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Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016

Speeches in Parliament
Richard Di Natale 18 Mar 2016

I was not going to make a major contribution to this debate at this stage, although I did want to thank Senator Conroy for his contribution and for arguing so eloquently in favour of these reforms. Let us just talk through some of the arguments that Senator Conroy used. He in fact referred to the 1999 infamous tablecloth ballot election where there were 81 parties running, and he described the process of feeder parties being organised in a way to distribute preferences. Of course, I utterly reject that the Greens were in anyway implicated in that. But he is absolutely right: that was the genesis of these reforms.

We know that there were 81 parties in that election. We know that Glenn Druery was involved. We know that many of those feeder parties were directing their votes and their preferences to other entities. That is exactly why we need the reform. He is absolutely right. That 1999 election was outrageous and it is in fact the reason that we need this reform—so we can stop those feeder parties from being set up and established with the express purpose of basically feeding votes to other entities that people do not vote for and who often hold completely contradictory policy positions. So I want to thank Senator Conroy for highlighting the 1999 election and for highlighting the reason that we do need this reform. That tablecloth ballot makes the argument better than we could possibly make it. Again, Senator Conroy makes a very cogent argument for why we need these reforms.

He then went on to say that this is about bums on seats for the Greens and in the same speech he then spoke about how we are going to lose South Australian senators. I just do not know how on the one hand it is about self-interest and, on the other hand, about losing senators. Those two things just do not add up. It is totally incoherent. It is also incoherent when you consider that he says that, as a result of us not being able to get preferences, we want to abolish a system that is designed for people to be able to harvest preferences.

I think he made a reference to campaigns that I was involved in and said, 'You were unable to get preferences and now you want to change the system.' But, hang on; I want to change the system so that we cannot harvest preferences and have people being elected on the back of these secret preference deals. Again, he is making the argument as to why we need to reform the system. The incoherence goes on and on. On one hand we are too close to the Liberal Party and, on the other hand, Senator Rhiannon is criticised for being too far left. Again, which one is it? The debate has become so irrational that we are having contradictory points of view being expressed within the same tirade.

Without wanting to go on much further, he talks about the notion of these reforms delivering a conservative Senate. I would just make the point that, if these reforms were implemented in 2010 and we had had them over the last two elections, we would still have a carbon price. We would have a Senate that was more progressive, that would have fought to retain a carbon price. We would not have TPVs for people seeking refuge and asylum in this country. That is what people voted for. Unfortunately, the voting system produced an outcome that was much more unpredictable and inconsistent with the wishes of voters. Under this set of rules in the last two elections, we would actually have a more progressive Senate and we would now have a carbon price. Why would the Labor Party be arguing against a set of reforms that would have allowed us to retain the carbon price?

The other argument is that this reform may lead to a double dissolution. Why is the Labor Party running so scared from an election? Show a bit of courage. Stand up to the opposition and show a bit of courage; otherwise, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. It becomes like the child who is hitting their head against a brick wall and saying, 'But, mummy, it hurts. I am hitting my head against a brick wall—

Senator Wong

You are a Liberal lapdog. Don't talk to us about courage. You couldn't even vote for marriage equality because he wouldn't let you. You are the lapdog. You are a Liberal lapdog.

Senator DI NATALE

It is like the little child who is banging their head against a brick wall saying, 'Mummy, it hurts.' Well, stop doing it; stand up and show a bit of courage. Stop running away from an election. If you do not stand up and fight, you will in fact deliver government to the coalition. The time to fight, to stand up and to show a bit of courage and be a real opposition is now. It is right now.

Opposition senators interjecting—

The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN

Order! I remind the chamber that interjections are disorderly. The senator is entitled to be heard in silence.

Senator DI NATALE

Without wanting to continue on much further, what we have is a set of democratic reforms that ultimately put power back in the hands of voters. They take the power away from us, the politicians, from the backroom operators who wield their power and influence through these deals—and effectively that is their currency in this chamber—and give it back to voters. The question of exhaustion has also been something that has been raised. We know that, ultimately, it becomes a question for voters as to how they distribute their preferences. If a voter wants to allocate preferences to a number of smaller parties and then decides to allocate a preference to one of the bigger parties, that is their choice and, in the end, what is a democracy about if it is not about giving voters the choice of who they elect?

You see, I believe in democracy. I believe in the Australian people. I believe in the Australian people's ability to make the right decision. And one of the great things about a democracy is that, whatever the outcome of an election, the people have always got it right. I have a lot of faith in people—unlike those opposite, who want to continue to have a set of rules that are rigged instead of those rules which are designed to keep power within that small clique who love exercising and wielding power through those backroom preference deals. Ultimately, at a time when in the parliament we are often fighting against the slow and gradual erosion of democracy, what a great day it is when we can say that today we have stood up, we have strengthened our democracy and we have given more power back to the people.

Senator DI NATALE

I was not planning on standing up, but I will make a few points just to correct the record. Let's begin with the assertion that Senator Wong made about the Greens not targeting Liberal Party seats. As a brief reminder for Senator Wong, at the last New South Wales state election it was in fact the Greens that took a National Party seat, in the seat of Ballina. There is a seat from the hands of the conservatives that now lies with the Greens. In the last Victorian state election, the seat of Prahran, a seat held by the conservative side of politics, is now held by the Greens.

In this federal election we have got some outstanding candidates who are standing in Liberal-held seats. I think Kelly O'Dwyer is in a bit of trouble in Higgins, because we have Jason Ball there—an outstanding candidate who looks like he might take the seat of Higgins. We are, of course, targeting many of those conservative seats. This notion that we are not fighting hard against the coalition: I remind Senator Wong that when it comes to voting with the coalition it is the Greens who have voted with the coalition six per cent of the time. It is the Labor Party that has voted with the coalition over 30 per cent of the time. That is just some basic maths in terms of where the Greens stand relative to the coalition and where the Labor Party stand relative to the coalition.

Senator Wong also asked why somebody would vote to elect a Green in the seats of Sydney and Grayndler. I will give a very succinct explanation. When there is a vote in the parliament about whether we should punish a doctor for reporting child abuse or speaking out against the abuses that are going on in our detention camps, a Green will vote against that every single time, and yet Ms Plibersek and Mr Albanese have voted in support of those things. The most important thing that we are gifted when we are elected to this place is our vote. All the rhetoric and all the words in the world do not matter next to the most important thing that we are given in this place, and that is our vote

So, when it comes to voting to strengthen renewable energy or to slash it, what we have seen is again those members of the Labor Party voting with the coalition to slash the Renewable Energy Target. Ms Plibersek and Mr Albanese voted with the government to slash the Renewable Energy Target. When it comes to data retention—again, some of the widest and most far-reaching laws, which impact on 23 million Australians, saying to them that their personal information is no longer theirs but belongs to the government who are unaccountable and can access it without a warrant—again Ms Plibersek and Mr Albanese voted to ensure that your data is no longer yours. If you elect a Green in one of those seats, you can be absolutely guaranteed that, when it comes to expressing how we feel about those issues, it will not be a rhetorical flourish; it will be done through our vote. So, if you want to know why people will be electing more Greens to lower house seats, it is because, when we have the opportunity through our vote to implement progressive reforms, we will do it every time.

Senator Wong also talked about the issue of Steven Fielding. That is a wonderful place to finish, because Senator Fielding was elected to this parliament on the back of a preference deal as a result of those clever backroom operators within the Victorian Labor Party who ensured that Steven Fielding would be elected ahead of the Greens. Again, let's just go back, because it was a bit of an own goal, Senator Wong. What we have is Senator Fielding, who held the balance of power in the federal parliament as a result of a preference deal where the Labor Party gave Steven Fielding a seat in this parliament ahead of a Green. The consequence of that decision I do not need to explain to anybody, because what we saw was somebody with a conservative view which you, Senator Wong—through you, Chair—outlined: the notion that the CPRS was some conspiracy to deindustrialise society. Let's remember who put him there. The Labor Party backroom operators in Victoria, through a preference deal, got him elected with 1.8 per cent of the vote. So, again, thank you for making the arguments as to why these reforms are just so critical. They are critical because if the voters of Australia want Steven Fielding in this parliament then he should be voted into this parliament, not as a result of the decisions of some of the backroom operators inside the Labor Party.

 

 

Senator DI NATALE

It is slightly unusual that much of the debate today is not actually focusing on the content of the legislation and the amendments that we are debating. I think we should return to that. Of course, I cannot let some of the comments made in the previous contribution go unchallenged. It is important to remember that, through this discussion of preferences, some assertions have been made. Again, I would like to make it absolutely crystal clear that there is no arrangement with the Liberal Party.

Secondly, the Labor Party has been the beneficiary of Liberal preferences at a number of elections. Mr Albanese's recent contribution was really just a pitch to the conservative base of the Liberal Party: 'Please give us your preferences because we're more like you than the Australian Greens.' It is really important to remember that that is where this is being driven. This whole issue emerged because Mr Albanese made some assertions about a non-existent arrangement. He made a desperate pitch to Senator Bernardi, Senator Abetz, Mr Christensen and others: 'Be careful if your party preferences the Greens ahead of us. 'Traditionally they did that for many years because they thought that was in their interests. At the last federal election, the Liberal Party decided to change tack. Labor wants to make sure the Liberal Party continues doing that. So Mr Albanese came out with his pitch to the conservative elements of the Liberal Party: 'This is something that some people in the Liberal Party are considering because it is within their interests. But please remember that our policies, my policies, are much more aligned to yours than the Greens policies are. So make sure you continue to preference me so that I can hold my seat.' That is what this debate is really about. Let's be absolutely crystal clear about that.

There is a bit of it debate about a coalition. It is inconceivable that we would enter into any sort of coalition arrangement with the Liberal Party. You need only look at the recent history to know that it was with the support of the Greens that the Rudd-Gillard government was able to govern. Again, if we are being frank about this, the most logical coalition in the parliament is a Labor-Liberal coalition. Some of us Greens do come from the conservative side of politics. There are some who are more in the tradition of Malcolm Fraser. But I, like most of us, grew up in a Labor household immersed in Labor politics, a house in which Gough Whitlam was eulogised. Some of us realised the gradual shift in policy direction from the Labor Party, right from the time they introduced mandatory detention; right from the time that they continued to sign the death knell of some of our most precious native forests, with successive state governments continuing that—in fact it continues to this day; right through the invasion of Afghanistan, which was endorsed by the Labor Party; right through to measures such as walking away from the most important moral challenge of our time, which of course is global warming; right through to successive foreign incursions such as the one we have seen in Syria; data retention; and, of course, that huge, gaping wound that exists in Australian politics at the moment which is the treatment of people seeking refuge and asylum in this country.

The point of that is that there are many of us who decided that we could no longer tolerate those things and that without that commitment to the environment that says that economy is a subsidiary of the environment, and without a readjustment in terms of the way our relationship with the environment works, we will not have a planet to sustain all of us.

That is why the Australian Greens have gone from strength to strength. This is a fundamental point: all the bluster in the world does not take away from the fact that the Labor Party at the moment are experiencing an existential crisis. What do they do about the emergence of the Australian Greens, knowing that we are not going anywhere? In fact, quite the opposite: we are a party that is going from strength to strength. You just need to look at the support base of our party to know that among young people we are now one of the three major parties. Our vote at various times is higher than the Labor Party's, depending on the most recent opinion poll you look at. We are matching it with all sides of politics. That is where we sit at the moment. When you look at the challenges that we face as a nation and indeed as a planet—the issue of climate change and global warming—we are the party that is best placed to deal with that challenge.

Again, on the issue of people seeking refuge and asylum, there are so many people in this country who desperately want a bit more decency and compassion. When you factor in the conflicts that are going on around the world—the issue of Syria at the moment which is causing an unprecedented displacement of people, something that has not been seen since World War II at least—when you look at all of those challenges—and of course the issue of refugees and asylum seekers in the context of catastrophic global warming will only escalate exponentially—they are the issues where people are increasingly acknowledging that the Australian Greens best represent their values.

I know that people are very frustrated by this debate—people at home who might be listening in and thinking, 'Why on earth is there so much vitriol going on between the Labor Party and the Greens, when in fact it was the Greens that supported the Labor Party in office?' Underneath all of that is this notion about where the Labor Party stands on this issue and how they deal with the emergence and continued growth of the Australian Greens.

That is what is at the heart of this. We are seeing this tussle inside the Labor Party. There are so many good people inside the Labor Party that many of us have worked with. Let me name check someone like Melissa Parke, for example, who we have worked with so closely on the issue of drug policy and law reform, on refugees and asylum seekers and on so many issues. There are many, many good people inside the Labor Party who want to reach some sort of accommodation, who want that for the sake of progressive politics. But there is also a group inside the Labor Party, many of them represented here today, who are lashing out in anger. They are grasping at any possibility they can to try and throw a bit of mud and hope that it sticks. The nonsense that engaging in a photo shoot somehow represents some betrayal of progressive values—how absurd! How absurd this debate has now become.

I am sure this will continue until that internal struggle within the Labor Party is resolved one way or another. I hope that, for the sake of all of us who want to see a more decent society and a little more courage, vision and leadership, that it is resolved quickly. If it is not, all the concerns that the Labor Party are now expressing about the coalition winning government and winning control of the Senate will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So once again I say to the Labor Party, stand up, show some courage, recognise that, ultimately, if we are to defeat a conservative agenda it is going require a focus a focus on conservative policies—the conservative policies of this government. Until they are able to acknowledge and recognise that fact, they are handing the coalition everything they want. I hope we can return to the substance of this debate, which is ultimately about ensuring we see more democracy in the Australian parliament—about taking power away from us, the politicians, and giving it back to you, the voters.

 

 

Senator DI NATALE

Firstly, let me say that I think Senator Rhiannon did a very good job of answering that question. Perhaps I can address the question in a different way. The key thing is this: if you believe in these reforms—and clearly the Labor Party does not, I think, although they did, and I think half of them still do, and Gary Gray does and he is sad at what Labor is doing now, and I understand that a number of people are not actually here in the chamber. But that all said—

An honourable senator interjecting—

Senator DI NATALE

No, no. That said, we accept that at least those present do not support these reforms. Of course we accept that. It is really important to remember, though, that we believe in these reforms. We believe that voters should be able to determine where their preferences go. I get that we have different views on that. So when you actually believe that a reform like this is good for democracy and needs to be in place in an election, why would you say, 'Let's have an election under a dodgy set of rules, and then we'll fix it after that election—we'll fix it later'? Why would you say that? You would not. If you believe in these reforms, what you are saying to the Australian people is: 'We think this is important for democracy and it should be in place at the next election.' So the whole premise of your argument is starting from the wrong place. We believe in these reforms. We think they are good for democracy. And they need to be in place at the next election—whenever that is.

Again, let us talk about the start date. The start date was put there with the sole purpose of ensuring that the Australian Electoral Commission is ready when these reforms are done. That is what that start date is there for—to ensure that the Australian Electoral Commission has the three months that they need to ensure that they are prepared to conduct the election fairly. So that is the simple answer. That is the reason we have a start date at that point, and we have said that, whenever the next election is, we want these reforms in place, knowing all the while that if the government wants to go to a double dissolution under the current system, which we think is flawed, they have the capacity to do so. As Senator Simms pointed out to me just a moment ago, rather than us handing the keys to the government for a double dissolution, those keys are in the Constitution. The government can go to a double dissolution at any time should they want to.

I have a couple of other points. I will not keep us much longer. On the issue of the outcome of an election, Senator Wong seems to think she knows what the outcome of the next election in the Senate is going to be—what is it, four or five months out from an election? I have been in a few tight contests, as we heard before, and I have lost a few. There are people who cannot tell you the outcome of the Senate election after the votes have been cast and we are three days into the process. There are people who cannot tell you what the outcome is after people have voted. And we have Senator Wong saying, 'I can tell you three or four months out what the election result will be.' Really? Are we expected to believe that? That is utterly remarkable. I also think it is very defeatist. It is an incredibly defeatist attitude. Stand up and show some fight. Stand up and have a bit of courage to take on the government. Show some fight; have a bit of courage, because at the moment you are rolling over and saying, 'We have no chance at this election.' Well, we do not believe it. We do not buy it. We are fighting hard to make sure that within the Senate we have the numbers to ensure that we get stronger action on climate change and to ensure that we do everything we can to stop treating people who are seeking refuge and asylum in the way we are currently.

I will finish with a few remarks on the role of the trade union movement, seeing as Senator Wong made a number of comments about that. Yes, it is true: we are disappointed that the leadership of the ACTU have expressed their point of view. But let me also say this: we have been contacted by many, many unions—

An honourable senator interjecting—

Senator DI NATALE

We have not spoken to all of them, because I can tell you—and I do not want to embarrass them—there are unions who are very, very disappointed with the actions of the ACTU. Let me also say that we have had members, as well as senior union officials, contacting us and telling us how incredibly disappointed they are that their union fees have been used in a way that is effectively there to try to support the interests of the Labor Party rather than the interests of ordinary working people. That has been disappointing. The union movement have clearly got some thinking to do.

Honourable senators interjecting—

The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN

Order! Senators are entitled to be heard in silence. Senator Di Natale, you have the call.

Senator DI NATALE

As I said, I think there is clearly a debate going on within the union movement about whether they are there to represent the interests of the Labor Party or ordinary working people—that is clear.

I finish by saying that we are very proud that we have the chance now to ensure that we get an orderly transition. That is the reason for the commencement date being 1 July—that we get an orderly transition and give the Electoral Commission the opportunity to see these reforms through. But we want these reforms in place whenever the next election is, because we think the current system is flawed. The sooner they are implemented, the better; and the sooner we all turn our attention to ensuring that we defeat this government's agenda, the better.

 

Senator Di Natale

Mr Temporary Chairman, I raise a point of order. We have been pretty relaxed about the debate over the course of the night and we have let the insults be hurled thick and fast, but there is a line that you do not cross. Senator Collins has just crossed that line and made what is a disgraceful attribution to Senator Rhiannon, only a moment after you asked her specifically to conduct this debate with a little more respect. I would ask that Senator Collins withdraw that remark and start conducting this debate with a little more respect for her colleagues and indeed the institution.

The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Senator Di Natale, I think you raise a valid point. Senator Collins, I would ask you to withdraw that last comment.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS

I will withdraw the comment, whatever it is, because I am not sure exactly what it is. So I withdraw whatever that comment is that the Greens have taken offence to.

The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Everybody in the chamber heard it.

Honourable senators interjecting—

The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Order! Senator Collins, have you withdrawn?

Senator JACINTA COLLINS

I did withdraw, yes. I have to make a comparison between comments yesterday, where I think the interjection on Senator Wong was that she was 'dense', and how my earlier reflection that this process was affecting senators' comprehension, and most particularly Senator Rhiannon's, is so offensive. It is just a reflection on what this process that the Greens and the government have cooked up is delivering in terms of the capacity for any individual to function, but most particularly Senator Rhiannon.

Senator Di Natale

Chair, I raise a point of order. You asked her to withdraw those comments, and she has simply repeated them. She is defying your ruling; she has done so on a number of occasions. She refuses to withdraw and I ask you to enforce that ruling.

Senator Wong

She did withdraw.

Senator Waters

And then she repeated it!

The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Senator Collins, I urge you, in the interests of getting through this business, to look at the level of personal reflection that you are attributing to the crossbenchers. I would encourage you to modify your tone and make your contribution.

Senator Whish-Wilson

As you know, as chair, you have some discretion. The context of how these things are said makes a big difference, and I ask that you reflect on that please.

The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: I am listening, I am taking advice and we will see how we go from here.

 

Senator DI NATALE

I will be brief and I will make my contribution based on the recent contribution from Senator Wong. I will use the same standard that Senator Wong applied, which is not reprising the answer that I gave previously in this debate.

But I will spend a few minutes, again, just responding to some of those comments. The first thing that needs to be really clear is the commencement date, because there is some confusion about what the commencement date is actually there for. The commencement date is there to ensure that the Australian Electoral Commission are able to do the work that is necessary to get this reform in place before the next election. That is what it is for. The issue of a double dissolution is up to the government. It is entirely of their choosing whether this legislation is in place or not—it is entirely of their choosing.

The reason we want this legislation in place is because we believe it is good for democracy, that it is an improvement to the way we elect people to the Senate because it gives power back to voters and takes it away from us politicians. So our focus is on ensuring that whenever the next election is that we have this reform in place. Again, just to be clear: we understand that the Labor Party disagrees with these reforms. We do not; we think that they are good. We think they are important and we think they need to be in place at the next election.

That is why the issue of postponing them beyond a double dissolution election simply does not make sense. What the Labor Party is asking us to do is to say, 'Let's retain a dodgy set of election laws for one more election,' when we have the opportunity to say, 'Let's make sure they are in place for the next election,' whether that be a double dissolution election or a half-Senate election.

The other issue, of course, then is the assertion that by adopting these laws we are somehow giving the balance of power over to the conservative side of politics. It is remarkable that Senator Wong seems to know the outcome of the election in the Senate four months ahead of time—four months ahead of time! No, the reality is that no-one knows the outcome of this. The only people who will decide the outcome of the next election will be voters, rather than backroom preference dealers.

Of course, Senator Wong also mentioned the role of the trade union movement. It is important that I respond to that by saying that we have had a number of calls, emails and letters from trade union members who have said to us that they are disappointed that their fees are being used by the ACTU leadership in an effort to help the Labor Party. In fact, they question the very role of the ACTU. Does it exist to support their members or does it exist to support the Labor Party? Those two things are absolutely not in line, particularly when it comes to an issue like this. I think I will leave it there.

The CHAIRMAN: The question is that Greens amendment (2) on sheet 7882 be agreed to.

 

 

Senator DI NATALE

I will not make a long contribution. I do not want to make this any more acrimonious than the debate has already been over the past more than 24 hours that I think we have been at this now.

We support the intent of this specific amendment. We certainly support the intent of the amendment. We need to also recognise that this is a very different piece of legislation from the changes to Senate voting reform. This is an issue around campaign finance reform as opposed to the method in which people are elected to the Senate. That is why the Greens have separate legislation to deal with this issue. We have separate legislation in the form of a bill which has now been sent to an inquiry. So while we support the intent of the amendments, we have those amendments now before an inquiry. I think when you are talking about an amendment that is so substantively different from the content of a piece of legislation like the one that we are debating at the moment—which is about the method in which we elect senators to the parliament—then, of course, it warrants a much more detailed look.

If the Labor Party is going to be consistent—because their primary criticism has been that this issue has not been subjected to enough scrutiny; something that we reject—then, obviously, they would want these significant amendments to be the subject of an inquiry. This is a very different proposal to the one that we are debating at the moment. So we look forward to their support once that bill is subjected to an inquiry, and we look forward to ensuring some cooperation when we put that specific piece of legislation to the parliament.

I hope, although I suspect it is a forlorn hope, that this is not just another tactic in the same way as the issue—and I have to say it is to the great shame of all of us in this place, let's be frank about it, that the way this debate will be received by the Australia community is with, I think, a great deal of disgust and contempt for the work that has gone on here over the past week. It is disappointing that issues like campaign finance reform and political donation reform, both of which are really important issue that the Greens have a long history on—Lee Rhiannon has been championing this reform for over a decade in both the New South Wales parliament and the federal parliament. The campaign that she has been running on Democracy for Sale—the websites and so on—has introduced the opportunity for people to assess what corporate donors are funding political parties and to what amount. I think that has all been terrific. So we are keen to progress this issue. But, as I said, it is through an inquiry.

Senator Cormann is absolutely right: this was the subject of the agreement between the Labor Party and the Greens in 2010. It is hugely disappointing that when we did have the opportunity with the Labor Party governing and our support in the Senate—not just our support but making this a condition of the agreement with the Labor Party—they did not bring this on for a vote. If this had been brought on for a vote back in 2010, we would not be having this discussion right now. We would have seen an improvement to our political donation laws.

We have a number of amendments here. I will not speak to each of them individually, just to say that we certainly support the intent of each of those amendments. This is now subject to an inquiry. We hope it is just not another tactic in the same way that marriage equality has been used as a bit of a political football in this place. We hope that we can work cooperatively beyond today's sitting to ensure that we do see what is really important reform that we know the Australian community is desperate for.

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