Wednesday, 16 March 2016
Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016; Second Reading
Last night I spoke about the principle of voters directly controlling who they elect rather than leaving it to self-appointed professional preference allocators. I did express some opinions at the time about how this idea has somehow become controversial during this debate on the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016. There is no question that the Labor Party's principled defence of backroom preference allocators has caught the imagination of some people online, including a few people who I figured were smart enough to know better.
When a ballot paper ends up measuring one metre from side to side, when the Electoral Commission has to hand out little magnifying glasses so you can read the fine print and when you realise that people are going around boasting about how many front parties they have set up in order to funnel preferences to themselves something has gone deeply wrong with our electoral system. In the wake of the 2013 election, where the preference engineers had their finest hour in preference slingshotting random candidates past people with 20 times more votes, the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters spent months trying to work out how to put the power back into voters' hands. This is the model that the cross-party Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters came up with to abolish the machinery of group-voting tickets and let voters decide who gets elected.
It is true that this bill is not identical to the JSCEM model. It is different in a couple of quite important respects. The JSCEM majority report recommended raising party registration fees—for some reason I still do not understand. This bill fixes that. It also recommended a model that could have effectively promoted a just vote 1 system, which undermines the power of our preferential voting system. This bill fixes that too. Let us hear what the committee had to say:
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.
Congratulations! We managed to get the Labor Party model into law. Wonderful!
There has been a bit of debate about the fact that you can already number the candidates in the order you choose and you do that by voting below the line. I want to refer briefly to some research done by Ben Raue on tallyroom.com.au. He actually looked at the data for what happens when people vote below the line, when they decide to exercise their democratic mandate in full, which I have done plenty of times myself, and number all the boxes below the line. The research that he conducted on some of the larger ballot papers—and New South Wales being one of the craziest examples—is that the informal rate, the number of votes that end up in the bin, is as high as 28 per cent for people voting below the line, because it is just so hard. It is particularly hard to get it right when the ballot paper is a metre side to side and you are trying to number of candidates whose names are written in four- or five-point type. Nearly 30 per cent of those votes end up in the bin.
He found a very strong correlation between the number of candidates on the ballot paper and the number of people who simply end up voting above the line. They just cannot be bothered. Rather than punishing these voters for not having the time or the inclination to vote below the line at that 30 per cent risk of their vote ending up informal, we should make voting easier.
We should make the system simpler. That is what the Labor Party's submission to JSCEM said. Well, we got that embedded in the bill, thanks to years of tenacious work by Senator Lee Rhiannon. Labor have decided, for reasons best left to them, to take the low road. And your own spokesman describes your arguments as dumb. He was right. It is hard to disagree. Your speeches may as well have been written by the same software that the ACT is using for its robocalls.
The press gallery has been nearly unanimous that this is a sensible reform. The Labor Party has been left to run its campaign in the form of high-pitched, unhinging online, which has caught up a few people who figure out that where there is so much smoke there must be fire. But, ultimately, you are just smoke.
I want to acknowledge—because their names have come up a couple of times in this debate—Senators Bob Brown and Christine Milne. They are former Australian Greens leaders who moved the debate forward and prepared the ground with bills, with speeches in here, with dedicated committee work and with running the argument and getting the argument up in the public domain. I want to acknowledge, 12 years ago, Senator Brown moved, on behalf of the Australian Greens in this place, the first bill for a reform similar to that that we are debating today.
I also want to acknowledge Senator Lee Rhiannon, who brought the energy and determination that got this reform done in the New South Wales parliament to this Senate over the last couple of years. Of course, I want to acknowledge Senator Richard Di Natale for standing firm against the self-interested hysteria and outright weirdness that has been thrown at him in the last couple of weeks—for keeping his eye on the bigger picture and getting this done.
There is a lot of anxiety expressed in Labor senators' heartfelt and terribly earnest speeches about how this bill will hand the coalition a Senate majority, which will allow all kinds of hideous bills to be passed in a joint sitting after a double-dissolution election. The numbers, just the raw numbers, to support this argument brazenly do not stand up. But even if they did, it is actually beside the point. Here is a piece of advice for anyone in the ALP who has expressed these sentiments: how about you have a go at winning the next election? What if you went out and actually campaigned on the kind of progressive flagship issues that inspired previous generations of progressives and try to actually win for a change?
The Labor Party's entire strategy for opposing this reform—that you have conveniently forgotten you agreed with until about five minutes ago—has been premised on losing the next election and sitting by, in self-righteous helplessness, while the Abbott Turnbull government passes God knows what. Snap out of it. Get in the fight or get in the bin. There is a reason that you have been abandoned by two generations of progressive voters, and you have been wearing those reasons on your sleeves these past few weeks. If the numbers in this chamber are not reflective of a mix of Labor, Green and progressive Independents then it is because we have not persuaded a majority of the electorate that our ideas should prevail all the way into the legislature. So rather than fighting sensible changes that will finally stop senators from being elected by Glenn Druery's random number generator, get out and campaign on the issues that people actually care about.
I am very much looking forward to putting this bill to a vote and getting it done after 12 long years since Senator Brown first tabled a bill with the same intent as the one that we are debating tonight. Talk it into three o'clock in the morning on Thursday if you want. Talk it into September if you feel like it. In the end, this bill will become law, and not before time.
I rise to speak on the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016. I start by noting Senator Ludlam's confected outrage on the Labor's position on the bill. The Labor Party certainly do not need any advice from Senator Ludlam. He obviously does not really look at the Senate voting patterns at all. He has given a speech proposing advice to the Labor Party, and we certainly would not be taking any advice from Senator Ludlam or the Australian Greens.
This is a bill that has come to this chamber as a result of a backroom deal between the Liberals, Senator Di Natale and Senator Rhiannon that hands the government the conditions it wants for a double dissolution election. The changes in the bill represent the biggest changes to the Australian electoral system in 30 years. That is a fact. Labor has a number of issues with this bill both in terms of the measures contained in the bill and the process by which this bill was brought before the Senate. The bill before us seeks to introduce optional preferential above the line voting by numbering at least six of the boxes in order of the voter's choice. The bill also seeks to introduce limited savings provisions to ensure that a ballot is still formal where the voter has numbered one box or fewer than six boxes above the line. Other measures in the bill include the abolition of group and individual voting tickets.
Those opposite claim that these changes are about transparency for voters, as do the Australian Greens. But, make no mistake, these changes are about making it harder for minor parties or independents to get elected to the Senate. Not only will these changes make it more difficult for minor parties to be elected, but they will maximise the prospect of major parties being elected, especially the coalition. But, worse than this, the change will disenfranchise three million Australians who vote for parties other than the coalition, Labor and the Greens.
How exactly do the Australian Greens expect be able to explain this to their supporters? How exactly do they expect to be able to explain to their supporters that they have delivered the coalition the double dissolution it so desperately wants? How exactly do they expect to be able to explain to their supporters that they have rammed legislation through the Senate without allowing proper scrutiny? And there has been no proper scrutiny. They can talk about a JSCEM report that was conducted—one that is not fully replicated in the bill before us. What would normally happen is that we would have a proper inquiry into the legislation before us. But that did not happen. Nobody in the Australian Greens can suggest that the sham inquiry into the legislation before us was a proper, transparent process.
As I have already indicated in this place, it is ludicrous to think that the bill could be properly considered by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters with one public hearing held the day before the committee was required to report to parliament—one public hearing lasting just 3½ hours. It was a sham process. It was a rushed process. It was done in such a hurry that it has been nothing short of a complete farce. So farcical has this process been it would seem more at home in an episode of Yes, Prime Minister, TheHollowmen or The Thick Of It than in our parliament. It has not been in keeping with the parliamentary principles that underpin our democracy. The process has been nothing short of an attack on our democracy.
The rushed and shambolic process has also exposed Senator Di Natale's Greens as the hypocrites that they are—the Greens who have always argued for greater transparency, the Greens who have always argued for greater scrutiny, the Greens who argue for greater respect of the role of the Senate. These are also the positions that were argued by Senator Milne and Senator Brown. They do not talk about the contributions that Senator Milne and Senator Brown made in this place about greater transparency and greater scrutiny at all—because they know that this bill shows that the process has been a complete sham led by Senator Di Natale and Senator Rhiannon. The Greens have been exposed for turning their backs on democracy and transparency. The Greens are exposed for what they really are through this process and the deal they have done with the government on this bill.
In the last sitting period I spoke about the process that the government and the Greens have orchestrated for the consideration of the bill. I would begin reflect on this specifically in relation to the JSCEM report that came from the farcical inquiry process. The report from the proponents of the bill does not even support the bill in its current form. It would be laughable if it were not so tragic. First we saw the government rush to introduce the bill. The government were in such a rush that they were later forced to introduce six amendments to the bill in the House of Representatives. The day after introducing the bill to the House, the government was forced to rewrite the bill to fix a mistake. The original bill would have prevented assistant returning officers—AROs—from counting Senate first preferences on election night. It took the ABC's Antony Green to point out this error. The government had to rush in with six amendments in the House of Representatives to fix this mistake.
It simply beggars belief for there to be a suggestion that this legislation has followed a process that has scrutiny or transparency in any form. They rushed the legislation through to the point that they did not even have a provision to ensure the votes on election night were counted. No counting on the night? Spare me. They forgot to get the counting right; how many more mistakes are there in this bill? What else has the government missed? There have clearly been further oversights, as the Liberal chair's report recommends further amendments.
The amendments recommended by the chair's report are significant and require due consideration in their own right. The chair's report recommends that the government introduce a system of partial optional preferential voting below the line. It further proposes that voters should be instructed on the ballot paper to mark a minimum of 12 preferences to vote below the line. The report also recommends saving provisions for below-the-line be introduced to ensure that any ballot with at least six boxes numbered in sequential order starting with the No. 1 be considered formal.
The fact that the government members and senators have made such a significant recommendation is just further evidence that the government had rushed this bill without giving appropriate consideration to the issues and outcomes. They have rushed the bill and in doing so have frustrated proper scrutiny of the bill, which raises real concerns about what other errors and unintended consequences might be in the bill.
This is further demonstrated by the fact that both Senator Xenophon and the Australian Greens—the very people the government stitched up with this deal—also made a number of additional comments to the report. They have done the deal and still they cannot agree on reforms. Isn't it about time that Senator Xenophon and the Greens admit that this has been botched from start to finish? They have run in headlong to do a deal with the government for their own self-interest—a deal which was concocted out of political expedience by the government. This government has no interest in properly considering electoral reform. Instead they are interested in maximising their interests at a double dissolution election that they are rushing headlong into.
It is clear from the additional comments made by Senator Rhiannon that even the Greens realise that a rush to a double dissolution election is problematic in the face of the most significant electoral changes in three decades. The fact that Senator Rhiannon has seen it necessary to recommend 'That the Special Minister of State instruct the Department of Finance to work closely with the AEC to ensure that they have the required resources and further that additional money is allocated as required' shows how little faith the Greens have in the government's commitment to genuine, well-thought-out and -implemented reforms.
When you have a look at the Hansard from the sham inquiry into this bill, you see that the AEC indicated quite clearly that they had little input into this legislation and that they also were not able to tell us how much funding would be given to them to ensure that they were ready for an election that would be coming.
We also have additional comments of Senator Xenophon, who was also a party to the dirty deal to ram this bill through this place. Again we see amendments to the bill recommended. Senator Xenophon, in his additional comments, recommends that the bill be amended to include a ban on advocating that voters vote in a manner contrary to the instructions on the ballot. Senator Xenophon's recommendation is based on Dr Bonham's observation of the impact of the savings measure, which means that a ballot with a '1', an 'X' or a 'tick' in a box above the line would be counted. Given the additional comments it seems that the Greens and Senator Xenophon have stitched up a deal with the government that they have concerns about.
Labor's dissenting report recognises that concerns about the Senate voting process are legitimate—concerns which do need to be addressed. The unexpected outcomes of the 2013 half-Senate election gave rise to concerns about how the proportional representation system used in the Senate was working—concerns that the system was broken. These concerns deserve a suitable and considered response, a thorough and measured response. Unfortunately that is not what we have in the bill before us today.
We must be careful, we must have due diligence, to ensure that in seeking to tackle one problem we do not create another problem. The solution to these issues must prioritise the democratic interest of the Australian people above all other interests. This is an important message that the government and the Australian Greens have seemingly missed. Instead they have chosen to progress Senate voting changes for political expediency and political self-interest. It is clear from the evidence to JSCEM that the changes in the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill will act to shut the door to independents and minor parties. Political scientist Malcolm Mackerras said:
It is not about fairness. It is about the re-shaping of our party system. … There will be only one benefit for the voters. The ballot paper will be smaller.
The way the government and the Greens plan to make the ballot smaller is by making it impossible for minor parties and independents to be elected, and unattractive for them to even try. At the 2013 election, three million voters gave their first preference Senate vote to parties other than the coalition, Labor, the Greens or the Xenophon ticket in South Australia. It is clear that the changes in the bill will disenfranchise people who vote for small parties or independents. The changes will discourage people from standing for the Senate or organising new parties, and will reduce participation in our political system. This is not a desirable outcome for our democracy.
We clearly need to get the balance right on Senate voting reform. This will not be achieved by ramming this backroom deal through the parliament. It could be achieved with proper and robust scrutiny—something that has been denied in relation to this bill. Let there be no doubt that, in spite of the protestations of the Australian Greens, this bill is being rammed through the parliament without proper examination. This is evidenced by the fact that the House of Representatives was forced to vote on the bill before the JSCEM report had even been tabled; in fact, they were forced to vote on the bill before the inquiry had really even commenced. This was also evidenced by the fact that members of the JSCEM inquiry into this bill were not afforded the opportunity to question the Department of Finance—the department responsible for the bill. Committee members were not able to ask questions of them. The committee was not even given the opportunity to ask questions of the minister in the department's stead. The entire process has been a sham.
The dissenting report from Labor senators notes that, following JSCEM's 3½-hour hearing on the Tuesday, the chair's report was circulated to members at 9.40 pm, giving Labor senators less than 12 hours overnight to prepare our dissenting report, which had to be provided by 8 am the following day. The dangers of ramming this legislation through have already been exposed with amendments being required in the House of Representatives. Now we see in this committee report that the government think there should be further significant amendments to the bill. It is clear that this bill should not be passed in its current form.
A change as significant as a change to the way we elect our Senate representatives deserves proper consideration, proper funding and time for proper implementation. We have seen none of that here. Instead we have a shambolic bill, a shambolic committee inquiry and what I fear will be a shambolic implementation as the coalition rush head long into a double dissolution in July. This place deserves better than this. Our democratic process deserves better than this The electors of the states and territories deserve better than this. I hope that the Australian Greens will come to see this, but I fear that they will not. I fear that Senator Di Natale's Greens will not see the error of their ways until they have delivered to the Liberals the Senate majority they are seeking.
It is not just Labor that believes that the government and Greens deal is wrong. The list of experts who have concerns about the Liberal-Greens Senate voting deal and the lack of scrutiny is growing. I want to consider what some of these experts have had to say on this important issue. The widely respected economics editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, Ross Gittins AM, has expressed reservations about this dirty deal. His comments were very telling. He said:
… we need time—the usual Senate public inquiry would do—to hear from the experts and examine the properties of the voting system one side of politics has come up with and wants to ram through.
If the Coalition has proposed a move to optional preferential voting, allowing people to express their preference for up to six party groupings, it's a fair bet it believes such a system will advantage it over its Labor rival.
If the left-leaning Greens and centrist Xenophon party are happy to give the Coalition what it wants, it's a fair bet that's because the deal leaves room for their comfortable survival, while raising the drawbridge against the emergence of new minor-party rivals of either leaning.
As I have said, the list of critics of this bill and the way it is being rushed through is long. The former head of the Australia Institute, Richard Denniss, is well qualified to comment on Senate voting. Mr Denniss rightly questions the incredible speed with which this legislation has been introduced and is likely to become law. Mr Denniss says:
Most alarmingly, they have agreed that the new laws should take immediate effect which means that weeks after the creation of the new laws an election using those new laws could be called. What could go wrong?
Indeed, what could go wrong? As I have already said, so hasty has the government been that it has already been forced to make amendments to its own bill and is set to make further significant amendments to the bill.
But why the rush? Why the need for so little scrutiny? Surely, if the government and the Greens are so certain that the changes in the bill are right, and if they are so certain in the deal they have struck, then surely they would have no concerns with some scrutiny of the changes. The answer is simple. The rush is because the Prime Minister is racing to an early election. He is racing towards a double dissolution election. This Prime Minister is so desperate to go to the polls that he is willing to sacrifice principled and transparent processes. He has also been willing to sacrifice the democratic rights of the Australian people, instead prioritising his own interests.
Make no mistake—if passed, this new Senate voting system will shape the political landscape in this country for decades to come. Yet the government have attempted to ram the legislation through parliament with only the farcical semblance of an inquiry process. They and their new coalition members, the Australian Greens, have attempted to sell the dirty deal by claiming the bill implements the previous JSCEM report on the conduct of the 2013 federal election. This simply is not true. They claim it implements 85 per cent of the JSCEM recommendations. This simply is not true. (Time expired)
For over 30 years, the Liberals and Greens and others have harvested preferences. They did backroom deals and, I admit, they did them very well. Of course, the occasional independent senator slipped through and was elected, but nobody really batted an eyelid. However, when the 2013 election resulted in the most Independents in Senate history, the Liberal Party went ballistic. They launched a propaganda campaign to convince the media that this was an abomination, that it was wrong and that it was undemocratic. So they responded with a backroom deal of their own—some might say the mother of all backroom deals, which included Senator Nick Xenophon, the supposed champion of the little guy—and perpetrated on this Senate the biggest, anticompetitive, closed shop act in Australian history.
Senator Xenophon's stake in this game is because he is still seething 2½ years later that his running mate Stirling Griff did not get elected on his coat-tails. Why, he protests, didn't the Labor Party preference him ahead of Family First? Maybe Labor wanted only one Nick Xenophon, not two. They had after all worked with Senator Xenophon in this place for six years beforehand and had 10 years of experience before that working with Senator Xenophon when he was a state member of the South Australian Legislative Council, the last five of which were when Labor was in government.
By contrast, South Australian Labor has 12 years of experience working with Family First in the state government. Maybe Labor knew that Senator Xenophon's voting record is clear—he is closer to the Greens than anyone else. And I ran on the platform: 'Every family, a job and a house'. What is so offensive to Labor about that? And the way I see it this very day I am standing alongside Labor trying to save the Senate from those who are grabbing power and keeping it to themselves. I am helping the little guys from being shut out of the game. It seems to me that Labor knew exactly what it was doing preferencing Family First ahead of Senator Xenophon.
When all the pathetic reasons are swept away, the naked ambition of all this is laid bare. The Liberals, Nationals, Greens and Senator Xenophon are locking up the Senate to only those parties who either have been around for a century or got in the Senate through the same voting system and then kicked away the ladder, preventing anyone else getting in the same way. How cynical can you get?
From now on, to be elected in a normal half Senate election a party would need a primary vote of at least nine per cent—an impossible task. That is the minimum it is going to take from now on to get into the Senate. Do not forget that Senator Xenophon got in on two point something per cent plus minor party preferences. He then used his profile there to launch into the Senate. He is now kicking the ladder out from underneath us.
Which Independents will have a high enough profile to get into this place? Those who have the backing of billionaires perhaps or who are major celebrities. Do you remember the republican debate? Do you remember the concern about who might become Australia's first president? Well, congratulations, you have done it here. You have locked up the Senate as a club for three parties and, for a short while, Senator Xenophon. Only the rich and famous will be able to get in after them. In reality there will be no new parties—no new environmental parties, no new no pokies parties, nothing. The Liberals have been campaigning for a year against the CFMEU and now they have teamed up with the CFMEU-financed Greens. Make no mistake, this bill is nothing but a grab for power by hypocrites.
It would be easy for people to think that I am speaking out against these Senate voting changes because I might lose my job. Whilst getting rid of me and my cross-bench colleagues is one of the prime objectives of these radical voting changes, that is not my concern at all. I have got plenty of things that I can do. That is not why I tried for so long to get here.
This is a real betrayal of the minor parties and Independents who helped the Liberals get their key polices through the parliament—abolishing the carbon tax, abolishing the mining tax and stopping the boats. They have now teamed up with those who opposed their legislation to get rid of those who supported it. Talk about no good deed goes unpunished.
Since arriving here two years ago I have voted on principle and have treated every piece of legislation on its merits. I have not engaged in horse trading. On 22 February the government threw principle out the window. The claim that these changes benefit the voter is false. These changes do not advantage voters; they disadvantage them. Up until now, a vote has stayed alive throughout the count. As a result of these changes, a vote for an Independent is now, potentially, a dead vote. One of the features of the Australian voting system is that 'every vote is precious'; a vote never dies. Under this new proposal, three million votes—that is, votes for Independents and minor parties—will die. The government is removing a voter's right to delegate their preferences to their favourite minor party. If this was genuinely about empowering the voter, people would be given a choice to let their party distribute their preferences above the line or vote 1 to 6 or 1 to 12 below the line. That would be democratic. That would give voters genuine choice.
The Liberals, the Greens and Senator Xenophon want to herd voters like sheep into voting in the way that ensures that they get to stay in the Senate. These changes discard or write off 25 per cent of the electorate far too lightly. That is 25 per cent of people who are not voting for the major parties or the Greens—25 per cent, or over three million people whose votes could die. How? This is basically first past the post voting by stealth. The voters are conditioned to just vote 1, and they will do it again. They will not use the 'option' to vote 1; they will just vote 1. If I were a betting man I would wager that the LNP in Queensland, if not around the country, will advertise on television, print and radio and put up banners at polling booths telling voters to just vote 1, exploiting the saving provisions in this bill. It works a treat in Queensland: about 70 per cent of voters, under their optional preferential voting system, just vote 1. Instead of getting rid of Independents, perhaps the Liberals should ask themselves why people are not voting for them.
This bill abolishes current Independents and prevents the election of any new Independents. I did not think I would ever see the day an Australian government would silence voices of Independents who do not toe a particular party line. They are shutting Independents out of the political process. This is real Third World stuff; it is what they do in Third World countries.
Now let's step back for a second and consider the timing of this change: just before an election, clearing the decks for a double dissolution. We are not getting tax reform rushed through this place. We are not getting spending reductions rushed through. We are getting voting changes rushed through—changes that supposedly are solely about the voter as the No. 1 priority. Now, there can be only two reasons for that. One is that the government thinks their polling position performance is so bad that they need a bad guy to attack, so they stuff the crossbench full of straw, call them straw men and stab them in the back. That is theory one. They think this is a winner in the polls when they are having a bad time. Reason two is that it has nothing to do with empowering voters at all; it is about stitching up the voting system for a preconceived outcome. You be the judge. The clear implication of this—and, I argue, a miscalculation by the Nationals in the coalition—is that these changes will permanently give the Greens the balance of power in the Senate.
Mark my words: no good will come of this deal—not for the Liberal Party; not for the Nationals, especially their leader, Barnaby Joyce; not for the Greens; and not for the nation. Australian people have a very strong sense of fairness. This will not go down well. This is a very bad thing the Liberals and Nationals are doing, and they will pay a heavy price.
It has, time and again, been the role of this Senate to save governments from themselves. I am going to try to do that here. This is a house of review, not a rubber stamp—or even a green stamp. How desperate and crazy the Liberals and Greens are, rushing into a deal, gambling that one will hold the balance of power while the other will get a Senate majority—which neither wants the other to get. Talk about problem gambling! This mother of all backroom deals is the mother of all gambles by the two key players, and it will end in tears. This is the biggest change to our voting system in over 30 years, and the government has allowed just one week to review it. People make mistakes, especially in this place, and there will be unintended consequences, especially when you have a sham of an inquiry, a rushed draft report and a preconceived outcome.
Let me speak for a minute about the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters inquiry. I have been deputy chair of select committees, and we have allowed everyone to have their say. But I have never seen—and colleagues who have been here a lot longer than I say they have never seen either—the badgering of witnesses and other participating members, the shutting down of questions, the censorship and arrogance that we saw in the inquiry in this place a short while ago. You would be forgiven for thinking Liberal members were told to 'just get the job done, and to hell with the consequences'.
Yes, the government has changed tack and will bring in below-the-line voting, as the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters had previously recommended. Who knows how that backroom deal was done? But it had little choice, because, of those who made submissions to the inquiry—and I commend them for doing so at such short notice—the vast majority said you should have optional preferential voting below the line. The constitutional implication of this has clearly not been properly thought through: the potential disenfranchising of three million votes. The sheer magnitude of the lost votes will get the High Court's attention, because it will affect the outcome. Has the government learned nothing from the Western Australian re-run election? This will end up in the High Court.
I have great faith in the Australian people. Voters will find another way of having their voices heard. You need independent people here who do not toe a particular party line. Independents play a vital role in this place. Yes, a vet, a builder, a blacksmith, a soldier, a footballer, a sawmill manager and an engineer might provide diversity, but collectively we bring a perspective to this place that career politicians cannot.
I have to reflect for a moment on the question I asked on Wednesday last about the timing of this bill. The government had supposedly not made up its mind on 15 February. It was still making up its mind. It had not made a decision. 'There are still some on our side who want us to do something,' I was told. 'There are still some on our side who want us to do something'—how vague could that be? The government was still toying with what to do. That was on 15 February, yet on 11 February the government had given the bill to the Australian Electoral Commission.
The parties to this deal will be, as the old saying goes, 'hoist by their own petard'. Now, like many people, I used to think that a petard was some kind of pikestaff or stake and that a person was hung on it. But that is not what it means at all. 'Petard' is French for 'bomb', and to be hoist by your own petard is to be thrown in the air or, to use a more common expression, to have a bomb blow up in your face. Their new slogan is 'No new parties'. The government will wear this awful deal like a crown of thorns.
If this legislation is passed—as, no doubt, it will be—you will no longer have any real choice in where you shop politically. A voter will be forced into this political cartel, and there will be no other brands and no alternate views allowed. That is not democracy.
I never thought I would see the day when I would stand up and say I agreed with Senator Day, but I certainly do agree with many of the points he has just made. I have disagreed with many of the positions Senator Day has put forward during his time as a senator, but he really has pinned down the problems that will arise out of this dirty deal between the coalition and the Greens.
Senator Day should understand that, as the old saying goes, with friends like the Liberals, he does not need enemies. He has been very friendly with the Liberals. As he indicated, he has delivered on most of the their agenda. My assessment of Senator Day was that he was probably the least independent Independent. Senator Day had many things in common with the coalition, and I do not think he would argue with me about that. He has supported many coalition policies that I have vehemently opposed, such as the 2014-15 budget bills and the bills aimed at destroying effective trade unionism in this country. But Senator Day has now been hoist on his own petard. He is now paying for supporting coalition policies that are a problem for the working class people of Australia.
I oppose the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016. It has been described as, and is, a dirty deal between the Greens and the coalition. It is not an appropriate response to the issues considered by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. The advisory report on the bill contained a dissenting report from Labor senators and members. Labor conceded that there were legitimate concerns about the laws governing the election of senators and about the outcomes of the 2013 half-Senate election. If, however, the current proposal—the one being put forward by the Greens and the Liberals—had been implemented before then, we would not have been able to stop the worst aspects of the 2014-15 budget. Pensioners would have been worse off, families would have faced a $7 co-payment for visits to the doctor and young people who could not find a job would have been left with nothing to live on for six months. That is what would have happened if the system now being proposed had been in place before the last election.
Fortunately, with the opposition of Labor, the support of the Greens in some areas, and the support of some of the Independents, we were able to stop the worst aspects of that 2014-15 budget. Young unemployed Australians, pensioners, young Australian families needing medical support, and elderly Australian needing medical support were all helped by the make-up of the Senate. Having all the Independents in the Senate certainly helped them maintain a decent standard of living and access to decent health care. But the coalition still wants to cut $80 billion out of health and education—and that will be made easier if this electoral bill is passed by the Senate.
I agree with Senator Day that this approach locks out new political entrants. It entrenches the existing parties: the Liberals, the Nationals, Labor and maybe Senator Xenophon and the Greens. It does, as Senator Day says, exhaust preferences early. If someone does not want to vote for the major parties, their preferences will be exhausted. Three million Australians will be disenfranchised under this proposal. There were other ways to deal with this that would have been much more democratic.
I have heard all of the debates and the arguments. I listened to every one of the contributions by Greens senators last night and to Senator Ludlam's contribution this morning. I have to say that the contributions were not very convincing. If we had had this system in place in the past, the Greens would not exist, because Bob Brown would never have got into parliament. The Xenophon party would not exist—the new party that is going to be running at the next election—because Nick Xenophon would not have gotten into parliament. We accept the system is not perfect, but there are proper processes and community consultation that should take place.
This is a victory of self-interest over democracy. I was appalled when the Greens had their so-called negotiations with the coalition. I was a union official for 27 years and if I—or the officials that worked for me when I was an official—had given in so easily on workers' rights and workers' wages and conditions, workers would have been worse off in this country. My union, the AMWU, led the wages campaigns and in many years we had to stand tough and take tough decisions, but we did benefit workers in this country. I know somebody who cannot negotiate when I see them. When you see how Senator Di Natale has been taken to the cleaners on this bill, how he has had his play lunch taken off him by the Liberals, you have to shake your head and wonder where we would be left if—and hopefully this never happens—the Greens ever get the balance of power in the Senate. It would be a really big problem. This is about self-interest trumping democracy. It is expediency over principle. That is the bottom line in relation to the Greens' position on this.
Senator Di Natale actually challenged Senator Wong yesterday in the Senate to debate marriage equality. He was challenging Senator Wong, saying, 'Let's have the debate.' But, when the opportunity to debate marriage equality was there, what did the Greens do? They sided with the Liberal Party and gagged Senator Wong. The government also had an opportunity yesterday to deal with the ABCC bill—a terrible bill, a bill that would diminish wages, conditions and safety in the building and construction industry. They had the opportunity to deal with the ABCC bill yesterday, but this deal between the Greens and the Liberals meant that, even when given an opportunity by Senator Ricky Muir, the Liberal Party would not debate it—they did not go there. They did not want to debate this great issue that they claim is the huge problem in the building and construction industry.
I know what the big problems are in the building and construction industry. It is not CFMEU officials breaching right of entry. That is not the biggest problem. The biggest problems in the building and construction industry are workers not being paid, workers not being able to go to work and come home safely without being injured, and workers being killed on a regular basis. They are the big problems in the building and construction industry. Yet we have a coalition that want to focus simply on these breaches of civil law and say that they are what is bringing the whole industry down. Every year, $3 billion worth of payments are not made in the building and construction industry. These are bills owed to small subcontractors—bills that small companies have put out—that are not being paid. So small businesses are going bust and small businesses are battling to survive. That has huge implications for productivity in the industry. We could have been dealing with some of those issues if we had a decent government in this country—a government that we do not have. These bills are flawed.
We have heard the Greens pontificating this morning about Labor getting out and winning the next election—'Just get policies and go out and win the next election!' It is about time the Greens actually understood who the real enemy of working class people in this country is. It is not the Labor Party. It is this mob over here who would take away rights at work, reduce pensions and attack working families by pushing up the cost of living through an increase in the GST. They are the real enemies. The Greens have no comprehension of this. All they want to do is attack the Labor Party. If you look at their rhetoric today and last night, you will see who they believe is the real enemy.
They think the Labor Party is the enemy, but we want to get decent pensions in this country, we are supporting changes for the better in health and education, and we want to tax multinational corporations and big business in this country so that there is enough money for us to have decent education and health systems, decent infrastructure and decent public transport systems. We are the party that is pushing those issues. We are the party that has over 70 policies out on those issues. We are the party that has said that capital gains tax concessions favouring speculators should be ended and that ordinary Australians and young families trying to buy a home should be on a level playing field. It should not be the overseas speculators, the big business speculators or the white shoe brigade that gives this mob money for their election campaigns that get a free run in this country. We should be looking after young families battling to get their first home. That is why we have taken a position that the capital gains tax concessions and the tax rorts that go on in housing should be changed. That is why we have said, 'You've got to level the playing field up for young families in this country.'
But the Greens, through this bill, are going to create a situation where young families will not be able to get a fair go. Negative gearing benefits go to the big end of town, to the wealthiest people in the country. They are the people that are going to benefit. What are the Greens doing?
Senator Ludlam interjecting—
Here is Senator Ludlam going, 'Yap, yap, yap.' Senator Ludlam, I heard your speech. You could not even talk for 20 minutes. You could not even contribute for 20 minutes on this bill. You could not even contribute a full round on this bill. You just waffled on about democracy. You had a chance to deal with the biggest problem with democracy in this country: the ripping-off of democracy by the Liberal Party.
They rip democracy apart. How do they do it? They do it by sitting in the front of their Bentleys with multimillionaires up in Newcastle getting $10,000 in cash. Remember that, Mr Acting Deputy President—that Liberal Party member up in Newcastle sitting in the front of a Bentley with a multimillionaire getting handed a brown paper bag with $10,000 in it? If you wanted to deal with proper democracy, if you wanted to get an electoral system that is appropriate, when you got a bit of power you would have linked electoral reform and electoral financing together. You would have done something about the rorts that go on with the Liberals, with their trust funds all over the place and getting money pushed in by the white shoe brigade, by the property developers, by the big banks and by the big farmer.
If you want to know what the Liberals think about anything or what their policies are going to be, all you have to do is go and look at who gives them the money. We know it is the big farmer, we know it is the banks, we know it is the finance sector and we know it is the white shoe brigade. All of the Liberal Party's policies are designed to support them at the expense of ordinary working families in this country. It is an absolute disgrace that the Greens are supporting the Liberal Party on so-called electoral reform without dealing with biggest rort that has ever gone on in this country—that is, the trust funds, the associated entities and the rip-offs that this mob are doing on democracy in this country.
Last night the Greens were talking about the four pillars of democracy. We did not hear about one of the big pillars of democracy—that is, how you fund elections. Senator Simms was pontificating about how brilliant the Greens are. Well, we have seen how incompetent they are when it comes to really dealing with the big issues. They did not deal with election funding. When this bill came up, they could have negotiated and said, 'We're not going to give in to you unless we get a change to election funding.' But did they do it? No, they did not. They are all about their own self-interest. They are not about democracy; they are about self-interest. The people who did fund the Greens must be looking at what is happening with this mob and saying, 'Where are they going?'
Senator Ludlam said that it was a complex question and we had to reflect the voting will of the electorate. What happens to those three million Australians who do not want to vote for Labor, do not want to vote for the Liberals, do not want to vote for The Nationals and do not want to vote for the Greens? What happens to those three million? As Senator Day indicated, they are cut out of the equation. You never get a perfect system, but this system that the Greens are supporting is far from perfect. It is a system that will ensure that the Liberals have a blocking vote in the Senate. That is what is going to happen.
Senator Ludlam interjecting—
Senator Ludlam can yap away all he likes over there. He had a chance to have a go in his contribution, and I thought he failed miserably. I thought, 'This guy has a big reputation; let's hear what he has to say.' But I thought his contribution was probably the worst out of all the Greens' contributions. It was the weakest contribution, the most intellectually deficient contribution and a contribution that did not go to the rort that was going on. We know what this is about. You can try to fluff this around with all the nonsense and all the rhetoric that you like, but this is about a political deal between the Greens and the Liberal Party to lock out Independents.
People have a go at Senator Lambie, but I would rather have Senator Lambie voting on the key issues than have the Liberals or the Greens voting on some of the issues. I do not understand Senator Lambie on some issues, but she certainly did stand up against the Liberal Party on the key issues of the 2014-15 budget. I was asked about this some time ago and I said that I would rather have in the Senate Independents that actually delivered for working-class people in this country any time against a Liberal—who will look after the white shoe brigade and look after the people who put the money in their pockets for their election campaigns and do not care about workers' rights, do not care about decent pensions, do not care about a decent health system and do not care about a decent education system as long as they are getting their getting their money from the big end of town. (Time expired)
I rise to contribute to the debate on the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016. Everyone agrees that the Senate voting system needs to be reformed. I do not argue that point, but I am happy to go to a double-D election on the changes in this bill. My private polling is showing the same results as the Liberals' polling, which means that, in Tasmania alone, we could pick up three and perhaps four Senate seats in a double-D election.
However, the point that many senators are missing in this debate is that these changes could be illegal and in breach of the Australian Constitution and will result in a successful High Court challenge, which will create more political chaos and dysfunction. According to Australia's leading election expert and foremost academic, Malcolm Mackerras, as this legislation stands written, its changes are most likely illegal and in breach of our Australian Constitution. Malcolm Mackerras gave importance evidence to the Senate committee inquiry that examined this legislation—evidence which the government, the Greens and some of our media completely ignored, and I am struggling to understand why. Essentially, Mr Malcolm Mackerras says that our Constitution will be breached and held in contempt if this legislation passes.
I watched Mr Mackerras's give evidence to the Senate committee and then I was lucky enough to meet for a second time personally with Mr Malcolm Mackerras yesterday, when he said:
1. We must bring Senate voting back to the Constitution. However, the Government's legislation (Commonwealth Electoral Amendment) is breathtaking in its contempt for the Constitution.
2. The Government's proposed Senate voting directions on its ballot paper are dishonest.
3. The Government and Greens are not on the high moral ground when it comes to their proposed Senate voting changes.
4. ABC election commentator Anthony Green is wrong. His propaganda is pandering to the powerful.
Mr Malcolm Mackerras's opinion cannot be easily dismissed by the Liberal and Green members of this Senate, who have clearly demonstrated they are in a desperate rush to pass this legislation. The Greens and the Libs want us to ignore Mr Mackerras's expert opinion because he speaks the truth. I will remind the Senate of some of Mr Mackerras's expertise. This information is drawn from the internet, but it has been confirmed by other sources, including Mr Mackerras.
Mr Mackerras is now a visiting fellow in the Public Policy Institute, Australian Catholic University, Canberra Campus. Previously he was an associate professor in political science with the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra, in 1999. Mackerras's first published study of Australian politics was The Australian Senate 1965-1967: Who Held Control? He followed this with The 1968 Federal Redistribution, published in 1969. His first major work was Australian General Elections, published in 1972, in which he pioneered the concept of the two-party majority and the two-party swing and introduced 'the pendulum'—a table of federal electorates in order of two-party majority, which is now commonly known as the Mackerras pendulum. He followed this with a series of books before each federal election, such as Elections 1975, Elections 1980, The Mackerras 1990 Federal Election Guide and The Malcolm Mackerras 1993 Federal Election Guide.
It is clear that Mr Mackerras, an Order of Australia recipient, is an independent voice of reason and an electoral expert who should not be ignored. Indeed, in his early political days he was a member of the Liberal Party, so when he says that 'the government's proposed Senate voting directions on its ballot paper are dishonest'; that 'the government's legislation (Commonwealth Electoral Amendment) is breathtaking in its contempt for the constitution'; the government and Greens are not on the high moral ground when it comes to their proposed Senate voting changes'; that the 'The ABC election commentator Anthony Green is wrong', and that 'his propaganda is pandering to the powerful', it is time to pause and listen, and to show some respect. If we fail to listen carefully to independent, wise words then this government and their Greens partners will be responsible for leading us into an expensive constitutional political mess. This mess is avoidable, and it will undermine confidence in Australian business and weaken the job security of ordinary Australian workers.
What a sad day this is for over three million Australian voters when the Liberals, Nationals and Greens go into a room, lock the door and emerge with this constitutionally flawed, secret little deal which they will rush through this Senate. If they were genuine about true Senate reform they would have sat down with the majority of the political representatives of the Australian people and our electoral experts like Mr Mackerras and devised a consensus plan that would have been an improvement on the current system—not come up with a plan that will lead to more economic and political uncertainty and will become a lawyers-fest once it finds its way to the High Court five minutes after the Governor-General signs it into law.
Mr Mackerras reminded us that the Greens cannot occupy the high political moral ground and that they cannot be trusted. Tasmanians know just how reckless, harmful and untrustworthy the Greens have been, and how reckless and dangerous some of their policies are. To remind the Senate of the Greens' lack of judgement and policy failures, you will recall that in July last year I released figures obtained by the independent Parliamentary Library research and business owners, which showed that over the last decade the Greens' opposition to development in Tasmania has caused at least a loss of $5½ billion worth of business and 5½ thousand jobs. The Greens have strangled Tasmania's economy for 10 years. They are responsible for our state suffering the highest unemployment rate in Australia. How can you trust the Greens with the important and fundamental change to our democracy after a decade of mindless, unprincipled knee-jerk development objections totalling $5½ billion in Tasmania?
The Senate committee hearing I took part in last year was further proof that the Greens do not act in our state's best interests. They are coming after our half-a-billion-dollar-a-year salmon and trout industries and the thousands of direct and indirect jobs attached to Tasmania's aquaculture business. I have not even tried to calculate the financial and social cost of businesses which over the years watched the Greens chaos and found that investing in Tasmania was just too hard, so they left and took their money elsewhere. If those businesses were included in the research, the figures could easily rise to more than $10 million and 10,000 jobs that would have been lost to Tasmania over a decade, and I wonder why—through the Chair—Senator Abetz has an issue with doing deals with the Greens. He would know, being a Tasmanian. The party has done the deal with the Liberal Party to change our electoral laws and to game our electoral laws. They are directly responsible for Tasmania's youth unemployment rate, which is the highest in Australia, and for all the terrible social problems—the drugs, the crime, the suicides—that come with a dangerous, hopeless unemployment crisis.
I feel very sorry about the children of asylum seekers who are forced behind barbed wire fences, but at the same time I also feel sorry for the tens of thousands of Tasmanian children who have had productive, prosperous working futures stolen from them by poor judgement and extreme Green policies. The Tasmanian children who are victims of the Greens' political policies may not be behind barbed wire, but they are living on the streets or in housing commission homes with no hope of a good job in either mining, forestry, industry or heavy manufacturing for the future. Tasmanians know that the Greens have a long history of acting irresponsibly and recklessly. They even used taxpayers' money to travel overseas and sabotage our economy and kill real jobs in our forest industry, so it should not come as a surprise that they are acting irresponsibly and recklessly with regard to our democracy.
Apart from this legislation, in recent times the Greens have once again demonstrated why they cannot be trusted and that they have become extreme with their call to decriminalise ice. Coming from a doctor who has taken an oath to do no harm, his statement that we should decriminalise ice has absolutely stunned me. It demonstrates that his judgement is flawed and that he would say anything and do any deal, no matter what the damage to the state or national interest, to get more votes. Without going into all the statistics, from personal experience, I know how deadly and dangerous ice is. One hit can hook; one pill can kill. And zero tolerance, early intervention, involuntary detox, more rehab and the $300 million that you people have promised over there—if you want to pass it out, that would be great—is the only answer to the ice crisis and to tackling it head on.
I have no doubt that this legislation will be passed, and I am proud to be a part of the parliamentary fight against it. However, I am directing my energy into ensuring that the people of Tasmania who want to strengthen their independent voice in this Senate and get more for their state have good candidates to choose from.
While the JLN's No. 1 Senate candidate, Steve Martin, may not be a name recognised in all Australian households just yet, in Tasmania Steve is very well-known and has made a fine reputation as a popular, independent mayor and a respected community leader. Steve topped the polls in the 2009 local government elections, becoming a Devonport alderman. He was elected Devonport mayor in 2011 and was overwhelmingly re-elected as an alderman and as Devonport mayor in 2014.
Steve has mentored young Tasmanians for nearly 23 years, and has just recently celebrated 20 years of community work. Steve and his wife Susanne have also successfully owned and operated two small Tasmanian businesses. So Steve knows that if the Liberal federal and state governments do not take drastic measures to reduce the costs of travel and freight, both north and south across our state border—and treat Bass Strait as part of the National Highway—then our economy and prospects for job growth will always suffer.
Steve understands that I was able to use my Senate influence to force the federal government to increase the Tasmanian Freight Equalisation Scheme by an extra $200 million, and he wants to help me ensure that in the future that money directly lowers the cost of goods, freight and living for Tasmanian families and businesses.
For the past eight years Steve has led the effort to entice the Australian Masters Games to Tasmania and was successful in attracting the games for 2017. That will bring $12 million worth of economic benefit to the state of Tasmania.
Steve entered the political arena in 2003, lobbying for the retention of health services in the north-west, specifically at the Mersey Community Hospital. Together we will fight not only for a better public health service for Tasmania's north-west but for the whole of our state.
If the JLN holds the balance of power in the Senate, we will make it very difficult for the federal government, whether Liberal or Labor, to cut a billion dollars of funding over the next eight years from our public health system and to attack Medicare.
Like all good community leaders, Steve has also devoted a lot of his time to improving educational opportunities for all residents, not just in Devonport but on the north-west coast of Tasmania. For three years he has also been working very hard towards evolving the city of Devonport into a learning community, a place to live and a place to learn. He has said:
Life-long learning will assist us to further enhance our abilities and potential, so that we as a community, region and state can be sustainably resourced and flexible enough to attract and benefit from any and all opportunities that may present. This means jobs and a future.
We have far too many kids absent for far too many days from our schools. Their life potential is under threat. We need to understand why this is happening, where the kids actually are and to better resource our schools to improve and ensure attendance. Better equipping our kids with life tools at an early age is also exceedingly important. Our kids need to gain the ability to not only understand but also be able to cope with and make good decisions about any issue that may confront them.
The JLN also have Rob Waterman, who has spent 30 years in the private sector and the not-for-profit and government health and criminal justice sectors. Rob is currently the CEO of Rural Health Tasmania. If elected to the Senate, Rob would push for a stronger commitment to early intervention and preventative health funding. Rob's experience in the community services industry and in research shows that an early intervention and preventive approach is seven times less expensive than treatment. Over the long term, it reduces health spending and provides a stronger economy. Rob would also continue to fight to reduce unemployment, reduce addiction and domestic violence, and ensure education is more affordable and accessible in rural and regional Australia.
The Liberal government and the Greens think they are being smart by making a deal on this legislation, but it only shows how desperate they are to win this election. What we really have is a deal being done between the party that wants to decriminalise ice and the party that wants to increase the GST, because each thinks it will politically benefit from those changes.
This bill will only cost more for the taxpayer and create uncertainty for the community and business. The Liberals are deliberately picking industrial fights in the construction and maritime sectors. For the short term, they want to bring our economy to its knees, so that there will be a background of economic chaos and industrial unrest in the lead-up to the federal election in order to justify the inconvenience and expense of a double-D election on the Australian voter—every single one of them. The Liberal government will argue the crossbench has caused chaos and the change in laws and a double-D election are necessary to create order once again. When the history books are written, however, the facts will show that it was the Independent crossbench senators who protected the pensioners, the uni students, the farmers, the diggers, the unemployed, the single parents and the veterans from the Liberal/National horror budget of 2014, and guaranteed community consultation.
An absolute majority in the favour of Liberals will not bring order to the legislative process; it will bring back policies such as Work Choices, policies that benefit the big end of town rather than making decisions in the best interests of the nation. The government's argument of a rogue crossbench or a hostile Senate is severely exaggerated and does not hold up in the face of statistics that show the Senate has so far passed just over 73 per cent of the government's legislation. These changes to Senate voting and the threat of a double-D election is nothing but a distraction from the real issues.
My state is still in the midst of a public health crisis and an energy crisis due to the mismanagement of collective state governments. King Island is faced with shipping issues, youth unemployment rates are sky high, jobs are hard to find in Tasmania and the economy is so sluggish that businesses are shedding jobs. That is the truth that is going on in Tasmania. But in parliament this week, the last sitting week, the only thing the Senate is debating seems to be the Senate voting reforms. If the Prime Minister does indeed call a double dissolution on 11 May then that is five sitting weeks that are sidelined for an election campaign. That is five weeks where the government is not performing its function of legislating to move the nation forward.
In the time I have been a Tasmanian senator, I have not had one person come into my office and ask for a change to the Senate voting system. And I have had thousands and thousands of emails to my office and not one Australian has come to me and told me of their concerns about voting reform in this country. My constituents want positive changes and improvements to our health, education, social services, veterans' affairs and military pay systems.
This proposed change has not been driven by the people; it is driven by the self-interest that is motivating the Liberals and the Greens. We should be discussing the government's plan to cut $650 million from Medicare bulk-billing. That is the issue which everyone who contacts my office is concerned with today; or the threat of foreign investment, which is driving up the cost of living for Australians and threatening Australian jobs. What about the threat of corruption on our society within government departmental ranks, business, unions and finance sectors? These are issues worthy of our time and debate. Nevertheless, the double-D has been set in motion by a Greens party eager for a ministry. The deal has been settled and we can be sure that they will be preferencing each other in Tasmania. There is no doubt about that.
I rise to make my contribution to this debate on the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016 about Senate voting reform. It is worth noting that a fair bit has been said so far in this debate by some, but I think that a lot more information needs to be sought and more contributions need to be made in this space.
I note that we have a very interesting Senate. We have a Senate with a diverse range of parties and a diverse range of views. I am not a historian of the Senate but I would find it hard to believe there have been many Senates with as diverse a range of views as we have with the myriad parties we have today. I note that by bringing together people from different parties and with different views we are able to share views and evolve as a group. Yesterday morning, Senator Day, who is in the chamber, was at the doors of parliament holding a press conference with other crossbench senators. Senator Day said: 'As an individual I am a nobody.' I do not believe he is a nobody but he was making the point that as an individual he is a nobody but, when they all come together, they are a powerful voice. I thought: if having this debate about Senate voting reform can show Senator Day the bright light of collectivism and the importance of collectivism, then perhaps it has achieved one thing. To hear Senator Day talk about collectivism in a way that would make Senator Rhiannon proud was a sight to behold.
There are very different views in this place and many different political views have been expressed. The reality is this: my views and those of a senator like Senator Day are polar opposites on many contentious issues. On the basics, we all love this nation. We all love Australia, we all want a better Australia, and we fundamentally share core values about what it means to be Australian and what we want to achieve. But as to how that is achieved, there are different views. Someone like Senator Day will come at it from a much more conservative framework than I will. And that is fine. That is healthy. That is a good part of this debate. The reality is that a Senate that is made up of just a few major parties results in a situation where a diversity of views can be lost.
Senator Leyonhjelm is an out-and-out libertarian, and he has come to this place and expressed those views. I did not believe that I shared many of those views but, in working with him on the 'nanny state' inquiry and seeing some of the information he presented, he has convinced me that there are many instances where perhaps regulation it not always the answer. We have Senator Lambie, with her life experience and her passion and drive. Amongst the many issues she talks about are veterans issues and issues to do with Tasmania. Again, we are better off as a Senate for having this diversity of views.
What has actually happened—let us not pussyfoot around this—is that we have a government that is unhappy with the make-up of the Senate and unhappy with what they feel was obstructionist action. There are two points to make on that. Firstly, it was not obstructionist. The data shows it was not. Secondly, some people simply do not agree with your legislation, but perhaps if you had better legislation you would not have the same electoral problems and problems passing it through the Senate. It is not as if the Senate is rejecting proposals that are immensely popular out there in the community. Hundred thousand dollar degrees are not wanted by our community. The reforms that were being pushed, especially in the 2014 budget around healthcare costs, were not causes that were supported by the community.
We have a government that has a Senate that they do not agree with, that they do not support, and they have retrofitted an electoral process to get a desired outcome. Let us not kid ourselves. The most likely outcome at the end of this will be a Senate that will have conservatives represented by the Liberal-National Party and there will be the Labor Party, the Greens and perhaps very occasionally another senator representing a minor party. That is not, I believe, a good outcome. The reality is that minor party senators tend to be elected on smaller votes when they are first elected, and then they are given an opportunity to prove themselves. If they are able to prove themselves, they are able to use that profile to build on that vote. To phrase it a different way, it really is a sink-or-swim kind of situation. What we have here is a model that has been designed to defeat that.
We see the desperation of the government to get this legislation passed. Yesterday we had a situation where Senator Muir—another senator who comes from very different experiences into this place—tried to move to consider the government's own ABCC legislation. This was the government's own bill. The government voted that down and it was not even brought on. Then Senator Leyonhjelm tried to move to bring on the Greens' own same-sex marriage bill. I will be corrected if I am wrong, but I believe that was in the name of Senator Hanson-Young. That was voted down by the Greens. Finally, Senator Lazarus tried to bring on the coal seam gas landowner rights amendment, which I believe was also in the name of the Greens. That was voted down.
The government has a view that says that this electoral reform is such a priority, it is a greater priority than actually having a debate about ABCC—which the government itself has prioritised. The government has been out there saying, 'The next election, this election, ABCC, this, that'. You have got government ministers walking the halls of level 2, the press gallery, openly briefing that there will be a double-D election on 2 July or maybe even the ninth, and the issue of the election is going to be the ABCC legislation. Yet they are afraid. They refuse to bring it here. They vote against bringing it here.
There is a whole separate question—and there will be others who will comment on this—about those actions yesterday in relation to the time management motion that led to this bill being debated today and what impact they will have on a potential trigger for a double-D election. I think there is a situation being created here where it is highly likely a lot of this will end up being contested in the High Court, if the government goes down the path it has been openly saying to journalists it intends to go down. We will wait to see. Fortunately, with this government, one thing we can count on is that what it says it is going to do and what it does tend to be very different from time to time, as I am sure you are aware, Mr Acting Deputy President Bernardi.
But a diverse Senate, a different Senate, a Senate with minority views, a Senate with minority senators, is a better place, a better chamber. The political logic behind the government's actions is clear. The government want to remove what they see as a pesky and unfriendly backbench—sorry; crossbench. They certainly want to remove their backbench, but that is a matter for another day! They want to remove the crossbench and they have politically engineered a system that allows them to do it.
On top of that, the behaviour of the Greens in all of this has really been quite appalling. I note the leader of the Greens party, Senator Richard Di Natale, had a few words to say yesterday about me. I will certainly be taking the opportunity to respond in kind as we go through this morning, and I think there will be plenty of opportunity over the next couple of days. But this is a fallacy of an argument, a fallacy of a point. This is a political fix clouded in the rhetoric of democracy and choice. That is not what this is about. This is about a desperate Greens political party and political leader trying to solidify their own political position.
Let us be clear what the demographers, mathematicians, sociologists and others will say is the outcome of this. In the long term it will mean that a party with a vote like the Greens will be getting will solidify their electoral position. In the short term it will probably mean, based on previous results—again, if you are going to apply previous results—that certainly one of the Greens' South Australian senators, perhaps one of their Western Australian senators and perhaps one of the Victorian senators will not be re-elected. That is a matter for them. But the concern here is this—
Senator Bilyk interjecting—
It is a harsh way to be removing your own senators, but politics is a tough business. There is a brutality in it. But the idea that says that a party that really benefited from a system that allowed them to grow, that allowed them to attract party support and like-minded party support and consolidate a further Left vote to be able to become a major party would then try and shut the door behind them and stop other political parties from being able to experience that kind of growth and that kind of opportunity I think is appalling. There is an argument that says, 'These crossbench senators were all elected on a very, very small vote, so that makes them unrepresentative.' Let us be clear. There is a quarter of the population that did not vote for one of the larger political parties and voted for smaller parties, and they are being represented in the Senate. There is a group of people who have a broad position which is, 'None of the major parties, thanks,' and that vote is represented by the diversity of the different parties that end up being elected in this place.
The past week has been an incredibly telling one, as we have seen where this relationship between the Greens and the government is really heading. Let us not kid ourselves. The leader of the Greens party, Senator Di Natale, has made a conscious decision that he wants to take the Greens political party to the right. We have seen a kind of dance that has gone on between the government and the Greens over the past two months. Mr Acting Deputy President Bernardi, I believe you may be familiar with the slippery-slope argument, which other people have used in this chamber before—that you perhaps start off with voting together on tax transparency laws and, before you know it, you are voting together on Senate voting reform, and who knows where these kinds of situations end up? When you head down that slippery slope, Mr Acting Deputy President Bernardi, you can end up anywhere, as I am sure you are well aware. And that is what worries me. This is a slippery slope. If it keeps going, politics in this country is going to keep getting dragged down to the right.
Mr Acting Deputy President, it is understandable that Senator Back would be surprised that I would be wrong. I was surprised as well. I thought this whole kind of mating ritual dance that was going on between the Liberals and the Greens was going to end up with the Liberal Party been dragged to the left. I thought we were going to stand up in this chamber one day and Senator Abetz was going to walk in wearing his hemp suit and thongs and start singing Kumbaya, and Senator Bernardi and other more conservative senators in this place were going to come in tieless, wearing their T-shirts and being all right. Instead, what we have is the leader of the Greens political party doing fashion shoots, looking like the black Wiggle, in GQ magazine. Senator Di Natale was wearing male Louboutins. I thought I knew a few things about fashion. Clearly, I did not. I did not know there were male Louboutins. I did not know that was a thing.
Senator Xenophon interjecting—
Senator Xenophon is pointing out his Target suit. Senator Xenophon will not wear a suit over $200, which is very different to Senator Di Natale. I believe the Star Trek skivvy that Senator Di Natale chose to wear for his photo shoot cost $269. How do I know this? Because the shoot was designed to sell designer clothes. All the clothes he was wearing had their little price tags attached, because it was a commercial shoot to flog off expensive clothing, the type of clothing that the people we believe we should be here to represent cannot necessarily afford a lot of the time.
That is why we are passionate about these issues. You talk about the one per cent. The one per cent are the people who are wearing $5,000 outfits, doing fashion shoots. The one per cent are the people who can afford the kind of clothing that Senator Di Natale is now modelling for free. And then he comes to this chamber and makes this argument about progressive politics, about progressive values, about what an amazing left-wing warrior he is. There is nothing more bourgeois than trying to pretend you are bourgeois to fit in. There is nothing more bourgeois than that.
I understand Senator Back's shock and horror.
Senator Back interjecting—
I would not go that far, Senator Back. This is a rort. This is a fix. This is a political process being established by a government that was unhappy with the crossbench. The fact that the Greens political party has gone along with it, frankly, I think is disappointing. I think there is a desperate attempt by the Greens party to drag themselves to the right. I think they are giving up left-wing values, I think they are giving up left-wing principles and I think they are abandoning the left of politics. People can do what they want to do. Let us not kid ourselves. I speak from experience here. You have to draw the line somewhere. This is coming from a bloke who did a re-enactment of a mobile phone on the ABC. When I say, 'Are you crazy for doing a GQ fashion shoot, dressed up as the cat burglar and pretend you support progressive values and politics?' Then you know you have gone too far.
When you talk about left-wing values and principles and the working poor and you dress in the type of clothing to sell that clothing—$5½ thousand worth of clothes and a fashion shoot—to show off, to look good, to try and be impressive, to dress up like the cat burglar of Australian politics, when you are prepared to do that, when that is the path that you want to go down, there is a word for that; it is 'ego'. And when you are prepared to sell out progressive values, to sell out progressive senators and to sell what is a Senate that has stood up for some of the poorest, low-paid, hardest-working Australians simply to be able to fit in and get that tick on the back, get that acceptance by that group of fashion connoisseurs then you are not a party of principle and you are not a party of values. What you are is a sell-out, and that is what they have become. This whole process has been about selling out on values and principles and it is about trying to get a short-term political outcome and retrofitting an entire electoral model around it.
I want a diverse Senate. I believe in a diverse Senate. I believe in a different set of views. I think this Senate has been strengthened by the fact that there are so many different senators with incredibly different views, different backgrounds, different political perspectives and different political philosophies working together and looking at legislation. I think the fact that this Senate has genuine conservatives in it like Senator Day or genuine libertarians or socially conservative yet economic liberal people such as Senator Madigan is a better place as a result. What I worry in fear is that, in the search of short-term fix, the government is behaving in a way for its own political self-interests. I am not surprised by that to be honest. I would have expected them to do so. I am surprised that the Greens—
Senator Whish-Wilson interjecting—
Senator Whish-Wilson does not like it when some of us criticise the Greens political party and he is entitled to defend his political party. Senator Whish-Wilson is an incredibly passionate advocate for issues like banking and financial reform. I have had an incredible opportunity to work with Senator Whish-Wilson. I hope Senator Whish-Wilson is not No. 2 on the ticket in the double-dissolution election that is coming, because I would like to see him return here. We have disagreed on things. Frankly, I wish he was tough on some of these issues than he has been in the past. I wish he stood firm. I wish you were a little bit stronger on these issues. If you could stand with me, strong on these issues, it would be a better Senate. (Time expired)
Well, 'shame,' says Senator Dastyari, but I think it is important that we talk about the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016 and about the importance that it has to our democratic system. When all is said and done, at the very core of this bill for Senate voting reform is a principle of democratic will, of equity and of genuinely giving the power back to the people as to how senators are elected, because the current Senate voting system is broken and it needs to be repaired. It needs to be repaired in a way that encourages choice other than for the major parties or, for that matter, significant minor parties. It needs to be repaired so that voters are encouraged to consider alternatives in microparties and Independents, and I believe this bill will do that. Above all, it needs to be repaired to rid Australian democracy of the preference whispering, the backroom deals amongst the party apparatchiks of the major, minor and microparties alike, deals that lead to outcomes where many voters feel particularly cheated that their choice and their will has been subverted. For instance, how many Australian Labor Party voters in the 2013 federal election in South Australia, voting for the ALP Senate team, realised that their vote would end up electing Senator Bob Day from Family First?
'All of them,' says Senator Day. Senator Day's remarks are quite absurd. I think that maybe we should go halves, Senator Day, on a poll of voters who voted for the Labor Party and ask how many of them thought that they would be electing Senator Day to the Senate.
This is not a criticism of Senator Day or of his party. It is not a criticism of Senator Day himself, who has an excellent reputation as a businessman—a homebuilder—in South Australia. I admire him for his great success in the community; his award from the Australia Day Council was well deserved. But I do make this reflection: Family First policies have very, very little in common with the Australian Labor Party. In fact, many commentators would say that Family First policies are to the right of those of the Liberal Party. That is not a criticism. And yet, Labor backroom operatives preferred seeing Family First in the Senate ahead of candidates from the political centre. Go figure.
Before I discuss the history of the substantive provisions of this bill I will make this reflection: the Senate must unequivocally be a strong, robust house of review. We exist to keep the executive arm of government in check and balance or, as Don Chipp put it best, 'To keep the bastards honest, whomever those bastards may be'. The Senate has been established under our Constitution to guard against abuses of executive power. I believe it exists to ensure that taxpayer funds are not wasted and are, in fact, spent wisely, and to safeguard individuals and sections of the community in this great country of ours who may be particularly vulnerable.
We saw what happened when the coalition had a majority in the Senate from 2004 to 2007: they not only exceeded their mandate they failed Australians who put their trust in them by going too far—by bringing in unfair and unjustified industrial relations laws. In that Howard government era from 2004 to 2007, they used their numbers to fetter the Senate's role as a genuine house of review—a house of review that has an obligation to keep governments to account, not only to their promises but also the promises those in opposition and the crossbench make to those who supported them.
Sometimes the Senate has an obligation to save a government from itself—from its hubris, from blind ideology and from ill-considered ideas that could damage the lives of millions of Australians. The radical higher education reforms ambushed on Australians in the 2014 budget are but one of many examples of this in recent times, as was the cruel and destructive plan to force young people to wait six months for unemployment benefits. This would have had the consequence of many young people becoming homeless and destitute, spiralling into a cycle of poverty and despair that would have been very difficult for them to get out of.
The rejection of those measures are just two of many examples of the Senate doing its job. That is why, as heated as this debate has been and, no doubt, will be in the coming days, I welcome it, because it puts a focus on the Senate as a safeguard for our democracy—a safeguard against abuses of power. That is why I hope and urge Australians—should they vote for the Liberals, or the Nationals, or the LNP or the ALP in the lower house—to vote differently in the Senate; to consider a microparty, a minor party or an Independent. In a sense, the voting reform that has been proposed here requires those two-thirds or more of voters who vote for major parties in the lower house to consider an alternative in the six choices they are required to make above the line in the Senate. And I should correct that: it is about two thirds—about 75 per cent—who vote for the major parties in the lower house and somewhat less in the upper house.
What this bill does is to require voters to consider an alternative—six choices. There is an additional safeguard in that in a half-Senate election a minimum of 12 choices below the line will have that effect as well and also, for that matter, in a double dissolution, because having 12 choices—rather than having to number all the boxes below the line—would have meant numbering over 100 at the last Senate election for voters in New South Wales. I expect that the closest precedent of voting systems in Australia to what is being proposed here is the ACT voting system, where voters have a choice of at least five above the line or below-the-line voting. Most voters—over 75 per cent—go above the line and comply with the instructions.
This bill is a substantial improvement on the bill recommended by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters after the 2013 election. Rather than the original recommendations of having voters just mark at least one above the line, it requires at least six choices above the line. It will mean diversity in this place, but diversity arising out of the will of the voters—not the machinations of backroom deals, party operatives and preference whisperers. And I believe that the sound and fury surrounding these reforms is unambiguously a good thing in highlighting the importance of the Senate in keeping the government of the day to account. It is the importance of keeping the government of the day from not even going close to controlling the Senate. Given that the election is likely to be tighter than many thought it would be six months ago, the best way to ensure that is to vote for a minor party, a microparty or an Independent in the Senate.
I think it is worth reflecting on the history of Senate voting reform and the history of Senate voting systems. From 1949 until 1983 the Senate ballot paper required voters to fill in consecutive numbers for every box next to every candidate. That way at each Senate election five—and, from 1984, six—senators were elected from every state under a proportional representation system. The quota for a Senate seat in a half Senate election is 14.3 per cent and can comprise primary votes and preference flows. The proportional representation system avoided the tyranny of the majority, which had a winner-take-almost-all effect. For instance, Mr Acting Deputy President, you are probably well aware that from 1946 to 1949 there were only three opposition senators—the leader, the deputy leader and a whip—facing 33 government senators. With apologies to Paul Keating, that set-up was truly 'an unrepresentative swill'.
While the candidates representing a political party identified as such, optional preferential voting for a limited number of candidates is not allowed. With more and more parties and candidates standing for the Senate, the informal vote crept up to 9.9 per cent in the 1983 election. In fact, it was an 11.1 per cent informal vote in New South Wales—that is almost the equivalent of a full Senate quota. The newly-elected Hawke government tackled Senate voting reform and implemented the system we have today. I note that it was controversial at the time, but the opposition came on board and accepted that it was right at the time.
Since 1984 voters can simply place a 'one' above the line for a political party or group representative or, alternatively, undertake the onerous task of numbering every box below the line. With 85.7 per cent of voters choosing the above-the-line option, the 1984 election saw the percentage of Senate informal votes plummet to 4.3 per cent. In 2013 the informal vote was down to three per cent, with 96.5 per cent voting above the line. But this drop in the informal vote has come at a price, arguably, to the democratic will of voters. Political parties were given the power to lodge group-voting tickets which direct voter preferences at their whim. Despite the fact that such group-voting tickets need to be displayed at polling booths and published online, I suggest that almost all voters have no idea where their above-the-line vote could end up.
With due respect to Senator Day, I really believe that very few voters know where their votes end up in terms of the preference flows and the way that they can cascade depending on who gets what in terms of those initial primary votes. That is something that the backroom operators of political parties, and the so-called preference whisperers, have been banking on for years, and more so in recent elections. Many pollies like referring to voters as 'punters', which I find objectionable, and the Senate voting system has shown what a lottery it has become. Most Greens voters would be bemused that the party of coalminer Clive Palmer helped get the Greens in South Australia elected in 2013. It is not a criticism; it is an observation, and I made the observation about Senator Day. Again to Senator Day, this is not a criticism of him but a reflection on the system.
At this stage, I want to reflect on the former Special Minister of State and Labor Party statesman Gary Gray, the member for Brand, who had this to say in his speech to the House of Representatives on 24 February 2016. I will quote, I think fairly, from parts of his speech. He says:
… in New South Wales these ballot papers have become so big, so complex and so cluttered that in fact we need a magnifying lens to see and to read the names of candidates put forward for election. It is self-evidently the case that our parliament needs to act on electoral reform.
Mr Gray goes on to say:
This bill amends the current Electoral Act, which was first introduced over 30 years ago to reduce informal voting. Unfortunately, that system of ticket voting is now being manipulated and has begun to create unintended outcomes. The report of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters makes this clear.
He goes on to say:
In the last few years, at both state and federal level, pop-up parties designed to attract small numbers of primary votes have manipulated the system through preference harvesting and vote transfers to produce end results that do not reflect the wishes of voters.
I emphasise that: that do not reflect the wishes of voters. Mr Gray goes on to say:
This is not to cast aspersions on the integrity or capacity of the current independent and minor party senators. While I may not always agree with their positions, it is clear that they are each engaging diligently in the process of policy, discussion and debate, and each of them has been properly elected under the current rules.
But Mr Gray says, and I wholeheartedly agree with him:
My view is that the current rules do need to be changed …
He acknowledges that he lost the debate within the Labor Party, which takes its current position. He does refer to this:
If the 2013 Western Australian Senate result had been upheld, the Sports Party, on 2,974 votes, would have defeated Labor Senator Louise Pratt on 160,141 votes. Fortunately, there is a clear—and the joint standing committee's view was unanimous—way out of the current dysfunctional mess.
He refers to the voting reforms of the optional preferential system above and below the line. Mr Gray makes this point about the misinformation about this bill—misinformation that his own party and others have been propagating. He says this:
There have been many pieces of misinformation spread about the bill that is currently being debated. Some have said that this bill will deliver the coalition a 38- or 39-member controlling majority in the Senate. I will also table another document, which is modelling carried out by the Parliamentary Library on this bill. It conclusively demonstrates the result under this bill.
And that is not what the misinformation that has been put out there says. It has been debunked. He also said in relation to that modelling:
None of us can predict the outcome of future elections, but this modelling is based on the current bill and was carried out by the Parliamentary Library. We have been told that this bill will increase informality. Informality is a scourge and the better the lower threshold for formality that is in fact enshrined in this bill is a good measure. It allows in the below-the-line voting a better savings provision; and above the line, it also allows a better savings provision.
We have actually seen that improve since that time, Mr Acting Deputy President Bernardi—it is good to see that you are in the chair.
Mr Gray, in his speech to the parliament, says:
We are told that three million-plus voters will be disenfranchised by this bill. We are told that their votes will be wasted or voided. I do not agree with that any more than I would think that a person who voted Liberal in the seat of Brand had wasted their vote. I wish they had voted Labor but, because they voted Liberal and voted for a losing candidate, they did not waste their vote. Their vote was not voided; their vote was not wasted.
Mr Gray reflects quite sadly that he lost the argument in his party room on Senate reform and that the ALP would be opposing them. I think we should heed the sensible, measured and fair remarks of Mr Gray.
I want to deal with the issue of the exhaustion of preferences, and it is referred to in the joint standing committee's Advisory report on the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016. I refer to paragraph 3.66 of that report, which I want to put in the Hansard. It refers to Adjunct Professor Antony Green. The report says:
Professor Green noted in his submission, and in verbal evidence to the Committee, that in New South Wales Legislative Council elections, more than 80 per cent of ballot papers consist of only a single '1' which creates a very high rate of exhausted preferences. While the voting system advises voters to only vote '1' above the line, he highlighted the fact that:
With a low quota (4.55 per cent) and 21 members to elect, the high exhaustion rates has not significantly distorted the NSW system. Even with the final few seats filled by candidates below the quota, the seats won by party have generally been proportional to the percentage votes by party.
Applied to the higher Senate quota, some contests would occasionally be decided by electing a candidate well short of the set quota.
The requirement to number at least six preferences above the line should mean the exhaustion rate at Federal elections will be lower than for NSW Legislative Council elections.
Professor Green said this in his submission to the committee, which brings me to an issue which I think Senator Day has been quite exercised of, including in a letter to the Mount Barker Couriera great publication which anyone who lives in the Adelaide Hills and beyond should subscribe to and should read.
Senator Day has accused me of hypocrisy in the way that I was not voted into the South Australian Legislative Council back in 1997. It seems like yesterday back in 1997 when I ran on a No Pokies ticket and it will be on my tombstone that that is still the core issue in my heart: if a government gets it wrong on poker machines, what else is it getting wrong for the people who have been damaged by predatory gambling?
When I was first elected to the South Australian Legislative Council I did so with just on 2.9 per cent of the statewide vote. A full quota for the legislative council in South Australia is 8.33 per cent. I therefore achieved just over a third of the quota—more than any other independent or microparty running at that election. I was actually 10th out of the 11 candidates elected. Carmel Zollo, a very fine person, was the No. 11 person elected for the Australian Labor Party. I obtained preferences not by preference whispering or backroom deals but largely because no-one who preferenced me actually thought I would get in. I am sure that some of the major, minor and microparties felt sorry for me that I was running.
It is important to note that the proposed system that I am suggesting here today, of 1 to 6 above the line, would have meant that I would almost certainly have got elected back in that election, because of the primary vote that I had. That is the difference and that is where I take issue respectfully with Senator Day in respect of this. If I had not got elected back in 1997, guess what? I would have accepted the decision, dusted myself off and kept campaigning on No Pokies issues and other community issues. I would have sought the support of the people at the next election working harder, getting my message across and building up more grassroots community support. After all, isn't that what true democracy is about?
If we can go to some of the provisions of this particular bill, there are savings provisions. The optional preferential voting below the line is important, and I commend the Greens and the government for working on this to ensure that we had that safeguard. That is a much fairer system.
Ultimately—and I go back to where I began—this bill at its very core is that the principle of democratic will, of fairness, of genuinely giving power back to the people as to how senators are elected is reformed. This is what this bill will do. The current system is broken. We need to reform it and we will now have an opportunity with an extensive non-gagged committee stage to exhaustively discuss all these issues, should this bill pass through the second reading stage.
I welcome the committee stages of this bill. I welcome a debate on the amendments and the substance of this bill and I hope we do not have to discuss who is on the cover of Gentlemen's Quarterly or not—I do not think that is very relevant with all respect to Senator Dastyari. I want diversity in the Senate, but that diversity should occur through the will of the people, not through the backroom operators and preference whisperers.
Mr Deputy President, as you know, the pivotal guiding and overwhelming document which dictates everything that we do in this parliament is the Australian Constitution. I quote from clause 7, dealing with the Senate:
The Senate shall be composed of senators for each State, directly chosen by the people of the State, voting, until the parliament otherwise provides, as one electorate.
This is absolutely fundamental and at the centre of the issue we are debating today—the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016. Section 7 says—and it demands—that senators be chosen directly by the people.
So Senate reform is about upholding the integrity of the Constitution and, if anybody need be in any doubt as to the fact that the integrity of this Constitution has been trashed, you need only have a look at the voting in Victoria in 2013 of the Senate in which one candidate received 0.51 per cent of the votes being 17,122 and is here today—and I must say makes a very, very worthwhile contribution. However, my point is that another candidate received 389,745 votes, being 11½ per cent of that particular vote, and that person missed out.
If anyone can convince me that we have a system at the moment that upholds the principles of the Senate and the Constitution in terms of integrity, then they will have a lot of effort convincing me. There were in fact 3,499,438 people who registered to vote in Victoria and, if you take away the 17,122, there would be 3,482,316 wondering where their vote went. That is why we are here today.
It is the case, as we know, that it is a fundamental principle of voting systems that a voter intends to vote for the candidate or the party with whom their final vote rests. Unfortunately, because of a capacity to manipulate the system as we now have it—as indeed the Hon. Gary Gray said in his contribution—the process now fails that test. The statistics I just quoted to you, I believe, are absolutely relevant.
What happens now for those who do not understand? Under the current system, we are only allowed to number one box when voting above the line—and 97 per cent of all Australians vote above the line; only three per cent go through the agony of trying to actually allocate below the line. But, of course, once we have put our No. 1 above the line currently, we then lose control of the allocation of our preferences. This is all done opaquely behind closed doors and you, the voter, have got no idea at all where your second or subsequent preferences go. Under the reforms, this will change. This group-voting ticket arrangement, according to deals that are negotiated, will go and so it should.
Because we have had the situation—and we have it now where it has resulted in some of the people being here—where a plethora of new single-issue and front parties, some with the same membership and office bearers as existing parties often lodging three different group-voting tickets, have actually manipulated the system. It has got to stop. It has got to be changed.
I have heard in this place the nonsense about three million votes being lost. If you take that to its logical conclusion, if you voted for a person in the lower house or you voted for a party in the lower house that was unsuccessful, the logical extension says that your vote was wasted. It was not wasted. You had the opportunity under our electoral system to indicate the person and the party for whom you wished to vote, and anybody who says to you that that was a voided or wasted exercise does not understand parliamentary democracy. Your vote was highly valued.
The electoral reform committee, on which I sat, following the 2013 election and then the rerun of the Senate in 2014 had three very, very fine Labor Party statesmen as members of that committee: the then senator the Hon. John Faulkner, who I believe was the father of the Senate at that time; Mr Alan Griffin, from the other place; and the Hon. Gary Gray, the member for Brand, from my home state of Western Australia. There could not be three people with more knowledge of the parliamentary democratic system of this country than those three, and I regarded it as a pleasure to serve on that committee with them.
The point I want to make is that they joined other committee members, of which I was one—I recall Senator Rhiannon and Senator Macdonald—and we were unanimous in the recommendations that that committee, under the chairmanship of the now Speaker, Tony Smith, came forward to the parliament to advise. The basis of that report and its recommendations have formed the principal elements of the legislation we are debating today. But why then do we have our political opponents on the other side opposing what was a unanimous report and recommendations?
I say to the young people above me in the gallery that one day they might end up interested in the horseracing industry, as indeed I am and which I have come from. There is an old saying in horseracing: 'If there's a horse called Self-Interest running, for heaven's sake make sure you back it, because you know it's trying.' If you have a look at the race book, and if you see under the ownership the name W Shorten, and if you see as the trainer P Wong and as the jockey D Cameron, for heaven's sake get the chequebook out, because, as you can see in this case, that particular party has totally trashed the recommendations of a unanimous report to the parliament and of three very senior people. I have not heard any criticism of those three. As quoted by Senator Xenophon in his contribution a few moments ago, some of the points made by the Hon. Gary Gray are absolutely prescient about this debate. I just felt very, very sorry to hear that man in his final words in his contribution on 24 February have to say, 'The Labor Party will be opposing this bill.' It is fundamental that this be passed.
For those who do not understand, how does it change? It changes in this way. Instead of just putting a 1 vote above the line, you now have the option, not the obligation, of putting 1 and 2, or 1 and 2 and 3 or 2, 3, 4 and 5, up to 6, so that you—not some gamer in the back room, not some vote whisperer, but you, the voter, and you in the gallery when you become voters; through you, Deputy President—will control your preferences so that you know where your vote goes. And you will not be one of those 3,482,316 people in Victoria who thought that they were voting for somebody else and saw a 0.15 per cent. Equally, it will be the option, as I understand it, that below the line a person will be able to indicate only the number of preferences that they want. That is to be debated in this place.
There is one other point which I think is very valid: the recommendation that the option be there to place the logo of the party against its name. We know that there are many people not of English-speaking background; we know that there are many people in our community eligible to vote, fine Australian citizens, who are illiterate; and we know from the experience of other democratic countries that the use of a logo or the use of different colours is valuable in allowing those people to indicate through the Electoral Commission where they want their vote to go. What is the outcome going to be? I do not know. I do not know what it is going to be; neither does anyone else. We might end up with two Greens from each state. We might end up with three Xenophons. I do not know where we are going to end up.
But what I can say to you is that the system at the moment is broken. The system is being abused. This is the essence of our democracy. At the moment, that requirement under section 7 of the Constitution that 'the Senate shall be composed of senators for each state, directly chosen by the people of the state' is being abused. It needs to be changed. It is very disappointing for me to see the political opportunism of our opponents simply thinking that they can wedge a scenario, when they were part of a unanimous report with recommendations from three of their most senior and most experienced and long-term statesmen. It is absolutely beyond me. I recommend this amendment bill to the Senate.
I rise to make a contribution on the debate on the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016. In doing so, I will record my opposition to the contents of the bill, to the intent of the legislation and to the manner in which the parliamentary processes have been intentionally curtailed to allow it to be rushed through the parliament. I know that my Labor colleagues and I would welcome the opportunity for this parliament and for the broader Australian community to engage in a sincere debate about how we might work together to improve our democracy. It is regrettable that the cause of genuine electoral reform will be tarnished by this bill, which is the unfortunate and inevitable outcome of this government's desire to pursue this course of action, motivated as it is by naked political self-interest.
I believe we ought to be having a debate in this parliament about how we can invigorate our democracy in the 21st century and how we might modernise our democratic processes to better reflect and address the concerns of ordinary Australians. What new technologies are available to us and what opportunities do they offer to improve transparency and promote the integrity of our political institutions? What lessons can be learned from successes and failures in comparable democracies? What can be done to address the known issues of political disenfranchisement in Australia, such as the fact that hundreds of thousands of young people remain off the electoral roll? How might we consider these challenges and opportunities in totality and find ways to address them?
I do not set these challenges before the Senate from a position of misguided idealism. I do so because Australia, and indeed this federal parliament, has a long and proud history of acting as an incubator for genuinely innovative and democratic electoral reforms that have then be taken up by the rest of the world. It was the Australian colonies in the period before Federation that led the world in abandoning restrictive electoral franchises based on property ownership, and in doing so extended the right to vote to all adult males. We were at the leading edge of jurisdictions around the world in extending the vote to women, and in doing so we changed the very nature of what was understood by democratic participation. The secret ballot, a near universal feature in modern democracies, was so entrenched in Australia by the time of Federation that it was in operation for the election of our first federal parliament in 1901. Its merits were so self-evident it was gradually adopted throughout the world, where it was known as the 'Australian ballot'.
And Labor has a long history of supporting and working cooperatively to maximise the franchise while maintaining the integrity of the system. This includes the longstanding reform proposals we have pursued in this and earlier parliaments to build on these achievements and to enhance the transparency and accountability of our political parties and institutions. We are offering them as amendments to this bill and they include: reducing the donations disclosure threshold from $13,000 to $1,000 and removing CPI indexation; banning foreign political donations; banning anonymous donations above $50 to registered political parties; linking public funding to legitimate political expenditure to discourage candidates running to profit from public coffers; and limiting 'donation splitting' that evades disclosure requirements.
The desire to see these proposals enacted is shared by many senators in this place, including some of those across the aisle—and rightfully so; they are genuine reforms. The reason I make note of these proposals, however, is to highlight their conspicuous absence in the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016, and that of any other attempt at substantive reform.
The bill currently being debated in this chamber does not represent mature and thoughtful electoral reform in the vein of our earlier democratic traditions. It has been hurriedly drafted and now will be hurriedly amended. It is exceedingly narrow in its scope. Despite containing the most far-reaching and consequential changes to our voting system in thirty years, it is being rammed through this parliament without due scrutiny. It does not attempt to view our democracy in a holistic fashion or to improve it guided by democratic ideals. Instead, it is by design intended to provide a crude political advantage for its proponents.
The calculated intent of the government and its allies of convenience in presenting this bill at this time and in this manner is to neuter the parliament's ability to scrutinise; the intent is to restrict the debate to the absolute minimum of what is procedurally required and to cynically use this legislation to clear the decks of dissent in this place at their earliest possible convenience. And I fear 'debate' may well be too generous a term to use, because in reality this chamber is merely being afforded the courtesy of several hours to note this bill's passage.
The backroom deal between the government and the Greens has already been done for reasons of self-interested political advantage and expediency, and it is being executed with a total disregard for good law-making and respect for parliamentary process. In 1996 Paul Keating said, 'When you change the government, you change the country.' With apologies to former Prime Minister Keating, the applicable dictum in this instance may well be, 'When you change the voting system, you change the country.' Any reforms of the magnitude being proposed within this bill should receive the most exhaustive consideration by the parliament and our broader civil society.
And, with that in mind, it is worth turning to the conduct of the government and the manner in which it has attempted to expedite this bill's passage through the parliament. It deserves to be exposed for what it is; an abuse of process with the deliberate intent to deny proper scrutiny.
This bill was introduced in the House of Representatives on Monday, the 22nd of February, with a suspension of standing orders invoked almost immediately, to facilitate its unrestrained passage through that chamber. Just two days later, on Wednesday, the 24th of February, the government was forced to put forward six amendments to its own legislation. Why? Because the ABC's Antony Green and other bloggers had exposed critical flaws in the bill. This includes, as my colleague Anthony Albanese from the other place has pointed out, an embarrassing failure to include a provision allowing assistant returning officers to count Senate first preferences on election night.
I am forced to wonder whether relying on 'accountability by blogger' is a prescient insight into our future with a neutered and compliant Senate. Perhaps we should feel fortunate that the legislation was referred to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters for examination at all? And let's be clear: despite the frequent references by proponents of this legislation to the earlier JSCEM inquiry, this bill proposed by the government with its specific legislative instruments had never, ever been considered by that committee. Ultimately, the sum total of that committee's consideration was restricted to a single public hearing, and it was permitted to take evidence for a mere 4½ hours. This patently inadequate process meant the committee had a single evening to consider the evidence presented in that hearing and to synthesis the submissions received before being required to report to the parliament the following day.
Minor parties and Independents with parliamentary representation were allocated a paltry 50 minutes to present evidence at the hearing. Registered political parties that are not currently represented in the parliament—but are legally constituted and in compliance with the requirements of the Australian Electoral Commission—received no time at all to state their case on changes to laws that by all accounts will eliminate their electoral prospects. I think it is fair to say that few very senators would have had adequate time to read and digest even a small number of the 100-plus submissions received by the committee in tandem with its report before being required to deliberate on the legislation and its attendant amendments on the very same day of the report's release.
Of course, for members of the House of Representatives the outcome of JSCEM's cursory inquiry was to be entirely academic. Had the bill been hammered through the Senate as originally planned, they would not have had the opportunity to consider its findings in their deliberations at all. That has now changed, but only because the government has been forced to amend its legislation on the hop after the committee's 4½-hour inquiry exposed elementary flaws in its approach to below-the-line voting, and the bill will now be required to return to the House. It is worth noting that amendments that rework the below-the-line voting system will now pass with the support of the Greens and yet will not be scrutinised at all by the JSCEM prior to their implementation. Fundamental changes to our electoral system deserve to be subject to a proper committee inquiry, not a week-long submissions window followed by a half-day farce.
The legislation's shortcomings exposed through this process, even in the limited time frame allowed by the government, were by no means insubstantial. Respected political scientists and academics, in their submissions to the committee and through media commentary, warned that the legislation as it was drafted would have significant negative consequences. We were advised by these experts that the changes proposed would lead to a significant rise in informal voting, would lead to a large number of exhausted votes for the first time, were logically inconsistent in their approach to above-the-line and below-the-line voting, would only provide the Australian Electoral Commission with the absolute bare minimum time required to educate the public and reform its internal processes in time to conduct the next election, and would have broader unintended political consequences that have not been adequately canvassed.
Having examined the bill, Dr Nick Economou, from the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University, wrote:
If the government's changes are passed, a leap in the informal voting rate will occur. Research into informal voting by the Australian Electoral Commission notes the relationship between rising rates of informal voting and complexities in a voting system. The system will thus go back to disenfranchising voters (most likely from lower socioeconomic backgrounds) in ways that it did prior to the Hawke government's 1983 reforms.
Mr Michael Maley, a former senior official at the Australian Electoral Commission, with 30 years of experience, also raised concerns about the nature of the proposed voting changes. Mr Maley was involved in drafting the current provisions governing Senate elections in 1983, as well as being recognised as the in-house expert on the Senate electoral system. He described the voting system in the bill as 'inconsistent and incoherent' on ABC Radio. Mr Maley noted that the bill diverged significantly from the post-2013-election JSCEM inquiry's recommendations, and he stated:
The Bill's proposal, for optional preferential voting above the line but full preferential voting below the line … makes no sense, and has not been supported by any stated justification.
He noted the government's approach would see:
… identical preferences for candidates may produce a formal vote if expressed … above the line … but an informal vote if expressed … below the line …
Distinguished Professor of Constitutional Law George Williams AO similarly identified the bill's confused treatment of above- and below-the-line voting. He says:
… introducing optional preferential above the line voting, while retaining full preferential voting for below the line, creates an obvious and unfortunate disparity.
Dr Lee Naish, from the University of Melbourne, in his submission exposed further inadequacies. He expressed his concern that the vote counting methodology contained within the bill had:
… a particularly naive way of calculating transfer values, ignoring exhausted votes and ignoring the value of votes before the transfer … Under the new Senate voting rules there will be, for the first time, a substantial number of exhausted votes.
The evidence from the AEC is also critical to note. Officials from the AEC in both their written and their oral evidence to the committee were at pains to stress that an election in late June or early July would provide the commission with only the absolute bare minimum of time it would require to both attempt to educate voters in regard to the changes to voting and reform its internal processes in order to be able to conduct the election. Given the deeply consequential nature of the issues rushed through by such a short period of parliamentary examination, it is clear that this bill requires a further extended period of consultation, scrutiny and debate. It should also be a first principle for us that under no circumstances should we ever proceed with such haste that changes might jeopardise the ability of our internationally lauded Electoral Commission to conduct elections that are beyond reproach.
Moving on from the technical deficiencies exposed in the bill, it is important to canvass its broader political intent and likely outcomes. The intent of this bill, as noted by Emeritus Professor Ross Fitzgerald and others, is to get rid of the dissenting voices in this place at the next election. The outcome is just as easily discerned. The coalition, the Greens and, yes, the Labor Party will benefit. Close to the entire crossbench can expect to be eliminated, with the consequence that the Australian political landscape will be reshaped for decades to come.
In my first speech to this chamber, 11 months ago, I praised the Senate's record in the face of overreach by the then Abbott government. Observing it as an outsider, I was heartened by the way it had stepped up to perform its constitutional role, pushing back against the regressive and unfair agenda it was confronted with and amending and rejecting legislation that was not in the national interest. I defended the Senate against accusations of being feral and chose to characterise it as fearless and fair, as a Senate that had listened to the Australian people when the government had not. My experience in this place over the past 11 months has not changed my view. The contributions of all senators in this place, in my experience, have been overwhelmingly earnest, thoughtful and constructive.
Whatever your political inclination is, there is no denying that at the last election over 3.3 million Australians, one in four voters, chose not to vote for either the coalition, Labor or the Greens in the Senate, nor can we deny this is a new phenomenon. The increasing share of the vote for non-major parties and for parties without representation in the parliament has been trending upwards for decades. Our collective failure, as established parties, to win their favour is just that.
When the parliament ultimately proceeds in relation to electoral reform we must ensure that the voices of these Australians are meaningfully registered at the ballot box. I am opposed to the gaming of Senate preferences by so-called preference whisperers. However, it is not democratic or fair to simply do a deal behind closed doors that corrals their votes to an established party or uses opaque counting procedures to exhaust them. But this is precisely what the deal between the government and the Greens will do. It will expunge the diversity from this chamber, making it easier in the future for the coalition to achieve a Senate majority. And, casting backwards, it does not require a particularly long political memory to recall what happened the last time both chambers of this parliament were controlled by one side. There was Work Choices, there was the disenfranchisement of over 100,000 people from the electoral roll, and there were guillotined debates, shortened estimates sessions and a one-day inquiry into anti-terror legislation.
Projecting forward, it is abundantly clear what this government would do with a more compliant Senate: $100,000 university degrees, cuts to Medicare, cuts to schools and hospitals, cuts to welfare; punitive measures against the young unemployed; changes to the industrial relations system—all issues that have been blocked by the current Senate and by all available polling, totally reflective of the popular will of the Australian people. Yet the Greens have seemingly resolved that it is worth the risk to pass this legislation and offer a potential rubber stamp to the coalition in order to lock out smaller parties and Independents.
I know a few things about the Greens political party. I have worked with the Greens political party for more than a decade. But yesterday in this place I learnt a whole lot more about what the federal Greens are all about and the extent that they will go to to deliver the agenda that they have set for themselves. I have never in my time of working with the Greens ever seen Greens at the beginning of a day support a gag motion and deny other members in an elected parliament the right to speak. I have never, ever seen that. In fact, I would go further to say that it actually flies in the face of the so-called principles that the Greens political party often lecture other parties about in this place—about the ability to hear different voices and to allow debates to occur.
Yesterday we saw the Greens not once, not twice, not three times, but seven times, in sticking to the deal they have done with the government, vote to enforce the gag on other members in this place. I saw the Greens leader shut down and not allow the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate speak on marriage equality, after generously being allowed five minutes himself to speak. I saw Independent senators, Senator Muir, Senator Leyonhjelm and Senator Lazarus, be given one minute to make their case and then be gagged and told to sit. It was an extraordinary day yesterday. Perhaps it was less extraordinary from the point of the government. Perhaps those tactics are better understood coming from the government. It was extraordinary to actually see the Greens hold hands with the government and move to that side and vote for the gag, as I said, seven times at the beginning of the day—not even after the debate or during the debate but before any debate was allowed.
Yesterday I think we got a real taste of what a future Senate might be like; a future Senate where agreements are reached not on the floor of this chamber but in a backroom somewhere without proper scrutiny. We will all live with the repercussions of that. It will be a Senate where, if there is agreement reached, individual senators will able to dictate who can speak, how long they speak for and what they can speak on. That is what happened yesterday. Yesterday there was a decision taken by the Greens and the government that they did not want to hear from anybody else. They did not want to hear contrary views. They did not want anything to interrupt the speedy passage of this legislation to entrench themselves in a position of comfort at the expense of others. That is what happened yesterday, and that is why this bill should not be supported.
( If my political party turned our backs on our hard-fought and long-held principles every time we came under some political pressure, we would not be who we are as a party. We would not be the Greens. We would stand for nothing. If every time we came under political pressure to not do the right thing because of some kind of political strategy or because some stakeholders want us to delay legislation or it is all too hard, we would not be the Greens political party; we would in fact be the Labor Party.
The Greens have campaigned on democratic electoral reform for over a decade. Our party, which was formed 45 years ago, has as one of its core principles—one of its four principles in its charter—participative democracy. It is absolutely crucial to who we are as a party. We are also a party who represents our grassroots members. Our members write our policies and our national council constantly works with the party room on how we deliver these policies and these principles.
Looking at the opportunism in this chamber in the last couple of weeks what we have seen has been nothing short of pathetic student politics from the Labor Party, unlike the Greens, who have campaigned on democratic reform which gives every Australian the right to choose where their preferences go and removes the undemocratic backroom dealing. The Labor Party did support democratic reform in the Senate but—
They supported it for longer than 2½ years but now it does not suit their political timetable, because they are not ready to go to an election because they are not a real opposition. It is actually not even about whether or not they support democratic voting reform; they want to defer debate on this bill, the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016. They want us to have this debate after the day a double dissolution passes. This is about a short-term political strategy. It is about what is good for the Labor Party; it is not about what is good for the Australian people and for our democracy.
This debate is to be adjourned before we go in committee, but I want to read a from a document from 2013 relating to the tabling of the report from the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters following the 2013 election. It says:
The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters has an important role after every federal election to review the conduct of that election and provide recommendations for government and the parliament to consider. This interim report tabled by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters focuses on Senate voting and party registration, which are issues that caused considerable concern in the 2013 election. I am pleased that the JSCEM has tabled this interim report so that policy and legislative decisions can be made to ensure the will of voters at the next Senate election is properly reflected by the senators who are chosen by the people.
The primary concern of JSCEM has been to address the growing practice of preference harvesting by microparties, which has made Senate voting convoluted and confusing; and it has simply warped and manipulated the will of voters.
Warped and manipulated the will of voters.
Above the line voting and group voting tickets for the Senate were introduced in 1984 to address the high level of informal voting. Voters were required to number every square on the ballot paper and mistakes in preference sequences meant votes were declared informal. Since those reforms, the vast majority of Senate votes have been cast above the line. However, the emergence in recent years of bogus microparties who rely on multilayered preference deals with other parties has distorted this above the line voting system and action needs to be taken. Like the Joint Select Committee on Electoral Reform in 1984, the current Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters has been focused on making certain that the will of voters in Senate elections is not distorted or frustrated. This interim report contains what I believe are good recommendations—recommendations that will lead to fair and effective reform of Senate voting and party registration.
The committee's first recommendation for Senate voting is to allow preferences to be used by voters above the line and to make below the line voting less onerous by requiring voters to fill in only six or 12 squares, depending on whether it is a half Senate election or a double dissolution.
Similar reforms were considered in 2009 in the then government's electoral reform green paper—
This is the Labor Party.
Strengthening Australia's democracy. It is unfortunate, I believe, that those reforms did not progress at that time.
Perhaps Senator Polley can tell us why that is the case—through you, Mr Deputy President.
Five years later, there was overwhelming evidence presented to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters that the Senate voting system was still in need of repair. The evidence is well summarised in chapter 3 of the interim report. Above the line voting has developed to a point where bogus microparties engage in what I call 'game theory' and send preferences through a myriad of politically disconnected parties without any concern as to what a voter's real intention might have been. The 'gaming' of preferences by microparties has bastardised the Senate voting system—
Bastardised the Senate voting system—
and the committee's recommended reforms to above the line voting, I believe, should deal with this very difficult problem.
And there is another page there. I am plagiarising, because these words are not my own. These are the words of Senator Faulkner. These are the words of a Labor stalwart—Senator Faulkner—who, as previously noted by Senator Back, was coined 'the grandfather of the Senate'. I think that is a little bit unfair on Senator Faulkner, because he is not actually that old but, nevertheless, he made a significant contribution while he was here. These are his words from just a couple of years ago. He talks about his own government in 2009 not acting on Senate voting reform and makes it very clear that the system has been bastardised.
I am all for diversity in the Senate. I represent a party whose whole story is about getting diversity in the Senate; that is our life's journey to where we are today. But when we talk about diversity in the Senate, let's be very clear, we want diversity that is democratic. How is it that some people get elected on a few thousand votes when the same candidates in the same election do not get elected on 100,000 votes or more? That is not democracy. That is totally unfair and totally undemocratic.
I want to point out something about my political party, the Greens. During the last week the Senate was sitting I was lucky enough to give an adjournment speech on Jeff Weston, a gentleman who was one of the founding members of the Tasmanian Greens. The Greens went on to become the Australian Greens and the Global Greens and Jeff Weston, in fact, was around the table when the United Tasmania Group was formed. The view of Jeff Weston and his friends was that they would not get outcomes in Tasmania to preserve the environment and the wilderness and what the original Greens fought on unless they formed a political party. It was a conscious decision that was made by a group of people. I do not think they necessarily wanted to form a political party, but they felt, after the loss of Lake Pedder and the threats to the Franklin, that they had to form a political party because the only way they were going to change the world was to have a political arm for the environment movement and get outcomes.
Senator Polley interjecting—
That was 45 years ago, Senator Polley—through you, Mr Deputy President. It was 45 years ago that that decision was made, and there have been tens of thousands of people in Tasmania and around the country from my party who have put their hands up to be candidates—
Yes, across a number of elections—and probably hundreds of thousands of other people who have campaigned and put in endless hours to get my party to where it is today. It is not an easy thing. It is not meant to be an easy thing. In a democracy, it takes time for people to understand who you are and what you represent. We are still continuing to try and let Australians know who we are, what we represent and why they should vote for us, just like any political party is. To say that it is democratic for someone to get elected because they put their name on a group voting ticket or they put their name on a microparty and they have been part of a backroom deal that gets them elected to the Senate does not represent the will of the voters. We have heard so much evidence about voters not knowing where their preferences are going and being horrified when they have found out—if they ever find out, because the system is so complex. That is not democracy.
I would like to see more diversity in the Senate. I would like to see more Independents trying to get into the Senate. That is good for democracy. Senator Brown, whom I replaced, has always welcomed new participants, always in elections, because of the good that does to democracy. But the system has to be fair.
I do not think it is out of school of me to say you have to work hard to get your message across, so people can understand what you are and who you represent, and vote for you. That is what we are talking about here today. We are talking about a reform that has been debated and looked at countless times over a long period of time. This is not a new issue. The actual legislation that we will be looking at, hopefully later today, has been looked at countless times by countless committees. We all have that information in front of us.
I think the real issue is that the Labor Party do not want an early election and some of their stakeholders in the union movement—and we have all spoken to them—do not want an early election either. This is not an issue about timing; this is an issue about getting good reform through. The Greens have made it very clear that we will not do anything to support an early election or a double dissolution. In fact, we have said that the Prime Minister would be a coward if he called a double dissolution. He has a job to do and I do not think he has done a very good job at all letting Australians know what he stands for and what his vision is for this country. He has a lot of work to do to do that and I think it would be very risky for him to call a double dissolution. Nevertheless, we will be ready for it if he does go down that road. But I do not think the Labor Party are ready for it, and I think that is what this is about.
This is about delaying an election for their own political survival. My message to the Labor Party is: stop undermining progressive politics in this country and stop attacking the Greens. Your bucket of mud—
Senator Polley interjecting—
Throw your pocket of mud at the people on the other side of the chamber, Senator Polley. What you and your stakeholders are in fact doing is undermining progressive politics in this country. I am sure the Prime Minister and Mr Christopher Pyne and others are laughing in their soup at what is going on in the Senate at the moment, seeing you attacking the Greens. That is exactly what they want and you are giving them exactly what they want.
You are giving them exactly what they want, Senator Polley. What we need to do is actually get on with being a real opposition. Like I said yesterday: go out and sell negative gearing and capital gains tax abolition. I would back you 100 per cent on that; my party do too. We have long campaigned on this. These are the kinds of reforms we need to be focusing on with the Australian people. We need to be making sure this government does not cut funding to the CSIRO and the best climate scientists in the world when it is most desperately needed now. It will absolutely devastate the community, Senator Urquhart and Senator Polley, where we come from in Tasmania. These are the things that actually really matter.
We need to be out there making sure one thing happens—that is, at the next election we can get a democratic result that gets rid of this government. The longer you spend throwing mud and playing student politics in this chamber the less chance we have of beating the coalition at the next election. So I would ask the Labor Party here today to go back and have a look, from a few years ago, at your support for Senate voting reform and ask yourself why you are really not getting behind this now. We know there has been significant conflict within the Labor Party over this. It has been in the papers. We know that you are very conflicted on this, like you are on lots of things. But if you do not stand for something, you will fall for anything. That is the most important thing to me here: you stand for absolutely nothing and you certainly do not stand for democracy if you do not support Senate voting reform. That is what this is.
Senator Williams was right the other day when he yelled to the roof in the Senate the other day in exasperation—which was disorderly, I must say, Deputy President—and said, 'You hate democracy.' It is actually not a bad statement because that is actually this is about. This is about getting democratic voting reform. I am proud to be a member of a political party. Senator Rhiannon, who is in the chamber with us today, got this reform into the New South Wales upper house, where it has been very well received. I have spoken to her and she said that it was very difficult then too; the same kind of thing occurred, the same kind of base political debate, but it has been a good reform. Now we have a chance to get a good reform here in the Senate. It will be something that we can look back on as a legacy.
Senator Cameron came in here a few weeks ago and was having a go at the Greens and said that we are no good at negotiating, we are not hard enough negotiators, we got rolled on tax avoidance, we got rolled on pensions. Apart from the fact that we actually got really good results for the Australian people, I think Senator Cameron's point is actually quite important in this debate. The strength of the Labor Party and those individuals in the Labor Party who are leading this charge against Senate voting reform—Senator Dastyari, Senator Conroy and Senator Wong, and probably Senator Cameron himself—are good at doing backroom deals. They are hard negotiators. They have enjoyed working with this crossbench, as I have. This is actually about their power. This is about their influence. This is not about doing the right thing by the Australian people and actually giving our children a more democratic future by allowing them to dictate where their votes go in any election and stopping undemocratic backroom deals that do not reflect the will of the Australian people.
If it takes the Greens to be the political party in parliament who have to be the real opposition, who have to have a spine, who have to stay true to their principles, who have to represent a grassroots movement of people who want to see participative democracy, who want to see peace, nonviolence and justice—all the things that my party hold dear—then I am proud to be part of that group that stands in the Senate and has strong principles.
Senator Polley interjecting—
If you do not stand for something you will fall for anything, Senator Polley, and I am very disappointed that the Labor Party have taken a short-term, populist and highly destructive, disingenuous and dangerous approach to undermining what will be— (Time expired)
I rise to make a contribution on the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016. Before I get into that, I want to make a couple of comments about Senator Whish-Wilson's remarks which went to the accusation that the Labor Party's position in relation to this bill is driven by an alleged fear of going to the polls. Let me assure Senator Whish-Wilson that, as far as we are concerned, there has never been a more exciting time to go to the polls. The Labor Party are ready at all times to take to the Australian people our case about the differences between the clear policy positions that we have enunciated and the shambolic situation on the other side. We are not afraid of going to the election, but what we will not do is what the Greens have done, which is to tumble into the government's agenda with their shambolic arrangements and the fact that they are driven by political opportunism and fear. They have a very clear objective of rushing through these very significant changes to our electoral system in the lead-up to a potential double-dissolution election. The reason they want to do that is because they have nothing on the table in terms of clear policies for the Australian people.
The government are looking to pursue their ideological attack on the trade union movement. That is a point that I particularly want to make against the Greens and their position. The Greens claim that they are prepared to stand up for the interests of working people and their representatives, but they are now quite clearly being shown in their true colours. They are siding with the government in its naked attempt to engineer a situation where the attack on the trade union movement can be delivered and can be successful. The Greens have very clearly shown that they have chosen political opportunism and their own self-interest ahead of the legitimate interests of working people. We know that this could potentially lead to a situation where we have legislation before the parliament which goes to further attacks on trade union rights and the rights of working people down the track. The Greens are now forever exposed as the party of political self-interest rather than any pretension of seeking to advance the interests of working people.
Our major concern is with the process and some of the substantive aspects of the changes that are being rammed through. We do not believe that the climate is right at the present time to rush through the changes that the government is proposing to make. We know that there could well be unforeseen circumstances that arise from any truncated consideration of these significant amendments to our Senate voting system. We are not saying that the system is perfect and we are not saying that we would oppose all changes, but this particular change that is presented to us and the manner in which it is presented to us are of great concern.
The electoral reform bill is one of the most important amendments proposed in many years of Australian parliaments. It will change the face of Australian politics forever. If we are going to make these changes it is critical that we carefully consider what we are trying to achieve and how best to achieve it. The proposed change to our electoral system is a knee jerk reaction by a government that has not been able to persuade the Senate that its shonky policies and legislation are worthy of support. Instead of developing meaningful policies and legislation that will improve Australia for all Australians, the coalition government has shamelessly put forward a raft of policies that blatantly attack the working rights and the economic circumstances of ordinary Australians. These policies include their proposal to hamstring our high-performing industry superannuation funds, attack the unions while ignoring corruption in our corporate sector and allowing the richest Australians to hide their assets. On tax reform, their only considered proposal to date has been a GST increase. No wonder the Turnbull government has received opposition in the Senate. Thankfully, our fair democracy has been able to push back on many proposed policy changes which are harmful to everyday Australians.
Instead of working with us, as the system is set up to do, the government simply want to get rid of those who oppose it. But electoral reform is too important a matter for Australia to be dealt with in such a short manner. I am personally shocked that Mr Turnbull, the Prime Minister who promised us full consultation and engagement on matters of importance, is now trying to push through radical reform to our democratic arrangements on the back of a greasy deal between the Greens, Senator Xenophon and the coalition government. This reform is not an effort to improve Australia's democracy. It is, put simply, a pointed attempt to remove certain elected members of the Senate from power. Rather than respecting the democratic principles that underpin our current arrangements, the Turnbull government is undermining our democracy by trying to weed out its dissenters.
Australia has a long history of innovation in electoral matters. In Antony Green's election guide, he makes the claim:
Australia led the world in abandoning electoral franchises based on property ownership by extending the right to vote to all adult males. Australia also led the world in granting the vote to women, and in the introduction of the secret ballot, a reform that when introduced in the United States was often referred to as the 'Australian ballot'.
Antony also points out that preferential voting is one electoral innovation that has remained uniquely Australian. Most other countries simply allow a single vote to be cast by individuals for their preferred party or candidate of choice. In this system, if your preferred candidate does not get the majority of votes, then your vote becomes worthless. In our proportional representation system, it is possible for everyone's vote to count, in the sense that the candidates who get elected are those who have gained the preferences of the largest share of voters. This is superior to the first-past-the-post system used in many countries, which so often has disenfranchised the majority of voters. Australia is the envy of many countries for its preferential voting arrangements because they ensure that every voter's preferences can be taken into account.
These proposed changes to voting for the Senate will reshape the Australian political landscape for decades to come, possibly in ways that we cannot even foresee at this stage. I return to the point I was making about the unintended consequences of a change to our electoral system which has not been given proper scrutiny. My particular concern is the impact that this change would have on levels of informal voting. The 2013 election saw 5.92 per cent of total votes cast being informal. That was the highest proportion of informal votes for nearly 30 years. I would have thought that, in this place, we would be loath to introduce changes that the public do not understand or that the public do not have adequate time to absorb. It stands to reason that, if one does not give the voting public the opportunity to absorb the changes, then the impact on informality is going to be significant.
I note that the only time we have seen a higher rate of informal voting was in 1984, when it was 6.34 per cent of the vote. It is worthwhile noting that the 1984 election was an anomaly, in the sense that there had been a change to the voting system. The innovation at that time was the introduction of above-the-line voting in the Senate. Despite the fact that there were television ads broadcast to explain to the public what the changes were, the impact of that advertising was somewhat unexpected, because it appears that the change to the Senate voting process, the new above-the-line voting process, confused voters, who thought that they could just mark a single preference for the House of Representatives and then stop. So there was a spike in informality in the House of Representatives.
I am not suggesting that the changes that were made in 1984 are completely analogous to what is before us today, but I make the point that changes made can lead to unintended consequences if proper time is not given to scrutinise the changes through the normal processes that we have in this place—proper scrutiny through committees and debate in the chamber. If those normal, sound processes of parliament are circumvented, then we can only expect that there are going to be some unintended consequences which lead to higher informality. I would argue, and many others have argued, that a rising proportion of informal votes is a major democratic concern for us. If we have more informal votes, it means that fewer voters are having their say at the important time.
I want to return to the truncated process that we have had. We did have a Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters hearing on 1 March. It was a very tightly controlled process, with very limited opportunity for members of the opposition and crossbench senators to participate and to ask questions of the Australian Electoral Commission and others. I want to refer to some of the answers that were given by the Australian Electoral Commission. The chair of the committee asked about the effect of these changes on the level of informal below-the-line voting. The head of the Australian Electoral Commission, Mr Rogers, said:
Can I say up-front that I know there has been a lot of speculation about what might happen if the changes were implemented. I am very nervous about speculating on voter behaviour. There are a whole range of things that can occur at any election. For us to speculate on voter behaviour—I know there are some political scientists who do that, and they are normally fairly accurate, but I really hesitate to speculate on what voters might do because they can do a whole range of things. What we think might occur with proposed changes might end up being something very different.
So he was unable to provide an accurate picture. He was also asked to give a view about the impact of informality on above-the-line voting. He made the point:
… I cannot speculate on voter behaviour. What I would say is that the legislation requires that on the ballot paper, as I understand it, we annotate that voters are required to vote six above the line. However, the savings provision that is also provided in the legislation, which is a vote that only contains a vote for 1 would still be formal, would operate, I think, to save a number of those votes. But, again, I would be speculating on voter behaviour which I am loath to do.
We have the expert in this matter, Mr Rogers of the Australian Electoral Commission, who is quite clearly indicating that there can well be unforeseen circumstances that arise and it is very difficult to predict. When you have experts saying to us that they are not prepared to indicate what might happen, I think it only strengthens the argument that whatever we do in this place on something as important and significant to our Australian democracy as the voting system, it has to be given proper scrutiny and the normal processes have to be followed. It should not be the subject of a truncated sham arrangement, where important matters are not given the proper level of scrutiny that they require and where a bill is rammed through the system.
I note that Mr Rogers has advised that the AEC only saw the bill before us on 11 February. Despite the fact that we have interjections from the other side saying that this is a matter that has been on the table for two years, the bill that is before us today was seen by the Australian Electoral Commission on 11 February. It was then subject to a sham arrangement, to truncated processes of scrutiny through both houses of parliament, and to a sham committee hearing, which was very one-sided. We are finding that all of the issues that need to be considered are not being considered and this could well have significant impacts.
I note Senator Gallagher in her contribution talked about the fact that there are experts that have speculated that the difference in the fact that we have optional preferential above-the-line in the bill and full preferential below-the-line could well have the potential of creating uncertainty and leading to unforeseen circumstances.
I note in Senator Back's contribution earlier, he made the worthwhile observation that we are a country that is very diverse and there are many people in our country who are not of an English-speaking background. This highlights the point even further that, if we are going to have changes to a system, we need to have a proper period of time in which the members of the public can absorb those changes and understand them completely. Ultimately, what we are talking about is the expression of the will of the Australian people at the ballot box. I do not believe there is anything more important that we should be talking about in this place. And when we do talk about these types of issues, they should be the subject of full and proper scrutiny, not the subject of a sham arrangement—a dirty deal between the Greens and the coalition.
The concern with the last election that has led to the proposed changes has been this tendency by parties to 'game' the system and to try to swing preferences away from the major party candidates and in effect dissipate preferences. In our most recent election, this resulted in a few candidates becoming elected with a small percentage of the primary vote. But rather than trying to address the problem of the gaming activities, this new legislation is simply going to curtail the opportunities for small Independents to get elected. This bill serves one function—it is designed to get rid of opponents at the next election. The proposed changes have the potential to reduce Australia to a US style, two-party system, where only those with substantial financial backing have a chance of getting elected. This is something that no Australian should support or endorse. Rather than working with the minor parties, this government would legislate them out of existence.
The enablers of this draconian electoral change, the Greens and Senator Xenophon, have shown a deeply hypocritical side to their political aspirations that few could have foreseen. As we know, Senator Xenophon first entered politics in the 1997 South Australian state election. At that point, he polled less than three per cent of the votes but still went on to win an upper house seat on the preferences of other minor parties such as the Smokers' Rights Party, who, one would have thought, it could be speculated, are not exactly aligned with the antipokies platform. He has the audacity to call out senators who are elected on a similar vote and with similar preference flows.
The Greens are even worse. Many Greens senators and state MPs have been elected on similar margins over the last 20 years and have only built their party on the back of minor party preferences. Senator Di Natale has shown himself to be a slow chugging coal train of a politician, who is prepared to spread all the warm and fuzzy rhetoric about inclusion and tolerance, yet is keen to get rid of the minor parties to recover the Green preferences that have been lost in the past. If minor parties are eliminated from the upper house, we could foresee our Senate reverting to a house of the landed gentry, where massive money and influence will be a key determinant of electoral success.
I am not surprised that the Turnbull government wishes to undermine our democratic institution but I am deeply disappointed that the Greens and Senator Xenophon are so quick to turn against the very system that provides our fair democracy with the diversity of opinion and representation that has served us so well, particularly in protecting us from the nasty policy agenda of the coalition government.
I rise to speak on the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016. I have sat through some boringly, dumbed down, brain-numbing speeches in this Senate, but Senator Ketter's, what an absolutely brilliant contribution that was. Senator Ketter, you have raised the IQ of the Senate chamber from that side—I can tell you. What a fantastic contribution!
On my knees? What does that mean, Senator O'Sullivan? Are you suggesting I should bow to someone? What a brilliant contribution! In fact I would love to give Senator Ketter more of my time. It was that good. That mob over there, they heard every single word of that. It was all good, but there was fantastic part at the end, and Senator Ketter talked about how did Senator Xenophon actually get into politics.
This has been lost in the contributions around this chamber in the last few days. Senator Xenophon—and good luck to Senator Xenophon—was able to garner the game and get a few votes and a few preferences. He entered the South Australian parliament, I believe, with a three per cent vote. Is that correct? It is, isn't it, Senator Ketter? I do not have that wrong—three per cent. But now we have Senator Xenophon, who now commands in the 20s I believe, over— (Time expired)