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Wednesday, 2 March 2016
Page: 1681


Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (18:55): I rise to take note of the advisory report on the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016. I would very much like to thank the secretariat for the work that they have put into this. This report and the bill that it examines take us closer to a more open and transparent voting system. Working to achieve this is something on which we should have unity in this chamber. Labor Senator Kim Carr made the point at the start of his contribution that he had made close examination of this report. But then, true to form with what we have seen from so many Labor contributions in recent days, we heard a number of allegations, many of them ludicrous and many of them making attacks, particularly on the Greens and on the proposal that we have before us that is encompassed in this bill. It is worth looking at some of those.

Let's remember what we heard from Senator Carr, which is similar to what we heard from Senator Conroy and Senator Dastyari. They painted a bogeyman scenario in which there would be 38 coalition senators sitting on the government's red benches and in control for ever and ever. When Labor say that, let's remember that they are effectively saying, 'We've already lost the election.' How ridiculous! What a ridiculous way to run a political party, let alone an election campaign. There is a very simple message here: get out, have the courage of your convictions, show us what you stand for and do your job better, as my colleague Senator McKim says. That is what we should be seeing here. But, in speech after speech, they are just claiming that they have already lost the election and that the Senate will be dominated. The Greens will continue to fight against the ABCC bill and what this government is attempting to do to the union movement. That will be solid. It will be solid in the community, and it will be solid in this place. Attempting to misrepresent this does no credit to Labor, and people will see through it. There is a very clear problem in how Labor have been handling this whole debate.

Another piece of ongoing misinformation is that this inquiry has been a disaster. It was a very solid inquiry with excellent evidence. I have spoken about that before. But I have now been informed that at least eight other inquiries undertaken by committees of this parliament had the same number of working days as JSCEM had for this one, or even fewer. From referral to the reporting date, we had seven working days. So eight other inquiries had seven or fewer working days. There has been a misrepresentation that this inquiry did not hold up and was quite useless.

Let's remember some of the important aspects of the work that this inquiry has undertaken, because they reflect on some of the unfounded criticisms that have come forward during this debate. I want to start with the inquiry itself because it was revealing in this very fundamental aspect of what we are dealing with here. Should we get rid of group voting tickets, or should they remain? We have a bill before us that has really delivered excellent transparency and an opening up of the voting process to the voters so they can decide their own preferences. But we have heard from Labor senators and some others that we must retain the current system. At the inquiry, Senator Conroy set out how the current system works. You could not have had a better advocate for how wrong and how damaging this system is, how it minimises democracy in such an extreme way. Here are Senator Conroy's words:

I have probably only met 10 people—most of them have been in this room this morning—who truly understand how it works and who actually have a genuinely full understanding of how that system would work.

He is referring to group voting tickets, saying that he has only met 10 people who understand them. He went on to use much more colourful language in the flourishes he is well known for. It did not reflect well on him or the whole system of group voting tickets that representatives of all our parties have to be involved in if we are going to be able to lodge our group voting ticket to get the box above the line. I was quite surprised how blunt he was, and I do not think he realised what he was walking himself into.

The report also set out the issue of the count itself. We were very pleased that the bill has been amended to ensure that the current counting system will continue. It had been proposed not to count the Senate first preference votes by party on the night. That amendment is in the bill. Current counting procedures have been reinstated, and we feel that was very necessary.

Another area that understandably gets attention, particularly by those who are trying to derail this bill, is the suggestion that there could be a High Court challenge. I absolutely take that seriously because, in dealing with these matters, one needs to look into it, and we received evidence on that issue. Some argued, in essence, that the High Court may find this reform unconstitutional. A number of expert witnesses said that that would not be the case. Very clear evidence was given on that front.

I will share with senators some comments from Professor Antony Green. He noted that there have been no cases with a constitutional judgement on the use of Senate party lists. He highlighted two key facts—that voters can still vote directly for candidates and that he could not see how the proposed above-the-line system could be declared unconstitutional without the existing above-the-line voting system also being ruled unconstitutional. We know that has not happened. I would argue that that advice is very conclusive.

Also relevant in relation to the allegation that the High Court may find this bill unconstitutional is the experience in New South Wales. We gained reforms to get rid of group voting tickets and bring in optional preferential voting in 1999. Since then there have been four elections. Not only has there not been any High Court challenge—or any legal challenge at all—there have been no complaints about the system. The system is working well, it brings greater democracy, there are much fairer elections, and minor parties are being elected to New South Wales on the basis of preference flows. It is a very good example of how this electoral reform can work in a beneficial way to improve our democratic process.

Senator Carr attempted to entertain many allegations and flourishes when he spoke. One particularly outrageous one was that, in negotiating this bill, the Greens had made some deal about preferences in lower house seats. That is ludicrous. It is ridiculous. It reflects on how so many Labor MPs approach these issues. They think others work like they do. They are out there doing deals, selling out their principles, seeing what advantage they can get when they go forward in these negotiations. All we negotiated on—

Senator Moore: You don't do deals?

Senator Ludwig: Do you want a mirror?

Senator RHIANNON: I am again happy to acknowledge the interjections. What we negotiated on was purely this legislation before us. That is all we negotiated on, to get better outcomes, and we have been successful in improving this bill—something Labor would have been wise to do.

Opposition senators interjecting

Senator RHIANNON: I am happy to acknowledge the interjections for Hansard. There are many outbursts from the Labor side of this parliament. What we have here is an example of how the Greens work. We went in there to improve the legislation. We have been working hard for years to get this legislation. In the first place, it was not perfect, then we worked to improve it. Surely that is what you should be doing in this place if, overall, legislation brings an advance for the people of Australia—and in this case that is what we have achieved. This bill brings greater transparency and gives voters the right to determine their preferences. That is what is needed. It is time Labor got on board and got out of the backroom deals.