Thursday, 17 March 2016
Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016; In Committee
In that brief moment we had earlier in addressing some of the arguments for why this bill has not been adequately considered, I indicated that it is very unfortunate that proper consideration of a piece of legislation with the significance of this—a major change that has not occurred in 30 years—in terms of how we elect senators and that there will be many areas of questions arising from the poor consideration that had occurred. I intend at the outset to highlight a number of those areas. For example, I think I said in that five-minute statement when I had the opportunity to review the Hansard of the very brief hearing we had—in fact, let me take this moment to go to that point. I was reminded by one of my colleagues—in fact Senator Moore but also others—during that division that the report that Senator Birmingham was referring, but I see he has now left the chamber; it was a very brief interest.
Oh, he's here. Good—where is he? Senator Birmingham, the interim report on the inquiry into the conduct of the 2013 federal election covered many issues. To maintain the pretence that that was an adequate consideration of the issues that this government has done a fix with the Greens behind closed doors to create this bill—and even when I say create this bill, you have got to look at what this bill is once you wade through four explanatory memorandums. It has shifted because of the farce of process that occurred in its creation.
I would like to remind the Senate that the genesis of the considerations that the minister refers to when he tries to misrepresent Labor's position was the joint parliamentary committee's consideration of the conduct of the 2013 federal election. So let me remind senators of what some of the issues in the conduct of that election were. They are quite pertinent to what we will deal with during the course of what, unfortunately, for senators will be a very lengthy committee stage consideration of a bill. We would rather it occurred another way. We would rather it did not involve senators staying here in the chamber day and night to address these matters but we will not leave these matters unaddressed.
In the very brief inquiry we had whilst we had the AEC—and let me remind senators of how that process worked—I think Senator Conroy had two or maybe three turns of five minutes of questions. Senator Macdonald described that as an 'adequate inquiry'. Labor had two or three goes of five minutes of questions. In fact, when I sought to clarify a point the chair tried to rule me out during Labor senators' time. Fortunately, the chair was subsequently reminded that it was Labor's time according to his own rules, as limited as those rules were, and Senator Conroy was happy to cede to my request again that the department appear so that we could ask them questions. But I stray from the main point.
The main point is that, if you go back to the Interim report on the inquiry into the conduct of the 2013 federal election, you go back to what the issues were. Do senators recall what problems the AEC had at that point? They were not just the issues over microparties. There were serious problems with how the election had been conducted. This was why when the AEC appeared before the farce committee they were very keen to stress that they needed at least three months to implement the changes that were before the committee at that stage. We do not know yet—hopefully, the minister will be able to enlighten us during this discussion—what the AEC's view is with respect to the implementation of the further amendments to the bill. We do not know that. The AEC may actually feel that they require further time because the government has now proposed to make more significant changes. We do not know. Hopefully, the minister will be able to enlighten us here on what consideration has occurred since the government considered JSCEM's recommendations. That will be another area I will come to.
I would like to understand after we went through that farce of a process—where we were required to consider the inquiry in such a limited time frame—what subsequently occurred within government. We are told—and I think Senator Rhiannon might have signed on to this one too—first up in the interim report that JSCEM had been concerned about logos on ballot papers. They were concerned that they had not had an opportunity to assess the associated copyright and printing ramifications. The committee went on through some process of imagination, because there was not any material before us. Maybe these members of the committee were party to some process we did not have an opportunity to participate in. The reflection of the majority of the committee there was: 'The committee is pleased that these issues have been addressed to the government’s satisfaction.' How do we know that? There was no discussion before the committee of that point. The department did not appear before the committee on that point.
So we go back to an issue that had been highlighted in the Interim report on the inquiry into the conduct of the 2013 federal electionthe implications of including logos on ballot papers—and what do we find? We find even the majority of the committee say that they had not had an opportunity to assess the associated copyright and printing ramifications. In reality what this report should have said was that we still have not considered it. Instead, somehow something happened that implanted this idea—because there was no evidence and there were no submissions before the committee that covered these points—and suddenly, 'The committee is pleased that these issues have been addressed to the government's satisfaction.' As far as I can see, the discussions in the four explanatory memorandums do not cover this point, so where did it come from? It is a sham. It seriously is a sham.
There will be concerns about how logos will be used. We do not know what processes ultimately the AEC will apply. I have previously made the point that you may have political parties who are not quite as proud of their logo as the Australian Greens and feel that under these new rules it is appropriate to change their logo. Will there be sufficient time to do that? Will the AEC facilitate that process? We do not know.
Of course, that is not the only thing we do not know. There are the other things we do not know that I was referring to earlier on on behalf of Senator Rhiannon, because she was really concerned about this policy issue. We really do not know what the implications here might be. Senator Rhiannon asked the AEC:
As you know, there is a requirement in the bill that people should number a minimum of one to six boxes. Should there be a penalty for anyone advocating to just vote 1 above the line?
Quite rightly, and predictably, the AEC said that that is a matter of policy, that is a matter for government. This bill has already been through the House, by virtue of a deal done between the Greens and the government. It has already been through a process where they have made further amendments. Commentators have said: 'What? Are you serious?' It has already been through that stage and in the Senate inquiry we had Senator Rhiannon asking a really basic policy question that should have been considered in the discussions that the Greens had with the government.
This is even more astounding. We should be able to find a policy response to that question. The AEC was the wrong place to go to ask but maybe that explains why Senator Rhiannon sidled up with the government members of the committee and prevented a very reasonable request—attempted three times—for the committee to have the opportunity to question the department. She herself needed to question the department because you cannot find the answer to that question. When you look at the bill, when you look at the explanatory memorandum, when you look at the government first and second reading speeches, the answer to that basic question is not there.
The other questions that were asked in the committee inquiry covered things such as what modelling had the AEC done or was the AEC aware that the government had conducted modelling. At least, according to the AEC, there was not any so we really do not know the implications of even just that basic question that Senator Rhiannon asked. We do not know whether there should be a penalty for someone advocating to just vote 1 above the line. We do not know how many people might vote just 1 above the line under the new arrangements. We have not seen any mapping or any indication of what consideration the government has applied.
We have seen lots of signs, which I will come to later, about what a farce this process has been. In fact, I would have to suggest it has been the most astounding government consideration process that I think I have seen in 20 years in the Senate. That we struggle so hard to find any description of the government's policy rationale is incredible. Partly it is incredible because it has been through a process with the Australian Greens where a rationale has not been required. Now perhaps if the government had gone through the proper process and had sought to engage all participants in the Senate then they would have been challenged to provide an adequate policy rationale. But unfortunately, in the backroom discussions with the Australian Greens, it seems that challenge did not occur. What else did not occur, which is an example of the inexperience or the ineptitude—let me be generous and say—of both parties, is the consideration of what process might need to follow. Because with that lack of a policy rationale and without some sense of what process you are then going to undergo, we end up in this chaos.
I will be generous to the Greens here because opposite me are the government of the day. It is actually the government's job to have a sense of how they want to progress their agenda. But, instead, we have the chaos that is this. Why do we have that? We have that because they have driven down this tunnel sort of thinking they want a double dissolution, sort of thinking they only want a double dissolution if they can change the way the Senate works, sort of thinking they want the ABCC but do not know when they are going to have the time or opportunity to deal with that. Their whole management of procedure in this place has been fraught.
Of all the scams, the most recent was Senator Cormann's description—and we had it from Senator Birmingham too but he was just trotting out the earlier lines—of the 20 hours: 'There has been 20 hours of debate on this'—what a fraud. This bill has been before the Senate since we commenced the second reading. Because those opposite have been caught up in a sham of a process and have not managed the process appropriately, it has not proceeded in the way it might normally. If there is an appropriate attempt to engage in an open and transparent process with all senators—crossbench, Greens, opposition and government—it is strange how easily legislation then does progress. There will not be arguments about whether we should receive messages and how they should be managed. There will not be debates about what a fraud the committee inquiry was. And there will not be protracted, lengthy committee stage considerations, where all the latest that should be addressed by the department or the government— (Time expired)
In the arguments we heard in that previous discussion around taking this bill to a committee or not, claims were made by members of the government about the extensive consultation—the number of hours and the number of meetings—that had gone on around this legislation. It is always difficult because I know that when you get excited and want to put forward your particular point of view, it sometimes is tempting to over exaggerate the statements you are making. I am not a member of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters but, in preparation for this, I managed to go through the website and have a look at the process that was undertaken from December 2013, when Senator Ronaldson actually referred the conduct of the 2013 election to the joint standing committee, as happens after every election as a standard process.
Despite the papers being waved around about how many hours and how many meetings took place to consider the issue of Senate voting, as Senator Birmingham said, it was highly inflated. In fact the agenda items that the joint standing committee looked at were a range of issues that were part of the 2013 election. They cover things such as electronic voting. In fact a whole segment of the hearings that Senator Birmingham felt concentrated exclusively on the issue of Senate voting, did not. There was a very serious series of meetings and inquiry discussions and processes that looked particularly at the issue of electronic voting, and one of the interim reports concentrated on that.
There was a very interesting report around the issue of electronic voting. It raised a number of issues that were put forward by submissions and it looked at processes into the future. The recommendations from that element were that, at this stage, it was not appropriate to proceed. That is fine. That is the process that the committee takes. I have not counted the hours. Maybe someone would have the time to go through and count how many hours of the joint standing committee inquiry was taken on each particular issue, how many of the submissions covered what issue and what the focus of the Australian Electoral Commission was during the debate.
I have not done that, but I have looked at the reports and I have seen that, whilst the issues around Senate voting processes were a significant issue in the overall discussion of the joint standing committee, it was not the only focus. To come into this debate, as part of making a strong argument—and in fact, Senator Collins, one of the expressions that my mother used to use was that someone 'overegged the custard'. I think the custard was flowing strongly in some of the debate that we have heard and, I would expect, will continue to hear. I think it is important that at least we lay down some of the processes around making sure that we keep a reasonable approach. I want to put on record the work that I have done in looking at what the joint standing committee did. People who are listening to this debate will not have the time or possibly the interest to go through and check out the veracity of the statements that are being made in the argument.
What I strongly believe around this issue—which, as we know, is the biggest single change to the way that the Senate voting process will operate in many years; it is 30 years, I believe, since the last major change occurred—is that there is a need for strong consideration, element by element, about what the most effective way to take this forward is. I certainly have some questions—through you, Mr Chairman—to the minister about getting some information about the education process which was strongly recommended by the Australian Electoral Commission and also the joint standing committee. Should there be a change in the way that this would operate, there would need to be a strong education process put in place to work with the community, to make them aware of the changes and how they would operate. That is a standard process, I think, if we are making changes, but particularly if we are making changes to an already complex system.
I think many people have already raised this in the discussion that we have had so far—and I do not know whether it has been 20 hours, Minister; I think there has been a significant amount of discussion since the bill came into this place. What has not happened in the debate in this place is the opportunity to hear from other people about how they feel.
The first time that this particular bill was placed under any scrutiny as a piece of legislation was the four-hour process that we had two weeks ago. Senator Collins has already described the process. I read it. I did not have the opportunity to attend, because I was at another committee. I am sorry—if Senator Macdonald is listening—but that does not indicate that I had a lack of interest in the issues of the electoral reform. He seemed to infer that anyone who did not turn up for the actual hearing was not interested in the process. It was just that there were other responsibilities to be had, but I did read the Hansard of that hearing.
I saw that because of the time constraint—and clearly even the chair of that hearing said there were time constraints—there were very strong restrictions on how many questions people could ask and also on the sequential nature of the way that people could be engaged in the process. It is understandable, if you are having a four-hour hearing. If you had a clear, focused, committee process around the piece of legislation itself, there would be a wider opportunity for senators to ask questions, to follow up questions and to be involved in debate. That was not offered on this piece of legislation. That is in fact one of the faults that I see in the process.
We can talk here about how long the issues of Senate electoral reform have been on the agenda. We can talk about for how many hours the joint standing committee actually looked at this particular issue. But the piece of legislation that came out of the joint standing committee process—no-one debates that; the piece of legislation did come out of the joint standing committee process—has not been subject to the standard scrutiny that this chamber expects for new legislation being brought forward.
What we have had is—up till now, and I think it will continue—debate in the chamber. That is people with various points of view standing up and giving that evidence into the debate. That has happened; no-one can challenge that. In fact, there have been more hours in us giving our opinions of the bill than in finding out what other people thought about it and giving questions to experts in the process. No-one can challenge that. If we had had a 20- or 25-hour process of looking at the bill in a committee, that would then have been giving the chance.
I think there were about 110 or 112 submissions to the four-hour process. Most of those submissions are from individuals. They are quite short submissions—considering they had three days to put their submissions in—from people who felt strongly enough to say, 'This is how I feel about the process.' Many of them were distressed about the process in which we were engaged, because they felt it was being rushed. In fact, one—I will not read the person's name into Hansard, but you will find it in one of the submissions to the four-hour inquiry, chat or discussion—said that this does not give value to the way the Senate should operate, that this very rushed process is not a reflection of how we should operate.
My point is that you cannot say that this bill has been subject to extensive scrutiny by this chamber. You cannot say this bill has been the subject of extensive scrutiny by the joint standing committee. And you certainly cannot say that the series of reports that are on the web page that reflect what did occur as a result of the joint standing committee review of the 2013 election—those documents—were fully focused on Senate electoral reform. That is just not true, and to purport that that is factual actually weakens the argument. If we are going to talk about what appropriate consultation is, let us talk about how the process has operated up until now.
It would seem to me to be a simple challenge for this chamber. How are we going to be able to get the answers to the questions that some of us have about how it will work, how the process will operate and who has been consulted? How are we going to get answers to all these things—answers which Senator Collins said we would hope we would get in a formal committee process that was looking at the legislation, allowing then for more amendments if required? Even as a result of that short discussion, there came to be amendments brought forward into this place. Those amendments were not there before we had even that level of scrutiny.
I believe that there should have been a further opportunity to have more extensive scrutiny and more evidence provided by those people who are genuinely interested in the process of electoral law in our country. There should have been a further opportunity for people to scrutinise the options in front of us. There should have been a further opportunity for people to scrutinise what had occurred between when the original evidence was taken at a number of inquiries of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters and to be able to listen to various opinions that were raised after those interim reports had been brought forward. As all of us would acknowledge, the joint standing committee were doing their work scrupulously through that period of 2014 and 2015. As Senator Birmingham said earlier, they were working really hard and presented us with quite detailed reports about what they had done. But was any of that brought back into this chamber? No. Between 2015 and two weeks ago, there was no discussion in this place around electoral reform. That is a serious fault.
Senator Rhiannon interjecting—
I take that contribution from Senator Rhiannon. When was the report from the joint standing committee debated in this place between 2015 and now? There was no debate. You can check the Hansard on that process, and I am happy to have that discussion. It is good to have some elements of our Senate and the House of Representatives involved in these discussions. That is why we have joint standing committees operating. But the next step of that kind of consideration is to come back into this place and have a discussion in this place about what happens next. That did not occur between April 2015 and two weeks ago.
If these things need to be considered fully and if we are going to recommend that there are such significant changes to our process, we need to have those discussions in this chamber—and we did not have that until two weeks ago. I believe that that is a serious fault. As I said earlier in this debate, that raises questions about why it was not urgent in April 2015 and it is suddenly urgent in March 2016. That is where I think we seriously need to look at our process. What will happen in this debate will happen. It will go on and there will be lots of people making contributions and arising points and putting arguments as to why change should or should not happen, and that is how the process operates.
When the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters is looking at issues around the election of 2016—we will have an election in 2016 and we will have the extraordinarily hardworking Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters working on these issues with the people from the AEC who professionally look at the process—we should continue to have the discussion back in this place. That needs to happen so that these quite viable issues around why processes should change and, for example, electronic voting—that wealth of information—can come back into the Senate so that we are able to consider it.
Now, during the night of 17 March 2016—St Patrick's Day—we will be trying, in that period of time, to conduct a formal inquiry around the issues only of electoral voting in the Senate, rather than looking at all the issues of the election of 2013.
A number of inaccurate assertions have been made by the two speakers in the committee debate so far. The suggestion that this legislation is being rushed is blatantly false. It is of course well understood that this bill, the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016, implements the unanimous recommendations of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters which were first released in May 2014. That committee had some very significant Labor luminaries on it—not just anybody but two former Special Ministers of State; two former Labor ministers, cabinet minister, who were looking after electoral policies. They were Mr Gray and then Senator John Faulkner.
Senator Jacinta Collins interjecting—
I know that Senator Collins does not like to hear this—and she likes to continue to rudely interrupt. I did not interrupt Senator Collins at all. I listened to her in silence. But let me again remind Senator Collins—and I will do this, I suspect, on a number of occasions tonight—that Mr Gray this morning said that these reforms that are before the Senate implement 95 per cent of the reforms that were recommended by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. Mr Gray is not alone when it comes to the Labor Party; there are other senior Labor luminaries who actually share his views. Today we had on Sky News the former Premier of Queensland, from Senator Moore's home state of Queensland, Mr Beattie. Do you remember Mr Beattie?
Here is what Mr Beattie said:
I think Gary Gray's comments are right on Senate reform. Frankly, I don't agree with the Labor Party's position on this. Senate reform is important.
The Labor Party under Mr Shorten's leadership is out of step with the respected opinion of senior Labor people across the country. Everybody in Australia knows that the only reason that Bill Shorten decided to ignore the considered advice of people like Mr Gray, former Senator Faulkner, Peter Beattie, former ACTU President Jennie George and a member in the House of Representatives is that he did not have the courage to stand up to the bullying tactics of people like Senator Conroy and various interests in the union movement. That is the reason. He did not want to pick the fight. Mr Shorten knows in his heart of hearts that what we are doing here today is right—hence the comments that he made in a doorstop earlier this week, which Senator Rhiannon read into the chamber earlier, where he said that he actually accepts the system and that, if it is changed, he will keep the system. He knows that what we are doing is right. He is just humouring people like Senator Stephen Conroy, like Senator Dastyari, like the sort of union heavies who come in and out of his office every day, because he does not have the guts to pick the fight, even though that is what would be required in order to stand up for the national interest.
People say that we are rushing these reforms, but on 6 February 2016 this is what Mr Gray, the then shadow minister for electoral matters—the then shadow minister representing the Labor Party, the spokesperson for the Labor Party, dealing with Senate electoral reform—had to say. As the person responsible for this area for the government, I was talking to Mr Gray as the person responsible for the Labor Party. He was my talking partner in order for me to ascertain Labor's position, to ascertain whether there was opportunity for common ground, to ascertain the best way forward. And he published an opinion piece in The West Australian on 6 February saying:
The system needs to be fixed. Fixing the Senate voting system is as important as one-vote-one-value and it is as important as the franchise.
Then he talks about the recommendations of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters:
These recommendations would see the power to allocate preferences given back to voters and stop opaque preference swaps between parties.
More specifically, under the recommended optional preferential voting system, voters would be able to expressly preference parties or candidate groups above the line rather than having their preferences distributed for them under a registered group voting ticket.
Then he says:
These changes will mean voter intention is reflected in a democratic electoral outcome. They will give voters control over whom they do and do not vote for.
These reforms are not intended to stifle or prevent the formation of new parties. These reforms simply mean that political parties, including my own, will have to convince the public rather than backroom deal-makers that they deserve their votes.
And here comes the clincher—the final sentence in that opinion piece:
The government should act now without delay and before the next election.
That is from the person who at the time was the appointed Labor spokesperson for Senate electoral reform. He was the person who was speaking for the Labor Party. He was the person who I was talking to as the spokesperson for the Labor Party. But now they are all saying: 'Oh, he was on a frolic of his own. That was never supported by the Labor Party.' But Senator Birmingham has already read out the extracts from the submission of the National Secretary of the Labor Party complaining about the manipulation of group voting tickets as a central reason that candidates with little public support have seen themselves elected to the Australian Senate. He has already read out the quotes from the National Secretary of the Labor Party, George Wright, indicating that Labor's preferred position would also see a requirement that ballot paper instructions and how to vote material advocate that voters fill in the minimum number of boxes above the line—which is precisely what we are doing—while still counting as formal any ballot paper with at least a 1 above the line. That is precisely, 100 per cent, what this bill is doing.
Mr Gray is not the only one who is urging us to get on with it. On 18 April 2015, Mr Griffin was, as he is now, the Labor deputy chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. This is what he said in April last year, nearly a year ago: 'The government should be acting on these recommendations' from the Joint Standing Committee on electoral Matters 'and, if they’re going to, they need to hurry up because they’re running out of time.' And after all these Labor luminaries have been out there saying to the government, 'Get on with it—let's do it! It's important. We need to fix this,' here we are putting a proposal to the Senate which, according to the Labor shadow cabinet minister, Gary Gray, is 95 per cent of what was recommended on Senate voting reform, and Labor says: 'No, no, no, no, no. Let's just wait for another six months. Let's just do it later.' The truth is that we could have an inquiry that lasts for another five years. If Bill Shorten is the leader with people like Senator Conroy and Senator Dastyari pulling his strings, the Labor Party will never change its mind in relation to what is a good public policy position.
It has again been suggested that this legislation is dramatically different from what the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters recommended back in 2014, some two years ago. Let me take you through it. Let me take you through the individual recommendations and explain to you precisely what is similar and what is different. The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters recommended optional preferential voting above the line—full stop. That would have meant that people could have just filled in 1 above the line without any guidance or instruction or advice to fill in at least six boxes from 1 to 6 in the order of their preference. We have decided to do the latter—instead of going with the original Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters recommendation to just put 1 and to advise to just put 1, we are going with the advice on the ballot paper that, to vote above the line, the voter needs to complete at least 1 to 6 but with the savings provision that one or fewer than six is still formal.
So the position we have adopted is more consistent with the submission that the National Secretary of the Labor Party put to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. Yes, we have departed from what was recommended by JSCEM; we are not strictly adopting their position, but our position is actually more consistent with the Labor Party position put to that committee at the time. I would have thought that the Labor Party would have congratulated us for the fact that we were taking on board the suggestions of the National Secretary of the Labor Party. I would have thought that, in particular, Senator McAllister, the National President of the Labor Party at the time when Labor made that submission, would have congratulated us for having taken that on board and for the fact that the coalition and the Greens thought, 'Yes, George Wright is right on this, and we will take on board what he is saying.' That is exactly what we have done.
In relation to below-the-line voting, the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters recommended partial optional preferential voting, with preferences to be completed equal to the number of vacancies—six, 12 or two. The government—and this not hard to understand—has accepted the subsequent recommendation of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters—that in order to vote below the line, the advice on the ballot paper should encourage the voter to number at least 1 to 12, but with a savings provision that any ballot paper where at least one to six boxes have been filled in sequentially from 1 to 6 in order of their preference, is still formal. Again, it is not complicated; you agree or you disagree. It is a slight variation on what was recommended, but it is extremely close.
The JSCEM recommended the abolition of group- and individual-voting tickets. We are abolishing, through this bill, group- and individual-voting tickets. The JSCEM recommended additional resources to the AEC to educate voters on changes. We have already publicly indicated, and the AEC told the most recent inquiry, that the government are providing additional resources for that purpose.
Then there was a range of recommendations in that interim report that was released in May 2014 to increase various membership requirements: membership numbers, verification, compliance et cetera. The background to this is the level of gaming that took place where members of one party would set up another party and another party and another party, and the same members of one party were officers of several parties and negotiating preferences with themselves through group-voting ticket arrangements. So for voters, it was completely misleading and they were not clear who they were actually voting for when voting for one of these pop-up parties that were channelling preferences in all sorts of directions.
There is only one change that we have adopted out of those recommendations—that is, that a registered officer for a political party should not be able to be a registered officer for several parties. We would have thought that that was sensible. It is a complete conflict for a person to be the registered officer of two different parties. Senator Leyonhjelm appeared as a witness at the inquiry and said if he had had the time, he would have set up 20 different parties with various names—the no carbon tax party, the no this party, the no secret taxes party, the no that party. The name of the party, being a slogan, would attract some primary votes, which would then be channelled, after they had negotiated with themselves on how to channel the preferences through group-voting tickets. Is that really the way we should elect senators to this chamber? Is that really what the Labor Party believe? So we are making that change that was recommended by JSCEM.
We were not able to reach consensus with the Greens, and I am quite open and candid about this. The government's preference would have been to accept the recommendation which would have required an increase in the membership requirement from the 500 or so that it is at present to 1,500. But, in the end, we had to make a judgement on what was realistically achievable through this chamber, so the government compromised. The government accepted that the Greens would not support this. Nobody knew where the Labor Party was going to be in relation to any of this because, by then, the Labor Party was in chaos and complete dysfunction. Their shadow spokesperson was expressing one view and people in the Senate were expressing a different view. So it was very hard to actually know what the Labor Party position was.
There was a recommendation from JSCEM that we should require candidates to be resident in the state or territory in which they were seeking election. The proposition was that if you do not have enough support in the state that you cannot even attract a candidate in that state, you should not be able to run a candidate. Initially, we considered adopting that recommendation, but we received legal advice that that would highly likely be found to be unconstitutional. So we did not proceed with that recommendation because the eligibility requirements for election to this place are provided for in the Senate.
Senator Jacinta Collins interjecting—
I am taking it through quite logically. Finally, while there was no specific JSCEM recommendation in relation to party logos, the joint standing committee did point out that there was a problem of potential voter confusion with similar party names and that the government should consider ways to address it. Our proposal to allow political parties, at their discretion, to have their logo included in the ballot paper is our attempt at minimising voter confusion when you have political parties with similar names presenting themselves for election.
The government have very much constructively and positively taken on board the recommendations of the joint standing committee. We have consulted subsequent to that, including with the Labor Party through the official spokesperson on electoral matters from the Labor Party. We have gone in good faith through a very thorough process and the bill that is in front of the Senate today is a result of that process.
I would like to thank the minister for moving on after 10 minutes of his Labor luminary talking points. I could stand here and do Liberal luminary talking points and waste the time of senators, but I am not going to do that. Let's get to some of the key matters that the minister did start addressing in part. The minister told us that, in some respects, they considered the report—he shifted a bit between the JSCEM 2014 and what I understand to be the JSCEM 2016 report. I am wondering if the minister could inform the committee when exactly the government considered the recommendations of the 2016 report?
I thank Senator Collins. I first considered the recommendations of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters 2016 report after that report was tabled. But obviously on the day that the hearing took place, it would not surprise you that, rather than attend the coalition joint party room meeting, I was glued to my television watching the evidence that was being given by some very distinguished Australians, including people like Antony Green and others. Obviously, I had to have conversations with a number of experts in this space. As I was considering the evidence that was being given in public session, I started to think that maybe there was a further way that a very good bill could be further improved. And, after some further consultation with some key stakeholders in the parliament—after the 2016 recommendations of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters had been tabled—I decided to recommend to the government in my capacity as the Special Minister of State, that we should develop and initiate a further set of amendments which I have since publicly flagged and which were circulated in the chamber some 10 or 11 days ago. And that reminds me that I should table a supplementary explanatory memorandum relating to the government amendments to be moved to this bill, which I now do.
Self-evidently, I sought and received advice in relation to the amendments that the government has initiated and circulated and in relation to which I have just tabled an additional explanatory memorandum.
The problem is that this is not self-evident, and the minister is deliberately being very vague in his responses. So I will try a different question. Minister, did you receive advice or consult the secretary of your department in relation to the recommendations of the JSCEM report? If so, when?
It is going to be a long night. It is a pretty straightforward question. The secretary of your department—Ms Halton, I believe: did you consult her as one of the people you indicated that you consulted following the JSCEM committee's 2016 recommendations?
Not me personally. I am not sure what Senator Collins is getting at. We follow the usual standard procedure in relation to these matters. The government was inclined to pursue a particular change to the bill that had been introduced into the parliament and passed by the House of Representatives. We communicated our intention in the usual way to the relevant people in the department. Relevant advice was sought and provided, and of course the amendments were drafted and have since been circulated.
The problem is that the minister talks about 'the usual way'. What would usually happen in terms of a committee recommendation in relation to legislation is that the minister would seek advice from his department. The minister has told us that he sought advice from—if I am correct in my recollection of what he said—some colleagues. That is about the best description we have of what government consideration occurred at this moment in terms of the JSCEM committee's 2016 recommendations.
Let me put part of that in the broader picture. The broader picture is: I do not believe the government has responded to the 2014 JSCEM committee report. Am I accurate there?
I think everybody across Australia would be of the view that the government has responded by virtue of the proposal that we have put in front of the parliament for the parliament's consideration. Indeed, when the Prime Minister and I announced the proposed improvements to Senate voting arrangements, we very clearly indicated at that time that this was our response to the unanimous recommendations of a cross party committee of the parliament with relevant expertise in relation to these matters—namely the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters report released on 9 May 2014.
Again we go back to usual process, because the government did not table before the Senate a response. In fact, it did not table a response before the House. As Senator Moore was pointing out, there has not been an opportunity to canvass before the parliament the government's view about the appropriate response to that 2014 report. The minister stands there and attempts to argue that this is not a rush and it is not an attempt to ram through the legislation. Once again he is relying on what seems to be his one key line, which is 'Labor luminaries'. As I pointed out, I could continue to stand here and talk about 'Liberal luminaries' until the cows come home, but it is not really a policy rationale for the approach to be taken.
More concerning about the policy rationale are several issues that I will come to. I will stay on the issue of the consideration of the JSCEM committee's recommendations. Senator Cormann came into this place at 10.08 on the morning that the JSCEM report was tabled in the House. I think it was tabled at about 9.05 by the chair in the House. By 10.08 Senator Cormann is telling us:
The government has considered the issues raised and the recommendation of the joint standing committee to introduce a form of optional preferential voting below the line …
I can accept that the minister was watching the hearings, still hiding behind a department that he was not prepared to allow to front the committee—just remember that bit. He is studiously sitting in his office, following the hearings, following the issues, talking to a few people about their views on these issues. But when I ask a really basic question, which is: when did government consider? He then says, 'After the report' and 'I had a chat with a few fellows.' Seriously! Is that the way this government functions? Did the amendments before the Senate now go before cabinet?
The amendments before the Senate went through all of the proper processes. I am happy to confirm that, and I am also happy to refer Senator Collins to the revised explanatory memorandum for the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016, which again confirms:
which is the bill before the Senate—
responds to key elements of the first interim report and the final report of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) inquiry into the 2013 Federal Election, which were tabled on 9 May 2014, and 15 April 2015, respectively.
In relation to the matter of principle about whether or not the government would consider taking on board the suggestion that had been made by a range of stakeholders to also make some improvements to the voting arrangements for voting below the line, as I have indicated, we started some consideration within government in relation to these matters as a result of the evidence that was provided at the hearing, and subsequently, after the report was tabled, the government made a formal decision. That decision has since been reflected in amendments which I believe were circulated in the Senate on the Thursday. I believe that the 2016 report by JSCEM was tabled just after nine on the Wednesday, and by Thursday afternoon the government had circulated some amendments, having taken the in-principle decision that we would adopt the view of many and the recommendation that was reflected in the JSCEM report that there should be relevant improvements to below-the-line voting arrangements, which we have adopted.
Minister, I am still asking: when was even that in-principle decision taken? You say that these decisions were taken in an appropriate way. You have refused to answer my question about whether the changes that these most recent amendments represent went through cabinet, and I press that question.
Senator Collins has been here long enough, and she has been a cabinet minister herself. I do not talk about what goes and what does not go before cabinet. But let me just again very firmly put on the record that the amendments that the government will be moving during this committee stage of the debate, in relation to below-the-line voting arrangements in the Senate, have gone through all of the appropriate processes of the coalition, and of course they directly respond to the relevant recommendations made by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters in its report released a few weeks ago. I am not quite sure what point Senator Collins is trying to prove. I am not quite sure what conspiracy theory she is trying to pursue.
I would have thought that the government acted in very good faith. We put our bill out for consideration. It was scrutinised by people across Australia who made submissions to the inquiry. The submissions were obviously there for all to see. I had a number of conversations with some people who made submissions to try to understand some of their points a bit better, and of course in the end the government made a decision to initiate a further amendment, and that is something that I did indeed announce on Wednesday morning—I believe when I was finally allowed the opportunity to speak in what had by then been a six-hour debate on whether or not the Senate should accept the message from the House of Representatives in relation to this bill and whether we should allow this bill to be read a first time. So from memory it was about 10 o'clock on Wednesday morning that I rose to speak, and by then clearly I had all my ducks in a row and I was able to make relevant announcements in this chamber.
I suppose we need to still have some humour in this, although it is not very funny with some of the poor processes that the Greens have allowed to occur. The minister stands here and wanders between the appropriate processes of the coalition and the appropriate processes of government, and he refuses to cover a very important issue, which is that a joint parliamentary committee makes its recommendations at roughly 9.05, and by 10.08, through means that the minister cannot describe other than that he chatted with a few colleagues, we have the minister announcing that the government has considered the issues raised and the recommendations of the joint standing committee to introduce a form of optional preferential voting below the line.
As the minister says, I have been a member of the cabinet and I have been around this place a long time. Unlike some, Minister, I do not accept that you are Superman. I am more likely to accept the musings that were on Antony Green's blog, which were that the government had a predetermined position on this, that the bill as it was introduced in the House was actually their ambit position, and that they were thinking that they would back down to the crossbenchers and respond on below-the-line issues at a later point. The somersaults that Senator Cormann was able to do between 9.05 and 10.08 on the day that he announced the government's position—the same morning that the JSCEM report occurred—combined with the points that I made earlier about some of the recommendations, such as that the government and Green committee members seemed to have picked up policy rationales by osmosis, because they do not exist anywhere else, really do make you think this whole process stinks.
The minister—and I should highlight this point—is not prepared to advise the committee when he sought advice from his department, when he had discussions with any particular people and whether this issue had been addressed by cabinet, and he retreats back to coalition processes. I am really not sure why, because he does not seem to have any respect for Labor Party processes. He wants to stand here and talk about Labor luminaries rather than a unified position of the current Labor caucus. In that respect, Minister, you are just going to have to deal with that fact. The Labor caucus is united, we have a clear position and I am here to execute that position. I am not a backroom boy. I am not Senator Conroy or Senator Dastyari. But they are the facts of life. If we have to, by virtue of this deal you have with the Greens, conduct what should be proper parliamentary consideration through a committee stage debate, possibly my colleagues would suggest that I am probably in a good position to do that. But it is a very concerning world where we are.
Perhaps now I will use the other example of this point. The other example that Senator Moore used is the second reading amendment that was voted down by the Australian Greens. There is a principle at play here that is far more important than this particular piece of legislation that the Greens have wittingly colluded with the government to trample, and that principle is public interest immunity. The Senate has upheld on countless occasions in relation to public interest immunity—and I see Senator Ludlam raising and paying attention on this point, because I know it has been a very important issue to him as well. But he may not understand, when he voted down Senator Moore's second reading amendment, exactly what was occurring there. What was occurring there was in response to my return to order. Senator Cormann had retreated to the commercial interests of the Commonwealth.
Senator Cormann interjecting—
I am talking about the commercial interests aspect at the moment, but, if you would like to make that contribution, you are welcome to. I am not suggesting that that is not part of it, but the issue of principle that the Greens have colluded with—quite astoundingly—is that they have allowed you to continue to hide behind the commercial interests of the Commonwealth when asked important questions about the considerations of this bill. All that Senator Moore was seeking was that you be required to outline what harm was being claimed. That is all. What was the particular harm that would occur to the public interests by you responding to that return to order? It is a pretty routine matter. Many times over the years in this place I have been here ministers have sought to hide behind commercial interests. Senator Ludlam might be able to give me an example—I cannot think of one at hand—where the Senate response to that has been to require that the minister at least indicate the harm that they are proposing might occur. But on this occasion—the first that I can think of—the Greens have colluded with the government and ensured that they do not even need to put before the Senate what the harm is that they are proposing might come forward.
I can only hypothesise here—and I know even some in the media have also—but the types of harm are issues related to transparency. For example, in The West Australian on 7 March, after some people had an opportunity to look at the limited information that the minister provided in a highly redacted form, there was a story from Paul Osborne talking about his concerns about AEC funding. I know Senator Rhiannon had an interest in a few matters, but none of those concerns seem to have been resolved, so I will be interested to see if she eventually attempts to press on any of these matters.
Minister, in your first reading contribution, you said—that must have been the 2014 recommendation, because I do not recall it from the 2016 one—'The JSCEM recommended that additional resources be provided to the AEC to educate voters on changes,' and you said, 'We are allocating additional resources to the AEC.' It seems—at least to date—the Greens are satisfied with that assurance, but nobody else is. They have not been required to indicate the nature of the additional resources, where those funds are going to come from, how the various appropriation debates we are having will actually impact on whether or not those funds will arrive in time, the timing issues associated with that or indeed the longer historical issues that Paul Osborne highlights about the funding and about what this return to order actually showed.
I will go for a moment to the return to order. Perhaps in a more casual way, it certainly is sniffy enough to suggest that we need to keep looking. I apologise in advance, Chair, if you will think of this as a prop, but I need senators to understand the highly redacted form in which this documentation was provided. Perhaps we both need to take advice from the clerks as to whether it is appropriate. I demonstrate for senators the redactions that the minister made. The first of those documents is an agenda. Item 3 is 'matters to discuss,' fully redacted. Seriously? The next page, I reckon, would come close to be about 80 per cent redacted, but even what has been provided is interesting in part. For instance, the bottom dot point on page 1 of 2 of the next document is, 'The AEC felt that the parliament expects major changes to both operation and legislation, noting that legislative change will be a challenge.' This is from the executive strategy meeting of the AEC in the Department of Finance dated 29 April 2015, I think the same date Paul Osborne was referring to some of the critical financing and resourcing issues.
In terms of us being able to understand in any way what the nature of those challenges might be—redaction, redaction and more redaction. The intriguing part to these documents when I looked at them was a different reference here. This was on the executive strategy meeting on 9 June 2015. You go to page 2 and the action items. I will be interested, Minister, if you are able to explain to us these action items, because it is really quite intriguing. Action item 1 is: 'The AEC will identify areas of JSCEM response that they should not be consulted on.' Why on earth would the AEC be identifying areas that they should not be consulted on? I could understand why they would identify areas that they should be consulted on. But what was the minister trying to hide here?
Why on earth do we have a government agency whose independence is as important as that of the AEC, suggesting in executive minutes as an action item that 'the AEC will identify areas of the JSCEM response that they should not be consulted on'? In other words, 'Don't ask us about this!' And to finish the dot point: 'also any advice on preferred method of engagement in advance of the meeting on 24 June.' Preferred method of engagement? What are we engaged in here? This is a public agency. Preferred method of engagement from the AEC? What is going on in these executive strategy meetings? What is really occurring here?
Does that explain why so much of this needs to be redacted, or perhaps the minister can inform the committee now of the response to the question that should have been supported by the Greens in relation to the return to order, which is: what harm to the Commonwealth's commercial interests are you suggesting requires this information not be made available?
Firstly, in a bipartisanship spirit let me agree with Senator Collins's assertion that I am indeed not Superman! I have never claimed to be Superman. Clearly, I am somebody who is trying to do the best he can to get these reforms through the Senate, but I am definitely not that.
As much as Senator Collins is desperate to find a conspiracy theory here, there is actually no conspiracy theory. Obviously, the government was not only aware of what was taking place at the hearing of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters on 29 February 2016 we were also aware of the submissions that were made to that inquiry. Self-evidently, we were considering the issues after the public response to the reform proposal that we had put forward. And so, yes, we did have further conversations, among other things, with the Australian Greens and others, including the Labor Party. I had further conversations with the Labor Party, because at that point in time, on 29 February, Mr Gray was still the shadow minister for electoral matters. Mr Gray was still a spokesperson for the Labor Party on matters related to Senate electoral reform.
Senator Collins chose to quote very selectively from my response to the order for production of documents. I pride myself in this chamber on always responding in a very timely fashion and to the fullest extent possible to requests for documents. Senator Collins quoted selectively from my letter by referring to a claim in part in relation to the commercial interests of the Commonwealth. Let me read the full claim.
I claim Public Interest Immunity for these exclusions on the grounds that some relate to Cabinet deliberations;—
That is a longstanding position, which was adopted, amongst others, by the government that Senator Collins was part of; it is the same—
to the commercial interests of the Commonwealth which would be harmed in the event of disclosure; and to the private information of Commonwealth officers (including junior officer information).
There was a subsequent order passed. I had written to the President of the Senate in order to respond to that subsequent order, but because of the way the proceedings developed today we did not get to the point where this was to be tabled. So I table this now, but I am happy to confirm for the Senate that in that letter I reaffirm my previous claim of public interest immunity for certain documents recording communications between the AEC and ministers or officials. I reaffirm that my claim of public interest immunity for certain documents was consistent with the established precedents of the Senate around protecting the deliberations of cabinet, protecting commercial interests of the Commonwealth and respecting certain personal information of Commonwealth officers, including private contact details and junior officer identities. I table that now.
Senator Jacinta Collins interjecting—
Can you just sit back and let me deal with the questions that you have asked? Again, I listened to you courteously and in silence. I know that courtesy is not something that you embrace spontaneously, but perhaps let me just answer your question.
In its evidence at the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, which you said was so short that it should not have taken you that long to read through the Hansard of that evidence, the AEC actually addressed this precise point. Not only did the AEC advise the committee that they would be sufficiently funded to implement these reforms, to comprehensively educate the public about the changes and to run the next election but the Electoral Commissioner also indicated at the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters public hearing into this bill that because the Australian Electoral Commission uses external providers there is a commercial-in-confidence element to this funding and that it would not be appropriate to go into specific funding amounts at that time.
You asked a question and I am answering it. That is the way this process is meant to work! Just because you do not like the answer, do not abuse me for trying to answer your questions in good faith.
In relation to the second reading amendment that was moved by Senator Moore: clearly, that amendment was simply the latest in a long line of Labor tactics and attempts to delay proper debate on this important bill. There was a part in that second reading amendment which I am sure Senator Collins knows about, but she did not quote it when she was having a crack at Senator Ludlam—she left that bit out. It was the bit that said the effect of the second reading amendment was to defer consideration of this bill to another day.
Senator Jacinta Collins interjecting—
Ah! So here is Senator Collins having a crack at Senator Ludlam, allegedly for going against their long-established position in favour of transparency. Let me say to you: when I was in opposition in this Senate I championed the disclosure of information and forcing the government of the day to claim the public interest immunity properly. I take a very strong interest in these matters, as I know does Senator Ludlam. We had a number of conversations about that when I was in opposition.
I am very sad if you have not noticed this, but in government I have prided myself to respond in a timely fashion to orders for the production of documents—genuinely and in good faith, with due deference and respect to the important role of the Senate to scrutinise the activities of government and in as comprehensive a fashion as is appropriate, given the limitations of established public interest immunity claims that are able to be made.
Compare this to the previous Labor government. I was trying to get information out of the previous Labor government in relation to their disastrous mining tax deal negotiated in secret and behind closed doors with the chief executives of three big mining companies, and I got nothing. In fact, for weeks and weeks it was completely ignored.
Senator Collins has started to put in orders for the production of documents late one afternoon, expecting a lot of information to be tabled the next morning. I am sorry, but some of the officers were not able to get all of the information together and have it properly scrutinised and put into the right format in time for 9.30 the next morning. But as quickly as we possibly could—indeed, from memory I sought leave before question time on the Thursday of the last sitting week. From memory, that would have been 2 March. I sought leave and I was granted leave to table the response and the various documents, and we provided as much information as we possibly could, but there are some bits of the documents that we were asked for that relate to cabinet deliberations. There are some bits that relate to the commercial interests of the Commonwealth. There are some bits that relate to private information of junior Commonwealth officers or the private contact details of Commonwealth officers. Consistently with long-established precedent and long-established practice, we have indeed redacted those bits.
The Labor Party clearly have nothing to say against the substance of the reform that we are putting forward. They clearly have no criticism of what we are actually doing to empower voters to direct not only their primary vote but their preferences the way they wish instead of having those preferences traded and directed by backroom operators. That is why they are going down all these little rabbit holes chasing one conspiracy theory after the other.
When it comes to the substance of the debate, you have not asked a single question yet that in any way challenges the proposition that we are putting forward, and that is that this bill will ensure that results at future Senate elections will truly reflect the will of the Australian people. These reforms will empower voters across Australia to direct their preferences the way they want to and not the way political parties want to. That is what we are trying to do.
We understand why you are going to do everything you can now and maybe over the next three, four or five days. We are ready for it. That is why you are now just going down every little conspiracy-theory rabbit hole—because you have not got anything to say on the substance of the legislation.
I would like to take the opportunity to respond to the minister, given the nature of that contribution. You see, Minister, sure, time lines have been tight, but they have been tight on everything. They have been extremely tight on the committee inquiry! As I pointed out earlier, I think Labor had—if I am generous—maybe three lots of five minutes in the section where we had the AEC before us. As I recall, at that time the chair even tried to block me at one point from asking any questions.
But what we have been very light on is the policy rationale. Do not worry; we will get to the issues of substance, but we are going to have a very lengthy look at what has occurred in the process here because that process stinks. It has been part of an inappropriate fix between the government and the Greens, and you are obviously very sensitive to the issues of the return to order. The first time, in part of your response, you referred to how you pride yourself on being timely. And, yes, indeed I have had limited responses in a very timely way. It does not really satisfy me much, Minister. You might as well just write back to me and say no, and then you can stand here and claim timeliness. The response that you tabled I did in fact receive. I received it and considered that when we looked at Senator Moore's second reading amendment, because we simply were not satisfied with it.
The minister should know, given his pride and experience in these issues, that his response should cover what harm it is proposed would result from the disclosure of that information. It really is not adequate, Minister, for you to suggest that there was some reference possibly to some harm to commercial operations of contractors used by the AEC, as your blanket response here now. You have had opportunities for that return to order. In fact, I think Senator Moore's motion is the third one for you to deal with the issues of what harm it is that you are proposing.
To just characterise my comments to Senator Ludlam as an attack on him I do not think is reasonable. I did point out to Senator Ludlam that I noticed, I noted and I acknowledged that this has been a key area of interest of his—fairly respectfully, I thought. But I did highlight that I was surprised that as part of this fix—this is one of the many things that I have been surprised that the Greens have been prepared to just tolerate, because these are principles far broader than just the consideration of this bill. Parliamentary accountability of the government of the day is, as you have said, an issue of significant importance. The public interest immunity arguments are those that allow senators—whether they are in the crossbenches, the Greens or the opposition or you in opposition—to highlight government inadequacies and to talk about dissatisfaction that the government is not able to be held to account.
Why you have such a glass jaw about me highlighting that—other than that fairly glib reference to the Hansard of the AEC, and if I burrowed away in there somewhere I might find them having talked about commercial interests of work that they outsource—it really still is an inadequate answer from government—
Senator Cormann interjecting—
Here we now have the minister doing exactly what he claimed he was not doing. He says: 'Don't interject on me. I'm polite.' He then insults me, and now he sits there doing exactly the same. I am sorry, but it is 7.30.
You are really going to have problems here, Senator Cormann.
Sorry—Chair, I would ask for your protection here.
Senator Fifield interjecting—
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Order on my right! Senator Fifield, order please. Senators should be heard in silence. Continue, Senator Collins.
Thank you. I note that Senator Macdonald has come into the chamber now and I could be provoked to reflect on his earlier contribution. Usually, I do not allow myself to but I see Senator Fifield's face here and I am going to tempted by just this one element. Usually, I do not respond but I think every senator in this place will appreciate the reflection that Senator Macdonald's characterisation of what goes on in a committee is very creative—that is probably the most polite way I can put it: very creative. For him to be admonishing Senator Moore earlier for not being at the hearings and how well conducted they are is just a farce. It really is and it deserves to be acknowledged and noted at this time now that he has come back into the chamber.
Sorry: it was Senator Polley, not Senator Moore—that is right; I apologise for that. However, I think Senator Moore must have been responding to someone else's criticism at that stage. Senator Cormann, what you did not respond to—and this is why I am glad I have not allowed myself to be distracted at 7.30 at night by your interjections, which of course you do not make because you do not do that.
Senator Collins, with all the questions that she had, seems to have disappeared from the chamber, so I will take the call, if I can. Unlike some of my colleagues, I quite like Senator Collins and we get along well together in the legal and constitutional affairs committee. I have to say to my good friend Senator Collins: you will need to get some substance in the debate, if you are going to carry this on for a couple of hours. Quite frankly, I have never heard so much padding in any speech for a long, long time.
Can I just explain to those members of the Labor Party and people who might be listening, because this is a very serious debate: it is about our democracy and allowing Australians to vote for who they want to vote for in the Senate. I cannot understand why the Labor Party cannot see that. It is a pretty simple bill—there are a few other provisions but, effectively, it says: above the line, you can vote 1 to 6; and the 1 you vote above the line, the 2, 3, 4 is for a political grouping. If people want to vote 1 in the Liberal-National party box in Queensland, what that effectively means is that they are voting 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 for the Liberal-National party team. If they voted 2 for the Christian Democrats team, it means that their votes 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 would go to the Christian Democrats. It is pretty simple—much better than the current system where you just put a 1 in the political grouping of your choice but then you just adopt the grouping that your No. 1 choice has registered with the AEC—a pretty complicated system.
People who voted 1 for the Sex Party did not actually realise that their effective preferences were going to the Christian Democrats and vice versa. That is because, quite frankly, 98 per cent of Australians did not understand that, when you voted 1 above the line, you actually adopted the registered card of your chosen political choosee and had no idea where it went.
Under this system, the people of Australia will actually decide who they want as No. 2, and maybe people from the Christian Democrats do want the Sex Party as their No. 2 choice—I would doubt it, but maybe they do. Now they have the option of voting 1 for the Christian Democrats; 2 for the Sex Party; and 3 for the marijuana league or whatever. It is their choice. If that is the way they want to go, that is it.
It is a pretty simple bill. The addition that arose out of the committee hearing a couple of weeks ago—the committee looked at this and recommended to the government that they should go one step further, which was back to what was proposed by the all-party committee unanimously just two years ago: as well as going above the line on a 1 to 6, you could go below the line 1 to 12 optional preferential. That means if, in Queensland, people want to vote 1 for me but they like Senator Moore—they do not want to give their second votes to another one of my political party; they want to vote for Senator Moore because they think she has not done a bad job—they can vote below the line. All they have got to do is fill in 12 squares. They can put me 1, Senator Moore 2 and whoever they like 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12. Their vote will be valid and then they choose who they want, not the LNP in that case or the Australian Labor Party in Senator Moore's case. The people choose, so what is so bad about that? How outrageous is that?
It is such a good idea that respected Labor Senator John Faulkner sat on the original committee and was part of the unanimous recommendation that this new approach be adopte Not only was Senator John Faulkner there but so was Senator Tillem and Mr Gary Gray, who we know understands these things. Gary Gray was the National Secretary of the Labor Party at an election a few years ago so he understands implicitly the voting system. Yet Mr Gary Gray, a Labor member of parliament, was one of those who joined with Senator Faulkner and unanimously supported the approach to bring in this new regime in the bill before us now.
You do not need to be very clever to work that out. It is a pretty simple bill. How it works is pretty simple—one to six above the line or one to 12 below the line, if you like. The people of Australia make their own choice. If you get a quota, you are elected to the parliament, because that is what the people of Australia actually want. I understand because of some very good detective work from some of my colleagues that the submission the ALP put to the first inquiry—that is, the organisational ALP—asked for just what we are doing now. That is what they asked for. I am told that the President of the ALP at the time was none other than Senator McAllister, who—curiously—replaced Senator John Faulkner when he retired. So Senator McAllister was the President of the ALP.
Serendipity, indeed. She was the President of the ALP and she signed off—or had her team sign off; perhaps it was then Mr Dastyari—on a submission to this inquiry saying: 'This is what you have to do. You have to have optional preferential above the line and optional preferential below the line. That is what we want. That is what we the Australian Labor Party want.'
Naturally enough, when it came before the committee the committee unanimously agreed. Certainly the three or four Labor members on the original committee thought, 'We think it is a good idea. Not only do we think it is a good idea but the organisational ALP in their submission also think it is a good idea.' They asked the committee to do it, so the committee did it unanimously. All the Labor people and everyone else supported it, yet here we are a couple of years later and it seems that the Labor Party no longer support it. We cannot understand why. Nobody has given us a serious explanation. My good friend Senator Collins waffled for eight minutes. She could not finish her 15 minutes and left.
This is an important piece of legislation. It is a piece of legislation that should be passed. What is more it is a piece of legislation that the Australian public want us to pass. In the aftermath of the last federal election there was palpable anger around Australia, not just from political parties but across the board. The people of Australia could not understand how their vote could be hijacked by the mathematical gaming of the preference system. A lot of the minor parties cross-preferenced and you had the very odd situation of parties of the extreme Left ending up supporting parties of the extreme Right, and vice versa. Nobody could understand how Australia could get into that situation.
This bill before us today is very simple. It makes it easy to understand. It says to the voter: 'You pick who you want in the Senate. Do not allow the backroom boys to do it.' I have mentioned this before and I will mention it again because people listening to this may not understand. Mr Bob Katter is the member for Kennedy. He used to be a member of the National Party, but he left the National Party in a huff at one stage and became an Independent. He said to his supporters: 'I am preferencing the Liberal-National Party. I still have my basic philosophies. It is just that I do not like the party. If you vote for me, your second preference will go back to the Liberal-National Party anyhow.' Many people in his electorate prefer our side of politics to the Labor side.
Mr Katter in the Senate had registered a card, as all the parties did. Very few people saw them. I had a look at them. I would be one of the few in Australia who did. When I looked at Mr Katter's card, I saw he actually preferenced the Australian Labor Party before the Liberal-National Party. He was denying around the state that he was supporting Labor, 'No, my preferences are going to the Liberals and Nationals.' If you looked at the registered card he had—and most of the people who voted for his team in the Senate would not have looked at that—you would have seen effectively that, with respect, you, Mr Temporary Chairman Ketter, got the preferences of the Katter party before the Liberal-National Party.
Those of us who follow politics know that that is a seat where a lot of people support Mr Katter because he is an old friend and they think he is a nice guy. He is pretty ineffective but a nice guy. They voted for him but expected that his preferences would go back to where they really belong, and that is the LNP. But, sorry, Mr Katter's card did not say that. This is the sort of thing that this legislation will stamp out. If the people want to vote for Mr Katter and give a second preference to Labor, that is fine but they can do it themselves. They do not vote 1 for Katter thinking that his preferences will go to the Liberal-National Party. They will in the future be able to exercise their vote. The people in Kennedy will now be able to vote 1 for Mr Katter's Senate team and vote 2 for the Liberal-National Party, or wherever they want to go. It will be their choice. How can anyone object to this? How can you argue against it? I know Senator Faulkner could not argue against it. In fact, he was one of the main protagonists of the proposal. I know Mr Gary Gray cannot argue against it because, again, he was one of the architects of this piece of legislation. I hope that Senator Moore or Senator Collins—if she comes back—may be able to explain to us the change of heart. Why was it two years ago you thought this was a great idea, Senator Faulkner thought it was a great idea, Mr Gary Gray thought it was great idea, all senior respected members of the Labor Party thought it was a good idea, the people of Australia thought it was a good idea but suddenly for a reason which has not been explained—and I will wait anxiously to hear the explanation—the ALP have done a complete backflip.
I can only think that Senator Conroy, Senator Carr and the big backroom dealers have suddenly worked out there is a way they can rort—and I use that in a political sense—the system and give themselves a political advantage. They are keener to do that and leave in place this broken system than allow this legislation to go through and give the people of Australia the right to make their determination of who they want to elect to the Senate. I cannot think for the life of me how anyone can seriously argue against that. I will be listening very intently to future Labor speakers for an explanation of why it was that some of their most senior, some of their most respected members of this parliament were totally in favour of this bill two years ago but now suddenly Labor is not.
As I said before, this has been fully debated for 23 hours now in this chamber. If you have not been able to make your point in 23 hours, Senator Collins, I do not know what another 23 hours is going to allow you to do. We have had this debate. We have had two full committee hearings. We have investigated it up hill and down dale. Everybody knows what it is about. Everybody knows it is what is needed for real democracy in Australia and for Australians to be given the right to select who they want in the Senate.
I will take this moment briefly to respond to part of what Senator Macdonald said before I go back to the more significant issues that we were addressing. I took advantage, I must admit—I should inform those watching the Senate—of a moment to address some matters outside of the chamber. As I noted, Senator Cormann had done the same. Observers of this process might like to understand that there are not regular breaks, meal breaks and the like so we do the best that we can under the circumstances. It was certainly not an indication, as Senator Fifield suggested, that I had run out of material. Oh no, there is an enormous amount of material that needs to be addressed.
Senator Smith interjecting—
Senator Cormann talks about the quality. Senator Cormann, you took a brief break. I was hoping that you took that opportunity to reflect that it was fairly early in the stage that you were doing exactly what you claim that you did not do, which was starting to interject and starting to get a bit narky. I was a bit concerned. It is now 10 to eight in what is going to be a fairly lengthy process. Maybe after a bit of oxygen and maybe some sustenance or a bathroom break you might return to what you hoped to be, which was listening and responding. This is where I think it is timely now to at least do a brief rehash to what you have not responded to.
When I had countless people—
Senator Ian Macdonald interjecting—
Now we have Senator Macdonald interjecting. Earlier than that, we had Senator Fifield. I do not know what they are doing out there in the party room, whether they are having a few drinks or whatever it is but coming in here with perpetual interjections is not going to help the process.
Senator Ian Macdonald interjecting—
I would appreciate if you would discourage Senator Macdonald from his perpetual interjections. Generally, as he indicated, we do get along relatively well—not always in a committee since. Senator Macdonald was not here when we were addressing the return to order. When I was going through what limited material Minister Cormann had provided, I had some specific questions that he failed to respond to. Those questions were the areas that I highlighted.
Senator Ian Macdonald interjecting—
Chair, I cannot even hear myself.
Thank you, Chair. I asked for some explanation as to why we could not be provided with the material around the legislative change challenges that were referred to in the minutes of the executive strategy meeting. I asked for an explanation for why on earth the AEC would be taking on an action item to identify areas of JSCEM response that they should not be consulted on. This is just bizarre. I do not know if the minister has had an opportunity to be briefed on why such strange material is in here.
The other question I asked was for more adequate information around funding issues confronting the AEC. I alerted the minister of the media commentary that arose out of the limited material he provided in the return to order and the concerns about cuts to the AEC being deferred. I asked for some accountability around what funds would have actually been allocated to these specific proposed measures. This is really limiting. The responses that we are getting and the heckling that is starting to occur is really going to slow down this process because if you are not answering and if you think that bullying and badgering is the way to move things along, it is not going to work.
I would add to that that before we get any amendments, adequate information around a range of issues is required—more information than just that one liner in your first reading speech about 'we will make available more resources'. I will get to further questions—and I have already pre-empted this earlier—about what actual modelling did occur. I have already raised Senator Rhiannon's question which we have had no answer to, which was her concerns about what policy considerations went into issues around penalties. So there is an example of a policy rationale issue that has still has not been addressed.
On the policy rationale: I think I highlighted the process of osmosis that seemed to occur in the committee's report over them being happy that government seems to be satisfied with the issues that had previously concerned JSCEM over the use of logos. They were issues of copyright and other matters, as I recall.
You know, I can revisit my questions twice if I have to, but, since you are bringing in your coalition colleagues and saying, 'Where are your questions; where are your questions?' I thought it was timely for me to go back and go through the questions that have already been put before you and have not been responded to. They have not been addressed. So far all we have had was that very brief component—probably for about five minutes—where you strayed away from your key lines about Labor luminaries and actually went through some of the measures in this bill. But you have not adequately responded to one of the general questions that have been asked at this stage. Instead, you have retreated into the sort of behaviour you said that you do not undertake. Seriously, Minister, it is time now for you to actually answer questions that have been put.
Firstly, in her opening contributions, Senator Collins raised a series of issues where she said she would ask some further questions, and the issue of party logos and copyright fell into that category. She did not ask a specific question. She said that she would ask questions in relation to these at a later stage, so I was still looking forward to that question, but I am still happy to address it nevertheless.
In relation to the issue of AEC resourcing, I have directly answered that question. The government will be providing additional resources for the AEC. As I have previously announced, the AEC will be sufficiently funded to implement these reforms, to conduct an appropriately comprehensive education campaign to ensure the public understands these changes in the run-up to the next election and to ensure that the public understands that these reforms empower them to direct where they want their preferences to go instead of having political parties direct them through insufficiently transparent group-voting ticket arrangements.
I have also indicated to the Senate, very openly, that, as the Electoral Commissioner had indicated at the public JSCEM hearing into this bill, because the AEC uses external providers for a range of its services—in particular, in the context of conducting education campaigns and the like—specific information about the extent of that funding will not be made public at this point, though you will of course be able to ask questions about how much has been spent after the relevant campaigns have taken place.
To put this into context—and Senator Wong, who has joined us for this debate, would well understand this—there are in a series of departments and agencies what are called demand-driven programs. The Electoral Commission has responsibilities under the Constitution and under relevant legislation to conduct elections. Elections are fairly and squarely a demand-driven program, and it is always funded appropriately and adequately to conduct elections that need to take place. Indeed, when a by-election had to take place for the WA Senate—and we have in the chamber with us Senator Linda Reynolds, who was a candidate who had to stand for election not once but twice, including at a Senate by-election in WA, which I do not believe has ever happened in the history of the Commonwealth in the way it had to happen on that occasion—the AEC got, in the ordinary course of events, a relevant supplementation to ensure that adequate funding was available for that purpose. That is the way that it always operates, and that is the way it will operate on this occasion.
It is also important to note that the Electoral Commission in the lead-up to every and any election will provide a level of public education in order to ensure that people across Australia are aware that they must vote—we have compulsory voting in Australia—to encourage people to enrol to vote, to advise people that they have to vote if they are enrolled to vote, to advertise the date of the election and various other matters, to inform people of how to cast a formal vote and the like. In the lead-up to this election, subject to what the Senate decides in the context of this bill, if this bill passes, the Electoral Commission will receive adequate resources again for the purposes of these sorts of campaigns. And of course on this occasion their public education campaigns will include a very strong and particular focus on the public education required to ensure that people understand these reforms.
Senator Collins asked about the issue of party logos and copyright related matters. The issue of party logos is of course addressed in part 3 of schedule 1 of this bill. The bill addresses the copyright issue in two ways. First, in relation to the application process, as set out in item 63, the logo cannot be the logo of another person or nearly resemble the logo of another person. Second, the use of the logo by the AEC is also protected from breach of copyright as outlined in clause 91 of the bill. Accordingly, the government has addressed fully the potential copyright issue that was identified by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters.
The AEC has also advised that it has already commenced work on the possible requirements for the logos to appear on ballot papers. A proposed new clause 126(2AA) allows for the logos to be set out in black and to appear on the register of political parties. The AEC requirements will be that the logo is submitted in a specified electronic format. It will need to be a vector graphic so that it can be printed on both Senate and House of Reps ballot papers. There will be a minimum and maximum frame size. All text will need to be converted to outline. These technical requirements will both enable parties to lodge their logos with the AEC and enable electors to recognise them on the ballot paper, and this will help to avoid voter confusion between parties of similar names.
Senator Collins also asked a question in relation to penalties. She wondered whether they should apply where information provided by political parties was different to the information provided to voters on Senate ballot papers. Let me say very clearly in relation to that that the government's view—and indeed the advice that we have—is that the Electoral Act already provides that political parties are not allowed to mislead or deceive voters into casting an informal vote. That prohibition will continue. The government is of the opinion that the penalties currently listed in section 329 of the Electoral Act, relating to the distribution of misleading material, are sufficient and act as a significant deterrent to any such behaviour. Beyond that important safeguard to protect voters from any advice which could mislead them into casting an informal vote, we do not propose to ask the Electoral Commission to become the regulator of the how-to-vote cards issued by political parties at election time.
In the lead-up to the next election, the AEC conduct a comprehensive education campaign to clearly explain the options available to voters when voting for the Senate. Specifically, the campaign will explain to voters that they will now be able to direct their preferences when voting either above the line or below the line. It will detail clearly that the way to vote above the line or the Senate is by numbering at least six boxes in order of the voter's choice, with the No. 1 representing their highest choice, with similar instructions to No. 1 to 12 below the line as a result of government amendments that the government will be moving later in the committee stage debate on this bill.
It is also worth noting that the ballot paper will explicitly direct voters to number at least one to six above the lie or one to 12 below the line. Taken together, the existing penalties for the distribution of misleading and deceptive material and the education campaign that will be conducted by the AEC in the lead-up to the next election mean any suggestion that there should be additional penalties introduced as part of this legislation is not warranted, as they are not necessary.
No, Senator Wong, you did not miss the start date of that. Obviously, we are not going to have an education campaign in relation to legislation that has not yet passed the Senate. Obviously the first thing comes first. If the Senate decides to support our legislation, the AEC has advised us that the AEC would require about three months between passage of the legislation and implementation of the legislation at an election.
The AEC has told me about three months. I cannot predict if or when the Senate will pass this legislation. I am hopeful that the Senate will pass this legislation sometime between now and Easter—but who knows? Once the legislation is passed, the Electoral Commission will then take all of the necessary steps to ensure that the Australian voting public is appropriately informed and educated about the changes and the benefits of these changes to them and the way these changes empower the voters to direct where their preferences go and who they ultimately elect to the Senate. We are very confident that the AEC will do a very good job in relation to this, and certainly the government will ensure the AEC is adequately resourced for that purpose.
That does not actually allay our concerns. In fact, the minister, in that contribution, really failed to deal with our primary question, which is: how long after the assent will the campaign actually commence? He gave a sort of, 'Oh, well, we don't know when the bill is going to be passed.' He does. He knows that we cannot leave this place until this bill is passed. I would like to understand when the AEC will be able to commence subsequent to assent. So he does not have to give me the day; how about he says how many days subsequent to the bill being passed through the parliament before there can be an explanation—
I will take the interjection from Senator Macdonald. He says that he said three months. I did not understand that to mean that it would be three months before an education campaign could start. If that is the government's position, maybe they should explain that. Why does one even be told about this for three months? That cannot possibly be the government's position. But you never know with Senator Macdonald. Maybe that is what he really believes.
But I do want to make a point about why such a campaign is so important and why I and many senators in this place are deeply concerned about voter understanding of the changes that are being rammed through in this dirty deal the government has done with the Australian Greens—a dirty and unprincipled deal that is all about improving the position of the parties to deal but ensuring that they pull up the drawbridge to any of those who might come after them. These are the largest changes to the electoral system for the Senate in three decades, and one would have thought that, rather than trying to rush this through in time for a double dissolution, the government might have actually—
Senator Macdonald, it is going to be a very long night if you keep interjecting the whole time.
Senator Ian Macdonald interjecting—
Senator Macdonald, you really are an adornment to this place, aren't you? We can always rely on you to continue to talk and continue to interject. I am always impressed that you assist in extending the time for debate. Even if it is not in your government's interest to do so, you do and we often welcome it. I suspect some of your colleagues do not welcome it, as you contribute to the debate.
Senator Cormann says that they love his contributions. We know that that may not in fact be true, but at least he is being courteous. These are, undeniably, the largest reforms in some three decades. That is why there should have been a different process. This has not been a sensible process. One loses count of the number of times the Australian Greens have come in here and lectured the parliament about transparency, about scrutiny and about proper process. Well, all of that went out the window when it came to this, didn't it? All of that went out the window when it came to this and Senator Rhiannon saw a bit of an opportunity to try to improve her position and the position of whoever the candidate on the side of the ticket will be. All of that went out the window. Leaving that aside, though, I actually think that voting reform should have the widest possible partisan support. It should not be about partisan advantage; it should have the widest possible partisan support, and it does not. The alternative government does not support the legislation that is before the chamber, and we have outlined why. That is the first point.
The second point is that this is about the functioning of Australia's democracy. It seems to me that voters ought to be given the time and ought to understand very clearly what these changes mean. We know that the overwhelming majority of voters—96 per cent or thereabouts—vote above the line. Before we even get to informality—which is a whole different issue, as I think the minister himself has acknowledged in an earlier contribution—if they vote above the line then of course that will be their only vote. One of the things that has not got sufficient attention in this debate is exhausted votes. Perhaps I should have left the contribution for exhausted votes for 2 or 3 am, and we could have had a discussion about that then, but this is a genuine issue of concern. As you know, we currently have a system for the Senate—a system that has been in place for many years—whereby you vote, it is essentially in a compulsory preferential system and your vote continues to be in play. All formal votes essentially stay in play. The vast majority of them elect a senator or ultimately go to the seventh, and unsuccessful, candidate in the race.
The challenge and the difficulty with optional preferential voting of the sort that has been agreed to between the Greens and the government is that it does mean that you are going to see a high number of exhausted votes—that is, votes which essentially exit the count once their preferences run out. This is not some esoteric point; this is an important point about the questions that arise in this bill about democracy and what is a fair voting system. I want to place on record, as I have a number of times, that I acknowledge that the current Senate voting system is not perfect. I do not think anybody has come before the JSCEM or before the chamber suggesting that everything is perfect. But in the government's desire and the Greens' desire to gain electoral advantage out of this behind the smokescreen of democracy, I would respectfully submit to the chamber that they are actually creating another problem.
I want to refer to a paper and a couple of public remarks made by two political scientists which I think were reported this week—I have to say I cannot recall the date. They deal with this issue that I am describing, which is the problem of exhausted votes.; that is, a vote where somebody votes 1 above the line and then, essentially, their vote exits the system. Senator Rhiannon or Senator Cormann might say, 'Oh well, bad luck!' but that is not the way the voting system currently works. And in their desire to do something about a genuine issue—and I acknowledge that preference arrangements have not all the time but on occasion yielded outcomes that were not foreseen by voters—the Greens and the government are creating another problem. So I draw the Senate's attention to the contribution of—I am not sure if he is a professor or an assistant professor—Dr Economou, who made the point that exhausted votes would become an issue of federal elections if voters continue to vote 1 above the ticket of their choice. Of his modelling, which worked on the assumption of single primary vote, he said: 'What you are likely to see is exhausted votes in each state of anywhere between 14 and 20 per cent.'
Let's understand what this contribution to the public debate shows. It does make an assumption that most people will continue doing what they have been doing for the last 30 years, and this is why the AEC campaign issue is important. But if you assume that many voters will continue to do what they have been doing for three decades, which is to put the 1 above the line, the consequence of that is a very large increase in exhausted votes. Under the modelling that Dr Economou has published, he says:
If we looked at the result of the last election and we applied the new rules, you'd be looking at exhausted votes in each state of anywhere between 14 and 20 per cent.
I, for one, do not think that is very democratic. What it says is that between 14 and 20 per cent of voters risk having their votes essentially go nowhere—and let us understand that that is partly the point. That is actually the point of what the government and the Greens are doing, because they do not want those pesky votes if they are not corralled for the major parties or the Greens. I disagree with many of the positions that a number of crossbench senators hold. Senator Day and I probably both love South Australia but will disagree on most other issues, but he does reflect the voting intentions of a set of South Australians, and I do not think it is a democratic thing to have a voting system that risks between 14 and 20 per cent of votes exiting the system and not staying in play. I think the difficulty is that when you combine the rushed way in which this legislation has been pushed through the parliament and therefore a concomitant absence of or a truncated education campaign and the likelihood therefore that people's voting patterns and voting habits will continue, together with the provisions of the bill, you are likely to see more exhausted votes—between 14 and 20 per cent of votes essentially not counting. I do not think that is democratic, and I think that that is a real problem that the government has failed to really countenance.
In terms of what I would like to hear from the minister, I would really like him to respond to this issue of the extent of the proportion of exhausted votes that the government anticipates. Did they consider it? Did they get advice from the AEC about those matters? Did they consider how many votes are likely to be exhausted in this system? Do they consider that to be an issue in terms of the efficacy and democracy of the voting system? Those questions really are germane to the first question I asked which goes to the campaign.
One of the primary problems here is the government's urge to get this through, to ensure it can have a double dissolution in the time frame that it wants—and that is what is happening; the Greens are giving the keys to Mr Turnbull for a double dissolution—which will mean much less time for these amendments, these changes, the greatest changes in 30 years, to be properly debated and properly understood by the community. We, in this place, are probably focused on the detail of this bill and focused on what it means. But for the most voters this has not been a discussion in which they have been engaged.
As Senator Cormann no doubt has, I have scrutineered on counts in booths, not when I was a candidate—just making that clear! I do not have the informal vote figures in front of me, but we know there are a lot of people who do vote informal who do make mistakes on their ballot paper. We are imposing a system where a continuation of an existing voting habit risks the vote being exhausted. I think that is disenfranchising for voters.
I say to the government: the Labor Party would like to understand what the time frame will be, after this legislation is given royal assent, for the AEC to commence conducting a campaign. What will it involve? How extensive will it be? How will you deal with non-English speaking background voters, given we know the levels of informality in those communities are much higher? Did the government consider the extent of the exhausted votes that this system would impose? Have they done any modelling that they can share with us? Do they have any concerns about the disenfranchisement of voters that the sort of increase in exhausted votes that Dr Economou is describing would impose? Obviously, that is a much greater proportion than has previously been the case. It really is an example of why this ought not have been so rushed and why there ought to have been a much better process for this legislation.
Firstly, let me again reject the assertion that the government are rushing this through. This reform proposal has been the subject of very lengthy and comprehensive consideration by the expert committee of the parliament, the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. Let me address the two principal issues that Senator Wong has raised, before I get to the questions of the campaign—that is, the assertion that there will be an increase in informal votes as a result of this and the issue of potentially exhausted votes.
There is absolutely no reason why there should be an increase in informal votes as a result of the reforms that we are putting forward. Do not take my word for it; none other than the Labor spokesperson for electoral matters at the time completely discredited Labor's assertions.
Just to say again what I said in my opening sentence: there were two principal issues that Senator Wong raised; the assertion that there would be increased levels of informality and the issue of exhausted votes. I will address both. Let me say again, there is absolutely no reason why there should be an increase in informal votes when voting for the Senate under this legislation. It was none other than the Labor spokesperson for electoral matters at the time that comprehensively discredited assertions by Senator Dastyari that these reforms would lead to 800,000 additional informal votes. As Mr Gray pointed out, Senator Dastyari had clearly not read the legislation. He had not understood that our proposal was not only to provide guidance to the voter when voting above the line, to number at least six boxes above the line; we would also include a very generous savings provision, which means that any ballot which fills in at least one above the line will indeed be considered formal.
In relation to voting below the line, what we are doing with the amended legislation, if it is supported by the Senate, is making it much easier for people to vote below the line compared to current arrangements. Right now, you have to fill in every single box. There is a savings provision which says that if 90 per cent of the ballot paper is accurate and you do not have more than three errors in sequence, then the ballot will still be considered formal. Essentially, the requirement right now under the current system is that you have to number every box in order of your preference. What we are proposing here is much less cumbersome.
We are proposing to say to the Australian voter that if you want to vote below the line for individual candidates, all you need to do is number boxes 1 to 12. And there is a generous savings provision where if you number the boxes in order of your preference from 1 to 6, your vote will still be formal. Even under the current system, contrary to what people might think, the level of informality from people voting below the line is actually extremely low. I was surprised myself when I sought that advice from the Australian Electoral Commission. At the last election, about 481,000 Australians voted for the Senate below the line. Less than two per cent of that vote was informal. If you compare that to your average House of Representatives election, given the complexity of voting for the Senate below the line at present, I would have thought that that was good.
Senator Wong talked about the issue of exhaustion, and she made the point that for the last 30 years people have voted 1 above the line and, if they keep doing what they have been doing, then we are going to have all these exhausted votes. Let me make a couple of points. Firstly, right now people have no choice but to vote 1 above the line. They are not allowed to vote more than 1 above the line. As soon as you vote 1 above the line you lose control of your vote. You lose control of your vote to political parties who then trade and direct those preferences to other parties, not according to the voter's preferences but according to the preferences and the strategic and tactical interests of their political party. It gets so ridiculous that they can not only trade and direct these preferences after the voter votes 1 above the line to one set of political parties but also direct them in three different directions. All of these different group voting tickets are registered on the Australian Electoral Commission website, and a voter can go and consult what group voting tickets people register with the Electoral Commission, but how can any normal voter figure out what ultimately happens to their preference when voting for a particular party 1 above the line? To compare a circumstance where right now you have no choice but to vote 1 above the line if you vote above the line—which 97 per cent of voters did at the last election—and to extrapolate that into a situation where, now that voters are allowed and encouraged to number every box above the line, at least 1 to 6 above the line, but with a generous savings provision, and to say that as a matter of course we can translate the circumstance at the last election, where you did not have any choice but to vote 1 above the line, and to overlay the system now onto the result of the last election is completely erroneous. It is flawed logic. You cannot draw the conclusion that voters at the next election will do exactly as they did at the last election, when clearly now they have a choice and a power over their votes and their preferences that they did not have before. You cannot make that comparison. Exhaustion of a vote is not actually a bad thing per se.
Senator Wong says, 'oh, right' as if I am saying some terrible thing. Let me put it to you this way. It is actually up to the individual voter to determine whether they issue a preference and how many preferences they issue—they will be provided with instruction to vote at least 1 to 6 above the line—but we cannot and we should not force voters to preference every single party putting themselves forward in the Senate. If Senator Edwards does not want to vote for the Sex Party in South Australia, he should not have to. And if Senator Edwards wants to vote 1 Liberal, as I am sure he will; 2 National, as I am sure he will; 3—I don't know, Family First, as he might; and if he wants to vote for other parties that coincide with his views, maybe not as much as the Liberal Party but still relatively closely aligned to his views, then of course he should be entitled to do that, and he will be entitled to do that under our legislation. But he should not be forced to express a preference and to keep going down the line expressing a preference for parties whose views he quite frankly objects to.
Let me put it this way: it is preferable for a vote to exhaust because the voter has made an active choice and an active decision not to preference beyond a certain number of parties than to have the situation under the current system where a person's vote might ultimately end up with a party they never intended to vote for and that they do not support and that they would not want to represent them here in the Senate. So if you have got two alternatives, the opportunity for a voter to make a democratic choice that they are entitled to make—who they vote for at No. 1, who they preference, how many parties they want to preference when voting above the line, how many parties not to preference when voting above the line—that is an entirely legitimate, democratic choice for an Australian voter to make at an election, and it is 100 per cent preferable to have a vote exhaust in that circumstance than to have that vote go to a political party that the voter never, ever intended to support but with whom their vote might ultimately end up because of non-transparent group voting ticket arrangements. That is the reason we are putting forward our proposal that is in front of the Senate now, and that is why we believe it is significantly superior to what is currently in place.
In relation to the campaign, we agree with Senator Wong and with those who say there need to adequate education campaigns, there needs to be adequate information to voters across Australia on how they are now going to be able to direct their preferences according to their wishes instead of having their preferences traded away by political party backroom operators, by political party backroom preferences manipulators. We do need to explain to people that they now will have the power to determine not only where their No. 1 vote above the line goes in the Senate but also where their subsequent preferences go in voting above the line in the Senate. The judgements on how that is done and when that is done in practice is entirely a matter for the independent statutory agency, which is the Australian Electoral Commission. I am not going to micromanage the way the Australian Electoral Commission deploys its considerable expertise in this area. What we have said is that they will be adequately resourced. The Electoral Commission has said to us that they need three months between passage of the legislation and implementation of the legislation at an election. That is advice that the government has taken on board; that is advice that the government will be acting on. But beyond that, if Senator Wong, as part of the strategy to drag this debate out for as long as we can, is going to go into all sorts of micromanagement issues—
Opposition senators interjecting—
I doubt that Senator Wong, when she was the minister for finance with responsibility as part of her broader portfolio for electoral policy matters, I would be very surprised if Senator Wong got herself involved in the specific conduct of Electoral Commission campaigns in the lead-up to an election. I would be very surprised.
Wasn't that an extraordinary contribution? These are the biggest voting reforms in 30 years, but it is micromanagement for the government to actually tell the Senate when they might actually start telling voters about it. Well, I do not remember you waiting for legislation before you spent millions advertising your failed university reforms. Tell me why you are advertising—what is this thing?—the 'ideas boom'. That is an important advertising campaign, isn't it? What is it? 'There's never been a more exciting time to be an Australian. That is pretty important! Or how about the failed Dr Karl campaign on the IGR? That went well too, didn't it? Then there is the China FTA campaign, which magically did not target exporters or businesspeople or firms; it magically targeted—guess who their target audience was—every Australian above 18. I wonder if that is just every voter.
What a disingenuous contribution, to dismiss a question about an advertising campaign—an education campaign—by saying, 'Oh, we don't micromanage.' You are very happy to micromanage an ad campaign about your failed university reforms. You are very happy to run a campaign with taxpayers' money on a tax white paper that you shelved. You are very happy to use taxpayers' money to fund an advertising campaign on your 'ideas boom', magically using some of the words that the Prime Minister himself loves to utter—'never been a more exciting time to be an Australian'. You are very happy to run a failed campaign on the Intergenerational report, but you are not happy to come in here and tell the Senate when you will start explaining to Australians what these reforms mean.
Minister, I have a very simple question: what is the difference between all the campaigns I have just spoken about and the one you will not tell us about?
I say it again very slowly. Senator Wong clearly did not listen to a word I said before. The Australian Electoral Commission is an independent statutory agency, and the Electoral Commission, under legislation passed by this parliament, has independent responsibilities. What we have said as a government—the commitment that we have made—is that the independent statutory agency with responsibilities under our Constitution and the Commonwealth Electoral Act to conduct federal elections will be adequately resourced to ensure that, among other things, the Australian people are properly informed about the great improvement to Senate voting arrangements the Senate has passed—if, indeed, it will pass it.
Thank you, Senator Wong. Again we are seeing Senator Wong mislead the Senate. To start off—I will come to the issue about exhausted votes—she is making up the claim about this issue being rushed. It is Labor that is dragging the chain on this. Let's remember that in the Labor-Greens agreement in 2010 one of the key points was that there should be Senate voting reform. It was discussed, and that was part of the agreement.
Opposition senators interjecting—
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: On my left! Senator Rhiannon has the call.
Your own leader has said that it will not be repealed—that he will see how it goes and what the effect of it is. At the moment it looks like Labor is being run by a little cabal out of the Senate. It is not a good look for Labor. But let's get on to some of the key issues.
I am happy to take your interjections. Let's get onto this key issue about exhausted votes, because that is one of the major scare tactics that we have seen come in the second reading speeches, particularly from Senator Conroy and Senator Wong but also from many others. It is worth looking at closely, because when you listen to them they come out with these numbers—sometimes very large numbers. They have not substantiated the numbers or said where they come from. So it is worth looking into.
Senator Conroy, when he spoke, spoke about 25 per cent of the vote being exhausted and 3.4 million Australians having their votes stranded—very dramatic, as Senator Conroy can be. It is the sort of thing that is not picked up on Hansard, but it is worth sharing with people who will read this at a later stage, that so often, when Senator Conroy and Senator Dastyari finish these dramatic speeches, they have a wink, they put their thumbs up and they have a bit of a laugh. They know they have been extreme. They know that they are over the top. They know they are exaggerating. They know they are misleading the house, and they have a bit of a joke about it.
But this is serious. Labor has just gone too far this time, and the exhausted vote issue illustrates the depth of the deception. So let's look into what is going on here. When we were at the inquiry, this was one of Senator Conroy's questions to Antony Green:
Do you think a fairer system is one that sees 80 per cent of votes exhaust?
There is clearly an implication there that that is one of the things that will happen here. I acknowledge today—and I have just given the figures—that he has now dropped that down to 25 per cent, but still Senator Conroy and Senator Wong are not giving the details of how they arrive at those figures.
It is useful to go to some of the evidence that was presented to the inquiry, in a very considered way, by Kevin Bonham, because when you read some of the evidence before the inquiry you come to the conclusion that the exhausted vote argument is greatly exaggerated. Kevin Bonham, in his evidence to JSCEM, demonstrated that many voters who vote for a microparty actually then preference a major party. Anyone who votes for the coalition, Labor or the Greens will not be exhausting their vote, and any voter who votes for a smaller party and preferences one of these larger parties is unlikely to be exhausting their vote. In addition, anyone who votes for a party other than the larger parties mentioned, if that party wins a Senate seat or is a runner-up in the battle for the last seat, will not be exhausting their vote.
The ballot paper will be instructing voters to number at least 1 to 6. Most voters will follow the instructions, particularly as how-to-vote cards will show that too. I know that Senator Wong is saying that is highly unlikely because it is a changeover from the previous system. We know there will be an education system. We know the AEC is very effective at doing this. I will also come to the experience in the ACT. Again, we have heard a great deal of talk from Labor. One of their favourite words in this debate is 'hypocrisy'. This is where Labor are being hypocrites.
I will read some of the information from Dr Kevin Bonham's submission to JSCEM. This is where he deals with the claim that the bill will disenfranchise the about 23 per cent of Australians who vote for parties other than Labor, the coalition, or the Greens in the Senate. That is essentially Labor's argument. Let's look at what he says:
This claim rests on the completely false belief that a person who prefers one other party to Labor, the coalition or the Greens will also generally prefer different minor parties to the 'big three'. In an article published on my website, I analysed sample preference flows from microparties when their candidates were excluded from House of Representatives counts. In cases where a microparty candidate was excluded from the count, I found that between 33 per cent and 71 per cent of preferences (varying by microparty) flowed directly to one of the 'big three' even when there was still at least one other microparty in the count.
Obviously not every microparty can be represented in any given state. The House of Representatives' preferences show that once voters are making a choice involving the 'big three' parties and any given microparty, their support for the latter is nothing like as strong as the 23 per cent support for all non big-three parties combined. A vote for a given microparty is not a vote for any microparty come what may, and therefore the idea of measuring the proportionality of support for micros by the proportion of seats they win collectively is a furphy.
That is absolutely clear.
Thank you very much. I take that interjection from my colleague, because that is the essence—logical, working through and giving the evidence. What it shows is that the key objection of Labor—and remember they have had many objections along the way—is this issue around exhausted votes. They are now saying, 'Oh, yes, we can see the system is not perfect.' How many times—and you know Senator Wong, because I have sat with you and heard you say and nod your head when Senator Conroy will go into his rage about how terrible the proposal is that we are now considering. What would he say? He would say to us, 'I will not have anything to do with it, because it will lock the coalition into controlling the Senate for ever in a day.' That has been the argument, but you have realised that you have had to modify. You have landed on this issue around exhausted votes, and now that has been exposed.
I think we have to remember this is coming from a few senators here. Gary Gray was air-brushed from history and removed from his job on 2 March. Who comes in? Brendan O'Connor. Maybe he has commented. I could not find any comment where he has come in and added his voice to the biggest electoral issue going on at the moment. How extraordinary. The Special Minister for State has nothing to say. If he has said something, please inject it into this discussion.
What is also relevant to this discussion are some comments that Mr Antony Green gave when we had the inquiry. This is in response to a question from Senator Conroy about exhausted votes. Antony Green states:
I will point out a different ballot paper, which is the ACT Legislative Assembly ballot paper. It has something similar to what will be on the Senate ballot paper. It says, 'Number seven boxes from 1 to 7 in the order of your choice.' You may then go on and number from eight onwards. They only get about two per cent with less than seven preferences. So a ballot paper that says number up to that—
And then Mr Conroy interjects again. My key point is that Mr Antony Green has shared with us some very useful information about an electoral system that is actually similar to what we are proposing for this Senate.
Opposition senators interjecting—
What the very useful evidence given to the inquiry from Mr Antony Green and Dr Bonham has again absolutely demolished—
Opposition senators interjecting—
the last argument—and at this point Senator Conroy walked out of the door. The last argument that Labor have in justifying—
What we have here is the clear evidence Mr Antony Green and Dr Bonham has again solidly demolished the last argument that Labor have for why they are not supporting this legislation. Their big winning point has been the supposed exhausted votes, that they would be this 23 or 25 per cent—or, when Senator Conroy is in full flight, 80 per cent—of votes exhausted. That has been demolished. We will get a solid education program from the AEC, we will have clear instructions on the ballot paper, we have the example from the ACT and we can have a very democratic electoral system with that simple change to allow the voters to determine their preferences. Remember, that is what Labor is fighting against. How extraordinary! That is where this is at. That is what they are fighting about. Let's get into the issues before us. At the moment, for those listening, what is going is Labor using every attempt to avoid getting into the main issues that we should be dealing with in the committee stage. There have been barely any solid points that you have raised at all.
I am going to respond to some of those falsehoods. I think the senator is having a go at the opposition for asking questions in committee. I remember when the Greens used to think that was a good idea. I remember when the Greens use to talk about transparency and process. They would never vote for a gag under Senators Milne and I think Brown. They said, 'We have to have to have this as a proper chamber of review.' Those were the days, and now, when we come in here and ask questions about educating voters about these changes, Senator Rhiannon says, 'That's such a dreadful thing.' It is a dreadful, undemocratic thing for the Labor Party to be asking the government when you are going to get up the education campaign to tell voters how this works. All of a sudden, Senator Rhiannon says, 'Oh, that's a bad thing.' Senator Rhiannon, I am not as Stalinist as you. I think people should be given the example—
Madam Chair, I would just like some clarity on what the point of order was.
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN (20:44): Senator Simms, can you clarify what your point of order was?
I am happy to withdraw the phrase about Stalinist. I do not know what her personal politics actually are. I was making the point about democracy and actually ensuring that instead of a group in here—a cabal—
Senator Rhiannon interjecting—
making decisions that they just impose on everybody it is probably a good idea if the millions of Australians who do not follow every word that the Senate debates and every aspect of every bill are actually given the opportunity to understand the largest changes in its voting system in 30 years. If Senator Rhiannon thinks that is wasting time, well, that says something about her politics and her priorities.
I am also going to make this point about Senator Rhiannon. She accused me of misleading—well, she had better get up and correct it, because she said, 'We've been arguing about this for years. It was in the Labor-Greens agreement.' Let's be very clear about what was in the agreement. She did not mention this part that I am quoting:
d) The Parties note that Senator Bob Brown will reintroduce as a Private Members Bill the Commonwealth Electoral (Above-the-Line Voting) Amendment Bill 2008. The ALP will consider the Bill and work with the Greens to reach reforms satisfactory to the Parties.
So we never made a commitment that we agreed with them. But that little bit of context happened to be left out. I make that point.
I have to say, it was kind of amusing to have Senator Rhiannon lecture us all about it being a bit rich for this to be run by a Senate cabal—the Greens would know a bit about a Senate cabal, wouldn't they? They would know a fair bit about that. In fact, it is a cabal which Senator Rhiannon and Senator Di Natale have imposed on the party room. They might all come in here and say how great it is, but we know the division in their party room and the concern about this—
Senator Rhiannon interjecting—
and the concern about the way that you, Senator Rhiannon, have pressed this through. I remember how desperate you were to get this through, because it is about your seat in New South Wales—poor old South Australia!—and the failure by you as a negotiator to consider a double dissolution. And now some of the Greens are getting angry at the trade union movement, who have actually had the temerity to say, 'Oy! You're giving the keys to Malcolm Turnbull for a double dissolution.' Maybe you should have thought of that before.
Senator Rhiannon was also talking about the merits of this bill—and I will come to the exhausted votes point in a moment. But I do want to reprise the fact that Senator Rhiannon, who talks so much about people not getting enough votes, started her political career how, Senator Rhiannon? With how many votes?
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN (20:47): Senator Wong, I would remind you to make your remarks through the chair.
Through you, Madam Chair? Through you?
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: To the chair.
Was it? I am sorry—well, under three per cent. Shall we agree with under three? Now she comes in here to give us a lecture about how people like that should not have the chance to be elected. If we want to talk about hypocrisy, I think we have seen a fair bit tonight.
This is quite interesting—I am answering more questions than Senator Cormann is, but I am going to come back to him! Senator Rhiannon also asked, 'Where is the source of the 3.3 million voters?' like this was some made-up thing. The Australian Electoral Commission is the source of the 3.3 million votes that we have calculated were first preference votes in the 2013 federal election—ex-WA, plus the 24 Western Australian re-election.
The next point I would make is that she asserted that somehow exhausted votes are a new argument. That is not true. In fact, I have said that before on radio and I will reference a study that I am going to get my staff to bring in—oh, here it is! There you go—it was only released on Tuesday, so I guess I could not have quoted it before. But it is actually possible to have a number of arguments and have them all be legitimate, Senator Rhiannon.
I will finally just make this point: the Greens political party want us to believe that this is a matter of high principle. I do not believe it is. I think it is a matter of them seeing the merit of a set of changes for them as a political party. I would make the point, as I did in the second reading speech debate, that I actually do think that Labor is likely to get more senators out of this. I do.
Senator Simms interjecting—
We all make assumptions! But we actually have to look at what the national interest is. What is the national interest and what is a democratic system? I have said on a number of occasions—
Senator Simms interjecting—
Senator Simms, I know you are feeling wounded by today but, really, you do not need to continue to interject—
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Senator Wong I would remind you to address your remarks to the chair.
I am happy to address you, because you know I like talking to you, but he keeps interjecting so I have to respond. What do you want me to do, Chair?
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Ignore the interjections, including those from over on my left.
Well, maybe you could stop him interjecting! I have lost my train of thought now! Oh, my point was about the Australian Greens and political benefit. As I said, I do think it is quite likely that Labor will get more senators out of this system than it would out of the existing system, but we ought not to be driven by political advantage—as Senator Rhiannon is. We ought to understand what a system will mean and we ought to think through the various ways in which democratic objectives can be balanced.
I have said on a number of occasions, and I say so again: I agree that there are issues with the current preferencing arrangements and the preference whisperer phenomenon that we have seen. But I do not share Senator Cormann's view, which is essentially a view that first-past-the-post—
No—essentially, his argument applies equally to a first-past-the-post system. I think the Senate has served the nation well in being a house which has a compulsory preferential system and where we get a range of different views. I think it is undeniable that these changes make it almost impossible for there to be any new entrants. Regardless of what my views might be about some new entrants or some Independents, I do not think that is necessarily a good thing for democracy.
I want to come back to Senator Cormann because he did not answer my question. I asked him about advertising. I asked him about advertising, and he waved me away. The advertising, of course—to you, Chair—is the education campaign about the largest changes in 30 years. I think it is a legitimate question. I know Senator Rhiannon and the Greens suddenly do not think it is an important thing to educate voters, but we think it is important. I asked some questions about that education campaign. I was dismissed with: 'First, we don't know when this will be passed.' I said, 'Okay, why don't we leave that, shall we, and say how many weeks after royal assent?' 'Second,' he said, 'they're an independent statutory agency,' and then some diatribe.
I again would point this out: the government have spent millions and millions of dollars on advertising. They seem to be very happy to spend $37 million promoting the Intergenerational reportno legislation there. They spent a great deal of money talking about the Competition Policy Review, including printing copies of the report and promotional banners.
They have wasted a couple of million dollars on the dumped tax white paper—hasn't that been fantastic? That has been a great process, hasn't it! 'We're going to have a green paper. We're going to have a white paper. I don't know if we're going to have any paper. Actually, we don't know if we've got any tax policy at all, so we haven't got anything to advertise because we actually don't know what we're doing.' Anyway, it was $2 million on the tax white paper that this minister told us in Senate estimates was definitely happening. It was going to happen, and all of a sudden it has been airbrushed out.
And then, as I said, in addition to this I do not recall them waiting for university reforms to be passed before we all were subjected to those advertisements. I do not recall the China FTA coming into force before they decided that every Australian over 18, which just happens to be the same number of people who vote, would be subjected to advertising about the benefits of the fair trade agreement.
You are pretty happy to throw around taxpayers' money when it comes to a whole range of political advertising. I think you should be up front with the Senate about how you are going to ensure that Australians understand the changes that are being imposed on them through this system and how you will ensure that people do have the choice. The thing I was observing when Senator Cormann was saying, 'People have the choice; people have the choice'—and I appreciate that this is a fundamental philosophical difference between Labor and the Liberal Party—is that they think individual choice is the answer to everything. If you are poor, you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps. You just work hard enough. You can just choose. You can just choose to get a job or not to get a job et cetera.
We know people vote informal for many reasons, literacy amongst them. We know that 96 or 97 per cent of people vote above the line and have done so for the last three decades. Now to simply say, 'They can just choose,' and fail to understand that voter habit therefore has an effect how this system operates I think is really an ideological position rather than a practical position. I would ask the minister: how are you going to actually ensure that people understand what the largest changes in voting in three decades mean?
Before getting back to the issue of advertising, let me just spell out again very slowly why the argument that Senator Wong has been advancing about how somehow 3.3 million people who voted for minor parties at the last election will now, as a matter of course, have their votes exhausted is a completely false, misleading and deceptive assertion.
Senator Conroy interjecting—
I will tell you why, Senator Conroy. It is because under our current system any voter voting above the line for the Senate has no choice but to fill in only one box above the line. One hundred per cent of voters voting in the Senate above the line can only vote one way, and that is to put a No. 1 in that box below or above the party of their choice and do nothing else. As soon as they do that, they lose control of their preferences. These preferences are directed by backroom operators and political party manipulators for the best interests of these parties but not according to the deliberate wishes and intent of voters. Voters right now, after they put in that No. 1 in that box above the line, immediately lose control of their preferences to group-voting-ticket arrangements, where these preferences are directed sometimes in three different directions.
Our proposal is for that to change. Under our proposal, an Australian voter voting for the Australian Greens, the Liberal Party, the Labor Party, the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party, the Palmer United Party, the Sex Party, the 'let's grow marijuana party', or the 'let's do this and that party' now will not be forced to just vote 1 above the line. That voter will now be able to vote 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6. They can now number every single box above the line. They can determine what happens to their preferences.
It will not be Senator Conroy who determines what happens to Labor Party preferences. It will be the voter who puts a 1 in the box next to the Labor Party spot on the Senate ballot paper. And, if the person voting for the Labor Party in Victoria wants to put a 2 in the Liberal Party box, they will be able to do that, irrespective of what Senator Conroy might have done.
Incidentally, in the joint standing committee hearing inquiry Senator Conroy proved our point that the current system is non-transparent and does not give the voters the power they should have to direct their own preferences. At some point—questioning the federal director of the Liberal Party—this is what Senator Conroy said: 'Mr Nutt, there're only really 10 people around Australia who understand the science and the maths of preferencing. There are only really 10 people. Ha, ha. Isn't it funny? This is sort of like a boys club little thing where only a few of us really know how the science, the maths and the secret black arts of preference whispering go.' That proved the point on why we need the reforms that we are putting forward here. There should not just be 10 people around Australia, as Senator Conroy said, who understand what happens to preferences. Every single Australian voter should have control not just of their primary vote; they should have control of their preferences.
I say again what I said to Senator Wong before: it is preferable, if that is a voter's choice, for their vote to exhaust than for it to be directed by a political party to somebody that that voter did not intend to elect. It is up to the voter to determine how many preferences they want to issue above the line. The guidance on the ballot paper will be to vote above the line and at least number six boxes from 1 to 6 in order of your preference.
The voter is entitled to fill in as many boxes as they like. Indeed, if they only fill in one box, their vote will still be valid. But for Senator Wong, Senator Conroy and others to make this extrapolation, because there were 3.3 million people who voted 1 above the line for a minor party, that 100 per cent of those voters at the last election under the current system would have exhausted is false. Senator Conroy and Senator Wong do not know what choices voters may have made at the last election, if they had had the choice to issue preferences above the line—a choice they did not have at the last election—so the comparison, analogy and extrapolation that they are seeking to make is completely false, misleading and deceptive. It does not add to the debate or give you any credibility at all when you bring up this sort of fallacious argument.
Let me just touch on campaign advertising. If Senator Wong wants to start a debate on campaign advertising, she will lose, because the Labor Party has a disastrous record when it comes to this. I well remember when I was sitting on the other side of the chamber when the Gillard Labor government—actually, the Rudd and then the Gillard Labor government—committed $38.5 million to advertise a new tax which ended up costing the budget money. So the Labor Party initially came up with the resource super profits tax, which was meant to raise $12 billion. There was a big fallout: Prime Minister loses his job; new Prime Minister; negotiation behind closed doors with the three chief executives of the three biggest miners; new deal—$38.5 million worth of advertising for a tax that did not raise any money and ended up costing the budget money. The Labor government at the time spent all the money they thought it would raise and more but they advertised how it was going to raise all this money and do all these wonderful things.
Let me just remind you of another thing: if you want to have a conversation about campaign advertising, in Senate estimates in May 2014, the secretary of the finance department provided evidence that he was directed by the former Labor government during the caretaker period to conduct political advertising in relation to—that was when Labor was trying to create the impression that somehow they were committed to protecting our borders. Remember that? After 50,000 illegal arrivals into Australia, after all those boats had arrived illegally and after all those drownings, in the middle of an election campaign, Labor thought they needed to create the impression that they were actually going to do something about it, so they ran a campaign in contravention of the caretaker conventions.
Let me also just say: in each one of the first two financial years for which we have data in terms of how much has actually been spent under the coalition government, our expenditure on public campaigns has been well below that of any and every single year of the Labor government. So if you want to start having a conversation about campaign advertising, bring it on.
I have already answered the substantive question that Senator Wong put forward. Yes, there will be a public education campaign to explain to voters the benefits from the reforms that we have passed through the Senate, if the Senate passes them. Of course there will be a public education campaign to explain how these reforms will help empower Australian voters to determine what happens to their preferences when voting above and below the line. Of course there will be a public education campaign explaining how this reform will ensure that the next Senate election and future Senate election results will reflect the will of the Australian people.
As I have already indicated, the Electoral Commission will be adequately resourced. This is a matter where they receive resourcing in the lead-up to any election for the purposes of conducting the election, for the purposes of running relevant education campaigns. On this occasion, there will be an education campaign in relation to these specific reforms. We will not be disclosing the specific amount that will be allocated to it because, as the Electoral Commission has indicated on the public record already, there is a commercial-in-confidence component to this. There is a commercial interest component to this, and that is because the Electoral Commission will be contracting to external providers in relation to aspects of that campaign. Quite frankly, we are not going to undermine the commercial position of the Commonwealth by putting out into the public domain how much we have allocated for that purpose.
After the event, we will of course, as a government, be accountable—as we should be and as we must be—for how much was spent and for what purpose. As is usually the case, Senate estimates will no doubt probe the government on how that money was spent and how effective it was. I am sure that, after the next election in the ordinary course of events, the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters will review the conduct of that election. After reviewing the conduct of that election, it will make recommendations either on how the system has worked really well or how the system can be further improved at the edges. The government at that time will, as we always do, consider very carefully any findings and recommendations from that committee.
In the meantime, we are very confident that the Electoral Commission has got everything they need in order to be able to implement these reforms in a timely, efficient and effective manner as long as we provide them with three months between the passage of this legislation and implementation at an election. Of course it is absolutely the intention of the government to ensure that the Electoral Commission does have that time, and the expertise and wherewithal, to run an effective, well-targeted and appropriate education campaign to ensure that people across Australia well understand the great benefits that will flow from these reforms to them and how these reforms will empower them to direct what happens to their vote.
I rise to join the festivities. I would like to find out who in this chamber knows what a Green preference feeder party is. Senator Rhiannon, I expect you to have your hand up. I would like to talk about the New South Wales election back in 1999. You are going to love this. You are going to be clapping by the time I am finished. Senator Rhiannon ran for the first time for the New South Wales parliament. Let us talk about how many votes she got back in 1999. She got 2.53 per cent of the votes. You might ask: how on earth did she get elected with such a pitiful—some might say disgracefully low, Senator Muir—number of votes? Has anyone ever heard of the Young Australians Caring for Our Future party? Come on, Senator Rhiannon, put up your hand.
I accept your admonishment. My apologies. Senator Rhiannon I am sure would like to put up her hand to say that she knows all about the Young Australians Caring for Our Future party. It was not just that Green feeder party that popped up in the New South Wales 1999 state election. We had another party called the Euthanasia Referendum Party. They miraculously formed just before that election as well. Guess who they preferenced too? Oh, my goodness, Senator Rhiannon. Through you, Madam Temporary Chairman, would Senator Rhiannon like to tell the chamber who the Euthanasia Referendum Party preferenced or the Young Australians Caring for Our Future party preferenced?
Senator O'Sullivan interjecting—
That is right. They preferenced Senator Rhiannon. You may think that was enough to get her elected. No, she needed more of the feeder parties that popped up. Wait, there are more. The Responsible Drug Reform for Australia party popped up. Guess who they preferenced too? Oh, my goodness yes, it was Senator Rhiannon. Then there was the Make Billionaires Pay More Tax! party. Guess who they preferenced? Oh, my goodness, it will come as a great shock to everybody in the chamber to know that they preferenced Senator Rhiannon. Senator Rhiannon comes in here and attacks Senator Ricky Muir and attacks preference whisperer Glenn Druery. When you are going to do that you have to come in here with clean hands. I can actually say that I have never set up a feeder party to get myself elected.
I have not set up a feeder party, but I am looking at a list of parties here—
Senator Cormann interjecting—
What you have here is a Green senator who is so desperate to protect themselves at the next election that they are prepared to introduce a voting rort. I admire Senator—
Senator Cormann. I think it is unfair of the South Australian Liberals to put you at No. 6 when there are only five current senators. I really think it is rude of them to put you at No. 6. They put an X in No. 5 just to put you in No. 6.
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Senator Conroy, address your comments through the chair.
I apologise. I have been sorely provoked. Senator Cormann with a straight face says, 'Who knows how the Australian public are going to vote?' Oh, my goodness, who knows? The hypocrisy of that statement matches the hypocrisy of those at that end of the chamber, your federal secretary and even some people who may have been associated with thinking this proposal up. I do not know.
I am not going to name names here, but you could be close to the mark. I have watched it happen. I have seen people put their hand on their heart and say, 'I don't know what the result of this ballot is going to be. I just don't know.' But Antony Green spilled the beans. The one useful thing that happened at that farce of a committee was that Mr Antony Green pointed out that the impact of first-past-the-post voting for the Senate when you only had to put 1 in the box, which is exactly what you only have to do in this case, was 80 per cent of above-the-line votes exhausted.
I did have to share it, but I was very grateful for the assistance. So Antony Green belled the cat about what this really is about—if they follow the same processes as the New South Wales election above the line 80 per cent of 3.4 million Australians exhaust. That is the scam going on here today.
You thought you were entitled to a seat and you could not get a seat because they would not give you their preferences. The thing I find most disgraceful is that the black Wiggle down the end thinks he is entitled to a seat. He has run so many times for so many things and he has lost every time because no-one wanted to give him a preference. Perhaps if you had strutted the catwalk in those fancy pants of yours.
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Senator Conroy—
I apologise. Perhaps if Senator Di Natale had strutted his stuff on the catwalk in those fancy pants from the photo shoot—yes, those are the fancy pants—he might have got more votes.
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Senator Ludlam, that is no point of order, but I remind you, Senator Conroy, to address your comments to the chair and be very careful with the use of props.
I have been provoked. I forswear them. I was being heavily provoked from all corners of the chamber. Senator Di Natale and the Greens could not get enough preferences, so what did they decide to do? Disenfranchise 3.4 million Australians. That is the only way they can get elected. It is a sorry state of affairs. You ran a couple of times but could not get enough preferences. Steve Fielding got elected before you, for goodness sake. My goodness, Senator Di Natale objected to that.
They are entitled to a position in every state—that is the Greens position. They do not care if 3.4 million Australians get disenfranchised and get nobody representing them in this chamber. As I said earlier, I do not think we would see Senator Muir in a pair of pants like that but, given his current look, anything is possible. But I do not have a problem with probably the most normal Australian in this chamber getting elected—that is, Senator Muir. I said this earlier. He is probably the most normal Australian to be elected, and that is being very unkind the other 75 of us. I do not have a problem that somebody was not aspiring to get elected to the Senate unlike Senator Di Natale, who so desperately clawed and fought and scratched to get here just so he could do the photo shoot of his life. What a pair of pants they were! Other people like the skivvy but I love the pants! Seriously, what a sense of entitlement.
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Senator Conroy, please address your remarks through the chair and also some degree of relevance would be useful for the chamber.
It is entirely relevant. The motivation behind why the Greens have signed up to this piece of legislation, this voting rort is to get their own bums on the seats. I am hoping we are not going to have a repeat of the earlier discussions. This is about 12 Greens bums on red leather. That is all this debate is about. Senator Rhiannon knows that she might not get elected for New South Wales in the next Senate election. She watched what happened to the 2013 Greens candidate who missed out. So she decided she is not going to take that chance. She does not care that she is going to attack those dirty backroom pop-up party preference deals, the ones that she herself has been this centre of. She wrote them up on a whiteboard once to do describe the Greens feeder parties.
No-one had cameras back then on their phones; otherwise, we would have one. Senator Rhiannon comes to this debate with the dirtiest hands in the chamber because that is what the Greens got up to and then tragically other people would not preference the Greens—boo-hoo.
So you have got quotas. We will see what happens after the double-D. After you have facilitated the double-D to wipe out the crossbenchers, guess what is going to happen?
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Senator Conroy, Senator Di Natale and Minister, I have indulged a little bit of debate across the chamber; however, I think a three-way debate is not very helpful. Senator Conroy, you have the call.
Senator Di Natale, who has missed out on preferences before, has consigned his own party to losing senators in the coming double-D. But what I am afraid of—from the interjection from Senator Di Natale—is not about facing a double-D; I am afraid of the consequences for the Australian public and there are two. The first is the three million plus who do not want to vote for you, Senator Di Natale, you are going to lockout of getting any representation here. I think that is a disgraceful voting rort. The second, but most important, is your system, as has been admitted now by anyone who understands this system, is ultimately going to hand control, a blocking majority, or, worse, an actual affirmative majority to the coalition.
When those opposite get 38 votes, the Greens will never get an environmental piece of legislation through this parliament. Those opposite are already champing at the bit and cheering over there—I am being harassed again from across the chamber. Those opposite are already champing at the prospect of this; they know that they will be able to block every single piece of environmental legislation into the future. You will be able to pass legislation that they approve of. You will never get an environmental bill through. We will never get a social justice bill through or an equality bill through.
I noted in the clips today the Greens are rushing out policies. They are trying to cover for their disgraceful conduct here. They have got a suggestion about a new taxation regime. Senator Di Natale and the Greens, I say this to you: you have no chance of any tax proposal in history getting passed because of what you are doing in this chamber tonight. You will give that coalition government on the other side of the bench there a blocking majority, ultimately. Not necessarily straight away because I expect Senator Xenophon is probably going to have a few senators, maybe even as many as you by the time the election is finished, that will actually put him in a position. There is no surprise why he is voting for this bill; he can count. He must be the only person in this chamber who can count because he knows exactly how many senators he is going to pick up in South Australia but nobody else knows.
So what you will see is the conservative forces in this chamber given to the keys to the kingdom. They are being given the keys to the gold vault because they will never have to compromise again in this chamber. When they get 36 or 37 over a couple of elections as they build towards the magic number of 38—a blocking majority—the Greens will have to look at themselves and their supporters. They will have to look at that and they will have to get down and apologise to the people of Australia for the atrocity they are committing.
Senator Xenophon, welcome to the debate. You are very popular in the chamber tonight. He is the reason four being four, five or six. It does not matter for you, Senator Xenophon, let me tell you. You can pretend you are not six but it will not matter.
Senator Rhiannon comes to this debate with the dirtiest hands. I want to know, Senator Rhiannon, what you know about those parties that I have described. I want you to put your hand on your heart and say, 'I had nothing to do with those pop-up parties.' Come on, you have got a chance in a few minutes to say, 'I had nothing to do with those pop-up parties.' If she stands up and says that then I will be taking a few points of order.
Opposition senators interjecting—
Of course, we are now another couple of hours down in this debate. We have now debated this bill since the message was received, for about 23 hours, I believe—I think a bit more. Why don't I start moving the first set of government amendments? As I flagged to the chamber on 2 March and as I have flagged again today, the government is moving a series of amendments to give effect to the recommendations of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters inquiry into this bill, which reported on 1 March. The amendments that I am about to move to the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016 reflect the consideration of this bill, indeed, by that committee. In particular, several submissions to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters advocated the need for further amendments to the provisions relating to below-the-line voting. In particular, that committee recommended 'that the government introduce a system of partial optional preferential voting below the line' that instructs voters 'to mark a minimum of 12 preferences' with related savings provisions so that any ballot with at least six boxes numbered sequentially starting at 1 is to be considered formal.
In addressing the recommendations of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, these proposed amendments provide for partial optional preferential voting below the line on Senate ballot papers. The amendments propose to instruct voters to consecutively number at least 12 boxes commencing at 1 and sequentially numbering after that below the line, or numbering all boxes below the line where there are fewer than 12 candidates. The amendments also include a savings provision, as we have provided for, for voting above the line. In relation to voting below the line, where there is a minimum number of six squares marked sequentially from 1 to 6 the vote will be considered formal. I seek leave to move all of the government amendments on sheet JP109 together, from (1) to (9).
Leave not granted.
(1) Schedule 1, item 1, page 3 (after line 8), after the definition of above the line, insert:
below the line: a square is printed below the line on a ballot paper if the square is printed on the ballot paper in accordance with subparagraph 210(1)(f)(i).
I want to return to the question that I have not had an answer on. I would like to understand when the advertising campaign will commence—how long after assent? That is the first thing. And the second is that I want to come back to the issue of the exhaustion rate. I think I asked earlier, but I have still not had an answer, whether the government had done any assessment of the exhaustion rate. Senator Cormann, I think, answered it by giving a lengthy discussion about choice.
I was looking at the joint standing committee Hansardthere was only a half-day hearing, so it has to be from 1 March—where Mr Green, who has been quoted a few times, said 83 per cent of ballot papers had only a single 1 above the line, when he was asked about the New South Wales system and the experience of the New South Wales system. He was asked about the exhaustion rate, which is 84.8, and then he said, 'For the last election, 83 per cent of ballot papers had only a single 1 above the line.' That would mean that essentially you have a first-past-the-post system for 83 per cent of the vote.
It is; 83 per cent of ballot papers had only a single 1 above the line.
Senator O'Sullivan interjecting—
Yes, I am extrapolating! Oh my goodness, isn't that a dreadful thing to do! You might think that how people vote in a state might also demonstrate how they might vote federally. Yes, you are right; federally, currently it is more—96 to 97 per cent vote 1 above the line. A useful assessment—and we are all looking into the future—of the extent to which an optional preferential system results in people maintaining that habit of going 1 above the line is the New South Wales system. The evidence before JSCEM is that 83 per cent of ballot papers had only a single 1 above the line.
That accords with the report that I quoted, which was an ABC news report reporting comments by Monash University's Dr Nick Economou, where he said that his assessment was that voters had been voting above the line at rates of about 90 per cent or more since the system was introduced in 1980s:
He said the new rules were likely to increase the number of exhausted votes.
"If we looked at the result of the last election and we applied the new rules, you'd be looking at exhausted votes in each state of anywhere between 14 and 20 per cent," …
Interestingly, the figures that I have just quoted from the New South Wales system are in the same window. That would suggest that that is probably about right. What that essentially means is that a great many voters would essentially have their votes exhausted under the system that the government is proposing. So I want to know: what analysis was done on exhausted votes? And, if I can finally have an answer on the campaign, I would really appreciate it.
Firstly, I have answered the question on exhausted votes extensively. Let me also reference again what the Electoral Commission said in evidence to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters—that is, you cannot predict voter behaviour. That is specifically and explicitly what the Electoral Commission said. You cannot actually predict how voters will respond and what choices they will make at the next election. That is of course entirely a matter for them. It is not possible to model how that will happen. That is something that we will have to observe after the event, and I am sure the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters will do exactly that.
I am, though, referencing a tweet by Kevin Bonham in relation to the contribution that Senator Wong has just made to this debate. Kevin Bonham is of course an expert in these matters. He takes a great interest in this from the great state of Tasmania. This is what he is saying: 'Senator Wong thinks a voting system where votes exhaust is not democratic. Her own party installed such systems in New South Wales and Queensland.' The truth is that it is not only Gary Gray; it is not only Jennie George; it is not only George Wright; and it is not only Peter Beattie—who came out today supporting Gary Gray. It is actually Labor when in government that introduces exactly the sort of system that we are proposing on this occasion.
In relation to the education campaign, I have answered that question ad nauseam. There will be an education campaign. It will be conducted by the Electoral Commission and the Electoral Commission will be adequately resourced for that purpose. The Electoral Commission has told us that, in order to provide adequate education and information about the benefits of this reform to the Australian reform and to make certain other changes to their systems and the like to implement these reforms at an election, they need about three months between the passage of this legislation and the implementation at an election. And, of course, that is something that the government will comply with. When exactly the campaign will start depends on a whole range of things, including the timing of the election—which is, of course, something that has not yet been determined.
I understand why Senator Wong is holding onto this as an issue that can get her half an hour or 45 minutes of time chewed up. Labor have a bit of a target on how long they want this debate to go. So they have to keep the debate going. So I understand why she is holding onto this, but I have actually answered that question very directly and there is nothing further to add.
I was not going to make a major contribution to this debate at this stage, although I did want to thank Senator Conroy for his contribution and for arguing so eloquently in favour of these reforms. Let us just talk through some of the arguments that Senator Conroy used. He in fact referred to the 1999 infamous tablecloth ballot election where there were 81 parties running, and he described the process of feeder parties being organised in a way to distribute preferences. Of course, I utterly reject that the Greens were in anyway implicated in that. But he is absolutely right: that was the genesis of these reforms.
We know that there were 81 parties in that election. We know that Glenn Druery was involved. We know that many of those feeder parties were directing their votes and their preferences to other entities. That is exactly why we need the reform. He is absolutely right. That 1999 election was outrageous and it is in fact the reason that we need this reform—so we can stop those feeder parties from being set up and established with the express purpose of basically feeding votes to other entities that people do not vote for and who often hold completely contradictory policy positions. So I want to thank Senator Conroy for highlighting the 1999 election and for highlighting the reason that we do need this reform. That tablecloth ballot makes the argument better than we could possibly make it. Again, Senator Conroy makes a very cogent argument for why we need these reforms.
He then went on to say that this is about bums on seats for the Greens and in the same speech he then spoke about how we are going to lose South Australian senators. I just do not know how on the one hand it is about self-interest and, on the other hand, about losing senators. Those two things just do not add up. It is totally incoherent. It is also incoherent when you consider that he says that, as a result of us not being able to get preferences, we want to abolish a system that is designed for people to be able to harvest preferences.
I think he made a reference to campaigns that I was involved in and said, 'You were unable to get preferences and now you want to change the system.' But, hang on; I want to change the system so that we cannot harvest preferences and have people being elected on the back of these secret preference deals. Again, he is making the argument as to why we need to reform the system. The incoherence goes on and on. On one hand we are too close to the Liberal Party and, on the other hand, Senator Rhiannon is criticised for being too far left. Again, which one is it? The debate has become so irrational that we are having contradictory points of view being expressed within the same tirade.
Without wanting to go on much further, he talks about the notion of these reforms delivering a conservative Senate. I would just make the point that, if these reforms were implemented in 2010 and we had had them over the last two elections, we would still have a carbon price. We would have a Senate that was more progressive, that would have fought to retain a carbon price. We would not have TPVs for people seeking refuge and asylum in this country. That is what people voted for. Unfortunately, the voting system produced an outcome that was much more unpredictable and inconsistent with the wishes of voters. Under this set of rules in the last two elections, we would actually have a more progressive Senate and we would now have a carbon price. Why would the Labor Party be arguing against a set of reforms that would have allowed us to retain the carbon price?
The other argument is that this reform may lead to a double dissolution. Why is the Labor Party running so scared from an election? Show a bit of courage. Stand up to the opposition and show a bit of courage; otherwise, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. It becomes like the child who is hitting their head against a brick wall and saying, 'But, mummy, it hurts. I am hitting my head against a brick wall—
It is like the little child who is banging their head against a brick wall saying, 'Mummy, it hurts.' Well, stop doing it; stand up and show a bit of courage. Stop running away from an election. If you do not stand up and fight, you will in fact deliver government to the coalition. The time to fight, to stand up and to show a bit of courage and be a real opposition is now. It is right now.
Opposition senators interjecting—
Without wanting to continue on much further, what we have is a set of democratic reforms that ultimately put power back in the hands of voters. They take the power away from us, the politicians, from the backroom operators who wield their power and influence through these deals—and effectively that is their currency in this chamber—and give it back to voters. The question of exhaustion has also been something that has been raised. We know that, ultimately, it becomes a question for voters as to how they distribute their preferences. If a voter wants to allocate preferences to a number of smaller parties and then decides to allocate a preference to one of the bigger parties, that is their choice and, in the end, what is a democracy about if it is not about giving voters the choice of who they elect?
You see, I believe in democracy. I believe in the Australian people. I believe in the Australian people's ability to make the right decision. And one of the great things about a democracy is that, whatever the outcome of an election, the people have always got it right. I have a lot of faith in people—unlike those opposite, who want to continue to have a set of rules that are rigged instead of those rules which are designed to keep power within that small clique who love exercising and wielding power through those backroom preference deals. Ultimately, at a time when in the parliament we are often fighting against the slow and gradual erosion of democracy, what a great day it is when we can say that today we have stood up, we have strengthened our democracy and we have given more power back to the people.
I want to pursue this issue of exhausted votes and disenfranchising voters as well. It has been mentioned by a number of people previously. I would like to talk in particular about the Liberal Democratic Party voters and whether or not they would be disenfranchised in the proposed voting system, and I want to talk in particular about the election of two Liberal Party senators.
The first of those that I want to discuss is Senator Linda Reynolds from Western Australia. If it were not for the fact that Senator Reynolds received the preferences from the Liberal Democratic Party, she would not be here. There would be another Labor senator in the chamber.
I have, at times, wondered whether we did the right thing! But let me continue. I was approached by two 'preference whisperers' to arrange this deal. They were, namely, former senator Ron Boswell and Mr Ben Morton—the State Director, I think he was, of the Liberal Party in Western Australia. I have no idea whether they called me from a front room or a back room, but the fact is that they called me, we discussed various aspects—the details of which are not all that important—and, in the end, the Liberal Democratic Party gave its preferences to the Liberal Party prior to the Labor Party in that Western Australian election.
The significant thing about it, of course, is that that group voting ticket that led to the Liberal Democratic Party's preferences going to the Liberal Party before the Labor Party, and the Greens, obviously, as well, was that those votes—our votes, my party's votes—did not go to the Liberal Party at No. 2 or 3 or 4 or 5 or 6. They were at about No. 25 or 26 or 27 or 28 or thereabouts. That is very, very significant, because under this voting system—this brand new, brave voting system—they will only be asked to vote for six above the line and, as far as I can tell, they are likely to be told: 'Just vote 1 anyway. That's good enough.' The point about it is that in another election they will not vote for minor parties, which is what they did. They will not vote for those minor parties before they put the Liberal Party; they will just vote for those minor parties because our voters do not much like the big parties. They just like the little ones.
In another election under this new voting system, because their votes do not go any further than what they are going to put on the ballot paper, they will cease at No. 6—that is, if they even get to No. 6. So the question is: does that reflect their will? I think I know a fair bit about Liberal Democratic Party voters, and I am pretty confident in saying that they trust us to do the right thing with their vote. And if I had said to them, 'If you can't get any of those minor parties, if we can't get elected and none of those minor parties that you would put second, third, fourth, fifth or sixth gets elected, who would you prefer?' then they would have had a preference. They would have said, very likely: 'The Liberal Party ahead of the Labor Party or the Greens.' I absolutely guarantee it would have been before the Greens.
The second example that I want to talk about is the election of Senator Sinodinos in New South Wales. Senator Sinodinos was elected at No. 6 on the New South Wales ticket at the 2013 election. It was not our preferences that got him elected; our preferences were not distributed, since I was elected. Senator Sinodinos was elected on the preferences of the Christian Democratic Party, One Nation, the Shooters and Fishers Party, the Fishing and Lifestyle Party and a number of others. If he had not received those preferences from those parties—and there were others; I cannot remember them all at the moment—then guess who would have won. It would have been Cate Faehrmann from the Greens.
Hmm. Tragic. So if voters of those parties had only been required to number 1 to 6 on the ballot paper—and perhaps not even that many—do you think they would have gone and put the Liberal Party, Senator Sinodinos, ahead of the Greens?
Almost certainly they would have stopped at No. 6, if they got that far, and they would have voted for other minor parties with which they thought they had common interest. The point about it, of course, is that if you actually went to those party supporters and said to them, 'Who do you support, the Liberal Party or the Greens?' I would be confident in saying that the vast majority of them would have said, 'I would prefer a Liberal got elected if it was the choice between a Liberal and a Greens.' I am is quite certain they would have.
The thing about this, of course, is that these voters of ours, the Liberal Democratic Party, and the voters for Christian Democrats, One Nation, Shooters and Fishers Party, Fishing and Lifestyle Party and the others trusted their parties. They said to their parties: 'You take care of our vote. If you cannot get elected and you cannot get a another party with which we have some common interest to get elected, then at least make sure it goes to someone we hate least.' That is the whole point of not having a vote that exhausts. Your vote ends up helping a party you hate the least, even if it is not the party you love.
I am confident that our voters think they can trust us with their vote. I am confident also that the voters that support Christian Democrats, One Nation, Shooters and Fishers Party and Fishing and Lifestyle Party also trust their parties with their vote. It is entirely possible that Greens voters do not trust that party with their vote and that is why they are so determined to make sure that their voters do not end up having that vote that the party can deal with. Perhaps that is the case, but that has to be the exception. As far as all the other minor parties are concerned that I have ever dealt with, my feeling is that the voters that support those parties or trust those parties with their votes would say, 'If you cannot get elected, make sure my vote goes to someone who I don't hate.'
I want to respond first to some of Senator Di Natale's contribution. First, he said, 'If these reforms were in place, we would still have a carbon price.' That is just not true. He knows that the purpose of these reforms is essentially to create a closed shop. I am surprised, I have to say, that Senator Cormann would be supporting something that was essentially like a closed shop. But I think he knows that his side of politics will be advantaged—
Closed not clothes. Will everyone get off the pants please—a closed shop. The reality is Senator Di Natale is supporting these reforms not for the highly principled argument he sought to put but because he thinks he will get more Greens. That is what he does think. I think we will get more Labor people, but I do not think these are the right reforms for a democracy. Again, I think there is an issue with some of the—
Yes, Gary Gray does, and he is disappointed, I am sure, that he did not convince the majority of his colleagues.
Senator Rhiannon interjecting—
Senator Di Natale and Senator Rhiannon are willing to join with the government in pushing through these changes because they think they will be advantaged. They do not actually care that there is a great likelihood that this will lead to a blocking and, ultimately, a working majority for the coalition. They just do not worry about that. Why is that? They are not a party of government. They are quite happy to have people there—
Here we go—not yet. Right. Okay. I will take that interjection because I want to talk about the assertion that we lack political courage—coming from a Green, that is extraordinary. It suggests that Labor actually never go out and campaign against the coalition. Well, we are the only party that actually campaigned against them because the only party that seeks to shift votes away from the coalition is Labor. All the Greens want to do is shift votes from the Labor Party to the Greens. You do not actually want to change Australia. You do not actually want to deliver progressive reforms. You just want more people in here so you can feel more important.
Senator Conroy interjecting—
I am not going to use the phrase Senator Conroy got in trouble for. But you want more people here. You do not actually ever try to shift a vote from the coalition to someone else. Your attack, and it has been demonstrated here time and time again, is against the Labor Party. I have never understood why that was regarded as a progressive position. If I look at the things that I think are important progressive reforms in this country, whether it be Medicare or having more people in universities or the Gonski reforms or superannuation or a fair system of wages and conditions or a decent age pension or an independent foreign policy or the National Disability Insurance Scheme or the sex discrimination act or the Racial Discrimination Act or the Native Title Act, and so much more, they have been delivered by Labor governments. We went out, people like us and those who went before, and campaigned and talked to people who do not agree with us, and convinced people to vote for the Labor Party rather than the coalition.
You, on the other hand, sit here and snipe and try to take votes from Labor to the Greens. That is not progressive politics. I am happy to talk about the dirty deal. You talk about the preference deals. Well, what about the dirty deal that Michael Kroger has blown the whistle on? This leader, the Liberal lap-dog that is Senator Di Natale—oh, he is going red; a bit of blushing there—has done a deal with the Liberal Party to issue open tickets to advantage the Liberal Party in certain marginal seats so that the Liberals can help him target Ms Plibersek and Mr Albanese. And he has the temerity to come in here and talk about courage. That is not courage; that is a dirty backroom deal. You keep denying it, but unfortunately Mr Kroger has blown the whistle on you. Your modus operandi is all about trying to take out Labor people and Labor voters.
I would like to ask the Greens this: tell me why progressive politics in this country would be better for having Tanya Plibersek and Anthony Albanese out of the parliament. How is that progressive politics? I will not be campaigning for that. I will be campaigning to get some of the Liberal Party and the National Party out of the parliament. That is what we do. But, no, you campaign to get Labor people out of the parliament. So do not come in here and give us a lecture about political courage, because there is only one party that actually tries to change the government. And when you change the government you change the country. What you are having is a sort of Senate version, a national political version of a dinner party conversation: 'We don't like this and that about the Labor Party but we are going to keep talking to people who agree with us. We're going to try to take progressive voters off Labor for ourselves but we're actually not going to try to change the country by getting rid of this government.' That is your political strategy. You are prepared to lie in bed with them, whether it is on Senate voting changes or on the dirty preference deal that Michael Kroger has blown the whistle on. And then you come in here and talk about political courage. Well, show some.
Senator Di Natale says, 'If we'd had these voting changes we would still have a carbon price.' My response to that, as he would probably know, is: we would probably still have a carbon price if the Australian Greens had not voted against a carbon price and had not done what they did today, which was to do the walk of shame and vote with Senator Bernardi and, at the time, Senator Fielding and Senator Minchin—who thought that climate change was 'a left-wing conspiracy to de-industrialise the Western World'. That is who you voted with. They get out on Twitter, and I am sure that Mr Paris—the staffer who likes tweeting at me, likes trolling me—will now be tweeting his lovely tweets at me again, and they will say, 'It was such a dreadful piece of legislation.' You voted very shortly afterwards for a piece of legislation that was almost identical and that gave at least the same amount of assistance, if not more, to what you described as the 'big polluters'. Who showed political courage then? Not the Australian Greens. All you cared about was making sure that you made the Labor Party look like we were bad. And you were prepared to vote with Senator Bernardi and Senator Minchin to do that.
So the lecture about political courage from a leader of the Greens who not only has done a deal with the Liberal Party on Senate changes but also has done a dirty preference deal—which he sort of half denies but Michael Kroger keeps talking about it and has blown the whistle on it—is pretty hard to stomach, frankly. Maybe you should stick to your photo shoots.
Senator Cormann keeps saying, 'I've answered the question.' He keeps finding different ways to not answer the question—which is impressive. I have probably been there myself, but I am going to have another go, and it is a question about the timing of the education campaign.
Senator O'Sullivan interjecting—
It is not a waste of time. Unlike you, Senator O'Sullivan, I actually think that making sure Australian voters understand the largest changes in 30 years is probably not a bad idea. I first asked Senator Cormann about the campaign and when it will commence. He said, 'It depends when the bill gets passed.' I said, 'How long after assent?' He said, 'That's not when we measure it from. We measure it from when the election will be.' Okay, let's forget the game playing around that. How long prior to the election date will the campaign run? Or, another way of asking it: will there be any of the education campaign run before the election is called? He is shaking his head. Is that a no?
I was not planning on standing up, but I will make a few points just to correct the record. Let's begin with the assertion that Senator Wong made about the Greens not targeting Liberal Party seats. As a brief reminder for Senator Wong, at the last New South Wales state election it was in fact the Greens that took a National Party seat, in the seat of Ballina. There is a seat from the hands of the conservatives that now lies with the Greens. In the last Victorian state election, the seat of Prahran, a seat held by the conservative side of politics, is now held by the Greens.
In this federal election we have got some outstanding candidates who are standing in Liberal-held seats. I think Kelly O'Dwyer is in a bit of trouble in Higgins, because we have Jason Ball there—an outstanding candidate who looks like he might take the seat of Higgins. We are, of course, targeting many of those conservative seats. This notion that we are not fighting hard against the coalition: I remind Senator Wong that when it comes to voting with the coalition it is the Greens who have voted with the coalition six per cent of the time. It is the Labor Party that has voted with the coalition over 30 per cent of the time. That is just some basic maths in terms of where the Greens stand relative to the coalition and where the Labor Party stand relative to the coalition.
Senator Wong also asked why somebody would vote to elect a Green in the seats of Sydney and Grayndler. I will give a very succinct explanation. When there is a vote in the parliament about whether we should punish a doctor for reporting child abuse or speaking out against the abuses that are going on in our detention camps, a Green will vote against that every single time, and yet Ms Plibersek and Mr Albanese have voted in support of those things. The most important thing that we are gifted when we are elected to this place is our vote. All the rhetoric and all the words in the world do not matter next to the most important thing that we are given in this place, and that is our vote
So, when it comes to voting to strengthen renewable energy or to slash it, what we have seen is again those members of the Labor Party voting with the coalition to slash the Renewable Energy Target. Ms Plibersek and Mr Albanese voted with the government to slash the Renewable Energy Target. When it comes to data retention—again, some of the widest and most far-reaching laws, which impact on 23 million Australians, saying to them that their personal information is no longer theirs but belongs to the government who are unaccountable and can access it without a warrant—again Ms Plibersek and Mr Albanese voted to ensure that your data is no longer yours. If you elect a Green in one of those seats, you can be absolutely guaranteed that, when it comes to expressing how we feel about those issues, it will not be a rhetorical flourish; it will be done through our vote. So, if you want to know why people will be electing more Greens to lower house seats, it is because, when we have the opportunity through our vote to implement progressive reforms, we will do it every time.
Senator Wong also talked about the issue of Steven Fielding. That is a wonderful place to finish, because Senator Fielding was elected to this parliament on the back of a preference deal as a result of those clever backroom operators within the Victorian Labor Party who ensured that Steven Fielding would be elected ahead of the Greens. Again, let's just go back, because it was a bit of an own goal, Senator Wong. What we have is Senator Fielding, who held the balance of power in the federal parliament as a result of a preference deal where the Labor Party gave Steven Fielding a seat in this parliament ahead of a Green. The consequence of that decision I do not need to explain to anybody, because what we saw was somebody with a conservative view which you, Senator Wong—through you, Chair—outlined: the notion that the CPRS was some conspiracy to deindustrialise society. Let's remember who put him there. The Labor Party backroom operators in Victoria, through a preference deal, got him elected with 1.8 per cent of the vote. So, again, thank you for making the arguments as to why these reforms are just so critical. They are critical because if the voters of Australia want Steven Fielding in this parliament then he should be voted into this parliament, not as a result of the decisions of some of the backroom operators inside the Labor Party.
I do not want to hold the Senate up for long tonight, so I am going to try to make my remarks as brief and to the point as possible. In politics you get asked some really tough questions from time to time. There are tough calls to make. There are times where you have to be able to make a tough judgement call and you are going to held to the calls that you make.
Senator Conroy has spent a lot of time talking about pants tonight, and I am a little bit disturbed, because I am sitting with him until the early hours of the morning—bums and bottoms, I believe. But when a fashion magazine asks the leader of what purports to be one of the most progressive parties represented in this place—
'Purports' is the word that I would use. When asked whether or not he would form an alliance or go into coalition with the Liberal Party, the words that he responded with were 'never say never'. He would never say never to forming a coalition with one of the most right-wing governments that this country has ever seen. He would never say never to forming a coalition with one of the most extreme, ideologically driven organisations and parties. He would never say never to being in a formal alliance with a party that has people with very conservative views, like Cory Bernardi, George Christensen—we saw him at it again today—and Senator Abetz. 'Never say never' is the position that the purported leader of a progressive party chooses to take. Frankly, there is a line. It is not a 'never say never' proposition. There is a line.
Senator Di Natale, in subsequent interviews, was at pains to distance himself from the comment and say, 'I did say that I'd probably be more inclined to be in a progressive alliance than a right-wing one.' That is not the point. Once you cross that threshold, once you are prepared to do that, once that is no longer the line of what you will not do as a progressive leader, you have lost all credibility on the progressive front of Australian politics. Once that is the line that you are prepared to cross, it just does not stop. It reminds me of a great story—and I am sure others in this chamber have heard it before—about Lord Beaverbrook, the famous Canadian philanthropist, who said to an actress once, 'Would you marry me for a million dollars?' She turned around and said, 'Yes, I would.' Then he said, 'Would you marry me for 10?' She said, 'What do you think I am?' He said: 'Well, I think we've established that. Now we're just haggling about the price.' Senator Di Natale has said he will cross the threshold. Now it is just about the price. Now it is just about the right deal. Now it is just about getting the outcome that is enough for him to be able to sell out on basic centre-left principles. That is the path that Senator Di Natale has chosen to go down.
There are those on my side of politics who will argue, 'Let it happen; it's a good thing,' because frankly we have seen what happens to left-wing parties when they shift to the right. We have seen what happens when people sell out on core principles.
We have seen what happens to parties like the Liberal Democrats in the UK or even the Australian Democrats here. We have seen what happens to parties that start selling out fundamental principles. There are those who would make the pragmatic argument that, if that happens, after a period of time it is kind of the end of the party and that is probably good. I do not share that view. I believe in a progressive Australia. I believe in progressive outcomes. I believe in progressive change. I believe in a united progressive front to be able to achieve that.
When you start having a party that purports to have these left-wing values start selling out—it started with tax transparency, we are now doing it on electoral voting reform and who knows where it goes next—where does it end? It ends in a coalition-style arrangement. Let's be clear: there are some things you rule out in this business. The Labor Party would happily rule out going into a coalition government with the Liberals, because fundamentally there are too many issues that we just do not share and cannot share with them. Once you start going down that road, where does it end?
In a whole host of interviews he has been doing in recent weeks, Senator Di Natale has tried to be very clever when he talks about the preference arrangement between him and the Liberal Party. Mr Kroger is a man of honesty and decency. He is someone whose politics I do not agree with at all, but I have always respected him. He has always been honest, open and forthright. When Mr Kroger turns around and says, 'We prepared for a loose preference arrangement,' let's be clear what he means. There are Liberal members in this chamber who privately have come to senators like me and expressed their concerns, but let's explain what it is. The Liberal Party would preference the Greens in inner-city electorates where they are trying to take out the Labor Party, and in return the Greens would run open tickets and preference nobody in seats where the Labor Party is contesting against the Liberals.
What is the outcome of this if this were to be successful—and I do not think it is going to be very successful. I do not think it is helpful to the progressive cause. The goal is on one hand to be replacing some Labor MPs with Greens in the inner-city electorates. We are prepared to battle the Greens in the inner city, and, if that were all that this were about, that is the progressive side of politics having an internal fight, and so be it. But part of that also is the dividend for the Liberals in doing this: making sure that progressive votes are leaked out of the progressive pile. That is the whole point of this.
Senator Di Natale says, 'We won't be preferencing the Liberals anywhere.' I do not believe he will be preferencing the Liberals yet. You are heading down that road. You are not there yet, and I accept that. For the sake of progressive politics in this country, I hope you never get there. I think that, once you head down there, in the short term it will be disastrous for everybody involved. In the long term, it would be the end of your party, but that is a separate matter. When the Senator says there is no preference deal where they would be preferencing the Liberals, I believe that is probably true, but that is not what this loose arrangement is about. That is where this is heading. This is going down a path which is going to be bad for progressive outcomes and progressive people being elected into these types of chambers. It is going to result in more right-wing, extreme, ideologically driven views.
Let's not kid ourselves here. The conservative side of politics has become incredibly and increasingly ideological. They are entitled to do that. A few days ago we heard the first speech of Senator James Paterson. It was his first speech, and I will say some nice things. I thought Senator Paterson delivered it eloquently. I thought he was articulate. I thought he expressed what he believes and he was genuine with what he believes. I think he should be commended and congratulated for his first speech. I thought it was a remarkable contribution. I also think it represented an extremely right-wing, ideological world view, which he is entitled to and is openly representing. Again, I give Senator Paterson credit. A lot of people on the conservative side of politics have shared these views and have not been prepared to put them forward or do not put them forward eloquently, so I do congratulate him on that.
But that is where they are going. That is the future of the conservative parties. The future of the Liberals, LNP or however they are going to be branded in the next couple of years as this Lib-Nat merger finalises across the country is right-wing, extreme, ideologically driven views. Senator Di Natale and the Greens party are facilitating and incredible power grab.
The leader of the Greens political party was going on earlier about how you say it is both good and bad. Let's be clear what all of this does. If your outcome that you care about is not a majority of progressive voices in this chamber—if your outcome is making sure your small section of the pie is protected—then, yes, this is a pragmatic approach. Yes, this is in self-interest. If you say the interests you want to represent are the broader interests of actually progressive social outcomes then this is bad legislation. These are bad laws. These are laws that do bad things for the people that we represent. That is what is so wrong about the legislation that we are facing here.
I did promise I was not going to go for too long, and Senator Williams has noted that. I did want to get to a more specific question for Senator Cormann. There were comments that you made earlier that I wanted to clarify because I perhaps misunderstood the transcript of the inquiry report and the testimony that was given by the AEC. My understanding—again, I read this a few days ago and I have not had an opportunity to go back to my office and check this—is that the AEC's position was that they needed a minimum of three months. Could the minister check whether that is correct. I know there are some officials here. Maybe they could clarify that. Minister, you said they need 'about' three months. I would like to get that clarified.
I have already clarified that precise point three times tonight in response to questions by some of Senator Dastyari's Labor colleagues. The Electoral Commissioner, Mr Rogers, provided specific advice to me that the Electoral Commission needed about three months between the passage of this legislation and the implementation of this legislation at an election.
It is slightly unusual that much of the debate today is not actually focusing on the content of the legislation and the amendments that we are debating. I think we should return to that. Of course, I cannot let some of the comments made in the previous contribution go unchallenged. It is important to remember that, through this discussion of preferences, some assertions have been made. Again, I would like to make it absolutely crystal clear that there is no arrangement with the Liberal Party.
Secondly, the Labor Party has been the beneficiary of Liberal preferences at a number of elections. Mr Albanese's recent contribution was really just a pitch to the conservative base of the Liberal Party: 'Please give us your preferences because we're more like you than the Australian Greens.' It is really important to remember that that is where this is being driven. This whole issue emerged because Mr Albanese made some assertions about a non-existent arrangement. He made a desperate pitch to Senator Bernardi, Senator Abetz, Mr Christensen and others: 'Be careful if your party preferences the Greens ahead of us. 'Traditionally they did that for many years because they thought that was in their interests. At the last federal election, the Liberal Party decided to change tack. Labor wants to make sure the Liberal Party continues doing that. So Mr Albanese came out with his pitch to the conservative elements of the Liberal Party: 'This is something that some people in the Liberal Party are considering because it is within their interests. But please remember that our policies, my policies, are much more aligned to yours than the Greens policies are. So make sure you continue to preference me so that I can hold my seat.' That is what this debate is really about. Let's be absolutely crystal clear about that.
There is a bit of it debate about a coalition. It is inconceivable that we would enter into any sort of coalition arrangement with the Liberal Party. You need only look at the recent history to know that it was with the support of the Greens that the Rudd-Gillard government was able to govern. Again, if we are being frank about this, the most logical coalition in the parliament is a Labor-Liberal coalition. Some of us Greens do come from the conservative side of politics. There are some who are more in the tradition of Malcolm Fraser. But I, like most of us, grew up in a Labor household immersed in Labor politics, a house in which Gough Whitlam was eulogised. Some of us realised the gradual shift in policy direction from the Labor Party, right from the time they introduced mandatory detention; right from the time that they continued to sign the death knell of some of our most precious native forests, with successive state governments continuing that—in fact it continues to this day; right through the invasion of Afghanistan, which was endorsed by the Labor Party; right through to measures such as walking away from the most important moral challenge of our time, which of course is global warming; right through to successive foreign incursions such as the one we have seen in Syria; data retention; and, of course, that huge, gaping wound that exists in Australian politics at the moment which is the treatment of people seeking refuge and asylum in this country.
The point of that is that there are many of us who decided that we could no longer tolerate those things and that without that commitment to the environment that says that economy is a subsidiary of the environment, and without a readjustment in terms of the way our relationship with the environment works, we will not have a planet to sustain all of us.
That is why the Australian Greens have gone from strength to strength. This is a fundamental point: all the bluster in the world does not take away from the fact that the Labor Party at the moment are experiencing an existential crisis. What do they do about the emergence of the Australian Greens, knowing that we are not going anywhere? In fact, quite the opposite: we are a party that is going from strength to strength. You just need to look at the support base of our party to know that among young people we are now one of the three major parties. Our vote at various times is higher than the Labor Party's, depending on the most recent opinion poll you look at. We are matching it with all sides of politics. That is where we sit at the moment. When you look at the challenges that we face as a nation and indeed as a planet—the issue of climate change and global warming—we are the party that is best placed to deal with that challenge.
Again, on the issue of people seeking refuge and asylum, there are so many people in this country who desperately want a bit more decency and compassion. When you factor in the conflicts that are going on around the world—the issue of Syria at the moment which is causing an unprecedented displacement of people, something that has not been seen since World War II at least—when you look at all of those challenges—and of course the issue of refugees and asylum seekers in the context of catastrophic global warming will only escalate exponentially—they are the issues where people are increasingly acknowledging that the Australian Greens best represent their values.
I know that people are very frustrated by this debate—people at home who might be listening in and thinking, 'Why on earth is there so much vitriol going on between the Labor Party and the Greens, when in fact it was the Greens that supported the Labor Party in office?' Underneath all of that is this notion about where the Labor Party stands on this issue and how they deal with the emergence and continued growth of the Australian Greens.
That is what is at the heart of this. We are seeing this tussle inside the Labor Party. There are so many good people inside the Labor Party that many of us have worked with. Let me name check someone like Melissa Parke, for example, who we have worked with so closely on the issue of drug policy and law reform, on refugees and asylum seekers and on so many issues. There are many, many good people inside the Labor Party who want to reach some sort of accommodation, who want that for the sake of progressive politics. But there is also a group inside the Labor Party, many of them represented here today, who are lashing out in anger. They are grasping at any possibility they can to try and throw a bit of mud and hope that it sticks. The nonsense that engaging in a photo shoot somehow represents some betrayal of progressive values—how absurd! How absurd this debate has now become.
I am sure this will continue until that internal struggle within the Labor Party is resolved one way or another. I hope that, for the sake of all of us who want to see a more decent society and a little more courage, vision and leadership, that it is resolved quickly. If it is not, all the concerns that the Labor Party are now expressing about the coalition winning government and winning control of the Senate will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
So once again I say to the Labor Party, stand up, show some courage, recognise that, ultimately, if we are to defeat a conservative agenda it is going require a focus a focus on conservative policies—the conservative policies of this government. Until they are able to acknowledge and recognise that fact, they are handing the coalition everything they want. I hope we can return to the substance of this debate, which is ultimately about ensuring we see more democracy in the Australian parliament—about taking power away from us, the politicians, and giving it back to you, the voters.
Minister, you may remember that much earlier in this debate I was talking about the education campaign—not in the same way as Senator Wong was but more, rather, about the process surrounding the education campaign. You have given us evidence this evening that the Australian Electoral Commission will be conducting a campaign and that, for financial reasons, they will be outsourcing that, which is why we cannot get details—for commercial-in-confidence reasons. I have also raised concerns in my previous contributions about the issue of these electoral changes going through at a time when there is a strong possibility, or probability, of an election being held very soon.
I am trying to find out whether the education campaign will be purely about the changes and how they will operate, encouraging people to vote, getting on the roll and all the normal stuff the AEC covers. Or will there also be a political message in the campaign as well, along the lines of what you have been repeating in your various contributions: 'These changes are going to save your vote', 'This is going to be a major change for democracy', 'Our government has protected your choice', and all that sort of stuff? I am trying to find out, as I have been throughout this process, how the community is going to be brought onside, how we are going to get them involved and how they will know about the changes. Even with just your first amendment, the explanation you read into the record is not a simple message.
Senator Cormann interjecting—
I am not claiming the current process is simple either. I have never claimed that. But, with the message that is going to have to go out, will there be a clear electoral process message completely separate from any political message along the lines of: 'Your government has delivered your vote in a more democratic way'? The reason I am asking that is clear, but there is also, as I have said all the way through, the issue of having such an electoral change so close to an election. My point, all the way through, has been that I would have preferred the changes to the electoral system to have been made well outside an election period. Seemingly, however, that is not going to be the case. I think you should have picked up the drift of my question. I would just like to get some detail on those issues.
Senator Moore is right. The government very strongly asserts that these reforms before the Senate today are a great step forward for democracy. Senator Moore is right that the government asserts that the reforms, if legislated, will ensure that the result of future Senate elections will truly reflect the will of the Australian people—because they empower Australian voters to determine what happens to their preferences. Instead of having political parties, backroom operators and preference manipulators determine, trade and direct preferences in different directions according to their own interests, it will be up to the voter to determine what they want to do with their vote. So the government's message to voters is: 'This is your vote, your decision. You determine whom you vote for, whom you preference, either above the line or below the line.' That is indeed one of the great virtues of these reforms.
Senator Moore asked about the campaign. I have sought to address her question in different ways. I did touch on this in my responses to questions from Senator Wong. This campaign will be run by the Electoral Commission. The Electoral Commission is an independent statutory agency which is nonpartisan
It operates completely independently from any political party and it has a proven track record when it comes to running relevant information campaigns in the lead-up to elections. These education campaigns, which are non-partisan, non-politically charged and informational, essentially present the facts and the information that voters need to have. They focus on what the voters need to know in order to exercise their democratic rights.
I cannot remember off the top of my head a previous example, but changes have been made by previous governments on previous occasions and the Electoral Commission ran campaigns to make sure that people across Australia understood those changes. The process that will be followed on this occasion is the exact same process. This will not be a political campaign; it will be an education campaign. It will be run independently from government, at arms-length from government, by the Electoral Commission as they believe it needs to be done in order to explain the way the voting system will operate if these reforms are passed.
I completely reject the proposition that the amendment I have moved, which is what is in front of the chair at the moment, shows that voting below the line is going to be more complicated in the future than what it is at present. Let me explain exactly what the arrangement in voting below the line is at present. If you want to vote below the line at present, you have to fill in every single box. There could be 120 or 150 boxes; you have to fill in every single one of them. And the way the savings provisions work is that for your vote to be formal, you have to at least get 90 per cent of those boxes filled in correctly, with no more than three errors in sequence in that filling in of all of the boxes.
What we are going to do from here is we are going to say to voters: 'We're going to make it easier for you. If you want to vote for individual candidates instead of expressing a preference for your party of choice above the line, if you want to order the candidates for the Senate in order of your preference by voting below the line, we're going to make it easier for you.' We are going to say to you that on the ballot paper, in black-and-white on the ballot paper, 'To vote below the line, number at least 12 boxes from 1 to 12 in order of your preference, 1 being your highest preference to 12 being your lowest preference.' People are free to do what they have done so far—that is, fill in every single box—but the guidance on the ballot paper will be to fill in at least 12 boxes from 1 to 12 in order of a voter's preference. There is a savings provision, which is much more straightforward than the current savings provision. The savings provision will be that if you get at least six boxes right, from 1 to 6—if you number at least six boxes from 1 to 6—so that is 50 per cent of what the guidance provides; certainly much less than the full ticket—then your vote will be counted as formal.
The Electoral Commission will find the most appropriate way, based on expert advice and contracting external providers as appropriate to assist in the actual running of the campaign. They will provide factual information to inform the Australian people, in good time before the next election, on how they should vote in the Senate: to vote above the line, number at least six boxes, 1 to 6, in order of your preference; to vote below the line, number at least 12 boxes below the line in order of your preference from 1 to 12. It is really as simple as that.
What the artwork is going to be like, exactly what words are going to be used—that is not something I am going to involve myself in. That is not something the government is going to be involved in. And that is not something that governments of either political persuasion would have been involved in in the past. This is why I have said to Senator Wong, in answer to a number of her questions, that I cannot really provide her with some of the very specific details she was seeking, because, quite appropriately, the political arm of government does not get itself involved in the conduct of that sort of campaign at that level.
What I can say is that the government has made a very firm commitment that the AEC will have all of the necessary resources to run that campaign in a way that they, in their professional judgement, feel that it needs to be run. From the government's point of view, that is our responsibility, and that is responding to JSCEM and the recommendations they have made. When you make a change like this, you do have to run a campaign to inform the public. The Electoral Commission will tell us what that needs to involve. They will put together the campaign with advice that needs to be run. They will tell us how much it will cost and they we will have the necessary resources.
Senator Cormann, I know that you are keen to move onto your first amendment, but we are a long way from finished with the general issues we need to address in the consideration of this bill. And, unfortunately, I need to take you to the detail of the AEC's appearance before JSCEM, because your characterisation of what they said there about resourcing is not accurate. In fact, I would challenge you to cite the page reference in the Hansard which would demonstrate it in the way that you characterised it earlier. Let me take you to some specific references in it. If you look at page 1, Mr Rogers, towards the middle of the second paragraph of his opening statement, indicates very clearly that, from the AEC's point of view, they are looking at 'an estimated three-month minimum time frame'. Let's not be confused about that: 'minimum'. In fact, Senator Rhiannon tried to ask them whether they could fast-track it and she got a very clear response, which was: 'No'. But, worse than that, if you look at what was put to us, Mr Rogers said, again in that second paragraph, 'Should the bill change significantly'—which, indeed, these recommendations before us now do—
It may or may not be your view, but the facts are that the changes to below-the-line voting were not part of their original indications—of course, unless they were aware of your original intentions in the House, but I think you would find that hard to justify given your earlier arguments. But the point is that the indications that the AEC would have been talking to us about during that hearing were on the bill as it came out of the House of Representatives, before you had made this decision to accept the recommendations of the inquiry which dealt with the below-the-line voting issues. So these changes to how Australians will vote in the Senate below the line, which were not part of your original proposal, were not part of what the AEC was dealing with when it appeared before JSCEM. Let's look, again, at my point about what Mr Rogers says:
Should the bill change significantly, the AEC will need to revise its timing, cost and other resource estimates.
I would like to know whether that revision has occurred and I would like to know the nature of that revision, because the evidence from the AEC to the committee was that changes during the legislative progress would have implications for their initial indications. In fact, I would like to see their initial indications.
Going back to the very poor response to the return to order and the farce of a committee inquiry: material that should have been before the committee and that should be before individual senators about how this process is to occur has not been available. You might like to characterise it as 'micromanagement', but these are basic issues around how much time is required for the AEC and what the resourcing implications are of these changes. If I go to the very issues that Mr Rogers was highlighting, then what is the indicative advice on those matters? These are not things that we should have to wait for Senate estimates to do post facto. These are things that any decent government should be able to make available to the Senate. There is no reason for commercial-in-confidence or even cabinet considerations for why we should not be able to see what the non-partisan AEC's indications are about how they need to progress with the legislation as proposed.
I asked you earlier and I still really have not got an adequate response, other than some flippant remark that I should look at the Hansard, as to what the issue or the problem or the harm is in relation to making available that type of information. I think it is astounding, Minister, the response that you are taking to a fairly routine and general question about how a matter will proceed. This takes me to my next point, because I sat here while Senator Di Natale—who has now gone, unfortunately; I was hoping he would still be sitting in the back there when I got to this point—said, 'Let's talk substance.' Seriously! I have never sat in this place—and I remember even Senator Bob Brown. What I think Senator Di Natale has is what I would call doctor syndrome. He is not used to being challenged. He does not think that he should be subject to inquiry, and unfortunately his ignorance and Senator Rhiannon's self-interest and ineptitude have allowed this government to lead you along by the nose. Basic substantive matters that should have been addressed, either in their backdoor negotiations or in the committee stage consideration, have not been—basic issues.
So, as a result of your poor management, we have no transparency. We now have a minister here who is quite happy to sit here and say: 'I'm not going to tell you about resourcing. We have said we will resource the AEC, so we will and you can ask us about it in estimates later.' I cannot understand or conceive how some of the more seasoned Greens senators have swallowed this. I really cannot understand how senators who have participated in a range of issues in this place in the past—I referred to Senator Ludlam when I was talking about return to order matters as one example—can allow this government not even to indicate the harm. They turn their noses up at even indicating the harm of providing basic information—information the AEC told us they had provided to government. Let us go back to that point. The AEC indicated that they had provided indicative advice on costings and resource implications. They also told us about the timing implications of the changes.
At this stage, I will try again because I have not been more specific in other areas and failed, but let us try this one again. Has advice been sought from the AEC in relation to the government's 'decision' to accept the recommendations of JSCEM 2016? Have the AEC been consulted about what the indicative cost resource implications of those changes are? Have they been asked what time frame issues arise as a consequence? If so, what was their response?
Firstly, I reject the characterisation of our amendments as a significant change to the bill. They are not. Of course, we sought advice from the Electoral Commission about these amendments. As I have already indicated to you on several occasions now, the Electoral Commissioner gave me very firm advice that the Electoral Commission would need about three months between passage of the legislation and the successful implementation at an election. The amendments that are before the chair in relation to below-the-line voting do not actually make the system more complex. If anything, they make the system simpler. It certainly makes the algorithm simpler. In relation to the advice from the AEC to government about the resources that are required, of course the AEC has given us some indicative costings, but, as I have already indicated to you, that is not something that I can share with you, for the reasons that I have previously outlined. What I can tell you is that the AEC will have all of the necessary resources in order to ensure that this very important reform is effectively and professionally implemented.
What harm is there in you telling us the ballpark figure for what resources the AEC say they need to implement these changes? You cannot argue commercial-in-confidence. I am not asking you to draw it down to that level. You cannot argue that it is a cabinet-in-confidence issue, because it is not. It is a straightforward question. What advice have the AEC provided about what resourcing they need to properly implement these changes?
Senator Conroy made a serious and inaccurate allegation about my role in the New South Wales election in 1999. There were no Greens feeder parties. There were no Greens feeder parties that I or any other Greens members were involved in. We were not involved in the establishment of such parties—feeder parties or front parties.
To come to the issue that is before us now, one of the very important aspects of this bill is about changing the below-the-line voting system. In the current system, which many people have complained about, if you want to choose your candidates and not get caught in party blocks then you had to fill in every box. Many people have raised that. This is very relevant because we continually hear these repetitive speeches from Labor trying to discredit the JSCEM inquiry. The JSCEM inquiry was real. We thank the people who put in submissions—
Senator Jacinta Collins interjecting—
I acknowledge the interjection, Senator Collins! This was a very useful inquiry and, seriously, this very point illustrates it. One of the recommendations was that the bill should be changed from what originally went through the House of Representatives to what we now have before us with this amendment—voters voting below the line would only have to number 12 boxes. They could number more boxes but they would have to number a minimum of 12 boxes. It is a really important amendment. Again, there was solid evidence given and there was certainly much public consideration of this matter. It underlines the usefulness of the work that was undertaken by JSCEM and its important role.
Let us get back to what this amendment is about. It is about something that is very important and really makes a big difference to the importance of the legislation that is before us.
I will go back to this wonderful point that Senator Rhiannon has made about what a fantastic inquiry the Greens conspired with the government to have, in which even a simple request that we have the department appear was blocked. No rationale or justification given; that request was just outright blocked. Labor was given 15 minutes in total to question the AEC. What a farce!
Senator Rhiannon came in here in the earlier debate and said, 'Senator Conroy didn't even use all his time.' Senator Conroy, how could you not! He used every moment he had with the AEC—it might not necessarily have been critical for some of the other witnesses but for the AEC we used every ounce of what we were given. Do not pretend this inquiry was something it was not. It was the most appalling committee farce I have ever observed. What's more, it says what the Greens are prepared to do. We have sanctimonious lecturing from Senator Di Natale. We have a Green cabal here who do not even know how to properly work Senate transparency. Instead, they trot over with the government, regardless of what the issue is, every time they are required. Senator Rhiannon wanted to ask the AEC a question. She should be asking the minister this question but she has not—because she is really all about substance! Let's go back to the substance. Minister, I have already asked you Senator Rhiannon's question once but let me ask you again: should there be a penalty for anyone advocating to just vote '1' above the line? Let 's hear your philosophy on this one.
He did not answer that question. He did not answer it at all. If he has—and he claims he has—I would like him to repeat it. Maybe when I was getting a bite to eat I missed it—I am being generous there. No, I do not believe you answered it. The response you have given to other genuine questions is 'in good time', 'some time before an election' or 'whenever it might be'. 'How dare you ask questions! You are starting to sound like a doctor!' It is simple information.
It seems pretty obvious, at least in Senator Rhiannon's mind, that maybe there should be a penalty to preclude that. It certainly was part of the commentary around these measures from some of the parties who were commentating. Obviously it drove Senator Rhiannon to think that she should ask someone this question, but she picked the wrong people. It really should have been the department or the minister. So let's go back to the question. What consideration did government give to whether there should be a penalty for anyone advocating voting 1 above the line, and what is the policy rationale for not including it in the measures?
In an abundance of helpfulness I will address this issue again. But first let me just say—not that I would want to speak on behalf of Senator Rhiannon, who is obviously capable of speaking for herself—that I think you are verballing and misrepresenting her line of questioning at the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters.
I watched the hearing very carefully from our office, because, as you know, it was broadcast on TV, and it was a fascinating hearing. Senator Rhiannon, referring to some incident in the past which led to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters recommending against certain penalties for these circumstances, asked the Electoral Commission to clarify whether they had a view in relation to these matters. From memory the Electoral Commission referred to what I also referred to in my answer—that is, the existing penalties that are already in the Electoral Act.
The Electoral Act already provides that political parties are not allowed to mislead or deceive voters into casting an informal vote. That prohibition will continue. The government is of the opinion that the penalties currently listed in section 329 of the Electoral Act relating to the distribution of misleading material are sufficient to act as a significant deterrent to any such behaviour. We do not believe that we need to go beyond that important safeguard in section 329, which protects voters from any advice which could mislead them into casting an informal vote. We do not propose to ask the Electoral Commission to become the regulator and enforcer of how how-to-vote cards issued by political parties at election time are put together.
In the lead up to the next election the AEC will conduct a comprehensive education campaign to clearly explain the options available to voters when voting for the Senate. Specifically the campaign will explain to voters that they will now be able to direct their preferences when voting either above the line or below the line. It will detail clearly, as a result of government amendments adopted by the Senate, that the way to vote above the line for the Senate is by numbering at least six boxes in order of the voter's choice, with the number 1 representing their highest choice, with similar instructions to number 1 to 12 below the line. It is also worth noting that the ballot paper will explicitly direct voters to number at least 1 to 6 above the line or 1 to 12 below the line.
I will just say that again: the ballot paper will explicitly direct voters to number at least 1 to 6 above the line or 1 to 12 below the line when voting for the Senate. Taken together with the existing penalties for the distribution of misleading and deceptive material and the education campaign that will be conducted by the AEC in the lead-up to the next election, we believe that there is no need to introduce further penalties in the context of what Senator Collins has raised.
I will be very brief—
Senator Conroy interjecting—
What sarcasm from my friend Senator Conroy!
Senator Conroy interjecting—
Hang on a second—no, no, no. I need to respond to that interjection about me 'ducking the debate'. I made a contribution on this bill. Senator Conroy knows that we worked almost like a tag team in Senate estimates talking about submarines and future shipbuilding and arguing about a fair deal for Australian shipbuilding, so do not say I was ducking the debate. We were on a unity ticket on that, so please do not say I was ducking the debate.
In relation to this issue, I just want to make this contribution: in respect of my additional comments to the inquiry report, I made reference to Dr Kevin Bonham, who in his submission to the inquiry, in terms of the savings provisions and publicity, said:
A common issue surrounding the use of savings provisions is the potential for parties or commentators to advocate 'just vote 1' style voting, which is contrary to the instructions on the ballot paper but formal as a result of the savings provision.
Dr Bonham made a suggestion that there be banned:
Dr Bonham suggested in his submission—and he referred to it in his evidence—that:
While there has been some suggestion that even discussing the existence of the savings provision should be banned, I am strongly opposed to going that far. It is necessary that people be able to discuss a voting system and its operation for the purposes of research, analysis and debate.
Senator Collins made the point that there has been some commentary about whether we should do anything about that. That was initially my view but, after further discussion with Dr Bonham and Antony Green, I think it would be overkill. I think that the safeguards in the legislation for misleading voters are sufficient. If someone is advocating 'Just vote 1 above the line,' I think they are actually doing themselves in the eye. It is almost self-regulating in respect of that. So I think that the existing safeguards are there and the matters Dr Bonham raises are important. However, to go any further we are going to end up in a Langer-type situation, and I do not think we want to go back to that. I think the behaviour will be moderated by the fact that for those who do advocate 'Just vote 1 above the line,' it will be quite counterproductive for them. There are provisions in terms of penalties.
Briefly, on the issue—and I think Senator Conroy made reference to—of the New South Wales system, about 80 per cent of voters in the legislative council just vote 1 and only about 20 per cent vote more than 1. The counterpoint to that is that in the ACT my understanding is that it is 1 to 7 above the line and most voters—I think 75 to 80 per cent of voters—actually do that, and the other 20 or 25 per cent vote below the line in the requisite number of boxes. So there is only a very small proportion of voters that actually—
I said the ACT is part of Australia. The point I make is that I would like to think, in terms of voter behaviour, that the overwhelming majority of voters will fill in at least 1 to 6 above the line. I think that will mean that preferences will flow to minor parties, microparties and independents as well.
I thank Senator Xenophon for his contribution here. It is probably the first detailed response we have had which offers any detail of a policy rationale, except for the very first time Senator Cormann actually started to respond to some of Senator Wong's earlier questions in relation to the advertising campaign. I do not know what the change was but, whatever it was, it worked. Something prompted Senator Cormann to actually start providing: 'This is the government's rationale behind it and this is the education campaign that we're looking at.'
However, listening to Senator Cormann, he told us pretty quickly—and I am pretty confident, Senator Cormann, that it was the first time this information has been put before us in the committee stage. You read through it very quickly. You were saying that you are satisfied with the current penalty provisions in relation to the encouragement of an informal vote. But what we are talking about is not an informal vote. This is why we are trying to understand how you will see these provisions operating. As Senator Rhiannon raised in her original concerns—and, in fact, that is actually part of my mirth here, because Senator Rhiannon was the one who was raising these questions in the committee—she did not get an answer from the AEC. Minister, you have mischaracterised what occurred during the hearing. The AEC did not give a response anywhere near the response you just gave this committee. This is fresh information to the Senate committee.
I understand Senator Xenophon has actually been down this burrow. Again, to my mirth, the Greens ask a question and there is no answer and it apparently does not matter. But when Senator Xenophon burrows down and tries to get a detailed understanding the minister is capable of responding in a substantive way in the committee stage of the debate. In fact it is in a better fashion than what we were able to get from the minister at the table. But, hey—we are in a wild new world here. It is demonstrative of what the wild new Senate might look like after a further election.
But once again I would encourage the minister to go back and check the record after the sitting today because there have been a range of areas where he has misrepresented the early consideration of these matters. Several times he has referred to the evidence before JSCEM in a way which is not accurate. This is one of those again.
I was not solely picking on Senator Rhiannon when I went to this particular question, because I have already made the point and highlighted the fact that not having the department appear before the committee meant that there were significant issues we were not able to get a policy rationale response to. So, Minister, I will give you the answer from the AEC to Senator Rhiannon's question, because it was not as you suggested. Senator Rhiannon asked:
Should there be a penalty for anyone advocating to just vote 1 above the line?
Mr Rogers said:
That is absolutely not a matter for me, Senator. That is a matter for government.
There was no policy rationale. The AEC were attempting to maintain their nonpartisan and independent role and we did not have the relevant section of the department with us to try to get the policy rationale of government. We did not even have the relevant department before us to test the assertions, opinions or propositions put to us by the other witnesses. We obviously did not have the time to do that either, but we did not even have an opportunity to test.
So it is good to see that Senator Xenophon has gone off and had further discussions with some of the witnesses outside of the Senate inquiry process. It is good to see that Senator Xenophon can actually articulate a position in a way that the minister at the table has not been able to to date. It is probably also good to see that Senator Xenophon seems to have a clearer and better understanding of what occurred before the committee.
On that note, again referring to the AEC appearance, I go again to the mischaracterisation of the minister. I do not know if he is doing this deliberately; he is possibly referring to discussions he himself has had with the AEC when we talk about the 'about three months'. I remind him of the earlier point. Senator Rhiannon, for reasons unknown, was concerned about that three-month figure. She wanted to know if it could be shortened. The very, very clear advice we had from Mr Rogers was that the three-month period is already streamlined.
I also quoted earlier the comments from Mr Rogers where he said 'an estimated three-month minimum time frame'. Given what we know occurred with the AEC in the 2013 election and given how significant these changes are to Senate voting, I would have thought you would give them more than the bare bones, streamlined minimum. I would have thought that. Instead the minister is standing here in the committee stage pretending about an already streamlined minimum of three months. The minister just says, 'Oh, that three months? She'll be right.'
Minister, we are not asking you to micromanage this process; we are asking you to ensure that the AEC can maintain the integrity it needs to continue to conduct elections adequately in our democracy. We know there were issues and problems with the last election, and you will recall that was why the inquiry occurred. There were recommendations from the 2014 report about a range of things, including resourcing. Frankly, a one-liner in your first reading speech to the Senate saying, 'We will resource' is just not adequate.
What the Senate needs to understand, especially after the last election result and the difficulties and the problems that the estimates committee dealt with and that the JSCEM inquiry dealt with, is that the institution that we need to ensure can function with integrity will have adequate resources. So, why is the minister is unable to tell us what the broad indicative estimates were and that those estimates have integrity, given the further amendments that the government has now adopted following the evidence of the AEC to the committee that further changes would require a change to their indicative costs? And why is the minister unable to tell us how the government proposes to meet those costs? Indeed, the minister stands before us and says, 'I'm not going to micromanage it. It is the independent, non-partisan AEC.' But surely you can provide the Senate with more information than just, 'There will be an education campaign at some time before an election.'
Surely not only senators here but Australian voters have a right to understand that the education campaign will be adequate and that the AEC will be adequately resourced to conduct it. These are the answers that the minister is currently not providing. It might work with the Greens in a backroom deal to say, 'She'll be right mate.' Senator Di Natale might be happy to take your word or, as Senator Brandis often likes to say, 'Trust me.'
An honourable senator: You would have to be very gullible.
Well, you would, Senator. You would have to be pretty gullible. And that is my fear here. As we have dealt with this matter and as we have crossed a range of other issues, that gullibility is what we have seen time and time again.
The Greens complain that this has been a protracted process, but then they say to us, 'Oh, no, we're going to let it take all it needs to take.' So, when we stand here and ask questions that the minister is failing to answer adequately and highlight what should be an adequate answer from the government of the day, they don't like it. They then say, 'We've got to get to the substance.' But then they occupy the committee stage debate time with lectures about how the Labor Party should function. I almost think Senator Di Natale is going to come and save the Labor Party—
Be courageous, I know. Given the earlier discussion, and I suppose a little bit of self-indulgence, I have to share with the Senate, after the dialogue with Senator Conroy, the quip I made here amongst ourselves. I do have to share that with the Senate.
An honourable senator: No you don't.
Why not, Senator?
An honourable senator: Because you're boring.
Well, that is fine. I am sure you are bored, but unfortunately we would rather you were not and you actually understood what you are doing. That would be a much better scene.
An honourable senator: Competent.
Well, competent would be good too.
Temporary Chairman, I raise a point of order. If you are to interject, though interjecting can be disorderly, you should do it from your seat. I think it is outrageous that the Greens are up the back, not in their seats, interjecting because they are all too worried about the truth coming out—about the dirty deal they have done with the Liberal Party.
I have had worse insults from Senator Ludlam during debates around things like national security and data retention. But that is fine. It just does not get to me, Senator Ludlam, so do not worry about it. If you want me to be characterised as boring that is okay. I have been accused of worse things.
The point that I was going to make about this whole discussion about what motivates Senator Di Natale was that I got over the 2004 election. He obviously has not. He has not got over it. That is really sad, because I had the trolls in the Greens Party going for me. I had every insult you could possibly imagine but, jeez, I got over that years ago. What happened with Senator Di Natale that he would be prepared to be led by the nose in the Senate chamber in the way that we have seen; to not worry about a whole range of very important transparency principles in the way the Senate works; to allow Senator Rhiannon to be led by the nose on how a Senate inquiry, or a joint inquiry in this case, should occur; to not worry about issues such as public interest immunity—and I could go on and on? The number of principles that the Greens claim to represent about open and transparent government all of a sudden are being ignored completely.
I know the Greens are not fully united here. I know you have a little front happening and you are all in here—actually, no, Senator Sarah Hansen-Young is not here. I am not surprised, because Senator Hanson-Young does have a bit of a better sense about the implications of this, which is why she did not give a second reading contribution, I suspect. She does see the writing on the wall. She is concerned about the implications of what has gone on here and she understands that she is obviously not in the Kroger deal. Mr Kroger, I think, excluded both her and Senator Rhiannon as examples of: 'Oh no, they are new, these Greens. Senator Di Natale, he is a doctor and he owns a farm.'
An opposition senator: And he is a man.
Yes, but I do not know if the gender issue is necessarily relevant in here because I think there is another South Australian senator who is vulnerable as well who is not a woman—
Government senators interjecting—
At least as far as I am aware—
Government senators interjecting—
The suggestion was that there was a relevant gender issue. My point was that I do not think there is. But if you are entertained by that, that is fine. Go for it.
The real issue—and I have seen Greens leadership for many years here now—is that I could not imagine Bob Brown doing anything of this nature. Sure, on the Kroger criteria, Bob was a doctor and Bob owns a farm. But this sanctimonious lecturing—
Government senators interjecting—
I know that Senator Bob Brown has said, 'I do not mind these arrangements.' That is a different point. I cannot imagine him allowing the Greens to be led by the nose and completely walk over the various important principles that have been established in this place about transparency and the way we conduct our affairs. I cannot imagine him sanctioning Senator Rhiannon to allow a committee inquiry to occur without having the department appear. It is a joke. And that you cannot see that highlights what this really is about. You have been dug in, you are now in denial and you are just going to trot across to support this fix on every occasion. (Time expired)
I would like to make a contribution to this debate. Senator Ludlam accused Labor Party spokespeople here of being boring. I would rather be boring than be dumb. I would rather be boring than be absolutely ripped off by the coalition, showing your inexperience, showing your leader's lack of capacity to negotiate, showing your leader's glass jaw. I was listening earlier and I heard Senator Di Natale say, 'I was not going to make a contribution here.' He was going to be the leader. He was going to sit back and be the leader and let the debate take place. But as soon as he was criticised he was on his feet. What a glass jaw this guy has. If you add the glass jaw to the lack of capacity to negotiate and the incompetence, the coalition have taken your playlunch off you guys.
You come here and you talk about democracy and you talk about great democratic changes. There are two issues that really go to the issue of democracy. One is the misuse of funding in the electoral process. You are well aware of it, and you had an opportunity to deal with that issue as part of the negotiations for your capitulation on the electoral bill. You could have dealt with that funding issue, but either you did not have the intellect or you did not have the courage or you were only looking at one thing, and that was to try to get an advantage for the Greens, whether it was real or imaginary. You wanted some advantage and you were not in a position to take on that fundamental issue of electoral funding reform.
I am not arguing that this is the best technical resolution—far from it—but there is no use having a good technical resolution to the voting system in this country if you do not deal with the electoral funding issue. Look at how the Liberal Party have been manipulating electoral funding in this country for years. You only have to look at The Sydney Morning Herald this morning to see the reports about Manildra and the millions of dollars that have been poured into the coalition from their mates in big business and how that money then gets shifted through various trust funds. It is moved from New South Wales into federal trust funds to try to avoid the electoral laws in New South Wales and then back into New South Wales in dribs and drabs. The other thing we have seen in New South Wales is the brown paper bag in front of the Bentley, where the multimillionaires in Newcastle hand over $10,000 in $100 notes in a brown paper bag to a Liberal MP in New South Wales.
These are some of the issues that should have been dealt with if you had had any vision and if this were not simply about some kind of short-term grab for power, a short-term grab to shore up your position so that no-one else can ever do what you have done, which is actually to get in and build. There will be no other parties or individuals in this country that will ever be able to get in and build. Senator Xenophon has done the same thing. He has locked the door. The Greens are in there. Senator Xenophon is there. I did not know you were there, Senator Xenophon, but I am glad you are—I am sure he is running back to his seat now—you will have to put up with 10 minutes of this. Senator Xenophon and the Greens have seen a great opportunity here to lock the door on anyone else coming in. That issue of electoral funding has just been absolutely ignored when you had an opportunity to deal with it. The Greens have dropped the ball on that issue.
The second issue is what Ross Gittins outlined on 29 February in terms of what this does for lobbyists. It simply concentrates the power in a small group and allows the lobbyists to lobby more effectively. Certainly the Liberal Party are well aware of lobbyists; they have people who are holders of positions in their party and are also lobbyists. We have seen that happen in New South Wales and federally. The power of lobbyists will increase through this. Democracy is not made more transparent or better through this process, because two key issues have not been dealt with: the power and influence of lobbyists and the power and influence of electoral donations on the Liberal Party.
I have said before that, if you ever want to see what the Liberal Party stands for, chase their electoral funding back. You will see that the Liberal Party in New South Wales changed their policy on ethanol because they are getting millions of dollars from the ethanol producers. They will not take on the multinationals, they will not take on companies with $100 million turnovers, regarding a fair share of tax, because they are getting money from them for their electoral funding. Look at where the money comes from and you will see where the policies of the Liberals are.
The problem we have is that the Greens are arguing that there is this great change in democracy. There will be no change in democracy unless we deal with these two fundamental issues: the power and influence of lobbyists, and the power of money on the Liberal Party in particular. We will head down the US path where you buy more and more influence—where you can actually let the gun lobby, because of their power and influence, create a situation in the US where citizens are killed. I am not saying that will happen in Australia with guns; I think we are all a bit smarter than that. But the influence of lobbyists is huge, and none of these issues were dealt with in relation to this bill when there was an opportunity to look at all of the issues that go towards ensuring that you have a decent democracy.
When I heard all the pious talk from Senator Di Natale about democracy, I thought to myself: 'What a mug you have been. You had an opportunity to deal with a couple of the big issues that are a real problem for democracy in this country, and you did nothing.' Why did he do nothing? Because he is just so inexperienced. I think it is a combination of a lack of experience, a lack of understanding about how to negotiate, and not having much ticker. The coalition has really taken the Greens to the cleaners on these negotiations.
This goes directly to the bill and the amendments, because this is about democracy. We have had all these pious lectures about democracy from the Greens tonight, and every time there was any criticism of Senator Di Natale he said, 'I wasn't going to get up, but my glass jaw is a little bit fractured. I had better get up and make a contribution,' and up he got again. Now and then in this place you have to have a bit of a thick hide, a bit of thick skin, but he even had to react to Senator Conroy and others having a go at his photo shoot. He even had to react to that. I thought that was not a good look—either in the photo shoot or tonight. I do not think either was a good look. Anyway, he had to do that—again, a bit of a sign of weakness in relation to that issue.
There are a load of amendments that we have to deal with, and I am sure every time we get up and talk about the amendments, we will have some discussion about how this is a great thing for democracy. Other people have different views, both inside and outside parliament, about whether this will actually lead to a better democracy in this country. I am inclined to see this in a fairly simple position. The Greens have seen an opportunity to make sure that no-one else can do what they have done as a party. They have got in their with small amounts of votes and all these other feeder parties feeding in to give them an opportunity to get in. Vote for the feeder party and you are really voting for Senator Rhiannon—that was when she was in the upper house in New South Wales. These are the problems that we face with the Greens. They really are, now, just a small political machine that wants to stay there and does not want anyone else to actually get into parliament. No-one else gets an opportunity to get in. I think Senator Xenophon is running on the same view. Senator Xenophon is going to do pretty well out of this. He is a smart politician: He has seen an opportunity and he has moved in.
This is really not about democracy unless you deal with those two issues that I raised earlier. If you want to have real democracy in this country, you will deal with the issue of lobbyists and the rorting that goes on by the Liberal and National parties with political donations.
I want to go back to what was said earlier. You can have above-the-line voting or below-the-line voting, you can do all that stuff, but what Michael Kroger says is that he is going to have a loose arrangement with the Greens. Michael Kroger came out and belled the cat. In New South Wales recently, in the election before last, I saw how the Greens refused to give preferences to a good, progressive woman candidate in the Blue Mountains, and for nearly four years we had one of the most, right-wing, incompetent—
Senator Rhiannon interjecting—
The Greens are all yapping. They cannot accept the reality of what happens.
I raise a point of order. I have been told that Senator Rhiannon referred to Senator Cameron as being corrupt. I would ask that you ask her to withdraw that.
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: I was unable to hear that contribution.
I will accept that. Senator Rhiannon has known me long enough. We have our differences and we certainly have our differences on this, but I do not think that Senator Rhiannon, knowing me and my work, either in the union movement or as a senator, would accuse me of being corrupt. We are all getting a bit excited down there. That is okay.
I want to ask a question about the Australian Electoral Commission and their capacity to be ready for this election. This is to the minister. I want to draw your attention to the ageing infrastructure of the computer systems around government and the government departments. Have you been assured that the computer systems in the AEC are capable of managing the changes within the time, and have you satisfied yourself that there will be no computer glitches that could happen between now and the election that could have significant implications for the election? As you are aware, there have been significant computer problems in DHS, in Health, in Taxation—there have been problems all over the place. What is the situation and what have you done to satisfy yourself that the computer systems that the AEC are using are up to the job?
The answers to the first two questions are yes and yes, and the answer to the final question is that, as I indicated to the chamber before, I sought relevant advice from the Electoral Commissioner, and the Electoral Commissioner has satisfied me, has provided advice to me, that as long as there are about three months that elapse between the passage of the legislation and the implementation of these reforms at an election they will be able to make all of the necessary changes and adjustments to their systems and they will be able to do all of the things that need to be done in order to ensure an orderly implementation of these reforms at the next election.
I would like to go back to the issue I was discussing earlier with Senator Xenophon and the minister in relation to Senator Rhiannon's concerns about penalties for those who might encourage people to just vote 1. I appreciate the responses to that, and particularly from Senator Xenophon, who has obviously tried to follow that through, but I think it would be helpful for us to confirm that it will be, under these proposed arrangements, lawful for someone to say, promote or advertise 'just vote 1'.
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: It does not appear that you are getting an answer, Senator Collins.
On a point of order: I have already answered that question on several occasions now. Senator Collins knows that. She obviously does not have a lot of material, so she is going through tedious repetition. Just asking the same question over and over does not mean that she is going to get a different answer.
Thank you. I do not know what world this minister lives in but I had not asked that question. The question I had asked was the question that Senator Rhiannon asked in the hearing about penalties. This is a different issue. The answer you gave in relation to penalties was to refer to the existing penalty provisions in the act. My question is whether promoting a 'just vote 1' case would be lawful.
As I have previously indicated, the Electoral Act already provides that political parties are not allowed to mislead or deceive voters into casting an informal vote, and that prohibition will continue. For the reasons I have previously outlined and for the reasons that Senator Xenophon has very eloquently outlined, we do not believe that there is a case for additional penalties and additional offence provisions. We believe that, taken together, the existing penalties against the distribution of misleading material and the education campaign that will be conducted by the AEC in the lead-up to the next election mean that there is no need for further offence and penalty provisions, as Senator Collins appears to be suggesting we should consider.
I am trying to clarify what the situation is, as indeed was Senator Xenophon from his own inquiries. Certainly some witnesses had proposed that case, and obviously Senator Rhiannon had a concern on the penalty side, but I am concerned on the lawfulness side. You referred to section 329 of the Electoral Act. Perhaps you would like to run as through how it works and how it would deal with this situation.
Thank you very much, Senator Collins. You actually now are asking me to assist in the Labor filibuster, because clearly you have run out of material. You are now asking me to read to you section 329 of the Electoral Act. So I will oblige. In an abundance of helpfulness, I will now read out for you section 329 of the Electoral Act:
Misleading or deceptive publications etc.
(1) A person shall not, during the relevant period in relation to an election under this Act, print, publish or distribute, or cause, permit or authorize to be printed, published or distributed, any matter or thing that is likely to mislead or deceive an elector in relation to the casting of a vote.
(4) A person who contravenes subsection (1) is guilty of an offence punishable on conviction:
(a) if the offender is a natural person—by a fine not exceeding $1,000 or imprisonment for a period not exceeding 6 months, or both; or
(b) if the offender is a body corporate—by a fine not exceeding $5,000.
(5) In a prosecution of a person for an offence against subsection (4) by virtue of a contravention of subsection (1), it is a defence if the person proves that he or she did not know, and could not reasonably be expected to have known, that the matter or thing was likely to mislead an elector in relation to the casting of a vote.
… … …
(5A) Section 15.2 of the Criminal Code (extended geographical jurisdiction—category B) applies to an offence against subsection (4).
(6) In this section, publish includes publish by radio, television, internet or telephone.
That pretty well covers it.
The minister well knows that it does not cover it, but perhaps I will approach this matter another way. Before I go there, I need to continue to deal with these snide remarks: 'Don't have much material', 'Doesn't have enough to do', 'I'm going to help with the Labor filibuster.' Minister, this is not a filibuster. This is the proper consideration that should have occurred for this bill in committee. I have made this point several times—that what we are doing now is having an adequate consideration that did not occur in the backroom deal with the Greens. We can revisit that several times, and I promise you, Minister, there are many other areas in general that I intend to deal with before I deal specifically with this first amendment. That said, if I need to start being creative and find ways to frame my questions in the context of the first amendment—
Senator Ludlam interjecting—
Senator Ludlam, I am happy to get more boring, but what this really is is your first attempt at a gag. It is somewhat bemusing, because you promised us you would not. You said—or actually the minister said—'We're here till Easter if we have to be,' and yet, when Senator Cameron is on his feet, what do you do? You try and limit him to the first amendment, because, in a discussion between Senator Di Natale and Senator Cormann, they got together and they said, 'How can we move this pace along? We've said we won't gag but what else can we do?' Seriously, it is Senate procedure 101—you are going to try and limit us to the first amendment? I can play that game if you want to, but I would rather go back to the substantive issues that the Greens did not deal with in their backroom deal, that senators and members of the House were not able to deal with in the truncated fraud of a JSCEM committee process and that do still need to be addressed.
I have other issues with how the minister has characterised the AEC's evidence, and we will get to those as well. But, before we do, we will stay on this particular issue. Minister, does it make it unlawful to encourage a person to cast an informal vote provided they are honest about the effect of informal voting? As long as someone covers the benchmark of the unanimous High Court decision in Evans v Crichton-Browne—so as long as they are not misleading or deceptive—they will not be prevented from encouraging someone to cast an informal vote that will be saved by the provisions in this bill?
I will address the issues that Senator Collins has raised in turn. Let me start with her assertion that Labor is not conducting a filibuster. We all know that Labor is conducting a filibuster. Don't take my word for it: Labor senators are bragging to the press gallery that they are conducting a filibuster. In fact, if you go to Twitter—and I encourage you to follow Alice Workman from BuzzFeed—you will see that Alice Workman from BuzzFeed has tweeted that Labor senators have texted her saying that they plan to filibuster in the Senate until 9 am or until the Greens gag them.
This is a game for the Labor Party. This is not serious. You are not interested in the issues. You know that we are doing the right thing. You know that the proposal put forward by the government and supported by the Greens and Senator Xenophon is doing the right thing by the Australian people. It is empowering the Australian people to determine what happens to their preferences instead of having their preferences traded and directed by political parties and backroom operators against their wishes.
Senator Collins again asks me the same question in relation to misleading or deceptive publications. I have already referred to section 329 of the Electoral Act. I have already said very clearly that the government believes that this is a sufficient deterrent to ensure that voters are not misled or deceived in relation to the casting of their vote. That is our position. Senator Collins is entitled to disagree with it. Senator Collins is entitled to move an amendment to make a different arrangement, and then the Senate can adjudicate in relation to her amendment. However, I have transparently put in front of the Senate the position of the government, and the position of the government is that we support the current provisions in section 329 of the Electoral Act dealing with misleading or deceptive publications when it comes to the casting of a vote.
The answer I have had from the minister is that the government thinks the existing provisions are sufficient. It is not an answer to the question. The question was: do the proposed arrangements make it unlawful to encourage a person to cast an informal vote, providing they are honest about the effect of informal voting? In other words, as long as, in your promotion of just vote 1, you have not been misleading or deceptive that will be fine. That is the situation that these existing provisions will allow.
Yes, thank you, Senator Cormann, for your advice on how I could move an amendment, if I chose to, and that we could subsequently debate the amendment—I do know these things. But what we are doing now is having a general discussion about the provisions in this bill and we are doing it in a way which will be detailed. We are doing that, because the extraordinary process that was agreed between the government and the Greens did not allow this to occur as it should.
I have referred several times for the committee inquiry but I think other senators have highlighted the point that it is not just the committee inquiry that has been inadequate or, in my view, the most extreme situation I have ever come across; it has been the whole process. People have made the point that, had the government approached this in a different way rather than just the one-liner: 'Labor luminaries say.' 'Labor luminaries say.' 'Labor luminaries say'—that is it. That is all you can say. You cannot run a substantive case for why we should proceed this way.
But, worse than that, to develop these provisions, you have gone behind closed doors with the Australian Greens and Senator Xenophon, and you have organised a fix. Rather than approach this in a manner which involved all of the relevant parties that could at least attempt to generate a more consensual outcome, you have just generated a self-interested fix. That is what has happened here and that is what any political observer who can see the prioritising that has gone around this can understand.
You might want to say, 'No, it's not a fix and this is something that happened and it needed to happen in the course of political time.' But everything about this process reeks. And, yes, we will use our time to make that point and we will use political flourish—or boredom, as Senator Ludlam suggests. However, we will also do it in a way which highlights the significant substantive issues that both you and the Greens—who are pretending to be an opposition party in this place half the time—have been incapable of doing.
I understand what you are saying here—probably more credit to Senator Xenophon than to you, Senator Cormann. I understand that I am not going to get much more out of you on this issue. It was just your usual one-liner, which is, 'The government believes it is sufficient.' That was the one-liner that the committee majority came out with, 'We think the government has been satisfied.' They have not told us how they have been satisfied on the logos issue, but they are satisfied, so that is okay.
Well this opposition do not focus that way. We require more than just you to stand up and say, 'The government thinks it is sufficient,' or, 'The government has been satisfied.' We want to know the next layer, which is how. How have you been satisfied? How do we know this will work? We have been around this place a little longer and when we go into ex post facto estimates we will compare what we were told up-front with what happened and then we will be able to ask: why didn't it happen? It is called keeping the government accountable. Unfortunately, sometimes when self-interest arises people lose sight of longer term accountability matters, and that is what has occurred here.
Let me go to the next area where the minister has been characterising the evidence before the AEC in a creative way. Others senators have asked questions about what sort of modelling has occurred and, indeed, the minister is right, that question was raised with the AEC. The AEC told the inquiry that you cannot use past election results to predict outcomes of these proposals, and that is true. However, the answers from the minister today suggest that there has been no testing. So I ask the minister: is that the case? It may, as the AEC has suggested, quite rightly be the case that past election results are not the appropriate way to test how these measures might be implemented but that does not mean that you cannot test how they might work.
Have there been any trials? Have there been any focus groups? Has anyone run through how these proposals might operate? Or is that the next month or the next two months in the plans of the AEC? We certainly know that the AEC have focus groups and test other issues—advertising campaigns and how they might operate. Has there been any testing in terms of how in the real world with real voters these provisions might actually operate? We had a discussion earlier about whether it was the ACT or New South Wales which was the best-case scenario. Why on earth would you not just find a way to test it?
We know from the AEC that they were not asked to. We do not know whether the department did any testing. Minister, I do not want to conclude from earlier discussions that absolutely nothing occurred so I ask that very specific question.
I can very happily confirm that the government has not done any testing, as Senator Collins is suggesting. Any such testing would be quite ludicrous because you cannot actually predict future voter behaviour at future elections because there are obviously a whole range of factors that go into the decision making of voters at an election, not least of which is the information provided by various political parties and candidates about what they intend to do on being elected and the information they can provide about their track record. It is not actually possible to conduct the sort of testing that Senator Collins is talking about for the purposes of this exercise. Obviously, at the next election the Australian people will have the opportunity to exercise their democratic right to determine what happens not just to their primary vote when voting above the line but also to their preferences.
I understand Senator Collins, Senator Conroy and Senator Dastyari—the backroom operators in the Labor Party—prefer to be able to control those preferences. They prefer to prevent people from voting above the line, from expressing their preferences, because people in the Labor Party want to trade people's preferences away. They want to direct them to maximum tactical advantage for the Labor Party.
We want to empower voters. Our message to voters is: 'This is your vote. You determine how you vote when voting in the Senate above the line. You determine who you support with your No. 1 preference. You determine who you support with your subsequent preferences.' It should not be up to a complicated, opaque, non-transparent group voting ticket arrangement that could send voter preferences in three different directions.
Nothing Senator Collins has said tonight in any of her questions or any of her contributions actually detracts from this core proposition that what we are doing here is a significant improvement to the way the Senate electoral system would be working. Instead of forcing people to just vote 1 above the line, and then take their preferences away from them and direct them according to political party preferences, we are saying to the voter that these are your preferences and you determine what to do with them. That is what we believe is appropriate, because that will help to ensure that the result of the next election is a true reflection of the will of the Australian people, and surely that is something all of us are interested in.
I have a question for the minister. He was looking very bored for quite some time, so I thought I would try to wake him up! But the Labor Party did end up asking him a couple of questions. I note his extreme concern to make sure that voters can have control of their preferences above the line. You cannot help but be cynical in this place and not necessarily trust everything that everybody says. I have been trying to do a little bit of homework, and I have a question that I really hope you can address, Minister. Section 329 of the electoral act applies only if you advocate for an informal vote. Given that the savings provision makes an informal vote formal, does section 329 apply, or is it made redundant by virtue of the savings provision?
Section 329 does apply to any information that is published, printed, distributed or caused, permitted or authorised to be printed, published or distributed and that would be likely to mislead or deceive an elector in relation to the casting of a vote. The provision is there in black and white, and everybody can see what it is. Also, given that the question is being asked again, I refer to the evidence in front of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters on Tuesday 29 February, from memory, where the federal director of the Liberal Party, Mr Tony Nutt, clearly indicated that the intention of the Liberal Party is to provide guidance to voters on our how-to-vote cards. It is consistent with what is going to be on the Senate ballot paper: that to vote above the line, you number at least 1 to 6 above the line. That is what the Liberal Party intends to do. I cannot speak for other parties. I do not know whether the Labor Party has some other cunning plan that they are wanting to pursue. Listening to the line of questioning by Senator Collins, I do not know whether it is just another pursuit of a conspiracy theory or whether it is actually something that they are entertaining to conduct in a particular way.
But the provision in the electoral act has been there for some time. Certain other penalty provisions have been removed at some point in the past in the context of the case that Senator Xenophon previously mentioned. I do not think it is in the public interest for us to go back to these arrangements of the past. The government cannot be clearer than what we are now, and that is that we believe the current section 329 is sufficient. And let's remind ourselves again that the instruction to voters on Senate ballot papers is going to be very explicit: to vote above the line, number at least six boxes 1 to 6, in order of your preference; to vote below the line, number at least 12 boxes 1 to 12 below the line.
The reason we have a savings provision for people voting above the line, who vote just 1, or 1 and 2, or 1, 2, 3, is because, as Senator Wong previously indicated, for the past 30 years, courtesy of the reforms of the Hawke government at the time, when they introduced above-the-line voting, people have been allowed to vote 1 only when voting above the line. They were not allowed to vote any other way. Once you vote above the line, which 97 per cent of voters in Australia did at the last election, then, courtesy of the legislation passed by Labor in 1984, people lose control of their preferences. And they lose control of those preferences to political parties, to political backroom operators who go and negotiate the best possible deal with a plethora of other parties.
It should not be for the political party that attracts the No. 1 vote above the line to determine what happens to that vote subsequently. It should be up to the voter to determine what happens to that preference after. And people should be empowered to express not just their first preference but subsequent preferences for parties when voting above the line. That is of course what this reform will enable to take place.
A while ago we had a discussion about the whole issue of the New South Wales electoral system for the Legislative Council, where there is a requirement to simply put 1 above the line, but it is optional preferential—you can put more than one. We know from the experience in the New South Wales Legislative Council that the voting patterns are that about 80 per cent of voters simply put 1, so there is a high number of exhausted votes. In the ACT, by contrast, the position is that you are supposed to put 1 to 5 above the line, or indicate five preferences, or seven, depending on which electorate you are in. It is five preferences in Brindabella and Ginninderra and seven preferences in Molonglo.
The 2012 report on the ACT Legislative Assembly election, from Elections ACT, makes this point, which I want to have on the record. I think it is a reasonable benchmark for us to go by or at least aim for—this level of relatively low informality. The report, at page 76, says:
Around 97%-98% of all formal voters in 2012 followed the instructions on the ballot papers and indicated at least as many preferences as there were vacancies in the electorate. This result indicates that the instructions provided to voters were effective. Around 72% of formal voters indicated exactly as many preferences as there were vacancies in the electorate.
It goes on to say:
Around 26% of formal voters showed more than the instructed minimum number of preferences.
And it goes on to say:
These results indicate that, while around 7 out of 10 voters are inclined to cast "the recommended minimum" number of preferences, another 1 in 4 voters take the opportunity to show more preferences than the recommended minimum.
It also goes on to say:
The formality rules accept as formal ballot papers that indicate at least a unique first preference, even if the instructed minimum number of preferences is not shown. Around 1.7% of electors in Brindabella and 1.6% in Ginninderra and 2.5% of formal voters in Molonglo failed to number at least as many preferences as there were vacancies in the electorate. It is impossible to know how many of these votes were cast in the knowledge that these votes were not complying with the recommended minimum, but were nevertheless formal votes, and how many of these votes were the result of a failure to understand or follow the instructions. Whatever the reason, the number of ballot papers concerned is significant enough to make it worth keeping the current formality rules, while maintaining the general instruction to number at least as many candidates as there are vacancies in the electorate.
I put this on the record to show that that seems to be closer to the system that is being proposed in this legislation. And it is pretty heartening that in the ACT, with the savings provision, the overwhelming majority of voters follow the instructions to number the minimum number, either five in one two electorates or seven in another electorate. I just wanted to put that on the record, and I will let another speaker take us into the new day.
Following up from what Senator Xenophon has just said and to again correct Senator Wong and Senator Conroy's verballing of the evidence by Mr Green in front of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters: they essentially sought to indicate that because there was more than 80 per cent of exhausted votes in the election in New South Wales with an optional preferential voting system then the same would necessarily be the case under our proposed model. That is, of course not true. As Mr Green very explicitly indicated in that evidence—I refer you to page 18 of the evidence on Tuesday, 1 March 2016—New South Wales ballot papers say:
… New South Wales ballot papers say : 'Just vote 1 if you want to. You may go on and do something else.'
Our ballot paper will give guidance to voters to number at least six boxes 1 to 6 if voting above the line and at least 12 boxes 1 to 12 when voting below the line. That is a very different arrangement. Mr Green also referred to the ACT in that same answer. Conveniently, both Senator Conroy and Senator Wong ignored that fact. He referred, indeed, to the ACT legislative assembly ballot paper:
It has something similar to what will be on the Senate ballot paper. It says, 'Number seven boxes from 1 to 7 in the order of your choice.' You may then go on and number from eight onwards. They only get about two per cent with less than seven preferences. So a ballot paper that says number up to that—
So it actually works. The way that Senator Conroy and Senator Wong sought to misrepresent Mr Green's evidence during the debate here tonight is another example of their attempt to mislead and deceive the Australian people.
Friday, 18 March 2016
I would like to read a little piece from the AEC website in relation to informal voting:
It is not an offence to vote informally in a federal election, nor is it an offence to encourage other voters to vote informally. However, anyone who encourages electors to vote informally, or to vote '1,2,3,3,3…' etc. on a House of Representatives ballot paper, will be encouraging electors to waste their votes as no vote will be counted from these ballot papers.
I go back to my last question to the minister, where I highlighted that section 329 of the Electoral Act only applies if you advocate for an informal vote. The minister indicated that section 329 was sufficient, but doesn't this savings provision make section 329 redundant, as it makes a vote of 1 above the line formal?
The answer is no, it does not make it redundant. The second answer is that this is consistent with repeated and ongoing judgements of the High Court. We always ought to apply these sorts of laws erring on the side of the franchise. Where there is a clear indication of voter intent, voter intent should be taken into account when counting ballot papers. Given that Labor introduced the system in 1984, which meant that everyone for more than 30 years has had to vote just 1 above the line, if we did not have the sort of savings provision that we have put forward as part of our proposal, we would indeed have an increased number of informals. Indeed, quite erroneously, Senator Dastyari on the day that we made our announcement of these reforms pressed out and said there would be 800,000 additional informal votes, because he assumed that everyone who would vote 1 above the line would all of a sudden have their vote discarded. That was, of course, wrong.
We think it is very important to have a savings provision. We do think it is very important to ensure that, where there is clear voter intent, that voter intent is counted to the extent that it has been expressed. Obviously, if only one preference is expressed above the line, you cannot keep allocating preferences beyond that, but that is the voter's choice. The voter will be advised to vote above the line and number six boxes 1 to 6 in order of their preference. Where such a system does exist—namely, in the ACT—the experience has been that only a very small number of voters do not follow that instruction. Our expectation is that voters overwhelmingly will follow the instruction that is on the ballot paper, and that is to vote for the Senate above the line and number at least six boxes 1 to 6 in order of their preference.
I wanted to know what contingency plan the Liberals have in place if someone seeks an injunction from the High Court to prevent the government from holding an election under the new election reforms. If you could tell me what sort of contingency plan you have to deal with that if that were to occur, that would be great.
I have to admit I do not really understand the question, but I will try to answer what I think it might be. If the Senate supports this legislation, the Australian Electoral Commission has said to us that they would need about three months between the passage of the legislation and the implementation of that legislation at an election. Obviously, I do not know when the next election will be. That decision, as far as I am aware, has not been made. What I can say, though—and we have given this indication on the record—is that there is an amendment which has been circulated by the Greens to, essentially, provide that this reform cannot take effect for a polling day that would happen before 1 July, so the first election that this reform could apply to under that amendment would be a polling day after 1 July. The government has indicated that we will be supporting that Green amendment.
If the Senate decided to support our very important reform tonight, tomorrow morning or next week—if the Senate votes in favour of it—the Electoral Commission will do all the work they need to do to give effect to this change and to implement it professionally and competently, providing adequate and appropriate education and information to the Australian people. It would not be implemented at an election until at least 1 July.
I did not hear the reference to a High Court challenge in your initial question. We are very confident that our reform proposal is consistent with all of the relevant requirements in the Constitution. That is the advice that we have. We are very confident that this legislation is entirely consistent with the requirements in the Constitution. The point that Mr Mackerras has raised in relation to these matters in evidence in front of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters was that, in his view, since 1984 every single Senate election has been in breach of the Constitution. I am not sure whether he is a constitutional lawyer, but the High Court has never agreed with him. Indeed, he was complaining about the fact that the High Court did not agree with him when it was tested in the High Court, but in his view, for what it is worth, every Senate election since 1984 has been unconstitutional because senators have not been directly elected when voting for parties above the line.
The truth is that under our reforms voters will be more empowered to directly determine who is ultimately elected as a result of their vote, because voters will have the opportunity—
Let's be very crisp: we do not believe we need such contingency plans, because we are very confident that the legislation before the Senate is entirely consistent with the requirements of the Constitution.
In relation to voting above the line, as is indicated in our bill and as I have explained on several occasions now, the advice to voters will be to vote in the Senate above the line and that you must number at least six boxes in order of your preference 1 to 6. People can, of course, indicate additional preferences. People can indicate more than six preferences. What the savings provision does is ensure that, as long as a voter fills in at least one box with a 1, that vote will still be counted as formal. I think that is a well-understood feature of this reform.
Senator Conroy interjecting—
Given that Senator Conroy is back, I will go back to the submission of the national secretary of the Labor Party, George Wright, which was made on 24 April 2014, at a time when Senator McAllister was the national president—so I suspect she was 100 per cent behind this proposition as well.
Opposition senators interjecting—
You are saying that Senator McAllister did not even read the submission put forward by Mr Wright? Are you saying she was a bad national president? You are saying you think she never read it?
Tell us more about the Labor Party—the national secretary keeps the national president of the Labor Party in the dark! That is the way they operate. We are getting all the revelations now about the internal workings of the Labor Party. The national president of the Labor Party is treated like a mushroom. The national secretary does not even share with the president what is in a submission he makes to a parliamentary committee looking into Senate voting arrangements. You are not really taking this very seriously, Senator Conroy.
But let me just remind you what the national secretary of the Labor Party said to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters on 24 April 2014 in relation to this precise point:
Labor’s preferred position would also see a requirement that ballot paper instructions and how-to-vote material advocate that voters fill in a minimum number of boxes above the line, while still counting as formal any ballot paper with at least a 1 above the line.
That is precisely what our reforms do. We are precisely following the preferred position of the national secretary of the Labor Party—which apparently he has put to a committee of the parliament in secret, without even consulting his national president. I find that very hard to believe, but let us take Senator Conroy's word for it.
I know you got lost there for a minute, Minister, but in the original answer you said 'at least 1 to 6'. That is the first time I have heard that sort of language at all today. Just out of curiosity: if somebody votes 1 to 6, but only gets to 3, is that a formal vote?
Let me refer to you to precisely what it will say on the ballot paper. On the Senate ballot paper, it will say:
You may vote in one of two ways for the Senate, either by numbering at least six of these boxes in the order of your choice, with 1 as your first choice …
That will be the advice to voters voting above the line—to number at least six boxes, 1 to 6. The experience in the ACT is that, where such advice is provided in the ballot paper, all but two per cent of voters end up following that advice. That is the lived experience.
As a result of the law that Labor introduced in 1984, however, people have voted just 1 above the line for more than 30 years. We did not want to have a massive increase in informal votes. We did not want votes discarded simply because people vote the way they always have. That is why we have included a savings provision which ensures that, if someone votes 1; 1 and 2; 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5; or indeed fills in every single box above the line when casting their Senate vote, their vote will still be formal. I very much welcome Senator Bullock back to the chamber, one of four federal members of parliament from the great state of Western Australia who has decided to pull the pin. One of them, Mr Gray, told the chamber today that the Labor Party position on this legislation makes him sad. No wonder he is leaving; he is thoroughly disappointed at the way Bill Shorten approaches issues like this one—with complete disregard for the national interest.
If you suggest that that is not the case, it means that you have not looked at the bill. The bill includes a template ballot paper, and what I have just read out to you is in the bill that has been introduced to the parliament, which should be available to you. If you do not have a copy of the bill, I am happy to get you one.
If you have a copy of the bill, don't take my word for it. Go to page 12 of the bill and you will see that it says there:
You may vote in one of two ways—
for the Senate; it is obviously a Senate ballot paper—
By numbering at least 6 of these boxes in the order of your choice (with number 1 as your first choice)* …
That is what it says very clearly.
Thank you, Minister. I did slightly mishear what you said, and thank you for the clarity. In saying that, with the bill saying to number at least six, you are constantly encouraging formal voting by saying '1 to 6' in this chamber. You are constantly misleading voters by saying 1 to 6. Shouldn't the language be 'a minimum of six'?
It is a minimum of six, but you have to be very clear. We do not want to mislead voters. We want to make sure that voters understand very clearly that they need to number at least six of these boxes in the order of their choice, starting with 1, where 1 is obviously the first choice. So you vote 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. So the guidance on the ballot paper is at least six, from 1 to 6, and if you want to do more, do more. If you end up doing fewer because you did not follow the guidance on the ballot paper, the savings provision that we have included makes sure that your vote is still saved for the votes that you have cast.
For a vote to be formal under these changes, there must be six. The minimum is absolutely six. However, the savings provision has allowed a No. 1 vote to become formal. Therefore, proposed section 329, although you said not, would seem to become redundant. I am trying to get some really good clarity around that, because this is a huge blunder if this is actually the case.
It is not first past the post. Senator Conroy knows it is not. It is a reform which will empower the Australian people to determine what happens to their preferences. Instead of having their preferences traded and directed by political parties into directions that the voter may not support, this will ensure that it is the individual voter who determines what happens, not just with their primary vote when voting above the line but also with their second, third, fourth and subsequent preferences.
Yes, we have made a deliberate decision, which has been well advertised and which I think is broadly supported, that if a voter ends up not following the guidance on the ballot paper by filling in a lower number of boxes than six then the vote will be saved, because we need to err on the side of the franchise. We need to err on the side of counting those votes that have been cast and making sure they are properly taken into account. That is something we have put forward very transparently as our proposal.
Senator Muir, you are entitled to disagree with the reform that we have put forward. You are entitled to vote against it. You are entitled to try and move amendments, of course. But that is very openly and transparently our position. That is our preferred approach. We would like to think that there is majority support for our preferred approach in the chamber, but let's see what happens when we ultimately get to vote on the various amendments and on the bill.
I thank the minister for having enough concern about people's preferences that he thinks that they should be able to have control of them above the line. I am very sceptical about that, considering one to six is what has been said in this chamber all day every day and out in the media, instead of six right through. If the minister were really concerned about people having control of their preferences, it would be six minimum right through to the end. If you really want control of your preference, go six, because that is formal right through to the very end of above the line. Or go below the line and go to 12.
That aside, Minister, I have heard you say many times in this debate that if you vote above the line for a minor party, you lose control of your vote the second you put '1' in the box above the line. Under these changes, if you vote '1' for a minor party above the line and that party does not receive a quota, you lose your vote. Can you explain for the one in four voters who vote for a minor party what would happen to their vote, under this Greens-Liberal-Nationals party coalition legislation, if they vote for a minor party that does not get a quota?
It is entirely a matter for the voter to determine what they want to do with their vote and with their preferences. The guidance on the ballot paper is to number at least six boxes. Of course, the voter can decide to number more boxes, and if the voter ends up numbering fewer than six boxes the vote will be formal under the savings provisions. But ultimately—and we had quite a detailed discussion on this with Senator Wong earlier—it is an entirely legitimate democratic choice for an individual voter to make not to issue a preference to a party they do not want to support in any way, shape or form.
So, as I said earlier, if Senator Edwards, who was in the chamber then, does not want to preference the Sex Party, he should not be forced to preference the Sex Party. If he wants to preference six, seven or eight parties, after the Liberal Party, who he thinks are sufficiently aligned to his view of the world that he would be happy to see his vote go to—or any other voter's vote, if they would be happy to see their vote go to other minor parties—then of course people are entitled to make that choice. If any voter who puts '1' above the line for the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party wants to preference two, three, four, five, six or more other parties—minor or major parties; it does not matter—that is their choice. The point that I made earlier is that in a proper, well-functioning democratic system it is preferable for a vote to exhaust because the voter has made a decision not to issue additional preferences rather than to have a voter's preference go and elect somebody that they never intended to elect or that, in the worst case scenario, they are actually opposed to and that they would only end up contributing to electing by virtue of the way that these non-transparent group voting ticket arrangements operate.
I remind the chamber again that political parties, in trading and directing preferences of voters who vote above the line—and 97 per cent of people vote above the line—can channel these preferences in three different directions. How can anybody credibly suggest that a voter can ascertain what happens to their preferences after they have voted '1' above the line under the current system?
Indeed, Senator Conroy thought it was a bit of a joke at the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. He was being quite chummy with our very distinguished federal director, Mr Tony Nutt. Here was Senator Conroy saying to Tony Nutt: 'Ha, ha, ha! There are only 10 of us in Australia who know how this thing works. There are only 10 of us who understand the science and maths of preference arrangements.' This is the whole point, Senator Muir: every single voter should understand what happens not just to their primary vote but also to their preferences. Every single voter should have the power to determine who they ultimately might help to elect. That is what we are seeking to do here. Because in our judgement—and ultimately the Senate is free to make its own judgement—it is up to the voter to determine what happens to their preferences. It should not be up to political parties to trade and direct those preferences in a non-transparent and opaque way in three different directions.
Minister, you said at the start of that answer that if the one in four voters who vote for minor parties—and it could end up being more this year because it becoming more and more prevalent—vote '1' above the line, because that is formal, and their vote exhausts, that is their choice. You said it is up to the voter if they want to vote for a minor party; that is their choice. But then you pointed out that 97 per cent of voters are voting '1' above the line—they have been doing that for 32 years—so you put a savings provision in. What I am taking out of that is that if somebody votes for a minor party, and that vote becomes informal, that is fine—if they are going to vote '1' above the line, and their vote exhausts, that is fine; it is up to them to make sure they vote for six candidates. So, for those one in four people who vote for a minor party, voting for anything below six candidates is not acceptable. But you put a savings provision in for those who are used to going in and voting '1' above the line for you. So what is good for the goose is not good for the gander. That makes absolutely no sense. Am I reading that wrong?
With due respect, yes, you are reading this wrong. As I have indicated to the chamber before—and as Senator Xenophon very accurately indicated to the chamber and as Mr Green indicated in his evidence to the committee—the ACT has an arrangement whereby, in the Legislative Assembly here, guidance is provided to voters to number at least seven boxes or whatever it might be in the relevant electorate. And the experience is that all but two per cent of voters follow that guidance and fill in the recommended number of boxes. So we do not actually believe that the circumstance that you are predicting will occur. That is why I have previously said during this debate that the assertions that Senator Wong, Senator Conroy and others from the Labor Party have made about the level of exhaustion and the level of informals is not an accurate prediction of what is likely to happen.
Senator Conroy interjecting—
Senator Conroy mentions New South Wales. Of course, in verballing Antony Green, what Senator Conroy fails to tell the Senate is that the instruction on the ballot paper in New South Wales is to just vote '1' and then, beyond that, do anything you want.
Senator Conroy interjecting—
For the benefit of Senator Conroy, who has been verballing Mr Green on several occasions now, I will read it into the Hansard again. Mr Green said: 'New South Wales ballot papers say just vote '1'. If you want to you may go on and do something else.' That is not what will be printed on the Senate ballot paper. The Senate ballot paper will say that, to vote above the line, you should number at least six boxes in the order of your choice with '1' as your first choice. So it is a completely different proposition. The position that we are putting forward in the context of the Senate ballot paper is much more aligned with the system that currently exists in the ACT Legislative Assembly. It has nothing whatsoever in common with the system that is currently in place in New South Wales. That is why the comparison that Senator Conroy has been seeking to make—and the comparison that Mr Green never made despite what Senator Conroy has asserted during the debate today—is very different.
Minister, you seem very confident that with the guidance, the way the ticket is written, people are going to understand what is going on—even though, after 32 years, people are struggling with this.
Senator Cormann interjecting—
That is great. I am interested then in why it says to vote '1' to '6' below the line. It seems you do not have faith that people can count to 12. Anyway, I am very glad that you are very confident that the guidance is going to work and you have so much faith in the Australian people. If you are so confident in the Australian people, why don't you have a sunset clause in the savings provisions?
Thank you very much, Chair. I do not really understand that question. The savings provision is a very sensible thing to do, because we ought to err on the side of the franchise and we ought to err on the side of including as many votes as possible to ensure that the result of the election truly reflects the intent of the Australian people.
I have great confidence in the Australian people though, which is why I think it is important that we empower them to determine what happens to their preferences. I do not have the same level of confidence in political parties' backroom operators. When I see the sort of gaming that has been going on where office bearers of one party set up several other parties with the same members and the same office bearers negotiating preference flows with themselves, after they have sought to harvest them through various harvesting strategies, that is not the way a proper democratic system works. That is not the way our electoral system for the Senate should work. That is why we quite openly and transparently have put forward the reforms that we have put forward.
Obviously, the result of the next election will entirely be a matter for the Australian people. If you, Senator Muir, are able to convince a sufficient number of Australians—a sufficient number of Victorians—to support you or to preference you in relation to those who will see their preferences distributed, then you will be successful. The same applies to the rest of us.
I mentioned the sunset clause, because the minister was very confident that the Australian people would understand how this works. Considering 1 is supposed to be informal—although, it has become formal, which really does raise a question around section 329. There is supposed to be a savings provision, not a permanent provision where you can go 1 above the line forever, so you can do what you have been doing for the last 32 years and, for maybe an election or two—that is what I take the savings provision to be—that would be allowed. The rules, which have been changed, say 'six minimum,' so we should be encouraging people and educating people. I would have thought that the AEC would have a massive education campaign in place, ready to go, ready for these reforms, if that was the case.
Backroom political operators—you mentioned, Minister, in your answer that this change will remove parties being able to preference each other, even if they have got a very close alliance. That is fine; you are saying that is what it is all about. But it does not actually remove backroom political operators; it allows factional tensions within parties to continue. Why then hasn't the government considered the Robson rotation, if they are that concerned about removing backroom political operators?
Firstly, I assume that Senator Muir is referring to the ordering of candidates by political parties as presented on the ballot paper. The ordering of candidates on the Senate ballot paper is transparently put before the voter, and the voter can make a choice. The voter can either accept the ordering by the political party of their choice, which they do not have to go and find in the AEC on some internet register—
Senator Conroy interjecting—
Okay, let's call it the AEC website where political parties can register three different group-voting tickets directing preferences below the line in three different directions for more than 100 candidates. What we are talking about here is—very transparently on the ballot paper—when people vote above the line for a party of their choice, or the parties of their choice, then obviously the ordering of candidates is very transparently in front of voters. If voters do not agree with the ordering of candidates by the political party of their choice, they can of course vote below the line.
Senator Muir, I understand your perspective; I understand the proposition you are putting. You are entitled to your view—of course you are—but we might have to agree to disagree, because we decided to follow the suggestion of the Labor Party. We decided to follow the suggestion of Labor's National Secretary, George Wright—I quote him again:
Labor's preferred position would also see a requirement that ballot paper instructions … advocate that voters fill in a minimum number of boxes above the line, while still counting as formal any ballot paper with at least a 1 above the line.
That is what George Wright, the National Secretary of the Labor Party, put to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters—according to Senator Conroy, without the knowledge of the National President of the Labor Party at the time, Senator McAllister. Senator Conroy now says, 'All without the knowledge of the national executive.' The revelations about the inner workings of the Labor Party become more and more interesting. I do not understand how the National Secretary of the Labor Party still has his job. Why hasn't he had to resign? He has put forward the exact reform proposal to Senate voting arrangements which the government is giving effect to. Here is Senator Conroy saying that Mr George Wright, the National Secretary of the Labor Party, put this proposal on the table to a committee of the parliament without telling his president, without telling his national executive, on a frolic of his own. How come he has not been sacked, given what a strong position you have taken against this reform? Please explain that to me. How can he continue to have the confidence of the National Executive of the Labor Party if, on such an important issue—an issue that you think is so important that you are running a 27-hour filibuster—you are not applying a sanction to the National Secretary of the Labor Party, who actually was actually at the beginning of this precise way that we would recommend that people should be able to vote when voting for the Senate above the line?
After the election of 2013, the Greens lost the senate balance of power to a diverse group of minor and micro-party senators; the government need six of the eight to pass their legislation without Labor or the Greens. Initially believed to represent the conservative side of politics, all eight, in various capacities, have since committed the politically unforgivable sin of not only thinking for themselves, but voting that way, frustrating Coalition attempts to legislate policy priorities – like the May 2014 budget – ever since.
She then goes on to describe why those opposite would want to gut the crossbench. But she also has a discussion about the motivation of other parties and individuals in the chamber. She says:
The Greens have been advocating senate voting changes since 2004 when they were denied a coveted Victorian senate seat, losing to Family First’s Steven Fielding when voter preferences flowed against them. It’s a flow that originally gave them seats in the senate, when WA Greens founder Jo Vallentine got elected on a “Nuclear Disarmament Party” ticket and built the Greens from there.
With their balance of power lost, it’s now a tap they’d like to turn off; with the Libs and Xenophon—
apologies; I am quoting directly from the article—
they’ve agreed to disable the mechanism that allows preferences to be redistributed amongst parties with a low primary vote.
She goes on to make the very important point:
Australia is poised to erode one of the most powerfully enfranchised electorates in the world – and we’re losing it without a sophisticated discussion.
All we get from those in that corner and all we get from those over there is a three- or four-line slogan—a slogan. Tony Abbott would be proud of you for your sloganeering on this issue. She then gives a brief guide to how Senate voting actually works, saying that each state selects six senators when they achieve the 'quota', and she describes the ballot paper:
If you choose to vote “below the line”, you number every single box of every single candidate of every single party in the order you wish them elected. If you choose to vote “above the line”, you mark a “1” next to your chosen party’s name, thereby delegating them to assign all the preferences for you. The parties register these with the Australian Electoral Commission pre-election. The vast majority of Australians vote above the line.
I would like to make a point for those senators who have not voted for that long here in Australia that it is a simple matter to ask at any polling booth that you would like to see it—you ask the electoral official. If you walk in and you do not know the how-to vote card, because you have not had a chance or you have not been interested until that moment, you can ask for a copy at every single polling booth.
Every single slogan. Let's have some facts, not your slogans. You are a proud Abbott warrior. Let's not pretend some obscure website is the only place you can find them. You can go to the Australian Electoral Commission or you can ask to see it at a polling station. But, if you choose to vote below the line, as I said, you have to order them. The Greens insist that it is to offer voters more control over their preferences, that it will end party-preference registration, and the bill recommends that voters themselves number a 1 or at least six in the boxes above the line, creating a far shorter list of destinations for preferences. I do not know: why is it okay to pass votes six times and not seven or eight or nine? What is the magic about the number six? Can anyone give me a rational explanation as to why it is okay to pass votes six times? Why don't you tell them to vote 12 or tell them to vote 20, because what you are really about is introducing first-past-the-post voting. That is exactly it.
This is what Van Badham says:
“Voter control” is a disingenuous argument, given the option of below-the-line voting is already offered to every voter ...
That goes to the heart of the sloganeering disguised as rational arguments. Australians have a choice to vote below the line.
Senator Whish-Wilson interjecting—
If you were genuine about this, Senator Whish-Wilson, you would have just proposed optional preferential voting below the line, but, no, that is not what you wanted. You wanted to gut the crossbench. So voter control is a disingenuous argument, but it is your slogan. Tony Abbott will be proud of you today.
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Senator Conroy—
“Voter control” is a disingenuous argument, given the option of below-the-line voting is already offered to every voter, while the list of how parties have ordered their preferences are offered online and at every ballot booth—
as I just said—
Even so, the change looks—
fair—unless you know anything about voting.
While everyone knows that Victoria's Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party—Senator Ricky Muir—won only a small number of No. 1 votes, few people appreciate that Senator Michaela Cash from the Liberals received even less. She must be a bigger disgrace than Senator Muir, according to the Prime Minister. She must be a bigger disgrace, and yet under the Greens' proposed changes, her re-election will be near guaranteed while his will not. What a fair reform that is! Your hypocrisy is exposed by this article. The first task—
Government senators interjecting—
No, she is just explaining the facts. The facts!
The first task of a ballot count is to establish which of the candidates have met that 14.3 per cent quota—it's easily reached by the popular major parties. What people don't know is that when a candidate goes 'over quota', the number of votes that go over quota are redistributed at a percentage of where their 'number 2' preferences are going.
I will put it to you that if you were to ask almost anyone, even in this chamber, no-one could explain to you how the preferences pass on and at what value.
Oh my goodness, 'if it was not so serious' you would get rid of this system and call it for what it is: first-past-the-post voting. First-past-the-post voting is what you are introducing. You know it, you are embarrassed about it, but you cannot utter the words.
Senator Whish-Wilson interjecting—
You are embarrassed and cannot utter the words! You are embarrassed and cannot even admit the truth! You know you are misleading the Australian public with your slogan. You stick to creating popular parties!
I apologise. I am being harassed and I should be ignoring them.
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: I have not finished, Senator Conroy. Order!
Senator Seselja interjecting—
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Senator Seselja, order, please.
She might write other fiction but she has got the facts right here.
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Order! I am speaking. Order on my right! Senator Conroy, please refer your comments to the chair and disregard those interjections, which are disorderly as well.
My apologies again, Mr Temporary Chairman.
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Senator Wong.
I am sure that Senator Conroy is able to take care of himself—
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Very able.
but the interjections are very consistent.
Government senators interjecting—
Now they are going to applaud. Maybe we could at least have a space in between them?
How about that? Why don't you just give him, maybe, one second or five seconds or something like that?
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Senator Wong, you make a very good point.
Senator Whish-Wilson interjecting—
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Order, Senator Whish-Wilson! Interjections are disorderly no matter where they come from, so I ask for a little bit of shush in the chamber please while Senator Conroy proceeds.
I have no idea what else she writes but, I tell you what, she has actually done more research than you have on this topic. She has done more research than you have and certainly more than the minister responsible, who did not even know—
An honourable senator interjecting—
I told you, I have never heard of her before! Okay? But she knows more about the voting system than the minister, who did not even know you could get the preferences at the ballot box! You can actually get them, and he did not even know it! He is in here telling us about the system and how terrible it is, and he did not even know that you can get them at the polling booth. He is giving us a lecture about the voting system and he did not even know that. This writer has done more research than the minister and you, Senator Seselja. But I should be following your advice, Mr Temporary Chairman. You are right again. I could read your mind then.
Van Badham continues:
This mechanism will remain with the Greens' changes. What the Greens are removing is what happens to the microparty votes that do not automatically reach a quota: their primary votes are individually small, but combined are around—
She has 20 per cent, and the discussion has been mainly around 24 per cent. So she is four per cent out, which is a helluva lot closer than you have been most of the day.
When a quota isn't met by any candidate, but there are still senators to elect, the counters start go through the smallest pile of votes; they are declared excluded, and their votes are redistributed, at full value, to whoever is second on each individual ballot paper, until a quota is reached.
So while it's true that Ricky Muir got only .51 per cent of a quota in primaries, no less than 23 minor parties—
You know a bit about those, Senator Rhiannon—Senator Lee 'pop-up party' Rhiannon—
directed preferences to him as they were excluded. He stayed in.'
Honourable senators interjecting—
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Order! Senator Conroy, I will ask you to address people in this place by their correct titles, thank you.
My apologies. So, yes—
He is biting his tongue while he does it, though. Be fair to him. Van Badham continues:
Yes, the micro parties swap preferences amongst themselves. Why wouldn't they?
But the effect of the Greens changes means that by choosing fewer parties to preference, votes "exhaust" and preferences cease to circulate. If you only vote for one or six minor parties above the line, and all are excluded, your vote will not count, at all, towards electing a senator.
That is exactly correct. That is exactly what you are proposing. Exhausting votes—
Senator Whish-Wilson interjecting—
Go on, tell Senator Muir he is a disgrace. Go on, tell him. Tell the voters who elected him they are disgraceful.
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: You are talking through me, Senator Conroy.
My apologies. I was being heavily provoked again. Ms Badham writes:
Power, as a result, gets consolidated amongst the groups who already have influence—this is what the Greens are banking on: on sheer force of primaries and transfer value alone they are more likely to stay in the race to win the final senate position. Obviously, the political strategists of the bigger parties also know that if they direct voters to mark only a "1" above the line, there will be even less preferences in circulation …
That is exactly right.
First past the post, Senator Cameron. But let's be clear. We have seen the flirting going on this week and for the last few weeks between Mr Michael Kroger and Senator Di Natale. He has even been forced to say the Greens are not really the nutters they used to be. He needs to get out more, because he would quickly discover he is wrong.
When it comes to hypocrisy, I want to make something very clear. While Senator Di Natale earlier tonight was saying, 'We've done no deal,' let me tell you what the Greens did in the last Victorian state election. They did a grubby backroom deal to run split tickets in the six most marginal electorates in Victoria. They tried to help the Liberals get elected in the six most marginal seats in Victoria. That is what they are proposing to do again. Senator Dastyari said it earlier. They are not going to preference the Liberals; they are just going to help them in a sneaky way, in return for receiving their preferences in marginal seats. That is exactly what is going on here. This 'loose preference deal', this, 'Oh, I could see myself forming government with the Liberal Party,' and this lovely flirting and preening we have been seeing are all about one thing: more green bums on red seats. To hell with the principles of the party; to hell with the principles of the Greens; 'We just want more green bums on red seats.' (Time expired)
Groundhog day, courtesy of Senator Conroy. How many times do we have to go through it? How much repetition do we need? It does not get more informative. It is a historic day.
Senator Conroy interjecting—
I am sure you will come back to it. You are a broken record; it is groundhog day—whatever you want to call it. But it is a historic day for Senate voting reform. When the history of this period is written, we will see that Labor has fallen on the wrong—
Senator Conroy interjecting—
I am happy to acknowledge all your interjections. Labor has fallen on the wrong side of history here. Labor is out there, effectively defending the comfort zone of Senator Conroy. His comfort zone is hanging out in the backroom deals. That is what he knows; that is what he wants to maintain and defend. How could you come in here and speak against voters having the right to decide their preferences?
Senator Conroy interjecting—
And you know—
Senator Conroy interjecting—
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Come on, interjections are disorderly and it is getting a little out of hand, Senator Conroy. Would you please hear the senator in silence.
Senator Conroy interjected a bit of information—there is obviously a question mark on how accurate it is—about Victoria and Victorian elections I think it is worth contemplating what No. 3 for Labor in the Victorian Senate election in 2010 would have to say about Labor's position now—Labor's position in refusing this opportunity to get rid of group-voting tickets and clean up how Senate voting reform is conducted. I think the person's name was Antony Thow. It was the dodgy group-voting-ticket system that thwarted—
Yes. Senator Conroy is shocked that it is a dodgy system, but maybe one day he will understand. It thwarted the will of the voters when the last seat was won—
Senator Conroy interjecting—
Yes, Senator Conroy. And here you have a system, and yes it resulted in Senator Madigan coming in instead of Labor, who in all fairness actually deserved to win.
Senator Conroy interjecting—
You dispute that, do you, Senator Conroy? Do you dispute that in that election—
If it had been the voters determining their preferences—
Senator Conroy interjecting—
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Senator Conroy!
Senator Conroy interjecting—
I acknowledge all the ridiculous comments that he has made, because—
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Order! Senator Rhiannon resume your seat. Come on, this is getting a bit out of hand and Senator Conroy especially. Please restrict your interjections. I am not going to continue asking you every few minutes to do this. Please let the speaker be heard in quiet.
It is an incredible about-face that Labor has had on its policy on group-voting tickets. Again, it is worth remembering that we have seen Labor in recent times in alliance with Family First—and that arrangement blew up in their face a bit. But let's come back to Labor here. It is just on one o'clock, and we have a few, only a few, Labor people here and, yes, they have woken up and come to life again, so we are probably going to get another round of groundhog day. So what is going on here? You have had your cold war language going on for a week but you have airbrushed former Special Minister of State, Gary Gray, out of history and out of the whole arrangement, and you bring in a new minister. Could one of you actually come on the record to say whether he has made any comment? It is the biggest issue, you keep telling us, in Senate voting reform, but you cannot come forward with any comment that he has made.
So you have a minister that is not participating in this—this whole episode that will be recorded as disgraceful for Labor when the history of this period is written—and there is no ministerial comment about it. That absolutely speaks volumes.
Again, let's also remember that your own leader is not with you. We now know that you own leader is not with you. He has given no commitment that the legislation will be repealed. If you think it is so terrible, you have put so much effort—you are now filibustering deep into the night to try and put off any vote on this and your own leader is not with you, your minister is not with you, the former minister is not with you and one of the people with the most outstanding record on Labor's side and probably in the whole parliament, former Senator John Faulkner, is certainly not with you—
Senator Cameron interjecting—
I think you are the one who is closer to Martin Ferguson these days, Doug, not me. You know that.
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Ignore the interjections, Senator Rhiannon, I hope they cease.
Who is close to Martin Ferguson?
Senator Conroy interjecting—
I am happy that the cold war warriors are now competing with groundhogs. Let's just remember what the current leader, Mr Shorten, said: 'In terms of what we have to do after the election, we accept the system.' I know I have said it before, but these people need to be reminded of this: he said, 'In terms of what we do after the election, we accept the system. If it gets changed, has been changed, we will see how it works.'
That does not instil any confidence in the tactics that have been run out of here by Senators Wong, Conroy, Cameron, Collins, Dastyari—I note Senator Dastyari has not done much heavy lifting tonight. You have fallen into the groundhog system; spare us more groundhog days.
I think it is interesting that Senator Rhiannon accuses us of airbrushing history—but the less said about that the better, I suspect. They are not talking about the issue before the chamber; they have spent almost the entirety of their contribution talking about us. Senator Di Natale felt a need to talk about his photo shoot. That is fine. We can talk about his photo shoot if he wants. But I do not think criticism from the Australian Greens about not dealing with the legislation before us really holds much water after that contribution or the leader's contribution.
I want to make a number of points. I know that my colleague Senator Collins has more to say, so I will try not to take up too much of the chamber's time. The first point I want to raise is that it has been interesting to observe the right of the Liberal Party and the Greens both talking about choice and both talking about the freedom of the individual to make decisions. I suppose it is one of those things in politics sometimes. It is a circle. I make the point that, when it comes to electoral systems, the discussion and slogan about voter freedom and choice is actually one of the arguments people use for voluntary voting. We do not have voluntary voting in this country for very good reasons. You only have to you look at those electorates and nations where they do not have compulsory voting to see all the negative consequences. There is the corrupting power of money. I will not, because of diplomatic niceties, point to any particular candidates in the United States, but you see it in those jurisdictions where you have voluntary voting. You see the negative consequences of prioritising this slogan about choice and not thinking about the effect that sort of voting system has on the way democracy functions and the way the polity functions.
I would say to Senator Rhiannon and Senator Cormann—although I understand it more from him as he is a Liberal; I disagree with him, but at least it is consistent with his political philosophy—that this argument about choice is a good slogan but it fails to understand the consequences of a set of voting rules on the nature of our democracy and our representation. Everybody in this chamber knows the real reason why the Australian Greens and the Liberal and National parties are supporting this legislation is not that they have discovered some great new-found commitment to the principles of choice and individual freedom. It is because they think they will do better. That is why they are supporting this legislation. It is because they think they will do better. They know that this will make it harder for anyone else to come in. Being lectured by Senator Rhiannon, the senator who came into public life on 2.9 per cent or 2.6 per cent or 2.3 per cent—let's agree that it was under three per cent—about how dreadful it is that people get in on small primary votes through preferences is one of the more hypocritical sets of contributions I think I have heard in this place.
There was also a contribution about Labor being on the wrong side of history. What I would say to that is this: I would suspect that, if, as we anticipate, this leads to the coalition over time getting a working majority in the Senate and it implements the sorts of policies that we have seen fail here because of the nature of the chamber, people will look to this debate and to Senator Rhiannon and it will be very clear who was on the wrong side of history.
I will not take that interjection, as tempting as it is. I will be disciplined. As tempting as it is, I will not. I often say, about the 2014 budget, that it was an insight into the soul of the Liberal Party, because we saw what they really want to do.
What they really believe in. They really believe in Medicare co-payments. They really believe in young people being pushed off the dole and not having any income to sustain them for six months. They really believe in $100,000 degrees. They really believe in cuts to pensions, and they really believe in undermining Medicare. We can go on and on. It is a very clear insight into the soul of the Liberal Party.
And this Senate stopped that—not all of it; there were certainly a few deals done, but this Senate stopped a great many of the measures in that budget which not only were broken election promises and a breach of faith with the electorate but were policies and programs and cuts which really went to what sort of Australia we are. It was this Senate that stopped them. So I say to the Greens—I suspect there is probably no-one else listening—and to anybody who might listen that putting in place a system which advantages you but which, over time, has a higher risk than the existing system of enabling the coalition to obtain a working majority of the Senate is not a progressive thing to do. It is in fact a remarkably selfish thing to do.
I also want to return to a point that I think Senator Conroy made, where he was suggesting that in operation, in practice, this system is a first-past-the-post system in effect. Senator Cormann, I think, responded—if not to Senator Conroy then to me—saying, 'That's ridiculous; it's not the case.' I want to go back to the evidence put before the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters by Mr Green, who is an advocate and a proponent for this reform, which he is entitled to be, but he ought not to be put into this debate as someone who is a disinterested academic on this. He is a proponent of change. As I said, that is reasonable. I disagree with him, but that is his position. Senator Conroy was asking him about exhausted votes, and he was also asking him about the number of ballot papers with only a single 1 above the line.
As you recall, we have already heard in this debate that some 96 or 97 per cent of voters, as a result of the system which has been in place for the last 30 years, put 1 above the line. In New South Wales the number of ballot papers with only a single 1 above the line—remember, there is a not dissimilar system in New South Wales; is that a reasonable proposition?—is 83 per cent. If 83 per cent only have 1 above the line, I suppose you could say it is not technically a first-past-the-post system, but it is a hell of a lot of votes which are being treated in essentially the same way. Some might say, 'That's okay,' but that is not the system that Labor supports. We have outlined time and again here why we think a compulsory preferential system is preferable. It is very clear from the numbers that Mr Green asserts occur in New South Wales—
I have been accused now by the minister of being misleading. I am simply quoting what Mr Green said.
Eighty-three per cent of ballot papers had only a single 1 above the line. There were 15.3 per cent that had above-the-line votes with preferences and … 1.7 per cent completed before the line.
There was some discussion about the Parliamentary Library advice, which I think was tabled in the other place. I want to read from that. This is about changes in voter behaviour, and I note that Senator Cormann said earlier that it was very hard to model voter behaviour—and I accept that; it is hard—but you can make a pretty educated judgement about what the likely outcome is, given how voters have behaved in other jurisdictions with similar voting systems and how they have behaved in the current voting system. This is what the Parliamentary Library had to say: 'Australian voters have spent 30 years voting 1 above the line, and it seems reasonable to assume that many people will continue to do so, despite the ballot paper instructions and any media campaigns.' This is what I mean when we talk about the abstract principle of voter choice—the slogan of voter choice—and ignore what will actually happen. What will actually happen will be a reflection of voter behaviour—
Senator Conroy interjecting—
I will take Senator Conroy's interjection. The thing is that I think the Greens actually know that. I think the Greens actually know that the vast majority of voters will continue to vote 1 above the line and that their votes will exhaust. But that is why the Greens want it. They want it because it will make sure that other parties and independents will find it much harder to enter this place. So all the talk from Senator Cormann and Senator Rhiannon that this is all about choice, when they know that the vast majority of Australians are likely to continue to vote 1 above the line, really demonstrates that it is just a slogan. The whole purpose of this is to ensure that there is less competition for the Greens in this place. They are pulling up the drawbridge in terms of anybody else entering—and, of course, from the coalition's perspective it makes it easier for more coalition senators to be elected.
I want to quote from a range of commentators, because it is useful to recognise that there have been concerns raised about this. I wanted to quote from Mr Gittens, but his is a very long quote, so maybe I will start with Mr Mackerras. He said: 'It is not about fairness what is going on here. It is about the reshaping of our party system. South Australia is to have a four-party system, Liberal on the right, Xenophon in the centre and Labor and Greens on the left. The rest of Australia is to have a three-party system—coalition, Labor and Greens.' It is not about fairness; it is about the reshaping of our party system—and that is the truth. That is the purpose of this reform.
I have seen Mr Paris again on Twitter saying that I cannot do maths. He asked: how can there be more coalition and more Labor senators? The point is that there will be fewer minor parties and independents. This is all about reshaping this place so that there is as closed a shop as the Liberals and Greens can make it. It will mean more coalition, Labor and Greens senators, but it will make it much harder for any minor parties or independents to get into this place. This is from a senator—Senator Rhiannon—who was first elected with less than three per cent of the vote. She is lecturing us all about the evils of preference arrangements.
The agenda here is not about choice—although that is a great slogan. The agenda here is not about fairness—
Senator Conroy interjecting—
The agenda here is not about choice. It is not about empowerment. It is not about any of those slogans which are being used. It is fundamentally about political power. It is about political power and it is about reshaping this Senate and this political system to ensure that the parties that are here tonight—the coalition, the Greens and the Labor Party—will be advantaged. It is about ensuring that independents and minor parties cannot, or will find it extremely difficult to, get into the Senate.
I wish the Australian Greens would actually be up-front about it. I wish they would say: 'Do you know what? It is because we want more of us in here. We are prepared to risk the coalition having a working majority in this Senate to pass their radical reforms because we want to try and make sure that there are more of us in here and fewer of anybody else on the crossbench.'
Senator Rhiannon is right; it really is like groundhog day. This is now the fourth or fifth time that a Labor senator has repeated the same deceit. Senator Conroy and Senator Wong, on several occasions now—
Senator Wong interjecting—
deceit—have verballed the evidence of Mr Green by selectively quoting from his evidence. Here was Senator Wong again suggesting that somehow the experience in New South Wales—the number of voters in New South Wales and the percentage of voters in New South Wales voting 1 above the line—is somehow relevant to what is likely to happen in Senate elections in the future as a result of these reforms. The truth is it is not; it is actually not. Do not take my word for it; I go directly to the bit immediately after the quote that Senator Wong read into the Hansard. Mr Green said in his evidence:
New South Wales ballot papers say: 'Just vote 1 if you want to …
It is no surprise that most people—that is what they do because on the ballot paper that is the instruction: 'Just vote 1 if you want to.' That is a material bit of evidence from Mr Green that Senator Wong deliberately left out of her presentation. Of course in those circumstances a large percentage of voters will just vote 1 because that is the instruction on the New South Wales ballot paper. The voters are following the instruction of the New South Wales ballot paper:
'Just vote 1 if you want to. You may go on and do something else.'
The more accurate, the more appropriate comparison would be with the electoral system here in the ACT. Here in the ACT the guidance provided to voters on the ballot papers is to number 1 to 7 or 1 to 5, depending on the number of votes. And Senator Wong, having misled the Senate, having misled the Australian people, is now turning her back on the Senate; she is not interested in the correction of her inaccurate assertions. She is not interested. The comparison that is actually more appropriate is the experience in ACT, where—
Senator Wong interjecting—
Here is the report. Do not take my word for it. The report on the ACT Legislative Assembly election in 2012 shows that 97 per cent to 98 per cent of people filled in seven or five boxes, depending on what the instruction was on the ballot paper—that is, people followed the instructions on the ballot paper! There is no reason why the same would not happen in the context of the Senate ballot paper. People are as smart in other parts of Australia as they are here in the ACT. People in other parts of Australia can actually follow instructions that are on a ballot paper. Please stop verballing the evidence of Mr Green by selectively quoting, because you are actually using a small part of his evidence, taken out in isolation, to try to mislead the Australian people about the effect of this reform.
Let me make some comments about the evidence of Mr Mackerras. Let me say right up front: the government does not accept the evidence of Mr Mackerras that was provided at the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. And I suspect that if Labor looked closely at what he said, neither would the Labor Party. Mr Mackerras says that in his opinion every single Senate election since 1994, since the Hawke Labor government reforms to Senate voting arrangements in 1994, is unconstitutional. Every single election since 1994, when the Labor Party introduced above-the-line voting for political parties, in his opinion—I do not know what qualifies him to express that opinion, but it is his opinion—has been unconstitutional.
Having said that, he was then asked whether the High Court agreed with him—or words to that effect. He complained; he said, 'Actually, no; the High Court, when they looked at it, they didn't agree with me, but they got it wrong.' So here is Mr Mackerras saying the High Court got it wrong! 'I, Mr Mackerras, am the font of all wisdom.' He is the person that the Labor Party now relies on to essentially come up with a fig leaf to try to justify its completely outrageous attempts to hide the motivation for its decision making.
Senator Conroy interjecting—
Here is the national secretary of the backroom operators union again. Senator Conroy is not interested in the public interest. He is not interested in making sure that the results of the next election and subsequent elections truly reflect the will of the Australian people. The only thing he is interested in is ensuring that he and people like him can continue to do their little deals with political parties around trading and directing preferences of voters after they have voted 1 above the line.
Senator Conroy had a bit of a swipe at me for being a migrant to Australia. Here he was, saying that I do not really understand what was going on because I have not been voting for long in Australia. That was what he was saying. Senator Conroy was suggesting that I somehow did not know that you could actually ask for the booklet with the group voting tickets at every polling station. Of course I knew that. How many voters do you think ask for that booklet, Senator Conroy? And even if they do, with the size of the ballot papers, with all of the gaming that has been going on and with the capacity for individual parties to direct preferences in three different directions, I would hazard a guess that there would not be many people in Australia that could actually figure out what would happen to their preferences depending on which party they support with their primary vote. If you have 100-plus candidates, 100-plus preferences below the line directed on the group voting ticket and three different versions of a group voting ticket preferencing different parties in different orders, how can an individual voter possibly figure it out? 'If I put my 1 above the line in support of that particular party, this is where my vote will end up'—how can you possibly figure that out?
Senator Conroy actually agrees that it is not possible to figure it out. When he was having his powwow with the federal director of the Liberal Party at the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters inquiry he made the point that maybe only 10 people across Australia understand the science and maths of preferences. That is how Senator Conroy went. He was patting himself on the back! 'Isn't this fantastic; there's only a small club of us who actually really understand how this whole thing works!' Senator Conroy, in that little question that you asked of our federal director you made the case in the most succinct fashion for the reforms that we are putting forward.
Senator Conroy interjecting—
Senator Conroy—walking around here and screaming out—would you please cease with your interjections. Let's just proceed with a little bit of silence. Can I just remind senators, especially those on my right, that interjections are disorderly, especially if you are not in your own seat. So let's proceed with a bit of calm and get on with the job. Senator Wong?
I will be calm, I promise.
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: That is good to hear!
Mr Temporary Chairman, I rise on a point of order. I understand that some licence is given, and Senator Conroy is not sensitive, but you did pull me and a number of us up for talking directly at senators. If you are going to apply it to us, I would ask you to apply it to the minister.
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Certainly, Senator Wong. I will keep that in mind.
I was not talking to Senator Conroy; I was talking about him. Here is the national secretary of the backroom operators union. He is in there organising the demonstration. He is organising the people in the streets to fight so that backroom operators like him can continue to trade and direct Senate preferences in years to come.
Senator Conroy interjecting—
Mr Temporary Chairman, I rise on a point of order. Just as a matter of consistency, I was asked to withdraw referring to Senator Di Natale as the senator for half-measures. Surely this is a similar circumstance.
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Senator Cormann, I will remind you to refer to senators by their correct titles.
I am actually pretty confident that Senator Conroy wears that description as a badge of honour. I do not think he is embarrassed by this at all. I am sure that if you were to ask Senator Conroy what his role and approach is in the context of the Labor Party he would readily agree that he is a backroom operator. The whole purpose of this legislation is to take power away from the backroom operators and to give the power to the Australian people to determine what happens not just to their primary vote but also to their subsequent preferences when voting above the line. That is what this is about.
The Labor Party are fighting so hard because they believe, for some reason, that they can do better by manipulating preferences than by trying to persuade the Australian people. In the end, if the Labor Party want to be more successful they have to be better at convincing more Australians that they deserve their support. Do not take my word for it. That is what Mr Gray wrote in an opinion piece in The West Australian in early February 2016. That is the point. Senator Conroy does not want a system that empowers the Australian people because he is scared of the Australian people. He worries that the Labor Party are not going to do well enough by putting their faith into the hands of the Australian voters. That is what Senator Conroy is worried about. Rather, Senator Conroy runs a system where he can do little deals here and there, asking for pop-up parties to send preferences Labor's way so that they can get more seats in the Senate than they actually deserve as a result of the democratic vote that they have achieved at an election.
We are prepared to put our faith into the hands of the Australian people. The result of an election is entirely a matter for the Australian people. If this reform is passed, the result of an election will be a reflection of the will of the Australian people. That is what this is all about. We understand what Labor are doing here tonight. They are running a marathon filibuster. Some of the Labor senators are bragging to the media about how long they can run it.
I am correcting some of your inaccurate assertions. To be frank, it was getting a bit boring sitting here just tweeting along, and I thought I wanted to have a bit of a run in the paddock. In particular, given all of the misleading information that Senators Wong and Conroy have put into the public domain, I thought it was incumbent upon me to ensure that those who are still listening on Radio National did not get the false impression—although they are actually—
Senator Jacinta Collins interjecting—
You are so two-hours-ago, Senator Collins. They stopped and shifted over to the BBC, but Twitter informs me that they are back on, because, apparently, they decided that our debate here tonight is really interesting. It is great to see that the host of Insiders and Talking Pictures is here with us tonight, and I hope we are all going to get a mention on Sunday when the events of tonight are reported on the weekend.
To get back to the matters at hand, we do have an amendment before the chair. It is the first of nine government amendments and it seeks to ensure that people voting below the line are given guidance to vote below the line. You number 12 boxes 1 to 12 in your order of preference. The nine amendments that the government will be moving, the first of which is currently before the chair, will introduce a form of optional preferential voting below the line to complement our initial proposal of optional preferential voting above the line, and we commend the government's amendment to the Senate.
I understand. I was not being critical, but it does help me move towards the point that I am making. I note that Senator Rhiannon is now back in the chamber. I was about to suggest or hope that she had gone to have a rest, because the contribution that she made a little while ago was so unhinged. But it did reinforce where we are in the consideration of this legislation. As much as I would like to hear Senator Wong go into further references and, perhaps, long quotes that challenge the position that the minister is seeking to maintain or recreate, I seriously do think that at this hour we are in quite a ridiculous process.
Let me remind both the Greens and the government, though, that this is a process of your creation. So do not try to sheet home the blame to anyone else. Do not try to say that anyone else is responsible for the fact that we are attempting to have adequate consideration of this matter—in order to make up for the fraud that was the government's consultation in developing these measures, not to mention the purported committee consideration that was so inadequate that we could not even question the department. Indeed even the Greens could not question the department about important aspects.
I thought I sighted Senator Xenophon a moment ago. I thought perhaps he was back in the chamber with us. I want to go back briefly to an earlier discussion that took place, I think, when he was not here. Senator Cormann was using this rhetoric about 'choice'. As part of the discussion, he said people should not be forced to vote for parties they might not want to vote for. I thought for a moment: 'My God! He is going to go down the path of an argument for voluntary voting', because what he seemed to be suggesting was that people should not be forced to follow the very instructions he claims are going to be on the ballot papers, which is for people to vote for the number of positions that are being filled. Instead he is saying, 'No, you should not be forced to vote for a party if you do not want to.' That sort of philosophy would take us very much us down the path towards voluntary voting.
I contrast that with Senator Xenophon's discussion about New South Wales, the ACT and what an appropriate benchmark would be to allow us to subsequently review what the implications of the changes had been. When he said that, I thought: 'Good heavens! Senator Xenophon has given these issues more competent consideration than the minister is displaying in his reference to them.' The minister was asked what the appropriate benchmarking would be, but instead of answering he gave us a philosophical discussion about how people should not be forced to vote.
I am sorry, but—
You go back and read what you were saying, because it was definitely leading right down that path. When I get the Hansard, I will put it right under your nose. You have already misrepresented the AEC's position. I have had the Hansard here and have cited it on several occasions to demonstrate how you were not following, as you were claiming, that position. You showed you did not really know what happened in the JSCEM's considerations and you have misrepresented the AEC's position on several occasions. So please do not take that holier-than-thou attitude now.
Add to that these glib comments and insults flying across the chamber. 'That is so two hours ago' was one comment I heard. I wanted to refer, and I will now refer, to a complaint that came to my office. It was not two hours ago; it was about an hour ago. The complaint that came to my office an hour ago was: 'I think that this matter and how it is being dealt with is a form of the gag. I am here listening and the coverage was shut off at midnight.' The coverage of this debate was shut down at midnight.
An honourable senator interjecting—
It is! In terms of public transparency and the processes of this parliament, to shut down the public broadcast of our considerations is appalling. Again this highlights the process. The way this person represented the issue to my staff was that this was just another form of the gag. The Greens are getting pretty experienced at this: 'Let's force the debate to occur late at night. Let's slide it through. Let's deal with it as legislation by attrition.' They want to sit here and wear people down rather than justify their case.
Honourable senators interjecting—
What does that lead to? It leads to the sorts of unhinged contributions we are hearing now. Senator Xenophon has rightly chosen this time to reinforce his point, because Senator Xenophon knows what the alternatives are—and we have used those alternatives in the past
At this hour of night, what a competent government would be doing is saying, 'How close are we to making progress on this?' And if we were not close to making significant progress then we would suspend and commence again the next day, after senators have had an opportunity to get some sleep. But this is not what is happening, and that is why I move:
That progress be reported and the committee have leave to sit again on the next day of sitting.
The CHAIRMAN: The question is that progress be reported and the committee have leave to sit again on the next day of sitting.
I was accused prior to the break—it is all right we are not going to vote for a while; you can all go—of misleading the chamber, again; it is a serial accusation and untrue. I did actually say a couple of things. I said that voter behaviour obviously depends on a whole set of assumptions about—
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Senator Wong, would you resume your seat. Colleagues, would you please either resume your seats or leave the chamber quietly so we can hear the speaker. Senator Wong.
I think I did actually in the discussion about assumptions about voter behaviour when assessing—
Senator McGrath interjecting—
Senator McGrath, if you are going to laugh, can you at least laugh on your side?
If you could just cackle over there—
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Senator Wong, don't be distracted. Resume.
I cannot help it. I have got this bloke behind me who seems to have lost it, and it is not Senator Conroy; it is one of yours and he is on our side. You can stay here, if you want—if you vote with us! I will start again—I am sure you are very happy about that.
Senator Cormann, I think, just prior to the division, was accusing me of misleading the chamber in relation to some evidence before JSCEM and voter behaviour. I would make the point: I was actually quite clear that you do have to make a set of assumptions about how voters will respond to a new system. Senator Cormann places great store in the fact that the instruction on the ballot paper will be there. That will ensure a great many people change their voting behaviour. He might be right. He might be wrong. The point I was making is that, if you look at the statistics over 30 years, if you look at the New South Wales position and if you also look at what the Parliamentary Library were saying, it is a reasonable assumption that many people will continue voting 1 above the line. He may be right. It may be that people, overnight, are able to change their voting behaviour. I make the point again—and the senator never responded to this: Australian voters have spent 30 years voting above the line, and it seems reasonable to assume that many people will continue to do so, despite the ballot paper instructions and any media campaigns.
I note that Senator Cormann did not actually address that at any point, which is the Parliamentary Library research which has been tabled in the parliament. Why does this matter? This matters because your assumptions about how voters respond actually drive, or heavily influence, your assumptions about the outcomes that this Senate voting change will deliver. We on this side in part—this is not our only objection—are of the view that a great many voters will do what they have been doing for the last 30 years, which is to put 1 above the line, and we have documented on a number of occasions tonight why we have concerns about what that means for democracy, for the franchise, what that means in terms of the numbers of exhausted votes and what that means in terms of the effective first-past-the-post system that will be introduced. Senator Cormann did not deal with the proposition that I was putting to him about what the Parliamentary Library were saying as to changes in voter behaviour.
I would also make the point that Senator Cormann's argument might have more merit if there had been a good lead-in time, if there had been a lengthy period of voter education, including for non-English-speaking-background communities, if there had been a long lead time to educate people about what this voting change meant and what their options were under it. Let us remember, if we look at the informal voting statistics for the last election, they do vary quite considerably between the House of Representatives and the Senate, where of course the Senate has a lower informal vote, in great part because of the above-the-line voting system. In New South Wales, you are looking at an informal vote of around 7.5 or 7.6 per cent in the House of Reps and about 3.3 per cent for the Senate. That is probably the starkest difference, to be honest. The ACT is the smallest. In Queensland it is 2.16 versus 5.13. My point is that the Senate has a system where people are used to voting above the line and that has led to higher levels of formality than in the House of Representatives. What we are proposing now is a system where the government is assuming that suddenly people will move away from the 1 above the line.
I have to say I think that is a heroic assumption given how quickly this is being introduced. It is not the case that these reforms have been put out there, discussed in the community, communicated and explained well ahead of an election campaign. This is being rushed through in order to enable a double-dissolution election under the new rules. It is being rushed through for the purposes of the election. We can have an argument about Senate procedure—and I am happy to have a discussion about the fact that you allowed a half-day sham inquiry on this, Senator McKenzie—but this has been rushed through in terms of voter education. You are rushing it through. If Senator Rhiannon's amendment gets up, the extent to which it is being rushed through is demonstrated by the fact that you are seeking to have the application in terms of the design of the ballot paper predate the commencement of the act. I will be asking questions about that. That shows how rushed through it is. You are saying: 'We want to get it through. We might have the commencement date later but, in case there is a double-D and a prepoll, we need to have an application provision in the legislation that says that we can have this ballot paper under the new provision actually in place before the act commences.' This is extraordinary. It is chaotic. Do you know why you want to do it? Because you are so desperate to make sure you have a double-dissolution election at the timing you choose.
I just wanted to place on record my response to the accusation that I was misleading the chamber. I wanted to remind senators that the 1 above the line has been the overwhelmingly predominate voting method in the Senate—96 per cent—and it has led to lower levels of informality. The assumptions about choice, for the reasons I have previously outlined, mask the true agenda here, which is about political power.
I was watching Senator Di Natale earlier tonight—
An honourable senator: The black Wiggle.
The black Wiggle, yes. He was trying to be the leader. He was sitting there, the square jawed leader of his party. He indicated he was not going to engage but he actually did engage. Every time there was any criticism of Senator Di Natale the glass jaw was cracking and he was in here. He reminded me of someone. I am sure there are some Monty Python fans in here tonight. Remember the taunting French guard? He is up in the castle, which is absolutely impenetrable. Everyone is trying to get into the castle and the French guard is up there. The French guard is not going to let anyone else in. You have the French guard—Senator Di Natale—up in the castle. He is here and no-one else is going to get in. No-one else is going to get there. That is like the Independents.
I would certainly have appreciated it if he had done the same when Senator Cormann was on his feet going all around the mulberry bush, so there is a bit of hypocrisy, but I suppose they are mates now. Getting back to the taunting French guard, everyone is trying to get in—and everyone has a right to try to get in—but the Greens and Senator Di Natale are up in the castle. What did the French soldier say in Monty Python and the Holy Grail? He said in a French accent, 'I don't want to talk to you no more.' I cannot do the accent.
Honourable senators interjecting—
I will give it a go: 'I don't want to talk to you no more.' He does not want to talk to the people he has been talking to over a period. He goes, 'You empty-headed animal food trough wiper! I fart in your general direction!' That is basically what he has done. That is basically what they have done for you guys.
Honourable senators interjecting—
It is Monty Python.
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Senator Cameron, would you direct your comments through the chair.
Don't you know Monty Python?
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Be careful about your parliamentary language.
He said, 'Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!' Every time I have seen Senator Di Natale on his feet—and to some extent Senator Rhiannon—I keep seeing the taunting French guard. They are here and no-one else is going to get in.
An honourable senator interjecting—
You can do it better than me. That is the reality. You see them there. That is what it is all about. They are in the castle. No-one else is going to get in and there will be no more new parties come into this place. As Senator Wong indicated, there will be the major parties in the rest of Australia and in South Australia there will be the major parties plus Senator Nick Xenophon and his party, whatever it is called. They will all be there in their pyjamas looking to get more people into parliament. But anyone who has any interest in politics but is not aligned to any of the major parties will not be there because they will be locked out. See Senator Rhiannon up there, she is the female version of the taunting French guard. No-one else is getting in! I am surprised that Senator Cash would say that people will think I am drunk. No-one who knows me would think I am drunk.
Senator Cash interjecting—
I am certainly not drunk. Senator Cash, I can understand why you would not know Monty Python. I have not seen much humour from you ever in any of the stuff you do in this place, and sometimes a little sense of humour goes a long way. So you do not have to call me drunk. If you cannot understand Monty Python, if you cannot understand a bit of humour, if you cannot understand that there is really a serious point to it in relation to what the Greens are doing—they are in the castle, no-one else is going to get in. The Liberal Party are in but no-one else is ever going to get in. The drawbridge is up, the ladders are up and no-one else is going to get in. That is what the public need to understand.
What we are going to get is a first-past-the-post proposition. The punchline is that you guys are behaving exactly like a Monty Python figure. That is what you are. But you are not even as strong or as capable as the Monty Python figure, because you could not negotiate a decent deal if it was put in front of you. You had an opportunity to deal with a range of important issues to your rank-and-file membership, who are telling you that this is the wrong thing to do.
You had an opportunity to actually deal not only with electoral reform but with reform in a range of areas. You could have had a proper debate. We could have been here tomorrow dealing with marriage equality. We could have been doing that and we could have had an outcome. But, no, the deal you have done is more important than marriage equality; it is far more important than marriage equality to you guys. It is about your power and maintaining your position. That is all you are about, nothing more than that.
You could have had a chance to deal with the donations and the rip-offs that are going on over on the other side—the trust funds that are established, the associated entities that are in the Liberal and National Party, hiding money, shifting money around the country so no-one knows where the donations are coming from—
An honourable senator: And now they are going to give them a company tax cut.
Yes. If you want to know what any of the policy positions that the Liberals and Nationals are taking, look at who is giving them the money, because that is where they go. Look at Manildra in New South Wales, where they have meeting after meeting to hand over more and more money to get an ethanol plant in New South Wales. Even some of the Nationals and some of the Liberals in New South Wales are saying it will mean an extra 8c a litre on petrol in that state. Why is that? It is because a multimillionaire donor is providing funding to the Liberal Party and they are paying that donor back—meeting after meeting, more and more money flowing into the Liberal Party into one of the associated entities. It goes there and it comes down to Canberra, then the money comes out of Canberra and gets filtered back into New South Wales to avoid the New South Wales laws.
If ever there was a need for a royal commission in this country, it is a royal commission into the associated entities of the Liberal and National Party, because that is where the rorts are going on; that is where democracy is being pushed aside for the interests of the Liberal Party donors. That is where the problem is, and the Greens should have seen that as being an issue. The Greens should have known that that is the main problem. If you are getting more and more money coming in to run big businesses' agenda and you do not have to disclose where that money is coming from or you hide where the money is coming from, and then you introduce legislation for tax cuts for your mates at the big end of town and you take away the superannuation benefits for low-income workers in this country, we all know what that is about. It is about making the poor pay for your rich donors. That is the issue here.
It is an absolute disgrace that the Greens are hand in hand with this mob over here, doing over democracy in this country. We have heard so much about democracy—all the pontification from Senator Di Natale about how this is good for democracy. It is no good for democracy unless you fix up the electoral donation issue. It is no good for democracy if the big end of town and the financial donors to the Liberal and National Party are calling the shots and the money is being hidden in associated entities all over the country, awash with big business money to run their election campaigns against the Greens. Kroger made it quite clear that there might be some sensible Greens, but there are others that are not sensible. The Liberals are already looking at it. They are classifying the Greens as the nutters and the non-nutters. This is not a good look for the Greens. They are going to have this loose arrangement designed to get rid of good, effective local members that have made a huge contribution to politics in this country, and Mr Albanese.
The attacks against these politicians are going to be on the basis that we have to defend other seats, because preferences will not be given by the Greens. These are the deals that are going on, the so-called loose arrangements. Kroger is quoted as going on to praise Senator Di Natale, saying:
You've got a doctor [Di Natale] who owns a farm who doesn't come from this mad environmental background. He's helped the government get legislation through the Federal Parliament. So you look at the Greens through a slightly different lens these days because they're not the nutters they used to be.
Tell that to Senator Abetz. I have not heard Senator Abetz run those lines. I do not think Senator Abetz thinks that is the position. I do not think Senator Bernardi thinks that is the position. We have this massive split in the coalition. We have those that want to cuddle up to the Greens and do deals or have loose arrangements to try and diminish the major Left political party in this country. The Greens can do a deal with the Liberals that will end up meaning that, if we come back and the election is won because of these rorts that are going on by the coalition, Work Choices will be back on the agenda. The ABCC will be back on the agenda. The GST will be back on the agenda. The $7 co-payment will be back on the agenda, because Senator Cormann has never walked away from that first 2014-15 budget. We know that the current Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has indicated that he supported every element of that first budget—the $7 co-payment and the starving of young unemployed people for six months. These are the situations we are going to face if the coalition are returned at the next election. It will not be enough to have the Greens and us here, because there will be no Independents. Without the Independents, that last budget would have gone through, and ordinary Australians would have been much worse off.
This whole voting system that is being debated tonight is simply about entrenching both the Greens and the coalition. That entrenchment will be bad news for the working-class families in this country. It will be bad news for middle-class families. It will be bad news for workers around this country. That is because the coalition have absolutely no understanding of the battles that workers have. Many of the crossbenchers in here have stood up to some of the worst aspects of the budget. This is about is entrenching the coalition at the expense of the crossbenchers and making life worse for the poor in this country.
I just want to note for the chamber that it is five past two in the morning and we still have nearly 38 amendments before the chair. Some of them need to be debated and discussed in detail. We acknowledge that. For those people who are still awake and listening, tweeting and watching, this is the process that we go through in the Senate when we scrutinise a bill and very important legislation like this. What I would like to say is very simple.
Senator Conroy interjecting—
I will not take very long, if you will just give me a moment's peace, Senator Conroy.
Senator Conroy interjecting—
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Order on my left! Let the speaker be heard.
I think the Senate should actually deal with the substantive legislation in front of us. Let's get on with what the taxpayers of Australia are paying us to do. Let's get on with what the taxpayers in this country are paying us to do, and that is to be adults and parliamentarians and to pass laws in this country. By all means, let's have an adult and mature discussion about the question in front of us. The Greens welcome the input of all senators of all political colours on this bill because it is important. We have weeks ahead of us to get through this. Let's start with a substantive debate and let's get off the grubby politics. I think the Australian people are sick of it and actually want their parliamentarians to grow up and do what they got put into parliament to do—pass good laws on their behalf.
I must say that the irony of getting a lecture from the Greens about getting on with it and allowing debate and serious consideration to continue when we ended up in this position because of the truncated process that the Greens and the government agreed to will never cease to amaze me.
I would like to provide a few comments on the ACT electoral system, which has been used by a number of speakers tonight as an example of how some of the concerns around informal voting will not occur because of the education program. What I have picked up from other speakers is that the advice around how to vote will be similar to what is provided on ACT ballot papers. I think it is worth reflecting on a couple of points here.
The ACT has had quite a complicated relationship with self-government. It started with the ACT community not wanting it. We then had to design an electoral system where the ALP did not win every single one of the seats. After two elections we then modified the D'Hondt system. The ACT moved to a Hare-Clark system, which is the system that has been talked about tonight. It included three electorates, two with five members and one with seven. All of that is true.It is also true that there are high levels of formal voting under this arrangement, although it is relevant to look back at when the system was brought in in 1995—the informal vote was actually very high, compared to what it is now. The informal vote reduced at each election, but in 1995, for example, there were electorates where the formal vote was only 91 per cent.
That has improved over the years, but I would say that when the minister quoted figures from the 2012 election, which did have record levels of formal voting, that was after 21 years of experience by the ACT community with that particular way of voting. Of course, the ACT community—the 'United Republic of the ACT'—is a highly-educated electorate. It is very engaged. There are considerable education programs that get put through before every election takes place and the electoral system has not changed in the last 21 years. So there are some differences in comparing and contrasting the ACT electoral system and the high level of formal voting with the changes that we are talking about here tonight.
When the system was brought in, the level of informal voting was relatively high—certainly, for the first election. It has improved every election since, but I do not think it is unreasonable to pose the question, as it has been put tonight, that changing an electoral system—a voting system—and potentially having very few weeks in which to educate the community about it will result in higher levels of formal votes being cast. The other difference, of course, is that we have fixed-term elections in the ACT. So you cannot muck around with, 'When will the election be called?'. So the education program that has led up to election day is actually very comprehensive and planned, and does not rely on the government of the day choosing the election day at their own convenience.
Another difference is that I would say the ballot paper does not have above-the-line voting. Essentially, if you are comparing it with the ballot paper that we are talking about tonight, the only choice for voters is to exercise their votes below the line, even though there is no line. It is also relevant to note that the introduction of the Hare-Clark system was done by referendum. So in order to move to this electoral system a referendum was held at the 1992 election, where the question was asked about whether the community wanted to stay with the modified D'Hondt system or move to the Hare-Clark system. That was endorsed by about 65 per cent.
There was also a three-year lead-in to that system being changed. The question was put to the community in 1992, the system was changed by law in 1994 and then entrenched at the 1995 election. I think it is also relevant to reflect for a moment, if we are going to use the ACT as an example of best practice—and that is not often the case in this chamber, but I am happy to take it when it happens!—on the electoral reform that has happened since this time. I know a little about it, having stood in the last four of those elections as a candidate. The electoral reform that has happened since 2012 has been conducted via extensive committee processes and extensive consultations with all parties in the assembly. Over the years that has included conservative Independents and Greens, and I think that in most cases the legislation that is brought to the chamber has been thoroughly discussed between the government and the opposition in an attempt to reach agreement prior to a debate being conducted. I think that is the way that you get the best outcome. Obviously, again, that stands in sharp contrast to what we have seen in the process that is being imposed on this chamber in dealing with the legislation that we are trying to deal with comprehensively tonight.
Some of the changes that we brought in in the ACT post the 2012 election dealt with things like donations, disclosures, transparency, accountability, full reporting disclosure and timely disclosure—all of the things that we will get to at some point this morning with some of the amendments that we have before us.
But I think that, if you are going to use the ACT as an example of best practice in terms of the information that will be provided, it is relevant to keep in mind these points. One is that there is no choice to vote above or below the line. Another is that a referendum actually led to the change; it was not a deal that was done between two parties in the assembly in the dark of night in a backroom deal and then rammed through in a couple of weeks. It was a change that was brought in and passed perhaps several weeks before people headed to an election. There was a three-year implementation of that change to the electoral system, which allowed a comprehensive education program. In terms of the voting that happens now, the fixed-term nature of the election dates, which takes away the ability of governments to determine an election date of their convenience, allows the ACT Electoral Commission to run a very comprehensive education program to reduce the opportunity for informal voting as much as it can.
I think those are significant differences to the position that we find ourselves in tonight. I think it is worth putting those on the record. The reason the ACT has done relatively well and has a high level of formal voting is the approach it has taken to electoral law reform, including the ability and the time to introduce that electoral law reform and the fact that, in most instances, it has managed to bring the political parties together. Where agreement can be reached, that agreement is focused on. If there are areas of disagreement, obviously they are agitated within the chamber. Ultimately, the change to the system that the minister refers to was brought in by a referendum. It was taken to the people at an election and agreed to as the preferred electoral system, which, again, is something that has not been done in this situation.
We are looking at the first amendment. I want to deal with the entire amendment process that has got us here. Let's be clear: the problem is that it was an incredibly rushed process, and we are looking at an amendment system that was not done properly. We had the extraordinary situation in which amendments were being introduced in the House almost concurrently with the introduction of the bill by the government, because the whole process had been so rushed. We know why it had been rushed. It had been rushed, because all of this was part of a dirty deal and the whole thing was run out of the Department of Finance and not PM&C, where this would normally have been done.
A series of nine amendments—the government's own amendments to its own bill—have been introduced in a way that is extraordinary and highlights the race, the pace and the desire to do this whole piece of legislation in such a quick manner. Moments ago, Senator Collins said: 'Let's just quit the farce. This is a serious law. We actually need some time to examine it properly. Let's all go home, spend some time and come back to properly deal with this legislation.' Obviously, that was not the will of the Senate. I respect the Senate. It was not the will of the Senate. It was not what the Senate chose to do. I think that was the wrong call. I think that was a mistake. I think that was an opportunity for us to deal with this in a proper manner.
But you have a rushed process, so it is bad law, and now we are dealing with bad amendments that also had to be rushed into this place. There is no need to be handling it this way. There is no need for us to be dealing with this in the way we are dealing with it. The only reason we are here, the only reason this is happening is because there was a deal. There was a deal between the government and the Greens political party that brought us here. There was a deal that Senator Cormann, the Prime Minister and others did with the Greens political party to get us the outcome and to get us here.
Again, the hypocrisy is mind-blowing. We had Senator Rhiannon professing these kind of purer than thou rhetorical flourishes about democracy and other things—going on and on. Yet, when you actually look at Senator Rhiannon's own record in this space, you have somebody who made it their business to go out there and to create minor parties and the kind of structures to actually game the system in a way in which I am not familiar with anyone else in this chamber engaging with. To turn around and somehow say that the minor parties and those who vote for smaller parties should be punished because people like Senator Rhiannon were prepared to play the system is a hypocrisy that really knows no bounds. Frankly, if this was in a different area, if this was not in setting up in electoral systems, if you were doing this in the welfare space or in any other area, it would actually be a serious issue. Yet the whole thing is laughed off as if it is some kind of a game. No, it is serious; it is very, very serious stuff.
I really think that Senator Lee Rhiannon should actually come into this chamber and explain her own role in the setting up of these micro-parties. In the past few hours some more information has come to light, and we will be able to go through that. But how is this necessary? How is this needed? Why should we be punishing the 25 per cent of voters who choose to vote for a smaller political party, because Senator Lee Rhiannon used to set up micro-parties in a way that, frankly, we all think is highly inappropriate? I say to the Senator Rhiannon, if you are listening, you actually should come down here and give a proper explanation of what your role has been in all of this. Senator Lee Rhiannon—if that is your real name—you need to come down here and actually give an explanation. This kind of a system, this kind of a rort, this kind of a micro-party creation is a problem. So who has to get punished? Senator Day? Senator Leyonhjelm? Senator Muir? Senator Lambie? I am hopeful that some of these crossbench senators will do well in elections and will be able to continue to participate.
Government senators interjecting—
No, no. I think they have contributed to the debate. I think that has been an exciting contribution that they have continued to make. But we are dealing with a flawed process here. We are dealing with a flawed system. We are dealing with a legislative rush-through that has actually got us into a lot of the mess that we are in here today.
Senator Whish-Wilson is—and I have said this many times in this chamber—somebody I have an incredible amount of respect for. Certainly on his views on financial services, industries and that, we do not always agree eye to eye, but I think he has always been very passionate and strong.
An honourable senator: Except when he rolled over.
Well, I note that he made a good contribution even today in question time. I thought he asked a fine question. He is someone I do respect when he comes and says, 'Oh, this moral high ground; this holier than thou.' Well, hang on. If you had not rushed and if we were not here—you talk about the dirtiness of politics; there is nothing dirtier than the kind of deal that has lead to us being here and where you decide that you are going to have a political fix and to retrofit a little bit of ideology or a little bit of political rhetoric around it. This is a Greens/government fix to remove some pesky crossbenchers. Everything else has been retrofitted to try to justify that and to justify that kind of behaviour. Let's not kid ourselves, that is what is going on here. Let's not pussyfoot around this. This whole thing is a rort masquerading as some kind of democratic reform. It is none of those things. It is an outcome that has been predetermined and a system that has been built around that outcome to actually give the situation you want.
Those on the other side are going on about it, but you cannot argue both ways that it is good. This is bad for progressive Australia. It is bad for progressive voices. In the short term it perhaps could be positive for certain elements within the Greens political party. That is what is going on here. I cannot wait till we hear the contribution from some of the other senators, including the Green senators. I would love to see what some of the senators say who are probably going to be in the firing line as a result of this.
But part of my real issue is this handing of the keys to the government for a double-dissolution under a system that they know will benefit the conservative side of politics. That is the inevitability of where this is going. It is no coincidence that the Greens sit around and say, 'We will give them an amendment. We will give them 1 July as the date on which this can start being used.' Is it any coincidence that you have government ministers walking the halls of the media upstairs saying quite openly, 'We are looking at a double-D election and we are going on 2 July,' and coincidentally the date that the Greens come up with is 1 July?
An honourable senator interjecting—
That is not coming from our side of politics. That is coming from your own.
No, they are not. Articles that they have written in Australia's leading broadsheets make reference to senior government ministers and members talking to them about a 2 July, or maybe 9 or 16 July, double-D election. That is all on the public record. Senator Cormann, you may say or imply they are lying or you may say or imply that they do not have real sources, but that is a matter for you. It is a view you are entitled to have. That is not my view. When I read these things I will understandably come to a conclusion. Yet there is this sudden coincidence of 1 July. No, a conservative build-up in this chamber is a bad outcome for progressive Australia.
I understand the government's position here. This is good for the government. It is good for the conservative side of politics. It is a political fix that the government is surely going to embrace. I am not surprised by that. I am not shocked by that. I would not expect the government to behave any differently. The government is behaving in its own interests and it can do that. But it is the fact that this pretence, this farce, is presented about it being about other things. It is not. It is about a pesky set of crossbench senators the government is very keen to see removed, because they felt they should have passed elements of the last budget but they did not. That is what has got us here.
When we are looking at these amendments and dealing with them, we have to keep in mind the process that got us here. We have to understand that the way in which this entire thing has been rushed has actually created problems and will continue to create problems. In the past couple of days, I think there has been an incredible job by a lot of the media in exposing some of these flaws. We have heard quotes—and I do not need to quote them, because they have already been quoted by other Senators—from journalists, academics and others who have come out with some very strong views. They were people like Ross Gittins and others. I know that Senator Penny Wong actually quoted some of them and I do not need to put them on the record. I do also note, though, that while we are having this debate—and I think it is unfortunate that we are having this debate in the middle of the night—the coverage of it will of course—
Honourable senators interjecting—
No, no! We just moved a motion moments ago that you voted against. I am not going to be lectured to by you. I will not be shushed. You may try and silence me but you are not going to lecture me.
The coverage of this will be somewhat limited because we have a situation where a lot of Fairfax journalists, through what I agree is some really outrageous behaviour by the management of Fairfax, have chosen to go on strike. I do want to say I respect them and respect their right to take industrial action. I think that is a move that they are entitled to make. I will always respect the rights of people engaging in that. It must be an incredibly difficult time for a lot of the journalists and a lot of the people who have been following this story, covering this story and participating in this debate. It is unfortunate that as we reach this point they will not be able to participate in this debate, but it must be horrible to show up at work and be told about the types of cuts that are going to be faced by some of the largest and most important newsrooms in this country. Our thoughts need to go out to the families who will have to grapple with those issues in the coming weeks.
I want to remind the Labor Party again that we have 38 amendments before the chair. This is very important legislation. Senator Dastyari has been talking but has not raised any substantive issues about those amendments. I compliment Senator Muir, who is in the chamber, who did actually get down to the substantive debate and ask some very good questions. I bring the Labor Party's attention to the fact that we have had the politics all week. In fact, we have had the politics for the last two weeks in this chamber, every day. We have heard it all before. Let's actually get on with the substantive debate and let's address this bill. However long that may take and however thoroughly you want to scrutinise these amendments, the Greens will be here, but we want you to address the amendments before the chair.
I am quite interested by the response of the government to some of the comments that Senator Dastyari was making when he was suggesting that there has been widespread commentary in the media, stimulated by government leaks, that the government was planning a double dissolution election, and that the reason for the haste in dealing with this bill was to accommodate that matter. That is why the bill has had to be dealt with this week: so the Electoral Commission could have the three months that it had requested to put in place the changes from this legislation before an election was to be called on 2 July. That was the minimum period of time, as they have indicated. This question, as to why the timing is so critical for this, has been widely canvassed. That is why there has been the haste and why this unseemly action has been taken to produce a kangaroo court inquiry and a bodgie set of arrangements whereby the government has introduced a bill that it itself has had to amend because it did not actually take into account a number of measures. It had not considered the implications of its own recklessness in this regard. All of that, I think, is well canvassed.
What really surprised me, though, was the fact that when Senator Dastyari raised the prospect of a double dissolution two government ministers, across the chamber, repudiated the proposition that there would be a double dissolution. Senator Cormann and Senator Fifield repudiated the suggestion that there would be a double dissolution. I repeat that and ask: is it the case that you are repudiating that proposition? Is it the case that you are saying to this chamber that this is not about the government having the option of a double dissolution?
It is a very simple proposition, Minister: if there is not going to be a double dissolution, will the minister agree to Labor's amendment to delay the commencement of this legislation till 19 July 2016 so that it cannot be used as part of a double dissolution election? I have asked you a very straight question; I would appreciate an answer.
As so often tonight, a Labor senator contributing to the debate is misleading the chamber by selectively quoting what Senator Fifield and I objected to in Senator Dastyari's contribution, which was his assertion about what government ministers allegedly were doing in the gallery, because Senator Dastyari would have no such knowledge and there is no activity such as he relayed by government ministers in the gallery.
In relation to Labor's amendment: no, we will not be supporting Labor's amendment to further delay the application of these reforms. We will be supporting, as I have already indicated to the chamber, an amendment put forward by the Greens to ensure that the AEC has three months available between the passage of the legislation and the application of these reforms at an election.
In relation to the specific question that Senator Carr asked about the timing of the election, the form of the election: I honestly do not know. No decision has been made, as far as I am aware, in relation to either the precise timing or the form of the election. The Prime Minister has repeatedly indicated that our strong preference and intention is to serve a full term and for the election to take place in the latter part of the year; in the usual course of events, in August, September or October.
There is of course the option of a double dissolution election in order to resolve the deadlock between the houses of parliament in relation to some key legislation. That is an option that everybody is well aware of. It is an option that is provided for under the Constitution. Whether or not that option will have to be exercised depends on a whole range of factors and we really do not know yet how they are going to play out. It might well be that in the next little while a sufficient number of senators give an indication to the government that there is support for the re-establishment of the Australian Building and Construction Commission. It could well be that a sufficient number of senators will give an indication to the government that there is support for the passage of our registered organisations legislation. If that were the case then obviously there would be no deadlock between the two houses of parliament that would need to be resolved and the question would become academic.
The truthful answer is: this reform is completely unconnected to the precise timing or form of the election. That is a decision that has not yet been made. Our view is that whenever the election takes place the result of that election should reflect the will of the Australian people. Our view is that, whenever the next election takes place, voters across Australia should be empowered to direct their preferences as they see fit and not have these preferences traded and directed by political parties according to the interests of those political parties.
Minister, I thank you for your response, but it is quite clearly disingenuous for you to suggest that this bill has got nothing to do with election timing or the prospect of a double dissolution in terms of election timing. It is completely disingenuous for you to say 'if only the Senate passed a piece of legislation' which, of course, is not before the parliament and has very limited prospects of being before the parliament given that you have chosen not to put it before the parliament this week. Under the current circumstances the next time we meet will be to discuss the budget, you will need to call an election by 11 May to meet the constitutional requirements, and therefore you will need to pass a supply bill within one day to secure that. It is clearly a nonsense for you to suggest that there is going to be time to consider the ABCC, but that is a choice that the government has made. It is disingenuous for you to suggest that if only we could pass a draconian, offensive bill like the ABCC bill—if we were to capitulate on that matter—then of course we would not need a double dissolution. You know that that bill will not be able to be put to the chamber in the time we have, because you have already set in train a course of action whereby the budget will have to be brought down on 10 May. You cannot call this chamber forward earlier than that without the agreement of the chamber. Of course, 10 May is one day prior to the deadline to call a double dissolution election for July. So it is a nonsensical proposition that you have put to us, and of course it is completely disingenuous to suggest that if people simply capitulated on one of your offensive bills all of this would go away.
What concerns me is some of the conversation, which I have been listening carefully to for quite some time now, in regard to the proposal that we have before us. Your first set of amendments—the government has to amend its rush bill yet again!—go to schedule 1, items 1, 19, 23, 24, 26, 27 and 41. Of course, they deal with the issue of voting below the line. We have had a conversation this evening across the chamber in regard to what a formal vote is. I certainly participated in the Senate inquiry—that somewhat fraudulent affair where we had a couple of hours to consider this bill. What we did hear in those couple of hours is that the Australian Electoral Commission told the committee that a vote above the line would be formal regardless of the number of boxes marked above the line. So you can put a '1' in and the vote will be formal regardless of the number of boxes marked above the line. I think you have conceded that this evening, Minister.
Of course, there has been a longstanding issue in relation to that, and I refer here to matters that have been before the High Court—Langer v Commonwealth on the Commonwealth Electoral Act. Of course, this bill we have before us has not picked up many of the issues that were dealt with in that Langer case. Of course, action was taken against Langer for advocating that people vote just '1'. That was the proposition that Albert Langer put. He thought it was an offence against democracy that people be obliged to vote using their preferences. Of course, there was the issue of formality in that case. But the truth of the matter is that current in the Electoral Act at the time was section 329A, which made it a crime to promote voting in a way that was inconsistent with section 240—that is, arguing that people should put only a '1', which under this bill we know would reduce a formal vote. So my concern here, Minister, is that if it is a formal vote and it is recommended to people that they vote in a formal way even if that meant only a '1', which we have acknowledged is a formal vote, would it be a crime under this legislation to recommend, 'Just vote 1'?
I have asked a direct question. I wonder if I can get a direct answer.
Given that the response that we are getting from the minister is a shrug, which obviously Hansard cannot record, and given that I have returned to the chamber to see Senator Whish-Wilson returning to the—
Senator Whish-Wilson interjecting—
His version is that there are 38 amendments before us. There is actually only one before us at this stage, Senator Whish-Wilson, it is the first of the government's amendments that is—
Senator Whish-Wilson interjecting—
I am sorry?
'Such a smart-arse'?
An honourable senator interjecting—
Look, Chair, I think I will return to the point that I made earlier. I move:
That the committee report progress and seek leave to sit again.
The CHAIRMAN: The question is that the committee report progress.
Chairman, I was seeking an answer to a straight question. The committee has considered the question of whether or not a vote 1 above the line is a formal vote, irrespective of the directions issued on a ballot paper, and the advice of the Electoral Commission is that it is, and that is a position I understand the government has actually accepted. My question goes to matters that relate to people arguing in favour of 'just vote 1'. In the Langer case, the High Court found that Mr Albert Langer's campaign for people to just vote 1 was illegal. It was, in fact, a crime for Mr Langer to undertake that course of action, but that relied upon section 329A, which has been removed—that is, it was a crime to promote voting in a way that was inconsistent with section 240. Of course, the proposition that was put at the time was that, if people had access to this information, they might use it and that would be regarded as a criminal offence, but that section has been repealed. I am asking the minister a direct question: is there a replacement section in this amendment bill? And is it a crime for a citizen to promote voting just 1, which of course would be a formal vote?
I have, of course, answered questions in relation to this issue several times now. For the benefit of the chamber, let me advise the Senate that Senator Carr is completely incorrect in what he is asserting. The Langer matter related to voting in the House of Representatives, not to voting in the Senate. That is the first mistake that Senator Carr made. Clearly, he was handed something. He has not got a clue what he is talking about. He is just reading some notes that have been handed to him by some apparatchik from the Labor Party. Let's make sure we know what we are talking about.
The Langer matter related to voting in the House of Representatives. Mr Langer proposed a House of Representatives ballot paper with 1, 2, 2, 3, 3. The relevant section of the act dealing with formality of House of Representatives ballot paper is 240. That does not relate to Senate ballot papers. The issue was whether the system of voting proposed by Langer was compliant with section 240, which required consecutive sequential numbering to be used for a formal House of Representatives vote. The act was subsequently amended to overcome the issue raised in the Langer case.
There has been an amendment as a result of a recommendation of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters some time ago to remove a certain offence and penalty provision from section 329—I believe that was section 329A—but section 329, dealing with deceptive and misleading conduct seeking to deceive or mislead voters into casting an informal vote, continues to be in place. As the government has said on a number of occasions now, we believe that the prohibitions and penalties in the current section 329 are adequate and that, combined with the education campaign that will be conducted by the Australian Electoral Commission, voters across Australia will be adequately protected.
On your own admission, the effect of section 240 is that people must not advise electors to misdirect their vote. The fact remains that it would be a formal vote. Voting 1 above the line is a formal vote. To recommend to people to vote 1 above the line is in fact not to mislead them or to distort the truth; it is in fact to ask them to cast a formal vote. What provisions in this bill would prevent someone from legally suggesting to people to vote 1 above the line and cast a formal vote?
I have said several times now that the government has made a deliberate decision to include a savings provision for people voting above the line. There is guidance on the Senate ballot paper that is proposed to provide that, to vote above the line, a voter needs to number at least one to six boxes in order of their preference. But, of course, in order to ensure that a maximum number of votes are counted as formal, we do have a savings provision which will ensure that any ballot paper which includes at least a 1 above the line is formal. We have gone at great lengths to the issue that Senator Carr is now raising. We have gone through it with Senator Conroy. We have gone through it with Senator Wong. We have gone through it with Senator Collins. We have gone through it with Senator Xenophon. Senator Xenophon, incidentally, supports the approach taken by the government here. The position of the government is very clear. You are entitled to have a different view and to vote against our amendments. You are entitled to vote against the bill. But we might have to agree to disagree.
It is not a question of disagreement. I would like your advice on a specific matter. Is it a crime to recommend to vote 1 above the line—that is, to cast a formal vote above the line? Is that actually illegal? I want an answer. I do not want smart alec remarks from people who are trying to bamboozle folks in this chamber with a load of rubbish like we have just heard. I want a straight answer to a straight question.
I think, firstly, out of respect for my colleague, we should highlight, at least for the record of this discussion, that the minister is now sitting here again—I did not, on this occasion, observe the shrug. I know that Senator Macdonald is happy to run the government line and claim that the question has been answered. The fact of the matter is—I think Senator O'Neill made the point quite well—in each discussion, there has not been an adequate answer. This is what is frustrating Senator Carr now. I was actually going to return to this area, because I found the minister's representation of the provisions that were repealed somewhat limiting when he was responding to Senator Muir earlier. He was not putting all of the relevant facts earlier on that occasion. I note in the comments that he made a moment ago—I am sorry, Senator Carr, to magnify your frustration for a moment while I make this point, but I was going to return to the earlier discussion—I am sorry, Chair, I cannot hear myself, with Senator Macdonald barrelling across the chamber.
Thank you. In the earlier discussion, when Senator Cormann was responding to Senator Muir's questions in this area, he referred to the fact that the penalty provisions that were in 329A had been repealed. What he did not say on that occasion, but he did just a moment ago, was that the mischief itself was removed from the act. So yes, fine, repeal the penalty provisions if the mischief or the potential mischief has been removed from the act. But that is not the case here. What Senator Carr is attempting to establish, as other senators have as well, is what the mischief is. A questions such as, 'Would it be lawful to encourage a "just vote 1" response from voters?' is around establishing what the mischief would be.
As Senator O'Neill has said before, the minister is skirting around that question. He started, firstly, by saying, 'That's asking for legal advice. You can't do that in this place.' How ridiculous! I do not know where that advice came from. It certainly did not come from the adviser's box. It is a very clear question. It is very relevant and it is very important to the consideration here. Would it be lawful for someone to promote 'just vote 1'? That is your question, is it not, Senator Carr?
The issue is that, yes, the question has been raised on a few occasions. I did not hear all of Senator Muir's discussion at the time, but it has been raised by me. Certainly I was here when it was raised by Senator Wong. It may well have been raised by Senator Conroy. It is now being raised by Senator Carr. It has been raised by Senator Muir. It is pretty obvious that the minister is desperately failing to respond to a very basic question. He may think that that is the smart or clever thing to do, but it is the government who will suffer the public scrutiny of not being prepared to respond to a very basic question. Will it be lawful under these proposals—or, indeed, is it the government's intention that it be lawful—for someone to campaign that voters just vote 1?
After our previous conversation, and considering we are discussing section 329, I did have another question in relation to that. Maybe I will be lucky enough to get an answer. Minister, since our last conversation, I have been thinking a bit more about section 329. I want to run a scenario by you: let us say a voter is given a how-to-vote card advocating 'vote 1 above the line'. The voter then casts their vote, based on that advice. In the spirit of a minimum of six votes above the line—six is what the vote is supposed to be—that vote should be declared informal. However, due to the savings provision, the vote will be saved and it will be declared formal. It could be argued that the advice on the how-to-vote card could be misleading or deceptive because it has given advice which is not consistent with the instruction on the ballot paper. The question is: should section 329 apply when advice is published directing a voter to vote in a way that is not consistent with the instruction on the ballot paper?
Senator Muir is of course right. The advice and instruction on the ballot paper will be explicit. It will be there at the time when a voter casts their vote for the Senate, and the instruction to vote above the line will be to number at least six boxes in order of preference, with 1 being the highest preference.
In relation to information that may or may not be provided by political parties, let me just say again, as I have said several times before, the Liberal Party gave evidence to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters inquiry to indicate that our intention is to provide advice and guidance on our how-to-vote card consistent with what is on the ballot paper. The approach that is taken by other parties—by the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party, the Family First party or the Labor Party—is a matter for those parties.
But the section in the Electoral Act that any party has to comply with is the section which prohibits misleading or deceptive publications et cetera. I read that section for the benefit of the chamber. I have done it before, but I will do it again. I will read out the relevant section of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, section 329(1):
(1) A person shall not, during the relevant period in relation to an election under this Act, print, publish or distribute, or cause, permit or authorize to be printed, published or distributed, any matter or thing that is likely to mislead or deceive an elector in relation to the casting of a vote.
That is pretty self-explanatory:
(1) A person shall not, during the relevant period in relation to an election under this Act, print, publish or distribute, or cause, permit or authorize to be printed, published or distributed, any matter or thing that is likely to mislead or deceive an elector in relation to the casting of a vote.
Senator Muir interjecting—
Well, if you are not being misleading or deceptive then obviously you are not acting in contravention of this section. That is pretty self-evident. I am actually wondering what the question is. We are going around and around in circles. We have been having a debate over the last six years. If somebody is not misleading or deceiving voters, then obviously they are not contravening this section and they are not going to be penalised.
But in relation to a person who does mislead or engage in deceptive publications:
(4) A person who contravenes subsection (1) is guilty of an offence punishable on conviction:
(a) if the offender is a natural person—by a fine not exceeding $1,000 or imprisonment for a period not exceeding 6 months, or both; or
(b) if the offender is a body corporate—by a fine not exceeding $5,000.
There are a range of other things that I am quite happy to read into Hansard again, but I think you get the gist.
I was listening to the debate and I noticed that Senator Cormann declined to answer some legitimate questions. I will try and ask them in a different way. I understand the proposition—
This is a genuine question. I actually want to understand—
An honourable senator interjecting—
I understand the proposition the minister has just put about misleading conduct, but what is the scope of that?
Senator Ian Macdonald interjecting—
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Order on my right!
Senator Ian Macdonald interjecting—
I will just put that on the record. Senator MacDonald just said I was very dense. So when you hear the government talking about how appalling the level of the debate is, let's just recall the nature of the debate from government senators. Senator Cormann, I currently cannot find it, but the South Australian—
Senator Ian Macdonald interjecting—
An opposition senator: Chuck him out!
Shall I sit down and you two can continue?
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Senator Wong, resume your seat. Senator Wong, like any senator, is entitled to be heard in silence. I request senators to please observe that courtesy.
Thank you. I am indebted to my very good adviser, Mr van Bavel, for providing me with this. The section in the South Australian act is section 126. As the minister probably knows—I know he has been engaged on this for some time—the South Australian legislation has quite extensive savings provisions, not just in the upper house but in the lower house. However, one of the counterbalances to the savings provisions, which are even more effective or extensive than what is proposed here, is a prohibition against advocacy. Section 126 of the South Australian legislation prohibits advocacy of forms of voting inconsistent with the act. Subsection 1 says:
A person must not publicly advocate that a voter should mark a ballot paper otherwise than in the manner set out in section 76(1) or (2) …
Subsection 2 says:
A person must not distribute how-to-vote cards in relation to an election unless each card is—
(a) marked so as to indicate a valid vote in the manner prescribed in section 76(1) or (2); or
(b) identical to a card submitted for inclusion in posters under section 66.
I understand the position that the minister has just put in relation to misleading conduct. This is a different provision, because it does not require a mislead; it is simply a prohibition against public advocacy of forms of voting inconsistent with the act. My question is: is there any provision of the bill before us which has the same legal effect as section 126 of the South Australian act?
As I have said on several occasions now, the government has taken the view that section 329 of the Commonwealth Electoral Act, relating to misleading or deceptive publications et cetera, is sufficient to deal with any mischief that might happen, as has been suggested, in the context of seeking to mislead or deceive an elector in relation to the casting of a vote. The government is not proposing to introduce into this legislation a provision like the one that Senator Wong has just read out of the relevant South Australian legislation. If the Labor Party wants to put forward the introduction of such a provision, they are of course free to move an amendment, and the chamber can pass judgement on such an amendment.
The chamber would be aware that my proposed amendment number 7890, seeks to do exactly what the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate has just suggested, mirroring section 126 of the South Australian electoral law, which does in fact prohibit the distribution of how-to-vote cards and promotions. I do not want to prolong this point unnecessarily, but I was under a different impression following the hearing and the evidence of the Electoral Commission and Mr Rogers, who was asked this very question and gave a quite clear answer that it was not an offence to promote just putting '1' above the line. Until today I was not in any doubt about that, but now I am. Could the minister comment on Mr Rogers's evidence, where he states that it is not an offence. Do you agree with Mr Rogers, Minister?
Thank you, Senator Day. We have gone through this issue now for six or seven hours, round and round in circles. Given that Senator Day mentioned his amendments, it would be good if we could start to deal with some of the amendments and if the Senate could start passing judgement in relation to some of these amendments so that we can get on with making judgements on the legislation as a whole.
Senator Day has circulated amendments in relation to the matter that Senator Wong has raised. As I have said on several occasions now, in the government's judgement the Electoral Act, and specifically section 329, already provides sufficient protection for voters against deceptive and misleading conduct in relation to the casting of a vote. Of course, that prohibition against misleading and deceptive conduct will continue.
As part of this proposal the government is also making sure that voters get very clear, very explicit, black-and-white advice on their Senate ballot paper. It will say, 'To vote above the line, please number at least six boxes 1 to 6 in order of your preference, with 1 being your highest preference.' That is what it will say on the ballot paper, and our judgement is that the information provided on the ballot paper, together with the education campaign that will take place over the next little while, subject to the passage of this legislation, together with the provision in section 329 of the Electoral Act prohibiting misleading or deceptive conduct seeking to mislead or deceive electors in relation to casting their vote—we believe that this is sufficient protection for voters.
On top of that, our indication as the Liberal Party—through our federal director representing the Liberal Party, as you know, at the relevant inquiry—is very clearly that our intention is to provide guidance to voters on our how-to-vote cards entirely consistent with what is on the Senate ballot paper. Obviously it is a matter for other parties how they seek to do this, as long as they do not deceive and mislead voters in relation to the casting of their vote.
I apologise to the chamber for prolonging this. I mentioned Mr Rogers's evidence. I am not one for beating around the bush. If you do not agree with Mr Rogers's evidence, please say so and then I will pursue the amendment. Mr Rogers said it was not an offence. I have heard the eight or nine similar answers, Minister. If you do not agree with him, that is fine. There is no law against disagreeing with the commissioner, but if that is the government's view then please say so.
The government's view is that section 329 in the Electoral Act, prohibiting misleading or deceptive conduct vis-a-vis voters in relation to casting a vote, together with the explicit advice on Senate ballot papers on how to vote above the line by numbering at least six boxes in order of preference from 1 to 6, together with the very clear information that will be provided to voters as part of the education campaign, provide sufficient safeguards, and we do not believe that there is further need for the sort of provision that Senator Wong flagged and that is flagged in your amendment.
Minister, just on that, on my how-to-vote cards, when I put 'Vote 1 the JLN,' and nothing else, I just wonder how long it is going to take the police to come and handcuff me and what criminal charges they are going to apply to me.
I simply want to know what criminal charges are going to be applied to me when I put on the how-to-vote cards, 'Vote 1 the JLN,' and nothing else. Please answer my question. I want to know if I am going to jail or not. That is all I want to know.
I have just been watching and listening to Senator Day, Senator Wang and Senator Lambie asking a very simple and straightforward question, and you have answered a different question every single time you have got to your feet. You may seek advice—there are plenty of times when ministers seek advice from their officials—but please answer the question. Under the provision that Senator Wong, Senator Day and Senator Lambie have quoted, based on the advice from the Electoral Commissioner—when I was there as well, he made it very clear—it would not be an offence to, as Senator Lambie says, advocate putting a 1 in a box.
An honourable senator: So why are you asking the question?
Because we are asking the minister whether or not this other provision catches the party or individual who wants to just put a 1. So do not read the script for a question that you have not been asked. Please seek some advice and answer the question about whether or not you are captured by this other provision in the act. It is a pretty straightforward question: will this other provision capture a just-1-in-the-box vote? You do not know and still cannot tell—
An honourable senator: They are struggling a bit, aren't they.
You actually do not know. That is just embarrassing. You are the minister, and you do not know and will not seek advice.
I note Senator Conroy's remark, but add to it that the minister seems—
Senator Cash interjecting—
I am sorry, Senator Cash, is there a problem with this? Are you having trouble following? Is it too late in the evening? What is the issue?
Added to the point that Senator Conroy just made is the concern that we are not just dealing with the minister sitting here and shrugging and refusing to answer the question about what lawful conduct would be available from us, as Senator Lambie said—a senator who will be campaigning in these circumstances and who wants to understand what would be appropriate campaigning under these new provisions. And the minister simply refuses to answer. Senator Day, though, by raising his amendments, raises an important issue about how to consider amendments in a bill and why we are still at the general question stage, because, of course, there are questions that run across a whole range of amendments. Whilst the government and the Greens seem to satisfy themselves with continuing to argue that we have the government's first amendment before us and, from time to time, they suggest we should narrow ourselves to just that one amendment—
We could, but it is a ludicrous situation because, in terms of considering a piece of legislation, the minister has failed several times now to address important general questions about how these provisions will operate. For anyone who is still listening to this discussion at this hour of the night, the really concerning thing about that is not so much that we are still here now at almost 3.30 at night getting no satisfaction on very important questions; instead, it is that it is happening here under these circumstances that are part of the government-Greens fix. Important questions about how people can campaign in Senate elections in the future cannot or will not be answered by this minister. I think that is a very important to highlight so that anyone who is listening does not continue to hear this little voice harping, 'Can't we get on to substantive matters, and can't you narrow yourselves to the first amendment?' which is just ludicrous.
What it really highlights is the hunger that the Greens and the government have to break their word, to not be here till Easter—as the minister assured us he was prepared to be—and to try to ram this legislation through without adequate consideration. I think that the discussion on this particular issue, which Senator Day says does relate to his amendment and which we will eventually get through as we start moving through amendments, highlights exactly that point. But it is not the only one, Senator Day, I am afraid to say. There are a range of other general issues that have been raised so far that the government is refusing to provide adequate policy rationale for, and I have reflected in the past that I am astounded that these are issues that the Greens just swallowed. But now is the time to highlight where the government has failed to provide adequate policy rationale for this fix.
Senator Ian Macdonald interjecting—
The government may think it is adequate at 3.30 in the evening to have Senator Macdonald sit here and try to bully me while I make a contribution—
Senator Cash interjecting—
Senator Cash says she does not think anyone is really listening—so it does not matter! The sad thing is that the last time the government tried this, they eventually realised it was not a good look—after about five hours, I think—and it all went away. They might want to consider that approach again, because there are still a range of general substantive matters that need to be addressed in relation to this bill.
I would be happy to talk about the government's first amendment if that would make them feel happy. I would be happy to make a contribution that dealt with all of it, but it is not going to make those general questions go away. They will still arise at some stage over the course of this debate. We have covered some of them but nowhere near all of them. Some of them we will get to again when we look at the amendments that relate to timing—and there are several of those. Is the minister, and are the Greens, actually suggesting we should deal with the various amendments put forward about the timing of the implementation of these measures one by one? Is that the suggestion? What is the justification for Senator Whish-Wilson or Senator Ludlam sitting there and saying, 'You have to talk to the amendment'? Senator Ludlam at least knows how legislation processes work.
Before we go into any detail on the government's nine amendments, we need to highlight, as has been done by Senator Conroy, the minister's failure to respond on this question about unlawful behaviour to Senator Conroy, to Senator Wang, to me, to Senator Day, to Senator Lambie or to Senator Muir—because it is an inadequate response from the government, an extremely inadequate response. I notice that the minister has not gone back to saying, 'You cannot ask us to respond on whether behaviour would be lawful or not.' Fancy asking that in consideration of a bill! How outrageous! That was his first response. I know that response did not come from the advisers box. I know he just plucked that one out of the air. That is no way to proceed with legislative reform, no way at all. But it does highlight the chaos that has been this government's approach to dealing with this and some of the other matters that other senators have raised during this process.
Another area of non-answer that senators will recall is that of the resources that will be available to the AEC—and they will recall the government's failure to respond to the Senate's return to order on that. Again we had Senator Cormann's typical response—'I am being misrepresented'—when I was complaining that he was trying to claim that the issue was commercial-in-confidence without highlighting what the harm might be. He was trying to use that as a reason to not even give ballpark figures for what resources the AEC would need to implement these changes—which are the most significant changes in 30 years to how we vote for the Senate.
The more amusing answer to that issue—and I think it was in response to another senator, not me—was: 'Wait until estimates.' The minister's response to those legitimate questions before the Senate was to tell us that we should deal with them post facto in estimates! We might as well not deal with legislation in this place. Let us imagine this new world, that the Greens have helped construct, where the government has the balance of power in the Senate. They will not have to deal with pesky committee stage considerations. Hell no, they can go back to what they did after 2004 and just ram things through.
An opposition senator interjecting—
Eventually he learned it—that is right. In the enthusiasm arising out of having the balance of power, they put through measures that this government would have put through in the 2014 budget had they been able to—and now they will be able to, thanks to the Greens
They would have put those measures through, but the lesson that John Howard learnt, of course, was: he went too far, and the Australian public responded and booted them out. This was despite the fact that they had already backflipped, but a bit too late, on Work Choices. They had done their backflip but it was too late to impact on the public opinion about the excessive changes that they had allowed to occur to our fair workplace relations system.
It was worse than self-indulgent, Senator O'Neill; it was the ideological agenda and the arrogance that you see occur when parties like the coalition have control in the Senate. Others here like to refer to issues of 'choice' and 'democratic principles' and the like, but the point that I made in my contribution earlier is that I believe that Australians actually value the Senate as a brake on executive government. I think that Australians appreciate having a Senate composition, different in nature to that of the House, that allows the Senate to act as a brake on government.
We may get a real chance, Senator O'Sullivan, to prove that but, under this fix, it will be under your new system, which is rigged. Your new system is rigged to generate that outcome. And so we go back again to the minister's earlier comments where I think Senator Carr was very generous in saying that the minister—I cannot recall the exact phrase he used—was being disingenuous when he claimed that these measures are completely independent of when an election might occur. They are not completely independent. We know, with pretty much 100 per cent confidence, that Mr Turnbull will not be calling a double dissolution election if these measures do not succeed. We all know that. I do not know the minister's idea on logical possibilities, but he does not seem to have a good grasp of it. We do know that Mr Turnbull will not go to a double dissolution election without these measures.
We also know that the Greens have been complicit in delivering that possibility. I was picked up earlier for referring to Senator Di Natale as the 'senator for half measures', but this gives me the opportunity to explain his half measures, because when he scurried around—concerned because his own colleagues were concerned about the double dissolution implications—to try to work out what he might be able to fix and decided that a delay in the implementation was what would help, he only managed to get a delay until 2 July. We all know that there are three further Saturdays by which a double dissolution could occur. I do not know how he explained that in the party room. I do not know how he said to Senator Hanson-Young, 'Look, I have at least been able to eliminate half of the potential double dissolutions.'
I really do not know how satisfying that was for Senator Hanson-Young. I can only assume that it was not very satisfying because she is the one Green who has not spoken on the second reading of this bill. She has not been here as part of the Greens team during the debate—and I do not blame her at all, because she has been around long enough to understand the implications of what is going on for her in South Australia. Her scenario is, of course, that her leader, Senator Di Natale, has done a deal with the government, which will benefit Senator Xenophon in South Australia, to her and her other colleagues' detriment. She understands that very clearly. It would be an interesting place to be, the Greens party room, as they muse through this, because not only has the nature of the fix been highlighted, but also the inadequacies of the process and of the issues that they have failed to address in this fix must be outright embarrassing.
But they are now stuck in a scenario where they have to allow hours of detailed consideration to highlight this point, because they have assured the public at large that they will not gag. So, as I said at the outset of this process, we have been forced into an undesirable situation, which is: we need to deal with these issues in a committee stage consideration before the whole of the Senate at this hour of the night, and we need to do it in a way where we have people like Senator Macdonald, again—
Order! Senator Collins—
An honourable senator: Next time just read out the phone book; it'll be more—
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Order! Order!
Honourable senators interjecting—
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: I remind senators that interjections are disorderly. Senator Whish-Wilson is on his feet and I am looking to give him the call. Order!
I would just like to remind the chamber and the Labor Party that it is now 3.36 in the morning, and I ask the Labor Party to address the amendment before the chair, and then we have 37 more to go following that. The time for student politics is over. Deal with the issue at hand—through you, Chair—and let us actually get on with doing the job that we are paid for, that the Australian people want us to do, which is to actually look at the legislation, deal with the substantive debate, not the student politics that Senator Collins has been bunging on about for the last 15 minutes, get on with the amendment, and deal with the substantive debate, which is very important—
Senator O'Neill interjecting—
Protect me, please, Chair! Protect me, please! I am being savaged by a very flaccid attack by the Labor Party on my right flank! That is a word not many men like to hear, but that 'flaccid' word is very, very powerful when it is used in the right context. I am interested in getting on with the substantive debate. There is a lot to debate. There is a lot of detail we need to get through. I ask the Labor Party to deal with the amendment before the chair. Put the politics aside, and let us get on with this.
I will respond very briefly. A number of senators, including Senator Day, have now attempted to address very specific questions very specifically—and I did myself, very specifically. So if you would like this debate to progress, why don't you take your new dance partner and say to them, 'How about you actually learn what is in the bill and answer the questions?' Then we might be able to progress, because we have now had four separate senators ask the same basic question about the legislation of the minister, and he has literally repeated the answer to a different question. So why don't you wander over there and have a word in his ear and say, 'How about, if you want to actually progress it, Minister, you start answering some questions?'
My apologies, Mr Acting Deputy President.
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: And I am the chair, I am not the acting deputy president.
I am being lectured by Senator Whish-Wilson, who is simply running his own mini-filibuster over in the corner instead of actually saying to the minister, 'For goodness sake, Minister! Will you answer the question Senator Day, Senator Lambie, Senator Conroy and Senator Collins have asked? And Senator Wong has put the general proposition to you. Why can't you just answer the question?' You have such a lack of understanding of your own bill that you cannot answer the simple question. I will ask him one more time—and if he does not answer it this time, Senator Whish-Wilson, then do not whine and complain. Minister, will a party that advocates a 1 only in the box be captured by the provision that Senator Wong asked you about?
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Minister? Senator Muir.
I would like to read a quote from Mr Rogers at the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. It is not going to be very long. The quote is:
However, if hypothetically someone did advise voters to vote 1 above the line, they would still be advising voters to vote formally.
So, in saying that, I can conclude it is not going to be an offence—am I wrong, Minister?
No, there has not been an answer. But I am sorely tempted by Senator Whish-Wilson's comments to respond to the student politics issue. I never actually participated in student politics so it is hard for me to really understand the nature of that criticism. But the rest of your contribution was so bizarre I do not think I will really bother trying to go there. But I will respond to your concern about the process and the hour.
Again, I move:
That the committee report progress and seek leave to sit again.
The CHAIRMAN: The question is that the committee report progress.
Yes, not in their seats—it is quite a problem. No, the only additional remark I was going to make was the one that I forgot to make earlier, which was that, if Senator Cormann actually responded to legitimate questions rather than playing on social media about representations of hours and the like, we might actually make some progress. Senators need to understand: whilst he is being asked legitimate questions by a number of senators and failing to respond, what is he doing instead? He is sitting there playing on his mobile, engaging with social media on unrelated issues such as the amount of time that has been involved so far and his misrepresentations in part on that point.
But, as we know, we are at the first of government amendments on sheet JP109. Because this amendment is in a sense definitional and relates to other amendments in this set, I will deal with the opposition's position in relation to all of those amendments, (1) to (9). It will not surprise—oh, look, Senator Cormann is even looking happy!
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Order!
Well, Senator Cormann, you give me the opportunity—
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Senator Collins, ignore the interjections.
No, he does give me the opportunity to reflect on some of the taunts and the helpfulness that have come from senators. For those who cannot hear the interjections, they are things such as Senator Birmingham saying, 'You're struggling, you're struggling!' And Senator Fifield saying, 'Why don't you just read the phone book?'
For your edification, I think that the best example on electoral reform and, indeed, a Senate filibuster, was back in 1918, where a particular senator actually spent an enormous amount of time simply reading the bill. Now, I have not got anywhere near that type of behaviour. We have clearly highlighted where the government has failed to respond to very legitimate questions so that anyone following the consideration of this legislation very clearly understands the approach of the government, which is: 'We've got our fix with the Greens and we're not answering!'
Let's go to the latest stage of that fix, because Senator Cormann got so excited when I said I was actually dealing with the set of government amendments that covers—
A government senator: We are excited!
Well, it is a very exciting time, according to Mr Turnbull! It is an exciting time to be Prime Minister, I am sure, but it is not necessarily going to be an exciting time if you are a minor party senator, following these measures. I am sure that sentiment is sorely felt.
So it will not surprise Senator Cormann that the opposition opposes the government amendments to this bill. It is difficult to say what is most offensive about these amendments—the bungled handling of them in a procedural sense or the poor public policy outcomes that they represent.
Some of those issues we have covered to date. Senator Cormann interjects, 'And why is that?' I can go back over some of them if he really wants me to, but I would have thought by now it is pretty clear. I look at my colleagues here and ask, 'Is that pretty clear?'
Opposition senators interjecting—
I would have thought so. I do not know whether Senator Whish-Wilson is paying attention now, but it seems as if the minister is actually encouraging me not to deal with the amendments because he wants to go back over the issues about the poor process, the bungled handling of them in a procedural sense and why it is that we are here at 10 to four in the evening—
And I could go through that again, but let me focus on the comments on these amendments—firstly, that poor process.
The fact that the government is being forced to suffer the indignity of amending its own bill in the Senate tells us everything we need to know about the shambolic handling of this legislation. I do not know that I have seen a bill before that actually has four versions of explanatory memoranda. There were two in the House and two here.
Senator Brandis interjecting—
Senator Brandis sits there and scoffs at the suggestion that this has been a shambolic process but, hell, we would not have seen it in Senator Abetz's day! But we already know that you would not have seen the Greens deal under Senator Abetz's day either, don't we? That Mr Turnbull only woke up to Senator Brandis in relation to the arts portfolio continues to entertain a lot of people in this place. But it is no surprise to us that this has been a shambolic process.
This bill was the product of a dirty deal between the Liberals, the Greens and Senator Xenophon, behind closed doors. It was cooked up, as I said, behind closed doors and is now being rammed through the Senate. They would like it at lightning speed but, of course, they are restricted by the Greens rhetoric that there will not be a gag.
Let me describe a version of a gag to the Greens, just so we get this bit on the record. This is what I call 'legislation by attrition', which ultimately, of course, is a gag, because you get senators like Senator Birmingham coming in and saying, 'Oh, you're running out of puff! Oh, you're running out of material! Oh, you're going to run out! Oh, Jacinta, you need more material!' But we will continue to highlight the important issues in this debate.
Well, Senator Birmingham, you were not listening to the discussion that just occurred. Let me give you a brief revisit on that, because we had questions that the minister failed to answer, not only from me but from Senator Wong, Senator Conroy, Senator Lambie, Senator Muir and Senator Day—
An opposition senator: And Senator Carr.
And Senator Carr—of course!
He failed to respond on a very critical issue that, as a South Australian, you should appreciate, because your legislation in South Australia does address this issue. Senators had a very important question that the minister has just refused to address.
But these are not the only problems. The process of trying to move this through at lightning speed, ahead of today's—yesterday and today's, or, in Senate terms, today's—lengthy debate has meant that the drafting process has been problematic. The drafting of this bill was so rushed that it was only half complete when it was introduced into the parliament. Now the government is suffering the humiliation of amending its own legislation to rectify its policy failures. I would expect this incompetence from Senator Di Natale and his hapless democracy spokesperson, Senator Rhiannon, but you would hope that the government of the day could do better. I suppose I should have seen the signs of that when the minister—maybe it was not the minister but the government chair of the committee—refused to allow even the department to appear before the Senate inquiry. If you cannot have the department before the inquiry, what confidence can you possibly have about what adequate drafting processes might occur? But, of course, we are not even meant to be asking about things like drafting processes.
We had some discussion earlier about the respected electoral analyst Malcolm Mackerras, although I heard some scoffing from the other side at the time. He said it best when he described the legislation as a 'filthy deal' concocted by 'an unelected, dud Prime Minister and the Greens, that party noted for its moral vanity'. Mr Mackerras said that how many weeks ago?
I am sure that was ahead of GQ, wasn't it?
Opposition senators: It was!
That statement was well ahead of GQ. I have to say, I have never seen a political glamour shot go well, but that the Greens are just learning that is an interesting example of what the problem is here.
Honourable senators interjecting—