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Richard's Speech - Senate Voting Reform

Speeches in Parliament
Richard Di Natale 16 Mar 2016

Government of the people, by the people and for the people. For centuries people across the world have been prepared to lay down their lives for this democratic ideal. They do it because democracy provides citizens with freedom, with prosperity and with opportunities to flourish. They do it because democracy allows people to speak freely and to shape their own destiny.

We are blessed in this country that it is the ballot and not the bullet that decides fate. The founders of modern democracy also understood that democracy is imperfect, that it is fragile and that it needs constant work and attention. Mungo MacCallum summed it up really neatly recently in a piece he wrote when he said:

… democracy can be slow, inefficient and infuriating to the point where even the best-intentioned can be tempted to try something else. But as history has shown, any attempt at replacement invariably ends in tears.

So democracy has to be sustained, nurtured and at times improved …

We do not actually get the opportunity to improve our democracy in this place. Normally we are fighting the opposite trend—fighting against the slow erosion of democracy—but today is a one-in-30-year opportunity to improve our democracy, to take power out of the hands of us politicians and to give it back to you, the voter.

A basic principle of any democracy has to be that the wishes of voters are reflected in the outcome of an election. The current rules for Senate voting fail that test. The system is broken when someone's vote for a candidate or party with one set of policies flows to another candidate or party with the opposite set of policies. The system is broken when 0.5 per cent of the vote can elect a senator and 25 per cent of the vote produces exactly the same outcome. The system is broken when one person can register a number of front parties with the sole intent of funnelling preferences to themselves, giving them a greater chance of being elected. Antony Green got to the heart of the matter when he said, 'It rather strikes me that rewarding parties based on their vote is one of the purposes of an electoral system.'

It is for all of those reasons that the Greens have been campaigning on this reform for more than a decade—from my colleague Senator Lee Rhiannon, who has done a sterling job on this issue over recent weeks, to the New South Wales parliament back in 1999 when we advocated for these sorts of changes. We then had Bob Brown introduce legislation back in 2004 and later in 2008. In fact, it was part of our agreement with the Labor Party when we supported them in office.

It is true that we would have liked to have seen this legislation go further and address other vital issues—issues like political campaign finance reform. Our ability as a parliament to address issues like global warming, reform of the health system and growing income inequality is getting harder each day thanks to the influence of wealthy corporate donors. Those donations are a corrupting influence on good governance and something that the Greens have been railing against for decades. Yet every time we have put legislation before this parliament to restrict corporate donations both the Labor Party and the Liberal Party have voted against it.

I have also heard it said that some of these changes will lead to less diversity and fewer ordinary people being elected to the parliament. It is worth noting that there are 226 members of parliament. The vast majority of them are people you have never heard of. Many of them actually are ordinary people—people who did ordinary jobs before they were elected. Some people, unkindly, have said that some of us are very ordinary indeed.

The truth is that the problem here is the lack of diversity in political opinion. What we are seeing is a stifling conformity that means that all too often what we hear is only a stage-managed, overly-rehearsed political perspective that often someone does not believe and comes across to the Australian community as totally inauthentic. One of my colleagues from the Labor Party described some of this behaviour as the behaviour of lobotomised zombies. It happens because authority has been so centralised between each of the major parties that we get this stifling uniformity of views. It is something that does not happen in many similar Western democracies. It is one of the reasons that many people are looking to vote outside of the two major parties. They are looking for smaller parties.

Many smaller parties have made an important contribution to the national debate. People are voting for parties like the Animal Justice Party because they care about animal welfare standards. They are voting for parties like the Pirate Party and the Hemp Party because they believe in drug policy and law reform. They are parties that have made an important contribution to the national debate. To ensure that this continues we have insisted on a system that means that voters will need to allocate at least six preferences above the line or 12 preferences below the line. That means that there is now an active choice from the voter to think beyond the duopoly of Australian politics.

We fought to keep membership thresholds low, which is a feature of this legislation, and we have a bill before the parliament to lower the financial barrier to register for elections to encourage smaller parties to participate. But simply being a small player who brings a different perspective to the parliament is not reason enough to be elected. Just because you are small should not be enough to get you a position in the parliament. If it were, we would see some of the racist anti-Semitic groups that currently stand for office also saying that they deserve a seat at the table. The Greeks had it right when they warned that the system of tyranny is only as good as the worst man who can become a tyrant.

I have heard it said that parties like the Greens have relied on the current system to build our support, but I have to tell you that that fundamentally misunderstands the history of the Australian Greens. We are the political arm of a people-powered grassroots movement. I can tell you about my own story in the state of Victoria. When I joined in the year 2000, we had one member of local government. Through a lot of hard work, through branch meetings, through trivia nights, through a hell of a lot of elbow grease, that support built slowly over time. More people were elected to local government. Finally, there was a breakthrough into the state parliament and then, in 2010, our first Victorian senator was elected with a quota in their own right. That is the legitimate pathway to political success. There are not any shortcuts here.

How is it that after 12 public hearings over a year and a half by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters and an outcome that produced a unanimous report, supported by all of the major parties here, we are now seeing the Labor Party oppose those reforms? We know that people like Alan Griffin, who actually co-authored Labor's internal post-election review, and people like Gary Gray, who was the party spokesperson on electoral matters, support these changes. We know that many other Labor MPs support these changes. I will not quote them at length. So the question is: what has changed here?

The factional powerbrokers have flexed their muscle. That is what has happened. The same people who were responsible for toppling a couple of prime ministers and for scuttling a whole range of really important progressive policies have decided that they do not want this Senate taking away their power and influence, because it is through these backroom preference deals that these people really shine. They wield their power and influence as a result of the current system, and they are fighting hard to keep it. The sad reality is that it is these people who now control the Labor Party. You know the type: the sort of person who gets rid of a sitting Prime Minister and cannot wait to go on TV to re-enact their role in it. They are the brains trust who have decided that they can convince people that, because the Greens are supporting a policy that we have advocated for over a decade, somehow we are in bed with the government—because we are supporting our own policy! You have to ask yourself: who thought of that great planning?

The Labor Party, a party that has voted with the coalition a third of the time, is having a go at the Greens for voting with the coalition six per cent of the time. It wants to say that we are too close to the government—

Senator Dastyari interjecting—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT

Order, senators! Senator Dastyari!

Senator DI NATALE

This is from a party that joined with the government to slash the renewable energy target and include the burning of native forests as renewable energy. This is from a party that is on a unity ticket with the coalition when it comes to opening up new coalmines around the country. This is from a party that voted to continue locking up young kids and to turn boats back, putting people's lives at risk. This is from a party that voted to gag doctors to prevent them from speaking out against the abuses occurring in detention camps.

Senator Dastyari interjecting—

Senator DI NATALE

This is from a party that joins with the coalition to drop bombs on Syria and then says, 'We don't want to have a national debate about it,' when it has the opportunity to support Greens legislation. This is from a party that voted with the government to rip money out of the pockets of university students—

Senator Cormann

Madam Acting Deputy President, on a point of order: Senator Dastyari is interjecting so loudly and so shrilly that I cannot actually hear the contribution by Senator Di Natale.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT

Thank you. I draw your attention—

Senator Cormann

I think it is actually your job to draw Senator Dastyari to order.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT

Senator Dastyari, on the point of order?

Senator Dastyari

If we are going to start playing these games, I draw the chair's attention to the state of the chamber.

 

Senator DI NATALE

As I was saying, Madam Acting Deputy President—

Senator Dastyari

I'll make sure there are 19 of you here all night.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT

And I remind senators to adhere to standing orders.

Senator DI NATALE

here we are. It is a party that has joined with the government to slash the renewable energy target, to continue to open up new coalmines, to lock up young kids, to turn boats around, to ensure that they gag doctors from speaking out, to continue to drop bombs on Syria, to ensure that we rip money out of scholarships from university students and to join with the government in their heavy-handed, paternalistic and completely ineffective welfare measures directed at Aboriginal people. It is a party that has joined with the government to support mandatory data retention. The list goes on and on and on. To paraphrase a former Labor Prime Minister: I will not be lectured about voting for the coalition by the ALP, not now and not ever.

We are proud of our record in this parliament. Let us start with one of the issues that you have taken issue with, Senator Dastyari—that is, the issue of pensions. We did not support John Howard's unfair pension changes when he introduced them, and we were proud to be able to take them back and to ensure that we redistribute income from those people who are wealthier to give more to those people at the bottom end of the income scale.

The same goes for tax transparency, Senator Dastyari. Under your plan, we would have absolutely nothing but, thanks to the Greens, we now have: country-by-country reporting, more powers within the Australian Taxation Office, and just this week companies will now have to disclose the amount of tax that they pay. But do you know what my favourite attack is? My favourite attack is—and I read about this one today—that we have been criticised for supporting the establishment of the Medical Research Future Fund. I saw that on one of the Labor billboards. So we have got medical researchers right across the country who now have $20 billion to bring a return to the medical research investment community here in Australia, who have developed a life-saving treatment as a result of that and the ALP think it is such a bad thing that they have included it on their dirt sheet. Do you know what someone forgot to tell the brains trust within the ALP? They actually voted for it. You cannot make this stuff up!

And then we have got Labor's grand plan. The grand plan is that if you support a democratic reform and put the power back in the hands of voters that somehow you are giving control of the Senate to the coalition. Apart from the fact that if you keep fighting us rather than the coalition, it may actually become a self-fulfilling prophecy, let me make this one point: if these changes were introduced in 2010, right now we would have the Greens and Labor with a majority in the Senate and we would still have the carbon price. We would still have those laws that we helped establish. Some of those laws are the most ambitious climate laws anywhere in the world and you are saying that you want to prevent a reform that would have helped us keep the carbon price. You argue that we should hold off on passing the bill—just do not do it now; just do not go to a double dissolution—as though somehow we should have an unfair voting system for one election and then change it to make it fairer after the next election. You either believe in democracy or you do not.

Let me say a few things about the role of the ACTU in their campaign against these reforms. When union members' money is being spent on misleading robo calls and push polling against a party that has got a proud record of standing alongside ordinary working people, it is no wonder that we are being contacted by union members, some of them senior officials, to apologise on behalf of the union leadership. I have to just say this: at a time when the union movement is having an existential crisis, they need to decide whose interests they represent. Do they represent the interests of ordinary working people or do they represent the interests of the Labor Party? Because they are not the same thing.

Politics is a long game. People in this place get really excited about the day-to-day tactical battles, about the arcane Senate procedures, about how we can manoeuvre ourselves to outposition our political opponents. But you know what? It is ultimately the substance that wins out, not some win over some obscure senate motion, not year 9 billboards that you plaster around the internet.

In closing, the Labor Party should actually try and understand my story, because, if they do not, their decline will continue. I come from a working class immigrant Italian family. We are a family of tradies, of teachers, of people who are ordinary workers. I had a grandfather who eulogised Gough Whitlam. He thought Gough was the greatest man alive. And you know what, 30 years ago there is a good chance that someone like me would have been sitting over there but not anymore. Even though my politics were forged from those values, after the gradual shift across to the right, after Labor introduced mandatory detention, after successive Labor governments signed the death warrant to some of our most precious native forests, I decided that you guys do not represent my values or the values now of many hundreds of thousands of Australians.

Thousands more have come on board over the years. When John Howard joined with Kim Beazley to excise Australian land as a result of the crisis, thousands more came across. When Labor joined with the coalition to support the invasion of Iraq, thousands more came across to the Greens. When Labor walked away from the greatest moral challenge of our time—that is, global warming—thousands more came across to the Greens. And that will continue to happen unless you recognise that it is you that is the problem, not us. When it is all said and done, my advice to the Labor Party is: if you really want to defeat the conservative policy agenda, you need to focus your attention on the conservatives, not on us.

Senator Dastyari interjecting—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT

Order! Senator Di Natale, I remind you to make your remarks through the chair. To those interjecting, I ask that you restore order to the process.

Senator DI NATALE

When it is all said and done, what the Australian Labor Party need to recognise is that if they want to defeat conservative policies, they need to focus their attention on both on the conservatives within their own ranks and on the conservatives that lie opposite. Those opposite need to recognise that we have an opportunity here to defeat a conservative government that has been one of the worst administrations in the nation's history. The choice is yours: continue to do the cause of progressive politics a great harm or focus on defeating a conservative policy agenda, an agenda that lies with those opposite.

 

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