Last night I spoke about the principle of voters directly controlling who they elect rather than leaving it to self-appointed professional preference allocators. I did express some opinions at the time about how this idea has somehow become controversial during this debate on the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016. There is no question that the Labor Party's principled defence of backroom preference allocators has caught the imagination of some people online, including a few people who I figured were smart enough to know better.
When a ballot paper ends up measuring one metre from side to side, when the Electoral Commission has to hand out little magnifying glasses so you can read the fine print and when you realise that people are going around boasting about how many front parties they have set up in order to funnel preferences to themselves something has gone deeply wrong with our electoral system. In the wake of the 2013 election, where the preference engineers had their finest hour in preference slingshotting random candidates past people with 20 times more votes, the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters spent months trying to work out how to put the power back into voters' hands. This is the model that the cross-party Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters came up with to abolish the machinery of group-voting tickets and let voters decide who gets elected.
It is true that this bill is not identical to the JSCEM model. It is different in a couple of quite important respects. The JSCEM majority report recommended raising party registration fees—for some reason I still do not understand. This bill fixes that. It also recommended a model that could have effectively promoted a just vote 1 system, which undermines the power of our preferential voting system. This bill fixes that too. Let us hear what the committee had to say:
Labor’s preferred position would also see a requirement that ballot paper instructions and how-to-vote material advocate that voters fill in a minimum number of boxes above the line, while still counting as formal any ballot paper with at least a 1 above the line.
Congratulations! We managed to get the Labor Party model into law. Wonderful!
There has been a bit of debate about the fact that you can already number the candidates in the order you choose and you do that by voting below the line. I want to refer briefly to some research done by Ben Raue on tallyroom.com.au. He actually looked at the data for what happens when people vote below the line, when they decide to exercise their democratic mandate in full, which I have done plenty of times myself, and number all the boxes below the line. The research that he conducted on some of the larger ballot papers—and New South Wales being one of the craziest examples—is that the informal rate, the number of votes that end up in the bin, is as high as 28 per cent for people voting below the line, because it is just so hard. It is particularly hard to get it right when the ballot paper is a metre side to side and you are trying to number of candidates whose names are written in four- or five-point type. Nearly 30 per cent of those votes end up in the bin.
He found a very strong correlation between the number of candidates on the ballot paper and the number of people who simply end up voting above the line. They just cannot be bothered. Rather than punishing these voters for not having the time or the inclination to vote below the line at that 30 per cent risk of their vote ending up informal, we should make voting easier.
We should make the system simpler. That is what the Labor Party's submission to JSCEM said. Well, we got that embedded in the bill, thanks to years of tenacious work by Senator Lee Rhiannon. Labor have decided, for reasons best left to them, to take the low road. And your own spokesman describes your arguments as dumb. He was right. It is hard to disagree. Your speeches may as well have been written by the same software that the ACT is using for its robocalls.
The press gallery has been nearly unanimous that this is a sensible reform. The Labor Party has been left to run its campaign in the form of high-pitched, unhinging online, which has caught up a few people who figure out that where there is so much smoke there must be fire. But, ultimately, you are just smoke.
I want to acknowledge—because their names have come up a couple of times in this debate—Senators Bob Brown and Christine Milne. They are former Australian Greens leaders who moved the debate forward and prepared the ground with bills, with speeches in here, with dedicated committee work and with running the argument and getting the argument up in the public domain. I want to acknowledge, 12 years ago, Senator Brown moved, on behalf of the Australian Greens in this place, the first bill for a reform similar to that that we are debating today.
I also want to acknowledge Senator Lee Rhiannon, who brought the energy and determination that got this reform done in the New South Wales parliament to this Senate over the last couple of years. Of course, I want to acknowledge Senator Richard Di Natale for standing firm against the self-interested hysteria and outright weirdness that has been thrown at him in the last couple of weeks—for keeping his eye on the bigger picture and getting this done.
There is a lot of anxiety expressed in Labor senators' heartfelt and terribly earnest speeches about how this bill will hand the coalition a Senate majority, which will allow all kinds of hideous bills to be passed in a joint sitting after a double-dissolution election. The numbers, just the raw numbers, to support this argument brazenly do not stand up. But even if they did, it is actually beside the point. Here is a piece of advice for anyone in the ALP who has expressed these sentiments: how about you have a go at winning the next election? What if you went out and actually campaigned on the kind of progressive flagship issues that inspired previous generations of progressives and try to actually win for a change?
The Labor Party's entire strategy for opposing this reform—that you have conveniently forgotten you agreed with until about five minutes ago—has been premised on losing the next election and sitting by, in self-righteous helplessness, while the Abbott Turnbull government passes God knows what. Snap out of it. Get in the fight or get in the bin. There is a reason that you have been abandoned by two generations of progressive voters, and you have been wearing those reasons on your sleeves these past few weeks. If the numbers in this chamber are not reflective of a mix of Labor, Green and progressive Independents then it is because we have not persuaded a majority of the electorate that our ideas should prevail all the way into the legislature. So rather than fighting sensible changes that will finally stop senators from being elected by Glenn Druery's random number generator, get out and campaign on the issues that people actually care about.
I am very much looking forward to putting this bill to a vote and getting it done after 12 long years since Senator Brown first tabled a bill with the same intent as the one that we are debating tonight. Talk it into three o'clock in the morning on Thursday if you want. Talk it into September if you feel like it. In the end, this bill will become law, and not before time.