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Thursday, 17 March 2016
Page: 2388

Senator WONG (South AustraliaLeader of the Opposition in the Senate) (16:36): I rise to speak on the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016. Labor opposes this bill because it is wrong for Australian democracy. It is the wrong policy response to the issues raised by preference harvesting, and it is a bill that is being pursued through the wrong process. The process that we have witnessed is a gagging of debate, a sham half-day inquiry and a process which curtails the rights of the minorities in this chamber.

This bill makes changes to the voting system for this chamber in response to concerns about preference harvesting. But, in doing so, it creates another problem. It disenfranchises more than three million voters—people who, at the last election, chose to vote for someone other than the major parties or the Greens. It disenfranchises them from having their votes count towards electing members of this place.

We know this bill seeks to implement an unprincipled deal between the government and the Greens, and we know this unprincipled deal is being pursued out of political self-interest—political self-interest by the Liberals so they can implement measures like $100,000 university degrees, a GP tax and cuts to age pensions and family benefits; and political self-interest by the Greens so they can eliminate their rivals on the crossbench. It is an unprincipled deal between two unprincipled leaders. The Prime Minister has already sold out his own principles, ranging from marriage equality to climate change, in order to win the leadership of the Liberal Party. And now Mr Turnbull wants to rewrite Senate voting rules so he can go to a double dissolution to get Tony Abbott's budget through the parliament. The Greens leader, Senator Di Natale, has already sold out his party's principles by voting to cut age pensions and to let big companies hide how much tax they pay. Now Senator Di Natale has entered a deal with the Liberals to purge the Senate of the Greens' competitors and to disenfranchise millions of voters.

Labor acknowledge that the current Senate voting system can be improved. There are issues when large numbers of candidates stand for the Senate and when some seek to game the system through preference harvesting deals. But it is a fundamental principle of democracy that everybody's vote must count. Yet here we have two established political parties using their power to reduce the opportunity for Independents and minor parties to win positions in the Senate. And that is just as much a case of gaming the system as anything anyone described as a preference harvester has done. It is a deal designed to purge this Senate of Independents and minor parties for all time. As I said, at the last election one in four voters—3.3 million Australians—gave their first preference to Senate candidates other than the major parties or the Greens. Under this bill, millions of these votes will be exhausted—that is, not counted. That is not democratic.

This bill will also mean more coalition senators are elected. It makes it highly likely that the coalition will win three of the six Senate positions in each state in a half-Senate election, and that puts the coalition closer to a working majority in the Senate—certainly closer than it would otherwise be but for these changes. If this system had been in place at the last election, Mr Abbott's 2014 budget would probably now be law: $100,000 degrees, Medicare co-payments, cuts to the pension, cuts to family payments, and young Australians waiting six months to access unemployment benefits. The Greens are so determined to purge their competitors that they are willing to risk the Senate turning into a rubber stamp for Liberal governments. What does that say about this Greens political party? They are so determined to purge their competitors, they are willing to risk this Senate becoming a rubber stamp for the coalition. That is not the action of a progressive party.

I want to explain in a little more detail how the bill disenfranchises voters. The current Senate voting system is a compulsory preferential system, and that means that the vast majority of votes elect a senator or ultimately go to the seventh, unsuccessful candidate in the race. The deal between the government and the Greens changes this to optional preferential voting. Under such a system, large numbers of Senate votes will be exhausted from the count once their preferences run out.

At the 2013 election, over three million voters gave their first preference Senate vote to parties other than the coalition, Labor or the Greens. Under an optional preferential system the vast majority of these votes would have been exhausted. That is, three million votes would have been exhausted. Nearly a quarter of the formal votes cast would not have counted towards the final result. This analysis is supported by the Parliamentary Library. I am going to quote this passage:

Australian voters have spent 30 years voting 1 above the line, and it seems reasonable to assume that many people will continue to do so, despite the ballot paper instructions and any media campaigns.

…   …   …

The only parties that could reasonably be expected to transfer preferences at sufficient numbers to elect another candidate are the larger parties—the ALP, the coalition parties, and the Greens. Directing preferences consistently under the new system is only possible through How To Vote (HTV) cards, and only the larger parties have the infrastructure to distribute these to their supporters across the state.

The Parliamentary Library analysis makes clear that the only parties who are going to be able to transfer preferences such that they matter are the coalition parties, the Greens and the Labor Party.

Senator Rhiannon interjecting

Senator WONG: I will take Senator Rhiannon's interjection. You have designed this system to purge this Senate of your competitors, and you should be honest enough to stand up and say it. This analysis is also supported by academic experts. Emeritus Professor John Warhurst, from the Australian National University, has said the changes will replace the problem of preference harvesting with a new problem of exhausted votes. He said:

All the focus has been on getting rid of the micro parties and that's almost become justification for the reforms. Once you move to optional preferential, there is the exhausted vote syndrome. It is a problem. It's almost the alternative problem.

Dr Nick Economou, from Monash University, has warned that the new rules will significantly increase the number of exhausted votes. He said:

If we looked at the result of the last election and we applied the new rules, you'd be looking at exhausted votes in each state of anywhere between 14 and 20 per cent. Normally, exhausted are only a handful. So the exhaustion process, I think, is going to be the new disenfranchising of voters.

Under the current Senate voting system, all votes are in play until the final seat is filled in each state. Under the proposed new system, votes for Independents and minor parties will be exhausted unless the voter preferences the coalition, Greens or Labor. Exhausted votes will not count towards electing a senator. Those voters will be disenfranchised.

This outcome is not an accident. It is the whole point of the deal. This bill is designed to exhaust the three-million-strong minor party and Independent vote or to corral it to the major parties or the Greens. That is the whole purpose of this legislation. It is an utterly cynical approach by the Greens, who now criticise preferential voting and group-voting tickets.

Senator Rhiannon interjecting

Senator WONG: Senator Rhiannon is interjecting again, so let's talk about her, because her party and she personally in the past have benefited from these arrangements. When the Greens were first emerging as a new political force, several of their candidates were elected to the Senate with low primary votes. Former Greens Senators Vallentine and Margetts from Western Australia were elected with primary votes of less than half a quota; they were elected on preference flows. Former Greens Senator Kerry Nettle from New South Wales was elected with a primary vote of just four per cent, and she was elected on preference flows from One Nation. The architect of this deal, who is here interjecting in the chamber, Senator Lee Rhiannon, began her parliamentary career by being elected to the New South Wales Legislative Council with 2.9 per cent of the primary vote. Now she wants to purge this Senate of senators who were elected from primary votes of nine, 10 and 12 per cent. So she gets elected on 2.9 per cent, but she says Senator Leyonhjelm, Senator Lazarus and Senator Wang, who were elected with more than nine per cent, should be gone. Yet she was first elected with 2.9 per cent back in 1999. What hypocrisy! She comes in here behind her leader—an unprincipled leader—telling us this is all about principle. It is all about electoral advantage, and you should be up front about that.

I recall also, Senator Rhiannon, that back in 1999 you also advocated term limits for Green parliamentarians—anyway, enough said on that. It is not to the Greens' credit that, having using preferential voting to build up their position back when they were just getting started as a microparty, they now seek to pull up the drawbridge behind them. If this system that they are now supporting had been in place 20 years ago, the Greens would have been a passing phase; they would have been shut out of this Senate. Now they have done a deal with the Liberals to impose barriers to entry to this place for Independents and emerging parties. It is not only cynical, it is fundamentally antidemocratic.

Labor is the only major party in this place which is advocating the national interest on this issue rather than our self-interest. The changes made by this bill will probably advantage us. We will probably get more Labor senators under this bill. I have said that publicly. We would probably have more Labor senators under this bill. Despite this, we are taking a stand, because we do not believe this is the right change for the country. We think this is an unprincipled deal done by unprincipled leaders who are seeking electoral advantage. We are opposing this bill because it will purge the Senate of small parties and Independents, it will prevent new parties from securing election to the Senate, it will exhaust up to three million votes, it will disenfranchise the one in four Australians who do not vote for the major parties or the Greens, and it risks turning the Senate into a rubber stamp for coalition governments.

Of course, in the current context, with this deal the Greens are handing Mr Turnbull the keys to a double dissolution election. They know that, and they have made a mistake, and their supporter base knows that.

I want to talk briefly about process, because these are the largest changes in 30 years to how Australians elect people to the Senate. Laws that determine how our representatives are elected to parliament should not be cooked up behind closed doors and rammed through. The policy response here is wrong, and the process is wrong. The dangers of ramming this legislation through have already been exposed. The day after introducing the bill to the House, the government was forced to rewrite the bill to fix a serious mistake. The bill would have prevented assistant returning officers from counting Senate first preferences on election night. They forgot to make sure they counted. It took the ABC's Antony Green to point out this blunder. So the government had to rush in six amendments to the House of Representatives to fix this mistake. Now there are further amendments which have been circulated by the government and the Greens in this place. How many more mistakes are there in this bill?

So I invite anybody listening to think about what we have witnessed in the Senate this week. We have seen the coalition and Greens in lock step, voting to shut up the people they do not like, voting to shut down the arguments they do not like, and voting to deny Senators the opportunity to vote and to speak. It is an early insight into their vision for the future of this Senate: less diversity and fewer voices.

It is a bill which is the latest in a series of deals Senator Di Natale has done with the Liberal Party since he took over as Greens leader. He has complained about us holding him to account for his deals, but he seems to have developed a case of amnesia about his own actions. So let's remind the Greens supporters about Senator Di Natale's deals with Mr Abbott and Mr Turnbull. Six weeks after he took over as leader, the Greens voted with the government to pass Tony Abbott's budget measure cutting age pensions by $2.4 billion. In August last year, the Greens voted to allow the health minister to ignore expert advice on medical research funding. They voted with the coalition to defeat Labor amendments requiring the minister to follow recommendations from an independent advisory body when making multimillion-dollar medical research funding decisions. They voted with the coalition to defeat a motion calling on the government to honour its promise to procure 12 submarines for the Navy through a local build. They voted with the Liberals and the Nationals to erect new barriers against investment. And, in December, Senator Di Natale did a deal with the Liberals to let big companies keep how much tax they pay a secret from the public, by voting with the coalition to defeat Labor amendments requiring large private companies making more than $100 million in profits to disclose how much tax they pay.

Honourable senators interjecting

Senator WONG: I am not surprised they are yelling at me, because they do not like to be reminded of this.

While I am here, I now wish to turn to amendments. I foreshadow a second reading amendment circulated on sheet 7881, pursuant to standing order 1142, to omit 'now' from the question 'that this bill be now read a second time' and substitute instead 'this day six months'. It makes clear the opposition's view that this legislation should not proceed. If the Greens really do not want to hand Mr Turnbull the keys to a double dissolution election, they should consider this amendment. But they will not consider it.

Labor opposes this latest Greens-Liberal deal. Given that the deal has been done and the Greens are taking their marching orders from the Liberals, Labor will move amendments to the bill to improve transparency around political donations in our system. Labor will move to reduce the donations disclosure threshold from $13,000 to $1,000 and remove CPI indexation, ban foreign political donations, ban anonymous donations above $50 to registered political parties and limit donation splitting that evades disclosure requirements. These amendments implement longstanding Labor policy and they are about transparency in our democracy and in our electoral donation laws.

I say to the Greens, 'Here is a test for you. Will you support these reforms to the electoral laws dealing with political donations? These amendments reflect your policies.' You have an opportunity, because you have the numbers with the government to insist on these amendments passing, so you should be saying to Senator Cormann, 'Yes we got a deal, but we want as part of it, the reforms that Senator Milne and Senator Brown and our party have been arguing for, for years.' And if you do not, everyone will see the extent of the unprincipled nature of the secret deal that you, Senator Rhiannon and Senator Di Natale, have engaged in. You have done a deal and you have not even been prepared to say to them, 'We will be insisting, if you are going to change our electoral laws and we are going to cut a dirty deal behind closed doors, on reforms to our electoral donations system.' You did not bother with that, because you were so fixated on the electoral advantage that this system will bring to you.

If the Greens are serious about their policies and their rhetoric on political donations, they will support these amendments. This is a test for them. Will the Greens vote for their own policies and will they vote for transparency around donations or will they take their voting orders from the Liberal Party? Will they take their voting orders on electoral donation reform from the Liberal Party or will they do what they did on marriage equality this morning and sell out their own principles in pursuit of this grubby voting deal again?

We should consider ways of removing incentives for gaming the Senate voting system. But you do not do that by purging new parties and Independents from this parliament. This is what the Liberal-Greens deal would do. This is what the bill before the Senate will do. The Liberal-Greens deal disenfranchises Australians who vote for small parties and Independents, discourages people from standing for the Senate or from organising new parties, reduces participation in our political system, risks a working majority for the coalition in the future and, important at this point in time, hands Malcolm Turnbull the keys for a double-dissolution election. You would have to wonder why the Greens would do such a deal. None of these things are good for democracy in Australia. The disenfranchising of people who vote for small parties, the discouragement of people standing for the Senate, the reduction of participation in our political system—none of this is good for democracy in Australia.

We need to get the balance right on Senate voting reform, and it will not happen by ramming this grubby, self-interested, backroom deal through the parliament. I say to the Australian Greens: this is a dirty deal done in secret. You are a party that has lectured this chamber for years about transparency. You are ramming this bill through after a half-day hearing where the report on the proposed bill had already been written before the hearing in order to enable debate to start the next day. This is not the way to do Senate reform. (Time expired)