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Wednesday, 2 March 2016
Page: 1578

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (12:17): The Greens support the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill. It is long overdue and it is welcome that it is now before the Senate. It is a bill that many people have put a great deal of effort into.

Senator Jacinta Collins interjecting

Senator RHIANNON: Mr Deputy President, I wish to acknowledge at this point that it is traditional for Labor to follow the government. I waited here looking for Labor to jump. I am not going to lose my speaking place, but I acknowledge that Labor normally come second.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Rhiannon, I called you because you sought the call and no-one else sought the call. You have the call.

Senator RHIANNON: I just wanted to explain that. Thank you, Deputy President, for clarifying that. It is very welcome that at last we are debating this important legislation. As I was saying, it is overdue. The measures set out here with the above-the-line reform and below-the-line reform are a way to ensure that the intent of voters is reflected in how our electoral system works. At the moment, the essence of the problem we have is that when people vote above the line for the Senate—as we know, by far the majority of people do vote above the line—their preferences may end up somewhere that may not fit with their values. By far the majority of people do not know where their preferences end up, and that is the case because of group voting tickets.

Group voting tickets are part of the system. I acknowledge that, to get the box above the line, one has to go into those negotiations. Party representatives sit down and negotiate that and it is signed off—it is called a group voting ticket—and it is lodged with the Australian Electoral Commission. But over time we have come to realise, particularly in recent elections, that that system can be abused. That is why we are now debating this legislation.

The above-the-line changes and the below-the-line changes mean that no longer will people have to number all the boxes, but there will be a very clear requirement that a number of boxes have to be filled in—above the line, 1 to 6. I give emphasis to that because there has been a lot of misrepresentation about the bill before us and about the whole issue of how Senate voting reform is playing out. One of the accusations has been that it will wipe out small parties.

Remember, the only change—the significant change—with this legislation is that, rather than preferences being negotiated behind closed doors, with deals done and the voter not knowing that and not being able to determine their preferences, preferences will still be allocated but it will be the voter who determines those preferences. We now have reforms that can really drive a much healthier democracy—a democracy where candidates, parties, get up there with their election platform and engage in the political process. They get up with the courage of their convictions for their election platform to win votes. Surely that should be something that Labor recognises, because we do have to deal with Labor's position on this. Although we have not heard them formally here, we have heard their representatives in the House of Representatives, and there have been many debates in recent days about this very issue.

I notice that Labor's tactics change from day to day. In his contribution Senator Dastyari acknowledged that the system needs to change, but he wants more time for that. Let's remember it has been nearly two years since the first JSCEM report came down and that report, which advocated optional preferential voting, came off the back of considerable work. So much more than two years has already been put into this effort, and further delay is ridiculous. I want to go back to Senator Dastyari's comments, because they show that Labor has shifted. They can probably see the sand is moving under their feet on this one, they are losing some traction and they have to acknowledge that the system needs to change.

The proposal that is now outlined in a very well structured bill for optional preferential voting is the way to go. A cornerstone of our democracy should be the right of all citizens to run for election, either individually or collectively as political parties, regardless of wealth or background; another is that elections should be fair. This is the basis for the Greens' approach to Senate voting reform. I am very proud that the Greens have a democracy portfolio; I appreciated it enormously when former Senator Bob Brown asked me to take on that portfolio. The Greens have worked the Senate voting reform for a long time. Since 2004 it has been a key part of our work—2004, 2008, 2010 were the years when we introduced Senate voting reform legislation. Former Senators Bob Brown and Christine Milne put enormous effort into it, because they recognised how fundamental this reform was. You do not bring electoral reform forward because of the advantage it will give your party; you bring it forward because it will enhance the democratic process. That is what former Senators Brown and Milne recognised so deeply and that is why they continue to advocate for it up to today. The Greens won similar reforms in the New South Wales parliament: to end the backroom deals and to ensure voters can decide their own preferences. I would also like to note that Senate voting reform was a condition of the Greens support for the 2010 minority Labor government. While Labor agreed with that—and it was in the formal agreement—they failed to deliver.

Why the Greens and many others have worked so hard for Senate voting reform is clearly apparent when one considers the current voting system. As we all know, voting above the line leads to the problem of the backroom deals deciding the outcome, which I outlined earlier. The essence of the change here is that it will be voters who have the final say in allocating their preferences. The group-voting ticket system results in some candidates being elected with less than one per cent of the vote; I would argue that that does not reflect the intent of the voters—when a candidate needs to get to 14.3 per cent of the vote for a quota. The current system is not democratic; you could call the current Senate voting system a lottery in which the will of the voters goes untranslated. You may vote for one party but end up electing another—that is how preferences currently work.

I go back to the intent of the voter: when voters consider their preferences they look for a party that has values similar to their own party, and that is what gets lost—what gets wiped out—under the current system. There are several examples in Senate elections that reflect this problem. In 2004 Labor preferences elected former Senator Steve Fielding from Family First. Labor's preference deal with Fielding helped him win a seat, despite only receiving 1.9 per cent of the primary vote. Mr Fielding ended up being a firm supporter of the Howard government since he held various conservative views—and that is not unusual in this place—but most infamously he compared marriage equality to incest. I reckon a lot of the Labor people, who voted 1 Labor and found out that through backroom preference deals,, their votes ended up helping Mr Fielding become a senator, would not be too keen on the way that played out. Another example was the WikiLeaks Party preferencing the Nationals ahead of Scott Ludlam in Western Australia. Again, do we think the voters interested in internet freedoms and transparency were happy to have their votes go to the conservative National Party rather than a champion of internet freedoms like Senator Scott Ludlam? Could they even have known that this is what happened? Anthony Green in his testimony to the recent inquiry noted that even through thorough research of group-voting ticket arrangements, it is in practice near impossible for voters to know with 100 per cent certainty where their preferences will flow.

There is naturally some concern that reform might raise barriers to small or emerging parties. This is an issue that the Greens have given a great deal of attention to—we have debated it in the chamber before and we will continue to work on it. The Greens have stood firm in our longstanding support for the vital role of small parties in our democracy. We did this when Labor, the Liberals and the Nationals voted together to double the nomination fees to run in an election. It was clearly a move to try to knock out smaller parties, and some people have come to realise that that is not the fair way to enhance our democratic process. There was also the controversial attempt to raise the number of members needed to register a party, which the Greens did not agree to with, because we recognised that most parties start small with little money and there should not be barriers such as large memberships or high nomination fees put in their way.

The Greens have a bill before this parliament, called the Reducing Barriers for Minor Parties Bill, which takes up these issues and we will continue to work on that. We believe other measures need to be put in place to ensure that new and emerging parties can come through in our democracy. We will continue to ensure that the Senate voting reforms do not create barriers for small parties. That needs to be an important part of our considerations. In 2013 the liberal national and Labor parties did vote for those increases to nomination fees and I want to remind the Senate that they were sizeable increases—for the Senate they went from $1000 to $2000 and in the House of Representatives from $500 to $1000.

The Senate voting reforms that the Greens back do not reduce the rights of small parties to run to the Senate. Again, I want to emphasise this: the only change in this bill concerns who determines preferences, and parties can get out there and campaign strongly. The Greens support Senate voting reforms that would require above-the-line voting from one to six. That is a very important measure—requiring preferences above the line not to be according to the old system, so we get rid of group voting tickets, but then the voters will be required to vote at least one to six and there will be very clear instructions about that. With below the line, we welcome the recommendation coming through from the JSCEM inquiry that the bill needs to be amended so no longer will voters voting below the line have to fill in every box, which as we know is very onerous and turns a lot of people off. Below-the-line now would be a minimum of one to 12. You can obviously number more boxes, but at least one to 12 have to be filled in.

While we are speaking about the inquiry, I would like to put on the record my thanks to the secretariat, who worked very hard to bring forward that inquiry and organising the witnesses and preparing the report. It was a very useful process and that has been demonstrated by the fact that we now have this amendment. There was very strong evidence that we needed to change that aspect of the bill because of an inconsistency in how it would be presented to the voter, that above the line you were required to number a certain number of boxes—as we know, up to six—and filling in the rest was optional, so it was partial preferential, whereas below the line you had to fill in all the boxes. That would have been a confusing message. Some said it could even have been challenged down the track. Certainly the importance of that reform has been recognised, and it is good to see that that will now be in place. Again, because the whole validity of that inquiry has been so attacked by Labor, I did very much want to put that on the record and again note that for all the huff and puff and loud noises and undermining et cetera that went into setting up that inquiry, once we got there the Labor members did not have that many questions and even Senator Conroy, who is pretty famous for being able to talk for a long time, ran out of puff and handed over his time for non-Labor members to ask questions. That is clearly significant—

Senator Jacinta Collins: That is a misrepresentation, and you know it.

Senator RHIANNON: As always I am happy to take the interjections—

Honourable senators interjecting

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Whish-Wilson ): Order! Senator Rhiannon, ignore the interjections. Senator Rhiannon has a right to be heard in silence.

Senator RHIANNON: As always I am happy to take the interjections and one just had to read the Hansard from the debate yesterday to see that the time was given over.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Order! Senator Rhiannon has a right to be heard in silence.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you, Mr Acting Deputy President. I think this is the time when we need to move on to the situation that has happened with Labor. Remember that Labor has had a long period of solid support for Senate voting reform—Senate voting reform that gets rid of group voting tickets, not half measures but dealing with the problem in a responsible way. The JSCEM inquiry into the 2013 election—

Honourable senators interjecting

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: I remind senators in the chamber that interjections are disorderly, and Senator Rhiannon has a right to be heard in silence.

Senator RHIANNON: The JSCEM inquiry into the 2013 election was very thorough, as these inquiries are. It brought down a number of reports, and one of those reports was into this issue of Senate voting reform. Labor, Liberal, National, Greens and Senator Nick Xenophon worked very thoroughly on this and brought down a united position—one recommending Senate voting reform. There was a submission from Labor to that inquiry. It is very interesting that yesterday Labor senators were downplaying Labor's role there, saying it never went through the Labor caucus. It would be useful to read that in detail in Hansard, because here you have Labor senators downplaying the role of their own party when it was having input on such an important issue, and even giving leadership because at that point there was no voice of opposition. They now say it never went through caucus, but that was never reported. They came in, the report was presented in the House of Representatives and here, we debated it thoroughly and there were no Labor voices of opposition. Until very recently we thought that we were working together for Senate voting reform. But what has happened in recent months? Senator Dastyari and Senator Conroy have led a very strong campaign to undermine the report, briefing journalists and getting in the ear of other senators. Obviously you can do that in politics, but it certainly has not given the leadership that is needed in resolving this issue.

Let us remember what Labor are doing here. Labor are defending their patch. They are defending a patch from last century, when their politics was about backroom deals. It was about working out deals, and Senator Conroy gave it away when he said 'it did not go through caucus—that was the party's position.' Surely they should be working with their own members through their own party and respecting that process, but here they were, negating—it is all about what the politicians think. When he says that he is talking about Senator Conroy and Senator Dastyari giving direction—no leadership from the opposition leader, Bill Shorten, on this important issue. They are protecting Senate voting tickets because it is through those Senate voting tickets that over the years Labor have gained so much of their power. They are two backroom dealers themselves—that is where they came from and that is what we have seen play out again.

We should remember that there are a number of Labor people who continue to speak for this, including former Labor MP and former leader of the ACTU Jennie George. Former Senator John Faulkner in this place made many speeches on the need for Senate voting reform, but here we have just a couple, Senator Dastyari and Senator Conroy, misleading Labor. The reforms urgently needed are now in this bill. It is now time to get on with a thorough debate and pass the bill. I hope Labor do not just avoid debating the issue but come in on it in a very thorough way. We have worked together in the past and I urge Labor at this late stage to come on board—do not continue with the backroom deals, start being democratic and start working with the community for Senate voting reform that is long overdue.