Monday, 7 November 2016
Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (21:50): About 250 days ago, on 18 March, the Senate, in an all-night sitting, passed the Senate voting reform bill. The debate on this issue did not conclude on that last night as Labor MPs cannot resist beating their drum of anguish and anger at the apparent horrors of Senate voting reform. When a Labor MP is hard-up for an argument, when they want to beat up on the Greens, or when they are looking for a filler when they have run out of puff on some boring speech, they fall back on that old favourite, 'attack the Greens on Senate voting reform'.
What I will cover tonight provides some insight into Labor's inside tactics to use Senate voting reform as a wedge tactic to discredit the Greens. This is revealed in the Labor caucus submission on Senate voting reform that was recently given to me. While the submission makes interesting reading, the key piece of information reveals the shallowness and crassness of Labor's wedge tactics: if they believe Senate voting reform was the great evil to democracy and small parties that they cry about, they would have committed to repealing the legislation passed on 18 March. But there is no such commitment, there is no such promise, because the attack on Senate voting reform was not about making our electoral system more democratic. The intent was actually quite ugly.
So why did Labor launch their attack on Senate voting reform? The Labor caucus-in-confidence submission on Senate voting reform that I was given sets out what went to a Labor caucus meeting to help MPs work out their tactics for the Senate voting reform debate. And this is where it gets interesting in what the document reveals. First, let us give ourselves a refresher course in how Labor played this issue when the debate was on in the Senate. Remember, in the midst of the debate for Senate voting reform Labor started extolling the virtues of electoral funding reform and declared their intent to move amendments on the issue. The political donations package of amendments that Labor brought forward was not dissimilar to legislation introduced into this parliament when Labor were in government. But for reasons never revealed, the Labor government failed to activate the debate even though Labor and the Greens had the numbers to pass it. But all of a sudden, in the midst of a debate on Senate voting reform, Labor apparently became passionate about political donation reform. But was it passion for political donation reform or passion for more Labor dirty tricks?
So back to the caucus-in-confidence submission. The key tactic laid out in this document is Labor's plan, and here I will read from the document—this is on page 2—to 'amend the legislation to implement key elements of Labor's long-standing policy to enhance transparency and accountability in relation to political donations'. Then they go on to refer to their previous legislation that I mentioned. It was called the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2008. It has eight dot points, so considerable detail, but that was not passed. Now, all of a sudden the passion is there.
A bit further on in this document you come to Labor's game plan. This is where we learn that the tactics around the political donations amendments that Labor planned to move were not about political donation reform, not about greater transparency, not about tightening up penalties or banning foreign donations. They might have been the words there, but the tactics in this document reveal that the intent was to scuttle Senate voting reform and to discredit the Greens for voting for important reform and not voting for the amendments on political donations. Yes, we are a highly committed to them, but they were not relevant to that legislation. Again, Labor knew, as we all knew, it was about scuttling the legislation.
This document sets out Labor's hopes that the Greens would—again, in the words of the Labor submission—'contradict their strong public position in favour of reforming political donation laws'. And there is more. The last dot point on page 3 sets out Labor's desire to use the amendments to scuttle Senate voting reform. Again, the document says that 'the government will be forced to abandon the coalition/Greens/Xenophon reform altogether'.
It is relevant to note that Labor has long backed voting reform that removes group voting tickets. So despite what they did on 18 March, Labor has had a long history of backing these reforms. Again, this is informative when you consider the tactics that went down and what this document reveals. That long history goes back over a decade. In New South Wales in 1999, it was actually a Labor government that introduced the reforms that got rid of group voting tickets in that parliament after it was proposed by the Greens. In the federal parliament, Labor united with the coalition, the Greens and Senator Xenophon and backed recommendations around Senate voting reform. They were recommendations from the JSCEM inquiry into the 2013 election.
I saw the level of support myself during the debate on Senate voting reform when a number of House of Representatives Labor MPs would seek assurances privately, understandably, that the Senate voting reform would go through. But what we have ended up with is a divided Labor Party on this issue. It is a Labor Party, as we see from this submission—headed on each page 'Caucus in confidence'; entitled 'Caucus submission: Senate voting reform'—that sets out an ugly set of tactics. They are tactics that are in Labor's self-interest. Possibly they think it is good in the long term, but in the short term it is precisely those tactics that are turning people off engaging with parties that use underhanded tactics to try to discredit parties that really are, on many occasions, working for progressive reforms that Labor at other times have supported.