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Monday, 29 February 2016
Page: 1351

Senator MOORE (Queensland) (17:55): The opposition will be asking that the question be put separately on the procedural element of this motion, 'That this bill may proceed without formalities', and I wish to speak to the procedural part of that motion.

As people know, Labor will be opposing the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016 and will be taking every opportunity to make that point in this chamber. We are taking the opportunity in terms of debating the procedural part of this motion to ensure that this place—and anyone outside who is listening—understands how seriously we take the attempt to move this particular bill with such speed through the parliament and to impose a debate that I do not believe the community is ready to have.

We have heard that the basis for this bill being brought forward is that there is a need for an urgent change to the way the Senate voting process occurs. Funnily enough, we will hear much in the next few days about the work of the wonderful Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, which puts the focus of these issues both in this place and in the areas of the community that are truly interested in the way our electoral system operates. We have heard that this joint committee met in 2014, had hearings in 2014 and then met again in 2015 and had hearings around the issues of Senate electoral reform which would best suit the needs of our community and our electoral system. From that time in June 2015 until a week and a half ago there had been no push at all to bring forward debate on this bill. There had been no discussion on the way forward and how we were going to move it.

Labor did not find out about the need for this urgent bill to come before parliament from a discussion with the relevant ministers, or from a discussion between the Leader of the Government in the Senate and the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate or from the Manager of Opposition Business saying to the Manager of Government Business in this place that there is a need to bring this legislation forward and to have this urgent but very short debate. I note that the media also said how it was so important that this be done quickly. We came into this chamber to hear about what was going to happen and were told that there would be a further meeting of the specialist committee that looks after electoral matters—that is, the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. There would be another opportunity for these skilled people who work in this field to draw together their knowledge and draw together people from across the community who are interested in electoral matters.

I have to admit that not everybody in the community is as obsessed about the way electoral matters operate as I wish they would be. There are not 1,000 people who want to come and give evidence to a joint committee on electoral matters, but there are many. We have a wide range of people in our community across the board who are skilled in electoral matters, skilled in the way elections operate and skilled in knowing the motives of different people bringing forward these changes. All of that is there. We were told that there would be this opportunity and not to worry. How dare we say that there could be something wrong in this process? We were putting out feigned concern.

We were told that there would be this meeting of the joint standing committee, and then we found out that it was going to be a half-day, a three-quarter-day and then back to a half-day meeting this week. In fact, we have been told that that meeting will be held tomorrow. We will have the formal meeting of the joint standing committee to look at exactly what the issues are around this debate in the middle of our formalities process. We found that out, and everybody in the Senate was welcomed to be a participating member of this committee. That was circularised late last week. We have placed Senator Conroy onto the committee and he did attend the only grouping of that committee late last week—

Senator Conroy: No, there was one this morning as well.

Senator MOORE: Sorry, Senator Conroy. I really do not want to overstate the case.

Senator Conroy: I'll explain what happened at this one.

Senator MOORE: There have now been two attempts to have a meeting to prepare for the public meeting, which will be held tomorrow. I feel certain that Senator Conroy will go into much more detail with his personal experience, but my understanding of those meetings is that the agenda had been preset, the process had been preset, the hours of meeting had been preset, the people who would be invited to come and give evidence had been preset and there had been no attempt to go out into the public sphere and say, 'This is your opportunity, before the Senate actually debates the very urgent legislation, if you care, to come forward and have your say.' That was not offered to anyone, to the best of my knowledge. A lot of organisations and people in the wider community, who in the past have provided evidence to the committee, were not advised of the process, not able to attend at such very short notice or, with the time that was involved, said themselves that there was not sufficient time for them to prepare the research for their argument and so they did not come forward.

We have this offer to the Senate, which was for—I actually referred to it on Thursday as a 'discussion' or a 'chat' about the most significant change to electoral law in 30 years. This is changing the way the Senate, with the range of people who are involved in the Senate—this is making clear changes to how the voting process for the Senate will operate from now on. We do not believe that is sufficient. We think it is such a significant issue that there needs to be time for a wider debate around the process.

And that debate should not be just in this place. I know that we have had many long debates in this place about issues, some very urgent, and people are prepared to put the extra hours in so that there can be a debate, And I know committee processes can go on for a very long time in this place. But our concern on this side of the chamber is that we do not believe that these issues have been discussed widely enough in the community so that there is an understanding of the way that this part of the Electoral Act will operate. I cannot guarantee that by having a longer inquiry time that everybody in the community will fully understand how Senate voting operates. I wish that could happen, but I do not believe that just by having more time that everybody in the community will know. But I do believe that more people will have the opportunity to hear about the changes, to hear about how the changes could operate and to hear about what will be the future electoral voting process if there is a more extensive amount of time for people to have a discussion. And that could happen. One of the things that disappoints me most in this place is that at times we do not actually sit down and work out how we can make something happen but rather how we can force something through quickly or stop it.

At some stage in the last few months somebody must have thought that it is time now to move on an action that had been previously discussed in 2014 and 2015. I do not believe somebody had a moment of madness in the middle of the night and said: 'This is going to have to happen for the safety and security of our nation. We will have to push this forward in the next sitting of parliament.' I do not think that happened. This must have been planned over a significant period of time. But when that planning was being done, when the procedures were being put in place, it was not everyone in this place who had the chance to hear how that was going to happen. I do not know who was involved in those discussions; I just know people on this side were not. The Labor Party members of the joint standing committee were not actively involved in those discussions. But, as I said earlier, we found out in the media when we had people making commentary about what was going to happen, and, more particularly, why it was going to happen and what impact these particular changes would have on various people.

When this started happening, I went back and had a look at the papers that the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters had been using in 2014 and 2015. While I am not an expert in electoral processes, I did look at the evidence that was being put forward by academics and by various groups about their concerns about how the current system operates. I do see that there was a range of concern about how people could be elected with a very small primary percentage of the vote. I accept that. But that has been the case ever since I have been in this place; since we have been here, Mr Deputy President, there have been people elected into this chamber who have had small primary votes. That has been a reality. And people have been questioning that over that period of time.

I did see that there had been discussion about various ways that that issue could be addressed. There were a number of suggestions put forward, and over the last week, since we found out that this particular bill was so urgent and it had to happen, a number of commentators in the media have started writing again about the process of electoral voting in the Senate. There had been nothing in the media in the last four to five months—I do look at these issues to see what people are commentating on in the wider media, and there were no opinion pieces on electoral reform in the Senate. There was not a wide discussion in the various newspapers or the various fora about this, but in the last week there has been a bit and people talked about what had occurred in the inquiries in 2014 and 2015. They have talked about other options that had been on the table in that process and other discussions that there had been around the issues. The particular process that was recommended in 2015—the final recommendation in 2015—is not what is in this bill. If it were exactly the same proposal that the people who were gathered around in 2014, and then in the subsequent meetings in 2015, had agreed on there could have been an argument that 'you should have known about this and moved forward'. But it is not exactly the same proposal. It has similarities to it, but it is not the same proposal.

Senator Brandis: It is substantially the same.

Senator MOORE: It is not identical to it, Senator Brandis. No-one can say it is identical to it, and in terms of the process—

Senator Brandis interjecting

Senator Conroy interjecting

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Moore, resume your seat while we allow this discussion to peter out.

Senator MOORE: I was just allowing some freedom of discussion. I thought it was a bit of a committee process there, Mr Deputy President. Possibly I was wrong.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: No such luck. Senator Moore, you have the call.

Senator MOORE: In terms of the process, there had been this area, but it is not the identical recommendation from 2014 or 2015. It does have similarities, and I am sure we will hear about that when we get into the substantive discussion of the bill when it comes forward. The other issue I am concerned about is that, in the rather short discussions that we had last week when we were looking at what was going to happen into the future, we have heard a number of people talk about the fact that the Labor Party now has a different opinion to what it had when the submission was submitted. I did have a look at the submission that the Labor Party put forward to the committee, I think, 18 months ago. There has been significant time for people to think about that process since then. Unsurprisingly, there has been some further discussion within the party and we are now saying that we have a different view. I do not think that that is such a major issue in this place. On many occasions there have been various views put forward. The only argument that we got from the government last week about why they were concerned that we were making any discussion about why we think this a such a significant change to our electoral processes that we need further time for discussion here and in the wider community was, 'Hey—you guys have changed your minds.' I do not think that should be the beginning and the end of the argument. We need to have a much closer look at what we are doing on this particular bill than the current process put before us allows. That is not an unusual request.

I know how complex electoral processes are. I, like many people here, have worked on booths at many federal elections and know how concerned citizens are when they see the size of the Senate paper and think about what their role will be in voting for the Senate. Perhaps because where I often work people know who I am, at any election I get more questions about how the Senate voting process operates than about how the House of Representatives voting process operates. So I know that already in the community there are concerns about the complexity of the process.

The saddest thing in any election—that is a big call, if you do not win—is to have informal votes. It breaks my heart when I am a scrutineer, as I have been many times, and I see the number of times people make errors when they are voting. When I had a look at the history of voting in the Senate, one of the major reasons for the change 30 years ago was to minimise the number of informal votes in the Senate. Already at that time it had been identified that there were a large number of informal votes in the Senate, and it was a concern raised in the various discussions around the various changes 30 years ago. There already is a great need in the community to have more understanding and more support about how people register their votes everywhere, but in particular in the Senate.

The reason that we are making this particular intervention this afternoon, which is a procedural process, is again to reinforce how seriously we believe discussions around this electoral bill should be taken in this place and also to give a message to the wider community about how important these discussions are. It should not be something that people allow other people to worry about and to debate. This is something that affects every citizen who goes to a polling booth whenever a Senate election is called.

What we are seeking is a longer term for the opportunity to look at the issues, to consider exactly what is involved in the changes and even to have a look at some other options. Because this is the proposal brought forward, all we have in front of us is one option. Our leader, Senator Wong, made it very clear in debate last week that no-one is saying that the current system is perfect. We are not saying there is not room for change. We have never said that. None of our people who attended the previous meetings of the joint committee said that. Anyone who is now involved in the current process agrees that there could well be a clear need for change.

The participating members process that the government has offered us so generously this week is a farce. I have looked at how the process is supposed to work tomorrow: the small number of people who are able to come to give evidence; the fact that there is very little opportunity for written submissions; and the fact that when you look at the sequence for opportunity to ask questions, it would not matter if I had put my hand up to say that I desperately wanted to be a participating member on the committee—I would have no opportunity to ask a single question in the time allowed, which was predetermined. By reason of the tightness of time and the number of people involved it is quite clearly set out who will be able to ask a question and when. When you look at the opportunity given to each witness and the number of people who may be able to attend, this is not a chance, as we were told last week, for more senators to be involved in the process. Sure, we could come along as a chorus to watch and see what is happening, but this is not a way that more senators can participate in the process.

It is not good enough. There needs to be more consideration of change so that citizens feel that when they go to the polls they will understand how they are voting and for whom they are voting and so that we here will also understand that people will have that opportunity as well.