ABC RN – Breakfast

Senator the Hon Mathias Cormann
Minister for Finance
Special Minister of State






Senate voting reform, Plebiscite on same sex marriage

FRAN KELLY: Resistance has been building to the Government’s electoral voting reforms. Independents and micro parties they will meet later in the week to thrash out a marginal seat strategy to target Coalition and the Greens at this year’s election. Earlier the so called preference whisperer Glenn Druery told us here on Breakfast that the changes are specifically designed to stamp out diversity in the Senate. 

GLENN DRUERY: Look they are playing the game the way the big guys have been playing the game for years. Let’s not forget this system was established by the major parties to benefit the major parties. Now all of a sudden we are getting a little bit of diversity into the Parliament where 24 per cent of people vote parties other than the majors and they get a very small percentage of people in the place. I honestly don’t see what is wrong with a bit of diversity in the Parliament.

FRAN KELLY: That’s Glenn Druery speaking to us earlier. Well the crossbench fight back coincides with a lightening quick Parliamentary inquiry into these changes. That includes a very short public hearing this morning. The Special Minister of State and Finance Minister, Mathias Cormann negotiated the voting changes with the Greens. He is in our Parliament House studios. Minister, welcome back to Breakfast. 

MATHIAS CORMANN: Good morning.

FRAN KELLY: These are the most significant changes to the Senate voting rules in three decades, don’t they deserve more than a single four and a half hour public hearing?

MATHIAS CORMANN: These changes are a direct response to the recommendations, the unanimous recommendations, made by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters some two years ago. As the Shadow Minister for Labor on Electoral Matters Gary Gray is again quoted as saying today, our reforms implement about 85 per cent of the recommendations that were made by that cross-party Parliamentary Committee some two years ago. This argument has been around for a long time. Our objective is to ensure that the result of the next election in the Senate reflects the will of the Australian people. We are working to empower voters across Australia to determine what happens to their preferences when voting above the line, instead of having preferences directed through non-transparent and opaque group voting ticket arrangements, which could direct their preferences in three different ways. We are working to empower voters to determine what happens to their vote and who they ultimately would want to see elected.  

FRAN KELLY: This has been subject to a Senate inquiry before, but it is not the same Bill. The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters recommended last year optional preferential voting both above and below line. This is not the Bill that you are putting forward. There is no preferential voting below the line. So it is not the same Bill. So you have ignored that. 

MATHIAS CORMANN: As I have just said to you. As late as today Labor’s spokesperson on electoral matters Gary Gray is quoted in The West Australian as saying that our Bill implements about 85 per cent of the recommendations made by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters about to... interrupted 

FRAN KELLY: Yes, but it doesn’t recommend that one and there are plenty of people, in fact there is quite a few people giving evidence to this four and a half hour inquiry who particularly zero in on that, this notion that you are proposing optional preferential voting above the line but not below the line. 

MATHIAS CORMANN: Let me address that point directly. Firstly, the problem with the current system is that voters who vote above the line in the Senate lose control of their preferences as soon as they vote one. That preference then is directed by political parties according to deals that they have done behind closed doors. Incidentally, none other than the National Secretary of the Labor Party George Wright in his submission to this same Committee some two years ago criticised that exact fact and asked for the Parliament to address it. When it comes to voting below the line, there is no question that the preferences are directed as per the voter’s wishes. There is no questions that voters who preference candidates below the line are actually in control of who they would ultimately like to see elected. Contrary to public expectations or public understanding, there is a very low level of informality from voters voting below the line. Under the current system already, less than two per cent of votes cast below the line are informal. The improvements to the savings provision that we are putting forward would take that down to less than one per cent. There is not actually a problem needing to be fixed below the line in our judgement. You have to remember that in the House of Representatives and in the Senate the system is the same. We have full preferential voting when voting for individual candidates. The important thing here is how do we best ensure that the result reflects the will of the Australian people. How do we ensure that voters have the power to direct where they want their preferences to go. They currently have that power below the line. They don’t currently have that power above the line. That is the problem that we are trying to fix, consistent with the submission that George Wright, as National Secretary of the Labor Party made to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters about two years ago. It is interesting that he has declined to appear at this inquiry. He has declined to make a submission. No doubt because he is well aware of what he has previously asked the Parliament to do. 

FRAN KELLY: Others are appearing, including Michael Maley who has got 30 years experience with the AEC, helped draft the laws we are now changing. He told us yesterday, and I am going to play a little bit, he told us that this notion of proposing optional preferential voting above the line but not below the line is inconsistent and makes absolutely no sense, let’s have a listen.

MICHAEL MALEY: To highlight how silly it is, it’s almost as if you had people being able to put their tax returns in by one mechanism like eTax or another one like the paper tax pack, but you applied a different set of tax scales depending on which mechanism they adopted. That really is the fundamental problem that you cannot see any logical sense in what has been proposed. You can’t really say in public, and this hasn’t been said so far, why it is justified that some ballot papers should be formal and other ballot papers should be informal. You’ve got a basic ticking time bomb within the system that one of these days is going to blow up when someone figures out how to exploit it. 

FRAN KELLY: That’s what the evidence is going to be put by Michael Maley. Others are arguing this today and Peter Breen, he’s another electoral expert, analyst, psephologist, he’s also calling on the legislation to include a major ban on major parties advising parties to just vote one above the line. He says this essentially prejudices the chance of the minor parties. Will you consider making it illegal for the majors to hand out how to vote cards saying just vote one?

MATHIAS CORMANN: What happens to the how to vote cards is already subject to relevant provisions in the Electoral Act now. Section ...interrupted

FRAN KELLY: Well it would be changing it in line with these changes.

MATHIAS CORMANN: Actually no, section 329 of the Commonwealth Electoral Act already prevents political parties from misleading and deceiving voters into casting an informal vote. That restriction and that protection is already...interrupted

FRAN KELLY: But that wouldn’t be informal, to just vote ‘one’ above the line? 

MATHIAS CORMANN: The legislation is there for all to see. Our proposal is to provide guidance, consistent incidentally with what George Wright as National Secretary of the Labor Party suggested we should do. He said in his submission that voters should be encouraged to fill multiple boxes above the line with a savings provision to ensure that the vote of one or more is still formal. That is what he suggested that we should do. That is precisely what we are doing. 


MATHIAS CORMANN: Just to go back to the point of the electoral officer that you quoted there. We don’t accept that at all. I would refer you to evidence by Malcolm McCusker QC, former WA Governor, who pointed out that the current system that you say this gentleman was involved in setting up, arguably is inconsistent with the Constitution because the preference allocation through group voting tickets doesn’t allow voters to directly elect Senators to the Senate. Because it is done indirectly through group voting ticket arrangements that don’t enable voters in practice to identify where their preferences end up. Our changes are explicitly designed to empower voters to direct their preferences above the line, when voting for a party, the way they see fit, not the way political parties see fit. Below the line, voters already have that power now.  

FRAN KELLY: The point is, that people are making as we have been arguing here, it is complex and perhaps more than four and a half hours time for this inquiry, public hearings is necessary, but the fact that the Government is having such a short inquiry suggest to many that the Government is trying to change the Senate rules in time to allow for a double dissolution election.  Is the double... 

MATHIAS CORMANN: We don’t accept that at all. The Prime Minister has already indicated, our expectation is that the election will take place in August, September, October. Let me just also again remind you, and as the Prime Minister said on Insiders a few weeks ago, a double dissolution election is designed to resolve a deadlock between the House of Representatives and the Senate on contested legislation. That is an option that is available to us irrespective of what happens to this legislation to improve Senate voting arrangements. Conversely, the improvements to Senate voting arrangements stand on their own two feet. Whether the election happens in August, September or October, or whenever the election happens in whatever form, it is in the public interest for the election to reflect the will of the Australian people and for the Australian people to have the power to determine what happens to their preferences when voting above the line. That is a power that they currently don’t have. 

FRAN KELLY: It’s quarter to eight, our guest is the Special Minister of State and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann. Minister, if there is a double dissolution election and the Government wins and if you hold a joint sitting to pass the ABCC, the building construction industry changes, will the Government also use that joint sitting to scrap the Clean Energy Finance Corporation because the Government’s legislation is to get rid of that. It’s been blocked twice in the Senate, is that still the Government’s intention, to scrap it? 

MATHIAS CORMANN: Firstly, there’s a lot of if’s there…interrupted 

FRAN KELLY: Well not really. That’s another trigger sitting there. 

MATHIAS CORMANN: Let me just answer your question. You asked it and you mentioned at least three or four if’s. So if the ABCC legislation, firstly, our objective is to see the legislation to restore the Australian Building and Construction Commission pass the Parliament before the election. That is our objective.  That is what we are working towards. That is what we would like to see happen. In relation to the various pieces of legislation that have previously been rejected twice by the Senate, the Government would make an announcement in that scenario in good time before going to the election as to what our intentions would be in relation to those matters. When it comes to the Australian Building and Construction Commission, our objective is to have that legislation passed now. Our objective is most definitely not to have to wait for a double dissolution election or joint sitting after a double dissolution election to have that legislation passed. 

FRAN KELLY: Minister, can I ask you as Finance Minister now about tax reform. Joint Party Room meeting this morning. Coalition backbenchers are making it very clear they won’t countenance any changes to negative gearing, yet the Treasurer Scott Morrison reportedly told some of the MPs yesterday that there are excesses within negative gearing. If that’s the case, if the Treasurer knows there are excesses within the negative gearing system as it currently stands, you’ve got no option but to try and clear them up, to change the rules, to get rid of those excesses have you? 

MATHIAS CORMANN: Let’s be very clear. We are having a conversation at present inside our party. We are going through an orderly methodical process to determine how our tax system can be improved further. How we can make it more growth friendly. How we can encourage people to work more, save more and invest more. How we can strengthen growth and create more jobs by making our tax system more growth friendly. I’m not going to get into the anonymous commentary and the speculation. That is our focus, our focus is …interrupted

FRAN KELLY: But if there are excesses in the system, wouldn’t you as a Finance Minister be determined to get rid of them, if you’ve identified them? 

MATHIAS CORMANN: That is another if question. I don’t accept the premise of your question …interrupted 

FRAN KELLY: Well the Treasurer told the backbenchers there were excesses in the negative gearing system.  

MATHIAS CORMANN: That is what you say, that is anonymous speculation…interrupted 

FRAN KELLY: Well it’s reported in a number of papers. 

MATHIAS CORMANN: What I would say is don’t believe everything you read in the newspapers. 

FRAN KELLY: Alright. Minister can I just ask you finally on another issue. The plebiscite on same-sex marriage. Some fear that it will be divisive when it happens. This morning we hear of a group led by former Liberal politician Chris Miles distributing millions of pamphlets telling people that some of the social outcomes for the children of same-sex parents could be sexually transmitted diseases, drug abuse, depression, suicidal thoughts, this is what happens when you’re a child of same-sex parents. Isn’t that divisive? 

MATHIAS CORMANN: Let me just say firstly that this question of the definition of marriage as it is currently enshrined in the Marriage Act has come before the Parliament on a number of occasions in recent years. On each occasion the Parliament has confirmed the current definition…interrupted 

FRAN KELLY: That’s not what I’m asking you. I’m asking you if you’re concerned about division through a plebiscite. 

MATHIAS CORMANN: I’m answering your question directly because it goes to the question of whether or not we ought to have a plebiscite. Given that the Parliament has dealt with this matter on a number of occasions now and this clearly hasn’t resolved this issue conclusively, we have decided to put this to a vote by the Australian people and that vote will happen in the next term of Parliament. We believe that that will facilitate a more permanent resolution of this issue, which has been in front of the Parliament a number of times now and with the Parliament reconfirming the current definition on each occasion.

FRAN KELLY: Mathias Cormann, thank you very much for joining us on Breakfast. 

MATHIAS CORMANN: Always good to talk to you. 


Senator the Hon Mathias Cormann, Minister for Finance, Perth