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Wednesday, 2 March 2016
Page: 1546

Senator CORMANN (Western AustraliaMinister for Finance, Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate and Special Minister of State) (10:08): The Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016, which the government is seeking to introduce into the Senate for debate, is about ensuring that the result of future Senate elections genuinely reflects the will of the Australian people. To achieve this, this bill empowers those voters who currently do not have the capacity to direct their preferences after issuing a primary vote in the Senate to do so themselves and according to their wishes.

At present, those voters choosing to vote for the Senate above the line lose control of their preferences after putting the number 1 in the box of their choice above the line. At the last election, and under the current system as introduced by Labor in 1984, that was the situation that nearly 97 per cent of all voters found themselves in. After filling in the number 1 above the line, those votes are then traded and directed according to the insufficiently transparent group-voting-ticket arrangements to other political parties and groups, sometimes in three different directions. Incidentally, that is why Mr Mackerras, who appeared at the JSCEM inquiry yesterday, has said that, in his view, every single Senate election since 1984 has arguably been unconstitutional.

This has created a level of undesirable gaming of the system that needs to be fixed, a level of gaming of preference arrangements which has led to the election of senators not directly chosen by the Australian people, insofar as, in practice, voters could not adequately predict where their preferences would ultimately end up and who they would elect. Do not take my word for it. That is the formal and publicly expressed view of a number of very senior Labor people, not least Gary Gray, still the shadow minister on electoral matters. In The West Australian on 6 February 2016 he said:

A fundamental principle of voting systems is that a voter should actually intend to vote for the candidate or party with whom their vote finally rests. Because of the ability to manipulate the current system the present Senate voting process now fails this test.

He further said:

… under the recommended optional preferential voting system, voters would be able to expressly preference parties or candidate groups above the line rather than having their preferences distributed for them under a registered group voting ticket.

… … …

These changes will mean voter intention is reflected in a democratic electoral outcome. They will give voters control over whom they do and do not vote for.

These reforms are not intended to stifle or prevent the formation of new parties. These reforms simply mean that political parties, including my own, will have to convince the public rather than backroom deal-makers that they deserve their votes.

Labor's deputy chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, Alan Griffin, during the press conference releasing their report into Senate voting reform on 9 May 2014 said:

We pioneered … the above the line voting system it came out in '84, but this was never what was intended, and so we now have unintended consequences and as legislators we'd be remiss if we didn't then take that into account.

Labour's national secretary, George Wright, in Labor's submission to the JSCEM inquiry on 24 April 2014 said:

The manipulation of Group Voting Tickets (GVTs) are a central reason that candidates with little public support have seen themselves elected to the Australian Senate. Without GVTs, the capacity of these candidates to deliver sufficient preferences through a coordinated preference harvesting strategy would not exist.

Further, and very materially, this is what the national secretary of the Labor Party, George Wright, said in April 2014—incidentally, he declined to appear on this occasion; I wonder why! This is what he said:

Labor's preferred position would also see a requirement that ballot paper instructions and how-to-vote material advocate that voters fill in a minimum number of boxes above the line, while still counting as formal any ballot paper with at least a 1 above the line.

That is precisely, of course, what we are recommending to do. He continued:

This would highlight and encourage voters to indicate preferences if they were inclined to, and assist in keeping vote exhaustion to a minimum.

For the interest of the Senate, I table the Labor Party submission to the original JSCEM inquiry, some two years ago, and I table the shadow minister Gary Gray's opinion piece in The West Australian some three weeks ago.

Of course, earlier today, the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters tabled its report and recommendations on our proposed Senate voting reforms. We welcome the supportive report and recommendations of that committee. We thank the members of the committee and all of those who have made submissions and given evidence to the inquiry.

As we have indicated, our proposed reforms to Senate voting are designed to ensure that the result of any Senate election, in the future, reflects the will of the people. Specifically, our reforms are designed to empower Australian voters to determine what happens to their preferences when voting for the Senate above the line, instead of having those preferences traded and ultimately directed by political parties through insufficiently transparent group-voting ticket arrangements.

The government has considered the issues raised and the recommendation of the joint standing committee to introduce a form of optional preferential voting below the line, as well as above the line, and has decided to adopt that recommendation. During the committee stages of the debate on the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016, the government will move amendments to that effect. These amendments will provide for instructions to voters to number at least 12 boxes from 1 to 12 in order of their preferences when voting below the line, together with a related savings provision that any vote with at least six boxes numbered from 1 to 6 below the line would still be considered formal.

These are important reforms in the public interest. We again call on Labor to reconsider their position and to follow the considered advice of the highly regarded shadow minister for electoral matters, Gary Gray, instead of succumbing to the pressure of the union lobby and Labor's backroom operators. There is no question—

Senator Jacinta Collins: There are lots of questions.

Senator CORMANN: that our reform significantly improves the current Senate voting system—

Senator Jacinta Collins: How do you know, when you won't—

Senator CORMANN: because it empowers voters to direct their preferences to relevant groups of parties, including when voting above the line.

Some people have complained about the fact that we are supposedly rushing this through. Let me just remind the senator: this debate has been going on ever since the last election, in September 2013. There was a comprehensive original inquiry by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. There was a set of cross-party unanimous recommendations, supported by Labor, the coalition and the Greens. There was, of course, a call from none less than the shadow minister for electoral matters, Gary Gray, for the government to get on with it! Indeed, in his opinion piece, which I have just tabled, his final words are:

The government should act now without delay …

That is Labor's shadow minister on electoral matters, Gary Gray, in the newspaper in Western Australia, calling on the government, 'to act now without delay,' in relation to these matters. And he is not the only one.

Senator Carr, during his contribution earlier this week said that this was part of a conspiracy between the coalition and the Greens which started 12 months ago to bring this on. This is what Labor's deputy chair of JSCEM, Alan Griffin, said just under 12 months ago:

The government should be acting on these recommendations and, if they’re going to, they need to hurry up because they’re running out of time.

The debate has been going for well over two years. In fact, Labor—and I think this point was actually made by one of the Greens senators—promised Senate voting reform to the Greens back in 2010 when they were looking for Greens support to form government.

Senator Jacinta Collins interjecting

Senator CORMANN: Well, this is the point. Labor actually signed a formal agreement with the Greens as part of their agreement to form government in 2010, to deliver Senate voting reform in the 2010 parliament. And, of course, Labor failed to act on this agreement as on so many other agreements.

Senator Jacinta Collins interjecting

Senator CORMANN: Labor says this legislation does not implement 100 per cent of the JSCEM recommendations. Well, let me address that point, because that is true—it does not implement 100 per cent of the JSCEM recommendations. It does implement 100 per cent of the material and acceptable JSCEM recommendations, of course.

Senator Jacinta Collins: How would we know—you won't let us talk to your department?

Senator CORMANN: I am talking you through it now. The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters recommended optional preferential voting above the line. We are proposing to introduce optional preferential voting above the line, with a recommendation to voters to number at least one to six boxes above the line and with a related savings provision that one of fewer than six is still formal.

The JSCEM recommendation was for partial optional preferential voting below the line, with preferences to be completed equal to the number of vacancies. Our announcement today means that we are introducing partial optional preferential voting, with an instruction to voters to vote at least one to 12, with the savings provision that any ballot where one to six boxes are numbered sequentially below the line in the order of '1' to '6' that the vote would still be formal.

The recommendation of JSCEM was to abolish group and individual voting tickets. We are proposing to abolish group and individual voting tickets. JSCEM recommended that additional resources be provided to the AEC to educate voters on changes. We are allocating additional resources to the AEC.

JSCEM recommended various increases in membership requirements for the registration of political parties. We have decided not to pursue this matter at this time because of an insufficient consensus in the parliament to pursue these changes—something that actually favours those micro and minor parties. We have made a decision, though, to include a restriction to unique registered officers for a federally-registered party, consistent with the recommendations of JSCEM.

JSCEM recommended that the government explore a way where we could require candidates to be resident in the state or territory in which they are seeking election. We have decided not to proceed with that recommendation on the basis of legal advice that this would likely be found unconstitutional, because such a restriction would not be consistent with the requirements for an election for the House of Representatives or the Senate that are included in the Constitution. That is the reason why we did not pursue that particular recommendation. And while there are no specific JSCEM recommendations to this effect, in its report JSCEM did point to the problem of potential voter confusion with similar party names. It encouraged the government to consider this issue. Of course, in this proposal the government has addressed this by allowing political parties, at their discretion, to have their logo included on the ballot paper. There are a lot of politics in relation to this.

What has happened on the Labor side is that, instead of going along with the considered advice of people like the highly regarded shadow minister Gary Gray, like ALP National Secretary George Wright and like the longstanding ALP member and Deputy Chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, Alan Griffin, Bill Shorten went for the easy road. He went for the union lobby and he went for the backroom operators in the Labor Party. Instead of acting in the national interest and instead of acting in the public interest, he is acting in what he and the union perceive to be their self-interest. The government is not going to be distracted by that.

A range of other points have been made during the debate so far. Let me make these final observations, because I do not want to hold up the Senate. The reforms that we are putting forward empower people across Australia to clearly express their preferences above and below the line—not only their first preference above the line but also their subsequent preferences. Labor's assertion that this will lead to an additional 800,000 informal votes was of course disproven by none other than Labor's shadow minister Gary Gray. The savings provision in this proposed legislation ensures that any voter who numbers just one above the line will still have their vote counted and, under our proposed amendment, any voter who numbers just six boxes below the line will still have their vote counted.

The next general election, as everybody knows, is due in the second half of this year. There has been a lot of speculation about the link between this reform proposal and the timing of an election. Let me just say that it is the government's view that, whenever the next election takes place and in whatever form, it is in the public interest for the next Senate election results to reflect the will of the Australian people. The government has of course always the option, irrespective of whether this legislation goes through or not, when certain requirements are met to pursue a double dissolution election to resolve a deadlock on legislation between the House of Representatives and the Senate. That is an option available to the government irrespective of what the parliament decides in relation to this bill. Conversely, this reform is necessary whether the election is in August, September or October to ensure that the result of the next election truly reflects the actual will of the Australian people.

Finally, a number of contributors have suggested that this will mean one outcome or another and it will favour one party or another, but people who argue these sorts of self-interested perspectives are missing the point. The Australian people will decide the result of the next election. This legislation is about making sure that the result of the next election genuinely reflects the will of the Australian people. These proposed reforms empower voters to clearly express their preferences above and below the line instead of having political parties determine preference flows in an insufficiently transparent way as a result of secret deals behind closed doors.

Senator Conroy interjecting

Senator CORMANN: Senator Conroy interjects that all these votes are going to be exhausted. Let me tell Senator Conroy that it is entirely up to every individual Australian voter who they want to vote for and how many preferences they want to allocate. It is an entirely legitimate choice for an individual Australian voter to make that they do not want to provide a preference to every single political party across Australia and they do not want to provide a preference to every single candidate across Australia. Of course, this legislation, this reform proposal, empowers the Australian people to make their choice as they see fit, according to their wishes.

If they want to vote one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine and 10—they want to fill every single box above the line—they can do so. They will be instructed, they will be guided, to fill in at least six boxes above the line in order of their preference from one to six. They will be instructed to vote at least one to 12 below the line in order of their preference. There will be some appropriate savings provision, but this will give the voter the best opportunity to have their intentions reflected in the final outcome.

The alternative, which is in place at present, is of course that people once they vote 1 above the line lose control of their preferences. Their preferences are captured by the political parties and are traded by political parties and directed, through group-voting tickets, to their ultimate destination.

Senator Conroy interjecting

Senator CORMANN: Backroom operators like Senator Conroy, who is interjecting incessantly, like these sorts of backroom deals, but we do not. We have made a judgement that that is not the right way forward.

On group-voting tickets: in fact, Senator Conroy yesterday, during the public hearing of the committee inquiry, was actually making our point. He was questioning the federal director of the Liberal Party, Tony Nutt, and in his line of questioning he was making the point that only a very small number of people across Australia—10 or so—understand the maths and science of preferences.

That is the exact point. Every single Australian voter should understand what happens to their preferences. It should not be complicated maths and science. You should not have to go to the Electoral Commission and find the group-voting ticket to see where your vote has been channelled. And of course some political parties are registering three different group-voting tickets. Any Australian voter should be able to find out, in practical terms, what happens to their preference after they vote 1 above the line, but how they can do so, under the current system, when political parties are able to channel that vote in three different directions after it has been issued, is beyond me. That is an undesirable situation. It is a situation which the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters has asked the parliament to address. It is a reform proposal that the Turnbull government has embraced, and we are very grateful that the Greens and Senator Xenophon and others in this chamber have embraced this as well. And I understand that the Greens have had a longstanding policy position along those lines.

Let me just make this final point. The Labor Party issued a dissenting report to the majority report recommending passage of this bill subject to an amendment on below-the-line voting. Whose signature was missing? There is, of course, a very high-profile member of that joint standing committee—none other than the member for Brand, Mr Gary Gray, the shadow minister for electoral matters. He is the Labor spokesperson for electoral matters, and he refused to sign Senator Conroy's outrageous backroom-dealing, preference-manipulating minority report that seeks to preserve the status quo for the sorts of union hacks and union heavies and backroom preference-manipulators like him.

This reflects really badly on Bill Shorten—the person who wants to be the future Prime Minister of Australia. I commend Mr Gray for his strength of character, for his fortitude and for having resisted the relentless bullying by people like Senator Conroy in the face of what is a very sound and strong public policy recommendation that he made to his leadership and to his shadow cabinet.