Senate debates

Thursday, 17 March 2016


Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016; Third Reading

1:04 pm

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

I move:

That this bill be now read a third time.

In moving the third reading of this bill, may I thank all senators who have participated in this debate for their contributions. This, it is fair to say, has been a rather lengthy debate. Obviously, the government is of the view that this is a very important reform for Australia. It is a reform which will help ensure that future Senate election results truly reflect the will of the Australian people. It is a reform which will empower voters to direct their preferences according to their wishes instead of having them traded and directed by backroom operators in political parties through insufficiently transparent group voting ticket arrangements.

I thank the Senate for the work over what has been a debate that has been going for nearly 39 hours since the message of the House of Representatives was received on 29 February 2016. I believe that that is the seventh longest debate on any piece of legislation since 1990. We have, of course, over the past 20 or so hours had a very intensive continuous debate on this legislation, taking us to this point today. I would like to pay particular tribute to the very active participants in this debate tonight: senators Wong and Collins, senators Di Natale and Rhiannon and also senators Xenophon, Leyonhjelm, Day and Muir, who have all made a very active contribution and put effort into drafting amendments to improve the bill in the ways that they saw fit. The Senate has made a judgement in relation to the form of the bill that should go forward. The government supports the final form of this bill. We will be supporting the bill, as amended by the Senate, in the House of Representatives. This will mean that, for any future election after 1 July 2016, these will be the voting arrangements that will apply for the Australian Senate. That is a good thing because it means that people across Australia will be able to determine what happens to their vote. I thank the Senators for their support for this important government proposal.

1:06 pm

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

It says everything about this government that their most urgent bill on the even of an election is not about helping Australians but about helping themselves. It is not about jobs for Australians; it is about jobs for coalition and Greens senators.

The Senate has just spent, a day, a night and a part of the day debating the coalition-Greens deal on Senate voting—a timetable forced on it by a government and a prime minister determined to get the keys they need for a double dissolution and a Greens leader and party that are happy to oblige. We have had an unreasonable and chaotic timetable on this legislation which has been forced on us by this government by its failure to have a proper process, because it is so desperate and so determined to get the keys for a double dissolution in the time frame it wants.

The Senate did last night go through a very lengthy process where many things were disclosed, including, for example, that the minister has failed to rule out just-vote-1 advocacy and confirmed marking just 1 above the line would be formal. I think anyone who understands the voting system will understand the implications of that. We also have seen demonstrated here in this chamber a new phase of the relationship—a new dimension of closeness-between Senator Di Natale's Greens party and the Liberal Party. I will not go through all the ways in which that has been demonstrated as they voted with the coalition time after time, but it was most clearly demonstrated by one of the recent votes this morning, where the Greens political party, who have been arguing for greater transparency in political donations, have voted against their policy for greater transparency on a bill they knew the government had to pass. We could have had political donation reform today.

Senator Cormann has spoken of the lengthy debate. It has been a lengthy debate, though not as lengthy as the CPRS debate, which I think was some 63 hours and in which he was also a participant. There has been a lot of talk about principle in this debate. I say to the chamber and to those listening: this has never been a debate about principle; it has been a debate about short- and long-term political advantage. The short-term advantage is the ability and tools to go to a double dissolution, and the long-term advantage is what this means for the Greens and the coalition It will mean the votes of up to three million voters effectively going in the bin or being corralled to one of the major parties or the Greens. This legislation is about purging the Senate of minor parties and independents. We in this place—and I would remind people of this—have acknowledged two things that are very important. The first thing is that Labor would be advantaged by this but we do not think the national interest would be. The second point we have made is that, yes, there are issues that should be addressed in voting reform in relation to preferences but this bill before us creates a whole set of different problems and a whole set of implications for the franchise.

We on this side do not support this legislation. We think it is very disappointing that the Australian Greens are risking, over time, the coalition getting a working majority in this place—and we all know from the 2014 budget what their agenda will be and what that will mean to working people and marginalised people in this country. In that light, and bearing in mind the time, pursuant to standing order 122(3) I move the third reading amendment standing in my name on sheet 7894:

Omit "now", substitute "this day 6 months".

1:11 pm

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

Today, 17 March, is a most significant day for democracy: we have achieved Senate voting reform. Yes, many other improvements are needed, but today clearly has been an advance for our democratic processes.

Honourable Senators:

Honourable senators interjecting

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

Let's quieten down for a moment. I think this is where we should have unity. There are people in this building who have been working continuously—some for 30 hours, I have just found out. So let's come together and thank the attendants here.

Honourable senators: Hear, hear!

In particular, I thank John, our senior attendant, who I understand has done over 30 hours straight. And then there are the security officers, the clerks, the Comcar drivers and everybody else who has kept this building going so that we could do our important work. That is a huge contribution.

The journey for Senate voting reform, for the reform of upper house voting, started for the Greens and me in 1999 in New South Wales. What was achieved there and what has been achieved here are quite similar. It is time for some thankyous for the people who have helped us on that journey. First off, I would like to thank the person who suggested how to deal with this very challenging situation that occurred in New South Wales in 1999 when 81 parties ran in what would became known as the giant tablecloth ballot paper election. Paul Fitzgerald—an author, a Marrickville councillor and a founding member of the New South Wales Greens—came up with a very simple idea. Remember, for all the debate we have had, the beauty of this legislation is actually in its simplicity. Paul Fitzgerald said: 'It doesn't need to be the back room deals. It can be the voters. The ballot paper doesn't need to change. What'll change is that the voters can put '1', '2' and '3'. They can number all the boxes if they like. In the case of New South Wales, they can just put '1'.' Again, it was the simplicity of giving it back to the voters.

On top of that, I am very proud of the role the Greens at a federal level have played. It was after the 2004 election that the then Greens leader Bob Brown rang me to ask me about our experience in New South Wales. He realised that the Senate needed similar reform. Bob Brown worked on his first bill for Senate voting reform in 2004. There have since been more bills. Our next leader, Christine Milne, took it up with great passion. I remember that, in one of her final speeches in the party room before she left us, she impressed on us how important this is. She foreshadowed that it would be difficult and challenging but said to stick with it. Our current leader, Senator Richard Di Natale, has picked this up with an equal passion and it has been a pleasure to work with him.

I just want to say to the Senate that, unfortunately, Senator Nick McKim has not been able to be with us. He was here on Tuesday. He has often talked to me about his great commitment to this reform. He is very excited about it. However, he received the sad news that his father was dying and he had to leave us. It is one of those little stories, one of those personal stories that we all have. His dad did not actually want him to go back home. His dad knew what was happening—his dad was very proud of him, obviously, and wanted him to stay here. Nick went home, and some of his dad's final words were, 'Give them hell.' We missed you, Nick; it meant a lot to us.

And then there are the experts, who really have assisted all of us. We have quoted different people, but I did particularly want to thank Antony Green, George Williams, Kevin Bonham, as well as the many others who took time with submissions and being witnesses to the inquiries that we have had.

I also want to say a particular thank you to my colleagues on JSCEM. On JSCEM—we all know when we work on committees that it can be quite an interesting dynamic. You become friends and colleagues with people who, in many other areas, you do not agree with. When I joined JSCEM Tony Smith, the now Speaker of the House of Representatives, was the chair. He did a very fine job, a really fine job. Gary Gray and Alan Griffin both gave a great deal of expertise to that committee. And that first JSCEM inquiry, coming out of that 2013 election—remember at this time that we were a unity ticket, like it had been a unity ticket in New South Wales with all parties. All parties agreed when the New South Wales Greens put up the proposal to have optional preferential voting. That is how we started the journey at a federal level; all parties were on board. JSCEM was united. If you look at the report, unity is in that report.

I particularly want to thank Tony Smith, Gary Gray and Alan Griffin. But our final thank you goes to somebody very special to this house—that is, former Senator John Faulkner. The contribution he made in so many areas was outstanding and we all know that this house misses him, whatever party you come from. He made a very potent comment about this very legislation. He said:

I would say that this reform is uncontroversial and it is certainly overdue.

To finish up, the beauty of the reform we are dealing with here today is really in its simplicity. For all the complexity, for all the arguments that we have been through, it comes down to one significant change: voters are still going to get their ballot paper—what they will be doing will not be that different; the instructions will be slightly different—and they will be able to allocate their own preferences above or below the line. Above the line they will be instructed to vote 1 to 6 at least; below the line 1 to 12 at least. That is really excellent progress in our democratic process.

One of the wonderful things I have learnt in hearing from the Australian Electoral Commission in the many times they have given evidence is the AEC's deep commitment to ensure that where the intent of the voter is clear that those votes are counted. I do believe, with these reforms, that we will see a great participation.

It was disappointing to hear Senator Wong go on about the divisions that she sees, that she was trying to flare up around donations. The Greens have a solid commitment—absolutely solid; you cannot blemish our commitment to this one—to political donations reform. What Labor did today—they will get out there on social media et cetera—was just a tactic. It was a tactic to try to pull this legislation down, because they know if we had voted in this chamber and got a majority for the political donation measures that they put forward, we would not have Senate voting reform.

Senator Doug Cameron, I made these comments when you were out of the chamber: you have done so many negotiations in your life for working people, for workers in the metal industry and the manufacturing industry, and you know, probably more than anyone here, that you do not bundle everything into your negotiations.

Finally, we started on this journey with a unity ticket. We had a unity ticket in New South Wales; we had a unity ticket here. Labor jumped overboard. They were the ones who decided that they were going to give it away. They have ended up on the wrong side of history. They have been left in the back room and there are no backroom dealers there with them.

1:19 pm

Photo of David LeyonhjelmDavid Leyonhjelm (NSW, Liberal Democratic Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This is a sad note on which to end a rather difficult couple of days. I described this as a dirty little deal when I first heard about it a couple of weeks ago and it has not got any cleaner in that time. This dirty little deal between the Greens and the Liberals could just as easily be called the 'Rhiannon re-election bill' or perhaps the 'Get rid of annoying small parties bill'. In the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters we saw, right from the beginning, that there was no representation of minor parties and no representation of the Independents. Only Nick Xenophon was on the committee. It was a fix-up right from the start and it was a fix-up at the end. The hearing was a charade; the hypocrisy was rampant.

Speaking of hypocrisy, the Greens—in the process of giving their support for this bill to the government—abandoned their commitment to 'every vote, every time' on same-sex marriage, voted for the gag over and over again and, of course, abandoned their interest in changes to political donations. From the government's point of view, I honestly do not understand why they have pursued this. It will not improve the Senate. It will not overcome the fact that the Senate is a logjam at times. It actually was not a logjam with the crossbench but it will be under these rules. It will not wipe out the crossbench, but there will be fewer of them. It will make it a lot less democratic. There will be fewer crossbench senators, and small parties starting off will find it incredibly difficult, unless they happen to have multimillionaire backers who fund their campaign.

Nobody pretends that the old election rules, as they were until now, were perfect. The crossbench never said they were. The crossbench never defended them. In fact, we had agreed on what we thought were perfectly reasonable remedies, but our voices were swamped in this dirty little deal. It is no improvement.

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

The question is that the third reading amendment moved by Senator Wong be agreed to.

1:03 pm

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

The question is that the bill be now read a third time.