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Monday, 29 February 2016
Page: 1370


Senator LEYONHJELM (New South Wales) (20:21): When Bill Shorten is one of the few people talking sense on Senate voting reform, you know there is a problem. Recently Mr Shorten observed that 'it is not in the nation's interest or our economic future to give the Greens party the balance of power in the Senate.' Mr Shorten is well qualified to comment. Labor was forced into a deadly embrace with the Greens once before. It was not a pleasant experience for them or for Australia, and Mr Shorten is right to want to avoid it again.

The irony is that former Greens leader Bob Brown won the first Senate seat for the Australian Greens in 1996 based on the current Senate voting system. The Liberals won three of the six Tasmanian Senate seats up for grabs, Labor won two and Labor was ahead of Brown by 3,450 votes in the race for the last seat. That is where the race would have ended if optional preferential voting—the voting system the coalition is about to enact into law with the Greens' support—was used to count the votes. Labor would have won the last seat, allowing Labor and the Liberals to strengthen their grip on national politics.

Thanks to group-voting tickets, the race for the last spot did not end there. Instead the Electoral Commission saw that more than 17,000 people had voted for the Australian Democrats, who had not won a seat. The Democrats had told the Electoral Commission that if their votes did not elect a Democrat those votes should be used to help elect a Greens candidate. The Democrats had also made this known to their members and anyone else who cared to listen. So the Electoral Commission transferred those 17,000 votes from the Democrats to the Greens, Bob Brown overtook Labor and won the last Senate seat, and the era of the Australian Greens on the national political scene was born.

In the Senate election in 2013 the Liberal-National coalition and Labor had both won two seats of the six that were up for grabs in New South Wales. I then won the fifth, leaving the Greens ahead of the Liberals' Arthur Sinodinos by more than 100,000 votes in the race for sixth. If the Greens had had their way and optional preferential voting were used, that is where the race would have ended—the Greens would have won the last seat. But the Electoral Commission saw that more than 250,000 people had voted for anti-Greens parties, like the Shooters and Fishers Party, Motoring Enthusiast Party, Christian Democratic Party, Fishing and Lifestyle Party, No Carbon Tax Climate Sceptics and One Nation. None of these parties had won a seat, but each had told the Electoral Commission, plus their members and anyone else who cared to listen, that if their votes did not elect their own candidate those votes should go to the Liberals before the Greens. So the Electoral Commission transferred those 250,000 votes to the Liberals, and Arthur Sinodinos won the last Senate seat in New South Wales.

Now in 2016 the Greens have become a major party. They can win more seats if they disenfranchise minor party supporters. They can also force Labor to negotiate with them in ways that should chill the blood of any Labor believer, particularly one who cares about Labor's working-class traditions and commitment to improving the living standards of ordinary people. The Greens are a middle-class party. This is why they do not care when ordinary people's power bills go up because of their latest harebrained environmental scheme, leaving Labor to do the heavy lifting on behalf of the poor. Furthermore, there is something to be said for having a sawmill manager, a country vet, a blacksmith, a soldier, a footy player and a builder in the Senate, rather than the usual production line of lawyers and staffers, with little real-world experience beyond an exceptional talent for splitting hairs.

On the coalition side the Nationals have been sucked in by delusions of future Senate workability. The coalition agreement with the Liberals is based on the assumption that the option of going their separate ways is genuine. Indeed, that is the situation in Western Australia. But once the new voting system becomes law the Nationals will be bound irrevocably to the Liberals, with no prospect of independence. The two parties will rise and fall together. This will create a perfect environment for the Liberal Party to further restrict irrigated agriculture, prevent clearance of woody weeds, confiscate as many guns as it wants and pursue any other matter that impresses its new Greens friends in the Senate.

The other people breathing a huge sigh of relief will be those few insiders in rural industries riding the levy gravy train, who will be more than happy to stop answering some of my uncomfortable questions about accountability to levy payers. It will not be long before the Nationals are forced to either seek a merger with the Liberals nationally, as has already happened in Queensland, or become just another minor party that the Liberal Party decides it would rather do without. Adding insult to injury, thoughts that the coalition will gain control of the Senate as a result of the changes are fanciful. There is no way that can happen now or in the foreseeable future. Instead, the Greens and Nick Xenophon, who votes with the Greens most of the time anyway, will gain the balance of power. This should be a matter of great concern to anyone who believes rural areas should not all be turned into national parks.

Now I come to the person who has been turned into a pin-up boy for this wretched reform, my colleague Senator Muir. I offer in response to conservatives—who should know better—this quotation from William F Buckley, editor of the National Review.

I'd rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.

I have been put in mind of this quotation a great deal this week, reminded that we trust sortition to empanel our jurors. But when the electoral system throws up a few men and women of the people we lose our collective minds.

I was horrified when various people suggested Senator Muir's lack of a legal background made him less capable in parliament. I have seen it seriously suggested that Senator Lazarus is not fit to be a senator because he eats too much McDonald's—or perhaps because he does not return calls or keep appointments! I have heard it said that Senator Lambie is not fit to be a senator because she has some strange views and gets angry. The only reason others are not criticised on the same grounds is because they are protected by a large party. Even I am non-standard by this metric, having attributes of the Nats, Labor, the Libs and even occasionally the Greens, but then also disagreeing with them all on many occasions. Who can forget the famous division on my family tax benefit amendments, when I wanted to tighten up the means test? Everyone, and I mean everyone, was on the other side. How weird must I be?

I suspect even Ben Chifley would not get preselected these days. We are in the process of entrenching a political class of clever lawyers with good hair and those who resemble them most closely. This will work for a while, but eventually the jig will be up and the people will send an Australian version of Trump or Berlusconi to Canberra. As Anthony Albanese pointed out on Sunday, you do not fix the problem of fewer people voting for the major parties by changing the rules to make it look like everyone voted for the major parties.

The reforms planned by the government are an unprincipled attack on democracy by those who would rather the devil they know—the Greens—than anyone elected by the one in four people who do not vote for the major parties.