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Wednesday, 16 March 2016
Page: 2242


Senator PERIS (Northern Territory) (21:40): I rise tonight to make a contribution to this critical debate on the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016. Abraham Lincoln once said, 'The ballot is stronger than the bullet.' As my colleague Senator Conroy said on ABCNews yesterday, this Senate reform bill heralds the most significant voting change in 30 years and will dramatically change the make-up of the Senate. It will give a massive advantage to the coalition and the Greens. This will mean that no Independents or smaller parties will get a seat in this chamber, and it will disenfranchise many Australian who do not vote for us or the coalition, and forget the Greens. They probably will not exist either, and good job to them.

Yesterday, 15 March, the Prime Minister said at his press conference that this bill is a 'critical piece of democracy' and that it will do away with the preference whisperers. Whatever or whoever they are, I would like to know. He also said that parliament would be more democratic and transparent. The Prime Minister went on to say that this bill will ensure that the winners are not political parties but the voters. His press conference finished in a train wreck when he refused to answer legitimate questions on how his brand of democracy will be played out this week in parliament.

What did the Greens and the coalition do yesterday in this chamber? They shut debate down. They cosied up again to stop us exposing their little love-ins. The government and the Greens have gone to great lengths to push these reforms through. The government is so desperate to try and get rid of the crossbench they are willing to forego debate and voting on a union-bashing bill to restore the Australian Building and Construction Commission, which they insist is an extremely important bill. The Greens are so desperate to win more seats in this chamber that they were willing to forego debate on a vote on marriage equality. Why? For nothing more than electoral gain. That is the only reason to get rid of the crossbench and to gain more seats. So much for transparency and total disregard for the three million Australian voters who put them here in the first place.

What we have heard so many times in this chamber is that this bill is nothing more than a grubby little deal between the Greens and the Donald Trump of Australian politics, Senator Xenophon. The government cannot force the Senate to bend to its will to pass some of its unfair laws. What I say is, 'What a cosy little trio.' The government throws a little tantrum, and what do the Greens and Aussie Trump or should I say Aussie Chump do? They behave like millennials. They chase after the latest—

Senator Dastyari interjecting

Senator O'Sullivan: Mr Acting Deputy President, on a point of order: that is a reflection upon a member of this place. The senator should withdraw.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Edwards ): You are spot-on, Senator O'Sullivan. I ask you to withdraw that, Senator Peris.

Senator PERIS: I withdraw.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Thank you, Senator Peris. Continue.

Senator PERIS: The government throws a tantrum, and what do the Greens and Mr Xenophon do? They behave like little millennials and chase after the latest, newest shiny bauble on the market they desire, simply overcoming any form of reason.

Finally, we see the true colours of the so-called Greens, supposedly the colour of nature and harmony. It should be noted the colour green also denotes a lack of experience, someone who is considered green is a novice, new to the job, and inexperienced. A dull, darker green is commonly associated with money, the financial world and banking. Dark green is associated with ambition, greed and jealousy. Yellow-green can indicate sickness, cowardice, discord and jealousy. So what shade of green are the Greens? I ask. Perhaps they are so indecisive between dark green and yellow-green. I do not know. Take your pick. Perhaps we should have another meaning for the colour green: opportunism, because that is what the Greens are—opportunistic carpetbaggers who would rather lead the Australian people down a not-so-green garden path in favour of political bastardry.

What do the Greens now stand for? What are they offering their supporters, who believe that they stand for an alternative point of view from the major parties? Where does this bill now leave them? Are the Greens now telling them to vote for the conservative coalition forces or to vote for the dark side? Is Senator Di Natale the new Darth Vader? The question is: are the Greens still offering an alternative view? I think not.

In fact, the Greens have not been green since their last leadership change. Poor Bob Brown, the principal Greens visionary whose leadership enabled the current Green members to get this far—I wonder what he makes of his party now? Has anyone asked him, or cared about asking him? What about Christine Milne, who succeeded Bob Brown as the Greens leader? Has anybody asked her what she thinks? Do the two most experienced and, I should say, respected leaders that they have ever had support the stance that the Greens have taken?

What about Greens party members around the country? What have they told them? I do not know—I get plenty of messages—

Senator Dastyari: What about the members?

Senator PERIS: Yes. All of them surely must be shaking their heads in disbelief, and they must even be crying that this current crop of Greens is doing a deal with their traditional enemies.

So the Greens have decided to join the grownups, except they have not learnt how to bluff yet. Sadly, the Greens are moving further to the right and will join in with the eccentric crew of the coalition to form a government, if it comes to that. The sad thing is that this would be funny, if it were not a serious issue.

The real issue—what has been thrown around—is that the Greens are actually suffering from 'relevance deprivation syndrome', which is a sad indictment on how they will take any opportunity to claw back some of their relevance that was nurtured and given to them by both of their former leaders. It is relevance that they lost at the last election, when they lost the balance of power in the Senate to the Independents. That is no secret: it is no secret that this bill will wipe out the Independents and the small parties. They will not get a seat in the Senate.

And it is no secret that the government cannot deal with the crossbenchers—we heard that from Senator Lazarus earlier on. It is all too hard for them. Our first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, had a much more difficult Senate to deal with but, unlike this government, the Gillard government knew how to negotiate with the crossbenchers—

Senator Nash: It's because you were in coalition with the Greens!

Senator PERIS: and treated them with respect—nothing that you know about! There you go! I will take your interjection!

Independents and microparties are a vital part of the Australian political system. Without them, we lose a great deal of faith from the Australian voting public by restricting—

Senator O'Sullivan interjecting

Senator Nash: But you were in coalition with the Greens!

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Williams ): Order! Senator Nash! Interjections are disorderly and I ask that Senator Peris be heard in silence. Is that clear to everyone here?

Senator PERIS: As I said, the Independents and microparties are a vital part of the Australian political system. Without them, we lose a great deal of faith from the Australian voting public by restricting their voting options

I am not ashamed to say that I actually enjoy working with the crossbenchers. I actually even do not mind saying that a few of them have become acquaintances. I would not go as far as saying 'friends', but I do believe, and the Australian public believes, that they bring diversity and vibrancy to this chamber—not to mention their colour and movement, and their sometimes unique and unusual points of view. All of this will be lost: without them in this chamber, our workplace—this Senate—would become a lot less interesting. I believe that the uniqueness of our minor parties are important to the Australian democracy.

Recently, I worked with Queensland's Senator Lazarus on the arts funding inquiry. He attended the hearing in Darwin last October. As chair of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Senator Lazarus understands the importance of regional communities and the place that arts and culture have in our communities. Maybe they are not as important as sport—and I might be a bit biased—but he certainly knows that we are stronger in our diversity in both of these areas.

The same goes for Senator Leyonhjelm. He is not quite my cup of tea, but in many ways I respect him as a fellow senator. Just during the last sitting, he introduced a private senator's bill to restore the rights of the territories, namely, the Northern Territory and the ACT, so that our legislative assemblies can make laws for the peace, order and good government of our communities and citizens without the fear of being overturned by an overzealous federal government. For that, I thank him and respect him.

Surely it is more important that the nation's parliament reflects our whole country and all our communities, rather than just a narrow inner-city view where the Greens snipe away at the efforts of Labor and Independents to find pathways for a progressive, smart country that takes the regions with it—like we strive to do in our nation's Northern Territory.

One of the major issues I have with these reforms is the lack of clarity for the voting public. As we all know, the entire Australian public need to be aware of voting rules and how to vote. This helps lift voter turnout and helps limit informal voting. My electorate of the Northern Territory is one of the most ethnically diverse constituencies in Australia. Consequently, a huge proportion of Territorians do not speak English as their first language. Many speak English as a third or fourth language. And, of course, many do not speak English at all.

Of the 200,000 people living in the Northern Territory, about 40 per cent of those speak a language that is not English as their first language. Around 4,000 Territorians speak Chinese as their first language; 3,000 Territorians speak Greek as their first language; about 2,000 Territorians speak Tagalog as their first language; another 1,500 speak Filipino; 1,000 Territorians speak Indonesian as their first language; and another 1,000 Territorians speak Vietnamese as their first language. And, believe it or not, about 40,000 Territorians speak an Aboriginal language as their first language. So in total, about 60,000 Territorians do not speak English as their first language. This seems to have been ignored by the supporters of this bill. It can be difficult for English-speaking Australians to understand our voting system, let alone for people who do not speak English.

Voter education is extremely important, but you want to tell 60,000 Territorians you are moving the goalposts on them within months of an election. In fact, the Australian Electoral Commission has said it will take three months to implement these reforms from the time the bill passes. If that is how long it takes for the Electoral Commission, imagine how long it will take to explain these changes to the 60,000 Territorians who do not speak English. This is made worse by the fact that most Aboriginal people who do not speak English live in remote communities and will be further marginalised by this bill.

Turnout is already low in remote communities and informal voting is already high, and your plan to address that informal vote is to change the rules on the Senate voting within a few months of an election. You move the goalposts for Aboriginal people, many of whom do not speak English as a first language, who do not receive the same voting education that people in the cities do, and then you wonder why turnout in remote communities is so low—not to mention the millions of our fellow Australians who do not actually give a toss about politics and politicians and do not engage with the political process at all. What about them? How much community awareness is going to be conducted between now and the election? How much will that cost? What measures will be put in place to make sure every last Australian fully understands the Senate voting process?

The question is this: will this bill put power back in the hands of the voters, as the Prime Minister asserted yesterday? Voters already have the power. Ninety-six per cent of Australians voted above the line at last election. As my colleague Senator Polley pointed out last night, 25 per cent of voters—that is 3.3 million Australians—did not vote for Senate candidates representing the coalition, the Greens or Labor. This bill is not a vote for democracy. This bill is born out of spite. In 2013 the Australian public exercised their democratic right to elect members from across the political spectrum to represent them.

Whatever you call it—holding hands, hugging or loving up this coalition government—the Greens have lost all their virtue and all their credibility, but unfortunately they have not lost their naivety. They have graduated from being a protest party to becoming a full-blown dunce. Congratulations, Senator Di Natale: you have finally shown us the way you go. This bill stinks. It is a dirty deal. I will end by repeating what Abraham Lincoln once said: 'The ballot is—indeed—stronger than the bullet.' I encourage all Australians, including the Greens supporters, to use the ballot to vote this lot out.