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Reforming Senate Voting

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Scott Ludlam 16 Mar 2016

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia-Co-Deputy Leader of the Australian Greens) (22:22): I rise to speak on the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016, and what a long time coming this has been. I have resisted directly contesting some of the weirder assertions about this bill floating around online-some of them based on the sort of deliberate misinformation that we just heard from Senator Lines, but some of them based on genuine concern about what is happening in here this week. This debate is complex enough so I have not tried to rebut some of these things in 140 characters-apologies if you have approached me directly in the last couple of weeks and not got a proper reply. I am going to try to set out my reasoning here now.


Anybody following this debate will understand how complex questions of electoral reform can get, but there are some simple principles underlying the approach the Greens have taken. The purpose of the electoral system is for the composition of our houses of parliament to reflect, as closely as possible, the voting will of the electorate. It should be uncontroversial. The system for the House of Representatives fails this test miserably. If we can say that the Australian Greens' vote nationally is somewhere between 12 and 14 per cent at the moment, then we should have north of 18 members in the 150-seat House of Representatives-no such luck. Adam Bandt, due to talent and hard work, remains our only member of that assembly, because there is no proportional representation in the House.

That is a campaign for another day, but I raise it because, historically, the Senate's electoral system has done a much better job of turning the popular vote into representation in this chamber because of the proportional nature in which in a normal half-Senate election you elect six senators, not just one. But we all know-because until very recently there was a near-unanimous agreement on this-that the system of group-voting tickets in this Senate is being abused. Call it what you will: 'gamed' or 'manipulated', quite expertly, by people who know exactly what they are doing. There is nothing democratic or representative about a tiny handful of individuals spawning off a proliferation of prefab parties with engaging-sounding names and identical memberships, manufacturing group voting tickets designed to funnel people's votes into almost random aggregations in which election to this chamber has turned into a lottery. Election to the Australian Senate should not come down to preference whisperers quietly shunting people's votes from left to right on behalf of the in excess of 95 per cent of voters in some states who vote above the line. In the 2013 election in WA these preference-harvesting operators nearly pulled off their peak achievement: getting an individual from one of these prefab parties elected on just under 0.25 per cent of the vote, while a thoroughly decent Labor member of this parliament looked to have lost her job despite polling in excess of 11 per cent.

The aftermath, I should say, of the 2013 election was the JSCEM report that Senator Rhiannon and her colleagues worked very hard on for six months and which led, ultimately, to the bill that we are debating today. Labor say that they love diversity in the Senate, apparently even if it means throwing one of their own under a bus to somebody whose name might as well have been drawn out of a hat. Labor loves Senate diversity so much that one of their three stated objectives for the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters inquiry was, and I will quote, 'to clear the political landscape of microparties and eliminate their cartel.' Good work, Labor! I wonder if their preference operators have been spelling that out to the crossbenchers in their fevered attempts to milk their own hypocrisy for vanishing electoral advantage. Good luck with that.

One thing that we have been asked a lot, though, over the last few weeks-and I have a bit of sympathy for this question-is: why are the Greens supporting the Turnbull government on anything, let alone a question as sensitive as Senate voting reform? The answer is reasonably simple. We are supporting it because it is substantially our bill. It is a proposal that we championed since well before the geniuses in the Labor Party accidentally elected Senator Steven Fielding to this place in 2004 on a tiny fraction of the vote.

Here is the thing: henceforth you, the voter, will decide where your preferences go; not the Sussex Street hacks, who have been screaming the loudest this week. You decide. Candidates are going to have to work for your vote instead of trusting the secret deals done in secret meetings. The only time that the ALP care at all about a number of issues is when it is politically expedient to do so. Labor did nothing in government to progress marriage equality and they shut down progress at every opportunity. And now, from the safety of opposition, we are expected to pretend that that never happened.

Well, guess what? I have been here through five prime ministers who did everything that they could in office to block marriage equality: Prime Ministers Howard, Rudd, Gillard, Abbott and Turnbull. And the sad stunt is that you put Senator Leyonhjelm up this morning to try to deflect from your own hopeless inadequacy and it will fool precisely nobody. See you next Thursday for the marriage equality debate that you did everything in your power to avoid when you were in government. My colleagues and myself have sat through all manner of hysterical lectures from the Labor Party this week about voting with Mr Turnbull, because he happened to put his name on a Senate voting reform proposal that we have been championing for 12 years.

So let us talk about voting with the government for a bit. I had to sit with my colleagues and the crossbenchers on that side of the chamber on the night that the Labor Party gifted this country with Prime Minister Abbott's and Attorney-General, Senator George Brandis's, mandatory data retention-passive mass surveillance over 23 million Australians. We had to sit there while you let burning of native forests get into a watered-down renewable energy target. What acts of utter genius. You did that in support of the Abbott government and you did not have to do that at all.

The Labor Party voted to lock up children in detention, and to introduce Border Force and a two-year jail term for anybody who was working with the detained asylum seekers from reporting suspected child abuse. If they want to talk about the impacts on progressive politics of voting with the Abbott-Turnbull government, really, let's have that conversation. It is one that we are more than ready for. For a party that has voted with the government more than 40 per cent of the time, the most savage impacts of the short, miserable tenure of the Abbott government that actually wound up in law are there because of Labor Party complicity. If they want to talk about the comparative records of the Labor Party and the Greens for progressive politics and they seriously want to bring that into the next election, we are ready for that debate to be had. I worked, and Senator Siewert and Senator Milne worked, for eight years to stop the government from dumping radioactive waste at Muckaty.

Debate interrupted.

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia-Co-Deputy Leader of the Australian Greens) (09:31):  Last night I spoke about the principle of voters directly controlling who they elect rather than leaving it to self-appointed professional preference allocators. I did express some opinions at the time about how this idea has somehow become controversial during this debate on the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016. There is no question that the Labor Party's principled defence of backroom preference allocators has caught the imagination of some people online, including a few people who I figured were smart enough to know better.

When a ballot paper ends up measuring one metre from side to side, when the Electoral Commission has to hand out little magnifying glasses so you can read the fine print and when you realise that people are going around boasting about how many front parties they have set up in order to funnel preferences to themselves something has gone deeply wrong with our electoral system. In the wake of the 2013 election, where the preference engineers had their finest hour in preference slingshotting random candidates past people with 20 times more votes, the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters spent months trying to work out how to put the power back into voters' hands. This is the model that the cross-party Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters came up with to abolish the machinery of group-voting tickets and let voters decide who gets elected.

It is true that this bill is not identical to the JSCEM model. It is different in a couple of quite important respects. The JSCEM majority report recommended raising party registration fees-for some reason I still do not understand. This bill fixes that. It also recommended a model that could have effectively promoted a just vote 1 system, which undermines the power of our preferential voting system. This bill fixes that too. Let us hear what the committee had to say:

Labor's preferred position would also see a requirement that ballot paper instructions and how-to-vote material advocate that voters fill in a minimum number of boxes above the line, while still counting as formal any ballot paper with at least a 1 above the line.

Congratulations! We managed to get the Labor Party model into law. Wonderful!

There has been a bit of debate about the fact that you can already number the candidates in the order you choose and you do that by voting below the line. I want to refer briefly to some research done by Ben Raue on He actually looked at the data for what happens when people vote below the line, when they decide to exercise their democratic mandate in full, which I have done plenty of times myself, and number all the boxes below the line.

The research that he conducted on some of the larger ballot papers-and New South Wales being one of the craziest examples-is that the informal rate, the number of votes that end up in the bin, is as high as 28 per cent for people voting below the line, because it is just so hard. It is particularly hard to get it right when the ballot paper is a metre side to side and you are trying to number of candidates whose names are written in four- or five-point type. Nearly 30 per cent of those votes end up in the bin.

He found a very strong correlation between the number of candidates on the ballot paper and the number of people who simply end up voting above the line. They just cannot be bothered. Rather than punishing these voters for not having the time or the inclination to vote below the line at that 30 per cent risk of their vote ending up informal, we should make voting easier.

We should make the system simpler. That is what the Labor Party's submission to JSCEM said. Well, we got that embedded in the bill, thanks to years of tenacious work by Senator Lee Rhiannon. Labor have decided, for reasons best left to them, to take the low road. And your own spokesman describes your arguments as dumb. He was right. It is hard to disagree. Your speeches may as well have been written by the same software that the ACTU is using for its robocalls.

The press gallery has been nearly unanimous that this is a sensible reform. The Labor Party has been left to run its campaign in the form of high-pitched, unhinging online, which has caught up a few people who figure out that where there is so much smoke there must be fire. But, ultimately, you are just smoke.

I want to acknowledge-because their names have come up a couple of times in this debate-Senators Bob Brown and Christine Milne. They are former Australian Greens leaders who moved the debate forward and prepared the ground with bills, with speeches in here, with dedicated committee work and with running the argument and getting the argument up in the public domain. I want to acknowledge, 12 years ago, Senator Brown moved, on behalf of the Australian Greens in this place, the first bill for a reform similar to that that we are debating today.

I also want to acknowledge Senator Lee Rhiannon, who brought the energy and determination that got this reform done in the New South Wales parliament to this Senate over the last couple of years. Of course, I want to acknowledge Senator Richard Di Natale for standing firm against the self-interested hysteria and outright weirdness that has been thrown at him in the last couple of weeks-for keeping his eye on the bigger picture and getting this done.

There is a lot of anxiety expressed in Labor senators' heartfelt and terribly earnest speeches about how this bill will hand the coalition a Senate majority, which will allow all kinds of hideous bills to be passed in a joint sitting after a double-dissolution election. The numbers, just the raw numbers, to support this argument brazenly do not stand up. But even if they did, it is actually beside the point. Here is a piece of advice for anyone in the ALP who has expressed these sentiments: how about you have a go at winning the next election? What if you went out and actually campaigned on the kind of progressive flagship issues that inspired previous generations of progressives and try to actually win for a change?

The Labor Party's entire strategy for opposing this reform-that you have conveniently forgotten you agreed with until about five minutes ago-has been premised on losing the next election and sitting by, in self-righteous helplessness, while the Abbott Turnbull government passes God knows what. Snap out of it. Get in the fight or get in the bin. There is a reason that you have been abandoned by two generations of progressive voters, and you have been wearing those reasons on your sleeves these past few weeks. If the numbers in this chamber are not reflective of a mix of Labor, Green and progressive Independents then it is because we have not persuaded a majority of the electorate that our ideas should prevail all the way into the legislature. So rather than fighting sensible changes that will finally stop senators from being elected by Glenn Druery's random number generator, get out and campaign on the issues that people actually care about.

I am very much looking forward to putting this bill to a vote and getting it done after 12 long years since Senator Brown first tabled a bill with the same intent as the one that we are debating tonight. Talk it into three o'clock in the morning on Thursday if you want. Talk it into September if you feel like it. In the end, this bill will become law, and not before time.

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