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Monday, 29 February 2016
Page: 1381


Senator POLLEY (Tasmania) (21:15): I have been motivated to speak on the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016, which has been received from the House of Representatives. I concur with so much of what Senator Ludwig contributed to this debate. There is a message for Greens senators in this place, who, at every opportunity, like to take the high moral ground. How many times have we in this place heard about how bad it is for whoever is in government to cut off debate? Well, the Greens are party to doing exactly that when it comes to changing the laws to elect senators.

For 30 years the electoral system has worked very well. Under the laws currently in existence, the Australian people have been represented by all of those who have been elected to this place—irrespective of whether or not I agree with them.. I can only speak for my home state of Tasmania, from which an array of senators have been brought to this place over the decades to contribute to debates on very important legislation.

In this instance, we see the Greens of old—a point on which I disagree with Senator Ludwig, because unfortunately for far too long we in Tasmania have had to deal with the Greens always wanting to take the high moral ground, always talking as if they are the only people who represent their communities with a principled position, whether here in the Senate or in the state parliament. My colleague Senator Bilyk, who is here in the chamber tonight, and I know only too well that the Greens are an opportunistic party. They condemn the major parties and make those sorts of accusations against us, but they want to limit the scrutiny of this legislation by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, which represents both members of the House of Representatives and senators. As a former member of that committee, I can say that committee members might have had different views on the issues that came before us, but we always had the respect to allow proper contributions by those who wanted to make a contribution. Whenever we held hearings, we ensured that people representing all views on the issue before us had the opportunity to come and make a contribution.

But what do we see here? When the Greens are motivated, along with the government, by an opportunity to improve their self-interest, to improve what they perceive to be the chance to put more Greens on the leather seats here in this chamber, that is exactly what they will do. I am all for taking an opportunity if you think it is in the best interests of the community, but if you are going to do that you do not roll over so easily and sell out. The Greens have come in here and preached about the sorts of reforms you believed were necessary in relation to political donations. They had their opportunity to really do something about having proper scrutiny of political donations, about having transparency. But what did they do? All they said was: 'Yes, government, we will support Mr Turnbull and we will support Senator Brandis to ensure this legislation gets rushed through. We will support reducing the opportunities for those people who have an interest in electoral reform to make a contribution or to be part of scrutinising legislation by reducing the amount of time the committee has to pass judgement and to take evidence on this proposal.' The Greens never took the opportunity to have real reform.

We in the Labor Party have said many times that we should be looking at electoral reform, but with that comes the necessity to have a proper strategy for ensuring that all issues on the table are considered. When the government are talking about tax reform—although they were not very keen on talking about that in question time today—they say that everything is on the table. Isn't it funny: when it comes to electoral reform, which affects every Australian over the age of 18, they do not want to put everything on the table; they just want to run their own agenda. That agenda is being part of a dud deal that ensures the Greens have finally, once and for all, put it out in the arena that they can be bought, that they are not a group of people with any real principles. They are prepared to sell out the Australian people because they see an opportunity to maybe increase their representation. That has yet to be determined. There were no negotiations. The Greens just agreed to whatever the government wanted. I ask: if you are really serious about reform, about scrutinising political donations, why didn't you negotiate that point with the government?

This is just a dirty deal which purges the Senate of small parties and independents. It prevents new parties from ever getting elected; it exhausts the votes of 3.3 million Australians and risks turning the Senate into a rubber-stamp for a coalition government. All those issues that the Greens go out into the community and say they are sincerely committed to—ensuring that we have proper climate strategies in place, changes in the environment and climate change—all of those are at risk, because the coalition government will rubber-stamp. As someone who was here during the Howard government, when it had outright control of the Senate, I know exactly what they will do—they will use their numbers every single time. It will not matter if the Greens have nine, 10 or 12 senators, the policies that you purport to hold dear will be rolled over in the same way you are trying to roll over the changes in electoral reform by participating with the government.

It was never envisaged that the Senate should be made up of the two major parties and the Greens. It was the intention at Federation that all states have equal representation of senators. But what we see now is a government which is not prepared to talk about the big issues—about taxation reforms or the economy and the plan for strengthening that. When I asked a question in the chamber today we had Senator Brandis say that the Prime Minister was too busy to outline his plan, not only to the Australian people on tax reform, but also—

Senator Brandis: I rise on a point of order, Madam Acting Deputy President. That is an absolute misrepresentation of what I said, Senator. I said no such thing, and you are misleading the Senate in attributing to me words that I did not use—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Reynolds ): Senator Brandis, what is your point of order?

Senator Brandis: That is my point of order.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: That is not a point of order.

Senator POLLEY: I love it when I get those sorts of interjections.

Senator Brandis: I dislike liars!

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Brandis, withdraw.

Senator Brandis: I withdraw.

Senator POLLEY: As I said in this place today, we heard that the government and the Prime Minister would not respond to questions. What is so different about this Prime Minister? What reasons did he give for knifing Mr Abbott? There is nothing different. When it comes to the government wanting to rush through legislation— when we were in government, we heard those opposite cry foul rushing through legislation and closing down debate—they are hypocrites along with the Greens. It is a shame that, when we have an opportunity for some serious reform, we do not get people together and we do not produce a white paper or a green paper. What we do is ram through what we perceive to be in our own best interests. That is what this debate is all about.

Experience tells me that legislation rushed in this place all too often ends up being bad legislation. It is rushed through without due consideration or scrutiny. We will see with this legislation, as we have seen with other legislation, that it will have to be amended. After all, this is just a dirty deal that has been done to expedite the coalition's motivation to call a double D to get rid of the crossbench—a crossbench, to be fair to them, that has brought a vast array of experience to this place, and I think this Senate has been much richer for it. We have certainly all learnt daily from contributions that have been made by those senators. It is politically opportunistic of this government. Instead of waiting and having proper due process, this government wants to go to a double D, and this is the opportunity to wipe out the crossbench. The Greens will then see themselves as being the ones to determine the outcome of any legislation by holding the balance of power, along with Senator Xenophon.

Things do not always fall the way you think they will. It is really disappointing that the opportunity for proper transparency has been missed. The government side is always having a go that unions which are affiliated with the Labor Party make donations to us at election time, but we know that the arrangements those on that side make with their various interest groups—the business community and so on—they do not want to have transparency when it comes to political donations because they would be exposed.

The big losers in this debate will be not just the crossbenchers, who no doubt will be wiped out, but the Australian people. They will no longer have the same opportunities to express their motivations for the people they vote for. It will cause the Electoral Commission, the AEC, before this double dissolution election is called, to rush around to make sure that the Australian people have some idea about having a formal vote at the next election.

As I have said, there were a lot of things that Senator Ludwig contributed to this debate that I would want to agree with, but Senator Whish-Wilson in his contribution tried to outline to the Senate the processes by which Labor caucus arrived at our decision. He is totally and utterly wrong to suggest that we had a different view to the one we are espousing and will continue to espouse when the legislation comes before the Senate. There was never a decision to support this type of reform. We have always said that the reform process needed to be full and frank and open to scrutiny. The views of one member of the caucus, whether it is a shadow minister or not, do not tie us to supporting this type of legislation. They do not bind us to do that. We have open and frank conversations and debates within our caucus.

Senator McKim is one who knows only too well how to sell out his community and what sort of dirty deeds and deals he has to do. Before he came to this place he did some amazing details to suit his political opportunities at the time. But here we have a real opportunity for the Greens to convince us on this side of the chamber and the Australian community that they really are people of principle. If they were people of principle, they would have used this opportunity and they would at least have had some respect for ensuring that there was transparency in any political donations made. That is what the Australian community expects. If you are going to reform a voting system, make sure it is for the betterment of the community and this country. They have failed that test in this debate.

Those who say they are people of principle, those who take the high moral ground, have been exposed for what they really are—political opportunists. That is all this amounts to. Otherwise they would not be closing down the debate, they would not be closing down scrutiny of this legislation before it comes to the Senate for a vote. Instead of rushing it through and expecting this legislation to be passed this week, they would allow full and frank scrutiny of the legislation by the relevant committee. It is very disappointing that they want to rush through reform of legislation that has stood the test of time for the last 30 years—for three decades. It is the same system that brought all of us to this place, and I thought it was a good system that enabled the Australian community to know that when they were casting their vote they were going to be electing people who had principle and who would be voting in the interests of the Australian community. That is clearly not the position of the Greens, who have so quickly jumped into bed with the government and done this dirty deal. That is all it can be seen as—a dirty deal that they believe will advance themselves.

As some of my colleagues have said to me in relation to this reform, don't the Greens really like Senator Hanson-Young? She will be under threat. Or are they going to get rid of Senator Simms? We do not know the outcome—we do not know whether there are going to be changes in South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria or Queensland. One thing we do know is that those people who vote for an Independent or a minority grouping will no longer have their voices heard to the extent that they currently do now. Whether the next election is a half-Senate election or a double dissolution, we do not know what the final make-up will be. We do not know whether those Independents who sit in the chamber today will be the same as those who will sit here after the election. But to ensure that they do not risk their opportunities to maximise their own position, they have got into bed with this government on something as important as electoral reform. As I said, I could have some respect for them if they really wanted to see proper reform by having a proper inquiry that enabled everyone who wanted to make a contribution to do so. As a participating member of the committee—I am no longer a full member—I would have no chance at all of asking a question in the inquiry that will be held tomorrow because quite clearly there will not be enough time. That is unfair to every senator in this place who wants to make a contribution to this very important issue.

The Greens could have said they would only vote for this package if they got meaningful donation reform in this country. But they did not—they did not take that opportunity. The only opportunity they took was one that they believed was in their best interests. It would be very interesting to know how Senator Macdonald, who constantly interjects in this place and hurls abuse whenever the opposition and the Greens vote together on any legislation, really feels about it. I bet he will get in behind this legislation because, once again, it is in the interests of the government and the Greens and no-one else.