Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (11:03): For those listening to this debate I will explain what the Senate is doing at the moment. The Labor Party is again, with the amendment we are debating, trying to delay dealing with this legislation on Senate reform for some months. The amendment before the Senate, moved by the Labor Party, seeks to delay the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill. The Labor Party have said we need more time to debate this issue. As Senator Whish-Wilson has just said and as Senator Cormann has mentioned, this matter has been debated full-time for about three years. Those listening and senators will recall that following the last federal election there was genuine community outrage at the fact that a number of senators, who control the Senate, were elected with less than a couple of per cent of the vote in. It was not outrage from the politicians at the time—there was genuine community outrage.
Immediately following the election, because of that community outrage, the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters instituted an inquiry into Senate voting. I attended that inquiry. There were senators and members from all political parties; from memory there were about 10 separate hearings, many of them in other places in Australia. I know we went to Perth, where there had been some difficulties with the election, and we went to places as remote as Mount Isa in my own state, to make sure that we got the views of everybody in Australia on what they thought Senate voting was like and what reforms there should be. Following that very extensive investigation and those consultations with everybody, with all the experts and with ordinary people around the country—some politicians even gave evidence; I remember Mr Katter gave evidence in Mount Isa and we had Mr Green, other professional people and academics give evidence to the committee—the committee deliberated on that evidence for some considerable time. I repeat that the committee was made up of members of the Liberal Party, the National Party, the Australian Labor Party and the Greens political party, and Senator Xenophon. It was a cross-party committee, and the report of the committee was unanimous. All parties signed onto it, including the Australian Labor Party. I was on the committee, and we were wondering at the time whether the Labor Party would support it—in fact, the Labor Party representatives on that committee were perhaps the most forceful in getting the result that that committee presented to parliament.
The recommendations of that committee were, amongst other things, that there be optional preferential above the line and below the line. I will not go through that in any detail. Everybody in this chamber knew exactly what that report proposed and what the system in this country was. That was something that the Labor Party, Senator Xenophon, the Greens and the coalition were all unanimous about. There was no dispute or complaint. I repeat that that was a report, a conclusion, that was arrived at by serious consideration. It was not a five minute 'sit down and what will we do.' It was not something that there was no consultation on. It was a very thorough and full investigation with every Australian given the opportunity to come and present evidence should they want to.
The crocodile tears you get from the Labor Party about this particular bill before the parliament not having enough exposure are just crocodile tears. In fact someone in the Labor Party has concluded that the Labor Party will do badly out of it. All the evidence—and Senator Whish-Wilson went through some of it accurately quoting Antony Green—has no conclusion that the Labor Party will do badly or will do well. Senator Whish-Wilson explained that with some clarity. The coalition can get a majority if we get a big majority of votes around Australia. That has happened once before. I had to say to Mr Green, that it was nice to pull up an expert like Professor Green. He forgot that on one occasion in my home state of Queensland we got four out of the six senators for the coalition. They were quite unusual circumstances. Senator Brandis will remember; he led the ticket. That was quite an exceptional result. At that time and at that election in Queensland, the majority of Queenslanders voted for the Liberal and National parties. We were separate parties then, but between us we got four out of the six. That can happen. I am delighted that Senator Whish-Wilson has read into the Hansard the actual transcript of the evidence given by Mr Green yesterday, which puts the lie to a lot of the false allegations that have been made by members of the Labor Party in this debate so far.
I will go through, at some length, for those who are listening and who might be wondering what this debate is about. Yesterday we tried to get the debate on this piece of legislation which all Australians regardless of their political affiliation think must happen. It is the sort of reform that gives back to the voter the choice of who they vote for in their state to represent them in the Senate. This is essential in a democracy. The joint standing committee came to the same conclusion two or three years ago, not only to be seen to be a democracy, but to be democratic. It was important that Australians could exercise their right to vote as they choose and to give preferences to whom they wanted, and not to simply blindly follow some registered how-to-vote card which, I can assure you, very few Australians ever knew about.
We had a ridiculous situation where people who deliberately cast a vote for a party of the extreme left, without knowing where that party had sold its preferences to other parties, found out that their preferences went to a party of the extreme right. Had those people bothered to look at the registered how-to-vote card—and not many people did—they would have seen that. Now under the proposals in this legislation and if the government follows the recommendations of the committee, which were tabled in the other place earlier today, then we will have a piece of legislation that gives Australians the opportunity to choose who they want in this Senate and give preferences to whom they want.
The inquiry that has been held shows that the process has worked. The government has brought in a piece of legislation, which in shorthand says, 'Optional voting above the line, but below the line you still can vote for the individual of your choice'. You had to go through the whole gambit, so it could end up people voting from one to 103. I think at the last election—I always vote below the line—it took me about 25 minutes to go through it, double-checking to make sure I had not missed a number that might have declared my vote illegal. Most people would not vote below the line, because it was too onerous.
One of the witness yesterday gave the example that he always voted below the line. He took his three-year-old son with him while he went to vote. Can you imagine a three-year-old sitting in the voting booth while his father went through 103 numbers and double-checked them. He made the point that he would never do that again in those circumstances even though he preferred to choose the candidates under the line. The evidence given yesterday repeated a lot of the evidence that the original joint committee dealt with, which engendered the recommendations of the original committee.
As a result of that report, the committee decided at a meeting this morning that it would recommend to parliament that the bill be amended to provide—again, I use shorthand—not only optional preferential voting above the line but also optional preferential voting below the line, up to 12 numbers. That would be the case whether it were a single Senate election, a half-Senate election or a double-dissolution Senate election. That is the recommendation of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, which mirrors exactly the recommendation that same committee unanimously made just three years ago.
Now, for some reason—there has been no valid reason given—the Labor Party have changed their minds. Mr Gary Gray, not a political friend of mine but clearly a respected, honest and genuine member of parliament, who regrettably will not be with us after the next election, maintains what he maintained three years ago, which is that this new idea was the right one.
That is the process, and that process actually works. Well, I hope it has worked. I have not seen the government's amendments. But I would feel fairly confident that the government would take notice of the recommendations of the joint standing committee which, I repeat, mirror those it made three years ago. I would hope that the government would accept those recommendations and would amend the bill before parliament to allow—in shorthand—optional preferential voting above the line and optional preferential voting below the line.
That is what everyone wanted to do three years ago; it was unanimous. I cannot repeat that enough. I invite those listening to have a look at the joint standing committee report of three years ago and see who signed it. The people who signed it included members of every political party, including the Australian Labor Party. I know I have said that a number of times, but I want to emphasise it. In the debates on the bill that will follow, I would like to get the Labor Party to give me one valid reason, one half-sensible reason—
Senator Wong: Even John Howard agrees with us.
Senator IAN MACDONALD: why they would, three years ago, support exactly this—
Senator Wong: John Howard agrees with us.
Senator IAN MACDONALD: but now have changed their minds.
Senator Wong: Even John Howard.
Senator IAN MACDONALD: Senator Wong, you say someone else is recommending that. All I am saying—
Senator Wong: John Howard, not 'someone else'!
Senator IAN MACDONALD: to you is that as the guy who actually sat through all the hearings, as I said before—you were not in the chamber, Senator Wong—the committee had about 10 hearings, and many of them were public hearings. They deliberated on this. The Labor Party members of the committee at that time were at the forefront in encouraging and arguing to other members of the committee that this was what should happen. That was from members of the Labor Party, I can tell you that. Perhaps I am breaching standing orders by telling you what happened in the joint standing committee at that time. But that is how it was: the Labor Party members were keener than anyone else. But apparently someone told Senator Conroy or Senator Wong—the unions have told them—
Senator Wong: John Howard agrees with us.
Senator IAN MACDONALD: they are going to do badly out of this. It is bad advice, I might say. As Senator Whish-Wilson clearly read into the Hansard, Mr Antony Green said that the Labor Party will not do badly out of it unless they get a very poor vote. But, the way Labor are going, I predict that the Greens will become the official opposition in an election or two. Heaven forbid. But the way the Labor Party are carrying on across the board, such as what the union corruption inquiry has exposed and their position on this bill, I can understand that people would leave the Labor Party in droves, the same way they are leaving the unions in droves.
I will leave it there. I am very keen to see what amendments the government is proposing. We will later be talking about the joint standing committee report. I encourage people to read that report and to read it in conjunction with the report of three years ago, when the Labor Party initiated, almost, and signed on to this recommendation with all the other parties. It was unanimous.