Senate debates

Tuesday, 15 March 2016


Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016; Second Reading

9:22 pm

Photo of Joe LudwigJoe Ludwig (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

Hold onto your hat, we are in for a ride with the Greens thinking it will be a wonderful day when this bill passes.

Clearly, Senator Di Natale must be feeling a bit under pressure if he felt the need to make the ridiculous statement earlier about the Gillard government's agreement with the Greens back in 2010. Yes, that agreement referred to reforming and tightening political donations law—which this legislation does not do. And thanks to Senator Di Natale for reminding me that he sold out on this particular point as well.

It is hard to keep up with the Green's rate of selling out at the moment. I saw it the week before and today. But let me make this clear: the purpose of this bill is purging new parties and Independents from parliament, which is what the Liberal-Green alliance deal will do. The Liberal-Green deal disenfranchise peoples who vote for smaller parties or Independents, discourages them from standing for the Senate or from organising new parties and reduces political participation in our political system. None of this is good for our democracy; all of it appears to be excellent for the Green-Liberal alliance.

We do need to get the balance right on voting reform in the Senate, but that will not happen by ramming this backroom deal through the parliament. The Senate, apart from being a house of review, also acts as a check on the executive of the day and not as a rubber stamp, as the Greens would have us believe. However, the Greens are so determined to purge small parties and Independents that they are willing to risk turning the Senate into a rubber stamp for the Liberal government.

We have seen that before, between 2004 and 2007, where the Liberal government created a sausage machine from the Senate. We saw how that did not work out well for the coalition. I expect—and I do not want to be wishing bad luck for the Greens—in the end it is not going to work out well for the Liberal-Green alliance. We saw how last time where there was control of the Senate they introduced Work Choices and the ABCC. I think there will be no brake on the Green's desire to continue a coalition-Green alliance in many new areas. It will be negative for Australia, negative for working people and negative for people on fixed incomes and pensioners, because, ultimately, the Greens do not have those people as their constituents. Ultimately, the Greens have a new constituency.

But we have already heard in respect of this legislation before us more than eight amendments which will need to be moved by the government itself, because the bill is so flawed due to the government rushing it through the committee and this place. I consider this the most significant reform of the Senate voting process in more than 30 years, so I am a little outraged to think that the government and the Green alliance wants to ram this bill through the Senate in such a short amount of time with such little scrutiny. It is not the refrain that I have heard from the Greens of old when legislation lacked sufficient scrutiny.

We are opposed to this bill because it purges the Senate of small parties and Independents, prevents new parties from even getting elected, exhausts the vote of 3.3 million Australians and risks turning the Senate into a rubber stamp for a Green-coalition government. We want to ensure that the composition of the Senate reflects the preferences of Australian voters, that all votes count and that small parties and Independents are not simply shut out of the system by Mr Malcolm Turnbull and the Greens through their unholy alliance.

The Turnbull-Greens deal will exhaust preferences in the Senate. Millions of Australians, rather than their preferences being counted, will get their preferences eliminated and all small parties and Independents will cease to exist with the introduction of this bill. Under an optional preferential system the majority of three million votes that went to non-Labor, coalition or Greens will have been exhausted. That means nearly a quarter of the formal votes which were cast would not be counted towards the final result. If the Greens think this is such a good deal then they ought to explain to their own constituency that many of them, who in the past have voted for minors and Independents, will find their vote not counted.

We only have to look at how Australians have voted over the last 30 years, voting No. 1 above the line. I would assume that many people will continue to do just that, despite the ballot paper instructions and media campaigns. It took many, many years when we first introduced above-the-line voting for the voting intentions to change. The only parties that could reasonably be expected to transfer preferences at sufficient numbers to elect another candidate are the large parties. In any event, for the ALP, the coalition parties and the Greens to direct preferences consistently under the new system it is only possible through a how-to-vote card, and only the larger parties generally have the infrastructure to be able to support how-to-vote cards and to distribute these to supporters across the state at many ballot boxes. Without them, you have no guarantee of how this system will ultimately work.

The arguments have also been made that the low primary vote of some people on the crossbench is the reason that these amendments to the Electoral Act are required. But coalition senators should be reminded that this also includes candidates for the major parties as well; it is not a valid argument. Senator Birmingham was elected for the state of South Australia by getting a mere 0.1 per cent of the primary vote. He got elected as a Liberal senator on Liberal preference flows, so the argument does not stand up. But apart from the many arguments about this bill, one of the most obvious is the lack of proper process that has been followed and the lack of consultation with the community.

It is a new Greens party that we see here. The old Greens party, the party of Bob Brown and even Christine Milne—although I will not reflect badly on her—would have insisted on proper process. This bill has gone through all the stages in the House of Representatives, through the committee process and now through the Senate, and it has travelled through all those stages in a very short period of time. It is not good governance, and the Senate is not being allowed to do its job properly. That means having time to investigate the details of the bill, to conduct research and to consult with the public. Consulting with the public is an important principle that the Greens often espouse. In this instance, there will be a lack of consultation on this bill by the Greens and any other senator. It also means having time to introduce amendments from a Senate committee report if necessary and if there are inconsistencies or shortcomings in the bill. None of that will happen under the Greens-Liberal coalition.

This bill has been hastily cobbled together. The eight amendments already reflect that. I am making a guess at this, but I predict that, should this bill pass, when it goes to the AEC to be implemented, they will also find mistakes and flaws and that amendments are necessary, and the bill will have to come back to this chamber and be repaired. I suspect that this will not be the last time that we see this bill. Because of the way the Greens-coalition alliance has dealt with it, we will find that there will be a request for an urgent amendment to deal with something as early as May, I suspect, if we are still here.

As noted by other senators, government members on JSCEM have not even allowed the department to appear before the committee to give evidence or be questioned. So what we also have is the Greens-coalition alliance agreeing to the committee process being hamstrung by not allowing the department to appear. This is something that former Senator Bob Brown would never have countenanced. He would always insist that a department be able to appear before a Senate committee or JSCEM. Quite frankly, it shows the contempt the Turnbull-Greens alliance has for the democratic process and role of the Senate.

These amendments to the Electoral Bill will see that the one in four Australians who voted for someone other than the coalition, Labor or the Greens will have their vote exhausted. The bill does not reflect the JSCEM report. We have heard the refrain from the Greens that it does and therefore for some magical reason we should now support. But the bill cherry picks the JSCEM report. It does not reflect all of the report. But, even if we were so bold as to say that it did, it would still require a proper Senate process to ensure that it would work the way it was intended and that amendments were dealt with if necessary because of flaws in drafting or because of unforeseen circumstances—but not by the Greens-coalition alliance.

The bill does not address numerous parts of the previous report, especially the donation reforms which were supported by Liberals. Those reforms which would have seen donation reporting thresholds lowered have been excluded from this bill by the Liberal-Greens alliance. As we saw from the half-day of hearings that the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters held, there were a number of concerns raised about the inadequacies of this bill. Professor George Williams, a constitutional expert from the University of New South Wales, said as part of his evidence to the committee that the new provisions create 'a de facto vote one system' and that it will lead to 'confusion where there is a difference between how to vote cards and advocacy, and the instructions on the ballot paper'.

A number of submissions have been made to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, and the committee has reported after having only a half a day of hearings to consider all of those submissions and the import of those submissions. This is not the proper process for a bill of this magnitude, and the Greens in particular should not be supporting this bill being rushed through the Senate without proper scrutiny. But I think this now falls on deaf ears for the Greens. If this legislation gets through, and the Greens agree to gag debate and to rush this through the Senate, the Greens will own the mistakes and flaws in the bill. If the bill needs remedies, the Greens will have to promote those remedies. If the bill has unintended consequences, even for the Greens, they will have to convince their coalition partner, the Liberals, to agree to any amendments—and good luck with that.

The last time the Liberals and the Greens did a deal to ram legislation through the Senate it was to water down multinational tax laws. It is a sad reality that the Greens have changed. They have morphed into a new party from what was once the old Greens. It is a fact that the last time the Greens did a deal to back Liberal policy, it resulted in more than 600 companies being excluded from having information about their tax compliance released. They are the kinds of outcomes that result when we see the Greens in bed with the Liberals.

The Australian public should know that it is the Greens who will be to blame if a future coalition government is able to pass cuts to Medicare, cuts to penalty rates, cuts to pensions, higher cost for students—by getting $100,000 degrees passed—or attacks on workers by bringing in Work Choices by stealth. If the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill is passed and that results in coalition control of the Senate, that will be the fault of the Greens and the Greens will have to wear that.

Labor and many others on the crossbenches have spent the last couple of years fighting against and stopping some of the inherently unfair legislative agenda of the coalition. It has resulted in some chagrin from the coalition but ultimately it has saved Australians from the painful and harsh policies that the Abbott-Turnbull government was trying to inflict upon them. The changes to the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill will see a greater likelihood for the coalition to gain control of the Senate.

The question is: why are the Greens aiding and abetting the coalition through an alliance? Why are the Greens doing anything to help the Liberals succeed in passing their antiworker and unfair legislative agenda? That will be the result. It is because the Greens have over time stopped representing their real constituency. Under Senator Di Natale's leadership this shift to the centre away from their base has only accelerated. The Greens of Bob Brown and even Christine Milne are no more. The lot we see here today are not the Greens of old. The ones that would criticise Labor, would criticise the Liberals and practically criticise any policy they could find that they could not find favour with. But I cannot tell the difference between the Greens and the coalition any longer. The Greens have spent so much time sitting over there blocking and gagging the debate that they have morphed into a coalition party.

Of course, when you mix blue and green together you get aqua. But, quite frankly, it is a murky shade of aqua that we now have from the Greens. That is why the party of Senator Di Natale has become light blue—tainted by the Liberals and tainted by a desire for relevance. But all we have ended up with is a stain, a stain that we all will see through. It is a significant stain; a blot that will be hard to remove. With Liberals in the future who can manage to pass legislation, and manage to pass unfair legislation which hurts vulnerable Australians, I do sincerely hope that the Greens take responsibility for that time. I hope that they recognise that they have assisted the coalition in ensuring that they can get their bills through the Senate.

The changes in this bill are not the what the JSCEM report recommended. The government likes to claim that this bill does at least implement the substance of the JSCEM recommendations, but this is simply incorrect. The bill is a political fix cooked up by the Liberals and the Greens for partisan purposes—that is what it is.

Last week we also saw Senator Di Natale receive the endorsement from Michael Kroger, the Victorian Liberal president—unbelievable! He said:

You've got a doctor … who owns a farm who doesn't come from this mad environmental background. He's helped the government get legislation through the Federal Parliament. So you look at the Greens through a slightly different lens these days because they're not the nutters they used to be.

That is a stinging endorsement from a Liberal Party president. This is in relation to the latest dirty deal between the Greens and the Liberals to swap preferences in federal seats in Victoria.

Quoted in The Sydney Morning Herald, Mr Kroger was asked what the difference was between a preference deal and a loose arrangement. He explained that under the latter, 'You don't know what you're going to get back.' I think it is a very apt description of the Greens today. You do not know what you are going to get.

The Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016 is so important to the Greens—the new Greens, the aqua Greens—that they have even blocked the debate on their own marriage equality bill to ensure that we can all watch this bill pass. They have become very focused only on this Senate reform bill for the sake of a broader picture.

Senator Leyonhjelm's motion to have the marriage equality bill debated and voted on before the Senate finishes up for the week was rejected by the Greens. Their proffer was: 'You can take Thursday for a private senator's bill.' And you know where that will get you; it will get talked out by your new alliance members. They will talk it out and not let it come to a vote. You know that, yet you still made this empty, hollow offer to protect the reason that you have changed your position in respect of this. You said that Senator Di Natale claimed that the Greens support marriage equality, 'Every Green. Every vote. Every time'—well, except today.


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