Senator FIFIELD (Victoria-Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) (10:43):
And so it starts-the steps by the Australian Labor Party to deny appropriate scrutiny of the carbon tax legislation. It starts here and it starts now with this motion. Let us be clear: this motion seeks to corral 19 bills into one committee. Basically, the motion seeks to rack ’em and stack ’em. It seeks to rack the bills into one committee and to stack the committee. What I mean by ‘stack’ the committee is that the crossbenchers in the House get two members on this committee. The Australian Labor Party get four members on this committee. The coalition only get three members on this committee. So we have four ALP and two crossbenchers-that is, six versus three coalition members. The coalition comprises darn near half the members of the Australian House of Representatives. But it is a stack and they are seeking to rack ’em.
It is bad enough that the government sought to evade the scrutiny of the Australian people. It is bad enough that the government went to the Australian people with a lie. It is bad enough that the government formed office on the back of a lie. That lie-perhaps the greatest lie known in Australian contemporary history-was that the Gillard government would not implement a carbon tax. The words that the Prime Minister used-I think you know them well, Mr Acting Deputy President Back-were, ‘There will be no carbon tax under a government I lead.’ Does anyone seriously believe that the Labor Party would have won enough seats to cobble together a government had they come clean with the Australian people at the election? Of course they would not have. In fact, every Labor member of the House of Representatives and every Labor senator who was facing the people at the last election was in fact elected, put into office, on a platform that there would be no carbon tax. If there is any mandate here in this parliament it is a mandate from the people to not have a carbon tax. That electoral fraud-in a moral sense I use that phrase- is something for which the ALP will be and should be answerable and accountable to the people at the polls. And who knows when that will be. But the place where the government of the day is accountable and is answerable between elections is this place and the other place. That occurs in the committees and in the debates of this parliament.
Having managed, quite successfully I must say, to evade public scrutiny, the least the government should do is to allow the most full-blooded scrutiny and debate in this place. The model for parliamentary scrutiny of significant economic change-I do not use the word ‘reform’, I use the word ‘change’; the carbon tax is not an economic reform, it is an economic change -is the GST. The GST, I believe, was for good. It must have been for good. Even the Australian Labor Party must agree with that, because they did not seek to repeal the GST legislation once they came into office. I would argue that the carbon tax, in contrast, is change which is for ill. It is change which is far, far wider reaching. It has a much greater reach into the Australian economy than the GST did. As such, as a more significant economic change, it does deserve even greater scrutiny. As I say, the model for scrutiny is the GST.
I think it is important to go through the steps which the previous government went through to ensure adequate scrutiny of the GST. Firstly, the coalition-minor detail to the Australian Labor Party-went to a poll. The coalition went to an election and said, ‘It is our proposal, it is our intention, if elected, to introduce a goods and services tax.’ That is what we did. We sought a mandate; we received a mandate. No hiding, no subterfuge, no lies: a mandate was sought and it was granted. Minor detail-just a technicality for those opposite. But on this side of the chamber we think it is kind of important. Having won a mandate, it was submitted to the most searching and the most searing scrutiny of any package of legislation that has been before the Australian parliament.
On 2 December 1998 the package of GST bills was introduced into the House of Representatives. It sat on the table until 7 December. Then almost 15 hours was allocated to the second reading debate. That legislation was passed on 10 December 1998. The GST legislation then spent five months going through Senate committees-five months. That is pretty extraordinary when you think about it. Compare it to the mere weeks of scrutiny that this carbon tax legislation, which will been more profound in its effect on the economy, will have.
The next step in that process of scrutiny was on 25 November 1998. The Senate, at the start of that five-month period, established the Senate Select Committee on a New Tax System. That committee also referred issues to three separate Senate references committees. You might be aware, Mr Acting Deputy President Back-and I am sure you are-that references committees are actually chaired by the non-government parties, which again I think is an important part of scrutiny. Those committees had until the end of March 1999 to report. The legislation went to the Community Affairs References
Committee, the Employment, Workplace Relations, Small Business and Education References Committee and to the Environment, Communications, Information Technology and Arts References Committee. This was a good and a proper process. The bills were introduced, they sat on the table, there was adequate debate, they came to the Senate, they went to four Senate committees and there was five months of examination. We did not rush. Contrast that with what is proposed here. The House will have 12 hours to consider 19 bills. There are more than 1,000 pages of legislation and there will be 12 hours to consider 19 bills.
We did the right thing when we were in government. This government should follow that example. The
truth is there is no rush. There is no rush for this legislation. It may be a self-evident proposition to those on this side of the chamber, but if there is a delay of many months the world will not end. I know that is hard for some in this chamber to comprehend, but if there is decent examination over many months of this legislation, let us be clear: the world will not end. The new rationale which the Australian Greens are citing for rapid passage of this legislation-and we can only conclude that the government concurs with this-is the Durban conference in December. I put much more stock in the view of the Australian people and place much greater significance on the need for appropriate scrutiny than I do on the desire of the government and the Greens to strut at Durban, to be able to wave their legislation around and say: ‘Aren’t you impressed? Look what we’ve done.’ I actually do not care what
anyone in Durban thinks, whatever country they arefrom. All I care about is what the Australian people
think, what the effect of this legislation will be on their standard of living and what the effect will be on the capacity of Australian businesses to go about selling their goods and services, making a living and
employing people. That is what I care about.
One of the best predictors of future behaviour is past behaviour. Copenhagen was the last big conference at which we had lots of people strutting around- remember Mr Rudd? He was doing the big strut at Copenhagen. I do not think anyone would think that that was a huge success. Thank goodness we did not fall for the argument that we absolutely had to pass the ETS legislation before Copenhagen because otherwise we would be left behind because the rest of the world was going to agree at Copenhagen. Well, they did not. They were never going to. Nothing hangs on Durban.
The government should withdraw this motion. They should withdraw the 19 bills from the House. They should discharge those bills from the House. They should call an election. They should submit themselves, this tax and the legislation to the judgment of the Australian people. I have to confess that I have some doubts that they might win an election seeking to sell a carbon tax. I just have that sneaking suspicion, but let us say I am crazy, let us say I am wrong, let us say the Australian Labor Party score the most stunning electoral victory in Australian history by going to the next election saying, ‘We will introduce a carbon tax.’ Let us just ponder that for a moment. I am happy to assume that that is a theoretical possibility. I am happy to concede that, if the government discharged the legislation in the House, called an election and said to the Australian people, ‘Vote us in; we want to introduce a carbon tax,’ it is a theoretical possibility that they could win. I confess that I have a few doubts that they would, but let us assume that they did win. Then by all means reintroduce the carbon tax legislation.
But, whether they did that or whether they were in the circumstance they are in now, they should ensure that there is appropriate time, something in the order of five months, to give proper parliamentary scrutiny to this legislation. Even if the whole parliament agrees on legislation, that legislation still should get appropriate scrutiny. That is our job. We are legislators. Particularly in the Senate, it is our job to scrutinise. It is our job to critique. It is our job to review. It is our job to question even legislation which we might support. That is our job. We are a house of review in the Westminster
It is clear that the government do not respect that role. The government do not respect that function of this chamber. It is also clear that the government lack the courage to face the people. We know they are gutless. We know they lie to the Australian people. We take that as read. We do not expect them to call a snap poll to do the right thing to put their proposition to the Australian people. But, if they are not going to do that, at the very least they should have the decency to observe a proper parliamentary process. That should be the minimum that they do. Sure, they lie to the Australian people. They are the Australian Labor Party; that is what you expect. They will face their judgment at the next election. But the place where the government are accountable between elections is in this place. The place where their policies and their legislation should be scrutinised is here in this place.
There should be a proper allocation of legislation to the appropriate Senate committees. In fact, we already have a very good committee which is chaired by Senator Cormann, the Senate Select Committee on Scrutiny of New Taxes. The title of that committee is very interesting. There has not really been a need before for a Senate committee specifically to scrutinise new taxes, because most previous governments, Labor or Liberal, have introduced new taxes but have often had offsetting tax cuts pursuing the process of tax reform. This is a need which Senator Cormann and his committee are very well fulfilling. There is the opportunity for the Senate to take advantage of that committee. We have references committees. We have standing legislative committees. They are there for a purpose, and there should be an appropriate and sensible allocation of these bills to those committees for scrutiny.
We will not be complicit in facilitating the electoral deceit of the Australian Labor Party. We know that
the Australian Labor Party in this place will seek extra hours. We know that they will seek extra sitting weeks, the purpose of which is to give effect to a lie. We feel under absolutely no obligation to facilitate that in any way, shape or form. But there should be appropriate scrutiny. There should be no rush. There is no reason -no reason at all. I urge those opposite to salvage some dignity. I know there are Labor members and Labor senators who are appalled by the intention of this government to introduce a carbon tax. They will tell you, as you sit next to them quietly during a division, what they really think. They will tell you in the corridors of this place what they really think. Senator Conroy, who has been outed in the press, makes it clear to any businessman who will listen that the carbon tax will be a disaster for the Australian economy and that he does not support this. We know that. And we know Martin Ferguson’s real view. We know the view of the adults in the Australian Labor Party. The view of the grown-ups is that they do not want a carbon tax.
The way for the Australian Labor Party to salvage some dignity, if they are not going to call an election and if they are not going to abandon the carbon tax, is to decouple themselves from the Australian Greens. I think we had an example a little earlier as to why that should be the case. Senator Milne referred to ‘fellow species’. I do not think most Australians or even most Labor senators would be comfortable with being referred to as just a ‘fellow species’ of other animals. Mr Acting Deputy President Back, you have a veterinary background, and even you might be a little uncomfortable with being referred to as a member of a ‘fellow species’. It is strange language. I know that in Senator Milne’s contribution it was put in the context of species extinction. But if there is a species that is facing extinction, I think it is the members of the Australian Labor Party in the House of Representatives. If they persist in pursuing this deceit -if they persist in seeking to legislate their lie from the last election-then I think they will indeed be the ones facing species extinction.
It is time for the Australian Labor Party to take the field again for working people. They have vacated that space. The only parties in this place, and in the other place, that represent working people are the Liberal Party of Australia and the Nationals. The Australian Labor Party have completely vacated that field-and they wonder why working people are deserting them in droves.
The Labor Party should abandon this venture. They should discharge the carbon tax bills in the House
of Representatives. They should have the decency to call an election. They should have the decency to seek a mandate from the Australian people for the introduction of a carbon tax. If they really have the strength of their convictions-if they really believe that the virtues of a carbon tax for the Australian
economy are self-evident-then they should have no hesitation in putting that to the Australian people. But they have yet to do so. They did not do so before the last election and they are not proposing to give the Australian people an electoral opportunity in which to do so. We on this side of the chamber sought to facilitate that possibility through a plebiscite bill. The government opposed that in the other place. We think that would have been an appropriate mechanism for the Australian people to have their say, but that mechanism was also denied them.
I hope this legislation is not passed, but if it is passed through the House and if it is passed through the Senate then we on this side vow that the fight against the carbon tax will not be over. The fight against the carbon tax will go on. We will take the repeal of the carbon tax to the next election. If the carbon tax legislation has been implemented in this parliament, we will repeal it in the next. That is our solemn commitment. That is our promise to the Australian people. The fight on the carbon tax in this place starts today and will continue.