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Fairness sits at the centre of our democracy

Speeches in Parliament
Janet Rice 16 Mar 2016

Fairness sits at the centre of our democracy. People should be able to go the polling booths with the knowledge that their vote will go where they want it to go, that it aligns with their beliefs and, if their first choice is not successful, that their vote will not be distributed via a dodgy backroom deal. Right now the system that determines who comes to this place is broken due to a combination of group ticket voting where parties, not the voter, get to direct preferences, and preference harvesting where parties of wildly differing ideologies team up in the hope that their number comes up in a lottery. You have alliances between the Stop Coal Seam Gas Party and the No Carbon Tax Climate Skeptic's Party and between Family First and Drug Law Reform Australia Party. Where one random lucky party gets to be the winner and one random lucky party can have a random big impact on the future of our country.

The Greens' vision for our representative democracy is that people's votes are reflected in the results. I want to start tonight by addressing two critical things. The first is the myth that these changes will mean Independents and minor parties will be wiped out. The second is to note that these changes are not going to get rid of preference arrangements. Preference arrangements will continue to be made, but it is going to be up to the voters to decide whether to follow a how-to-vote card that recommends a preference flow. To the people who are musing about the diversity that comes when people are elected with only a handful of votes, and who are saying that is a healthy thing, I reckon it is true that diversity is healthy in our democracy. (Quorum formed). But this diversity should reflect the wonderful diversity that we see in our society not a lottery that has already been rigged. The truth is that Independents and minor parties will be wiped out; they just will not get elected unless people vote for them, and that is how it should be. The beauty of preferential voting is that if your first choice does not get elected, then your second or your third or even your fourth choice can. But when parties direct the preferences that does not happen. It means that the results are not reflecting the wishes of the Australian people. Instead, the results are being determined by secret deals done behind closed doors.

We all know the circumstances of Senator Muir's election, the Motoring Enthusiast Party receiving the first preferences of just half of one per cent of people. To his credit, Senator Muir has approached his time here in a considered manner. But what can you say to the people who voted for the Animal Justice, Stop CSG or Bullet Train for Australia parties when their votes ended up with a party that supports hunting and shooting, logging of our native forests and roads ahead of rail?

If people are really serious about injecting an element of citizen juries into our parliament, well, we would need a referendum to achieve that and somehow I just cannot see it getting up. The last federal election was the eruption of this broken system, but the problem has been building for some time. This lottery means that for every Senator Muir there is a senator like Family First's Stephen Fielding, who was elected with less than two per cent of the vote. I am sure the people who voted for Labor in 2004 were appalled when they found that their vote had elected Stephen Fielding.

To the people who try to argue that the Greens have benefited from group-voting tickets and are now pulling up the drawbridge behind us, I want to share the history of the Greens in Victoria over the last 24 years to illustrate the absurdity of these assertions; it is absolute codswallop. We have not been a flash in the pan. We have done no preference deals that have betrayed our values and we have had a strong focus on party processes so that we are strong, resilient and united.

The Greens candidate who was up against Stephen Fielding in that 2004 election, David Risstrom, polled almost five times Fielding's primary vote, but he did not benefit from preference deals so, ultimately, was not successful. David Risstrom would have been an absolutely terrific senator.

Going back to the start of our party, I was one of the founders of the Greens in Victoria in 1992. Yes, I am actually one of those 'Greens of old' that Senator Ludwig was misrepresenting in his rhetoric just before. The Greens began in 1992 because Labor had failed Australians who care about the environment, social justice, peace and non-violence, and participatory democracy. I personally was passionate and motivated to be throwing myself into the Greens because I was fed up with being sold out by the Labor Party.

We stood one candidate at the 1993 election, Rebecca Wigney in the seat of La Trobe, and got 4½ per cent—not a bad result for a first outing. We had decided not to stand in the Senate that year. We supported Janet Powell's campaign as an Independent, with her having left the Democrats. In 1996, Peter Singer was our Senate candidate. We stood on a strong environment platform, including taking serious action on climate change, a platform that was missing from Labor and the coalition's platforms. We achieved 2.9 per cent of the vote—a bit of an increase but, yes, not enough to get elected. In 1998, young Indigenous woman, Charmaine Clark, was our Senate candidate. But our vote slipped back up to 2½ per cent, so she did not get to be the first female Indigenous senator. We had to wait another 15 years for Senator Peris to be elected to achieve that.

In 2001, it was the Tampa election. People were appalled that Labor had sided with the coalition and supported horrific asylum seeker policies. That picture of refugees baking on the decks of the MV Tampa is seared in my memory as well as the shock and despair when the then the Labor opposition leader, Kim Beazley, supported the hateful prejudice, the anti-refugee position of Prime Minister John Howard. Many other people felt the same way. Our vote soared to six per cent with candidate Scott Kinnear, and people voted for us as a party that would speak out for the rights and wellbeing of refugees. But, yet again, Scott missed out because we did not sell our preferences like the other parties. It has been with great sadness that we have seen the Labor Party in a race to the bottom on refugee policy ever since.

Fast forward to 2007. Richard Di Natale missed out on being elected, despite receiving 10 per cent of the vote. But, in 2010, after almost two decades of growing our support in the community, building our vote, doing the street stalls, the doorknocking, the town hall meetings, Richard was finally elected, with a quota in his own right. It was a long time coming. I am proud that we have grown the party we have here and in state and territory parliaments across Australia, without resorting to gaming the system. Instead, we have had the courage to take action on our strong values—leading the way on global warming, on fair treatment for people seeking asylum, on supporting those in our community who need it most and, for at least the past 12 years, on these very reforms that will strengthen our democracy. Our vote has grown and, as our vote has grown, we have been elected.

This is just a microstudy of the Greens rise, but it is clear that, under the current system, people's votes are not being reflected in the results. The changes we are debating today will put control over preferences back in the hands of the voter. If someone wants to vote 1 Animal Justice, 2 Motoring Enthusiasts, then that is their choice. Voting 1 to 6 above the line, or beyond 6 if the voter wants, will allow this to occur. These changes will mean that if the Animal Justice Party, the no coal seam gas party, the bullet train party, the hemp party, the Sex Party and drug reform party all poll a couple of percent each and hand out how to vote cards that recommend preferences, and if voters agree with their recommendations, and enough people vote for them, then one of these parties has got a really good chance of being elected. But the decision to vote for them lies with the voter. If the preference arrangements somehow slip somebody else—such as the fundamentalist Christians—into the preference mix, then the voters will notice and they will not vote that way. They will have the choice.

If we want a system that is truly diverse, we should start talking about proportional representation in the House of Representatives. That is also Greens policy, but let's get these Senate voting changes through first before we embark on that campaign. For now, these changes will ensure that our parliament is more democratic.

Instead of identifying the problems with the system and working together to fix them, we have been left with a scare campaign from Labor and the crossbench. Although I do not agree with the crossbench position, I can kind of understand why they hold it. Many of them have benefited from this broken system and are fighting to keep their spot here. But the hypocrisy from the Australian Labor Party is appalling. We have now endured weeks of Labor senators, particularly the senators who have benefited most from the current system, busting their guts in the chamber, suggesting that we are going to benefit from the changes—in the same breath as they say that we have been done over and will lose seats because of them. They do not know whether they are Arthur or Martha.

Let me be clear: there is one reason and one reason alone that we are supporting these changes: they will make our democracy stronger. If we gain seats it will be because our vote has grown. If we lose seats it will be because our vote has fallen. The same will go for Labor, for the Liberals, for the Nationals and for Independents. This Senate reform legislation that we are debating today is an opportunity for the Greens, for us, for this parliament and for this Senate to implement our vision, and we have got the courage to follow it through.

We have been pushing for these changes since 2004. The reforms were even written into our minority government agreement with Labor. In the written agreement between our two parties after the 2010 election, Labor agreed that:

The Parties note that Senator Bob Brown will reintroduce as a Private Members Bill the Commonwealth Electoral (Above‐the‐Line Voting) Amendment Bill 2008. The ALP will consider the Bill and work with the Greens to reach reforms satisfactory to the Parties.

Of course, the ALP actually did nothing about this in the period of government between 2010 and 2013. But after 2013 we finally thought that we had these reforms satisfactory to the parties when Labor supported unanimously the recommendations that came from the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters in the Interim report on the inquiry into the conduct of the 2013 federal election Senate voting practices in April 2014.The report recommended optional preferential above-the-line voting and partial optional preferential voting below the line with a minimum sequential number of preferences to be completed equal to the number of vacancies. After a year-long process and hearings all around the country—an incredibly long and thorough process—it reached this unanimous conclusion. It was not rushed through. It has not been done without adequate consideration.

Processes like the JSCEM inquiry are an absolute joy to my heart, and I believe that the majority of Australian people would think likewise. My way of doing politics is to seek to collaborate: to try to understand where people are coming from; to seek to understand their ideas, not to just reject them on the basis that they come from the opposing side; to acknowledge good ideas regardless of where they come from; to see through the politics and to focus on the policies, to see whether we can reach agreement.

I am not the only one who thinks like that. I know that the Australian people in general are like that. One of their biggest gripes about politicians, and the reason they do not trust us, is that they reckon we just oppose for opposition's sake

So the change of heart from Labor last month—not based on logic or understanding or any change of information—was a profound shock. The only way they can justify their about-face is to argue that black is white, to mislead, to lie, to try to scare people who are confused about what is going on. But, of course, we all know what really is going on. We know that powerbrokers, backroom operators, in Labor realised that they were going to be losing some of their power, that they were no longer going to be able to direct the votes of millions of voters through backroom deals and that that power instead would be transferred into the hands of voters.

The other scare campaign that we have seen from Labor is that this will deliver a majority for the coalition in both houses. I know this because people have told me they are worried about it. To those people: let me assure you that it is nothing more than a pathetic scare campaign. Even the ABC's election analyst, Antony Green, has said it does not stand up to analysis. This voting reform is not going to restore the ABCC. It is not going to abolish the Clean Energy Finance Corporation. We have been the Clean Energy Finance Corporation's greatest champion and would not do anything to put it at risk.

Then we see the games played by Labor today. They have tried to divert attention from their own missed opportunities by using people's love as a political tactic, and this offends me. Yes, our party platforms support marriage equality. But it was the Labor Party that sided with John Howard in 2004 to define marriage as being between a man and a woman and it is Labor that continue not to bind their vote—you would think against Labor values—until some distant time in the future. And then the Labor Party have the guile to lie about it on social media, claiming that we voted against our own bill. Complete baloney! The Labor Party knew full well that that was not the case. But they underestimated the public. I do not often take notice of social media, but it was with some satisfaction that I saw the No. 1 comment on the ALP's Facebook post, from Tim Lilley, say:

Why do you persist in treating Australian people as morons, ALP? The Greens didn't vote against the own bill for marriage equality in the senate (only against debating it). … I'd like to share my disappointment - in the Labor party.

Hear, hear, Tim. I completely agree.

In conclusion, this bill that we are debating tonight, this Senate voting reform, is well overdue. This reform will improve our democracy, it will make it fairer and it will put power back in the hands of the voters, and that is a very good thing.

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