Senate debates

Tuesday, 15 March 2016


Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016; Second Reading

8:50 pm

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Aged Care) Share this | Hansard source

I rise tonight to make a contribution in this critical debate on the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016, which has been rushed through this place and will change the make-up of future parliaments for years and potentially decades to come. I have sat through the last 20 minutes of absolute rubbish and rewriting of history. When I was in this place with the former Senators Brown and Milne, at no time would they have gagged the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate here in this place and not allowed them to make a contribution. So for Senator McKim to come in and try to justify why they have agreed to the gags today is just shameful. It really is quite shameful.

What we have demonstrated through the course of today is that the Greens now find themselves to have washed their hands of any of the innocence with which they have tried to purport to the community that they are above the grubby, dirty dealings in politics, because quite frankly they have done a disservice to this community, wiping out the say of over three million Australian voters in the coming federal election. We had Senator McKim come in here and lecture us about what will happen if the government is returned after the next election and they have outright control.

Well, sorry, it is not us that has done the dirty deed and done this deal with the government, it is the Greens. They can no longer come into this place or anywhere else and try to justify their position and, as they normally do, take the high moral ground on any issue, because they have now become the partners to a government that, if re-elected at the next election—which I sincerely hope they are not—will have outright control of both chambers. Having been a senator in this place when the Howard government had control of the Senate, I saw the result of that. Those down in the corner, who like to take the high moral ground, will be the ones that will be responsible for further cuts in education and the $100,000 degrees to attend university. It will be those down there.

But what we have seen demonstrated over the last few weeks, since this deal was hatched behind closed doors, is a leader of the Greens who, obviously, is desperate for some sort of recognition and to be relevant. As I said before, you would not have seen this type of dirty deal being done by Christine Milne when she led the Greens. You would not have seen Bob Brown act in the manner in which Senator Di Natale has done. From the conversations I have had out in the community over the last few weeks, the community now are so disappointed. They really do see the Greens for what they are, and that is a party of opportunists. There is no doubt about that at all. But to have to sit here and be lectured to by Senator McKim, to hear his bleating here tonight of what he accuses us of being is so hypocritical.

What we have here is an abuse of the process. We have legislation, as I said, that is being rammed through and which is a direct result of dirty backroom deals between the Liberal Party and the Greens, with absolutely no scrutiny whatsoever. You cannot say that a four-hour committee hearing here in Canberra is giving this legislation proper scrutiny. We know that the government themselves had to bring in amendments to their own legislation because it was rushed through. They had to rush it through the lower house and they are trying to ram it through here in the Senate, because they have this dirty deal with the Greens. I do not know whether there is a time line for when that is going to expire; maybe that is why they are gagging debate, as they have done throughout the course of today, since we have been sitting.

The legislation that is a fix to disadvantage those people who do not vote for the majority parties is so hypocritical in the process. When you come into this place, as the Greens have done, preaching to us about openness, transparency and protecting Australian democracy—they have sold out. They have sold out big time. It is an absolute disgrace. It is a very poor reflection on the Australian parliament when legislation that has been in place for the last three decades is going to be rushed through and changed without proper scrutiny. The public have every right to be disappointed in the government and the Greens for the way they have acted in this case. There was none of the type of scrutiny that is normally undertaken with any piece of legislation. This whole process has been a farce, from the beginning to the end, as I have said.

I have spoken in relation to this numerous times over the last few weeks. It really does reek of hypocrisy. If you listen to what other senators from the Greens have contributed thus far, they talk about the times when the Labor Party sided with the government. There is no greater sin than the one that they have just committed by doing this dirty deal to change the democratic processes of the election of senators in this country. This deal that they have done will ensure that the Senate is purged of small parties and Independents. Whether they like it or not, the Independents have every right to be in this chamber and to sit here, just as I and anyone else have, because they were duly elected. They may not like the fact that they are here, but they were elected under the same system that we all were. To prevent any new parties from ever getting elected in the Senate—that to me just reinforces the feeling that in recent times the Greens are, obviously, no longer as relevant because of the Independents. A little bit of the limelight has been taken away from them. That is what it is all about. It is about their own egos. It is about their own seats and making sure their bums are back on these red seats, all except for Senator Hanson-Young. It seems to be that she is overlooked. That is, obviously, just the internal dirty dealings of their own Greens politics.

But if Mr Turnbull were to control both houses of parliament, it would provide a rubber stamp for industrial relation reforms, more cuts to health, $100,000 degrees and the ability to privatise Medicare. These are big issues. We have seen it. I lived through it when Howard had control of the Senate. It is certainly not a nice place to be. The Senate is supposed to be the house of review, made up of senators who will take that job seriously. It is not a place that is supposed to be about only trying to make yourself relevant, about feeding your own ego, because that is not what we were elected here to do. We were elected to this place to actually review legislation that is in the interests of all Australians.

The Australian Labor Party recognises legitimate concerns about laws governing the election of senators and the outcomes of a half-Senate election in 2013. The current system is not perfect—we have said that—and we have been more than prepared to carefully consider any changes that were brought before us. But when you are dealing with something as important as Senate reform, you need to make sure that you get it right. The legislation has shown more than once that it fails to do that. The bill currently before the Senate tonight is not an appropriate response to these concerns. Labor believes that the appropriate response is for parliament to deal with it through a considered, principled and transparent process, and for all the parties and unaligned senators to develop a solution. The outcome must prioritise the democratic rights of Australian people above all other interests—above all other interests!. First and foremost should be the Australian people.

Purging new parties and Independents from the parliament, excluding people who vote for small parties or Independents, is not in the interests of Australians. An increasing number of experts have now rejected the Liberal-Greens voting deal, called for different approaches or at least warned that, without adequate scrutiny, it risks creating adverse consequences. We need to get the balance right on Senate voting reform but it will not happen by ramming this backroom deal through the parliament. Laws that determine how representatives are elected to the national parliament should not be cooked up behind closed doors and rammed through this parliament, as I have said. This is a dirty backroom deal which will allow Mr Turnbull and his Liberals to get their unfair policies through the Senate—policies like an $80 billion cut to schools and hospitals, cuts to Medicare and, as I said, $100,000 degrees. If the Liberals regain government after the next election and have control of this place then do not come back in here whingeing about the legislation that they will ram through because the Greens will be responsible for that because they have done the deal.

The Greens could actually have done the right thing in terms of electoral reforms. They had a government that was so desperate to get these reforms through that they could have negotiated some decent outcomes, but they failed to do that. They failed that basic test of principle and getting good reform. They missed their opportunity. The Greens have done a good deal for themselves. They see this as being advantageous to making sure that they get back on these red seats. The opportunity they have neglected and failed to grapple with will come back and haunt them in the future. I really believe it will.

The Greens come into this place and go on about transparency and democratic processes and principles, but then what did they do? They rolled over. The only thing they did not do—and I would not be surprised if they did this—was roll over and have their tummies scratched by the government. The Greens have hopped into bed with the coalition again to enter into an alliance in order to secure passage of this legislation, which is being rushed through. The dud deal done between the Greens and the coalition stinks of hypocrisy. That is how the Greens are being seen.

Earlier today the Greens sided with the government and closed down debate. They did not allow any debate at all about the running of the Senate in terms of the sitting times and the legislation that is going to be debated. That was a first in this place. They had the opportunity to support marriage equality and have that debated. I do not support marriage equality, but I do support the right of the leader of the Labor Party in the Senate to have her contribution in this Senate heard. It was a disgrace. The Greens lecture us continuously about how they are the first and only people truly supporting marriage equality. Well, what hypocrites. What hypocrites they were today when they did not allow Senator Penny Wong to make her contribution. Shame on them. I can assure you of one thing: former senator Bob Brown had a much cooler head. He was not emotional. He allowed people to make a contribution. He would never have gagged that debate at that time and refused to allow Senator Wong to make her contribution—and neither would have former senator Christine Milne.

We have seen a new alliance with the Greens and the Liberals here today. As I have said, the Greens are good at doing grubby deals with the government. They keep doing them. Since Senator Richard Di Natale took over the leadership of the Australian Greens the Greens have hopped into bed with the government on a number of occasions. When I saw that Senator Nick McKim came from Tasmania I thought: 'Yes, here we go. We have a future leader of the Greens here.' If there were a Tasmanian Green leading in this place, I truly believe that we would not have seen the display we have seen from Senator Di Natale.

I may not have agreed with Bob Brown or Christine Milne on a lot of issues but at least they respected other people's right to make a contribution. If we agree on nothing else in this place, we should at least agree to respect people's right to make a contribution, irrespective of what legislation comes before us. They sold out today. This is a really bad black mark against the Greens. They denied Senator Wong to make a contribution today. I think if you look on social media you will find that that is borne out.

Since Senator Di Natale has taken over the helm we have seen the Greens support cutting age pensions by $2.4 billion. They got into bed with the government on that issue. They supported the government to ensure that big companies' secrets are kept safe by not having to disclose how much tax they pay. They deterred job-creating investment. They supported and ignored the expert advice on medical research funding. They also joined with the government to defeat a motion for the government to buy 12 locally built submarines. Now we have Senator Di Natale's filthy deal with the Abbott-Turnbull government to alter the laws governing the election of senators, which will increase the chances of the coalition gaining majority in the Senate. Under his leadership the Greens have grown even closer to the Liberals on the other side of the chamber. Senator Di Natale is an opportunist and he is sacrificing his party's integrity on the altar of his own vanity.

The Liberal-Greens Senate voting deal is an act of naked self-interest and it is not in the nation's interest. It is designed to purge the Senate of all small parties and Independents. At the last election 25 per cent of voters—that is, 3.3 million Australians—did not vote for Senate candidates representing the coalition, the Greens or Labor. The Senate is actually supposed to represent more than just the three major parties. That was the whole concept of having a states house.

Now the Turnbull-Greens dirty deal will give Mr Turnbull the trigger he has desperately wanted to call a double-dissolution election so that then he has the real opportunity of rubber-stamping all this terrible legislation that we on this side have been fighting to stop. There are his nasty cuts to health. Remember the last election, when they said there would be no cuts to health; there would be no changes to the pension; there would be no cuts to education? Well, what have we seen? We have seen the introduction of $100,000 degrees in this place, and we fought very hard not to have them. We fought very hard and were successful at least in getting the increase to the GST put in the bottom drawer until after the next election. But those people who have joined with the Liberals in this legislation have now opened that can of worms so that, if the government is returned at the next election, if it has control of both chambers, we will see not only further cuts to health and education but an increase to the GST, and it will be placed on everything. We know that the government's agenda is to privatise Medicare.

That is what this deal is about. It is not just about the voting process; it is about the democracy of this country. It is about ensuring that there are some safeguards in this place. If you are in government, whatever the persuasion of the government of the day may be, it is about being able to negotiate with the crossbench. It is about negotiating and putting forward your policy and having the argument on the floor of this chamber. That is what the Senate is about. It is not about cementing the dirty, grubby deals that have been done now behind closed doors with the Greens and this government.

It will not be in the interests of the nation for this legislation to go forward. Whether it is a Labor government or a Liberal government, I do not believe that it is healthy for the government of the day to have control of both chambers. We saw the evidence that was put before us under the Howard Liberal government of what it meant when they had control in this place. If you think it is hard being on the crossbench, if you think it is hard being in opposition, the only thing worse than those is being in opposition when the government of the day has the numbers in this place and you see it just ram through its legislation.

We purport and the Greens purport to be here to look after the nation's interest—as I believe that they do some of the time. If so, you would not be supporting this legislation. This is bad legislation. This is legislation that has been put forward by a desperate government and by the Greens, who failed to negotiate any real electoral reforms when they had the opportunity. The holier-than-thou act that they come into this place with on a daily basis has been seen through. They are transparent. They are opportunists, and so is their leader. (Time expired)


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