Wednesday, 2 March 2016
Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016; First Reading
As I was quoting experts yesterday in terms of electoral reform, I want to mention Ross Fitzgerald, professor of history. Professor Fitzgerald said:
These new laws with regard to voting for the Senate will reshape the Australian political landscape for decades to come. By refusing to debate them with the people of Australia—
Turnbull is admitting to the fact that this new legislation is simply designed to get rid of opponents at the next election. He cannot argue with the fact that almost 30 per cent of Australians voted for a minor party at the last Senate election.
Mr Michael Maley, a former senior official of the Australian Electoral Commission, has said:
… the scheme proposed in the bill is an incoherent one, with no clear underlying principles apparent … The Bill's proposal, for optional preferential voting above the line but full preferential voting below the line (again with some allowance for mistakes), makes no sense, and has not been supported by any stated justification.
Professor George Williams, a professor of constitutional law, has said:
… introducing optional preferential above the line voting, while retaining full preferential voting for below the line, creates an obvious and unfortunate disparity. The result will be a system in which below the line voting is significantly more onerous, thereby privileging the party-selected voting tickets applied in the case of an above the line vote.
Given how quickly the government and that lot over there, the Greens, are trying to rush through this parliament, it makes me think about how much consideration either side has given to potential outcomes of this reform. On 17 February, Heath Aston in The Sydney Morning Herald provided some coverage on this issue and on how each of the main players would be affected by these reforms following 'a review of voting data by Graham Askey and Peter Breen, veteran players in minor party preference negotiations':
Mr Askey … said the Greens—
have a listen to this, you lot:
had not properly considered the ramifications of a double dissolution once voting reforms are passed.
"They haven't done their due diligence. They are walking into this with their eyes wide shut," he said.
When quizzed on this, Senator Rhiannon, who is now leaving the chamber, said, and I quote—no, she's back. Good one. Have a listen to this—through you, Mr Acting Deputy President. I am going to quote Senator Rhiannon:
work for Senate voting reform is not about trying to secure any electoral advantage. We don't expect it to make much difference to our results.
Really? However, as Heath Aston reports—and this is very interesting:
My goodness me! How I wish and pray for a double dissolution!
That would mean the loss of either—
Scott Ludlam or
Rachel Siewert from WA and either—
Sarah Hanson-Young or
Robert Simms in SA, depending on who gets first spot on the Greens ticket.
I am excited! I am so excited! The Greens—how intelligent! I have to tell you, Mr Acting Deputy President: this is like that scene from Life of Brian. What was the suicide squad? Who were they—you know, the ones who were here to save Brian? Fantastic effort!
As I have already said, with this deal the government will gain control of the Senate. This will be extremely bad for working families, students and pensioners across the country. An article by Mark Kenny—may I say, the good Kenny—in The Sydney Morning Herald on 25 February said that the reality of this deal was painted very clearly in a letter from the Secretary of the ACTU, Mr Dave Oliver, to Senator Di Natale:
"A double dissolution may see some or all of the crossbench senators defeated two years into their six-year terms and potentially replaced by Coalition senators," Mr Oliver states in the February 24 letter obtained by Fairfax Media. "The last time the Coalition had control of both houses of Parliament—
and I do remember—
Australia went backwards in a whole range of areas of common interest, for example, WorkChoices to the trade union movement, your party and progressive voters more broadly."
"The Australian Greens has a reputation for standing up for working Australians. We would hate to see that reputation being damaged by such a deal," wrote Mr Oliver …
Sorry, Mr Oliver. You have been badly let down, as have millions of Australians.
It is also interesting to note, and I hope the Greens are paying attention—no, sorry, they have all scampered out of here like frightened cats; there is one left, but he may as well hear it too, and I hope that they are all listening in their offices because of the intelligence of the Greens—that an online Essential Media survey of 2,700 respondents taken earlier this week found that Greens voters opposed their party's cooperation with the federal government on Senate changes at the rate of two to one, 54 per cent to 27.2 per cent. It is getting better all the time!
Labor will move amendments to Mr Turnbull's voting reform bill to enhance transparency around political donations. This is, I am proud to say, longstanding Labor policy. It is real reform, not the product of a grubby backroom deal. Labor will move to reduce the donations disclosure threshold from $13,000, the current rate, CPI indexed, to $1,000—you can hear their knees knocking over there; you can hear the trembling—and remove CPI indexation, will ban foreign political donations, will also ban anonymous donations above $50 to registered political parties and will limit donation splitting that evades disclosure requirements.
Mr Turnbull and the Greens should support these reforms. At the end of the day, the Greens have done a very dirty, grubby deal with the Liberals and the Nationals.
I will just get over the initial shock of Senator Heffernan standing up about inappropriate language. I was in the Senate estimates when the F word slipped out, and, crikey, he wants to get at me for calling a dirty, grubby deal a dirty, grubby deal. Crikey, what is this Senate coming to?
As I said, Mr Turnbull and the Greens should support these reforms. At the end of the day, the Greens have done a very dirty, grubby deal with the government, with the Libs and the Nats, to change the Senate preference system, without allowing time for proper and fair scrutiny of the reform. We stand here opposing the bill.
The Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016, which the government is seeking to introduce into the Senate for debate, is about ensuring that the result of future Senate elections genuinely reflects the will of the Australian people. To achieve this, this bill empowers those voters who currently do not have the capacity to direct their preferences after issuing a primary vote in the Senate to do so themselves and according to their wishes.
At present, those voters choosing to vote for the Senate above the line lose control of their preferences after putting the number 1 in the box of their choice above the line. At the last election, and under the current system as introduced by Labor in 1984, that was the situation that nearly 97 per cent of all voters found themselves in. After filling in the number 1 above the line, those votes are then traded and directed according to the insufficiently transparent group-voting-ticket arrangements to other political parties and groups, sometimes in three different directions. Incidentally, that is why Mr Mackerras, who appeared at the JSCEM inquiry yesterday, has said that, in his view, every single Senate election since 1984 has arguably been unconstitutional.
This has created a level of undesirable gaming of the system that needs to be fixed, a level of gaming of preference arrangements which has led to the election of senators not directly chosen by the Australian people, insofar as, in practice, voters could not adequately predict where their preferences would ultimately end up and who they would elect. Do not take my word for it. That is the formal and publicly expressed view of a number of very senior Labor people, not least Gary Gray, still the shadow minister on electoral matters. In The West Australian on 6 February 2016 he said:
A fundamental principle of voting systems is that a voter should actually intend to vote for the candidate or party with whom their vote finally rests. Because of the ability to manipulate the current system the present Senate voting process now fails this test.
He further said:
… under the recommended optional preferential voting system, voters would be able to expressly preference parties or candidate groups above the line rather than having their preferences distributed for them under a registered group voting ticket.
… … …
These changes will mean voter intention is reflected in a democratic electoral outcome. They will give voters control over whom they do and do not vote for.
These reforms are not intended to stifle or prevent the formation of new parties. These reforms simply mean that political parties, including my own, will have to convince the public rather than backroom deal-makers that they deserve their votes.
Labor's deputy chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, Alan Griffin, during the press conference releasing their report into Senate voting reform on 9 May 2014 said:
We pioneered … the above the line voting system it came out in '84, but this was never what was intended, and so we now have unintended consequences and as legislators we'd be remiss if we didn't then take that into account.
Labour's national secretary, George Wright, in Labor's submission to the JSCEM inquiry on 24 April 2014 said:
The manipulation of Group Voting Tickets (GVTs) are a central reason that candidates with little public support have seen themselves elected to the Australian Senate. Without GVTs, the capacity of these candidates to deliver sufficient preferences through a coordinated preference harvesting strategy would not exist.
Further, and very materially, this is what the national secretary of the Labor Party, George Wright, said in April 2014—incidentally, he declined to appear on this occasion; I wonder why! This is what he said:
Labor's preferred position would also see a requirement that ballot paper instructions and how-to-vote material advocate that voters fill in a minimum number of boxes above the line, while still counting as formal any ballot paper with at least a 1 above the line.
That is precisely, of course, what we are recommending to do. He continued:
This would highlight and encourage voters to indicate preferences if they were inclined to, and assist in keeping vote exhaustion to a minimum.
For the interest of the Senate, I table the Labor Party submission to the original JSCEM inquiry, some two years ago, and I table the shadow minister Gary Gray's opinion piece in The West Australian some three weeks ago.
Of course, earlier today, the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters tabled its report and recommendations on our proposed Senate voting reforms. We welcome the supportive report and recommendations of that committee. We thank the members of the committee and all of those who have made submissions and given evidence to the inquiry.
As we have indicated, our proposed reforms to Senate voting are designed to ensure that the result of any Senate election, in the future, reflects the will of the people. Specifically, our reforms are designed to empower Australian voters to determine what happens to their preferences when voting for the Senate above the line, instead of having those preferences traded and ultimately directed by political parties through insufficiently transparent group-voting ticket arrangements.
The government has considered the issues raised and the recommendation of the joint standing committee to introduce a form of optional preferential voting below the line, as well as above the line, and has decided to adopt that recommendation. During the committee stages of the debate on the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016, the government will move amendments to that effect. These amendments will provide for instructions to voters to number at least 12 boxes from 1 to 12 in order of their preferences when voting below the line, together with a related savings provision that any vote with at least six boxes numbered from 1 to 6 below the line would still be considered formal.
These are important reforms in the public interest. We again call on Labor to reconsider their position and to follow the considered advice of the highly regarded shadow minister for electoral matters, Gary Gray, instead of succumbing to the pressure of the union lobby and Labor's backroom operators. There is no question—
because it empowers voters to direct their preferences to relevant groups of parties, including when voting above the line.
Some people have complained about the fact that we are supposedly rushing this through. Let me just remind the senator: this debate has been going on ever since the last election, in September 2013. There was a comprehensive original inquiry by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. There was a set of cross-party unanimous recommendations, supported by Labor, the coalition and the Greens. There was, of course, a call from none less than the shadow minister for electoral matters, Gary Gray, for the government to get on with it! Indeed, in his opinion piece, which I have just tabled, his final words are:
The government should act now without delay …
That is Labor's shadow minister on electoral matters, Gary Gray, in the newspaper in Western Australia, calling on the government, 'to act now without delay,' in relation to these matters. And he is not the only one.
Senator Carr, during his contribution earlier this week said that this was part of a conspiracy between the coalition and the Greens which started 12 months ago to bring this on. This is what Labor's deputy chair of JSCEM, Alan Griffin, said just under 12 months ago:
The government should be acting on these recommendations and, if they’re going to, they need to hurry up because they’re running out of time.
The debate has been going for well over two years. In fact, Labor—and I think this point was actually made by one of the Greens senators—promised Senate voting reform to the Greens back in 2010 when they were looking for Greens support to form government.
Senator Jacinta Collins interjecting—
Well, this is the point. Labor actually signed a formal agreement with the Greens as part of their agreement to form government in 2010, to deliver Senate voting reform in the 2010 parliament. And, of course, Labor failed to act on this agreement as on so many other agreements.
Senator Jacinta Collins interjecting—
Labor says this legislation does not implement 100 per cent of the JSCEM recommendations. Well, let me address that point, because that is true—it does not implement 100 per cent of the JSCEM recommendations. It does implement 100 per cent of the material and acceptable JSCEM recommendations, of course.
I am talking you through it now. The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters recommended optional preferential voting above the line. We are proposing to introduce optional preferential voting above the line, with a recommendation to voters to number at least one to six boxes above the line and with a related savings provision that one of fewer than six is still formal.
The JSCEM recommendation was for partial optional preferential voting below the line, with preferences to be completed equal to the number of vacancies. Our announcement today means that we are introducing partial optional preferential voting, with an instruction to voters to vote at least one to 12, with the savings provision that any ballot where one to six boxes are numbered sequentially below the line in the order of '1' to '6' that the vote would still be formal.
The recommendation of JSCEM was to abolish group and individual voting tickets. We are proposing to abolish group and individual voting tickets. JSCEM recommended that additional resources be provided to the AEC to educate voters on changes. We are allocating additional resources to the AEC.
JSCEM recommended various increases in membership requirements for the registration of political parties. We have decided not to pursue this matter at this time because of an insufficient consensus in the parliament to pursue these changes—something that actually favours those micro and minor parties. We have made a decision, though, to include a restriction to unique registered officers for a federally-registered party, consistent with the recommendations of JSCEM.
JSCEM recommended that the government explore a way where we could require candidates to be resident in the state or territory in which they are seeking election. We have decided not to proceed with that recommendation on the basis of legal advice that this would likely be found unconstitutional, because such a restriction would not be consistent with the requirements for an election for the House of Representatives or the Senate that are included in the Constitution. That is the reason why we did not pursue that particular recommendation. And while there are no specific JSCEM recommendations to this effect, in its report JSCEM did point to the problem of potential voter confusion with similar party names. It encouraged the government to consider this issue. Of course, in this proposal the government has addressed this by allowing political parties, at their discretion, to have their logo included on the ballot paper. There are a lot of politics in relation to this.
What has happened on the Labor side is that, instead of going along with the considered advice of people like the highly regarded shadow minister Gary Gray, like ALP National Secretary George Wright and like the longstanding ALP member and Deputy Chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, Alan Griffin, Bill Shorten went for the easy road. He went for the union lobby and he went for the backroom operators in the Labor Party. Instead of acting in the national interest and instead of acting in the public interest, he is acting in what he and the union perceive to be their self-interest. The government is not going to be distracted by that.
A range of other points have been made during the debate so far. Let me make these final observations, because I do not want to hold up the Senate. The reforms that we are putting forward empower people across Australia to clearly express their preferences above and below the line—not only their first preference above the line but also their subsequent preferences. Labor's assertion that this will lead to an additional 800,000 informal votes was of course disproven by none other than Labor's shadow minister Gary Gray. The savings provision in this proposed legislation ensures that any voter who numbers just one above the line will still have their vote counted and, under our proposed amendment, any voter who numbers just six boxes below the line will still have their vote counted.
The next general election, as everybody knows, is due in the second half of this year. There has been a lot of speculation about the link between this reform proposal and the timing of an election. Let me just say that it is the government's view that, whenever the next election takes place and in whatever form, it is in the public interest for the next Senate election results to reflect the will of the Australian people. The government has of course always the option, irrespective of whether this legislation goes through or not, when certain requirements are met to pursue a double dissolution election to resolve a deadlock on legislation between the House of Representatives and the Senate. That is an option available to the government irrespective of what the parliament decides in relation to this bill. Conversely, this reform is necessary whether the election is in August, September or October to ensure that the result of the next election truly reflects the actual will of the Australian people.
Finally, a number of contributors have suggested that this will mean one outcome or another and it will favour one party or another, but people who argue these sorts of self-interested perspectives are missing the point. The Australian people will decide the result of the next election. This legislation is about making sure that the result of the next election genuinely reflects the will of the Australian people. These proposed reforms empower voters to clearly express their preferences above and below the line instead of having political parties determine preference flows in an insufficiently transparent way as a result of secret deals behind closed doors.
Senator Conroy interjecting—
Senator Conroy interjects that all these votes are going to be exhausted. Let me tell Senator Conroy that it is entirely up to every individual Australian voter who they want to vote for and how many preferences they want to allocate. It is an entirely legitimate choice for an individual Australian voter to make that they do not want to provide a preference to every single political party across Australia and they do not want to provide a preference to every single candidate across Australia. Of course, this legislation, this reform proposal, empowers the Australian people to make their choice as they see fit, according to their wishes.
If they want to vote one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine and 10—they want to fill every single box above the line—they can do so. They will be instructed, they will be guided, to fill in at least six boxes above the line in order of their preference from one to six. They will be instructed to vote at least one to 12 below the line in order of their preference. There will be some appropriate savings provision, but this will give the voter the best opportunity to have their intentions reflected in the final outcome.
The alternative, which is in place at present, is of course that people once they vote one above the line lose control of their preferences
Their preferences are captured by the political parties and are traded by political parties and directed, through group-voting tickets, to their ultimate destination.
Senator Conroy interjecting—
Backroom operators like Senator Conroy, who is interjecting incessantly, like these sorts of backroom deals, but we do not. We have made a judgement that that is not the right way forward.
On group-voting tickets: in fact, Senator Conroy yesterday, during the public hearing of the committee inquiry, was actually making our point. He was questioning the federal director of the Liberal Party, Tony Nutt, and in his line of questioning he was making the point that only a very small number of people across Australia—10 or so—understand the maths and science of preferences.
That is the exact point. Every single Australian voter should understand what happens to their preferences. It should not be complicated maths and science. You should not have to go to the Electoral Commission and find the group-voting ticket to see where your vote has been channelled. And of course some political parties are registering three different group-voting tickets. Any Australian voter should be able to find out, in practical terms, what happens to their preference after they vote 1 above the line, but how they can do so, under the current system, when political parties are able to channel that vote in three different directions after it has been issued, is beyond me. That is an undesirable situation. It is a situation which the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters has asked the parliament to address. It is a reform proposal that the Turnbull government has embraced, and we are very grateful that the Greens and Senator Xenophon and others in this chamber have embraced this as well. And I understand that the Greens have had a longstanding policy position along those lines.
Let me just make this final point. The Labor Party issued a dissenting report to the majority report recommending passage of this bill subject to an amendment on below-the-line voting. Whose signature was missing? There is, of course, a very high-profile member of that joint standing committee—none other than the member for Brand, Mr Gary Gray, the shadow minister for electoral matters. He is the Labor spokesperson for electoral matters, and he refused to sign Senator Conroy's outrageous backroom-dealing, preference-manipulating minority report that seeks to preserve the status quo for the sorts of union hacks and union heavies and backroom preference-manipulators like him.
This reflects really badly on Bill Shorten—the person who wants to be the future Prime Minister of Australia. I commend Mr Gray for his strength of character, for his fortitude and for having resisted the relentless bullying by people like Senator Conroy in the face of what is a very sound and strong public policy recommendation that he made to his leadership and to his shadow cabinet.
I rise to speak on the amendment proposed to the motion by Senator Collins. It is interesting that the previous speaker, Senator Cormann, took the opportunity to talk about the Labor senators' and members' dissenting report and about the 'sham committee process' that had been 'rammed through'.
There are some interjections there; Senator Cormann feels the need to be jumping in. I am happy, as we go through, Senator Cormann, to tell a few stories that people have told me about how you obtained your preselection. But perhaps we will save that for another time.
I think you know. What we just heard and what we found out this morning is that the government itself is now already looking at even further amendments with this legislation, and it goes to show that this is what happens when you rush a process and do not allow a process to be properly run. The chair's draft report that is being tabled this morning by the committee, as I understand it, was issued and was shared with committee members at 9 pm yesterday evening, with a view to it being formally adopted by the committee again—the time is maybe an hour or two off here, but this is the information I was given—by 8 am this morning. So, at 9 pm last night, a report—at that point, a draft report, which was the chair's report, requesting to know if people wanted to sign on or not—was being circulated, with a view to a final report being adopted this morning. That is not a good process. That is not a proper process. That does not allow the opportunity to have some of the evidence that was being expressed yesterday in the summation.
All the major parties—although I cannot speak for the Greens here—have their party room meetings on a Tuesday morning. Certainly the conservative parties and the Labor Party do. I am not aware of when the Greens—
Oh, every morning! They love to meet! I skipped most of our party room meeting yesterday morning so that I could have the opportunity to hear some of the evidence. I note that not all members of the parliament had the luxury or the opportunity to do that. It took most of yesterday, while parliament was sitting, for people to try to get on top of what evidence was given. This committee process would be better if there was more time and more opportunity to make amendments and to digest the legislation.
Again, what was so strange was the decision to not allow the Department of Finance to present evidence to the committee. What we are being told and what we believe is the case—and this is from whistleblowers from within the department; we have not had a chance to get to the bottom of it and we will not have the chance to get to the bottom of it until the estimates process—is that the draft legislation here was drafted solely by the Department of Finance, the department that Senator Cormann is the minister for, and handed over to PM&C. The complaint from the people in PM&C is that this is why it was so poorly drafted and required, hours after it had been introduced, eight amendments just to make it workable. Prime Minister and Cabinet do not feel that they had the opportunity to make this workable legislation. Eight amendments were quickly rushed through to make the bill somewhat more workable. I understand from what Senator Cormann told us moments ago—and again, obviously, this is in the chair's report—that there will be a further amendment about below-the-line voting. There are things we can do to further improve these types of legislation, and that is why we need to have a vigilant and longer process to analyse this.
Let's be clear: when it comes to legislation there are always going to be senators with different views. I suspect that someone like me is not, at the end of the day, necessarily going to see eye to eye or 100 per cent with other senators in this chamber on this legislation. I accept that. But I believe that, while we are never going to agree completely, we can always use the processes that we have to make sure that we have better and improved bills. We can make legislation better, even if it is not legislation we would necessarily ourselves think is the best piece of law.
There is a dissenting report which I want to touch on. It was produced by the Labor senators. Again, I want to commend the work that was done. I note that this was done in an incredibly short period of time. They only had from 9 pm yesterday evening when they were aware of what the chair wanted to do until early this morning to present an alternative position. I note that what Labor has said is that there is an acceptance that there is reform that can and should happen. I do not think there is any dispute on that. I felt that Ross Gittins put this really well. He said it is a non sequitur to say that there needs to be reform and that this is the only reform that can happen. You can have the argument that there needs to be reform and actually present other reforms or what I believe are better reforms. I think the Labor JSCEM inquiry dissenting report accurately outlines some concerns and some of the proposals about what we can do to improve the voting system.
The last time we had reform in this area was in 1984. That was 31 years ago. I think we all accept the fact that societies change, voting systems change and how people participate changes. After 31 years, you should look at how you can improve pieces of legislation and make laws better. Again, I think there is a big debate that needs to be had about how people participate and vote. I think there is an exciting space in different participatory models about online voting and people using tablets and other types of technology. This is the exciting part of new technology and participation that we should be looking at. Frankly, there are those who would argue for the paper system from 100 years ago. Things change, societies change and how people participate changes, so the voting system should change.
I accept all of that. I think that is a very exciting space to be in and I think it is something we should be looking at. In fact, I have personally gone even further and said that we should have a bigger debate about how old people should be when they vote as well. It is a very contentious position that many people do not support, but I think it is worth having a debate about whether the voting age should be lower and whether that would encourage more participation or whether those people are not ready to be involved. All of those questions are part of a healthy debate.
That is not what we are having here, though. What we are having here is a shortened process with laws that are effectively being rammed through this place in a very, very quick manner. I am really worried that, if rumours around this chamber are correct, very soon we are going to start seeing gags. We are going to start seeing the opportunity to have some of this debate removed. I believe that there is a lot that should be explored, especially in relation to just how much information was presented in a four-hour inquiry. The government has already turned around and admitted there needs to be amendments and changes. If there was actually a proper process to look at these laws I believe we would find new areas where this draft legislation could be improved.
The amendment that is being proposed by Senator Collins, as I understand it, goes to when the message from the House should be received. It looks at presenting a date in May for that to happen. The purpose of that, rather than us debating this bill when we have not had the opportunity to have a proper deep analysis and are effectively rushing contributions because of time constraints, is to allow everyone to go away, go back to their communities, hear from their electorates and come back and have a fulsome, proper debate about this.
Senator Cormann says the government are not looking at an early election and this is not all part of some double-D strategy of going to an election on the CEFC bill, the registered organisations bill and, perhaps, the ABCC bill. I have seen very differing reports on whether or not the ABCC bill is already a trigger at this point. That seems to be a grey area. Frankly, I certainly suspect the government may introduce it again in the next little while. They have certainly foreshadowed that they will. Based on previous voting patterns, you would assume that that would be a trigger as well. Whether it currently is or not seems to be a point of legal contention, but I doubt that will matter by 2 July.
But you have these three triggers at this point in time. If the government is not looking at a double-dissolution election and if the government is not looking to use these laws for a double-dissolution election then I do not see why this is being rushed through before the budget. If they were genuine, I do not see the rush. I do not see why there is a rush to have this ready to be used in August if it were not also being prepared to be used for a July election. The talk of this early election is not coming from the Labor side of politics. It seems to be constantly backgrounded by government ministers and government MPs. They are proposing the date of 2 July, and I think I have also heard 9 July floated around the place. One or two people have even said 16 July. But there does seem to be a view held by the government that they are preparing themselves for a 2 July double-dissolution election, and they want to have these laws in place to be used for that double-D. That is what is happening. A double-dissolution election, at this point in time, would certainly be based on two triggers—that is, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation bill and the registered organisations bill—with the ABCC bill probably being another.
Senator Whish-Wilson interjecting—
I will take that interjection. Senator Whish-Wilson said, 'That's just not true.' These are matters of fact. It is a matter of fact that the Clean Energy Finance Corporation bill is a potential trigger for a double-dissolution election. That is a matter of fact. It is a matter of fact that the registered organisations bill is already a potential trigger for a double-dissolution election. The only grey area, from a legal perspective—there is, as I understand, differing advice on this—is whether the ABCC bill is already a trigger at this point or needs to be formally rejected one more time by the Senate.
I will take your interjection too, in a moment, Senator Macdonald. Senator Whish-Wilson said: 'It's been a trigger for 18 months. Why haven't they acted?' I will tell you why they have not acted. It is because, post the implementation of these laws, the reason to act is increased. What happens post these laws is that the government will potentially be able to go to a double-dissolution election. That will be a decision for the government; I accept that. But the potential decision by the government is to go to a double-dissolution election using the new voting structures so that they have a Senate in which there are more conservatives and fewer crossbenchers. We even heard from Antony Green himself yesterday—I have only had a small opportunity to get on top of all the evidence that was presented yesterday—
No. I have a lot of respect for Antony Green. It is my understanding that this is the evidence that he gave. If I have verballed Mr Green, I will certainly correct that. The respected electoral analyst Mr Antony Green gave evidence that under this system at the 2013 election:
He also said that Senator Xenophon's party—or himself as an Independent or a grouped Independent, as I think it was structured at that election—would have won an extra seat in South Australia and that the Greens senator, Senator Hanson-Young, would have lost her seat. That was the analysis given by him. Mr Antony Green went further, in response to questioning from Senator Rhiannon, which was, in part, peppered by other questions from Senator Conroy. I think there was a bit of a back-and-forth exchange. He noted that it was more likely than not that the number of conservative senators under this proposal would reach 38.
A slower, longer and better process would lead to better policy outcomes in this space. I believe there is an agreement here, and there is an agreement across the chamber, that, fundamentally, there is a space and a place for reform. There is no agreement that this is necessarily the right reform to do. I accept the fact that there are those in this chamber who have held these views for a long period of time. I accept the fact that Senator Rhiannon has advocated OPV models over a long period of time. Senator Rhiannon has made these arguments not just in this place but in a previous career in the New South Wales state parliament and has been very consistent on this issue over a long period of time. I would say that that is not the only way of doing this. There are better ways of improving the laws than what has been proposed here. There are ways of making sure we have a greater participatory model and a better model. Again, I am not opposed to the idea that, after 34 years, it is time to update the voting systems and voting laws, but when you have legislation that, in a week, has already had nine amendments made to it—
by the government, on their own legislation—
Honourable senators interjecting—
No, what you had was a situation where there was poorly written, rushed legislation from the Department of Finance—
Honourable senators interjecting—
I cannot hear Senator Dastyari. Senator Polley, it is bad enough with Senator McKenzie, Senator Collins, Senator Macdonald and Senator Cormann carrying on. Would you all just settle down so that I can hear Senator Dastyari's contribution.
Mr Acting Deputy President, I note that you are saying that you cannot hear my contribution—many people would be prepared to swap seats with you right now!
This is rushed legislation. Amendments have been proposed because the Department of Finance prepared this legislation in a rushed manner without properly taking it through the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. All of these matters have not had the chance to be properly explored and analysed. There is an opportunity here, if we adopt the suggestion that has been proposed in the amendment from Senator Collins, to have a longer process. Frankly, looking at the amount of evidence given in yesterday's short hearing, we should have more hearings. Let us have the Senate look at this properly.
Let's hear from the department. Let's have the department look at this. We are going to go through a budget estimates process in late May. That will be a great opportunity to ask questions of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Department of Finance. No-one can explain the need to rush this legislation. If the numbers are there because the Greens and the government have already reached an agreement on this—no-one is purporting they have not—what is lost by having a longer process to make sure that at least the amendments are better? Every time we look at this bill, more amendments seem to pop up. What is wrong with saying, 'Let's have a later implementation date; let's bring the legislation through a bit later so that we can have a proper opportunity to make sure we have the right amendments'? The legislation was introduced by the government. Hours later they had to bring in eight amendments. If they had done their homework, if they had done the legislation properly, they would not need to bring in eight amendments. This is before any scrutiny. It is simply because the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet had not seen the legislation.
I have just been given a note which says that the Australian Greens are going to comment on Senate voting reform at 10.50 this morning. I am not sure exactly what that is going to mean, but I think that is going to be a fairly interesting contribution. I hope it is not a gag. I hope it is not about stifling democracy. I hope it is not about stifling people from having an opportunity to have a say. This is the party that always says they do not gag. It appears now that they are going to start gagging. (Time expired)
Senator Dastyari was out of doors yesterday holding up a square with 'Clean Energy Finance Corporation' inside it, saying, 'This is a trap.' What he should have had was a sign with a picture of his face saying, 'This is crap,' because this is exactly what we have got from the Labor Party.
I withdraw that last comment if that is unparliamentary. You cannot trust the Labor Party on this issue. There has been a whole series of misinformation and misleading statements on what is actually a very, very important issue. What has concerned me the most—Senator Dastyari touched on it very briefly then—is the use of psephologists like Antony Green, who have spent their lives studying our democratic system and have been champions for reform, and the Labor Party is prepared to throw them under a bus and use statements they have made out of context to win a political argument in this chamber.
Yesterday in the chamber, during the middle of an extraordinary meltdown, Senator Penny Wong said:
I will remind the Greens of the evidence that was given to the joint standing committee by Antony Green, whom they have cited in debate on many issues in this chamber. He said that the most likely outcome is blocking majority for the coalition.
However, when asked on Twitter if Penny Wong was quoting him correctly, Antony Green replied, 'It's news to me.' Senator Wong has twisted Antony Green's words. If Senator Wong had been paying attention or had read Antony Green's earlier article on this specific issue, she would have understood that he meant that, if the coalition had a landslide victory, it is more likely the coalition would have a majority in the Senate—pretty basic stuff, really. Antony Green points out, 'This situation will occur under those circumstances whether there is Senate reform or not.' This is what Antony Green said at the full hearing yesterday:
Mr Green: The Senate is a proportional system, for if party wins a majority of the vote it has a chance of winning a majority of the seats. So for someone to say, 'Can you guarantee the coalition will never win a majority?' I say, 'No, I can't. If they win a majority of the vote they may win a majority of the seats.' Under more normal voting patterns the coalition does not get a majority of the vote. I counted it up and there are less than half a dozen instances in the last 25 years of them getting to 50 per cent in their own right in any individual state. In a double dissolution, where you are more likely to get a majority than a half-Senate election, that is the only time you would start seeing it as being a chance. It is much more likely that the coalition will win six seats at a double dissolution or three at a half-Senate election in each state. But I would point out that during the Howard government in 1996, 1998 and 2004 they won three of all of the vacancies in three states under the current system. All I am saying is that it would tend to produce the same thing as the current system.
He also wrote an entire article on this issue, had Senator Wong bothered to read it—'Would voting reform lead to the coalition winning a Senate majority at double dissolution?'
It is a claim that has set the dogs running this morning after analysis by the Renewable Energy Party claimed it would.—
A minor party—
The claim is the Coalition would win 7 of the 12 vacancies in three states delivering the Turnbull government a Senate majority.
It is a claim that doesn't stand up to analysis.
… … …
Let's face facts. If the Coalition get the 50% of the vote to win seven Senate seats in NSW, Victoria and WA, then the Turnbull government would be returned to office with a massive House majority.
Under both the current and the proposed electoral system, a party would come close to winning seven Senate seats if its vote was above 50%.
That is the same thing he said yesterday. He continued:
The current Senate electoral system could just as easily produce the same result. However, you would have to work out the labyrinthine preference flows and factor in the random factors produce by voters needing to use magnifying glasses on the over-sized ballot papers in under-sized fonts.
I would also point out that there have been several other well-respected psephologists, including Dr Kevin Bonham from Tasmania, say similar things.
With all the chest beating and all the wild gesticulating, with all the flushed faces and the faux anger, with all the banging on the tables—if we captured little videos of it and ran some Benny Hill music in the background, we might actually produce an excellent, comical breakdown of what the Senate has been going through in the last three days, courtesy of the Labor Party. That is what it has looked like, but it is a serious issue. It is not a farcical or a comical issue. To be misquoting someone like Antony Green, I think is really poor form. Unfortunately, Senator Wong's quote was quoted verbatim in an article by The Guardian this morning. So it is out there in the public realm. I would ask Senator Wong to come into the Senate, check what Antony Green actually said and wrote and clarify her comments. And please correct the record, because this is a very serious debate. Antony Green has been a long-time contributor to democracy—
Thank you, Senator Urquhart. I think I did say 'Antony', but I will go back and check and I will be happy to correct the record if I have been wrong. Unlike Senator Dastyari's claim, the government has made it clear today—and I sensed this from estimates a couple of weeks ago when the Clean Energy Finance Corporation was being questioned—that it is not going to be a double dissolution trigger; they will not be putting up the legislation for that. We have been aware of that fact for weeks now that the government has been changing its view on the Clean Energy Finance Corporation. They would not comment on the specific change in policy but, nevertheless, the issue has been clarified by the Prime Minister this morning. Senator Dastyari says that Labor has not been talking about an early election, but let me tell you that the fear-of-god campaign which the Labor Party has been putting into the crossbench has been all about an early election—even an election in April, Senator Polley.
Senator Polley interjecting—
But what is the biggest danger in having a coalition dominated Senate? Let us be very clear about this: the Greens do not want to see a coalition dominated Senate. I do not think any Australian would like to see the government control both houses of parliament. What is the biggest danger? The biggest danger to this country in this debate is the terrible political performance by the Labor Party. A fear campaign run by the Labor Party and other stakeholders will actually turn out to be an own goal. If we do go to an early election in July or a half Senate election and if this sort of smear campaign against the Greens and against progressive voters all around the country—as shown in a poll yesterday—the majority of independent voters and the majority of Labor voters actually support Senate voting reform. This smear campaign against progressive people who want democracy and against parties like the Greens will deliver the result that the Labor Party and their stakeholders, who are agitating behind the scenes, do not want to see.
If we have an early election or a half Senate election, we all need to come together to deliver the outcomes that we want as political parties. We and the parties we represent were put here for our policies by the voters, and that is what will win the next election—a contest of ideas, and that is what politics is. This is not a contest of ideas; this is a grubby smear campaign based on misleading information, purely for the short-term political objectives of the Labor Party. I do not even say the Labor Party in a holistic way, because I know the Labor Party is deeply divided on this issue. Mr Gary Gray called the comments of people such as Senator Conroy and Senator Wong 'dumb' and 'sad' and 'misleading'. Like Senator Faulkner and other stalwarts of the Labor Party, they want to see voting reform. The Labor Party had plenty of opportunity while it was in government to deliver on these reforms.
I want to reflect on one other thing today which is really critical to me as a Green senator. One of the privileges we have in this job is to be able to put on the record during the adjournment debate the contributions people have made to our communities, our states or our political parties. Last night I spoke about a founding member of the United Tasmanian Group, Jeff Weston. The United Tasmanian Group went on to be the Tasmanian Green political party, the Australian Greens and the global green movement. Sadly, he passed away a few days ago. I reflected on the fact that he sat around a table with a number of other founders of our party 45 years ago—it is potentially even earlier than that—but he ran as a candidate in 1972
For the crossbenchers who have been in here—I enjoy working with the cross bench; they are good people; I have absolutely no problem with them at all and nor does my party—I would like to point out the legacy of people like Jeff Weston nearly 50 years ago deciding they needed to form a political party to achieve outcomes for the environment and for the future of Tasmania. It takes many years and a lot of people and a lot of energy to go into politics and be successful and establish a political party and get members voted in and then get your policies and philosophies voted on. It has taken our party nearly 50 years to get where we are today. With the big parties it took even longer.
We are here to represent a very deep, ingrained movement that started a long time ago, and it is very important that I as a senator reflect on these things in this debate. Absolutely everybody should have a chance to go into parliament and that is why we have been very careful with their policies on Senate voting reform to make sure that higher barriers for entry such as membership numbers are not put in place to prevent people from having their chance. It takes a lot of hard work to get into parliament and sometimes I feel that the debate we have heard here, especially in recent days, is essentially about whether we should allow ordinary Australians into the Senate through a lottery. If we want to be honest about this debate and whether it is good or bad for democracy, that is what we should be discussing. We should be discussing whether the sixth Senate seat in any half-Senate election should be put up as a lottery for any Australian to throw their hat into the ring. That would be a good debate to have, and that would be the honest debate because that is what we are actually discussing here—we are discussing the gaming of the system, and it is not democratic. It is not democratic because people do not know where their preferences go—it is too complex and too difficult to understand.
As I pointed out the other day, my party has consistently campaigned to get Senate voting reform in place. I am very proud that Senator Rhiannon achieved this reform in the upper house in New South Wales. I understand from speaking to her recently that she copped an incredible amount of flak, as the Greens did when they were bringing in this reform in New South Wales. But I do not think there are many people who are that unhappy with it. It is reform that Bob Brown introduced in 2004, and of course we were optimistic back in 2012 that the Labor Party when they were in government might do something about voting reform. But that reform has not occurred and we have an opportunity now to rectify that. We will not facilitate a double dissolution, and we will take the opportunity to support Senate voting reform—something we have campaigned on for a long time. It is good for democracy. Most Australians understand it is good for democracy. Most Australians would like to direct their preference in a simple, fair system. There is a press conference going on at the moment and there will be lots of things being discussed, but this issue has been through numerous committees over many years—the debate has been exhausted—and we are about to have, potentially, weeks of parliamentary debate coming up. So let us be clear about one thing: this is not rushed. This is the result of a committee process that has been going on for some time—it has been going on for many years—and we are getting very close to achieving something. We have asked the Labor Party to put aside populist politics for their own self-interest and do what is right by our Australian democracy and give the people something to believe in.
For those listening to this debate I will explain what the Senate is doing at the moment. The Labor Party is again, with the amendment we are debating, trying to delay dealing with this legislation on Senate reform for some months. The amendment before the Senate, moved by the Labor Party, seeks to delay the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill. The Labor Party have said we need more time to debate this issue. As Senator Whish-Wilson has just said and as Senator Cormann has mentioned, this matter has been debated full-time for about three years. Those listening and senators will recall that following the last federal election there was genuine community outrage at the fact that a number of senators, who control the Senate, were elected with less than a couple of per cent of the vote in. It was not outrage from the politicians at the time—there was genuine community outrage.
Immediately following the election, because of that community outrage, the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters instituted an inquiry into Senate voting. I attended that inquiry. There were senators and members from all political parties; from memory there were about 10 separate hearings, many of them in other places in Australia. I know we went to Perth, where there had been some difficulties with the election, and we went to places as remote as Mount Isa in my own state, to make sure that we got the views of everybody in Australia on what they thought Senate voting was like and what reforms there should be. Following that very extensive investigation and those consultations with everybody, with all the experts and with ordinary people around the country—some politicians even gave evidence; I remember Mr Katter gave evidence in Mount Isa and we had Mr Green, other professional people and academics give evidence to the committee—the committee deliberated on that evidence for some considerable time. I repeat that the committee was made up of members of the Liberal Party, the National Party, the Australian Labor Party and the Greens political party, and Senator Xenophon. It was a cross-party committee, and the report of the committee was unanimous. All parties signed onto it, including the Australian Labor Party. I was on the committee, and we were wondering at the time whether the Labor Party would support it—in fact, the Labor Party representatives on that committee were perhaps the most forceful in getting the result that that committee presented to parliament.
The recommendations of that committee were, amongst other things, that there be optional preferential above the line and below the line. I will not go through that in any detail. Everybody in this chamber knew exactly what that report proposed and what the system in this country was. That was something that the Labor Party, Senator Xenophon, the Greens and the coalition were all unanimous about. There was no dispute or complaint. I repeat that that was a report, a conclusion, that was arrived at by serious consideration. It was not a five minute 'sit down and what will we do.' It was not something that there was no consultation on. It was a very thorough and full investigation with every Australian given the opportunity to come and present evidence should they want to.
The crocodile tears you get from the Labor Party about this particular bill before the parliament not having enough exposure are just crocodile tears. In fact someone in the Labor Party has concluded that the Labor Party will do badly out of it. All the evidence—and Senator Whish-Wilson went through some of it accurately quoting Antony Green—has no conclusion that the Labor Party will do badly or will do well. Senator Whish-Wilson explained that with some clarity. The coalition can get a majority if we get a big majority of votes around Australia. That has happened once before. I had to say to Mr Green, that it was nice to pull up an expert like Professor Green. He forgot that on one occasion in my home state of Queensland we got four out of the six senators for the coalition. They were quite unusual circumstances. Senator Brandis will remember; he led the ticket. That was quite an exceptional result. At that time and at that election in Queensland, the majority of Queenslanders voted for the Liberal and National parties. We were separate parties then, but between us we got four out of the six. That can happen. I am delighted that Senator Whish-Wilson has read into the Hansard the actual transcript of the evidence given by Mr Green yesterday, which puts the lie to a lot of the false allegations that have been made by members of the Labor Party in this debate so far.
I will go through, at some length, for those who are listening and who might be wondering what this debate is about. Yesterday we tried to get the debate on this piece of legislation which all Australians regardless of their political affiliation think must happen. It is the sort of reform that gives back to the voter the choice of who they vote for in their state to represent them in the Senate. This is essential in a democracy. The joint standing committee came to the same conclusion two or three years ago, not only to be seen to be a democracy, but to be democratic. It was important that Australians could exercise their right to vote as they choose and to give preferences to whom they wanted, and not to simply blindly follow some registered how-to-vote card which, I can assure you, very few Australians ever knew about.
We had a ridiculous situation where people who deliberately cast a vote for a party of the extreme left, without knowing where that party had sold its preferences to other parties, found out that their preferences went to a party of the extreme right. Had those people bothered to look at the registered how-to-vote card—and not many people did—they would have seen that. Now under the proposals in this legislation and if the government follows the recommendations of the committee, which were tabled in the other place earlier today, then we will have a piece of legislation that gives Australians the opportunity to choose who they want in this Senate and give preferences to whom they want.
The inquiry that has been held shows that the process has worked. The government has brought in a piece of legislation, which in shorthand says, 'Optional voting above the line, but below the line you still can vote for the individual of your choice'. You had to go through the whole gambit, so it could end up people voting from one to 103. I think at the last election—I always vote below the line—it took me about 25 minutes to go through it, double-checking to make sure I had not missed a number that might have declared my vote illegal. Most people would not vote below the line, because it was too onerous.
One of the witness yesterday gave the example that he always voted below the line. He took his three-year-old son with him while he went to vote. Can you imagine a three-year-old sitting in the voting booth while his father went through 103 numbers and double-checked them. He made the point that he would never do that again in those circumstances even though he preferred to choose the candidates under the line. The evidence given yesterday repeated a lot of the evidence that the original joint committee dealt with, which engendered the recommendations of the original committee.
As a result of that report, the committee decided at a meeting this morning that it would recommend to parliament that the bill be amended to provide—again, I use shorthand—not only optional preferential voting above the line but also optional preferential voting below the line, up to 12 numbers. That would be the case whether it were a single Senate election, a half-Senate election or a double-dissolution Senate election. That is the recommendation of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, which mirrors exactly the recommendation that same committee unanimously made just three years ago.
Now, for some reason—there has been no valid reason given—the Labor Party have changed their minds. Mr Gary Gray, not a political friend of mine but clearly a respected, honest and genuine member of parliament, who regrettably will not be with us after the next election, maintains what he maintained three years ago, which is that this new idea was the right one.
That is the process, and that process actually works. Well, I hope it has worked. I have not seen the government's amendments. But I would feel fairly confident that the government would take notice of the recommendations of the joint standing committee which, I repeat, mirror those it made three years ago. I would hope that the government would accept those recommendations and would amend the bill before parliament to allow—in shorthand—optional preferential voting above the line and optional preferential voting below the line.
That is what everyone wanted to do three years ago; it was unanimous. I cannot repeat that enough. I invite those listening to have a look at the joint standing committee report of three years ago and see who signed it. The people who signed it included members of every political party, including the Australian Labor Party. I know I have said that a number of times, but I want to emphasise it. In the debates on the bill that will follow, I would like to get the Labor Party to give me one valid reason, one half-sensible reason—
to you is that as the guy who actually sat through all the hearings, as I said before—you were not in the chamber, Senator Wong—the committee had about 10 hearings, and many of them were public hearings. They deliberated on this. The Labor Party members of the committee at that time were at the forefront in encouraging and arguing to other members of the committee that this was what should happen. That was from members of the Labor Party, I can tell you that. Perhaps I am breaching standing orders by telling you what happened in the joint standing committee at that time. But that is how it was: the Labor Party members were keener than anyone else. But apparently someone told Senator Conroy or Senator Wong—the unions have told them—
they are going to do badly out of this. It is bad advice, I might say. As Senator Whish-Wilson clearly read into the Hansard, Mr Antony Green said that the Labor Party will not do badly out of it unless they get a very poor vote. But, the way Labor are going, I predict that the Greens will become the official opposition in an election or two. Heaven forbid. But the way the Labor Party are carrying on across the board, such as what the union corruption inquiry has exposed and their position on this bill, I can understand that people would leave the Labor Party in droves, the same way they are leaving the unions in droves.
I will leave it there. I am very keen to see what amendments the government is proposing. We will later be talking about the joint standing committee report. I encourage people to read that report and to read it in conjunction with the report of three years ago, when the Labor Party initiated, almost, and signed on to this recommendation with all the other parties. It was unanimous.
Just so that senators are absolutely clear, standing order 101(3) says:
When successive divisions are taken, and there is no debate after the first division, the bells for each ensuing division shall—
It does not say 'may'—
be rung for one minute only.
I acceded to a request of the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate for four-minute bells on the last occasion, but I advise senators that for every other occasion where there is no ensuing debate, the bells will be rung for one minute only.
The question now is that this bill proceed without formalities:
I seek leave to move a motion to exempt this bill from the bills cut-off order.
Leave not granted.
Pursuant to contingent motion standing in my name, I move:
That so much of standing orders be suspended as would prevent me moving a motion to provide for the consideration of a matter, namely a motion to give precedence to a motion to exempt this bill from the bills cut-off order.
I further move:
That that question be now put without amendment or debate.
It is not me who is allowing or disallowing the debate. I am following the procedures in the standing orders. The bells will be rung for one minute. I indicated that earlier. The bells are ringing for one minute.
The question now is that the suspension motion moved by Senator Brandis be agreed to.
That a motion to exempt this bill from the bills cut-off order may be moved immediately and determined without amendment or debate.
I further move:
That that question be now put without amendment or debate.
by leave—I move:
That the provisions of paragraphs (5) and (8) in standing order 111 not apply to the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016 and that that question be now put without amendment or debate.