Tuesday, 15 March 2016
Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016; Second Reading
I want to start by saying that of course I am willing to concede that we need electoral reform. I have been on the record in this place and in other places talking about the need for reform of our donation system, talking for a need for an increase in transparency in politics and for a need for voting arrangements in the Senate to more properly reflect the will of the Australian people. I think it is possible to say these things and to believe these things but also to argue that these are not the right reforms—the reforms that we have before us in this bill—and that this rushed process is not the right process to deliver that reform.
I want to say particularly that the procedural decisions made by the government and their new coalition partners, the Greens political party, prevented the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters from inquiring properly into this bill. That is why I will be moving an amendment in committee stage to refer this bill to the finance and public administration committee so there can be a full and proper consideration of the operation and the consequences of the greatest changes to Senate voting in a generation.
Through the course of this debate, Greens senators have gone out of their way to impugn the motivations of Labor senators in approaching the legislation the way we have. I have listened carefully to the speeches from Greens senators over the course of this last week. I am not going to repeat their assertions, but I do want to address them.
Our position on this bill was made perfectly clear in our dissenting report on the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters report on this bill. I want to read it into the Hansard because it said that:
1. Labor Senators and Members recognise there are legitimate concerns about the laws governing the election of Senators and the outcomes of the 2013 half Senate election. No system is perfect - the current system for electing Senators is no exception.
2. We believe the appropriate response is for the Parliament to deal with these concerns through a considered, principled and transparent process, involving all parties and, importantly, unaligned Senators and Members, to devise a solution which enjoys support across the political spectrum and prioritises the democratic interests of the Australian people above all other interests, especially the partisan self-interest of some established parties.
People need to be very clear that this is a rushed process and it is rushed because it is driven by partisan concerns.
The coalition and the Greens political party are not pushing this legislation because of some altruistic concern for the state of Australian politics. They are doing it for naked political advantage. It is worth considering what Ross Gittens has said in a recent piece:
If the Coalition has proposed a move to optional preferential voting, allowing people to express their preferences for up to six party groupings, it's a fair bet it believes such a system will advantage it over its Labor rival.
If the left-leaning Greens and the centrist Xenophon party are happy to give the Coalition what it wants, it's a fair bet that's because the deal leaves room for their comfortable survival, while raising the drawbridge against the emergence of new minor party rivals of either leaning.
And no less a commentator than former Prime Minister John Howard has been quoted saying pretty much the same thing. He has said:
The principal beneficiary of these changes is probably the Australian Greens and that is why the Australian Greens are so strongly in favour.
He went on to say:
I hope this does not presage some kind of understanding about preferences in the House of Representatives between the coalition and the Australian Greens.
Well, he was right to be concerned and I think the Australian people ought to be concerned. It does seem, although we do not have the details, that an agreement is in the wings between the Australian Greens and the coalition. Of course, Greens political party colleagues would be welcome to put these rumours to rest this evening in the debate.
Michael Kroger has laid out the strategy very clearly in The Australian in the recent weekend paper. He says that he plans to keep Labor guessing about the truth of any Greens preference deal until election day, to bleed the opposition of $3 million in campaign resources to defend Labor heartland seats. The article goes on to quote Mr Kroger directly—and, again, those opposite may wish to correct the record if these quotes are incorrect. He says:
Handing them (Labor) seats like Wills and Batman and Maribyrnong and some of the other seats where we would have a lesser chance … requires Labor to start to take resources out of … seats and putting those resources into seats where they have to try to hold and win.
He is considering issuing a separate how-to-vote card at pre-polls to those that are handed out at polling booths on election day just so that nobody will actually know the truth of the arrangements between the Liberal Party and the Greens, because this is a deal that will not bear scrutiny. The article goes on to point out:
This strategy will not greatly increase the Liberal vote, but Liberal sources believe that the party could have won the seats of McEwen and Indi in Victoria had it received a few hundred more Greens preferences at the 2013 election.
I think we need to think very carefully about what it means for the so-called progressive party of politics to be discussed in this way in one of the major broadsheets in this country and not repudiating that story. If the Greens political party does intend to strike a deal with the coalition to return a coalition majority to the other place, to return a coalition majority into this chamber, then that is something that I believe progressive voters will have very serious concerns about.
I listened to Senator Di Natale's pious words about his views about the moral superiority of the Greens when it comes to progressive politics. I say to him a word of advice: the punters are not mugs and when they see a Greens political party acting in the most cynical of ways, putting aside all of their progressive values to work hand in glove with a coalition party, to return coalition members to seats, to deprive the Labor Party of resources, to drive harder and harder towards an outcome where it is not possible to form a progressive government in this country, then Greens voters will have very serious questions to ask about the party that they have put their faith in so far.
My caution to Senator Di Natale is that this is a process that is not in keeping with the values of his activists, it is not an approach that is in keeping with the values of Greens voters and I do not believe it is in the interests of the Australian people. However, these are choices for the Greens political party to make. They will no doubt meditate on their commitment to the progressive cause in the coming days, and all of the rumours suggest that many of them already are.
I will conclude on that series of remarks by simply saying that the Liberal Party make a virtue of pragmatism. Certainly my party is a party that seeks to gain outcomes, have never pretended that we are against compromise, have always said that we are looking for outcomes for the Australian people that will help the poor and dispossessed, will help the environment, will help women and will help those who stand at the margins of society, and we are willing to get our hands dirty in the political process to do that. The Greens political party have eschewed this as their core mantra about their superiority in the political race. I would say to them that the path they are going down is, indeed, very pragmatic. There is no scenario imaginable where the Labor Party would seek to hand a majority here, or in the other place, to the coalition because we understand, with some keenness, what that would mean for the people whom we represent. I am most surprised at the Greens political party turn to the right in this regard.
I want to come back to the question of process because when we are dealing with legislation that has direct partisan political consequences, this time more than ever we need to make sure that a proper process is followed, and that has not happened on this occasion. The public has not been given a chance to make their views known. This is not how serious reform is supposed to be undertaken. It is a very big contrast for a government which loves talking and, in recent weeks, has indicated that it will initiate a review at the drop of a hat. You will recall that we actually spent months talking around and around in a national conversation about tax reform, about a plan for the GST that, as it turns out, was not actually a plan and has been soundly repudiated by the Prime Minister.
The education minister initiated an inquiry into the Safe Schools program because there is a very small number of people who, seemingly, have a problem with vulnerable children being protected from bullying. We have time for all of those things, but we do not have time for a proper conversation that involves the Australia public to talk about this proposal and, instead, we are ramming it through, which I should say set the tone for the approach taken in this place over the last 12 hours, where we have seen motion after motion to gag speakers from the Labor side.
The inquiry that was set up to consider this bill was hamstrung from the outset, and I heard Senator Macdonald make his remarks about who bothered to turn up. I would say: if senators did not engage fully—and I do not believe that is true of Labor senators—it is because they knew the fix was in. This was a ludicrous process. There was not enough time given for members of the public to make submissions to the inquiry on this important piece of legislation.
The agenda for the public hearings in relation to the bill was decided by the government and the Greens political party, and it cut out many qualified and competent witnesses who happened to disagree with the government and their new partners. The inquiry allocated just four hours to inquire into the bill. On any assessment this is insufficient time to consider what is the greatest change to Senate voting in generations. The committee secretariat was not given adequate time to prepare a thoughtful report. In fact, the report was drafted immediately after the committee concluded its hearings, with Labor senators receiving the draft report that same night at 9.50 pm. I should explain this for those who may not be as familiar with the minutiae of the committee process. The deadline for the dissenting reports was 8 o'clock the following morning. So from 9.50 pm through to 8 am the next morning, opposition senators had the opportunity—thanks very much; we appreciated it—to digest the contents of the report and prepare our remarks. How utterly ridiculous. There are just no circumstances where a process of that kind could be defended, and I am surprised that there are those in this chamber who would seek to do so.
We have not heard any compelling case for this urgency. Although the government will not say it in public, we know that the real reason is to clear the way for a double dissolution election. The reason that they want a double dissolution is so that they can force through a retrograde, conservative agenda—to create the opportunity for Senate control or, if that does not work, for a joint sitting of the parliament to sneak through the worst aspects of legislation which have been fought in this place. What surprises me is that the Greens political party would facilitate a process of this kind. Why would this be the case? Why would this be in the interests of a group of people who seek to be the natural home for Australian progressives? It certainly does not sound like a strategy to attract progressives to your organisation.
I made reference earlier to Ross Gittens's observation that this deal leaves room for the comfortable survival of the Greens while raising the drawbridge against the emergence of new minor party rivals of either leaning. We have had a few history lessons from various parties, but the Greens political party had their origin also, of course, in preference deals. Really there is nothing wrong with that. Unsurprisingly, the first Greens seat for Tasmania in the Senate was won off the back of preferences. In 1996 the Liberals won three out of the six seats in Tasmania, Labor won two, and we were ahead of Senator Brown by 3,500 votes. But Brown ended up winning on the Democrats' preferences. The origins of the Greens lie in preference deals. But, at that time, they were trading preferences with a centrist party with at least some common values to their own. That is not the situation today. At the 2013 election The Australian reported:
There is bad blood between Senator Hanson-Young and Senator Xenophon. At the last election, the Greens moved to protect their senator by deliberately diverting preferences to the right-wing Family First candidate, Bob Day, ahead of Senator Xenophon’s more progressive running mate, Stirling Griff.
I think the Greens could explain that decision to their members who care very deeply about same-sex marriage and explain why they were willing to provide those preferences on that basis.
At the same election, the Greens relied on preferences from the Palmer United Party, and Sarah Hanson-Young would probably not be here if it were not for the member for Fairfax. The Sydney Morning Herald at the time reported:
The Greens have looked past the party's anti-mining stance to go into a preference deal with minerals mogul Clive Palmer in an apparent bid to save the political career of Sarah Hanson-Young.
A day after the Greens reacted with fury at the WikiLeaks Party for directing its preferences to far-right parties, including the white nationalist Australia First Party, it has emerged that a deal with the Palmer United Party will boost the re-election chance of Ms Hanson-Young and of new ACT Greens candidate Simon Sheikh.
Of course, now they are cutting out the middle man. From their very high moral ground, that they love to claim despite the reality of their origins, they are now cutting out the middle man and they are seeking to exchange preferences directly with the Liberal Party—directly with the conservatives in Australian politics. They have absolutely sold out, and they have forgone any right to claim the high moral ground.
Why not just admit it? Why not relax a little, take a step back, admit that this is, in fact, emerging as a fiasco for the Australian Greens. Why not accept that maybe some mistakes have been made, maybe a more consultative approach would have been better. Maybe rethinking the relationship that the Australian Greens seek to have with conservatives in this country would be a wiser approach for this party which claims to own progressive values, because what we have seen in the chamber today is that this is not a party that can make any such claim. This is a party that, like all other parties, seeks to get involved in the ebb and flow of party politics, the ebb and flow of the chamber and the ebb and flow of compromise. I do not agree with the compromises that have been made by the Greens political party in recent weeks. I think there are grave errors and I think they imperil the fate of progressive politics in this country. I think this is something that all progressives ought to be deeply concerned about. But I do not blame them for getting involved. I simply say to the Greens: this is a miscalculation. You need to stop sitting on the moral high ground. You need to admit that you are making your best efforts, as we all are, to do the right thing by the Australian people in this chamber. You need to recalibrate your thinking about what is truly best for progressive politics and stop playing this game—this desperate attempt for relevance, this cynical attempt to gain political advantage and return to the values which you say define your party.