Senator FIFIELD (Victoria-Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) (12.12 pm)-This motion is yet another demonstration of this government’s absolute incompetence. The government’s administrative incompetence and their policy incompetence are very well known. I think what is less appreciated is this government’s legislative incompetence, their inability to manage the parliamentary program in both the House and the Senate. This failure to manage the legislative program is all the more amazing when you consider just how thin this government’s legislative program is.
You would remember, Madam Acting Deputy President, how this current government fought and scratched, how they huffed and puffed, how they pulled every trick in the book to try and form government after the last election. And you would assume that, when a
party fought so desperately to form government, fought so hard, that they would have a significant legislative agenda, that they would have a program for the nation, that they would have significant reforms which they wanted to implement through the parliament of Australia. That is what you would think. But if you look through the legislative program of this year and last year you would be surprised. At the end of last year the great legislative item which this parliament passed, at the behest of this government, was the national weights and measures act. When you look through the agenda at the end of last year for the most significant piece of legislation that government had fought for and come into office to pass, it was the national weights and measures act. As you look down the list of bills this year, you would be hard pressed to find the answer as to why they fought so hard to get back into office. The answer, we know, cannot be the carbon tax, because this government did not go to the polls with a carbon tax.
Senator Abetz-They campaigned against it!
Senator FIFIELD-As Senator Abetz said, they actually campaigned against it. So we know the carbon tax was not the reason that the government fought so hard to form office and was not a piece of legislation that they desired to put through this place. But I think the answer you find when you look down the legislative program as to why the government fought so hard to get here-and the answer that those opposite would usually give, and Senator Conroy would give-would be the NBN legislation. That is perhaps the most significant reason for being for this government.
So the opposition were pretty surprised on Monday. We were here and we were ready to go on the NBN legislation. Senator Birmingham was champing at the bit to get into this legislation. He had been up all night
preparing and had had little sleep. He was dreaming of the opportunity to get stuck into this piece of legislation. And guess what: there we had the iconic, emblematic piece of legislation for the Australian Labor Party, the NBN legislation, and they were not ready. The only thing you could point to as a reason for being for this government and they were not ready. That was on Monday.
That brings me to Tuesday, when, again, the opposition was ready to go. Senator Macdonald was primed and excited and champing at the bit. You could see Senator Macdonald bursting to get out of his seat to
get stuck into the NBN debate. Senator Macdonald was ready but you will be amazed to know that again the government was not ready. No, they had amendments that they had to take to caucus.
So, we come to Wednesday. When Wednesday came around, Senator Fisher was beside herself with excitement ready to get into this debate-she still is- and guess what: Senator Conroy advised the opposition that he was not ready. And then around midday yesterday we found that five pages of amendments to this legislation had been lobbed into the parliament. Then, around 3 pm on Wednesday, 20 pages of amendments were lobbed into the parliament-making 25 pages of fresh amendments-and all of a sudden the bill becomes urgent. All of a sudden it has to pass through parliament straight away, at the earliest opportunity. It becomes, theoretically, what it always was: the most crucial piece of legislation in the government’s agenda. These 25 pages of amendments fundamentally change this legislation.
The amendments are causing great concern to Telstra and to Optus. They fundamentally change the role of the ACCC. They are huge and material changes and they deserve appropriate scrutiny. They deserve to be studied carefully. This parliament and this Senate should do its job to scrutinise those 25 pages of amendments that were lobbed into the parliament only yesterday. The opposition is determined to perform that
The opposition has been ready, willing and able from Monday to deal with this legislation, and we still are. But we are in this situation today for two reasons. The first is that the government has proven time and again that they cannot manage their legislative agenda. The second reason that we are in this situation, and it is a reason that compounds the first, is that this government did not allocate enough sitting days. Even with the thin legislative agenda that they have, they cannot manage that within the sitting days that we have. We said at the outset of the parliament that the government should have scheduled more sitting days. Already we are finding ourselves in the situation where
the government’s legislative agenda is out of control.
We know that the cry from those opposite, as it always is, will be that somehow this situation that we find ourselves in is the opposition’s fault-that the opposition has been delaying; that the opposition has been obstructing; and that the opposition is not undertaking scrutiny. That is always the cry from the other side to cover their incompetence
and maladministration. But it is not true. We are a constructive and positive opposition. We liaise carefully and closely with all parties in the chamber to make sure that this Senate runs efficiently and well. That is what we do on this side of the chamber. But despite all the goodwill on this side and despite the constant communication, still this government cannot manage their legislative agenda. We will not cop for one second any suggestion that the situation we are in today is the fault of anyone other than those on the other side.
I do have a slight degree of sympathy for Senator Ludwig, because I think it is Senator Conroy who has put Senator Ludwig in this position-Senator Conroy’s absolute incompetence. NBN is shaping up as the biggest debacle of this parliament, and that is a big call. There were plenty in the last parliament-pink batts and school halls-but I think this parliament’s signature debacle will be the NBN. If Senator Conroy cannot manage this legislation, how on earth is he going to manage the policy and legislation if it actually gets passed?
We are not going to cop the blame for this situation. It stands fair and square with the government. We will be opposing this motion. There is no need at all for the parliament to be in this situation. But if, as looks likely, this motion does succeed with the support of others in the parliament, we are ready, willing and able to be here for as long as it takes to provide adequate scrutiny. We should not be in the situation of having this important legislation crammed into the last day. It should have
been dealt with earlier. It is the government’s fault but we stand here ready, willing and able to apply the scrutiny. Senator Birmingham will be leading in that. We will be opposing this motion.