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Tuesday, 23 June 2009
Page: 4045

Senator BOB BROWN (Leader of the Australian Greens) (5:02 PM) —I concur with the positive findings that have come out of the review of the 2007 federal election by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. One thing that does concern me is that I have been here long enough to see very good reports come out of this committee that are put before the parliament and absolutely zero action as a result. I think it is incumbent upon committee members and members of the Senate generally—and particularly the government, of course—to follow through on these reports to ensure that we do get results. The government has said there is a green paper coming out later in the year. One would hope that a lot of notice of the proceedings and recommendations of the committee will come out of that.

Two important matters that the Greens have been pursuing for some time did not get acceptance from the committee as a whole. The first is above-the-line voting in Senate elections—voters tick the boxes of the parties and the Independents in the order of their choice. It must not be left to the scramble we now have, where the parties get together, try to trade positions and get advantage and hand a preference order to the electoral office before the election. Then, on election day, everybody who votes ‘1’ Labor and leaves it at that has their preferences directed according to the Labor Party; everybody who votes ‘1’ Green and leaves it at that, ditto; everybody who votes ‘1’ coalition, ditto; and so on. But the outcome of that is very often against what the majority of those voters would want—in other words, the machinations in the backrooms are contrary to what the voters actually want.

I am sure Senator Fielding will not mind me mentioning the fact that, although he got less than two per cent of the vote in the previous election in 2004, he was elected to this place, whereas a Greens candidate in Victoria on nearly 10 per cent of the vote was not elected. They needed 14 per cent because Labor Party and Democrat preferences flowed to Senator Fielding against the wishes of the majority of Labor voters. It is really a case here of getting a more honest outcome based on what the electorate’s intention is. Anomalies like that should not be allowed. Indeed, my colleague Senator Milne—who, agree with her or not, everybody would say is an enormous contributor to this Senate and to this parliament—got, I think, 10 or 12 per cent of the vote in Tasmania.

Senator Bushby —Seventeen.

Senator BOB BROWN —No, it was not, Senator. You are wrong. A Family First contender got less than two per cent of the vote and almost passed Senator Milne on the basis, again, of Democrat and Labor Party preferences. That situation is going to occur again. We ought not to leave anomalies like that where wrong results, results not intended by the voters, are in fact translated into decision making in parliaments. I am surprised the Labor Party has not agreed to this recommendation that we should leave it to the voters and that their preferences should be taken note of. There was an argument that this might lead to increased informal voting. But in New South Wales, where there is above-the-line preferential voting by voters in the upper house elections, which can be more complicated than Senate elections in many states, in fact it led to a decrease in the number of informal votes. So that argument does not hold water.

The second matter is truth in advertising. It should be pretty clear and logical to everybody that voters should not be deceived by patently untrue advertising on their way to the ballot box. There is an enormous tendency by players, as election time comes close, to engage in trying to get the electorate’s attention and its votes by not always being fair to opponents. That is the nature of elections. But we are now in a situation in Australia where the watchdog of private television channels has gone. You used to have to submit your election material and justify claims made in it or they would not allow it to go to air on Channel 9, Channel 7, Channel 10 or whatever. That has gone. Of course, advertising is now available on SBS and there is a lot of advertising through other means as well. We ought to have a watchdog on this in the interests not of the political parties but of the voters. They deserve not to be tricked, cheated and lied to through advertising of any sort on the way to making up their minds about their votes.

The Greens are saying that the government—and I hope the government will seriously look at this; I note that the government has indicated that it will certainly look at our recommendations—should attach to the electoral office, have in tandem with the electoral office or have as part of the electoral office an independent authority which can make such judgments. It is not beyond our wit and wisdom to do that; as I indicated before, we used to have such an authority attached to private television. If you are going to have a fair democracy, it has to be based on fair information. Ralph Nader, the great consumer advocate who then became Greens candidate for the presidency of the United States, said in Launceston in 1980 that ‘information is the currency of democracy’, and how right that is. If you get tainted, fake currency, you are in real trouble.

I hope the government will take these two recommendations seriously. I know there is one that it will not—it got passing mention as far as this committee is concerned—and that is the need for proportional representation in the House of Representatives in this parliament. It is manifestly undemocratic that there are people in blue-ribbon Labor, Liberal or National Party electorates who can live their whole lives and never have voted for a candidate who got into the House of Representatives. That is the nature of single-member electorates. If you wake up on the morning after the election and something over 50 per cent of the voters have elected somebody, something under 50 per cent—in most occasions very close to 50 per cent—are then represented by somebody they voted against. Proportional representation reduces that anomaly enormously: over 90 per cent of people wake up on election day and find that somebody they voted for is representing them in the parliament. There was a debate raging about this when the Constitution was written. The provision is in the Constitution for the parliament to make rules about the voting system, because they did not determine one way or the other.

Catherine Helen Spence, the great democrat from South Australia who, unfortunately, was before her time, because she was not elected in her own right, was a great advocate of proportional representation. She is the much-forgotten mother of Federation in amongst the fathers of Federation that we hear so much about. I put it to the government that in considering its green paper it ought to look at proportional representation to make the House of Representatives in this parliament fairer, more democratic and more reflective of the vote of every Australian in a system based on one person, one vote and one value.