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Tuesday, 15 March 2016
Page: 1876


Senator JACINTA COLLINS (Victoria) (13:47): I rise to continue my remarks around this extraordinary piece of legislation, the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016, following what has been an extraordinary start to the day. I have to say, before I go into my remarks on this bill, that I have never, in all my time, seen such a disgusting performance from the Leader of the Australian Greens. To come into this place and to issue a challenge directly to Senator Wong and then to gag her is extraordinary. I am not naive. I am not a novice about gags and their implementation—I have been Manager of Government Business myself in the past—but I have never seen such extraordinary behaviour from the Leader of the Australian Greens. To stand there and to issue a challenge to Senator Wong in the way he did and then for the whole Greens team to gag her is outrageous. Senator Di Natale—I note on the speakers list—is due to speak next, and he has just re-entered the chamber. He was not here to listen to Senator Wong's response. It is absolutely extraordinary. We heard Mr Kroger say, over the weekend: 'Oh, he's a nice guy. He's not an extremist. He's a doctor and he owns a farm.' Well, so did Bob Brown. I do not know what being a doctor and owning a farm means, but the behaviour that we have seen here today does show the man. It definitely shows the man. To issue a challenge in the way that he did and then gag the very person he was issuing that challenge to is outright cowardice.

But let us go to the matter at hand. The Australian Labor Party recognises legitimate concerns about the laws governing the election of senators and the outcome of the half-Senate election in 2013. The proportional representation system which we use to elect senators to this place is complex and it has its quirks. As any engineer will tell you, complex systems are never perfect—and the current electoral system used for the Senate is no exception. But those opposite, and the Greens, have used these facts to try and argue that the Labor Party does not have a clear position or is not united in its position—and they are simply wrong.

True proportional representation may have its quirks, but it also offers great benefits—benefits that these senators are keen to deny. Let us look at what those benefits are. It ensures that senators are elected to this place in broad proportion to the level of support that each party or candidate has in the community. It is much more democratic than a crude 'winner takes all' system such as the 'first past the post' approach used to elect members of the House of Commons, which tends to generate majoritarian outcomes and disenfranchise electors who do not support the major parties and other established political players—exactly what we just saw here.

Our current system of proportional representation has also produced a better parliament. It ensures that the major parties are generally denied a majority in the Senate and it forces the executive to negotiate—some better than others—with non-government senators who hold the balance of power to secure the government's legislative agenda. It ameliorates the harsh edges of the governing party's ideology and acts as a powerful check and balance on the exercise of executive power. Proportional representation has seen the Senate grow from the states house to the house of review, and this is a function cherished by the Australian people

These are the things that are at risk in this change.

The unexpected outcome of the 2013 half-Senate election gave rise to the concerns that the proportional representation system used in the Senate, which has been working well for many years, had been knocked off kilter and had become a problem. If there is such a problem, Labor believes that the appropriate response is for the parliament to deal with it through a considered, principled and transparent process. Remember, everyone, we still have not seen what is in this deal. In fact, Senator Di Natale tells us, 'there is nothing written and it seems to shift and shift'. But a transparent process should involve all the parties in this place, including unaligned senators, to develop a solution that enjoys support across the political system. The outcome must, and must be seen to, prioritise the democratic rights of the Australian people above all other interests, especially partisan self-interests.

Senators from the Greens corner at the moment say, 'It happened'. Anyone who believes that is what happened in JSCEM is a fool. I know you did not participate in that process. I know it was Senator Rhiannon sitting right behind you. But if anyone believes that what happened in JSCEM was a transparent and open process, they are a fool. This is why the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016 fails the test. The bill was not the product of any principled and transparent parliamentary process.

The government claims this bill implements the recommendations of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters in its interim report on the conduct of the 2013 federal election, but this is not true. I see Senator Rhiannon sitting there laughing and smiling, because she knows what it really is about. This bill is not the product of the JSCEM recommendations. It is the product of a filthy deal cooked up behind closed doors by Senator Di Natale, Senator Rhiannon and his new friends, Senator Xenophon and Senator Cormann.

The government likes to say that this legislation at least implements the substance, or 85 per cent, of the JSCEM recommendations, but this is a ruse. This bill is a bastardised version of the JSCEM recommendations. It is a badly mangled rip-off of that report. We all know that in a complex electoral system, such as the proportional representation that we use to elect senators, even minor changes can have a dramatic impact and serious unintended consequences. I keep saying things like logos on ballot papers—have we properly thought that through? I know the Greens like their logo and 'to hell with anybody else' seems to be their response.

The Liberal-Xenophon-Greens plan is not designed to serve the democratic interests of the Australian people or ensure their will is reflected in the composition of this parliament. The purpose of this legislation is to maximise the number of senators elected by the major parties, such as the Liberal Party and the established minor players, such as the Greens political party and the Nick Xenophon team. It is designed to exhaust preferences early, so Independents and so-called microparties are deprived of votes. Its object is to prevent new players from entering the Senate, thereby entrenching the electoral dominance of the existing players.

The principal beneficiary of this new voting system will be the Liberal Party—no surprise there—which traditionally receives a high primary vote. The Liberal Party's true motivation is to achieve lasting electoral dominance in the Senate for the conservative parties and, over time, a lasting Senate majority in its own right—back to 2004.

Senator Xenophon sees it as his best chance to increase his own representation in this place, in particular through the corralling of votes in South Australia, where he is personally popular. But of course Greens senators, such as Senator Hanson-Young and Senator Simms, will pay a high price for this proposal. Indeed, this proposal will benefit senators such as Senator Rhiannon, but to hell with Senators Hanson-Young or Simms. But worse than all that self-interest is of course what we will be staring at: a Senate in the long term controlled by the coalition. Bring on the budget before last. Bring on Work Choices. Bring on the ideological agenda, because that is what you are trying to give us.

This discussion today has been about priorities. My second reading amendment to this bill highlights what is meant to be another priority. We have been through same-sex marriage. We have been through the government's priority for the ABCC. Here we will be dealing with the issues of political donations. I foreshadowed earlier that I would be moving a second reading amendment in relation to reforming political donation laws. Labor has a longstanding commitment to reforming political donation laws, although Senator Di Natale on the last occasion tried to pretend he had it tied up in our agreement. Fortunately, that agreement is in writing, and it is very clear what really was agreed. We know what went wrong last time. It was blocked in the Senate by the then Liberal opposition. But did Senator Di Natale then bring it back on the table in his discussions with the government on this deal? No. He just fell, barrelling straight down into the Senate reform process, and gained nothing else.

So we are not dealing with political donation reform, but then you need to wonder why. Senator Rhiannon has carriage of this area, and we know she talks with a forked tongue. We know that Bob Brown, when he was the leader of the Greens, accepted a whopping $1.7 million political donation from the founder of corporate travel company Wotif.com.

Senator Brandis: What is wrong with that?

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: Senator Brandis says, 'What is wrong with that?' Senator Rhiannon did not like it. She ghost-wrote about it. She had to criticise her own party on political donations—ghost-writing to criticise her own party. They talk with forked tongues on political donations, and on Senate reform the Greens have no credibility at all. They are like unripe tomatoes: green on the outside, red on the inside. Senator Rhiannon has control of this agenda, and she is gagging, with her leader, anyone who wants to argue anything to the contrary. I move:

At the end of the motion, add:

but the Senate is of the opinion that there is a need to reform Australia's political donation system by lowering the disclosure threshold, banning foreign donations, restricting anonymous donations and preventing donation splitting to avoid disclosure.

The PRESIDENT: It now being two o'clock, we now move to questions without notice.