Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (19:51): I rise to speak on the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016. This legislation is all about giving Australians the right to select their candidates in the Senate. That is what it is all about. It is a very simple piece of legislation. Not only is it a simple piece of legislation but it is a piece of legislation that has the unanimous support of all political parties and that includes the Australian Labor Party.
What we do not want in Australia, what the Australian public do not want is the sort of thing that happened in Queensland last election, where people wanted to vote for Mr Bob Katter, a former National Party member of parliament who jumped ship became an independent. He used to pretend that he was supportive of his old party, the Liberal-National parties in Queensland, but he registered his party's card in the Senate and, unbeknown to almost 99 per cent of the people who voted for his party in the Senate, he was actually giving his preferences not to the Liberal-National Party, which he pretended he supported, but to the Australian Labor Party before he gave them to the Liberal-National Party. Sure, he did not give the Labor Party Nos 7, 8 9 on his ticket; he gave them Nos 53, 54, 55 and 56. But he gave the LNP Nos 73, 74, 75 and 76.
Do not hold me to the numbers, but the position is correct and so anyone that voted for Mr Katter would have thought, 'Well, I'll vote for him and I'll vote for his Senate team because he used to be in the National Party and he will be on that side.' But people did not know that in actual fact he had on his registered ticket given the Labor Party preferences. Of course, I might say it fell to some of us to expose this—most people could not understand it; they did not realise—that by voting 'one' for Katter, in the Senate, they were actually preferencing the Labor Party. We tried to expose that. I might say that one of the reasons why Mr Katter then ultimately received such a poor vote in his own electorate was that people were alerted to the fact that their choice was not being followed. Whilst they were happy to vote for Katter himself, they did not want their second preferences in the Senate to go to the Labor Party. That is what this legislation is all about. It puts it back to the people of Kennedy and of every electorate in Australia—the opportunity of picking who they want in the Senate to be their senator.
Quite frankly, they are nice people—I love Senator Madigan, I love Senator Muir; I think they are very nice people—but very few people in Australia would have consciously cast a vote for those two, or some other senators. We also had the ludicrous situation in Queensland and Tasmania where people voted for Mr Palmer's candidates on a pro-development, pro-mining platform and suddenly they got into the Senate and they found that the candidates they elected on Mr Palmer's ticket, with his broadly-set pro-development platform actually turned out to be exactly the opposite. That is not a matter that is being addressed in this bill, but it is all about the people of Australia being given the right to select who they want as a candidate in the upper house as they do in the lower house.
Under this bill, voters will have the choice. They can go above the line and they can select the parties they want to favour. So if, as I hope most of them will, they put No. 1 in the Liberal-National box that will mean that their vote above the line effectively means 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 for the Liberal-National candidates, and the one they have given the No. 2 box to will mean that anyone who votes for the Liberal-National Party first, whoever they voted for No. 2 then will get 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 of their votes. So it will be up to the voters actually to determine which party, or which group of senators from a party, they want to elect first and which ones they want to elect second—they will have the control.
But this bill, as it is going to be amended, actually takes that further. It says to the voters of Australia, 'Look, if you want to, forget about the political party; you do not even have to vote for their 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 members. Go below the line and if you can fill in 12 numbers you can select whoever you like.' It could be No. 1 from the Liberal-National Party, it could be No. 2 from the Labor Party, it could be No. 3 from the Greens.
Senator McKenzie interjecting—
Senator IAN MACDONALD: It is up to the voters then to determine who they want to represent them in the Senate. And what an amazing situation that is, Senator McKenzie. Fancy letting the voters actually make an informed decision on who they want! That is how it is in a democracy.
The situation as it was after the last election provoked and engendered absolute outrage. I have been around politics a long, long time and I have never seen the overwhelming public anger that followed the last Senate election. Suddenly, Australians woke up to find that the balance of power in the Senate meant that the popularly elected government—the government that was elected on its policies to do what the Australian people wanted it to do—was going to be held to ransom by a senator from Victoria and a senator from Tasmania and a senator from Queensland who no-one had ever heard of. The Queenslanders, perhaps, had heard of Senator Lazarus when he played State of Origin—for New South Wales—but they would have only known of him in that situation. So there was palpable anger in the community.
There has been a lot of talk in this chamber about getting rid of the current crossbenchers. Quite frankly, if the current crossbenchers are any good they will in the normal course of events have another three years and a bit to get themselves known and to let people know what they stand for. I am quite sure that some of the more reasonable senators, like Senator Day, Senator Leyonhjelm and Senator Dio Wang, will over the next three years provide and demonstrate to the voting public that they are worthy of the vote of Australian voters, who will go along and tick the boxes. They might tick them No. 1, they might tick them No. 4 or they might tick them No. 12, but it will be up to the people of Australia in those various states to determine how they vote. They will not have to rely on backroom deals—which some of my colleagues are very, very familiar with—on where the party's registered tickets go.
The outrage, the palpable anger, of the Australian public following the last election was the cause for an immediate investigation by the Joint—and I emphasise 'joint'—Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. That committee consisted of all parties and senators who were not on that committee—like me—were all made participating members and were able to go along. I in fact did go along. I attended almost every meeting of that electoral matters committee, because I was interested. I had been petitioned by my constituents to do something about this outrage.
That committee went all around Australia. We even went to Mt Isa and took evidence there. People came in and told us what they thought about it and what they thought should happen. As a result of that, the committee unanimously—and can I say 'unanimously' again, again and again—determined that what had happened before was just a rort on the system. In fact, the chairman of that committee, the Hon. Tony Smith, said:
The ‘gaming’ of the voting system by many micro-parties created a lottery, where, provided the parties stuck together in preferencing each other (some of whom have polar opposite policies and philosophies) the likelihood of one succeeding was maximised. Many voters were confused. If they voted above the line, the choice of where their vote would go was effectively unknown, and accordingly in many cases their electoral will distorted…
While such ‘gaming’ of the system is legal, it has nonetheless distorted the will of voters, made Senate voting convoluted and confusing, and corroded the integrity of our electoral system.
I could not have put it better myself. In saying that, the then chairman of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters encapsulated the views of every single member of that committee—and every single member included such Labor luminaries as Senator John Faulkner. I had my issues with Senator Faulkner over our joint long periods in this place, but Senator Faulkner was seen as a reasonable and sensible exponent of what was right and what was wrong in Australian politics. Senator Faulkner was very, very keen on this, as was Mr Gary Gray, a man who, again, I have had my issues with, particularly when he ran the Labor Party as general secretary and almost won an election. I had my issues there but, when it came down to what is right, and to give the Australian voters their choice, Mr Gray, along with Senator Faulkner, Senator Tillem and Mr Alan Griffiths—I remember them being on that committee—respected senior members of the Labor Party who understood parliament, unanimously joined with other members of the committee in making recommendations.
Back in 2014, the committee suggested that the bill abolish individual and group tickets, and the bill before us today does just what the committee recommended in May 2014 and, I might say, what they approved just a couple of weeks ago when again meeting on this bill. Back in 2014, the committee determined in relation to above-the-line voting that the bill introduce optional preferential above the line, providing advice printed on the Senate ballot paper that voters number at least six squares in order of the preference. The committee recommended introducing optional preferential voting above the line in that way. The committee also recommended partial optional preferential voting below the line with a minimum sequential number of preferences completed equal to the number of vacancies—six for a half Senate election and 12 for a double dissolution and two for any territory or state. The bill that came to the parliament proposed a change to the vote savings provisions to allow up to five mistakes by a voter when sequentially numbering, but otherwise left the old system in place. That was the bill that was brought to this parliament earlier this year.
The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters had a look at everything. We had evidence from all the luminaries in the psephology profession around Australia—for example, Anthony Green and Professor Edwards. They were all there and all gave very clear and incontrovertible evidence that this change had to happen and it had to happen immediately. They convinced the committee that the committee should recommend an amendment to the government's bill, and the committee—as parliamentary committees work—actually said, 'Even though there is a majority of government members on this committee, we will unanimously suggest that there should be this amendment to the bill.' That was the unanimous position three years ago. It was not unanimous this time, because, in spite of Mr Gary Gray's best efforts in the caucus, the Labor Party heavies vetoed it for reasons I do not understand—which I suspect that they do not really understand either. They made all these strange claims like, 'This will favour the Liberal Party.' They put these positions to some of the experts there—all of whom shot those claims down with the comment: 'Yes, if the Liberal Party get more votes in the election it will favour them but, if the Labor Party get more votes in the election, it will favour them.' It just showed the paucity of the argument by the Labor Party.
There was an issue raised about exhaustion of vote, but unfortunately my time is not going to allow me to go into—
Senator Dastyari: I will give you leave for another half an hour.
Senator IAN MACDONALD: Would you?
Senator Dastyari: Happily.
Senator IAN MACDONALD: That is great. I thought you people all wanted to speak on this.
Senator Dastyari: We do, but we do not want to deny you your right to speak.
Senator IAN MACDONALD: As I understand, we have a limited time for the debate so if you want to give me a couple of hours to speak I am very happy to do that. It just means we will not have to put up with some of the hypocritical rubbish we will hear from members of the Labor Party, who three years ago had some of their senior and most respected members—the people who understood parliament; people like Senator John Faulkner, Senator Tillem and Gary Gray—who thought it was a move that had to be made.
The committee, as I said, endorsed the bill as presented. There were a number of issues in the bill but the one that is of greatest importance to us all is that the bill as originally proposed recommended that, above the line, voters would have the choice to select party groups in sequence—so 1 for the Liberal-National Party, 2 for the Christian Democrats, 3 for the Woop Woop party and 4 for the Greens. I do not think the Labor Party would even get to 6 in that. Nevertheless, it is up to the voters. It allows the voters to make these choices. The committee adopted that part of the bill brought forward by the government.
However, the committee in considering this—as I said, there was quite a number of very special, very talented, very learned professionals and others who gave evidence to the committee. At the end of that, the committee was convinced that the government had not got it quite right, and the committee said to the government, 'We would prefer you to go back to what this committee unanimously recommended three years ago'—that is, the committee including Senator Faulkner, Mr Gary Gray, Senator Tillem, Mr Alan Griffiths—I think it was—and a couple of other Labor luminaries. What they recommended three years ago and what we the committee meeting a few weeks ago—this is what we think the government should do. We think that, as well as having that optional preferential above the line, the government should also amend the bill to produce a system that voters should be instructed on the ballot paper to mark a minimum of 12 preferences below the line and a related vote-saving provision for below-the-line votes to be introduced to ensure that any ballot with at least six boxes numbered in sequential order would be considered as formal.
The committee, after strong deliberations and after consideration by all those involved—I again repeat that, although I was not a formal member of the committee, I attended because under the system in the Senate we can be participating members. I am not sure that I saw too many of the crossbenchers who are complaining so much now. I do not remember those senators turning up to consider this bill, and there were not very many Labor senators there. Notwithstanding that, those who did attend, who heard all the evidence, who understood the arguments put forward and who understood the reasoning of the committee three years ago when again, I repeat—and I am sorry if I am being tedious on this—unanimously all parties, including the Australian Labor Party, recommended this should happen. The committee again recommended that below the line we should have an optional preferential of 12 preferences with a saving provision that six boxes numbered would be considered formal. I urge the Senate to support what the committee proposed.