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Wednesday, 16 March 2016
Page: 2222

Senator O'NEILL (New South Wales) (20:09): I rise too tonight to speak on the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016 and to put my remarks on the record with regard to this outrageous piece of legislation that we are seeing pushed through the Senate with what I think can easily be described as unseemly haste and with a degree of arrogance and hubris from those who will inflict this on the Australian people despite 30 years of our electoral reform holding us in good stead and delivering for us a very stable democracy that has become increasingly representative of the breadth of views and the different types of talents that are happily an indication of the sophisticated country that we are.

What disappoints me about this particular piece of legislation is that it is dressed up as reform. There is a saying—a monkey in silk is a monkey no less. This is absolutely not reform; it is something much other than reform. As members of the Labor Party, we do not believe that by putting a sticker that reads 'reform' on a piece of legislation that it constitutes reform. The window dressing might be good enough for the grand alliance, the Greens, the National Party and the Liberal Party—now one great and awful alliance—but it is deeply concerning to see that the Liberals and the Greens announce a deal that will favour themselves. The Green party politicians, the Liberal party politicians and the National Party politicians believe in this abortive and arrogant way of proceeding in the chamber to bring about the most significant change to our operation as a nation in 30 years.

The proposal that the Greens and the coalition have put forward with this piece of legislation effectively consigns three million votes to the bin. In the last election, more than three million Australians exercised a vote for a party other than one of the major parties. I always find it hard to understand why people would not just automatically and every time vote Labor. The reality is we have a range of views in our community and there are people who do not want to vote for the Labor Party but they do not want to vote for the coalition party. They do not want to vote for the National Party, who are letting them down profoundly, particularly in regional Australia on the areas of health and education. Of course I can understand why many people who might have voted National before will not be voting again for them this time. But there are people who do not want to vote for the Greens either.

What they did in that last election was—and there are three million Australians who made this decision with their vote—vote for candidates other than from these larger parties which dominate the political landscape of the country. It looks like the legislation will get through because of this dirty deal. Three million people voted at the last election for candidates other than those from these three parties. Their votes are going to 'exhaust'. They are 'exhausted' simply means they are not counted. They are going to end up not being involved in the election of anyone. Twenty-five per cent of the voting public will end up with no representation of their view of who should be here, and that hardly seems fair.

The Senate is supposed to represent more than three main parties. I bemoaned much of the commentary here in the chamber over the last couple of sessions, where people have been speaking about their delight with what they are trying to enact here. It is supposed to be a positive for democracy that we have a range of views. It can hardly be a positive for democracy when you construct a system and do a deal here in the Senate to discount the value of the votes of three million Australians. I do not think you can possibly consider it reform to leave three million people and their will out of the democratic process—not just delete them out, but to actually construct a model which will exclude them from registering that kind of response.

Imagine if the Liberals were in control of the Senate when Tony Abbott was Prime Minister? That is what is being cooked up here—control of the Senate by the Liberal and conservative forces of this country. Already we would have seen them implement their 2014 budget. They would have just been able to do it. They would have just got the rubber-stamp and said, 'Here, off we go—let's do it!' Students would now have been in a deregulated market and paying $100,000 for a university degree. We would have seen cuts to Medicare. We would have seen the $7 GP tax become law. We would have seen further cuts to family payments from the ones we have already seen. We have been able to hold up so much of the worst excesses of this government.

Labor is absolutely up for reform. But just because the Liberals and the Greens have done a deal, drawn up this bill and put a 'reform' sticker on the front page does not mean this piece of legislation should be allowed to continue to masquerade as a piece of reform. Reform that entrenches the control of the right wing of the Liberal Party and reform that entrenches control of the balance of power to the Greens is not reform. It is a recipe for economic problems and it is a recipe for gridlock in Australian politics. When Labor looks at reform we want to make sure that it does not harm the interests of the Australian people. I support reforms that are sensible, but not reforms like this, that are constructed deliberately to wipe away every minor and different voice.

The bill was brought into the parliament by the Greens, and it reflects this deal that I have been talking about, done between the grand coalition of the Liberals, the Nationals and the Greens parties together. But in their haste to bring it in and in trying to pretend that it has come from the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters they have tried to muddy the situation so much that some clarity around its true status is a little hard to find.

The Senate system of voting recommended by the joint committee is not the system that is in the bill that has now come before us. What we are debating now is not what has come from JSCEM. It is what the Greens, the Liberal Party and the National Party decided was in their own interests. One of the key challenges in this deal is that future voting under this bill, which sees the biggest changes since 1984, means that people will have to vote in a very different way from what they have become accustomed to.

Our concern, as the Labor Party, arises from that change in practice and the increase in informal votes that is likely to flow from that. But we also have concerns that there are challenges, like how we present how-to-vote cards to our supporters, given the requirement to indicate one to 12 or one to six above the line on the ballot paper. This is going to be complicated and it is going to be very challenging. I was actually able to attend the hearing the other morning, which was in no way any representation of the best practices of this Senate. To see questions so controlled and contained by the chair that morning; to see the relevant committee prevent the finance department coming to that meeting to answer any questions and to see the gross misuse of the committee process to achieve this dirty deal was a real insult. It was an insult to the people of Australia and it was something that I will not forget. It was like something that I have seen at the movies, where people's rights were clearly removed. It was completely inappropriate.

These changes that look like we are going to have happen will give rise to a degree of complexity, as I have indicated, that will almost certainly lead to a rise in informal votes, and the proposed system that we see relies on a large number of voters exhausting their votes. We are not satisfied that it is democratic. It is easy to have suspicions about the intent behind this, because the stated aim of these reforms is, in fact, to wipe out minor party players. It is easy to be sceptical, which is not my general disposition towards life, but when the Liberals and the Greens are doing this with a clear and expressed hope to produce more senators of their own persuasions you can hardly call it a good piece of legislation—a fair piece of legislation. It is certainly not a reforming piece of legislation.

It is also very interesting that the Greens have decided that they are now the best minor party in the land. They have decided that they do not want anybody else to come in and have a go. Having been the beneficiaries of the system that we have had in place over the last 30 years and securing their place, now they want to pull up the drawbridge and everybody else can go home. They just want to stay here themselves and get rid of those other smaller parties.

From Labor's perspective these are very big changes which, as I have indicated, might mean a growing informal vote but which also mean that a lot of voters are going to have their ballot papers exhausted. That is not democracy in action and it is not support of diversity, and this display of the arrangement between the Greens, the Liberals and the National Party is absolutely nothing like a democratic kind of arrangement.

The Greens should go out amongst their voters and tell them that they have done another dirty deal—another dirty deal!—with the Liberal Party. In fact, through this piece of legislation and through putting their votes with the government of this day they are permanently providing a blocking vote in the Senate for the conservative forces. They have sacrificed all their principals on so many issues, but this is particularly iconic. They have sold out to the conservatives of this country.

The Greens are getting into bed with Mr Turnbull. Let's have a look at what it is that they have actually decided they are going to join up with. Mr Turnbull and Julie Bishop conspired to assassinate the duly-elected Prime Minister in his first term—Mr Abbott. The result is a deeply divided and dysfunctional government that is constantly contradicting itself and backflipping on itself. It is unable to provide any degree of certainty and security to the Australian population or to our businesses and our economy. They cannot even confirm, despite many requests to do so—that the budget will happen on the date for which it is indicated. They cannot even confirm that basic requirement of a government.

Senator Scullion: We'll let you know!

Senator O'NEILL: I will take that interjection. The interjection from Senator Scullion, in which he said, 'We'll let you know,' reveals the hubris and arrogance that is the telltale of the way in which we have seen this government operate from the minute they got in here. I know that you recall, Acting Deputy President, the early days in which we arrived in this chamber. We can see how contemptuous the government have been of the people who have come here on the crossbenches.

I recall the first dinner that I had with Senator Muir and his wife, with Senator Lazarus, with Senator Day, with Senator Leyonhjelm, with Senator Dio Wang and with Senator Lambie. We had conversations right at the beginning of their journey here. For many of them it was their first encounter with this place, with this chamber, and instead of giving them the respect that they deserved as elected representatives the government concocted their program for this place in a way which forced the new senators to vote very quickly on the legislation that they were putting forward. It was a ploy. They came and they thought: 'They're all new Johnny-come-latelies sitting on the side benches there. They don't know what they are doing. They don't deserve our respect, because really we should not have the riffraff like them in here. They don't belong in here.'

We have seen that Senator Muir is perhaps one of the most maligned of all of these. Senator Muir has been maligned in the press and then maligned so many times by this government because he has come from working in a sawmill. I remember my first conversations with him. He had a cup of tea with me at about 10 o'clock one night and I said to him, 'What would you normally be doing at 10 o'clock at night?' He said: 'I probably wouldn't be sitting here in a suit. I'd have different clothing on. I'd have some sawdust in my hair and I'd be making sure I didn't drop sawdust into my coffee.'

Senator Gallacher: He would be having a beer. It was 10 o'clock.

Senator O'NEILL: Probably it would have been. No, he was at work at the sawmill. It would have been 10 then. He was probably having a beer in my office. The reality is he represents a person who has a basic education in Australia, who legally secured a position in this Senate and who arrived with a skill set that he identified was not a perfect match for here—but this is a country that believes in people participating in democracy. That is what I thought it was—that we would make space for everybody to be here and that if you could get here you would be accepted and you would be able to participate. But instead what we have seen is it has hit a point where the government have been so arrogant, so rude and so insulting to the crossbench from the very beginning that they cannot govern in the way that they want. So they have cooked up this deal with the Greens to get rid of the problem, because everybody in the parliament should be like them. They come in here with this veneer of civility, education and entitlement that they belong here—that is what the Greens have signed up with. They are absolute advocates for themselves and absolute excluders of diversity in the most arrogant and shameful way, to put on the record, in so many ways they think the crossbench are beneath the role of this Senate.

I do not agree with them. I accept the fact the Australian people sent the people here that we have here and I accept—despite their too often voting with the government in my view—their right to be here and their contribution to this place. That has never been forthcoming from the government. That is why they are delighted that they finally got the Greens, who also have that air of ascendancy and sense of entitlement. I think in his comments Senator Carr was quoting an article called 'Political flirting is a tricky game,' in which the writer of that piece described the Greens as purists. They are purists in a different way. But the two purists have got together to get rid of the riffraff. That is what is going on here—the arrogance that comes with that. That is what they are saying.

What we are seeing with this piece of legislation is not reform; rather we are seeing a purge. We are seeing a smugness that will see the exclusion of a variety of voices. We will see fewer Independents, we will see fewer small parties and we will probably see no new parties because of what the government, in their deal with the Greens, have been able to stitch up. The sort of dirty deals that we are seeing daily with the Greens were probably an indication that they were going to go this far all the time—although I continue to be surprised that they actually have done that.

Under his leadership the Greens are growing ever closer to the conservatives on the other side of the chamber, because we look at the deals that have been done. The first deal that Senator Di Natale did with the Abbott-Turnbull government was to cut the pensions of part-pensioners. That is what the Greens party voted for in their warm-up to this grand finale that they are trying to enact here. Then we had Senator Di Natale's dirty deal with the Abbott-Turnbull government to water down the tax transparency laws for multinational companies. Labor and the Independents were ready to make sure that the whole lot of multinational companies—we had the votes—had to show Australia what they were going to get. The reality is that they absolutely sold out the people of Australia and agreed with the Liberal-National government to provide an absence of scrutiny of tax transparency laws.

The next deal we had was the filthy deal to alter the laws that govern the election of senators, and that is what we are debating here tonight—clearly increasing the chances of the coalition to gain a majority of the Senate. In this desperate ploy to deal himself into the centre of political relevance in his own mind, this deal by Senator Di Natale with the Greens has sold out all of their political values.

Senator Ludwig, in his contribution to this debate, indicated—I usually rely on his ear on the ground—that he has heard in respect of this legislation that there are more than eight amendments that will need to be moved by the government itself because the bill is so flawed due to the government rushing it through the committee and this place. That is why the scale of what is happening is enormous, the impact is devastating and we should resist this at every turn.