BILLS;Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016;Second Reading – 16 Mar 2016

Let us be clear: the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016 gives effect to a dirty deal between the Turnbull government and the Australian Greens. It is a grubby backroom deal that disenfranchises three million Australian voters and increases the risk of a coalition majority in the Senate. This shady, shabby deal includes an attempt to rush through the biggest changes to Senate voting in Australia in 30 years without proper scrutiny. I say shame on Senator Di Natale and shame on the Australian Greens for supporting this farce and for supporting—

Government senators interjecting

 Senator BILYK: Mr Acting Deputy President, I would like to be able to speak without interruption, if that is all right. Could you pull those on the other side up, as you have done earlier this evening to this side.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Williams ): Order on my right. I was just seeking some advice from the Clerk. Continue, Senator Bilyk.

 Senator BILYK: It was not you, Mr Acting Deputy President; it was your colleagues on the other side.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Continue, Senator Bilyk.

 Senator BILYK: Thank you. As I said, I say shame on Senator Di Natale and shame on the Australian Greens for supporting such a farce and for supporting the rushing through of this bill without proper scrutiny and without proper transparency. Then what happened today? Up they jump because there was going to be something rushed through and there was not going to be enough time for scrutiny and transparency. What a bunch of hypocrites.

If we cannot convince the Greens to change their minds then it is up to us to convince those Australians who have voted for the Greens, and who might not do so again, and to remind them about what the Australian Greens once were and what they have become. If Greens supporters understood the extent to which their party has sold them out and sold out its principles, I doubt that many for them would ever vote for the Greens again.

What we are really debating here is Senator Di Natale’s filthy deal with the Abbott-Turnbull government to alter the laws governing the election of senators, which will increase the chances of the coalition gaining a majority in the Senate. In his absolutely desperate ploy to deal himself into political relevance, what is he doing? He is dealing the Greens out of their political values. In putting his desperate desire for mainstream media attention before the Greens’ political values, he is sacrificing his party’s integrity on the altar of his own vanity. We have not seen this type of behaviour since Meg Lees helped John Howard deliver the GST, and we all know how that ended.

Here is what the Green voters need to realise in particular: in his interview with GQ magazine, Senator Di Natale outlined the ultimate goal for moving the Greens to the right: forming government with the conservatives. Yes, that is correct. Senator Di Natale announced that he and his Greens colleagues were open to forming government with the conservatives. According to GQ the senator said he would ‘never say never’ about one day forming a coalition government with the Liberal Party. As Adjunct Associate Professor of Politics at Monash University Shaun Carney said in an opinion piece published since that interview, about Senator Di Natale:

He has to be kidding. Your politics are defined as much by what you refuse to support as by the things that you propose. Politicians are supposed to say “never”. That’s why people support them. This is particularly so for the Greens, whose supporters are especially purist on such things as open borders, the undesirability of all military action, giving security agencies more powers and coal.

I wonder what Senator Di Natale’s predecessor Bob Brown would say, as a number of people have mentioned, because Senator Brown always categorically ruled out forming government with the coalition. But then we do know that Senator Di Natale is no Senator Bob Brown.

I think it is really interesting that Senator Di Natale has opened up the Greens to forming government with the conservatives and I just suggest to the other Greens that maybe they should stop being lemons, following along behind, and think very carefully about what their leader is signing them up to. What does this whole new coalition of the Libs, Nats and Greens mean? What might it mean? What about this: Senator Di Natale is basically saying that Senator Simms, who has just walked in, may one day be on a joint ticket with Senator Bernardi on the Safe Schools program and manage equality—that is if he manages to keep his seat; he seems to be quite disposable to Senator Di Natale.

Senator Di Natale is also saying that Senator Hanson-Young may one day be on a joint ticket with Senator Cash on asylum seekers and women’s policy. He has also signed Senator Ludlam up to a joint ticket with Senator Brandis on terrorism laws and data retention. And then we have got Senator Waters, who must be absolutely delighted to hear that she may one day share Senator Seselja’s, Senator McGrath’s and George Christensen’s environmental policies. And the mind boggles as to how Senator Rhiannon could ever share a policy platform with Senator Abetz, but this is the direction in which the Greens are heading. I say to the Greens senators: if you do not like the direction, then stand up, show some gumption and do something about it. Stand up for your principles and stop selling out.

Before I get onto the implications of this bill, I would just like to remind the listeners, those in the Senate chamber and the Green voters, of some of the other dirty deals that Senator Di Natale and the Greens have done with the government. We saw Senator Di Natale in his black skivvy, trying to be one of the Wiggles, so we know it is a hot potato. I was pretty surprised: no socks—that is the ultimate in trend. What a joke! What a poser, seriously. Think about the media for the media’s sake. It is just astounding.

We are often led to believe by the Australian Greens that they are some kind of transformational grassroots movement who stick to their ideology. They would have you believe that decisions should be made according to expert advice, yet they voted to allow the health minister to make multimillion dollar medical research funding decisions without following the recommendations of the NHMRC.

They would have you believe that they support greater transparency for corporate Australia, yet they voted with the government to allow hundreds of companies earning over $100 million to avoid having to publicly disclose how much tax they pay—at a time when it was recently revealed that 600 of Australia’s largest companies had paid no tax whatsoever. No tax whatsoever—and the Greens supported it.

They would have you believe that they stand up for the battlers—for low-income earners—yet they voted to pass budget measures which cut the age pension for 330,000 senior Australians, and 90,000 of these pensioners lost their pensions entirely. Some single pensioners had their pensions cut by as much as $8,000 and couples had their pensions cut by up to $14,000. This was a $2.4 billion assault on the retirement savings of senior Australians, and the Greens supported it. These are just a few of the examples of how the Greens have morphed into something other than what they claim to be. They come into this place acting with the most incredible sense of self-righteousness as if they were the bastions of moral virtue. Yet they will sell their principles to the highest bidder without a second thought.

This bill—the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill—is the worst example of the Australian Greens’ willingness to abandon their principles. This legislation puts at risk the possibility that the coalition will not gain a majority in the Senate—giving them control of both houses of parliament. So let’s take a moment to contemplate what it would mean to have a Senate where the coalition has an absolute majority. The last time the Liberal and National parties had control of the Senate under Prime Minister John Howard, we got Work Choices. We ended up with savage cuts to the pay and conditions of workers through Australian workplace agreements, including cuts to penalty rates, cuts to annual leave loadings and cuts to public holidays—in fact every single AWA removed at least one protected award condition. We had businesses with fewer than 100 employees exempt from unfair dismissal laws, leaving workers vulnerable to exploitation.

The consequences of the coalition having power in the Senate were not just in the legislation passed but in the curtailing of Senate processes. We had Senate debate on key legislation—including Work Choices, the sale of Telstra and counter-terrorism legislation—guillotined and cut short without any proper debate. We had inquiries denied and rushed by the government. The Senate was given one day to inquire into the sale of Telstra, only two days after the bills were introduced, and the shadow minister for communications had—grab this—only 12 minutes to question the regulator.

Control of the Senate means not only can the government pass any legislation it wishes but it can effectively put a brake on the Senate’s ability to inquire into legislation. It can also hand the government the power to deny or shut down inquiries into government business. The Senate is a vital institution in Australian democracy, because of its powers of inquiry and because of the brake it puts on the excesses of executive government. But that vital protection and that power of inquiry can be waived when a government exercises absolute control in both houses of parliament.

Imagine what disasters we would have, if the current government had a majority in the Senate. We would have even deeper cuts to pensions than the ones that were already passed. We would have young job seekers being forced to live in abject poverty for six months of every year. We would have changes to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act which would promote, as Senator Brandis so clearly puts it, ‘the right to be a bigot’. We would have deep cuts to Australia’s renewable energy target, putting the environment and jobs at risk. We would have $100,000 degrees, putting the prospect of a decent university education out of reach of many Australian students.

These are the policy outcomes that the Australian Greens have put at risk with their grubby little deal with the government. Let’s not kid ourselves about this: the more extreme elements of the government’s agenda have been shelved not because the government discovered they were unpopular, not because the government realised the error of their ways and not because Mr Abbott was dumped in favour of Mr Turnbull as Prime Minister. No, the government put aside the more extreme elements of their agenda—the $100,000 degrees, the changes to RD&C, the cuts to pensions—because the Senate rejected them. A coalition majority in both houses of parliament would revive the most extreme proposals of the government, and I can guarantee you that even the ‘dead, buried and cremated’ Work Choices would rise from the grave.

I ask the Australian Greens: what do you think is more important to you? Is it having more senators in this place or achieving the policy outcomes that your supporters elected you to fight for? No-one voted for the Australian Greens because they wanted to see a cut to Australia’s renewable energy target. No-one voted for the Australian Greens because they want to see young job seekers condemned to abject poverty for six months of every year. No-one voted for the Australian Greens because they want Australian students to have to pay $100,000 to get a university degree. No-one voted for the Australian Greens because they want to see a return to Work Choices. But these are the outcomes that the Greens may end up enabling through their support for this legislation. If it happens, if the coalition secures a majority in the Senate because of this bill, we on this side will be reminding the Australian people that it is thanks to the Australian Greens that their pensions are cut, that there is Work Choices and that $100,000 degrees have returned.

The Australian Greens have made a conscious decision to prioritise self-interest over ideology and self-interest over having proper checks and balances in this chamber. Do not be under any illusions. Despite their holier-than-thou attitude, the Australian Greens will not hesitate to sell out their principles for power. Australian voters who have supported the Greens, who have fallen for the pretence that they are some kind of ideologically driven, grassroots movement: you have had the wool pulled over your eyes, quite clearly. A coalition majority is not just a potential consequence of this bill; it is what the bill is designed to do, and the Australian Greens know it.

The government and the Australian Greens are like a bunch of kids who are treating the Senate like their sandpit, and now they even want to decide who gets to play in the sandpit with them. But we know that the Australian people want a diversity of voices in the Senate. A diversity of voices means that there is a lot more scrutiny given to legislation and the consequences of it. A diversity of voices means that the Senate has more potential to be a check on executive government, not just a rubber stamp. We are the house of review. It means that 3.3 million Australians who voted for a minor party or Independent at the last election have a voice in this chamber, a voice that this legislation seeks to take away.

But this bill is not the only way in which the Greens are assisting the coalition. Recently we have learned of secret preference deals where the Liberals have agreed to preference the Greens ahead of Labor in Grayndler, Sydney, Melbourne, Batman and Wills. In exchange, the Greens will issue open tickets, or ‘no preferences given’, in Richmond, Corangamite, Bruce, Chisholm, McEwen, Deakin and La Trobe. This is extraordinary for the Liberals, given that Mr Abbott, the former Prime Minister, advocated putting the Greens last after Labor. But it is even more extraordinary for the Greens that they would be giving any assistance to improve the chances of a conservative party winning House of Representatives seats over a progressive party. This is a government which has cut the ABC and SBS, has cut funding to the arts, has cut funding to the CSIRO, has made massive cuts to schools and hospitals and has stopped real action on climate change, and it is a government which, if it had its way, would introduce $100,000 degrees, cut penalty rates and reintroduce Work Choices, as I have stated.

Once again, just as they have been in the Senate, the Greens are more focused on increasing their numbers in the House of Representatives than they are on actually achieving the policy outcomes that they previously fought for. This is what the Australian Greens have become: a party that pursue their own self-interest ahead of the interests of the country or the people they purport to represent. Should we be surprised at the Greens’ new-found closeness with their formerly ideological enemies the Liberals? Certainly not surprised but definitely alarmed.

Remember, this is the biggest change to Senate voting in Australia in 30 years. I think everybody out there listening would think that something as big as this, with the implications it has, would be subjected to some sort of comprehensive inquiry. Officially, the bill was referred to an inquiry of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, but ‘inquiry’ would be a rather generous way of putting it. This bill was given a half-day hearing, which, for a change of this magnitude, with the implications it has for Australia’s democracy, could be more accurately described as a cuppa and a chat than a hearing—a quick and dirty inquiry to give effect to the government and the Greens’ dirty deal. The half-day hearing—or the half-day chat—had no witnesses representing minor parties to talk about how the legislation might affect them. Despite the complexity of the issues involved, only one week’s notice was given to make submissions. This was a joint committee, formed of both House of Representatives and Senate members, whose purpose was to report to both houses on the bill, yet we had the absolute farce of the House of Representatives passing the bill before the inquiry was completed.

This bill has major implications for the future of Australia’s democracy, and it deserves far more scrutiny than a quick and dirty one-week inquiry with a half-day hearing. You cannot and should not rush the biggest reform to voting in Australia in three decades. But then we have the classic example of the farcical nature of this process with the government moving an amendment in the House to fix a flaw in its rushed legislation. And who picked up this flaw? It was not the minister. It was not anyone else in the government. It was not the Greens. It was not the Australian Electoral Commission. No, it was the ABC’s election analyst, Antony Green. The fact that public commentators are picking up errors in legislation drafted by the government—

Senator O’Sullivan interjecting

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Williams ): Order, Senator O’Sullivan! Order! Continue, Senator Bilyk.

 Senator BILYK: Thank you. The fact that public commentators are picking up errors in legislation drafted by the government should ring alarm bells for this whole process. What really worries me is whether there are other flaws and unintended consequences that will slip through the cracks because of the lack of scrutiny given to this bill because the Greens decided to vote with the government to rush it through.

I have heard Senator Di Natale argue in the media that this legislation has already been given scrutiny by the joint select committee in the previous inquiry into the 2013 federal election. I do not think anyone should be fooled by this argument. It is patently false. The voting system that is being proposed through this grubby deal is not the same as the reform proposals considered by the inquiry.

A multitude of experts have been lining up to criticise what the government and the Greens originally put forward in this bill. Michael Maley, a former senior official at the Australian Electoral Commission, said:

‘The scheme proposed in the bill is an incoherent one’—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Order. Senator Bilyk, resume your seat. Senator O’Sullivan, do you have a point of order?

 Senator O’Sullivan: I do. I have been in here when you have ruled on this before—about reading the speech, which the senator has done.

 Senator BILYK: When you have had two brain tumours—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Order! Senator Bilyk! Senator O’Sullivan, continue.

 Senator O’Sullivan: Senator Bilyk is reading the same speech, for a second time, with the same delivery.

 Senator BILYK: I am not.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator O’Sullivan, there is no point of order. We are very liberal when it comes to presenting speeches in this place. Continue with your speech, Senator Bilyk.

 Senator BILYK: I just want to clarify, Mr Acting Deputy President. I have not done a speech on this yet—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Bilyk, order! Resume your seat. I have made a ruling on the point of order. I now ask you to continue with your speech. Continue, please.

 Senator BILYK: I would like to say that, when Senator O’Sullivan has had two brain tumours removed, maybe he will need some copious notes to help him too. Thank you, Senator O’Sullivan.

 Senator O’Sullivan: You know I was not making any reflection—

 Senator BILYK: You were so—


 Senator O’Sullivan: I didn’t even know—

 Senator BILYK: You are a disgrace—

Senator O’Sullivan interjecting

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Order, Senator O’Sullivan!

Senator O’Sullivan interjecting

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Order, Senator O’Sullivan, I will bring you to order! Just settle down. I refer you to standing order 197, Senator O’Sullivan. Cease interjecting, please. The chamber will come to order. There will be no argument across the chamber. Senator Bilyk, I asked you to continue with the presentation of your speech to this chamber.

 Senator BILYK: Thank you. As I said, Michael Maley, a former senior official at the Australian Electoral Commission, said: ‘The scheme proposed in the bill is an incoherent one, with no clear underlying principles apparent’— (Time expired)