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Monday, 29 February 2016
Page: 1385


Senator GALLAGHER (Australian Capital Territory) (21:36): I welcome the opportunity to speak on this message from the House of Representatives concerning the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill. As senators would know, I am one of the newer senators in this place so I have not been as involved in some of the discussion about Senate voting reform as other senators may have been. However, in the last two weeks or so I have been having a look at this, and certainly a closer look in the last weeks since the legislation was tabled. There are a couple of things that raise some concerns with me. The only experience I can talk from is the electoral reform process that we went through in the ACT that was largely around a donation reform, but I do recall very much the detail of the inquiry process that was undertaken for that legislative reform and the fact that we worked very closely with all members of the assembly in that reform process to ensure that as much as possible the reforms were supported across the board where agreement could be reached.

Indeed that was the process I took when we took the decision to seek to expand the assembly's membership. We acknowledged that we needed an absolute majority in the assembly to get that reform through, and that we must work together but we must take the time that was needed to ensure that reforms were supported and could move smoothly through the assembly. The contrast I have noticed with the approach that has been taken here to that experience is that a bill that was released last week for public consideration was going to be swept through. I think we all thought that it was going to be pushed through this week. We now understand that that might not be the case and that we will have a bit longer, maybe another week, before the debate is called on. The laws that will determine how representatives are elected to the parliament would be agreed behind closed doors between only two political parties—I include Senator Xenophon in that as well—and then released to everybody else and rammed through after a sham process. This strikes me to be completely at odds with the approach that should be taken on electoral reform. Indeed, my understanding of the work that was done through the joint standing committee seems to fly in the face of some of the work that was done there. That is my first point.

The second point I would make is that the bill as it is designed will ensure that about 25 per cent of voters, which is around 3.3 million Australians, who did not vote for one of the parties that is going to be advantaged by this proposed change will have their votes exhausted. Whatever you think of who those 3.3 million are voting for, and certainly on this side we would all like them to all vote Labor, the reality is that they are not. They are voting for a range of other candidates. Under the proposed system that is being put forward by the Greens and the coalition, those votes would simply exhaust. I think on any fair measure of any electoral system people would raise an eyebrow at that and not just write it off as, 'Well, that's the change that was needed in order to push through an agenda, in this instance of the government in cahoots with the Greens.'

I have worked pretty closely with Greens over my political career. Probably in the last 13 or 14 years they are the party that I have had to work with the most. Indeed I worked inside a cabinet with a Green member. I think I am certainly pretty experienced in working with Greens, but I can tell you in that time, I probably sat through more lectures than I can remember about appropriate process, due process, accountability, transparency and giving the public the opportunity to comment and to understand. In fact I could name several inquiries where extensions were sought and certainly where positions had to be amended and conciliated and compromises had to be reached because of a very strident position on some occasions that the Greens took on process. We heard Richard Di Natale, the leader of the Greens in the Senate, today stand up and say, 'Sometimes we can just get too caught up on process,' when we have the opportunity actually to make the decision and get that decision done. I think it is the first time I have ever heard that from a member of the Greens political party, but I can recite example after example where—including my own preference—a decision that was taken would have to be negotiated, conciliated and work through the relevant Greens committees, co-conveners and party membership in order to get a position agreed to. The position that the Greens have taken on this bill flies in the face all of my experience of working with that political party.

Then you must come to the next question, which is why would the Greens political party take a position so different and so at odds with the approach they take on every other piece of legislation? Even in my short time in this place, I have certainly been on the end of lectures from the Greens about process, appropriate time and extensions for certain pieces of work to be done and the ability for the community to be appropriately consulted. Certainly that has been much more in accordance with the position of the Greens in the ACT, and yet on this piece of legislation it is a completely different approach. This approach is reduced scrutiny and no transparency in the arrangements that were agreed to. The deal was done; we have committee process being put in place. On any other issue the Greens would be screaming for a change to the way that Senate voting is to happen. This is the biggest change in 30 years, and a half-day hearing of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters is to be held the day before the committee is required to report to parliament. Now some cynics—there are probably a few of us in this place—would maybe presume that at this point the draft report is being written. I do not know. It seems to me that the truncated timetable would mean that somewhere, someone in this building is probably working on a draft report as we speak, and that is the farce that we have all unwillingly on this side been pulled into. There is no way that there is going to be time to write a full report on this bill following a 4½-hour hearing tomorrow if it is to report the next day. But that is the sham. Whilst we could accept that it is not an approach that the coalition might want to take, the government wants to see this bill through and they have certainly been very clear about that. We can see some of the ultimate consequences that are advantageous to them so I understand that a little bit more. But to actually have the Greens wrapped up in the sham process, when it looks like potentially they will lose a couple of senators if there was a double dissolution election held in July, is beyond me.

Senator Simms interjecting

Senator GALLAGHER: I should not take the interjection but I think it is starting to dawn on certain senators in your team, who are actually starting to work through what the consequences of taking this dangerous path will be. We work in this building and the corridors and the carpet talk. We have heard them. We know that there are a couple of worried people in your group—it is not all Kumbayah and holding hands over there in the Greens this evening.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Order! Senator Gallagher, address your comments through the chair please.

Senator GALLAGHER: I will. We all hear what is being said and there are people who are worried. This sham process has been signed up to by the Greens in completely the opposite way that they usually conduct their politics. For what? To hand the coalition, potentially, a majority in the Senate and, by doing so, be unable to progress the agenda that the Greens political party profess to hold so dearly—things like climate change, things like border control and immigration, things like fair funding for schools, things like hospital funding and things like preventative health. All of those things that we hear are so important to the Greens political party or the ability to prosecute those arguments are challenged by the deal that they themselves signed. They have wandered into a room, shut the door and shaken hands with the Prime Minister. It is absolutely beyond me why that approach would be taken.

But I can say, for senators in this place that get lectured by the Greens on process, accountability and transparency, those days are over. The deal that the Greens signed up to last week, they chose the path and that path was to hold hands with the coalition to single-handedly get rid of the representatives of 3.3 million Australians who did not vote for the Greens, who did not vote for Labor and who did not vote for the coalition. That path was chosen by the Greens and their leader leader—perhaps not by their whole team, particularly the ones that are going to be jeopardised by this change being put in place.

It is not just the Labor Party raising concerns about this deal. I think anyone who read the weekend papers would have seen concerns being raised by eminent commentators such as George Williams, who, while supportive of elements of the bill, still questioned the need to ram it through and not have a proper inquiry process. Richard Denniss, who perhaps is someone that the Greens occasionally listen to and who is occasionally supportive of some of the policies the Greens have, raised concerns and questions about why does it have to be pushed through? He wrote:

A full inquiry into the intended, and unintended, consequences of the Bill negotiated between the Greens and the government would help the media and public think through where we now look headed. In short the new system will help the Liberals and Nationals fend off the rising threat from the likes of Ricky Muir, Glenn Lazarus, David Leyonhjelm and Jacqui Lambie. In the medium term it also helps protect the Greens from the emergence of any "left wing micros".

There we have it pretty succinctly summed up about who benefits from it—in the medium term, certainly the Greens. They are prepared to have a few casualties of their own team in the short term if it all secures a greater long-term spot for the Greens. But that is the price that will be paid for this dirty deal.

I know there are other senators who would like to speak on this but I think this is the last time that I will be lectured by the Greens about process and accountability and transparency and electoral reform and donation reform and all of those—

Debate interrupted.