Tuesday, 1 March 2016
Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016; First Reading
I will start off where I finished last night, talking about some of the concerns around the process being used to ram this legislation through. We saw the first result of the way this legislation has been dealt with when, the day after introducing the bill to the House, the government was forced to essentially rewrite the bill and move a number of amendments to fix a mistake. Only having been in the Senate for a year, I am not sure how standard the practice is to move amendments quite so quickly after a bill is introduced—that is, the next day—as the bill is being debated. From my understanding, it was that the government drafters must have read that ABC's Antony Green's blog where these errors were pointed out.
One of the amendments was to ensure that the votes were able to be counted. That is the result of the speed with which this electoral bill has been brought forward and the mistakes that have been made were clear on day one. The scrutiny of this bill has now been completed through the 4½-hour hearing this morning. I am not sure whether the committee is going to have the time to work through all of the submissions. I have seen a number that raise concerns and that identify other mistakes in this bill.
It seems incredible to me that we are in this situation where we are dealing with significant reform, the most major reform in 30 years, and the way the legislation was concocted. It was written with Senator Di Natale, Senator Xenophon and the Prime Minister sitting together, working out a deal that would in the long term be beneficial for all of them. The scrutiny allowed has been so limited.
We heard concerns from witnesses during the hearing of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters this morning. I have not caught all of today's hearings but I did see a number of people come before the committee this morning and raise concerns. I did manage to hear some of Mr Malcolm Mackerras's evidence before the committee. He raised some substantial concerns. His language was very strong in the evidence that he gave. He had concerns that predated this bill but he also had concerns on this bill. I am not an expert so I do not understand whether there is any merit to Mr Mackerras's arguments but the whole point of having a committee process is to be able to draw those out, consider them, take advice from others and work out whether or not it will have the impact that Mr Mackerras is alleging it will.
I have two major concerns that I will cover off today. The first one is around the process and the urgency. What is it that the Greens political party get out of this in the longer term? It looks to me like the short-term result of this will be the potential loss of a couple of senators. Why the sham process? Who does that benefit? Is it going to benefit democracy in the long run?
Will it ensure that Australians who vote in the upcoming election—whether it be a double dissolution election or a general election—will actually have their vote counted? Or will it mean that there will be millions of Australians who cast a vote and are going to be disenfranchised by the system that is being put in place in this deal by the coalition and the Greens? Those are the two reasons I do not support the way that this electoral bill has been dealt with. It is why the Labor party will continue to argue against it as it proceeds through the Senate.
The legislation is worthy of much greater scrutiny; a longer time frame and extended reporting date; the ability for people who want to provide submissions to provide those submissions; and for individuals or other political parties that might want to contest the next election to be given the opportunity and the time to appear and give evidence on their positions to the joint standing committee. When that joint standing committee process has had a reasonable time to consider the bill, to consult and to consider their report, that report should then be tabled and again people will have time to respond. That is the normal process that we have in this place for dealing with bills. This bill is significant and it is worthy of that level of scrutiny.
I rise to speak on the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016. I am pleased to be able to follow Senator Gallagher, who was reminding us of several of the points that were raised last night in this debate. Of course, since that time we have also had the farcical meeting of the JSCEM committee. I will have an opportunity to reflect on some of those processes. I am pleased, Mr President, that you are in the chair at the moment and that Senator Cormann is representing the government in the chamber at the moment, because I have very serious concerns about how this legislation has progressed. That is not just as the senator representing the Special Minister of State in the Senate but also as an individual senator.
What we all agree with, Senator Cormann, is that this is a matter that needs to be addressed carefully and with due consideration. However, what is occurring here is a railroad. It is a railroad of a deal that has been done between—
Thank you, Mr President. You are right; there is no point of order. But, if Senator Cormann is getting excited about representations of Mr Gray, let him get excited about the nature of the hearings today. In 20 years in the Senate, I have never experienced a committee deliberation such as that which went before JSCEM today.
I hope that Senator Cormann is aware now that on several occasions senators have sought to have the relevant department appear and explain the decisions made in this bill. It is such a farce that, when we had the AEC this morning, they told us we needed to talk to the Department of Finance. The AEC told us, 'Senators need to talk to the Department of Finance.' But the committee that you control—the numbers that the government and the Greens control on the electoral matters committee—have now blocked that three times. Anyone listening to this debate needs to understand that this behaviour is unprecedented. Mr President, I am glad that you are here, because you can hear this. When a Senate committee looks at a matter, particularly a matter of legislation, the most routine element of any Senate inquiry is to have the department appear and explain to senators the thinking of the government on why it has proceeded in a particular way.
Given the very short time frame we had to look at submissions to this inquiry, I looked at roughly the first 16 that came in. A fair proportion of them said that the explanatory memorandum does not even explain why the government has taken the particular path it has taken. Let's understand what that path is, because Senator Cormann likes to misrepresent Mr Gray and others, and indeed the Joint Select Committee on Electoral Matters. The government, the Greens and Senator Xenophon have chosen a path which is different to the path that was recommended by consensus by this committee. They have failed to explain that difference in the explanatory memorandum and they have blocked any attempt by senators to question the government on why they have chosen this particular path. It has been blocked three times now.
This is probably the best point in this discussion for me to highlight: I will move an amendment to this motion. That amendment is designed to ensure that we will have more time to deal with this matter more carefully. Any student of politics would understand that significant electoral reform—the most significant in 30 years—should involve appropriate scrutiny and consideration. That is what is not happening here.
Malcolm Turnbull might be keen to try to line up the ducks to rush to a double dissolution election, but that does not justify and it does not explain the lack of scrutiny—essentially, the violation of the rights of any senator in this chamber to look at a matter appropriately before we vote on it. As I said, in 20 years I have never seen a committee inquiry like this. Indeed, I understand that even when the Howard government had control in the Senate they did not deny a department providing evidence. This is the path that Senator Cormann does not understand. Maybe there is a bit of limitation in his experience as a senator when it comes to committee work in this place. For the government, through its numbers on this committee, to block the department from even appearing is farcical. It exposes what is really going on. Fortunately, Senator Cormann, either your stupidity or that of the chair of this committee or the other senators of this committee has exposed what is really happening here.
That is because the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill fails any sensible test of policymaking or indeed of parliamentary scrutiny. As you have seen already by Senator Cormann's conduct so far, the government likes to pretend that this legislation implements the recommendations of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters in its interim report on the conduct of the 2013 federal election, which indeed focused on Senate voting. But this is not correct. Any cursory glance at the now more than 106 submissions in this matter highlights that this is not correct.
It also highlights my other point, which is that there has been no explanation for why this is so. The only thing that we can do here is surmise about what went on in the back room between the government, or the coalition, the Greens and Senator Xenophon. It is no wonder that a fair proportion—and I will come to this point if I have time later—of people watching this are asking: why have the Greens been so naive here? What is occurring with this bill with the complicity of the Greens is worse than anything that happened when John Howard had control of the Senate. Can they not see where this is taking us? It seems not.
The Liberal Party and fellow travellers such as Senator Xenophon and Senator Di Natale like to say that their deal implements the substance of the JSCEM recommendations. I have even heard them say that it implements 85 per cent of the recommendations.
Eighty-five per cent, he claims, are represented—and once again he is trying to hide behind Gary Gray. Now, you might try this sort of glib language, Senator Cormann, but it does not deny the facts. The facts are what we have had before us on this committee. The facts are that you will not even let the Department of Finance appear. It makes your arguments look ludicrous. The facts are that the most basic thing with a bill, which is its explanatory memorandum, does not explain why you have chosen not to fully implement those recommendations. Add to that that you also have commentators watching this debate and saying: 'We predict ultimately they will. We suspect that this was part of their original ambit, that the Greens naively just accepted it and that eventually the crossbenchers will force them to make those further concessions.' But on top of that the other witnesses today were saying, 'Oh, we just don't think they really know what they're doing here.'
Let me spend a few minutes highlighting some of the points that were made in today's hearing. I am sure we will get an opportunity to go back to them in the further debates on this matter. Let us have a look at what was highlighted in today's hearing in the very, very limited time available and, as I said, with the inability to even talk to the Department of Finance.
The AEC in their appearance confirmed that they require a minimum of three months to implement the changes. They need three months—and let me confirm this for every senator—after the bill passes, so a further three months. This is why the government were criticised, not by the AEC here but by other witnesses before the inquiry, for doing nothing for two years. They failed to act for two years. They were criticised for pushing through reform now in the way that they are currently proceeding. They were criticised for cherry picking recommendations which undermine their argument for urgently passing the legislation. They were criticised for not implementing the model that was recommended by JSCEM. Antony Green, for instance, confirmed that under this model the Greens would have lost a seat in South Australia at the last election and that the coalition winning a majority of seats would be more likely in a double dissolution.
Again, we are back to: why are we having this rush, and why is the Prime Minister being so reckless in proceeding this way? I know I have this debate from time to time with other senators about how reckless Mr Turnbull is, and I often like to remind senators of the experience we had with the Prime Minister when he was previously the Leader of the Opposition and his behaviour with Mr Godwin Grech. I had a fair mind at the start of his prime ministership to accept that he might have learnt through that process, but the way he is recklessly proceeding here highlights that he has not learnt. He has not learnt to allow appropriate scrutiny and to run his case for his policies. Instead, we see the government hiding.
We hear concerns that the legislation the government wants to put through this chamber will maximise the number of senators elected by the major parties, such as the Liberal Party, and established minor parties such as the Greens and the Nick Xenophon team. We hear that it will exhaust preferences early so Independents and so-called microparties are deprived of votes. Its object is to prevent new players from entering the Senate, thereby entrenching the electoral dominance of the existing players. The principal beneficiary of this new voting system will be the Liberal Party, which traditionally receives the highest primary vote, bolstered by its coalition partners, the Nationals.
The Greens need to think very carefully about what this means for the composition of the Senate, particularly over a couple of electoral cycles. The only reason the Liberal Party are pushing this bill is that they see it as the best chance of translating their high primary vote into lasting political dominance in the Senate and, over time, a Senate majority in their own right. Let me say that again to the Greens: think very carefully about what that will mean. We often hear from the Greens that they are concerned about gagging debate. I am pleased to see that the government has not been able to proceed this week in the way it originally highlighted, because it does give me an opportunity, again through the amendment I will move, to ensure that there is more time to carefully consider these matters.
As I indicated earlier, the last time the government had a Senate majority we ended up with Work Choices. Even back then the deals that were done about proper legislative scrutiny were more generous than what has happened with this electoral matters committee. Even the committee consideration of the Work Choices legislation—and we criticised that at the time—had the relevant department appear. We were critical about the amount of time involved for what was very complex, detailed and lengthy legislation but we at least had an opportunity to question the relevant department.
On this occasion the committee has been nobbled in a way I have never seen before. Indeed, if my amendment today succeeds, we will have an opportunity to recall the committee, call the department before us and have the department explain to us the government's thinking behind the way it has chosen to proceed with this bill and to provide more information than what was put by the government in the explanatory memorandum, which left unexplained the important issues that people who made submissions to our inquiry have already highlighted.
It was impossible to establish an inquiry without the support of the coalition when the government had control of the Senate after the 2004 election. The government could pass draconian legislation and changes through regulation and the Senate had no ability to exercise its powers of disallowance. Do you want that? I say to Greens senators: do you want to go back to the budget before last, because that is what this legislation will deliver? It will deliver an environment where the Senate will have no control in the long term to be a brake on government excess and to ensure that draconian legislation does not simply get a quick tick—in this case, we are not even able to scrutinise the department—and measures, such as the budget before last, are allowed to succeed.
I would be surprised if that were really what the Greens want, but equally I have been surprised at their cooperation with the government on how this committee would proceed. I am glad Senator Rhiannon is here because I want to run through the detail of this. Mr President, perhaps the detail will assist your understanding here as well. When we made recommendations about having an inquiry the Labor Party, through the scrutiny of bills process, indicated that we should call the department. We were overruled. We then in the committee sought to ensure that we could call the department. The committee voted us down.
The Greens were originally going to appear on today's program but then that changed, so I attended the next meeting when we were talking about the program. At that next meeting the chair was not even going to deal with the program. When I highlighted the point that the program was changing since now the Greens were not appearing and there would be more time so we could ask the department to appear, again I was simply ignored. Mr President, I know that you have worked in the role of Deputy President and Chairman of Committees and I know that you understand that this is not the way that committees should proceed, but this is how my rights as an individual senator and indeed as the opposition spokesperson on this matter have been dealt with on this occasion. I believe it is appalling. That is why I will be moving the amendment that has been circulated in my name to add at the end of the motion:
… "but, may not be further proceeded with until 12 May 2016."
In that motion I make the points I have already highlighted. There has not been proper consideration of this bill. We have the farcical example of the AEC saying to us, 'Senators, you would need to ask the department.' They came to us today unable to provide during this morning's hearing any detail about the government's rationale for proceeding the way they have with this bill. They were not able to apprise us as to why the explanatory memorandum did not explain the approach the government has taken in relation to below-the-line voting. They were not able to assist us to assess the submissions made to us by witnesses or people who provided submissions, highlighting that no-one can find that rationale. All they can find is glib statements by Senator Cormann—'This is what Gary Gray agreed to.' I am sorry, Senator Cormann, but the Labor Party have processes that determine what our party position is, and I represent that party position here. No glib references such as that can be used to apologise for your failure to make the policy case in relation to this legislation. This is, as was suggested before us today by one of the witnesses, a dirty deal. What we have before us is simply a dirty deal.
Let me see what else was said today. George Williams suggested that this is simply 'incoherent'. It is incoherent because the government are providing little information and no proper scrutiny. They should be ashamed of themselves. I move:
At the end of the motion, add, "but, may not be further proceeded with until 12 May 2016."
Senator Madigan, I point out that we are actually debating that this bill may now proceed without formalities—and you have used the correct title of the bill—and also now the amendment moved by Senator Collins to that motion. I am sure your subject material will be correct, but I want to make sure you are debating the right matter.
Following on, with the rhetoric, many of the points that Senator Collins made are quite pertinent to the subject. But last night, on the ABC's Q&A, the former Minister for Small Business in the government, Mr Billson, said: 'To see a person elected to the Australian Senate with 1,500 first preference votes that wouldn't even get you elected in a ward election in a local council, and then hold up the trajectory of the nation, make it impossible to hold governments to account for their promises and the commitments and the outcomes they deliver to our country—I think that's not good. Having people know where their vote's going—I think that is good. So I think there's a strong case for the reforms that are being put to the parliament.' I have listened to the government repeat this time and time again, and we have often heard references made to my fellow crossbench senators and Senator Muir in particular, who at the 2013 election received 479 first preference votes below the line.
But then you go and have a look at the frontbench of the government, and I go to look at how many first preference votes Senator Cash received below the line in the 2013 election, and Senator Cash—the Minister for Women, Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service and Minister for Employment—received 349 first preference votes below the line. Then we have Senator Edwards, who received 667 first preference votes below the line. Senator Fawcett received 1,602 first preference votes below the line. And, of course, Senator Lambie received 1,501 first preference votes below the line.
Of course, it is true that many Australians vote above the line, and they vote according to the voting ticket that their party puts forward, whether it be the government—the Liberal Party and the National Party—the ALP, the Greens or PUP—whoever. So the fact of the matter is that the majority of people put 1 above the line and they say to their party, 'You distribute our vote according to how you, the party, see it.' If any member of the public cares to go to the Australian Electoral Commission website prior to the election, they can look up how the party is directing their preferences.
But, of course, they do not want the public to actually know. This bill is about self-interest and it is about political opportunism. I am all for transparency so the public know where their votes are going, and I support that. I support educating the public to care how they vote and who they vote for, to actually look beyond the tag of whether you are the ALP, the Liberals, the Nationals or the Nick Xenophon party, and to look at the individual who you are voting for to see if their beliefs and their ethics conform with yours—it might be 70 per cent; it might be 100 per cent; it might be 65 per cent—so people understand how their vote works, because there is an incredible amount of ignorance, unfortunately, in the general community about how your votes work.
It is an interesting position that we have here. On the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters are the government, the ALP and the Greens. There are no voting members on that committee other than them. That is a fact. Predominantly, this committee is a House of Representatives committee. In the past, on the public record, former prime ministers of our nation have shown an utter contempt for the Senate and the way the Senate works. Unless the Senate votes the way a government of the day wants it to vote, some people refer to the Senate as swill. So I would say to members of the government in the Senate: be careful what you wish for.
Often we hear in this place about legislation being rammed through this place, and the fact of the matter is that, in the previous Rudd-Gillard governments, the ALP-Greens coalition, for want of a better word, rammed through legislation. At that time, the now government—the Liberal-National party—complained profusely about that. It was an abuse of the Senate process, with lack of scrutiny and lack of process. Now, when the boot is on the other foot, we hear it from the now opposition, the then government.
Some people suggest that it is an easy thing to get into the Senate by gaming it. The fact of the matter is that it is a vertical ski slope. For the incumbents—the cabal, as some people would say—it is all in their favour. The fact of the matter is that in 2013 there was $58,076,456 paid to political parties represented in the House of Representatives and the Senate. To receive funding from the public purse, you have to get four per cent or more of the vote. That already is a huge advantage to incumbency. But we do not hear about that.
So I would suggest to the government: the argument that you use about how many votes people got below the line does not cut the mustard, let alone when you look at how, with the retirement or resignation of people from the Senate, we find people who did not even run in the 2010 or 2013 election and who now occupy seats in this Senate. They never put their name on a ballot paper, but now they are here. Yet we hear arguments about what the people want. They often do not even go to the person who actually ran in those two previous elections and was the next person on the ticket, whether it was the government ticket—the Liberals or the Nationals—or the ALP or the Greens ticket. There are many people who end up occupying seats in this place who have never faced an election and never faced the people.
I say to Senator Dastyari: you did not run, and you will admit that. You were picked by the party to be here. I am not insinuating, Senator Dastyari, that you should not be here. That is the system that the incumbent government has made in this place. Here we are, 30 years on, and one of the biggest electoral changes that the nation has seen in three decades is being rushed through. You would want to be careful what you wish for here. If we accept the government's argument about how many votes people get below the line, it should ring alarm bells for the government. If that is going to be the yardstick, have a look at how many below-the-line first preference votes Senator Di Natale got. One does not have to look too far. At the 2010 election, he got 34,208 votes below the line, with the number 1 in the box next to Senator Di Natale's name. Then look at one of the better performers for the coalition: Senator Fierravanti-Wells. At the 2010 election, Senator Fierravanti-Wells got 12,194 first preference votes below the line. I have to say that she is, by far, one of the better performers in the coalition. Look at how many votes Senator Cormann, who has carriage of this bill, got below the line. He got 5,215 votes in the 2010 election—less than one-sixth of the votes that Senator Di Natale got. I say to the government: the argument that you are putting forward about below-the-line votes does not cut the mustard. In the paper, you attack other people for their low vote. You want to take another look. Senator Bernardi, who is often attacked in this place for his views and for how outspoken he is, got 5,554 votes at the last election, in 2013. Senator Birmingham, who is the Minister for Education and Training, got 1,013 votes. He got fewer votes than I did, and yet he is a minister. But I am not calling into question the fact that he can be a minister.
There is a narrative about there being a problem. Should we have more scrutiny? Yes, we should have more scrutiny. But the government wants to think about what it is doing here. I caution the government: it is not going to ultimately turn out the way you think. You are playing into the hands of the Greens and other people. One thing the ALP has always said in the House of Representatives is 'one vote, one value'. I refer you to the Constitution, which talks about senators being elected by the people to the Senate to represent their states. That is what it says. That is not what I think it says; that is what it actually says. But, in our current system, if you vote 1 above the line for your first preference, you allocate how your vote is going to be distributed to that party above the line, whether it is the ALP, the government, the Greens, PUP, an Independent, a small or minor party or whoever. If you vote 1 above the line, they all distribute your vote according to how they see fit. That is a fact.
For 32 years—I think it was in 1984 that the system came into play—all the parties were part of putting this current system in place. I say to all of you in this place: for many years, this system has served you. Prior to an election, you all go around to small and minor parties, Independents and any other person who has nominated to run for the Senate, put up their $2,000 nomination fee—or whatever it is—and met all the requirements of the AEC. The fact of the matter is they have not broken the law. There are backroom deals and preference deals done by all parties and individuals represented in this place in some way, shape or form. The fact of the matter is that the people who choose not to vote for the ALP, the Greens, the Nationals or the Liberals are entitled to have a voice. They are entitled to have their vote represented. If somebody chooses to say, 'I agree with one individual more than with another individual. I'm going to give my preferences to that person,' then that is their right to do so. Of people who vote in the Senate, a large proportion chooses to vote below the line. The Liberals might have their first candidate in Victoria being whomever it may be, but the voter might say: 'Well, I don't particularly like that bloke or that woman. I'm going for the person who is No. 6 on the Liberal list, and then I'm going to go to the candidate who's No. 2 on the ALP list, because I concur with their beliefs more than I do with the other five on the Liberal ticket,' or vice versa. It is people's right to do that. Many Australians take up the option to do that. The vast majority of Australians just give it to the party to decide.
But to tell me that people care what the voting public thinks is disingenuous. The fact of the matter is that this is purely about self-interest. It is purely about political opportunism. The selective moral outrage and the toxic sanctimony of the Greens on this issue is just breathtaking. The government have jumped into bed with them. Ultimately they will rue the day that they went along with this.
I rise to speak on the motion and on the amendment put by my colleague Senator Collins regarding the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016. To say that the level of scrutiny that has been given to this bill is farcical is actually something of an understatement. I would like to say at the outset that I support and concur with the contribution by Senator Collins here today about the level of scrutiny and the farcical situation that has been undertaken by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters on this bill.
We had the inquiry—if you want to call it an inquiry—on this bill this morning. This morning's hearing was, as Senator Collins said, unlike any other inquiry that we have been involved in. We had the farcical situation where questions were put to the AEC that they were unable to answer. Their answer was, 'You need to talk to the department.' Senator Collins has already outlined to the Senate and those listening to this debate the length to which Labor senators went to request the department—it was not an outrageous or unusual request—come to answer questions. But that request was shut down and, in many respects, not even responded to by the chair of the committee. Of course, the coalition and Greens members on the committee chose to not allow the department to come to answer very significant questions on this bill.
The other point that needs to be made on the inquiry that we just had is to do with questions that were taken on notice. Again, there was not even a procedure put in place by the chair of the committee as to when questions on notice should come back to the committee. Questions on notice are a normal process in Senate committees, both legislation and references committees. They are just part of the normal work of a committee. But at this inquiry there was not even an attempt to have questions on notice responded to. We have been told that we may get those responses in time for an 8 am meeting tomorrow to consider the draft report into this piece of legislation.
When Senator Collins talked about the need for greater scrutiny of this bill, she also meant actual scrutiny. It is not good enough to point to a JSCEM report on the 2013 election because what we have before us here is not what was recommended. It has cherry picked parts out of that report on the 2013 federal election. A deal has been done between the coalition and the Greens in this place on what they would like to see. It is not about allowing the Senate and the public to have a greater understanding of what is actually being put before us in this piece of legislation. It is not about that. They can pretend it is about that, but the inquiry clearly showed, I believe, that that is not what it is about. They have cherry picked parts of it. They have put in a section about logos that was not even recommended in the JSCEM report. I do not know who brought that up. It might have been in a discussion between the Liberal Party secretariat, the National Party secretariat and the Prime Minister's office. That is in there, but it was not recommended. Even today when questions were asked about that, primarily by the coalition senators, there were not any details around how that might work. There was nothing at all. So this has been a complete subversion of the Senate process, and it undermines the role of the Senate in this place.
In recent months many of us on this side of the chamber have pointed out that changing the leader of the Liberal Party has actually changed nothing. The conservative and self-interested policies of the Abbott government continue under the Turnbull government. In contrast, we can look at the Australian Greens and see just how much can change with a change of leadership. It was a party that under former Senator Bob Brown and former Senator Milne on many occasions made grand speeches about the importance of Senate oversight and proper consideration. Now, under Senator Di Natale or, in this case, Senator Rhiannon, we know that the Australian Greens have no respect for the role of this place. They have no respect for the processes that we have.
What we are seeing now is a deal that has clearly been cooked up over months. It is not something that has been neatly settled in the last couple of weeks. Behind closed doors, with no transparency, it has been cooked up to benefit the Greens and the coalition. It is a deal that has been cooked up to subvert the Senate processes and give the Turnbull government the quick out it wants for a double dissolution election.
This is not about the need for urgent reform. If it were, the government would have brought a bill before this place sometime in the last two years. This is not about the procedures we have in this place. Make no mistake: this is not about reform or democracy. Ramming this bill through parliament is about political expedience. This is about what is politically convenient for the Liberals and the Greens. I would throw in the Nats, but I think they just go along with anything. It is most definitely not about the role of this place as a house of review.
The role of the Senate as house of review is to be able to go to the electorate and talk about legislation and to come back better informed, with amendments and with a government that is able to take them into account. None of that is happening here. This is just a directive from the Prime Minister's office which says, 'Clear the slate on Thursday night or Friday and get us out of here so that we can get ready for an election.'
These are not my words but rather the words of the former leader of the Australian Greens, Bob Brown. They are words he spoke in this place in defence of the Senate—words which have very real meaning in this place today. However, these words obviously do not have any meaning to the Australian Greens we now have under the leadership of Senator Di Natale and Senator Rhiannon. They have similarly forgotten the words of their last leader, former Senator Christine Milne, who said in this place:
The Australian people deserve a house of review. A house of review means appropriate scrutiny of legislation and appropriate scrutiny of governments. You achieve that through estimates committees, through Senate references committees and through Senate legislation committees.
Again, this is a lesson that has been lost on the Greens who now sit in this place.
Anyone who has been following this farce of a process would also know that the bill that was presented in the House of Representatives has already been amended by the government. So quick were they in their haste to get this dirty deal out of the back room and onto the table of the House of Representatives that they have already had to amend it. And it appears that the AEC, from what I can gather from their evidence, have not really had much to do with drafting this legislation. By the time the government ram it through the Senate here, who knows how much will have already been amended.
This is the problem. There has been no scrutiny and no transparency. There has been a deal cooked up by the coalition and the Greens and it is already starting to unravel by way of the fact that it needs amendments. This has not been done properly. There has been no scrutiny and there has been no regard whatsoever for the Australian community. The government have not gone out to talk about it in the community. The Greens have not gone out to talk about it. No-one has even bothered to put up a semblance of pretence that there is going to be proper scrutiny.
As I have said a number of times here, because it needs to be said often and loudly, the Greens have stitched up a deal with the Liberal government to avoid proper scrutiny of the most significant changes to our democratic process in 30 years. This is not about what is best for our democracy. In fact, we cannot even say what is best for our democracy or what the true impact of the proposal being brought before us is, because the government refuse to allow us the time to scrutinise this proposed legislation. They have done the deal with the Greens and Senator Xenophon. It is a deal that will see this legislation rammed through this place with only a pretence of consideration by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. That has played out. That is the reality. That is what we saw this morning.
Our colleagues in the other place were forced to vote on the bill before they even saw the outcome of the sham hearing of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. They were not even allowed the time to read the joint standing committee report before they actually had to vote on this proposed legislation—which, as I have said, is the most significant change to our democratic process in over 30 years. The government and the Greens have seen fit to give the appearance of allowing senators an opportunity to consider the bill and the evidence of the hearing that was held this morning. It was, I think, 3½ hours of a farcical meeting with rotating questions. It was a hearing at which members of the committee had just 3½ hours. The most important part of what happened this morning is the fact that the government—and the committee chair, along with the other coalition and Greens members—would not allow the appropriate departments to come and give evidence. Those questions that committee members wanted to ask were not able to be asked. Some of the questions were asked of the AEC, as I have said, but they did not have the information to be able to answer those questions. They referred them and told us that it would be a matter for the finance committee.
If we hear the minister that is responsible for this legislation get up to say, 'We have had the JSCEM report of the inquiry into the conduct of the 2013 election and we have had an inquiry into the legislation before us now,' it is just a farce. People who are listening to this debate should know that it is a complete and utter farce and that the process the government has set out has been explicitly designed to control the debate, to shut down the debate and to ensure scrutiny is at a minimum.
This bill cherry picks elements of the recommendations made in the JSCEM report of the inquiry into the conduct of the 2013 election. But we are not going to have an opportunity to really examine the implications of this bill. If we are all honest with ourselves, we cannot say that we are surprised by the actions of the government. In the last two years, we have seen their complete contempt for the Senate. This government have shown themselves to be completely unable to manage their legislative agenda. They have shown themselves to be completely unable to negotiate. They have shown themselves to be completely unable to prosecute an argument for the changes they have sought to make—which is no shock, given the changes they have sought. They have shown themselves as having complete contempt for the Senate, its role and its procedures.
For a moment, I was surprised by the Greens—and Senator Xenophon—being complicit in this, until I remembered the Greens track record when it comes to negotiating with the government. And I remembered that, to put it simply, the Greens are not very good at making deals: their bargaining powers have already been found wanting. We saw this when they made a deal with the government on multinational tax transparency. We had the numbers on this issue—we could have got a better deal on tax transparency—but the Greens folded. They folded and let 500 companies off the hook. And yet again we have seen the Greens roll over to have their tummies scratched by the Liberal government.
I am sure many members of the Australian Greens are wondering when their party became opposed to open and transparent debate. Their own members would be asking when this became a bad thing. Given the Greens record under the leadership of Senator Di Natale, you would think that they would be getting better at cutting deals with the Liberal government. It is something we have seen them doing a lot. As I just outlined, the Greens voted with the government to let big companies keep secret how much tax they pay. They voted to defeat Labor amendments requiring large private companies making more than $100 million in profits to publicly disclose how much tax they pay. But this is just the start.
The Greens also voted with the government in the Senate to cut age pensions by $2.4 billion. They actually voted to pass Mr Abbott's and Mr Hockey's budget measures to cut the age pension to 330,000 elderly Australians. Senator Di Natale's Greens voted with the Liberals to erect new barriers against investment by reducing Foreign Investment Review Board screening thresholds for proposed investments in agriculture and agribusiness. They voted for legislation allowing the health minister to make multimillion dollar medical research funding decisions without following the recommendations of the independent expert advisory body. And the list goes on. Now the Greens have done a dud deal, behind closed doors, with the government to change the Senate voting system. It is a deal that will disenfranchise voters. Some people have estimated that three million Australians vote for parties other than the coalition, Labor and the Greens. This deal is all to help the government call an early double dissolution election.
All of this is not to say that there are not issues with our current electoral system, issues that do need to be addressed. But they should not be addressed in this way, through a piece of legislation that has been rammed through the House of Representatives, that has been rammed through a quick and dirty inquiry this morning, prior to the JSCEM delivering its report, only to see it come into the Senate to again be rammed through. There is no transparency; there is no concern about going out to the community to ask their view. This is about the Greens and the government doing a deal with no concern or care for Australian democracy.
I too rise to put on the record my remarks on what is, in my view, a mistitled piece of legislation before the chamber this morning—the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016—which would be better called the 'dirty deal between the Liberals and the Greens party bill', because that is what is really being discussed here this morning.
For those in this country who live great lives and do not pay 100 per cent attention to the way the Senate works and the way Senate inquiries work, it is important to put some context around what is going on here. To give an example, one of the committees I sit on is the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Corporations and Financial Services. We are inquiring into loans that have been impaired, which means that the banks have taken over loans and people have lost their property. That is a very important issue, and we are taking it very seriously. We have had to my knowledge at least six or seven—it is probably more—whole-day hearings that have been held around the country to give Australians the chance to put on the record important matters that relate to loans and banks. That is an important matter but, by comparison to the matter that is being pushed through the Senate right now, that simply pales into insignificance. What is being pushed through this chamber is a deal between the Greens and the Liberals—and it is epitomised by a deep and meaningful conversation going on between the Liberal Minister for Finance and the person who is leading the discussion for the Greens, Senator Rhiannon. The dealing is going on as we speak.
What I really want people to understand is that the reality of that sort of conversation that is going on means that there is going to be no set of six or 10 hearings around this matter which is, as Senator Brown has said, the biggest change that has happened to the way Australians vote in 30 years. Let us get some perspective here: the biggest change in 30 years about the way Australians are going to vote without any proper inquiry or proper process—it is not even good enough to get a hearing in every state or capital city. Let's just push it through and have a pretend game of an inquiry—that is what has happened today in this building. Today democracy got dudded in this building by the coalition government in cahoots with the Greens—they did a deal and they held the most embarrassing sham of an inquiry this morning. On that committee Labor was represented very ably by Senator Conroy, Senator Jacinta Collins and Senator Brown, but they were subjected to the chairing of Mr Coleman. A number members from the Liberals and Greens were also there, as were a few independents who tried to put their views, but the committee was dominated by Liberals and Greens. Mr Coleman as chair used all his excellent skills in trying to keep the debate civil, but the reality was that it started at 8.15 and it finished at 12 o'clock.
For most people working around the country that would not even constitute half a day's good work. These guys have decided in the space of less than four hours that they had enough evidence to push through this shameful deal. That is what they have done. It is a disgrace; it is a disgrace that it has happened in this country; it is a disgrace it has happened in this building; and it is a disgrace that they think that sham of performance this morning will constitute anything other than the abuse of the Senate's authority in a most shameful way. It is contemptuous of a proper, robust and transparent inquiry into this most significant piece of legislation.
It is not only the Labor Party which should be upset about this; experts who have long-held and critical views on these matters are absolutely outraged by what is being attempted here. I was very honoured to meet Malcolm Mackerras. I only joined the Labor Party 19 years ago, when I was pregnant with my third child and I was a teacher; I was not a political staffer and I did not know until I got here that it was Malcolm Mackerras who created the horseshoe shaped graph of seats. This is what Malcolm Mackerras, who has had a long and distinguished career as a psephologist, had to say: 'It is not about fairness what is going on here. It is about the reshaping of our party system. South Australia is to have a four-party system, Liberal on the right, Xenophon in the centre and Labor and Greens on the left. The rest of Australia is to have a three-party system—coalition, Labor and Greens. There will be no independent senators, unless Jacqui Lambie can get a short-term at a 2016 double dissolution election. There will be only one benefit for the voters: the ballot paper will be smaller.' That is what Mr Mackerras said.
The Greens are always on about the environment and perhaps their great political goal is to shrink the voting paper for the Senate. They have become the Green political party. Whatever the perception might be out there that the Greens are the cuddly, generous ones, this deal absolutely seals forever that possible view of the world. The Greens are a political party who are seeking to advantage themselves in the most shameful way through what they are undertaking right here in this chamber. They have the hide to call it reform. 'Reform'—there is an abuse of a word if ever there was one in this context. Unlike the Greens and the Liberals, the Labor Party does not believe that putting a sticker that reads 'Reform' on a piece of legislation actually constitutes reform. It is deeply concerning to see the Liberals and the Greens announce a deal that will favour the Green politicians and Liberal politicians, and that is not in the interests of ordinary Australians.
Twenty-five per cent of Australians voted—not for Labor, not for Greens, not for the Liberal Party, not for the national party—for those ordinary Australians who we see here in this chamber. These are people who have been maligned and who have had to suffer the slings and arrows of considerable contempt on their arrival into this place. I think of each one of those senators as valued colleagues who have a right to be here. It is not that I agree with their philosophy or their views on many issues, but they got here by being elected by a system that enabled a range of different views to come into this place. I note the entry into this chamber of Senator Bob Day. Senator Day has not voted with Labor on many occasions, but I do appreciate his support for a particular motion that I put forward to call the government towards some transparency in a deal they did with the ATO in Gosford. I acknowledge that and thank Senator Day for his support. If we counted his votes, I would say he has voted with the Liberal Party an awful lot more often than he has voted with the Labor Party. But he got here legitimately. He got here in a system that this government is seeking to reform, to change in a most significant way after 30 years—and they want to change it without proper scrutiny, without proper care for the impacts, without careful consideration of unintended consequences. They just want to ram it through.
It is true that more than three million Australians exercised their vote by voting for a party other than one of the major parties. Three million people chose candidates carefully—or perhaps without too much care, but of course in the case of Senator Day he is saying it was a very careful choice—and voted for candidates from other than the main parties. It hardly seems fair, when we have that result that indicates what Australians think at this time, that this piece of legislation is being pushed through. Certainly I do not think we can call it reform if you leave out three million people whose intentions were pretty clear, if you construct a way of voting that excludes them from revealing that perspective once again.
Imagine for a minute if the Liberals had with Tony Abbott what they are seeking now with Malcolm Turnbull. This Senate would have been unable to prevent the worst excesses of a government that will go down in history as a shameful government that attacked very fundamental elements of Australia's health and education systems. If the Independents had not been elected we would by now have had our students in tertiary institutions paying $100,000 for a degree. We would have seen the cuts that they had tried to inflict on Medicare come into being and there would be a $7 co-payment. I notice there is a family sitting in the gallery. I am sure that mums and dads out there, like me, with a few children, find that when you get one child with an ear infection you get three children with an ear infection. When you need to get your child to the doctor to prevent illness or complications—and ear infections can turn into deafness—you need to take your Medicare card and know that you are going to get the service that you want, not take your credit card and hope to god you can afford to pay for the care you need for your child.
That is what would have been the reality in Australia today if the people opposite had got their way and got their bill through the Senate. But they did not, because Labor stood firm against it and, in a moment of conscience, the Greens came with us some of the time and also there were the Independents, who saw the unfairness of this government particularly in the 2014 budget. They stood up and they were counted. No amount of wiping them off the ballot paper is going to undo the good work that this Senate did in preventing Mr Abbott from doing what he wanted to do to the fabric of our society. If what they are doing now had already been achieved, we would have seen further cuts to family payments. Reform is important but reform that entrenches the right wing of the Liberal Party and reform that entrenches control of the balance of power in the Greens party, who want to legalise ice—that is one of their policies—is not in the interests of the ordinary people of this country. This bill was brought into the parliament by the Greens to reflect the deal that they have done with the Liberals. It does not even reflect the report of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. If it was in any way significantly the same as that, it might have some validity, but they have ignored that and they have just come up with their own little way of maximising the vote for themselves. It is a greedy power grab.
What we are seeing is a very concerning push for this big change—the biggest since 1984—where people will be encouraged to vote one to six across the top of the ballot paper and the government will be able to enact this very promptly and then get a double dissolution. Labor's concern arising from that and other changes—Senator Dastyari made this point very clearly as early as last week—is that one of the flow-on effects is that there is an informal vote likely when you make this sort of change. We are changing something for an entire country; we are changing what people do when they go in to vote. And we are doing this in the blink of an eye, or as quickly as a dirty deal signed in blood between the Greens and the Liberal government can be delivered. They are seeking this corruption of Australia's democratic processes as fast as possible. It is easy to be sceptical when the Liberals and the Greens hope that this produces more senators of their persuasion.
It is also very interesting that the Greens party have decided that they are the best minor party in the land—better than anybody else. The Greens have decided that they do not want anybody else to represent an alternative view in this chamber other than them. That is a pretty big call, and that is what the deal is about—it is about getting more Greens in this little bit over here so that they can have a say without all these separate voices, all these different voices that have characterised this Senate. The Greens should be out telling their supporters about what they have done here. They should be confessing to the fact that they have done a dirty deal and given the Liberal Party the permanent blocking vote of a majority in the Senate, that they have handed Australia over to the right wing without critique. As I have said, Senator Day has voted with the right wing more often than not but even he is disgusted by what they are attempting. What they are doing to our nation today shows breathtaking arrogance.
The Greens have sacrificed all principle and all policy to ensure that they and the Liberal Party together can block a progressive agenda in the future. You wonder how they could do this when you look at some of the things done not just by Mr Abbott but by Mr Turnbull. If they deliver this and he remains Prime Minister he will have control of the Senate and control of the House of Representatives. Who is this Mr Turnbull? Let us have a look.
Mr Turnbull and Julie Bishop conspired to assassinate the Prime Minister. After that departure of Mr Abbott, they delivered a profoundly dysfunctional and divided government. It is constantly contradicting itself, backflipping on one decision and the other. It is a disaster, frankly. We can see that. Mr Turnbull was once full of hope, but now all people hear is the waffle of his words. He backed in the cuts that they made to health and education when he was a cabinet minister. He backed them in again in his mini-budget in December. If he gets the chance, he will back them in again in another budget in May. If he gets elected, God help Australia because we will no longer have a Medicare card that works. We will no longer have schools where any child from any background can go and be assured they will get a good education, because this Senate, reconstructed by this deal between the Liberals and the Greens, will make that impossible to achieve. They will be able to do whatever they want. That is why Labor will fight so hard to give people an alternative. People know what Labor stands for. They can trust the party that instituted Medicare—the Labor Party—to fight to keep it.
It was Mr Turnbull, doing this deal with Ms Bishop, who created an incredible contrast to the way in which the government operated before. Mr Turnbull is a pretty good master of saying one thing and doing another. It is a mighty leap of faith to believe that he will not use the same hand-over-fist tactics while he is dealing with the Greens. On the environment, which is an issue that is supposedly close to the Greens' heart, as Leader of the Opposition Mr Turnbull said, 'I will not lead a party that is not as committed to effective action on climate change as I am.' Since becoming the Prime Minister, he has gone weak at the knees about climate change, and there is a very real risk that a re-elected coalition government will pass legislation previously rejected by the Senate, including Tony Abbott's bill abolishing the Clean Energy Finance Corporation. Remember that blue booklet that everybody got? I found the Liberal Party's Real solutions for all Australians statement of 2013 littered everywhere when I was door-knocking in the lead-up to the last election. It said:
We will improve rewards from working, reduce cost-of-living pressure and help families with the real costs of raising children.
But their words mean nothing because people are not reaping the rewards of working. Wages are not increasing, growth is slowing and unemployment is rising. Mr Turnbull put his name to all of the cuts that Mr Abbott made in the community and he is still after Medicare. This is a shameful deal between the Greens and the Liberal Party, who are in cahoots to take away— (Time expired)
Opposition senators interjecting—
I acknowledge all the interjections. Please put more of them on the Hansard. It illustrates the desperation. They are trying to defend the indefensible because they are bankrupt. What they are trying to defend are the backroom deals. How far they have gone to try and discredit a very useful inquiry that we had today. One of the things they are saying is that there was not enough time. Senator Conroy, who asked 99 per cent of the questions for Labor—
Senator Dastyari interjecting—
I am happy to take the interjections, but Senator Conroy handed his time over to senators from other parties because he ran out of questions. So, for all the complaints, that is what went on. Useful evidence was given by the Australian Electoral Commission, by experts like Antony Green and Professor Williams, and by political parties. The solid work to help inform us was done. There were some very useful comments about below-the-line voting and a real commitment by people to work through how we ensure that it is voters who decide their preferences. There was much discussion about how ordinary people should play a part in parliament and in the electoral process. I believe that the Senate voting reform proposals before us, when we get to the bill, provide that opportunity. Above-the-line voting will require at least six boxes to be ticked. People will be ticking more than just major parties when they come to allocate their preferences, and therefore we can keep that very important aspect of emerging parties and smaller parties being elected to this parliament.
There was incredible misinformation from some of the earlier speakers in this debate to misrepresent this inquiry, which went to considerable lengths. One hundred and seven submissions were received, Senator Polley and Senator Dastyari, which set out some very real, useful information on how—
Senator Dastyari interjecting—
Senator Dastyari is bankrupt to the point where he says, 'You can't even say it's real.' It was a very useful inquiry; 107 submissions being made to an inquiry is impressive, with by far the majority of those submissions setting out support for Senate voting reform.
Let us remind Labor colleagues that this is building on the work that they participated in—because these days we are not sure which Labor we are dealing with in this debate. Are we dealing with the Labor of Senator Conroy, who just about froths at the mouth when he talks about this issue? Or are we dealing with the Labor of Jennie George and Gary Gray, who continue to have a balanced, responsible and democratic approach to this issue of Senate voting reform? Labor is split, and that was reflected today when Senator Conroy himself had to do the heavy lifting, getting very little support from any of his colleagues; now the message they have brought in here has been deceptive to their own colleagues.
Senator Conroy interjecting—
Senator Conroy, it is good you have joined us! I have just informed the Senate, Senator Conroy, of how you ran out of questions today at the committee inquiry and you had to give over your time to the other senators. It really does speak volumes. It really speaks volumes when Senator Conroy himself runs out of questions on such an important issue as Senate voting reform. He is the warrior for the Labor Party on this issue and he loses the argument. (Time expired)