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Monday, 25 February 2013
Page: 671

Senator SINODINOS (New South Wales) (12:14): I have been taken aback by the brevity and the eloquence of the previous speaker, Senator Madigan! I rise to speak on the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Improving Electoral Procedure) Bill 2012. I heard, while I was on my way here, about how this bill might reinforce some sort of duopoly when it comes to the political market. I do not believe that that will be a result of this bill. It is true that the Australian electorate historically has largely looked to two great political blocs—the Labor Party and the coalition in its various forms—over the years as to who would form the government. It is true, if we go back to the Cold War era, that it could be said that something like 40-plus per cent of the electorate were rusted onto one side or the other, and the rest were somewhere in the middle and in play.

Those days have gone. I really believe those days have gone. There are fewer and fewer rusted-on supporters. In some ways that can be a good thing because it means that we all have to work harder in the political market to earn their vote. Some say, 'Oh, but it means there is a lack of ideology today; that politics becomes too much a managerial game. It is about who can best manage the system—there is no fire of ideas'. I disagree with that latter point, and I can come back to that later.

Today, I think that people do want authenticity in politics. That is what they are looking for and they will look for it wherever they believe they can find it, whether it is in the independents or in the major parties. It is an obligation on all of us. If I look at the returns from various elections in recent times it is clear that people are prepared to move, and move very sharply—often at odds with their previous voting patterns—if they believe they need to send a message to one side of politics or to the other. I believe that when it comes to the role of independents that, frankly, sometimes independents are—particularly in the Senate context—thrown up as a result of the vagaries of the voting system. That can happen, as we saw in a previous parliament with a senator who from Victoria was not expected to win but did because of the quirk of certain preferences. That can sometimes be a bit of a surprise, but at the end of the day everybody gets judged on their performance whether they are the major parties or the independents.

Therefore you can argue about monetary limits, or the number of people who have to agree for someone to be put forward as a candidate to be nominated; you can argue over specific amounts, but I do not believe that any of those levels in any way militate against the participation of anybody in politics who wants to participate. I believe that we have a system that allows people from lower incomes to participate. I do not believe that the system has become entirely the preserve of the most moneyed groups whether they are corporate interests or trade union interests. The issues around who the major parties represent are important issues in their own right, but I do not think they are necessarily issues for this bill.

I have a particular view about where I think the Labor Party should go, but any advice I give them on that subject is obviously gratuitous. They are not going to listen to what I have to say, they will treat it as self serving. But I honestly believe that the future of Labor is to go down the route of some of the suggestions that have been made in various reports over the years, including by distinguished people who have since joined this house, like the junior senator from New South Wales and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator Carr, and by Senator Faulkner, who has been a long-standing believer in reform of that party. I say that in all humility because I believe that all parties should be very careful about becoming in any way too beholden to any one particular group. That is why within the coalition, or certainly within the Liberal Party, I have always supported—perhaps not as consistently as I should have—the idea of being a grassroots party that keeps its doors open to everybody to the maximum extent possible so that you are not beholden to any one interest. I think that is very important when you are selling your wares to the public.

In today's world, where you have far fewer rusted-on supporters, you have to be able to make your case to a much broader centre. Senator Feeney may know more about this than I do, but sometimes in research, for example, you find very significant groups in the middle who are swingers. Those people do not swing on ideology; they swing on outcomes. They swing on results. They swing on sending a message when they think one side of politics or the other is getting too far ahead of itself, or has done something wrong and deserves a particular period in the sin-bin. I am broadly optimistic about the future of Australian democracy. I think we have a very robust democracy. I do not believe any of the machinery aspects of this particular bill will do any damage to our democracy per se.

There are some broader issues that we all have to confront, and it is true that often confronting our own self-interest is possibly the hardest challenge of all. I remind people of the words of Kevin Rudd when he talked about the test of reform. He said that the test of reform is the capacity to take on your own supporters. We saw this with the coalition with gun control in 1996; the major issue was not being in favour of gun control, because the populace at large were in favour of it—there was no doubt about that. There was a wellspring of support for doing something in light of the Port Arthur massacre. That was not the issue; rather, the issue for the coalition at that stage was how to deal with its own supporters—particularly in the bush—who were worried that some of the restrictions being put on firearms would particularly disadvantage them. That was an issue on which John Howard and Tim Fischer—the then leaders of the coalition—to their credit, were prepared to take on their own constituencies, argue the toss and argue the case through. I believe that the Labor party, in matters like industrial relations, should take on its own base the way it did in the 1980s and 1990s when that great reform surge was based on the fact that you had trade union leaders like Bill Kelty and leaders like Hawke and Keating, who were prepared to take the Labor movement through a process of reform and greater transparency which, in the early 90s, resulted in the first moves toward enterprise bargaining.

I think it is very important that these are the tests for reform but, as I say, those particular tests do not apply to the particular provisions in front of us. In the main, I believe they are reasonable provisions and I see no reason why we would not be supporting them.