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Wednesday, 16 March 2016
Page: 2082

Senator KETTER (Queensland) (12:23): I rise to make a contribution on the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016. Before I get into that, I want to make a couple of comments about Senator Whish-Wilson's remarks which went to the accusation that the Labor Party's position in relation to this bill is driven by an alleged fear of going to the polls. Let me assure Senator Whish-Wilson that, as far as we are concerned, there has never been a more exciting time to go to the polls. The Labor Party are ready at all times to take to the Australian people our case about the differences between the clear policy positions that we have enunciated and the shambolic situation on the other side. We are not afraid of going to the election, but what we will not do is what the Greens have done, which is to tumble into the government's agenda with their shambolic arrangements and the fact that they are driven by political opportunism and fear. They have a very clear objective of rushing through these very significant changes to our electoral system in the lead-up to a potential double-dissolution election. The reason they want to do that is because they have nothing on the table in terms of clear policies for the Australian people.

The government are looking to pursue their ideological attack on the trade union movement. That is a point that I particularly want to make against the Greens and their position. The Greens claim that they are prepared to stand up for the interests of working people and their representatives, but they are now quite clearly being shown in their true colours. They are siding with the government in its naked attempt to engineer a situation where the attack on the trade union movement can be delivered and can be successful. The Greens have very clearly shown that they have chosen political opportunism and their own self-interest ahead of the legitimate interests of working people. We know that this could potentially lead to a situation where we have legislation before the parliament which goes to further attacks on trade union rights and the rights of working people down the track. The Greens are now forever exposed as the party of political self-interest rather than any pretension of seeking to advance the interests of working people.

Our major concern is with the process and some of the substantive aspects of the changes that are being rammed through. We do not believe that the climate is right at the present time to rush through the changes that the government is proposing to make. We know that there could well be unforeseen circumstances that arise from any truncated consideration of these significant amendments to our Senate voting system. We are not saying that the system is perfect and we are not saying that we would oppose all changes, but this particular change that is presented to us and the manner in which it is presented to us are of great concern.

The electoral reform bill is one of the most important amendments proposed in many years of Australian parliaments. It will change the face of Australian politics forever. If we are going to make these changes it is critical that we carefully consider what we are trying to achieve and how best to achieve it. The proposed change to our electoral system is a knee jerk reaction by a government that has not been able to persuade the Senate that its shonky policies and legislation are worthy of support. Instead of developing meaningful policies and legislation that will improve Australia for all Australians, the coalition government has shamelessly put forward a raft of policies that blatantly attack the working rights and the economic circumstances of ordinary Australians. These policies include their proposal to hamstring our high-performing industry superannuation funds, attack the unions while ignoring corruption in our corporate sector and allowing the richest Australians to hide their assets. On tax reform, their only considered proposal to date has been a GST increase. No wonder the Turnbull government has received opposition in the Senate. Thankfully, our fair democracy has been able to push back on many proposed policy changes which are harmful to everyday Australians.

Instead of working with us, as the system is set up to do, the government simply want to get rid of those who oppose it. But electoral reform is too important a matter for Australia to be dealt with in such a short manner. I am personally shocked that Mr Turnbull, the Prime Minister who promised us full consultation and engagement on matters of importance, is now trying to push through radical reform to our democratic arrangements on the back of a greasy deal between the Greens, Senator Xenophon and the coalition government. This reform is not an effort to improve Australia's democracy. It is, put simply, a pointed attempt to remove certain elected members of the Senate from power. Rather than respecting the democratic principles that underpin our current arrangements, the Turnbull government is undermining our democracy by trying to weed out its dissenters.

Australia has a long history of innovation in electoral matters. In Antony Green's election guide, he makes the claim:

Australia led the world in abandoning electoral franchises based on property ownership by extending the right to vote to all adult males. Australia also led the world in granting the vote to women, and in the introduction of the secret ballot, a reform that when introduced in the United States was often referred to as the 'Australian ballot'.

Antony also points out that preferential voting is one electoral innovation that has remained uniquely Australian. Most other countries simply allow a single vote to be cast by individuals for their preferred party or candidate of choice. In this system, if your preferred candidate does not get the majority of votes, then your vote becomes worthless. In our proportional representation system, it is possible for everyone's vote to count, in the sense that the candidates who get elected are those who have gained the preferences of the largest share of voters. This is superior to the first-past-the-post system used in many countries, which so often has disenfranchised the majority of voters. Australia is the envy of many countries for its preferential voting arrangements because they ensure that every voter's preferences can be taken into account.

These proposed changes to voting for the Senate will reshape the Australian political landscape for decades to come, possibly in ways that we cannot even foresee at this stage. I return to the point I was making about the unintended consequences of a change to our electoral system which has not been given proper scrutiny. My particular concern is the impact that this change would have on levels of informal voting. The 2013 election saw 5.92 per cent of total votes cast being informal. That was the highest proportion of informal votes for nearly 30 years. I would have thought that, in this place, we would be loath to introduce changes that the public do not understand or that the public do not have adequate time to absorb. It stands to reason that, if one does not give the voting public the opportunity to absorb the changes, then the impact on informality is going to be significant.

I note that the only time we have seen a higher rate of informal voting was in 1984, when it was 6.34 per cent of the vote. It is worthwhile noting that the 1984 election was an anomaly, in the sense that there had been a change to the voting system. The innovation at that time was the introduction of above-the-line voting in the Senate. Despite the fact that there were television ads broadcast to explain to the public what the changes were, the impact of that advertising was somewhat unexpected, because it appears that the change to the Senate voting process, the new above-the-line voting process, confused voters, who thought that they could just mark a single preference for the House of Representatives and then stop. So there was a spike in informality in the House of Representatives.

I am not suggesting that the changes that were made in 1984 are completely analogous to what is before us today, but I make the point that changes made can lead to unintended consequences if proper time is not given to scrutinise the changes through the normal processes that we have in this place—proper scrutiny through committees and debate in the chamber. If those normal, sound processes of parliament are circumvented, then we can only expect that there are going to be some unintended consequences which lead to higher informality. I would argue, and many others have argued, that a rising proportion of informal votes is a major democratic concern for us. If we have more informal votes, it means that fewer voters are having their say at the important time.

I want to return to the truncated process that we have had. We did have a Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters hearing on 1 March. It was a very tightly controlled process, with very limited opportunity for members of the opposition and crossbench senators to participate and to ask questions of the Australian Electoral Commission and others. I want to refer to some of the answers that were given by the Australian Electoral Commission. The chair of the committee asked about the effect of these changes on the level of informal below-the-line voting. The head of the Australian Electoral Commission, Mr Rogers, said:

Can I say up-front that I know there has been a lot of speculation about what might happen if the changes were implemented. I am very nervous about speculating on voter behaviour. There are a whole range of things that can occur at any election. For us to speculate on voter behaviour—I know there are some political scientists who do that, and they are normally fairly accurate, but I really hesitate to speculate on what voters might do because they can do a whole range of things. What we think might occur with proposed changes might end up being something very different.

So he was unable to provide an accurate picture. He was also asked to give a view about the impact of informality on above-the-line voting. He made the point:

… I cannot speculate on voter behaviour. What I would say is that the legislation requires that on the ballot paper, as I understand it, we annotate that voters are required to vote six above the line. However, the savings provision that is also provided in the legislation, which is a vote that only contains a vote for 1 would still be formal, would operate, I think, to save a number of those votes. But, again, I would be speculating on voter behaviour which I am loath to do.

We have the expert in this matter, Mr Rogers of the Australian Electoral Commission, who is quite clearly indicating that there can well be unforeseen circumstances that arise and it is very difficult to predict. When you have experts saying to us that they are not prepared to indicate what might happen, I think it only strengthens the argument that whatever we do in this place on something as important and significant to our Australian democracy as the voting system, it has to be given proper scrutiny and the normal processes have to be followed. It should not be the subject of a truncated sham arrangement, where important matters are not given the proper level of scrutiny that they require and where a bill is rammed through the system.

I note that Mr Rogers has advised that the AEC only saw the bill before us on 11 February. Despite the fact that we have interjections from the other side saying that this is a matter that has been on the table for two years, the bill that is before us today was seen by the Australian Electoral Commission on 11 February. It was then subject to a sham arrangement, to truncated processes of scrutiny through both houses of parliament, and to a sham committee hearing, which was very one-sided. We are finding that all of the issues that need to be considered are not being considered and this could well have significant impacts.

I note Senator Gallagher in her contribution talked about the fact that there are experts that have speculated that the difference in the fact that we have optional preferential above-the-line in the bill and full preferential below-the-line could well have the potential of creating uncertainty and leading to unforeseen circumstances.

I note in Senator Back's contribution earlier, he made the worthwhile observation that we are a country that is very diverse and there are many people in our country who are not of an English-speaking background. This highlights the point even further that, if we are going to have changes to a system, we need to have a proper period of time in which the members of the public can absorb those changes and understand them completely. Ultimately, what we are talking about is the expression of the will of the Australian people at the ballot box. I do not believe there is anything more important that we should be talking about in this place. And when we do talk about these types of issues, they should be the subject of full and proper scrutiny, not the subject of a sham arrangement—a dirty deal between the Greens and the coalition.

The concern with the last election that has led to the proposed changes has been this tendency by parties to 'game' the system and to try to swing preferences away from the major party candidates and in effect dissipate preferences. In our most recent election, this resulted in a few candidates becoming elected with a small percentage of the primary vote. But rather than trying to address the problem of the gaming activities, this new legislation is simply going to curtail the opportunities for small Independents to get elected. This bill serves one function—it is designed to get rid of opponents at the next election. The proposed changes have the potential to reduce Australia to a US style, two-party system, where only those with substantial financial backing have a chance of getting elected. This is something that no Australian should support or endorse. Rather than working with the minor parties, this government would legislate them out of existence.

The enablers of this draconian electoral change, the Greens and Senator Xenophon, have shown a deeply hypocritical side to their political aspirations that few could have foreseen. As we know, Senator Xenophon first entered politics in the 1997 South Australian state election. At that point, he polled less than three per cent of the votes but still went on to win an upper house seat on the preferences of other minor parties such as the Smokers' Rights Party, who, one would have thought, it could be speculated, are not exactly aligned with the antipokies platform. He has the audacity to call out senators who are elected on a similar vote and with similar preference flows.

The Greens are even worse. Many Greens senators and state MPs have been elected on similar margins over the last 20 years and have only built their party on the back of minor party preferences. Senator Di Natale has shown himself to be a slow chugging coal train of a politician, who is prepared to spread all the warm and fuzzy rhetoric about inclusion and tolerance, yet is keen to get rid of the minor parties to recover the Green preferences that have been lost in the past. If minor parties are eliminated from the upper house, we could foresee our Senate reverting to a house of the landed gentry, where massive money and influence will be a key determinant of electoral success.

I am not surprised that the Turnbull government wishes to undermine our democratic institution but I am deeply disappointed that the Greens and Senator Xenophon are so quick to turn against the very system that provides our fair democracy with the diversity of opinion and representation that has served us so well, particularly in protecting us from the nasty policy agenda of the coalition government.