Senate debates

Thursday, 17 March 2016


Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016; Reference to Committee

5:25 pm

Photo of Jenny McAllisterJenny McAllister (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Pursuant to standing order 115(2)(a) I move:

That the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016 be referred to the Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee for inquiry and report by 12 May 2016.

It is no secret that those of us on this side of the chamber have been frustrated and disappointed by the time frame in which this bill has been sought to be dealt with in this chamber. People here understand that these are significant changes to our electoral laws that speak to the character of this chamber and the character more broadly of our democracy. And it is true that it has generated an interesting public debate already about the nature of representation in a chamber such as this, which is characterised by proportional representation.

Only today I was asked by a member of the public, 'Can you explain to me what are the issues at stake in this debate around electoral reform that is being dealt with in the Senate?' I of course gave that person my perspective on the issues at stake, but it brought home to me the challenge we face, which is that the community has not had time to engage with these significant changes. I know that those opposite and those in favour of moving this bill through this place quickly have argued repeatedly that this was all dealt with in the JSCEM. Well, people in this chamber do not accept that. Many opposition senators feel that the bill differs substantially from the issues that were canvassed in JSCEM.

But, more significantly, everybody here understands that when a Senate committee starts investigating an idea in the abstract there is a certain level of interest from a particular group in the community that always takes an interest in those policy issues. It is, however, at the point of legislation that community interest is truly piqued. It is when the parliament decides that it is actually going to take a step towards implementing recommendations of a committee that the community start to understand that this is something that might impact them. And I would say to senators here that that is the point that has now been reached amongst ordinary people in the Australian community. It is for that reason that I consider that this bill does need to be referred for a proper legislative inquiry.

It may be that people want to make the argument, in response to this motion, that the more recent JSCEM hearing was adequate, but I just want to remind senators of the facts surrounding that process. A very limited time was made available for individual citizens to provide submissions to that committee. I do not believe we can have any confidence at all that the full range of citizens who may have wished to contribute to this debate were able to do so in the time allowed for the preparation of submissions to the JSCEM.

I would also make the very obvious point that four hours is a plainly insufficient period of time in which to conduct a hearing. It is hard to think of another piece of legislation that we just whipped through in four hours. We will deal soon, I understand, with Senator Fifield's media reform bill. That bill is going to have two days worth of hearings, to look at that piece of legislation. But when it comes to the most significant electoral reforms in 30 years, the time allocated is just four hours. I do not think you have to be a partisan participant in this debate to recognise that that is simply an unacceptable arrangement. One consequence is that there was an inadequate representation of the variety of views on this bill at that hearing. Inevitably, a four-hour hearing allows for a very limited number of witnesses. It allows for an even more limited number of questions to be asked of those witnesses, particularly in relation to a bill which is of such great interest to such a broad range of senators. Again, I would say to people in the chamber that you do not have to be particularly partisan to accept the argument that the procedures and scrutiny of this bill, which has only just come before this chamber, have been completely inadequate.

I conclude by drawing people's attention to the ludicrous reporting time frame. The hearing finished at 5 pm. The committee secretariat went away to write up the findings of the committee, and Labor senators had between 10 o'clock at night and 8 o'clock the next morning to review the findings of the committee. It is simply unacceptable, and I urge senators to accept the motion.

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr President, I rise on a point of order. I want to draw your attention to the fact that some senators in this place are improperly attired—one of them a minister, no less. Not only do they have very loud socks on, but they have different socks on each foot. I have approached them myself, but they give me some excuse about Down Syndrome Day. I draw it to your attention.

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (President) Share this | | Hansard source

Despite how good the cause is, there is no point of order.

5:31 pm

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Minister for Finance) Share this | | Hansard source

Listening to that contribution just now, I note that the Labor Party is yet again trying to defer consideration by the Senate of this very important reform, which has been considered in the Senate for more than 20 hours now and which has been inquired into by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters for more than two years. No wonder that Labor's senior shadow cabinet minister Gary Gray said in the Federation Chamber today:

I must say the position taken by my party continues to simply make me sad.

That is what Mr Gray said this morning. Of course on this side of the chamber we all know that Mr Gray is a highly regarded, highly respected senior Labor member of parliament, who was a long-serving Special Minister of State and a long serving shadow special minister of state. He is highly regarded on both sides of politics. Today, the Labor Party just makes him sad.

Senator McAllister, you did not have to accept this job that was handed to you by the tactics committee of the Labor Party. The Senate has already voted on this exact point on several occasions. The person that you replace in this chamber, the very highly regarded former senator John Faulkner, was part of the committee which nearly two years ago recommended the improvements to Senate voting arrangements that are here in the Senate before us today. The Labor deputy chair of that committee, Mr Griffin, the member for Bruce, urged the government 12 months ago to get on with it. Mr Gray, the shadow special minister of state at the time, went on national television urging the government to get on with it. Today Mr Gray told the House of Representatives that our reforms achieve '95 per cent of the reforms that were recommended by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters.' The five per cent that we are not doing was not actually a good idea. That is why we discarded it.

Sadly, the Labor Party today is very juvenile. What we are putting before the Senate for consideration today, which the Greens and Senator Xenophon have indicated they are prepared to support, is doing the right thing in the public interest. We are ensuring that future Senate election results truly reflect the will of the Australian people. That is what we are doing. By passing these reforms the Senate will ensure that voters are empowered to direct their preferences according to their wishes, instead of having them traded and directed by backroom operators in political parties through insufficiently transparent voting ticket arrangements.

I understand why people like Senator Carr and Senator Conroy do not like that. They have made a career out of being backroom operators. I know that Senator Carr and Senator Conroy are the national secretaries of the backroom operators union. We know that Senator Carr is the chief operating officer of the backroom operators union, so we understand why Senator Carr comes in here to stand up for the backroom operators of Australia, for the union heavies of Australia.

But, Senator McAllister, you are better than that. You come into this chamber after the august, highly regarded former senator John Faulkner, who has his fingerprints all over these recommendations, who was behind these recommendations, who was a strong advocate for what is in front of us here and who was part of the committee that unanimously recommended that we do what is here in front of the Senate today. So, instead of playing games as though you were still in student politics, you should actually get involved in the substance of the debate. You say you want to have a debate; let us have a debate. Let us get into the committee stage of the debate and get into the substance of it, instead of running all these little procedural games.

If you still want to be here on Good Friday, that is fine. Let us be here on Easter Friday. We will be here until this legislation has been dealt with by the Senate, because this is something that is very much in the national interest. This is very much in the interests of the people of Australia. We on this side are absolutely committed to ensuring that future Senate election results truly reflect the will of the Australian people.

5:35 pm

Photo of Jacinta CollinsJacinta Collins (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Cabinet Secretary) Share this | | Hansard source

Listening to Senator Cormann here now, we hear repeated versions of much the same thing. He cannot justify the process that has occurred here. He shields both himself and the Department of Finance and once again now tries to argue that the committee stage here in the Senate is a reasonable substitute for a proper Senate committee inquiry. That is a joke, and the fact that you have convinced the Greens of that is a joke.

Senator Ian Macdonald interjecting

Senator Macdonald, let me remind you of one element of that Senate committee inquiry. That Senate inquiry involved the Greens—Senator Rhiannon—siding with the government three times to prevent the department from appearing. Do you know what the bigger joke of it was? She then asked questions of the AEC, and they said, 'Senator, that is a political matter—you would need to ask the department that.' If we are forced to deal with this tonight, we will have lots of questions for the department and a very detailed consideration. If we are forced to go down the path of a proper inquiry in this chamber, we will do so.

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

You've had it!

Photo of Jacinta CollinsJacinta Collins (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Cabinet Secretary) Share this | | Hansard source

We have not had it. We have not had the Department of Finance appear before the Senate committee. That is why this motion of the chair of the references committee is appropriate. We should have this before the Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee.

Let me deal with some of the other shams. When we get to the committee stage, there will be more. The reason why this motion is pertinent is that several shams have arisen since we first dealt with the message. The first of those shams is the minister now saying, 'We've already had 20 hours.' We have not had 20 hours in the second reading debate. You cannot argue or debate in this place around the sham, confusion and chaos which this government—

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Minister for Finance) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr President, I rise on a point of order. Senator Collins is misleading the chamber. I referenced the 20 hours of debate since the message was received.

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (President) Share this | | Hansard source

There is no point of order, Senator Cormann.

Photo of Jacinta CollinsJacinta Collins (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Cabinet Secretary) Share this | | Hansard source

The statement of fact I made is that there has not been 20 hours of a second reading consideration in relation to this bill. Another pretence from the minister is his perpetual reference to one Labor member as justification for the government's case because he cannot argue a sensible case. The reason we have not had the department up here before the committee is that his own department cannot argue that case. When you look at the report of the sham committee process, they even confect arguments for matters that are not even on the public record to justify the position that the government has taken.

If we are forced to, we will go into all of this in minute detail during the committee stage consideration. I will indeed have many questions, through the minister, for the department about matters that were not addressed during the committee inquiry. I will even deal with Senator Rhiannon's matters, if she does not do so. We will ask the questions that need to be addressed. We will give this matter the proper scrutiny it should have.

To pretend that a sham inquiry—that would not even allow the department to appear before members and senators so that we could ask them sensible questions about this legislation—is an appropriate consideration is a joke. But to then go on—as the Greens have too—and say, 'Through legislation by attrition, we'll let you sit here forever to have a committee stage consideration,' is a joke too. That is as much of a joke as this morning was.

We saw a farce this morning. We had the Australian Greens saying, 'We won't gag the consideration of electoral matters, but we will gag a conscience vote on same-sex marriage.' How does that work? You Greens are not even going to allow individual senators to speak in relation to a matter of conscience. Where on earth are the Greens coming from these days? Give me Bob Brown any day. He would not have perpetuated that joke. You cannot have a debate around an issue of conscience in this place and not allow any individual senator who wants to speak in the second reading debate to do so. It was a joke.

But it is typical, because with the Greens we have the forked tongue I referred to yesterday. We have them saying one thing and doing something completely different. Senator Macdonald sits there, nodding his head. But, Senator, they are your partners now. They are the people you will be sitting with right through tonight as you execute the sham that they have been convinced to join. They are too ignorant about process and procedure to understand what they have done. (Time expired)

5:41 pm

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This piece of legislation, the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016, and its precursor have been through two full committee hearings. The first hearing went for many weeks. The legislation was thoroughly investigated by every senator and member on that committee. Who were the senators on that committee? Who were the senators who took part in not a majority report but a unanimous report recommending that this bill come forward?

Photo of Sean EdwardsSean Edwards (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Unanimous? The Labor Party?

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Unanimous! The people on that committee—apart from coalition, Green and Senator Xenophon—were Senator John Faulkner, Mr Gary Gray, Senator Tillem, Mr Alan Griffin and one or two others as well. They participated in this over a space of—from memory—four or five weeks. We went all across Australia. We looked at everything and we inquired of everybody. We had the best evidence—from the most senior academics to the person off the street. We looked at this and looked at this and looked at this. How can anyone say we have not had a debate on this?

I understand that, since the bill has come into this chamber, we have already had in excess of 20 hours of debate, and yet we hear from Senator Collins that this is being rammed through without discussion. Of course, I remember the dying days of the Labor government, when 134 bills were put through this chamber by the Labor government without so much as one word being spoken on them—not one word! On 134 different occasions debate was curtailed. Twenty hours on any piece of legislation is a long time in anyone's language.

Not only have we had 20 hours of debate so far, but we have had a debate in the other place as well. The committee was recalled to look specifically at this legislation. The committee at the time thoroughly investigated. In fact, the committee was so thorough that it said to the government: 'We don't quite like your bill. We don't think it's gone far enough. We the committee recommend there should be an addition to it.' Fortuitously, the government have accepted the recommendation of that committee. That is how thoroughly the committee looked into it. We had answers from anybody we wanted them from. We had all of the experts.

Senator Polley interjecting

Senator Polley, you could have been there too, had you been interested. I am not on the committee, but under the rules we have in this place senators can put themselves onto these joint committees as participating members. That is what I did. I had all the rights and responsibilities of every member. I asked all the questions I wanted to. You were not there, I do not think, Senator Polley.

Photo of Jacinta CollinsJacinta Collins (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Cabinet Secretary) Share this | | Hansard source

I was!

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Well, Senator Polley was not there but she is saying a lot now! Why didn't you come along? If you had questions you could have raised them there.

There have been more than 20 hours of debate so far and the Labor Party would suggest to anyone who might be fooled by them—and there would not be too many—that there has been no debate on this. Well, there have been 20 hours of debate so far on this particular bill and I anticipate, as the lead minister has said, that this will go for another 40 hours. And we are happy to sit here and debate it.

But you know where it is going to end. I have been here for a while and many of you have—Senator Ludwig has. We know that there will come a stage when you will all say, 'Look, we know what the result is going to be, why are we punishing ourselves, sitting here to make a childish point?' It is not even student politics, it is pupil politics—I think it is 'pupils' who go to primary school, isn't it? That is what will happen. It is pure childishness.

We have had 20 hours of debate already and had two committee hearings that thoroughly investigated every single aspect of this bill—two full committee hearings!—and we are being told by the Labor Party that there has been no debate and that they have not had a chance to look at it. What have you been doing in the last 20 hours, if you have not had the chance to investigate it? What have they been doing?

I know what they have been doing: they have been attacking their old mates in the Greens all the time! That is what it has all been about. (Time expired)

5:46 pm

Photo of Lee RhiannonLee Rhiannon (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

This amendment to the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016 is not about an inquiry. The Labor senators might make out that it is, but it is the latest attempt to derail Senate voting reform. That is what they have been doing—

Photo of Jacinta CollinsJacinta Collins (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Cabinet Secretary) Share this | | Hansard source

Debating your fix!

Photo of Lee RhiannonLee Rhiannon (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I am happy to acknowledge your interjections. That is what Labor have been attempting to do. They had two plans when Senate voting reform came forward. One was to derail the whole thing and the other was to discredit the Greens. They have failed miserably at both. But let's just look at what is going on with Labor here. They say that they want an inquiry—

Photo of Jacinta CollinsJacinta Collins (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Cabinet Secretary) Share this | | Hansard source

Your polling went down 20 per cent!

Photo of Lee RhiannonLee Rhiannon (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Again, I am happy to acknowledge your interjection. But how deeply divided Labor are on this! It is really extraordinary. Look at what their own leader, Mr Shorten, had to say when questioned just this week about this very issue. He was asked the question, 'What would you do if you win the election?' He said that he appreciated being asked if he would win the election—he thought that was good. The actual question, so we can be exact, was:

Given that you have problems with that—

meaning Senate voting reform—

if it does pass and you do win Government, will you repeal or amend it?

It was a simple question. Mr Shorten said:

In terms of what we do after the election, we accept that the system, if it gets changed, has been changed, we’ll see how it works.

I acknowledge that he goes on to be critical of the system, but he says it there, 'we accept the system, if it gets changed, has been changed, we'll see how it works'.

And he is not alone. Remember Mr Faulkner? Former Senator Faulkner's comments on this are very informative. When he spoke in this chamber about this very issue in response to the report from the JSCEM recommending Senate voting reform he said:

In practice, this will mean that the voters themselves will control the candidates and party groups who get their vote and their preferences. … I would say that this reform is uncontroversial and it is certainly overdue.

Those were his words, and back then he was speaking for Labor. I notice that Senators Conroy, Dastyari and Wong, with all their vicious words, are not down here doing any of their heavy lifting. But at the time, Senator Faulkner spoke for Labor and he spoke for Labor very clearly.

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Minister for Finance) Share this | | Hansard source

Listen to Senator Faulkner!

Photo of Lee RhiannonLee Rhiannon (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Again, I am happy to acknowledge the interjections. What has been very informative in this debate is how insulting Senator Conroy has been of his own party. Some of his comments have been quite extraordinary—really putting the caucus and certain people in the caucus above the whole party. He spelt that out very clearly, more than once in this debate, when it came up that his party put in a submission—a very clear submission—to JSCEM supporting Senate voting reform. This came from the ALP's national secretary, George Wright:

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, …

He had also spelt out very clearly that group-voting tickets must be abolished. Again, very clear support for Senate voting reform. Very clear—

Photo of Richard Di NataleRichard Di Natale (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Just like this legislation!

Photo of Lee RhiannonLee Rhiannon (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I acknowledge the comment from the Greens leader, Senator Di Natale—it is very similar. Then, we were working together. What is going on here now is that a few Labor senators—and it is only a few Labor senators—are trying to derail this. They talk about sham and they talk about advantage; they are the ones who are looking for an advantage here.

Again, I will repeat for listeners who may just have come in: what we are about to vote on is not about a real inquiry to help advance Senate voting reform. We have had the experience with upper house voting reform in New South Wales since 1999, through four elections, very similar to what we have here. Small parties have been elected, there have been no complaints, we have the proof in practice and we have so many experts backing this. There are just a few Labor senators who I would say are causing problems for the leader of the Labor Party in a very destructive way for their own party. The former minister and former shadow on this issue, Gary Gray, has spelt it out very clearly.

This is not a good day for Labor: they have been exposed for the very destructive way in which they can operate—not in the best interests of the common good for Australia or for the interests of democracy. Thank you.

5:51 pm

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Minister for Education and Training) Share this | | Hansard source

What a remarkable scene we are witnessing—

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Aged Care) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr President, I rise on a point of order. I believe that you need to come back to this side now. We have heard the government, then Rhiannon and how you have gone back to the government again. It should be for and against.

Honourable senators interjecting

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (President) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! I do not need everyone to be involved in this.

Photo of Richard Di NataleRichard Di Natale (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr President, I rise on a point of order. I would just remind Senator Polley that it is 'Senator Rhiannon', not 'Rhiannon'.

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (President) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you very much, Senator Di Natale. Senator Polley, in relation to your point of order: it is practice to go from side to side in the chamber. The debate commenced with the Labor Party, it went to the government, back to the Labor Party, back to the government, then to the crossbench. If an Independent senator had stood I would have gone there next but it is back to the government.

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Minister for Education and Training) Share this | | Hansard source

What a remarkable act of hypocrisy we are witnessing from those opposite, and I appreciate that they do not want to be called out for it. They do not want to be called out for the hypocrisy we are seeing here today. But, of course, it is quite remarkable, not just the substance of their argument but also the mere fact that they are having this argument to go off to an inquiry. And the fact that it is Senator McAllister who is here moving this motion is most remarkable of all. As Senator Cormann—

Opposition senators: Why?

You say, 'Why?' It is a very good question you ask. Senator Cormann highlighted the fact that Senator McAllister took Senator Faulkner's seat—he was an advocate of the very reforms we are bringing here. More importantly, Senator Rhiannon just referenced, quite rightly, the ALP submission to the JSCEM inquiry, signed off by George Wright, the national secretary. Guess who the national president of the Australian Labor Party was when this submission was launched. Senator McAllister. Senator McAllister was heading up the federal executive of the Labor Party that authorised this submission—this fine submission, this upstanding submission from the Australian Labor Party, this submission dated 24 April 2014. It was a mere two years ago.

Let me read some more from this submission because it is so outstanding:

The manipulation of Group Voting Tickets (GVTs) are a central reason that candidates with little public support have seen themselves elected to the Australian Senate. Without GVTs, the capacity of these candidates to deliver sufficient preferences through a coordinated preference harvesting strategy would not exist.

They are very strong arguments against group voting tickets, very strong arguments for the exact legislation before this chamber that Senator McAllister now seeks to delay. Mr Wright, who was answering to Senator McAllister at that time two years ago, went on:

In the specific circumstances of the current Senate voting system where GVTs—

group voting tickets—

are so blatantly being abused to frustrate the democratic will of electors, even the normally undesirable effect of OPV

optional preferential voting—

which leads to a significant number of votes exhausting may be the lesser of two evils.

Then Mr Wright went on to put the very statement that Senator Rhiannon read, the precise argument in favour of the precise reforms we have brought to this chamber, reforms that require votes above the line to be dictated at the preference of the elector; that require there to be more than one box to be filled out; that require there to be a savings provision, though, if somebody only fills out the one box—all of the measures in the legislation that Senator Cormann brings to this chamber and that has been the subject of much scrutiny.

'How much scrutiny?' you might ask. Let us go back and have a look at the joint standing committee inquiry that the submission of Senator McAllister, of the Australian Labor Party, was made to—because it was a very long inquiry, you know, Mr President. When they come here and say they want more inquiry time, let us look back, because that inquiry had 21 hearings. It had 21 hearings! Those hearings were held over a period of time from February 2014 to March 2015. There were 13 months of inquiry. There were 13 months of hearings that resulted in recommendations that we have put into legislation.

You supported those recommendations, yet now you seek to frustrate it. Now the Australian Labor Party, having put a submission to an inquiry two years ago asking for these reforms, having participated in 13 months of hearings, 21 different hearings, come here and say, 'Now we've changed our minds and we don't want it.' The most hypocritical and the most petulant behaviour I have seen in nine years in the Senate I see from those opposite at present. It is the most hypocritical, petulant behaviour I have ever seen in this place. Why? They are simply standing up for backroom operators, for preference whisperers, and standing against the democratic will of the Australian voter.

We on this side are proud to say that we trust voters to direct their preferences. We do not think that backroom operators should direct the voters' will. We think voters should direct their preferences as they see fit. That is exactly what our legislation will determine. We are proud of it, and you should be ashamed of yourselves for your hypocritical backflip.

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (President) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the motion moved by Senator McAllister under standing order 115 be agreed to.