the wider functioning of and confidence in Australian democracy.
These are matters that go beyond the scope of the provision we are debating now, but they need to be considered. While we support, as the member for Rankin made clear, the changes contained in schedule 1—which set out a checklist for candidates to complete in order to assess and make transparent their compliance or otherwise with the requirements of section 4 of the Constitution—this does not resolve all the issues. But we do support this checklist. This mirrors the checklist currently being used, which was used at the most recent series of by-elections that were conducted in the course of this parliament. In the course of those elections the non-compulsory nature of the checklist added to confusion, with some candidates choosing not to complete the checklist and—again, in my view—undermining confidence in elections where the issue of conformity with the Constitution, in terms of eligibility for office, was absolutely central. This would make this checklist, which I believe has been appropriately formed, compulsory for all candidates.
This was a matter that the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters considered carefully. This step is in line with the recommendations of the committee, and I'm very pleased to see this come before the party. As I said earlier, in its report the committee urged the parliament to consider wider strategies for responding to the impact of section 44 on the parliament. I think any of us who sits in this place and any Australian who cares about representative democracy and about our multicultural society is reflecting seriously on how we can maintain the capacity of all Australians to appropriately participate in seeking office in this, Australia's parliament, as well as the concern in the wider community that goes to a lack of trust formed from the sense of uncertainty and, indeed, chaos generated by a series of by-elections and changes in Senate representation.
I am hopeful that this step—making this checklist compulsory—will attend to some of those issues and that it will enable prospective candidates to themselves think clearly, well in advance of actually nominating, about the issues they may face in seeking election to this place. I am also hopeful that it will show to the community, as clearly as we can—and there are obviously some limits to this—that candidates nominating are in all likelihood eligible to hold their office and to complete their term in office. I think that's an assurance we are all obliged to give to the wider Australian community and give now. I urge every candidate—because we are heading to an election in the near future—to consider their compliance and perhaps start considering it now, particularly those who are not seeking election through the parties presently represented in this place. Obviously for all of us here it is a key tool to consider, if we have not already done so—that our own eligibility issues are watertight and can be shown to the community to be so. We are supporting this legislation and this aspect of the legislation and call for further work to be done on the wider issues of ensuring trust and confidence.
But this legislation does go beyond that. These are changes, I think we all agree, that are necessary for the conduct of and confidence in the upcoming federal election. With that in mind, I note that it is understood that there may well be the need for some discussions—in fact, the need has been recognised in the Senate—to ensure that the provisions necessary for the operation and conduct of an election on a multipartisan, transparent and fair basis will go ahead. And so, a series of matters which we believe go beyond those terms necessary will not be proceeded with.
The shadow minister, the member for Rankin, went through those changes, and I won't reiterate them, but I want to reiterate a couple of points here. The purpose of this bill, and the purpose of these amendments, is clearly to restore trust and confidence in the operation of our democracy. The most fundamental expression of that is an election. As we move towards an election, we should, on a multipartisan basis, do those things that are necessary to make certain those ground rules are proceeded with in the terms that have been recommended by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters which have been worked through with the Australian Electoral Commission. But those other matters which have been rushed, in our view, and deserve proper consideration should not be proceeded with.
It's very clear that, should we have the opportunity to form government, we will continue with that work in consultation with the Australian Electoral Commission, the opposition and other parties to ensure that further changes are considered appropriately and debated robustly in this place, as should be the case. I know that the shadow special minister of state is appreciative of the opportunity he has had to work towards this bipartisan agreement on these important matters. So, in closing, I am looking forward to the amendment of the bill in the Senate, and its enactment as another small but significant step in restoring trust and confidence in our democracy.