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Democratic voting reforms

Speeches in Parliament
Peter Whish-Wilson 16 Mar 2016


The Greens have campaigned on democratic electoral reform for over a decade. Our party, which was formed 45 years ago, has as one of its core principles-one of its four principles in its charter-participative democracy. It is absolutely crucial to who we are as a party. We are also a party who represents our grassroots members. Our members write our policies and our national council constantly works with the party room on how we deliver these policies and these principles.

Looking at the opportunism in this chamber in the last couple of weeks what we have seen has been nothing short of pathetic student politics from the Labor Party, unlike the Greens, who have campaigned on democratic reform which gives every Australian the right to choose where their preferences go and removes the undemocratic backroom dealing. The Labor Party did support democratic reform in the Senate but-

Senator Bullock

For 2½ years.


They supported it for longer than 2½ years but now it does not suit their political timetable, because they are not ready to go to an election because they are not a real opposition. It is actually not even about whether or not they support democratic voting reform; they want to defer debate on this bill, the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016. They want us to have this debate after the day a double dissolution passes. This is about a short-term political strategy. It is about what is good for the Labor Party; it is not about what is good for the Australian people and for our democracy.

This debate is to be adjourned before we go in committee, but I want to read a from a document from 2013 relating to the tabling of the report from the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters following the 2013 election. It says:

The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters has an important role after every federal election to review the conduct of that election and provide recommendations for government and the parliament to consider. This interim report tabled by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters focuses on Senate voting and party registration, which are issues that caused considerable concern in the 2013 election. I am pleased that the JSCEM has tabled this interim report so that policy and legislative decisions can be made to ensure the will of voters at the next Senate election is properly reflected by the senators who are chosen by the people.

The primary concern of JSCEM has been to address the growing practice of preference harvesting by microparties, which has made Senate voting convoluted and confusing; and it has simply warped and manipulated the will of voters.

Warped and manipulated the will of voters.

Above the line voting and group voting tickets for the Senate were introduced in 1984 to address the high level of informal voting. Voters were required to number every square on the ballot paper and mistakes in preference sequences meant votes were declared informal. Since those reforms, the vast majority of Senate votes have been cast above the line. However, the emergence in recent years of bogus microparties who rely on multilayered preference deals with other parties has distorted this above the line voting system and action needs to be taken. Like the Joint Select Committee on Electoral Reform in 1984, the current Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters has been focused on making certain that the will of voters in Senate elections is not distorted or frustrated. This interim report contains what I believe are good recommendations-recommendations that will lead to fair and effective reform of Senate voting and party registration.

The committee's first recommendation for Senate voting is to allow preferences to be used by voters above the line and to make below the line voting less onerous by requiring voters to fill in only six or 12 squares, depending on whether it is a half Senate election or a double dissolution.

Similar reforms were considered in 2009 in the then government's electoral reform green paper-

This is the Labor Party.

. It is unfortunate, I believe, that those reforms did not progress at that time.

Perhaps Senator Polley can tell us why that is the case-through you, Mr Deputy President.

Five years later, there was overwhelming evidence presented to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters that the Senate voting system was still in need of repair. The evidence is well summarised in chapter 3 of the interim report. Above the line voting has developed to a point where bogus microparties engage in what I call 'game theory' and send preferences through a myriad of politically disconnected parties without any concern as to what a voter's real intention might have been. The 'gaming' of preferences by microparties has bastardised the Senate voting system-

Bastardised the Senate voting system-

and the committee's recommended reforms to above the line voting, I believe, should deal with this very difficult problem.

And there is another page there. I am plagiarising, because these words are not my own. These are the words of Senator Faulkner. These are the words of a Labor stalwart-Senator Faulkner-who, as previously noted by Senator Back, was coined 'the grandfather of the Senate'. I think that is a little bit unfair on Senator Faulkner, because he is not actually that old but, nevertheless, he made a significant contribution while he was here. These are his words from just a couple of years ago. He talks about his own government in 2009 not acting on Senate voting reform and makes it very clear that the system has been bastardised.

I am all for diversity in the Senate. I represent a party whose whole story is about getting diversity in the Senate; that is our life's journey to where we are today. But when we talk about diversity in the Senate, let's be very clear, we want diversity that is democratic. How is it that some people get elected on a few thousand votes when the same candidates in the same election do not get elected on 100,000 votes or more? That is not democracy. That is totally unfair and totally undemocratic.

I want to point out something about my political party, the Greens. During the last week the Senate was sitting I was lucky enough to give an adjournment speech on Jeff Weston, a gentleman who was one of the founding members of the Tasmanian Greens. The Greens went on to become the Australian Greens and the Global Greens and Jeff Weston, in fact, was around the table when the United Tasmania Group was formed. The view of Jeff Weston and his friends was that they would not get outcomes in Tasmania to preserve the environment and the wilderness and what the original Greens fought on unless they formed a political party. It was a conscious decision that was made by a group of people. I do not think they necessarily wanted to form a political party, but they felt, after the loss of Lake Pedder and the threats to the Franklin, that they had to form a political party because the only way they were going to change the world was to have a political arm for the environment movement and get outcomes.

Senator Polley interjecting-


That was 45 years ago, Senator Polley-through you, Mr Deputy President. It was 45 years ago that that decision was made, and there have been tens of thousands of people in Tasmania and around the country from my party who have put their hands up to be candidates-

Senator Polley

Tens of thousands?


Yes, across a number of elections-and probably hundreds of thousands of other people who have campaigned and put in endless hours to get my party to where it is today. It is not an easy thing. It is not meant to be an easy thing. In a democracy, it takes time for people to understand who you are and what you represent. We are still continuing to try and let Australians know who we are, what we represent and why they should vote for us, just like any political party is. To say that it is democratic for someone to get elected because they put their name on a group voting ticket or they put their name on a microparty and they have been part of a backroom deal that gets them elected to the Senate does not represent the will of the voters. We have heard so much evidence about voters not knowing where their preferences are going and being horrified when they have found out-if they ever find out, because the system is so complex. That is not democracy.

I would like to see more diversity in the Senate. I would like to see more Independents trying to get into the Senate. That is good for democracy. Senator Brown, whom I replaced, has always welcomed new participants, always in elections, because of the good that does to democracy. But the system has to be fair.

I do not think it is out of school of me to say you have to work hard to get your message across, so people can understand what you are and who you represent, and vote for you. That is what we are talking about here today. We are talking about a reform that has been debated and looked at countless times over a long period of time. This is not a new issue. The actual legislation that we will be looking at, hopefully later today, has been looked at countless times by countless committees. We all have that information in front of us.

I think the real issue is that the Labor Party do not want an early election and some of their stakeholders in the union movement-and we have all spoken to them-do not want an early election either. This is not an issue about timing; this is an issue about getting good reform through. The Greens have made it very clear that we will not do anything to support an early election or a double dissolution. In fact, we have said that the Prime Minister would be a coward if he called a double dissolution. He has a job to do and I do not think he has done a very good job at all letting Australians know what he stands for and what his vision is for this country. He has a lot of work to do to do that and I think it would be very risky for him to call a double dissolution. Nevertheless, we will be ready for it if he does go down that road. But I do not think the Labor Party are ready for it, and I think that is what this is about.

This is about delaying an election for their own political survival. My message to the Labor Party is: stop undermining progressive politics in this country and stop attacking the Greens. Your bucket of mud-

Senator Polley interjecting-


Throw your pocket of mud at the people on the other side of the chamber, Senator Polley. What you and your stakeholders are in fact doing is undermining progressive politics in this country. I am sure the Prime Minister and Mr Christopher Pyne and others are laughing in their soup at what is going on in the Senate at the moment, seeing you attacking the Greens. That is exactly what they want and you are giving them exactly what they want.

Senator Polley

Do you really think we worry about what Christopher Pyne thinks?


You are giving them exactly what they want, Senator Polley. What we need to do is actually get on with being a real opposition. Like I said yesterday: go out and sell negative gearing and capital gains tax abolition. I would back you 100 per cent on that; my party do too. We have long campaigned on this. These are the kinds of reforms we need to be focusing on with the Australian people. We need to be making sure this government does not cut funding to the CSIRO and the best climate scientists in the world when it is most desperately needed now. It will absolutely devastate the community, Senator Urquhart and Senator Polley, where we come from in Tasmania. These are the things that actually really matter.

We need to be out there making sure one thing happens-that is, at the next election we can get a democratic result that gets rid of this government. The longer you spend throwing mud and playing student politics in this chamber the less chance we have of beating the coalition at the next election. So I would ask the Labor Party here today to go back and have a look, from a few years ago, at your support for Senate voting reform and ask yourself why you are really not getting behind this now. We know there has been significant conflict within the Labor Party over this. It has been in the papers. We know that you are very conflicted on this, like you are on lots of things. But if you do not stand for something, you will fall for anything. That is the most important thing to me here: you stand for absolutely nothing and you certainly do not stand for democracy if you do not support Senate voting reform. That is what this is.

Senator Williams was right the other day when he yelled to the roof in the Senate the other day in exasperation-which was disorderly, I must say, Deputy President-and said, 'You hate democracy.' It is actually not a bad statement because that is actually this is about. This is about getting democratic voting reform. I am proud to be a member of a political party. Senator Rhiannon, who is in the chamber with us today, got this reform into the New South Wales upper house, where it has been very well received. I have spoken to her and she said that it was very difficult then too; the same kind of thing occurred, the same kind of base political debate, but it has been a good reform. Now we have a chance to get a good reform here in the Senate. It will be something that we can look back on as a legacy.

Senator Cameron came in here a few weeks ago and was having a go at the Greens and said that we are no good at negotiating, we are not hard enough negotiators, we got rolled on tax avoidance, we got rolled on pensions. Apart from the fact that we actually got really good results for the Australian people, I think Senator Cameron's point is actually quite important in this debate. The strength of the Labor Party and those individuals in the Labor Party who are leading this charge against Senate voting reform-Senator Dastyari, Senator Conroy and Senator Wong, and probably Senator Cameron himself-are good at doing backroom deals. They are hard negotiators. They have enjoyed working with this crossbench, as I have. This is actually about their power. This is about their influence. This is not about doing the right thing by the Australian people and actually giving our children a more democratic future by allowing them to dictate where their votes go in any election and stopping undemocratic backroom deals that do not reflect the will of the Australian people.

If it takes the Greens to be the political party in parliament who have to be the real opposition, who have to have a spine, who have to stay true to their principles, who have to represent a grassroots movement of people who want to see participative democracy, who want to see peace, nonviolence and justice-all the things that my party hold dear-then I am proud to be part of that group that stands in the Senate and has strong principles.

Senator Polley interjecting-


If you do not stand for something you will fall for anything, Senator Polley, and I am very disappointed that the Labor Party have taken a short-term, populist and highly destructive, disingenuous and dangerous approach to undermining what will be-


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