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Speech: Election of Senators

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 30 Aug 2016

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (18:36): Today, the first day of the new parliament, it is timely to remember Labor's confected hysteria about Senate voting reforms. Remember the night of the Senate sleepover: Labor heavyweights told us that the Senate would be purged, that the poor would suffer, that democracy would be trashed and that crossbenchers would become a threatened species in this chamber. And the cruelty of it all would not stop with the make-up of the Senate. Labor senators told us that voters themselves would suffer.

By now, this speech should be accompanied by a drum roll to highlight the drama and fear that Senator Conroy and co whipped up. For the record, Senator Conroy's merry band of backers was not that big. Only 10 Labor senators out of a total of 26 spoke on the Senate voting reform legislation.

Labor senators told us in the debate, and they told us time and time again through that long night, that 3.4 million voters would be disenfranchised-locked out of representation in the Senate, no less. Senator Wong gave an agitated speech, saying that voting reform that would give the voter complete control of their own vote was not in the national interest and that she feared the very functioning of Australia's democracy was at risk. Senator Wong dreaded that a true representation of voters' intentions would result in no less than 'the reshaping of our party system' and that it would turn the Senate into 'as closed a shop as the Liberals and Greens can make it'. She opined that trusting the voters with their own vote would result in a purging, no less-these are Senator Wong's words-of minor parties and Independents. And she added that it would be 'for all time'. She was fearful that a more representative vote would 'reduce the opportunity for Independents and minor parties to win positions in the Senate' and that 'more coalition senators' would be elected.

Senator Dastyari bemoaned that voters would choose a Senate with only 'perhaps very occasionally another senator representing a minor party' as 'the most likely outcome'. Senator Cameron joined Senator Conroy's merry band. He was wringing his hands, claiming that the Senate voting reforms would, in his words, entrench the existing parties, and especially the Greens and the coalition, 'at the expense of the crossbenchers, making life worse for the poor in this country'. 'Life worse for the poor'-they were his words. Of all the Labor silliness over Senate voting reform, you would have to say that that takes the cake. Senator Cameron went on to angst that Senate voting reform would bring about-and these are his words-a decline in political competition by raising the barriers to entry by other, newly emerging parties. In an irony of ironies, Senator Cameron made the ludicrous claim that optional preferential voting in the Senate would make life a lot easier for lobbyists-conveniently forgetting the power and the influence lobbyists currently have.

Senator Conroy took Labor's wailing and gnashing of teeth to a new level, saying that the Greens' work to ensure that voters keep control of where their own vote ends up was the perpetrating of 'an atrocity'. Those were Senator Conroy's words. It was an 'absolute travesty of democracy', he added. 'Atrocity', 'travesty'-Senator Conroy certainly knows how to lay it on with a trowel. Senator Collins called the reforms a 'filthy deal'-again, her words-'to prevent new players from entering the Senate'. She said, 'The principal beneficiary of this new voting system will be the Liberal Party.'

So what did the voters choose to do with their votes? They elected a Senate that represents the will of the Australian electorate. There was no great 'purging' of minor parties from the crossbench as forecast by Labor senators. The question now is: why did a handful of Labor senators turn on the JSCEM recommendation for Senate voting reform, which they had supported for over one year, in such an extreme attacking discourse? This debate was used by a section of Labor to launch one of their most dishonest attacks on the Greens, in this case by trying to make out that we were backing the coalition. We were in fact voting for our policy of allowing voters to determine their preferences and of ending group voting tickets. This has long been Greens policy. We achieved it in New South Wales in 1999 and we have raised it time and time again in this place. Labor's tactics now look shrill and silly. Their 'night of the long knives' looks very much like a blunt instrument. This is how psephologist Dr Bonham summed up the Senate voting reform:

... the new system has generally exceeded the expectations of its most ardent supporters ... and made its opponents' pre-election arguments look very silly indeed.
He went on to say that every one of the raised objections proved false by a large margin.

The new Senate has its largest crossbench in history, with 20 senators, up from 18 in the previous parliament, and a swathe of new small parties representing what people voted for. The coalition lost three senators, down from 33 to 30, and Labor gained an extra senator, up from 25 to 26. This includes the popular and high-profile Senator Lisa Singh, whose demotion to last on the Senate ticket by her own Labor Party was roundly ignored by Tasmanian voters. This is where we see an interesting spin-off of the reforms, because those Tasmanian voters used to great effect the new system of voting below the line that no longer requires all boxes to be numbered-and it is a very big welcome back to the Senate to Senator Singh.

So 3.4 million voters were not disenfranchised or 'locked out of representation' with no part of their vote represented in the Senate, as, on that long night, Labor senators asserted would happen. The Senate's sizeable crossbench puts the lie to that claim. Dr Bonham has noted that the effective exhaustion rate was just 5.1 per cent. Compare this to Senator Wong's extreme claim of an exhaustion rate of between 14 and 20 per cent. The informality rate in the Senate, of 3.94 per cent, was only slightly higher than at the last election, and the make-up of this Senate per state is more closely proportional to the share of votes each party received from voters in that state. Isn't that what democracy is all about?

So there is another question for Labor: are you still peddling the same rhetoric about the evils of Senate voting reform or do you accept the wiser adjustment of those who backed the reforms, including most Labor MPs in the House of Representatives? Right now, Labor's performance at the 'Senate sleepover' looks more like their own 'nightmare on Capital Hill'. Senate voting reform has been a huge success. There were no backroom preference deals. In this election, voters determined their own preferences, as it should be.


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