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Wednesday, 16 March 2016
Page: 2238


Senator URQUHART (TasmaniaDeputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (21:17): I rise to voice my strongest possible opposition to the rushed, ill-considered antidemocratic bill that is the Commonwealth electoral amendment above-the-line bill 2016. This bill grossly fails any test of fairness. It ignores the will of more than three million Australians who chose not to vote for the major parties and sets the scene for a possible coalition majority in the Senate.

The bill before the chamber is nothing more than a dirty deal and a desperate power grab by the Liberals, designed to entrench conservative power. If the worst plays out, it may lead to the coalition gaining a disproportionate number of Senate seats in relation to its primary vote. We might not know exactly what the outcome of this rushed legislation may be, but you can bet your bottom dollar that if the Liberals have signed up to it then it is in their favour. What we do know is that this is just the first step for a government intent on destroying the crossbench before it goes to a double-dissolution election.

Do not let them kid you that a double dissolution is about the Australian Building and Construction Commission or any other issue they may confect outrage over. It is about stopping current crossbench members from completing their six-year terms and getting as close as they possibly can to securing conservative rule in the Senate.

If the government gains a majority in the Senate through a combination of the proposed changes and a double-dissolution election, progressive Australians should be very, very concerned. If the Senate is stacked with Liberals and Nationals, there will be no checks and balances on this appalling legislation. Again and again, they put sectoral interests and brutal ideology ahead of the national good. If there is even the glimmer of a chance that the bill before us today coupled with a double-dissolution election will close the door on a progressive and responsible Senate, then it is a risk I do not think we can afford to take.

I have spent the biggest part of my life fighting for a more progressive country. I have fought for a country that looks after its workers and provides robust protections against exploitation; understands spending on health and education is an investment in a productive, cohesive society not just line items to be struck off with a red pen; provides a strong safety net for those who are down on their luck; and supports Australian families to raise happy, healthy and well-educated children.

We need to be a country that recognises all Australians deserve protection under the law, regardless of age, race, gender or sexual orientation; where fairness and equity are at the heart of all policy decisions and which actively strives to address the growing problem of inequality; and recognises we do not enter this life on an equal footing and responds by providing support to help people overcome challenges and live healthy and productive lives.

I believe in a country that embraces strong action on climate change in recognition that this is not just a moral and environmental obligation but also offers significant opportunities that open up new markets, drive growth and make businesses more competitive; where people are free to marry whoever they choose, regardless of their gender; and where our environmental assets are not seen as an expendable resource ready to be sold off to the highest bidder.

I want to live in a country that values due process and accountability in our parliamentary systems, where policies are made for the benefit of all Australians not just the rich and powerful. I have fought for many years for these things and I will not stop.

Labor will not support our parliamentary processes being abused in a transparent attempt by the government to legislate away its opposition. The bill before us today is an absolute betrayal of the many millions of Australians who wish to see a more progressive Australia. And I am absolutely dumbfounded that the Greens are jumping into bed with the government to change the rules to the benefit of conservative agendas, and they should be ashamed of it. Even Greens supporters can see what is going on. In fact, a recent Essential Media survey showed they oppose this dirty deal at a rate of two to one.

So why don't the Greens in this place get it? Why are they supporting legislation that may well see them lose Senate seats at the double-dissolution election the government is clearly planning?

I would urge the Greens to rethink their role in this unholy alliance. I would entreat them to drop this dirty deal before it is too late. Of course, some commentators would be critical but many more would praise the Greens for choosing a path of careful consideration rather than rushing through the most radical electoral changes we have seen in 30 years. If this chapter in Australian politics plays out as I fear and the conservatives gain control over the Senate at a double-dissolution election, the responsibility for this outcome will rest squarely with the Australian Greens. If Australian university students are shackled with debt sentences in excess of $100,000, the Greens will be to blame. If our Medicare system is torn to shreds and bulk-billing is axed, the Greens will be to blame. If penalty rates are axed and working conditions are trashed, the Greens will be to blame. If the conservatives make it even more difficult for hardworking Australians to join together and organise in their own interests, then the Greens will be to blame. If TAFE is sold off and schools are forced to shut down through lack of funding, the Greens will be to blame. And if Australian families see their support payments unceremoniously slashed, the Greens will be to blame.

If the coalition deems that the NDIS is 'too expensive' to continue, the Greens will be to blame. If marriage equality is permanently shelved, the Greens will be to blame. If the GST is hiked to 12, 15 or 20 per cent, or even more, the Greens will be to blame. If all support for renewable energy is canned and the transition to a clean energy economy grinds to a halt, the Greens will be to blame. If foreign aid is axed, the Greens will be to blame. If our World Heritage forests are opened up to indiscriminate logging—that's right: the Greens will be to blame. I shudder to even think about the horrific direction in which the Liberals and the Nationals could take Australia's response to asylum seekers if they do not have to consider a robust Senate.

While it may cause some short-term pain for the Greens to back out of their deal, this is nothing compared to the fury the progressive people of Australia will unleash on them if their actions usher in unfettered conservative control in the Senate. Say what you will about the validity of the election of individual senators in this place. Not even the Greens could deny that the current crossbench has helped to block some of the most vicious and unfair legislation we have seen in this place in decades. Clearly, the Liberals do not like the fact that they have failed to impose some of the most cruel and short-sighted measures in living memory. They are dirty that the Senate has been so effective in doing exactly what it is supposed to do: reviewing government policy and rejecting it if it is not in the national interest.

The Liberals do not want to work within the confines of the democratic process. Rather than presenting measured and reasonable policy and arguing the case rationally, they want to short-circuit the process by legislating to abolish their opposition. Make no mistake: this could be the stitch up to end all other parliamentary stitch ups. If passed, there may be nothing to stop the radical right of Australian politics from ramming their vicious agenda through the parliament. The reality is that more than 20 per cent of Australians do not vote for major parties. There are certainly lessons in this for both sides of politics, but it is entirely undemocratic to simply remove the option for these people to have input into the people that represent them.

The Liberal government, with its born-to-rule attitude, has completely failed to get support for its appalling 2014 budget measures, so now it wants to remove the need to justify their policy. I am not saying that the system is perfect or that changes could not be made to make it better. But I am absolutely sure that we should not be tearing up due process so that the government can rush to meet its own deadline to hold a double-dissolution election.

It is not just me who thinks this process has been a complete shambles. In a recent article in Crikey, William Bowe described it as 'obscenely hasty'. It is a fact that the entire process of bringing this legislation to parliament has been completely chaotic. There was less than a week between the bill being tabled and the closing date of submissions. There was less than a day between the closing of submissions to the start of the public hearing. And the committee had less than 24 hours after the public hearing to consider the evidence, make its deliberations and deliver a report. Anyone who thinks this report was not written in Liberal offices weeks ago is kidding themselves. What an absolute joke. What a farce this process has been.

Clearly, the government never cared about legitimate inquiry, and clearly the 'hearing' was nothing but a show trial to try to justify their craven attempt to destroy minor parties and deliver themselves unchecked power. Why did they even bother referring it to the committee when they had already decided to ram through a vote in the other place before the committee had even met—let alone held a public hearing? You must ask that question. In fact, those opposite actually voted to ignore the outcome of the report when they suspended standing order 148. This standing order very sensibly requires that if a bill is to be considered through a committee then it makes sense to wait for the outcome of that report before you vote. That is right: the Liberals, Nationals and Greens in the House of Representatives actively voted to ignore whatever came out of the committee—the very same committee that they based their arguments for change on. Talk about a senseless abuse of process.

This bill has been rushed through in a transparent attempt to annihilate opposition and silence dissent before an unseemly dash to the polls. This is from the same government that want us to believe that the reason they do not have a single tax reform policy, 2½ years on, is that they are wedded to careful and methodical consideration. So it has taken 2½ years to generate not a single tax reform policy, but they want us to believe it is okay to ram through some of the most radical changes we have seen to our electoral system in less than a month.

If we ever needed evidence that the government have rushed the process, you just need to consider the fact that they had to amend the bill themselves only two days after introducing it. The amendment was made because the government, in their wisdom, had completely failed to allow time for the counting of Senate ballot papers. This was a very serious error that illustrates precisely how chaotic and what a desperate debacle this has been. And do you know how the error was discovered? I will tell you. It was not one of the great minds in the government that picked it up. No—far from it. They found out about it in Antony Green's blog. If Mr Green had not been so quick to scrutinise the bill, this glaring error would have sailed right through. Those opposite could not even get their own bill right and now they are trying to ram it through the parliament with scant scrutiny, no due process and nowhere near enough time to consider potential adverse impacts and unintended consequences. What is to say that there are not other botched measures that the government have not noticed yet?

To say that this process has been shambolic would be incredibly kind to those opposite. Sweeping change such as this should proceed cautiously and not be used as a rough, ready and desperate strategy to wipe out your opponents. The Greens and the Liberals continue to bleat that this bill merely enacts the will of the consensus report from the Joint Select Committee on Electoral Matters. This is absolutely untrue. The bill does not implement the recommendations of the JSCEM report. In fact, the Turnbull government has not even bothered to respond to this report, so how can we tell if the legislation is faithful to the recommendations? I will tell you how we can tell. We can hold a proper inquiry, not just a mickey mouse show trial to tick a pesky box. We can give the experts and members of the Australian public the time they need to thoroughly digest all the details of the legislation, along with all its potential implications. We can take time for proper deliberation and engage the Australian people in a genuine national debate.

The truth is that this government is in chaos. This government knows that its policy offerings have been fundamentally rejected by the Australian people, so it is trying to wipe out opposition through dirty deals and a double dissolution. The Australian people are starting to see that, despite the change in leadership, nothing has changed. And those opposite are starting to panic. The government knows that Australians are catching onto the fact that, despite having a new leader, nothing has changed in the Liberal Party. They still have the same appalling policies that saw their first Prime Minister fall, and now they want to change the rules, before cutting and running as quickly as they can before too many other Australians catch on. If minor parties have been accused of gaming the system, then the Turnbull government surely is stitching up the ultimate game in a desperate attempt to eradicate opposition. The bill before us today is fundamentally antidemocratic. It attempts to sidestep the will of 20 per cent of Australians and stop the Senate from performing the very role it is designed for. That is exactly what the Senate has been doing for the past two years—exactly what it is supposed to do.

Just imagine what Australia would look like today if the Liberals owned all the seats currently held by Independents and minor parties. Just imagine what would have happened if there were no checks and balances to their radical agenda. We would have thousands of young Australians forgoing university to avoid a Liberal-imposed debt sentence of $100,000 or more. Those that chose to study would be looking at a debt sentence that would hang over their heads for many decades to come. We would be looking at the reality of being an island nation with no local maritime sector—they are doing everything they can to kill that off—and no skills to protect our economic future, our environment and our national security. We would have seen the abolition of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, which not only helps to deliver future-focused renewable energy projects but brings a positive return to government in doing so. We would see older Australians working till they are 70, only to move onto a much smaller pension, thanks to the government's changes to indexation formulas, supported by the Greens. Our emergency departments and hospitals would be bursting at the seams as entrenched co-payment for all visits to the doctor would see people forgo medical treatment until problems become more serious and the cost to the taxpayer is even higher. We would see young Australians forced to consider criminal avenues when the Liberals cut off their income support for up to six months if they find themselves out of work, which is happening to a lot of people in this country because the Turnbull government is giving our jobs away. And the list goes on.

True, the crossbenchers could not have blocked these toxic measures without Labor's support, but, without them, the Abbott-Turnbull government would have had free rein to impose their vicious conservative agenda with no checks to their power. In fact, it is a matter of public record that many of those opposite still see absolutely no problem with the appalling 2014 budget, and many others think it should have gone further. If this bill passes, I fear this is a possibility that could happen. If the government are successful in changing the laws to abolish dissent, there are some very, very serious risks to this country and Australians into the future.

Senator Muir was absolutely right when he said that it was the crossbench that saved the government from themselves. Those opposite cannot bear the fact that they have had to work within the confines of the longstanding democratic process, so they just changed the rules to benefit themselves. Their slapdash race to annihilate the crossbench, in a race to eradicate dissent for the next term of government, is antidemocratic. We will not support legislation that will open up Australia to the untrammelled ideological will of the radical right of the Liberal Party, with no checks and balances to their senseless agenda. If the government get their way and secure a voting majority in the Senate—which is, after all, what they are trying to achieve—they will be able to run roughshod over all the things that make Australia great. This is coupled with the government's clear intention to cut and run to a double dissolution election and remove the existing crossbenchers who have stood up to their radical agenda. I urge the Greens to reconsider the implications for the advancement of progressive politics in this country. (Time expired)

(Quorum formed)