Senate debates

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Bills

Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016; In Committee

1:42 am

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | Hansard source

If you could just cackle over there—

The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Senator Wong, don't be distracted. Resume.

I cannot help it. I have got this bloke behind me who seems to have lost it, and it is not Senator Conroy; it is one of yours and he is on our side. You can stay here, if you want—if you vote with us! I will start again—I am sure you are very happy about that.

Senator Cormann, I think, just prior to the division, was accusing me of misleading the chamber in relation to some evidence before JSCEM and voter behaviour. I would make the point: I was actually quite clear that you do have to make a set of assumptions about how voters will respond to a new system. Senator Cormann places great store in the fact that the instruction on the ballot paper will be there. That will ensure a great many people change their voting behaviour. He might be right. He might be wrong. The point I was making is that, if you look at the statistics over 30 years, if you look at the New South Wales position and if you also look at what the Parliamentary Library were saying, it is a reasonable assumption that many people will continue voting 1 above the line. He may be right. It may be that people, overnight, are able to change their voting behaviour. I make the point again—and the senator never responded to this: Australian voters have spent 30 years voting above the line, and it seems reasonable to assume that many people will continue to do so, despite the ballot paper instructions and any media campaigns.

I note that Senator Cormann did not actually address that at any point, which is the Parliamentary Library research which has been tabled in the parliament. Why does this matter? This matters because your assumptions about how voters respond actually drive, or heavily influence, your assumptions about the outcomes that this Senate voting change will deliver. We on this side in part—this is not our only objection—are of the view that a great many voters will do what they have been doing for the last 30 years, which is to put 1 above the line, and we have documented on a number of occasions tonight why we have concerns about what that means for democracy, for the franchise, what that means in terms of the numbers of exhausted votes and what that means in terms of the effective first-past-the-post system that will be introduced. Senator Cormann did not deal with the proposition that I was putting to him about what the Parliamentary Library were saying as to changes in voter behaviour.

I would also make the point that Senator Cormann's argument might have more merit if there had been a good lead-in time, if there had been a lengthy period of voter education, including for non-English-speaking-background communities, if there had been a long lead time to educate people about what this voting change meant and what their options were under it. Let us remember, if we look at the informal voting statistics for the last election, they do vary quite considerably between the House of Representatives and the Senate, where of course the Senate has a lower informal vote, in great part because of the above-the-line voting system. In New South Wales, you are looking at an informal vote of around 7.5 or 7.6 per cent in the House of Reps and about 3.3 per cent for the Senate. That is probably the starkest difference, to be honest. The ACT is the smallest. In Queensland it is 2.16 versus 5.13. My point is that the Senate has a system where people are used to voting above the line and that has led to higher levels of formality than in the House of Representatives. What we are proposing now is a system where the government is assuming that suddenly people will move away from the 1 above the line.

I have to say I think that is a heroic assumption given how quickly this is being introduced. It is not the case that these reforms have been put out there, discussed in the community, communicated and explained well ahead of an election campaign. This is being rushed through in order to enable a double-dissolution election under the new rules. It is being rushed through for the purposes of the election. We can have an argument about Senate procedure—and I am happy to have a discussion about the fact that you allowed a half-day sham inquiry on this, Senator McKenzie—but this has been rushed through in terms of voter education. You are rushing it through. If Senator Rhiannon's amendment gets up, the extent to which it is being rushed through is demonstrated by the fact that you are seeking to have the application in terms of the design of the ballot paper predate the commencement of the act. I will be asking questions about that. That shows how rushed through it is. You are saying: 'We want to get it through. We might have the commencement date later but, in case there is a double-D and a prepoll, we need to have an application provision in the legislation that says that we can have this ballot paper under the new provision actually in place before the act commences.' This is extraordinary. It is chaotic. Do you know why you want to do it? Because you are so desperate to make sure you have a double-dissolution election at the timing you choose.

I just wanted to place on record my response to the accusation that I was misleading the chamber. I wanted to remind senators that the 1 above the line has been the overwhelmingly predominate voting method in the Senate—96 per cent—and it has led to lower levels of informality. The assumptions about choice, for the reasons I have previously outlined, mask the true agenda here, which is about political power.

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