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Party Discipline Trumps Policy Commitment: Gary Gray Supports Senate Voting Reform But Will Vote Against It

Gray Gray has reaffirmed his support for reform of the Senate voting system but committed himself to supporting the ALP Caucus decision to oppose the bill currently before the Parliament.

Gray, the Labor member for Brand in Western Australia, spoke in the House of Representatives today on the Turnbull government’s Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill which proposes elminating group voting tickets and introducing optional preferential voting above-the-line in Senate ballots.

Gray was a member of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) which made bipartisan recommendations in favour of sweeping changes to the Senate voting system. Gray said he supported the government’s bill but it would be a better bill if the JSCEM’s recommendations were adopted in full.

Gray recently announced that he will retire at this year’s election. He has chosen not to break party discipline by crossing the floor to vote with the government.

Hansard transcript of Gary Gray’s speech to the House of Representatives.

Mr GRAY (Brand) (11:56): Our country was formed through consensus and was built by the ballot, by the free ability of Australians to vote in favour of our federation. We created a federation that honours both the democratic right and also the importance of the ballot process. How we vote and that we vote are critically important, and that our voting process is fair and transparent is essentially taken as a part of that.

My view on electoral matters of the ballot and on the essential nature of a vote have been known to this place for many years. The Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016 deals with Senate reform, changing the way in which we vote for the Senate. I have written about it, I have spoken about it, I voted for it and here I am again today speaking in favour of Senate reform.

Why do we need Senate reform? It is very simple. I have here documents which I will table that are actually Senate ballot papers on the first occasion from the state of Queensland and on the second from the state of Victoria. As you can see, Deputy Speaker Mitchell, they are unwieldy and massive, but in New South Wales these ballot papers have become so big, so complex and so cluttered that in fact we need a magnifying lens to see and to read the names of candidates put forward for election. It is self-evidently the case that our parliament needs to act on electoral reform. It is self-evidently the case that our parliament needs to act to make sure that our voting system is transparent, effective and understood and that the voting process itself is a process where the voter is empowered to deliver a vote to the person that they wish to elect. The system needs to be fixed. Fixing the Senate voting system is as important as one vote, one value. It is as important as the franchise itself.

Senators are elected for long terms and they represent whole states and territories. Their election is guided by principles enunciated in the Constitution. Section 7 of the Constitution demands that our senators be chosen directly by the people, so Senate reform is about upholding the integrity of the Constitution.

For the Senate voters can cast their votes in one of two ways. They can vote above the line by putting a No. 1 in the box of the party or group of their choice. Preferences are then distributed through a voting ticket registered by parties at the Australian Electoral Commission. Alternatively, under current laws votes can be cast below the line by numbering every square on the ballot paper in order of preference. This bill does not fundamentally change that. Few voters choose the second option of voting below the line. It is more complex, and an error can void the whole ballot paper under the current rules. Consequently, 96.5 per cent of all voters in 2013 voted above the line in the Senate. This bill actually makes that process safer by having a better threshold for formality. This bill amends the current Electoral Act, which was first introduced over 30 years ago to reduce informal voting. Unfortunately, that system of ticket voting is now being manipulated and has begun to create unintended outcomes. The report of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters makes this clear.

In the last few years, at both state and federal level, pop-up parties designed to attract small numbers of primary votes have manipulated the system through preference harvesting and vote transfers to produce end results that do not reflect the wishes of voters. This is not to cast aspersions on the integrity or capacity of the current independent and minor party senators. While I may not always agree with their positions, it is clear that they are each engaging diligently in the process of policy, discussion and debate, and each of them has been properly elected under the current rules.

My view is that the current rules do need to be changed; the Labor Party’s view is that those rules do need to be changed. A fundamental principle of voting systems is that a voter should actually intend to vote for the candidate or party with whom their vote finally rests. Because of the ability to manipulate the current system, the present Senate voting process now fails this test.

The federal parliament’s independent Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, of which I have been a member, found that many microparties are manipulating the system to harvest and direct preferences to each other. The result is that hundreds of thousands of votes cascade to parties that the voter would not deliberately have chosen to vote for. The current Senate electoral process allowed a candidate with only 0.51 per cent of the formal votes to get elected ahead of a candidate with 11.56 per cent of the votes. This was an actual result in the 2013 Senate election where a Senate seat was won and lost with just this primary vote. The winning party received only 17,122 of the 3,499,438 votes cast. Liberal Senator Helen Kroger received 389,745 votes and failed to get elected over a candidate who was in receipt of just over 17,000 votes.

If the 2013 Western Australian Senate result had been upheld, the Sports Party, on 2,974 votes, would have defeated Labor Senator Louise Pratt on 160,141 votes. Fortunately, there is a clear—and the joint standing committee’s view was unanimous—way out of the current dysfunctional mess. In May 2014, the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters in a unanimous and multiparty report recommended that: the system of registering political parties be rigorous; group voting tickets be abolished; and a new system of optional preferential voting be introduced. These recommendations would see the power to allocate preferences given back to voters and stop opaque preference swaps between parties. More specifically, under the recommended optional preferential voting system, voters would be able to expressly preference parties or candidate groups above the line rather than having their preferences distributed for them under a registered group voting ticket. So those reforms are important.

The changes recommended by the report received strong support last year. Antony Green, the respected ABC commentator, supported them, because they significantly strengthen our democratic process and restore transparency. These changes that are proposed in the joint standing committee report, a version of which are being implemented in this bill, are important—and Labor remains committed to electoral reform. These reforms are not intended to stifle or prevent the formation of new parties. These reforms simply mean that political parties, including my own, will have to convince the public rather than backroom dealmakers that they deserve their votes.

There have been many pieces of misinformation spread about the bill that is currently being debated. Some have said that this bill will deliver the coalition a 38- or 39-member controlling majority in the Senate. I will also table another document, which is modelling carried out by the Parliamentary Library on this bill. It conclusively demonstrates the result under this bill.

None of us can predict the outcome of future elections, but this modelling is based on the current bill and was carried out by the Parliamentary Library. We have been told that this bill will increase informality. Informality is a scourge and the better the lower threshold for formality that is in fact enshrined in this bill is a good measure. It allows in the below-the-line voting a better savings provision; and above the line, it also allows a better savings provision.

We are told that three million-plus voters will be disenfranchised by this bill. We are told that their votes will be wasted or voided. I do not agree with that any more than I would think that a person who voted Liberal in the seat of Brand had wasted their vote. I wish they had voted Labor but, because they voted Liberal and voted for a losing candidate, they did not waste their vote. Their vote was not voided; their vote was not wasted.

Votes count, and I am astonished by the kind of dumb view that if you vote for someone who loses then your vote is wasted, which has taken some hold during this discussion. We are told that, if you do not vote in all six above-the-line boxes, the vote is informal. We are told that 800,000 votes could be informalised as a consequence of this bill. It is simply nonsense.

The vote-saving provisions in this bill are actually better than those that are currently in place in the Senate. Vote saving is important, and I would like to see the current vote-saving principle that is enshrined in this bill extended to the House of Representatives, where informal voting in New South Wales and Queensland has become a substantial issue. We need to grapple with the issue of vote saving in the House of Representatives as it has been grappled with in the Senate on this occasion.

I lost the argument in my party room on Senate reform, so Labor will oppose the substantive reforms that are enshrined in this bill. I think that is sad, but it is a reality. My party has moved that it will be opposing this bill and therefore I oppose this bill. We will seek to amend this bill or move future amendments to implement key elements of Labor’s longstanding policy to enhance transparency and accountability in relation to political donations. These amendments would enact key elements of the reforms proposed by the previous Labor government in the Commonwealth Electoral Amendments (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2008. Labor was unable to proceed with this legislation as it was blocked by the coalition and the crossbench in the Senate.

The main objects of that bill were to reduce the donations threshold under the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 from the current, in the order of $13,000, down to $1,000, not indexed—by prohibiting foreign donations to registered political parties, candidates and members of Senate groups, preventing the use of foreign donations for political expenditure; prohibiting anonymous donations of over $50 to registered political parties and candidates and by limiting the potential for donations splitting with the intention of evading disclosure requirements.

We will also move amendments to link public electoral funding to genuine electoral expenditure, to prevent pretenders from standing as candidates in an election purely for the purpose of gaining a windfall from public funding. We will extend the range of electoral expenditure that can be claimed and prevent existing members of parliament from claiming electoral expenditure that has been met from their parliamentary entitlements. We will introduce an accelerated disclosure framework in place of the current annual returns system and introduce new offences for noncompliance, and increasing penalties for a range of currently existing offences.

For Labor, the issue of Senate reform is an issue for the future. The issue of Senate reform remains important. It remains important for our parliament. It remains important for the Senate. It remains critically important to the people of Australia. In speaking to this bill, I represent the position of my party. In speaking to this bill, I speak frankly to the House in that I lost the internal debate to meet the government and to negotiate a better bill. I think we could have had a better bill. I think if this bill reflected 100 per cent the recommendations of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters it would be a better bill. But it still would not have won the support of my party.

Senate reform remains an issue for the future. It remains a vital issue for our nation, a nation that was built on the sanctity of the ballot and on the integrity of the ballot. We, as parliamentarians, need to keep that central fact in mind and the principle in mind that how an elector marks their ballot paper is how that ballot paper should be counted. The counting of a ballot paper should reflect the intention of the voter and not the desires of ballot manipulators.

The Labor Party will be opposing this bill.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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