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Regulatory Legislation Amendment (Reform) Bill 2021

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Samantha Ratnam
Leader of the Victorian Greens
10 March 2022

I rise to speak on the Regulatory Legislation Amendment (Reform) Bill 2021. This is an omnibus bill covering a range of regulatory and administrative reforms, many necessitated by the pandemic, that should now become permanent arrangements. The Greens support these measures, including allowing local government, councils and parliamentary committees to meet online and allowing regulatory agencies to waive or reduce fees during emergencies. Speaking of the online provisions, I note the glaring gap in this Parliament’s own processes, where the ability to participate online or in a hybrid way has been removed, despite still being in a pandemic. Too often bureaucratic conventions still stifle common sense, so we are glad to see that some of the more pointless obstacles will not impede people from getting on with their jobs.

But today I will largely focus on the extent to which the bill implements the recommendations of the Electoral Matters Committee’s inquiry into the 2018 state election. That EMC report recommended that political parties no longer be allowed to send out postal vote application forms. We know that this has generally been done as a means of misleading and confusing voters, so the Greens support the government’s move to ban the practice with this bill. However, we need to talk about the elephant in the committee room, and that is the upper house voting reform, because this was the issue that the overwhelming majority of organisations and individuals who submitted to that inquiry spent an overwhelming volume of their submissions seeking to highlight to the committee. It is unsurprising that Victorian people cared most about the upper house voting system in the 2018 election, after members had been elected with microscopic vote tallies by paying a preference whisperer tens of thousands of dollars to manipulate preferences in a way that was unclear to voters and inconsistent with their voting intentions.

Indeed the whole system was such a sham that even its architect and major financial beneficiary, Mr Glenn Druery, after declaring the manipulation he orchestrated his ‘single best election ever’, also foretold it would likely be the last time he would get away with it. But all this was largely ignored by the Electoral Matters Committee.

Further, as if in a show trial, before each of the 13 witnesses appearing before the committee could even open their mouths to give oral testimony, they were pre-emptively warned by the government chair that they were forbidden from mentioning upper house voting in their evidence. It was almost comic—a re-creation of the ‘Don’t mention the war’ skit—as bemused witnesses were told they could not give the evidence they most wanted to give. Instead they were reassured not to worry, that the all-important evidence they really wanted to give about the war—I mean, group voting—would certainly be taken by the committee at another time. This is where it gets really serious, though, because the committee chair was not being up-front with the witnesses, it seems. There was no other time when their evidence would be heard, and the committee’s recommendations to hold another inquiry into the matter in hindsight seem to have been a facade, as we now know that the government had no intention of supporting this further inquiry on group voting.

Suffice to say it is a really dark day when our democracy is trodden upon not once but twice: a parliamentary staffer manipulating a system so as to blatantly disenfranchise Victorian voters of their choices, followed by Andrews government committee members banning expert witnesses from even mentioning evidence of the fact because doing so would force them to confront the problem.

No-one disagrees that it was the Electoral Matters Committee’s job to make recommendations regarding changes to the upper house voting system based on evidence they received and that recommendations should have been implemented in this bill. The committee has not done its job, but we in this place must do our jobs, and that means making legislation better and strengthening our democracy at every opportunity we get. Today we have that chance, so today I will be moving amendments to amend the upper house voting system. I would like those amendments to be circulated now, please.

Greens amendments circulated by Dr RATNAM pursuant to standing orders.

Dr RATNAM: Thankfully the other jurisdictions in Australia have done their jobs, have responded to the evidence and have all now abolished upper house group voting systems for exactly the same reason Victoria should have done. I will speak more on the details in committee, but the amendments I propose will implement an upper house voting system almost identical to the optional preferential system of voting used in the Australian Senate. This has a number of advantages. First, the system is well understood and has already been used multiple times by Victorian voters when voting for the Senate in the last two federal elections. Secondly, we know the system works. It is unsurprisingly proven that the complex backroom preference deals have no correlation to voters’ intentions and that the new system will more closely reflect voters’ choices in the final outcome. Antony Green summarised this effect in his analysis of the 2013 Senate election, in which he said that this system ‘hands the power over preferences back to the voters’. If you too believe that voters should be the ones with the power to choose who represents them in an election, you should support my amendments today.

These amendments have been tried and tested, and they work for Victorian democracy. It really is that simple. There is no credible argument for our current group voting system, just as all the independent experts and submissions pointed out and all the other Australian jurisdictions have realised. Just like Mr Druery anticipated after the 2018 election, we all know that the system is so bad it has to change; it is a matter of when. It is apparent that even the few people who stand to benefit are treating group voting like a dying Ponzi scheme, hastily trying to extract every last drop of money and power from the practice while they can before the whole thing blows up and the broader public realise they have been duped. So what we have before us is an opportunity to do the right thing by Victorians before they get dudded again, because if we do not reform this undemocratic system now there is a lot at stake for the future of Victoria.

As you all know, the Greens are increasingly concerned about the rise of far-right extremism in Victoria. It is the reason we now have a parliamentary inquiry into the rise of these dangerous groups, who threaten the safety and cohesion of our state. But we give those groups a chance to get a foothold into Victorian politics if we leave our system open to manipulation in the way that it is.

I do not know about you, but I do not want right-wing extremists elected to the next Victorian Parliament. Before you accuse me of hyperbole, just remember that under this system people with fewer than 100 votes can get elected. We have evidence that they are getting organised and ready to try. It is up to us to stop them.

Democracy matters. We all have different ideas, perspectives and policies as members here—that is a great thing. But what is supposedly meant to unite us is that ultimately we are all accountable to voters—that we answer to people, plural. We all must answer to voters at an election to seek their support and mandate, not simply elicit the support of a single kingmaker who is paid to elect us. Because MPs who do not need votes to be elected, who do not rely on the support of voters, are also unaccountable to voters for their policies and their decisions. Rather than answering to the people—the body politic—they effectively have a constituency of one. They only answer to the man who secured their election. That is not democratic accountability; that is potentially dangerous.

I understand that diversity representation is important; believe me, I do. The argument often used by my crossbench colleagues is that if we reform the system we lose the unique voice that they bring to Parliament. But in a democracy diversity and representation go hand in hand. You cannot defend diversity by undermining democracy and representation, because we are here because of the will of the voters, or rather that is why we should be here, because that is what democracy is. I simply ask that we respect our voters and give back to them the power to elect, or to not elect, their own representatives by supporting this bill with my amendments.

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Samantha Ratnam
Leader of the Victorian Greens
10 March 2022
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