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Monday, 29 February 2016
Page: 1377

Senator LUDWIG (Queensland) (20:55): I too rise to speak on the message. Just in case those who may be listening to the debate are somewhat bemused, where we are at is that a message has been received by the Senate in respect of an amendment to the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016. The bill amends the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 to—and using the words of the EM, which I do not agree with, but for the purposes of the debate perhaps it does shed some light on what we are here to do in the euphemistic way that the coalition tend to frame their legislation:

… improve the Senate voting system, require that there be unique registered officers for federally registered parties, and allow for political party logos to be printed on ballot papers.

…   …   …

providing for partial optional preferential voting above the line, including the introduction of advice on the Senate ballot paper that voters number, in order of preference, at least six squares;

There is also a savings provision where only one is provided. It also provides 'appropriate vote savings provisions'. The bill also then abolishes 'group and individual voting tickets'. And of course it introduces 'a restriction that there be a unique registered officer and deputy registered officer for a federally registered party'. It is primarily aimed at what the coalition would argue is to provide transparency and to reduce the confusion. In fact, what it does is the opposite, and it is not unsurprising for the coalition to dress-up their legislation in such a way.

This debate, of course, did not start this evening. This debate has been going for some time. The original group voting tickets were introduced some time ago. For nearly 30 years it has stood the test of time and principally it was introduced—that is, the current system—to ensure that the informal voting growth that had started to occur in the Senate was constrained and remedied. Today, we have an informal vote which is by all accounts very, very small. This is a new change that is untested, one that could wrought havoc in the voting system in the Senate. It could ultimately change the way that Senators are elected and the way that people might bring themselves to vote. It could create outcomes which are as yet unknown. Informal voting could rise. But we do know a couple of things. We do know that it will disenfranchise many who vote for minor parties and Independents in the Senate, which is a significant portion over the last couple of years; it has arisen to well above 25 per cent. All that might sound worrying, but the coalition does not appear to be worried one jot, and nor do the Greens, who have signed up to this. The Greens, the government, and we can throw in Senator Nick Xenophon, have all agreed to alter the laws governing the election of senators. In this place those who have the numbers tend to win. With the coalition and the Greens and Senator Xenophon, they will ultimately have the numbers.

Our role as an opposition party is to highlight where we think the government have made substantive errors. The first error I think is easy to identify. The coalition have sought to rush this legislation through with little scrutiny. The vast work of the Senate in scrutinising legislation has been sidelined by the coalition and the Greens. What that review brings to the table is that, where there are unintended consequences, mistakes and foreseen areas that should be rectified, none of that will get an opportunity to be aired.

The government has deigned to allow a very short inquiry by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters to report by 2 March 2016. The government desires to have the legislation passed as soon as possible so that it can implement these changes before an election. That means that the Senate committee in this instance that is charged with examining electoral matters, JSCEM, will not have the opportunity to receive well-reasoned, considered submissions into this bill. It will get submissions. I hazard to guess there are many who are interested in providing comprehensive submissions about changes such as these. They will not all get to put pen to paper. There will be some submissions that will not be heard. There will be submissions that have had to be rushed. There will be people who will not have the opportunity of examining all the implications of the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016. All that does not hark well for this bill.

The government and the Greens will implement what they claim to be the JSCEM recommendations. But that does not mean that they will represent Labor's position. It was a majority report. No-one can cavil with that. But the coalition and the Greens have reduced it to a bill to be introduced into parliament and it should get the appropriate scrutiny of every other bill. It should have a proper inquiry. There should be the ability for submitters to be heard in respect of the bill. The bill should be allowed to be examined in detail. But this coalition government, with the support of the Greens, is treating the Senate like it treated the Senate between 2004 and 2007. It treated the Senate as a sausage machine and it brought us Work Choices and a raft of other legislation that had very little scrutiny and was brought in because it had the numbers to crunch the legislation through the Senate. It did not end well for the coalition. Some suggest that it contributed to its ultimate downfall. When you have that sort of power, it is clear what it means. When you have unfettered power of that nature, it will corrupt. When the coalition between 2004 and 2007 had unfettered control of the Senate, it ultimately lead to corruption of the legislative process. That led, I think, ultimately to their demise.

This is not comprehensive reform. If the government were serious about comprehensive reform then they would have done like Labor have done and provided a green paper or white paper on the reform process with the support of all those on board and then ultimately brought legislation through with proper Senate scrutiny and proper House scrutiny through the JSCEM and then proper scrutiny of the actual legislation itself to bring changes in this place. But that was not done. It was not done at all.

Much has been said about the Greens and their role in all of this in this place during this debate. Some say they have naively signed up to this process. I do not subscribe to that view. I think the Greens in this instance have made a very deliberate decision to support this bill because they see an ultimate benefit for them. That is not the Greens of old. That is the new Greens. We might refer to them as a new party now because they are moving from being a protest party to being a centre left party of minor party status, seeking, I think, the role the Democrats once played in this place. There is a risk you run in pursuing a centre left minor party role. When there is a debate between the major parties they will have the ability to support either the Liberal coalition or Labor. They will then get to hold the balance of power in this place. It is a difficult thing to hold, maintain and control. Ask the Democrats how difficult it is when you move into the balance-of-power role within the Senate. The Democrats held that for some time but ultimately they disintegrated because of policy differences, personality differences and differences across nearly every other spectrum you could imagine within their ranks.

Not that I am apt to give advice, but the Greens ought to take notice of history in this place. They are moving from being a genuine protest party with a base that was founded on a range of policies—and I agree with many of them. They have promoted those policies, but they will not get them up as a balance-of-power minor party in the Senate. The coalition will not support them, so they will have to compromise. They will have to compromise their values and their policies to achieve a minor party balance-of-power status in this place. All that means ultimately is that the gain they have viewed that they will take out of this might be short-lived over time.

There are genuinely held, different views about Senate reform, particularly when it comes to voting reform. There are options that have been floated from the green papers on electoral reform from Labor which dealt with the introduction of threshold systems for counting votes, the introduction of single-member constituencies and amendments to the ticket voting system to allow for preferential above-the-line voting or optional preferential voting below the line. All of these have been canvassed for some time. Ultimately, if we were going to choose a particular system, I do not think it is up to the coalition or the Greens to settle on one system from a committee report. You need to develop a properly reasoned position from a green paper or a white paper through to taking the electorate with you on Senate reform. If you do not do that then I think the only alternative answer is that it is designed to benefit both the coalition and the Greens, and give them significantly more power within the Senate. When you look at how the changes might come about, you wonder whether those changes will create an appropriate system, a fair system and a transparent system, as they would say.

It is also proposed to amend the legislation to implement key elements of Labor's longstanding policy to enhance transparency and accountability in relation to political donations. These amendments would enact key elements of the reform proposed by the previous Labor government in the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill. Labor was unable to proceed with this legislation as the coalition joined with the crossbench to block it in the Senate. The main objects of the bill included reducing the donation disclosure threshold. These are truly matters of reform that the coalition could embrace. Labor has continued to ensure transparency around political donations. The coalition, on the other hand, have maintained a steadfast opposition to transparency around political donations. Why, you ask? They do not embrace transparency particularly well. They do not embrace the objects of transparency. That is why, when I see it written in this bill as being an object by the coalition, I find it hypocritical, and I doubt strongly whether this government intends to actually embrace transparency in any way, shape or form.

The Greens and the coalition have come to a concluded view that this is the way forward. Why? Because back in the 2013 election there were minor parties who managed to ensure that people got elected. People differ on whether it was sharp practice or whether they gamed the system or whether they used the system to the best of their advantage. The question that I have not formed a view about yet is whether or not you can continually do that even if the next election remains unchanged from this, whether the system would correct itself because people—the major parties or the Greens or the minor parties—are aware of how the gaming occurs and could put in strategies to defeat it by, or whether there is the same impetus for the minor parties. I have always found voters who are smart enough to understand the system not to be fooled twice.

The question then is are we rushing to change the voting system in the Senate, that stood the test of time for over 30 years, for a short, political fix and gain by the Greens and the coalition? If we are doing that and it fails will we be back here in three years time or sooner with more amendments, with more change? It will drive a seesawing or pendulum system of change around electoral changes or voting systems for the Senate. You will ultimately lose the support of the voter if you choose to head down this path without taking the voter with you. They will find the new system and whether they will embrace it or not is a moot point because they have not been asked to make submissions, to be heard or to be taken on the journey of Senate reform.

Many might say that it is an insider's game. But, ultimately, it is about the franchise. It is about the opportunity for people to cast their vote in the Senate. If you are going to make a substantive change such as this, then it should not be rushed. It should be considered. Any change should be thought through more than this piece of legislation that is being rushed through. It comes on the back of what is described as 'small party success'. It ignited fairly heated debate about the fairness of the voting system, given the distribution of preferences which delivered seats to minor parties. We have heard from minor parties who have benefited from that system and who have embraced it. We have now heard from the Greens who find it underwhelming, which is odd if you look at the Greens' history. They want to ensure that the minor parties, the independents, do not get a voice in the Senate, that they do not get heard. I would have thought it was anathema to the Greens' position that they want to stifle minor parties, stifle debate in the Senate, and ensure that only the Greens, the coalition and Labor get the opportunity of speaking in this place, of being heard in this place, and of discussing and reviewing legislation in this place. It is not a position that the Greens have articulated in this place over time. The Greens have also not articulated a position of cutting short Senate inquiries and of cutting short debate on legislation.

The Greens have loudly, sometimes unfairly—mostly fairly—complained about the opportunity the two big parties have taken to put legislation through. They are now party to that. Be aware: you are now party to this debate. You cannot, tomorrow or the next day, walk away from that position. You have put your foot fairly with the major parties on the way the Senate will be managed into the future. Do not come back into this place tomorrow or the next day or next year and complain if legislation that you want to be heard on is treated in the same manner, if legislation is rammed through, should the coalition, post the next election, gain the majority in this place. It is with your hands that you have achieved it—no-one else's. You do not have to do this, but you are. You have now moved to the Centre Left position on the pendulum and you should take responsibility for all your actions in this place on that point.