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Speech: Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 18 Mar 2016

Lee participated extensively in the debate on Senate voting reform. The proposed changes allow for voters to determine their own preferences. The campaign for Senate voting reform was kicked off by the Greens in 2004. Lee introduced a similar reform for the NSW Legislative Council in 1999. That Bill for the NSW Upper House was passed with the support of Labor, Liberal, National and many small parties. The legislation for Senate voting reform was passed after almost 40 hours of debate, making it one of the longest Senate sittings on a single bill in the past 26 years.

The full debate can be read here.

Lee's final speech in the debate is below.

Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016
Third Reading
17 March 2016

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (13:11): Today, 17 March, is a most significant day for democracy: we have achieved Senate voting reform. Yes, many other improvements are needed, but today clearly has been an advance for our democratic processes.

Honourable senators interjecting-

Senator RHIANNON: Let's quieten down for a moment. I think this is where we should have unity. There are people in this building who have been working continuously-some for 30 hours, I have just found out. So let's come together and thank the attendants here.

Honourable senators: Hear, hear!

Senator RHIANNON: In particular, I thank John, our senior attendant, who I understand has done over 30 hours straight. And then there are the security officers, the clerks, the Comcar drivers and everybody else who has kept this building going so that we could do our important work. That is a huge contribution.

The journey for Senate voting reform, for the reform of upper house voting, started for the Greens and me in 1999 in New South Wales. What was achieved there and what has been achieved here are quite similar. It is time for some thankyous for the people who have helped us on that journey.

First off, I would like to thank the person who suggested how to deal with this very challenging situation that occurred in New South Wales in 1999 when 81 parties ran in what would became known as the giant tablecloth ballot paper election. Paul Fitzgerald-an author, a Marrickville councillor and a founding member of the New South Wales Greens-came up with a very simple idea. Remember, for all the debate we have had, the beauty of this legislation is actually in its simplicity. Paul Fitzgerald said: 'It doesn't need to be the back room deals. It can be the voters. The ballot paper doesn't need to change. What'll change is that the voters can put '1', '2' and '3'. They can number all the boxes if they like. In the case of New South Wales, they can just put '1'. Again, it was the simplicity of giving it back to the voters.

On top of that, I am very proud of the role the Greens at a federal level have played. It was after the 2004 election that the then Greens leader Bob Brown rang me to ask me about our experience in New South Wales. He realised that the Senate needed similar reform. Bob Brown worked on his first bill for Senate voting reform in 2004. There have since been more bills. Our next leader, Christine Milne, took it up with great passion. I remember that, in one of her final speeches in the party room before she left us, she impressed on us how important this is. She foreshadowed that it would be difficult and challenging but said to stick with it. Our current leader, Senator Richard Di Natale, has picked this up with an equal passion and it has been a pleasure to work with him.

I just want to say to the Senate that, unfortunately, Senator Nick McKim has not been able to be with us. He was here on Tuesday. He has often talked to me about his great commitment to this reform. He is very excited about it. However, he received the sad news that his father was dying and he had to leave us. It is one of those little stories, one of those personal stories that we all have. His dad did not actually want him to go back home. His dad knew what was happening-his dad was very proud of him, obviously, and wanted him to stay here. Nick went home, and some of his dad's final words were, 'Give them hell.' We missed you, Nick; it meant a lot to us.

And then there are the experts, who really have assisted all of us. We have quoted different people, but I did particularly want to thank Antony Green, George Williams, Kevin Bonham, as well as the many others who took time with submissions and being witnesses to the inquiries that we have had.

I also want to say a particular thank you to my colleagues on JSCEM. On JSCEM-we all know when we work on committees that it can be quite an interesting dynamic. You become friends and colleagues with people who, in many other areas, you do not agree with. When I joined JSCEM Tony Smith, the now Speaker of the House of Representatives, was the chair. He did a very fine job, a really fine job. Gary Gray and Alan Griffin both gave a great deal of expertise to that committee. And that first JSCEM inquiry, coming out of that 2013 election-remember at this time that we were a unity ticket, like it had been a unity ticket in New South Wales with all parties. All parties agreed when the New South Wales Greens put up the proposal to have optional preferential voting. That is how we started the journey at a federal level; all parties were on board. JSCEM was united. If you look at the report, unity is in that report.

I particularly want to thank Tony Smith, Gary Gray and Alan Griffin. But our final thank you goes to somebody very special to this house-that is, former Senator John Faulkner. The contribution he made in so many areas was outstanding and we all know that this house misses him, whatever party you come from. He made a very potent comment about this very legislation. He said:

I would say that this reform is uncontroversial and it is certainly overdue.

To finish up, the beauty of the reform we are dealing with here today is really in its simplicity. For all the complexity, for all the arguments that we have been through, it comes down to one significant change: voters are still going to get their ballot paper-what they will be doing will not be that different; the instructions will be slightly different-and they will be able to allocate their own preferences above or below the line. Above the line they will be instructed to vote 1 to 6 at least; below the line 1 to 12 at least. That is really excellent progress in our democratic process.

One of the wonderful things I have learnt in hearing from the Australian Electoral Commission in the many times they have given evidence is the AEC's deep commitment to ensure that where the intent of the voter is clear that those votes are counted. I do believe, with these reforms, that we will see a great participation.

It was disappointing to hear Senator Wong go on about the divisions that she sees, that she was trying to flare up around donations. The Greens have a solid commitment-absolutely solid; you cannot blemish our commitment to this one-to political donations reform. What Labor did today-they will get out there on social media et cetera-was just a tactic. It was a tactic to try to pull this legislation down, because they know if we had voted in this chamber and got a majority for the political donation measures that they put forward, we would not have Senate voting reform.

Senator Doug Cameron, I made these comments when you were out of the chamber: you have done so many negotiations in your life for working people, for workers in the metal industry and the manufacturing industry, and you know, probably more than anyone here, that you do not bundle everything into your negotiations.

Finally, we started on this journey with a unity ticket. We had a unity ticket in New South Wales; we had a unity ticket here. Labor jumped overboard. They were the ones who decided that they were going to give it away. They have ended up on the wrong side of history. They have been left in the back room and there are no backroom dealers there with them.


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