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Monday, 29 February 2016
Page: 1372


Senator KIM CARR (Victoria) (20:31): We are discussing a message from the House concerning the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016, and I would like to raise a few concerns that I have about this message and the way in which the government is seeking to fundamentally change the method of election for this chamber and, given the role this chamber plays, the fundamental change that is being proposed to the composition of the Australian parliament and, as a consequence of that, the types of laws that end up being passed in this parliament. These are concerns that do require much closer examination than the opportunity that has been given to date.

You could argue this case out on a technical basis. You could go to the question around process and the abuse of process, the way in which conservative forces in this country have sought to manipulate their majority in the House, and now their alliance with the Greens would allow the abuse of that arrangement. It would seek to entrench the political power of the hard Right of the Liberal Party and some of the most reactionary elements of the National Party. This has occurred, in essence, because of a desperate effort by the Greens to gain political respectability, to be seen as the party of moderation, to be seen as a force, which of course would allow them to be entrenched in this chamber and the Australian polity.

The second question arises about why this is happening. Why is it that the Greens party, which was once seen as a party of protest, has become complicit with the domination of its ideological foes? That is a matter that does require very significant analysis, which will not be afforded through this process but which will become apparent to the Australian people, simply because it is an old adage in politics that once you embark upon a process of deception, which has occurred in this manner, you invariably weave a very tangled web indeed.

The government says that this bill does not require a proper consideration by the chamber through a proper committee process because it is essentially the same proposition that was dealt with by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. When you actually look at the explanatory memorandum, you realise the fallacy of that proposition. The explanatory memorandum actually talks about key elements of the original report, and then goes on to say:

The JSCEM identified that the current Senate voting system, as provided for in the Electoral Act, lacks transparency, is overly complex, and needs simplification. The current ballot paper encourages above the line voting, with voter preferences distributed through a complex and opaque system of individual and group voting tickets. The JSCEM concluded that most voters are unlikely to understand, where their preferences flow when they vote above the line.

Of course if any of that was actually right, then why is it that there is such a different proposition being considered in this particular bill from that which was outlined in the original JSCEM report? Because we are not actually talking about the JSCEM in this process. What we are looking at is in fact a proposition that fundamentally alters the principles that were outlined in that original report. So it may well be that you could argue that there is a need for substantial electoral reform in this country, and you could accept the original JSCEM report, but this of course is not that report that we are considering. This is a proposal that we have before this chamber that is fundamentally different from the JSCEM report.

I see that one of the submissions that has been presented to the joint electoral committee, which has been re-established, is by a former official of the Australian Electoral Commission Mr Michael Maley, who, I might add, has not been called by the committee. The committee has in a prearranged, precaucus position determined the witness list in such a way as to make sure that people like Mr Maley cannot get a look in. Surely you can squeeze him in, given it is a four-hour hearing being proposed for tomorrow? Four hours is all that has been proposed for a matter that goes to a fundamental shift in the way in which this parliament ultimately is elected. It is a fundamental shift, the biggest we have seen in a generation, and it warrants no more than a four-hour cursory conversation with preordained, preselected witnesses. And the most interesting thing of all is the proposition for a report to be provided within what appears to be four hours of the hearing's conclusion!

Because one of the resolutions carried at lunchtime today was that the chair proposed to senators that the committee report should be drafted on Tuesday, 1 March, and that if people wanted to have reports considered for printing they had to be made available by close of business tomorrow evening. It leads you to only one conclusion: to hear the hearing tomorrow over four hours and to have the report prepared within four hours, the report has to have been already written. That is the conclusion you must draw. There is not a proper examination of the evidence because there cannot be a proper consideration of the evidence, as limited as it might be by the preselection of witnesses in the manner by which the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters has in fact undertaken its work.

It gets better than that. The process by which these witnesses will be examined had has also been detailed by majority vote—a government majority, of course, aided by the Greens in this case—that there should be a rotation of questions with one question being able to be asked by one party, then to the next and the next. This gives disproportionate influence to the Greens in that process. We all know that in any process of inquiry you do not just ask one question; you listen to the answer and ask a follow-up question, because that is the way these processes produce factual evidence. But the proposal we have here in this kangaroo court of an inquiry suggests to me that it is predetermined. The report will be predetermined, so maybe it does not require any questions to be asked, because why would you want to interfere with such magnificent system that is already in place?

I come back to the proposition of Mr Michael Maley, the witness that we are not allowed to hear from. He, of course, was formerly a very senior official of the Electoral Commission. He was the in-house expert in the Electoral Commission who led to the existing system being put in place back in the mid-1980s. Mr Maley says that the scheme proposed will in fact create an anomaly never previously seen at Senate elections: identical preferences for candidates may produce a formal vote if the elector expresses them above the line, but an informal one if they are expressed below the line because the ballot paper would be insufficiently completed.

Mr Maley had a 30-year career with the AEC and was deeply involved in the 1983 drafting of the current provisions of the Electoral Act. He is an outstanding expert in these matters. His submission makes it very, very clear that these arrangements are a fundamental departure from the original report of the joint standing committee, that is, that you must number one to six above the line—the original proposal was only one—and of course below the line you must exhaust preferences.

Of course there is some suggestion that there will be a higher rate of what is regarded somewhat coyly as a wastage rate. The bill's proposal will therefore encourage a higher level of informality. That is the fundamental concern under these arrangements. But how will we test that? The Senate processes that we would normally apply will not apply to this measure, despite its extraordinary consequences for the election of this parliament. We know that the change that has been proposed includes increasing the number of errors allowed from three to five. That still fundamentally does not change the principle that it is much, much more likely that they will be a higher level of informal votes under this system, which, of course, abandons the principles that were outlined in the original JSCEM report. It gives the lie to the notion that we do not need to have a proper examination of the implications of this change because it has essentially been dealt with before. It has not been.

What Mr Maley then says in his submission is that the system proposed in the bill is 'an incoherent one, with no clear underlying principles apparent'. He says:

The current system—

However you complain about it—

at least makes sense, in that it prima facie requires full preferential voting both above the line and below, with allowance only for mistakes. The Committee’s proposal of optional preferential voting both above and below the line also makes eminent sense. The Bill’s proposal, for optional preferential voting above the line but full preferential voting below the line (again with some allowance for mistakes), makes no sense, and has not been supported by any stated justification.

Normally, when you have Senate process, those types of arguments would be given a proper airing, there would be time allowed for them to be analysed and we might be able to reach some conclusion as to the truth of those claims. But under this bodgie set up, this sleazy deal that is now being rammed through this parliament, those types of assessments will not be able to be made.

Mr Maley then recommends:

…that the Committee seek from the AEC data, broken down by State and Territory, on how many below the line Senate votes in 2013 would have been saved from informality under the amendment proposed in the Bill—

to allow two more errors—

in comparison with the number which would have been so saved under the partial optional preferential voting scheme recommended by the Committee, supplemented by appropriate savings provisions.

That is not possible. You will not be able to do that because the committee report has already been written. If it has not been it will be a very short one, because it will simply say, 'The committee recommends commend the bill to the House.' Of course it will not be to the House, because the House has already voted. This is a report which has no interest in what the House of Representatives has to say, despite the fact that it is supposed to be a joint committee, because the House of Representatives has already declared its position. It has carried this measure. I might add that it carried it with errors. No doubt further amendments will have to be made as we discover them. That is the reality of what has happened here. A sleazy deal, done dirt cheap, is now being driven through this parliament irrespective of the consequences for the political system of this country and the damage it will do to the method of selection of members of this parliament.

It well may be that members of the House of Representatives do not think very much about this, because on most occasions in my experience they think very little about the Senate until they lose a bill, they have a Senate inquiry they do not like or because when evidence is presented at estimates, for instance, embarrasses a government or forces the government to retract statements they have made that are untrue. These are fundamental principles, and I think the greatest power of the Senate is the power of disclosure. All the rest is important, but that is the fundamental power.

What these measures do over time is provide the conservative forces in this country with a majority. It is a simple proposition, because under these arrangements the party with the highest number of votes when all the other votes are exhausted will end up with the final Senate position. I put it to members of this chamber that that will mean the conservatives will be more likely to win three out of the six seats in a half Senate election. We have seen in our living memory an occasion where in Queensland they were able to secure four of the six, which gave them the majority and which gave us Work Choices. We know what they do with the majority: they are ruthless and they are absolutely determined to implement an agenda.

But what troubles me is how naive the Greens are in allowing this to happen. What we would see here with these arrangements is the $100,000 degrees, the smashing of people's rights to organise work and the $7 Medicare co-payments. We would see the shocking inequities of the 2014 budget delivered with all the regressive social consequences that would have. We would have the assaults on the unemployed, the weak and those who are socially disadvantaged. That would all be endorsed by an electoral system which the Greens are now providing to us.

I take the view that there are alternatives; there always have been. I think one of the weaknesses of the original JSCEM report—and I have made this point many times—is the way in which it failed to deal with alternative methods of ensuring that the manipulations of the electoral system were not prosecuted in the way they had been. We know the best way that can be done. Ross Gittins made the point this morning in the paper, which is a widely held view, that:

A better solution - one that ended gaming by micro parties without stymieing all democratic change - would be to retain the present preference system but simply add the rule that candidates getting a primary vote of less than, say, 2 per cent, would be excluded from election and their preferences redistributed.

That was published in the Fairfax press this morning.

We know that already in many countries around the world there exists various methods of establishing thresholds. In Turkey, I think the number is 10 per cent—some might say that is far too high. In the Russian Federation, it is seven per cent. In Germany, it is five per cent. I understand that in Belgium, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Moldova, Poland, the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic, there is a similar type number of five per cent. In Austria, it is four per cent. In Bulgaria, Italy, Norway, Slovenia and Sweden, it is four per cent. In Spain, it is three per cent. In Greece, Romania and Ukraine, I think they have just reduced it from four to three per cent. It is two per cent in Denmark. There are different types of electoral systems around the world which give proper, fair representation to all different shades of political opinion but which allow for an important confidence measure to be built into the electoral system to ensure that there is a proper representation of a range of views.

I failed to deal with the really big question, and that is: why? In part, it is because the Greens are so desperate in their hostility to some of the very right wing members of the crossbench that they think the way to exclude them is to do a deal with people who are even more right wing in the government. Some of those take the view that even those who have been so determined to vote with the government are now getting their just rewards because the government is turning on them. The reality is pretty simple: this has nothing to do with democracy and everything to do with an attempt to entrench the political power of the Greens.

We know the Greens are transforming themselves. They are becoming increasingly the party of the inner city, the extremely wealthy people in the inner-city. They are a party—and I think I made this observation before—who believe that the best social conscience that money can buy is something to aspire to. They are very different in their outlook to Labor; but they are only too happy to entrench their power by doing a deal with the most conservative elements in the country, despite claiming that they are a party of protest. What we do know is that the Greens are now very much prepared to turn their back on questions of social justice and social equity if it means they can secure their power in this chamber. They will even do it if there are consequences for some of their own number. I suppose in some quarters that would be regarded as a win-win situation, because the people that they are removing have been a thorn in the side of the leadership of the Greens in recent times.

It is a tragedy that this is happened. This is a shameless abuse of the Senate process, and it is the shameful proposition that the Greens have been so complicit in.