Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Wednesday, 16 March 2016
Page: 2043

Senator CAROL BROWN (Tasmania) (09:39): I rise to speak on the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016. I start by noting Senator Ludlam's confected outrage on the Labor's position on the bill. The Labor Party certainly do not need any advice from Senator Ludlam. He obviously does not really look at the Senate voting patterns at all. He has given a speech proposing advice to the Labor Party, and we certainly would not be taking any advice from Senator Ludlam or the Australian Greens.

This is a bill that has come to this chamber as a result of a backroom deal between the Liberals, Senator Di Natale and Senator Rhiannon that hands the government the conditions it wants for a double dissolution election. The changes in the bill represent the biggest changes to the Australian electoral system in 30 years. That is a fact. Labor has a number of issues with this bill both in terms of the measures contained in the bill and the process by which this bill was brought before the Senate. The bill before us seeks to introduce optional preferential above the line voting by numbering at least six of the boxes in order of the voter's choice. The bill also seeks to introduce limited savings provisions to ensure that a ballot is still formal where the voter has numbered one box or fewer than six boxes above the line. Other measures in the bill include the abolition of group and individual voting tickets.

Those opposite claim that these changes are about transparency for voters, as do the Australian Greens. But, make no mistake, these changes are about making it harder for minor parties or independents to get elected to the Senate. Not only will these changes make it more difficult for minor parties to be elected, but they will maximise the prospect of major parties being elected, especially the coalition. But, worse than this, the change will disenfranchise three million Australians who vote for parties other than the coalition, Labor and the Greens.

How exactly do the Australian Greens expect be able to explain this to their supporters? How exactly do they expect to be able to explain to their supporters that they have delivered the coalition the double dissolution it so desperately wants? How exactly do they expect to be able to explain to their supporters that they have rammed legislation through the Senate without allowing proper scrutiny? And there has been no proper scrutiny. They can talk about a JSCEM report that was conducted—one that is not fully replicated in the bill before us. What would normally happen is that we would have a proper inquiry into the legislation before us. But that did not happen. Nobody in the Australian Greens can suggest that the sham inquiry into the legislation before us was a proper, transparent process.

As I have already indicated in this place, it is ludicrous to think that the bill could be properly considered by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters with one public hearing held the day before the committee was required to report to parliament—one public hearing lasting just 3½ hours. It was a sham process. It was a rushed process. It was done in such a hurry that it has been nothing short of a complete farce. So farcical has this process been it would seem more at home in an episode of Yes, Prime Minister, TheHollowmen or The Thick Of It than in our parliament. It has not been in keeping with the parliamentary principles that underpin our democracy. The process has been nothing short of an attack on our democracy.

The rushed and shambolic process has also exposed Senator Di Natale's Greens as the hypocrites that they are—the Greens who have always argued for greater transparency, the Greens who have always argued for greater scrutiny, the Greens who argue for greater respect of the role of the Senate. These are also the positions that were argued by Senator Milne and Senator Brown. They do not talk about the contributions that Senator Milne and Senator Brown made in this place about greater transparency and greater scrutiny at all—because they know that this bill shows that the process has been a complete sham led by Senator Di Natale and Senator Rhiannon. The Greens have been exposed for turning their backs on democracy and transparency. The Greens are exposed for what they really are through this process and the deal they have done with the government on this bill.

In the last sitting period I spoke about the process that the government and the Greens have orchestrated for the consideration of the bill. I would begin reflect on this specifically in relation to the JSCEM report that came from the farcical inquiry process. The report from the proponents of the bill does not even support the bill in its current form. It would be laughable if it were not so tragic. First we saw the government rush to introduce the bill. The government were in such a rush that they were later forced to introduce six amendments to the bill in the House of Representatives. The day after introducing the bill to the House, the government was forced to rewrite the bill to fix a mistake. The original bill would have prevented assistant returning officers—AROs—from counting Senate first preferences on election night. It took the ABC's Antony Green to point out this error. The government had to rush in with six amendments in the House of Representatives to fix this mistake.

It simply beggars belief for there to be a suggestion that this legislation has followed a process that has scrutiny or transparency in any form. They rushed the legislation through to the point that they did not even have a provision to ensure the votes on election night were counted. No counting on the night? Spare me. They forgot to get the counting right; how many more mistakes are there in this bill? What else has the government missed? There have clearly been further oversights, as the Liberal chair's report recommends further amendments.

The amendments recommended by the chair's report are significant and require due consideration in their own right. The chair's report recommends that the government introduce a system of partial optional preferential voting below the line. It further proposes that voters should be instructed on the ballot paper to mark a minimum of 12 preferences to vote below the line. The report also recommends saving provisions for below-the-line be introduced to ensure that any ballot with at least six boxes numbered in sequential order starting with the No. 1 be considered formal.

The fact that the government members and senators have made such a significant recommendation is just further evidence that the government had rushed this bill without giving appropriate consideration to the issues and outcomes. They have rushed the bill and in doing so have frustrated proper scrutiny of the bill, which raises real concerns about what other errors and unintended consequences might be in the bill.

This is further demonstrated by the fact that both Senator Xenophon and the Australian Greens—the very people the government stitched up with this deal—also made a number of additional comments to the report. They have done the deal and still they cannot agree on reforms. Isn't it about time that Senator Xenophon and the Greens admit that this has been botched from start to finish? They have run in headlong to do a deal with the government for their own self-interest—a deal which was concocted out of political expedience by the government. This government has no interest in properly considering electoral reform. Instead they are interested in maximising their interests at a double dissolution election that they are rushing headlong into.

It is clear from the additional comments made by Senator Rhiannon that even the Greens realise that a rush to a double dissolution election is problematic in the face of the most significant electoral changes in three decades. The fact that Senator Rhiannon has seen it necessary to recommend 'That the Special Minister of State instruct the Department of Finance to work closely with the AEC to ensure that they have the required resources and further that additional money is allocated as required' shows how little faith the Greens have in the government's commitment to genuine, well-thought-out and -implemented reforms.

When you have a look at the Hansard from the sham inquiry into this bill, you see that the AEC indicated quite clearly that they had little input into this legislation and that they also were not able to tell us how much funding would be given to them to ensure that they were ready for an election that would be coming.

We also have additional comments of Senator Xenophon, who was also a party to the dirty deal to ram this bill through this place. Again we see amendments to the bill recommended. Senator Xenophon, in his additional comments, recommends that the bill be amended to include a ban on advocating that voters vote in a manner contrary to the instructions on the ballot. Senator Xenophon's recommendation is based on Dr Bonham's observation of the impact of the savings measure, which means that a ballot with a '1', an 'X' or a 'tick' in a box above the line would be counted. Given the additional comments it seems that the Greens and Senator Xenophon have stitched up a deal with the government that they have concerns about.

Labor's dissenting report recognises that concerns about the Senate voting process are legitimate—concerns which do need to be addressed. The unexpected outcomes of the 2013 half-Senate election gave rise to concerns about how the proportional representation system used in the Senate was working—concerns that the system was broken. These concerns deserve a suitable and considered response, a thorough and measured response. Unfortunately that is not what we have in the bill before us today.

We must be careful, we must have due diligence, to ensure that in seeking to tackle one problem we do not create another problem. The solution to these issues must prioritise the democratic interest of the Australian people above all other interests. This is an important message that the government and the Australian Greens have seemingly missed. Instead they have chosen to progress Senate voting changes for political expediency and political self-interest. It is clear from the evidence to JSCEM that the changes in the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill will act to shut the door to independents and minor parties. Political scientist Malcolm Mackerras said:

It is not about fairness. It is about the re-shaping of our party system. … There will be only one benefit for the voters. The ballot paper will be smaller.

The way the government and the Greens plan to make the ballot smaller is by making it impossible for minor parties and independents to be elected, and unattractive for them to even try. At the 2013 election, three million voters gave their first preference Senate vote to parties other than the coalition, Labor, the Greens or the Xenophon ticket in South Australia. It is clear that the changes in the bill will disenfranchise people who vote for small parties or independents. The changes will discourage people from standing for the Senate or organising new parties, and will reduce participation in our political system. This is not a desirable outcome for our democracy.

We clearly need to get the balance right on Senate voting reform. This will not be achieved by ramming this backroom deal through the parliament. It could be achieved with proper and robust scrutiny—something that has been denied in relation to this bill. Let there be no doubt that, in spite of the protestations of the Australian Greens, this bill is being rammed through the parliament without proper examination. This is evidenced by the fact that the House of Representatives was forced to vote on the bill before the JSCEM report had even been tabled; in fact, they were forced to vote on the bill before the inquiry had really even commenced. This was also evidenced by the fact that members of the JSCEM inquiry into this bill were not afforded the opportunity to question the Department of Finance—the department responsible for the bill. Committee members were not able to ask questions of them. The committee was not even given the opportunity to ask questions of the minister in the department's stead. The entire process has been a sham.

The dissenting report from Labor senators notes that, following JSCEM's 3½-hour hearing on the Tuesday, the chair's report was circulated to members at 9.40 pm, giving Labor senators less than 12 hours overnight to prepare our dissenting report, which had to be provided by 8 am the following day. The dangers of ramming this legislation through have already been exposed with amendments being required in the House of Representatives. Now we see in this committee report that the government think there should be further significant amendments to the bill. It is clear that this bill should not be passed in its current form.

A change as significant as a change to the way we elect our Senate representatives deserves proper consideration, proper funding and time for proper implementation. We have seen none of that here. Instead we have a shambolic bill, a shambolic committee inquiry and what I fear will be a shambolic implementation as the coalition rush head long into a double dissolution in July. This place deserves better than this. Our democratic process deserves better than this The electors of the states and territories deserve better than this. I hope that the Australian Greens will come to see this, but I fear that they will not. I fear that Senator Di Natale's Greens will not see the error of their ways until they have delivered to the Liberals the Senate majority they are seeking.

It is not just Labor that believes that the government and Greens deal is wrong. The list of experts who have concerns about the Liberal-Greens Senate voting deal and the lack of scrutiny is growing. I want to consider what some of these experts have had to say on this important issue. The widely respected economics editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, Ross Gittins AM, has expressed reservations about this dirty deal. His comments were very telling. He said:

… we need time—the usual Senate public inquiry would do—to hear from the experts and examine the properties of the voting system one side of politics has come up with and wants to ram through.

If the Coalition has proposed a move to optional preferential voting, allowing people to express their preference for up to six party groupings, it's a fair bet it believes such a system will advantage it over its Labor rival.

If the left-leaning Greens and centrist Xenophon party are happy to give the Coalition what it wants, it's a fair bet that's because the deal leaves room for their comfortable survival, while raising the drawbridge against the emergence of new minor-party rivals of either leaning.

As I have said, the list of critics of this bill and the way it is being rushed through is long. The former head of the Australia Institute, Richard Denniss, is well qualified to comment on Senate voting. Mr Denniss rightly questions the incredible speed with which this legislation has been introduced and is likely to become law. Mr Denniss says:

Most alarmingly, they have agreed that the new laws should take immediate effect which means that weeks after the creation of the new laws an election using those new laws could be called. What could go wrong?

Indeed, what could go wrong? As I have already said, so hasty has the government been that it has already been forced to make amendments to its own bill and is set to make further significant amendments to the bill.

But why the rush? Why the need for so little scrutiny? Surely, if the government and the Greens are so certain that the changes in the bill are right, and if they are so certain in the deal they have struck, then surely they would have no concerns with some scrutiny of the changes. The answer is simple. The rush is because the Prime Minister is racing to an early election. He is racing towards a double dissolution election. This Prime Minister is so desperate to go to the polls that he is willing to sacrifice principled and transparent processes. He has also been willing to sacrifice the democratic rights of the Australian people, instead prioritising his own interests.

Make no mistake—if passed, this new Senate voting system will shape the political landscape in this country for decades to come. Yet the government have attempted to ram the legislation through parliament with only the farcical semblance of an inquiry process. They and their new coalition members, the Australian Greens, have attempted to sell the dirty deal by claiming the bill implements the previous JSCEM report on the conduct of the 2013 federal election. This simply is not true. They claim it implements 85 per cent of the JSCEM recommendations. This simply is not true. (Time expired)