Senator FIFIELD (Victoria-Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) (10:23):
Here we go again. As with every problem that the current government faces, it is somehow the opposition’s fault. Failed border protection policy? That is our fault. Falling consumer confidence and falling business confidence? That is our fault. And here today with the parliament’s legislative agenda, apparently the government’s difficulties are yet again the opposition’s fault. We had an extraordinary press release issued on 13 September by Senator Evans which sought to make that claim. It was also a media release that was pretty disrespectful to the Australian Senate. It was headed ‘Extended sitting hours for Senate to pass legislation’. It said the Senate will sit an extra week and have extended sitting hours for the remainder of the spring session to deal with the government’s full legislative agenda. The only problem is there was no proposition at that time before the Australian Senate to do that. The Australian Senate had not considered that particular proposition. I will give Senator Ludwig credit: he would never show such discourtesy and disrespect to the Australian Senate by issuing a press release of that nature.
It was quite extraordinary. On 13 September that release was issued. Here we are on 21 September now for the first time having this matter before the Senate to debate. It just goes to show the level of disrespect and the level of contempt that the Leader of the Government in the Senate has for this chamber, that he would put out a press release stating what the Australian Senate was going to do before the Australian Senate had even had the opportunity to consider it. It was compounded by Mr Albanese, who on 12 September declared that the upper house would sit an extra week starting on 7 November. How great is that: the Leader of the House telling the Australian Senate what it will do. In the press release by Senator Evans he accused the opposition of delaying tactics and that is part of the justification which Senator Ludwig canvassed, delaying tactics apparently by the opposition, as to why extended hours and an extra week are needed. That is wrong. It is a pretty obvious point: we are an opposition, this is a house of review and we have actually got a job to do to scrutinise legislation. We are not going to curtail debate because the government does not enjoy scrutiny. Let’s face it, it is not as though this government has an unblemished record on public administration that does not warrant a bit of decent scrutiny.
Senator Evans in that same press release said: It is time for the opposition to stop its negative obstruction and start dealing with legislation in a constructive manner. We do. This has been an exceptionally constructive opposition. We routinely facilitate the swift passage of non-controversial and time-critical legislation. In fact, last week, with the cooperation of the opposition, I think it was 14 bills that passed through this chamber. This week already we have had four bills pass through the chamber, and one of the first items of business today was exempting four bills from the cut-off- something which the opposition readily agreed to because we take a practical and a constructive approach to the management of business in this chamber. But there is no obligation on this opposition, or any opposition for that matter, to facilitate bad legislation. There is no obligation on us as an opposition to deny due scrutiny to bad policy. There is no obligation on any party particularly to facilitate legislation that seeks to break a solemn election commitment. So the opposition completely rejects the accusations of delaying tactics, of negativity and of obstructionism canvassed in Senator Evans’s press release and also by Senator Ludwig.
There is another point that is important to bear in mind, and that it is the government’s obligation to manage their legislative program within the sitting schedule that it publishes. That sitting schedule is published at the end of each year for the coming year. That is the government ‘s call. They set the timetable; they set the agenda. We reject the request for the extension of hours and the extra sitting week because the government should be able to manage within the hours that are scheduled. That does not mean that as an opposition we always will say or always have said no to extra hours. The opposition have on occasion agreed to extra hours for government business. But the onus is on the government to make the case for a change to the sitting schedule and they have not done so. So we will be voting against the proposed extension of hours and also the additional week.
The government will respond, no doubt, as they usually do, that the opposition does not like to sit late, but I think you would be hard-pressed, Madam Acting Deputy President, to find an opposition that has worked harder than this opposition. If the government needed more time, they should have scheduled extra weeks in the first place. As I said, they are the government, they scheduled the sitting weeks and it is their responsibility to manage their legislative agenda within that schedule. But, if you were to listen to those opposite, this is apparently another problem of the opposition’s making. One of the great lies here is that the government lacks the capacity to properly manage the legislative agenda.
They certainly have the ability-I guess that is a better way to put it-to manage the legislative agenda but they lack the capacity, it would seem. In the House the government has a governing block and in the Senate the Labor-Greens alliance has the numbers, as we have seen with Senator Brown and his extraordinary declaration today that he is very comfortable with the guillotine being exercised. We have heard minister after minister over recent weeks declaring how well the parliament is going and how many pieces of legislation have passed the parliament. Many members of the gallery have cited those ministers, saying, ‘Well, you have to give it to the government, they have got a lot of legislation through.’ But the government cannot have it both ways. They cannot in one breath say that the parliament is working well, with legislation flying through it, and then in the next breath say that the opposition is being obstructionist. It defies logic to hold those two propositions in contention at the same time.
The crux of the motion that is before us is the matter of the government seeking an extra week of parliament. That week is being sought for one reason and one reason alone: the carbon tax. The opposition feel absolutely no compunction to accede to this request. The proposition the government is putting to the Senate for an extra sitting week is essentially that the Senate should be complicit in facilitating the government to break a solemn commitment to the Australian people. That is really what this motion is about. They are asking the Australian Senate to be complicit in facilitating a lie. The opposition will not be complicit in that venture. We will say no. The Prime Minister went to the last election vowing not to introduce a carbon tax. Every Labor member and senator in fact has a mandate not to introduce a carbon tax. There could be nothing clearer. In seeking to sidestep that particular fact, Senator Ludwig referred to how long the proposition of putting a price on carbon has been in public debate. He said we have been debating this since 1994. Give me a break! I would have thought that the proposition before the Australian people-in fact there was no proposition before the Australian people in 1994, so I should say that the extent to which this matter was in public debate surely would have been a completely different concept. It was something that was barely in the public consciousness. To cite back to 1994, and any public discussion that there might have been then, as some justification as to why we do not need proper and decent scrutiny in 2011 was, I thought, a little farfetched.
There is absolutely no rush to get this legislation through the parliament. I have not heard a credible
rationale as to why debate on this package of bills in the Australian Senate should be restricted to two weeks. The only rationale I can glean is that it is an attempt to deny appropriate scrutiny. Already we have 19 bills being corralled into one committee. It is a committee that is stacked and does not reflect the makeup of the Australian parliament. It is a committee whose deputy chairmanship, against all convention in this place, has gone to the Australian Greens. It is stacked and its outcome is a foregone conclusion.
It is bad enough that the government sought to evade the scrutiny of the Australian people at the election. 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-we know it well: that there would be no carbon tax under a government led by Ms Gillard. Does anyone seriously believe that the Australian Labor Party would have won enough seats to form government had they come clean with the Australian people before the election? There is only one answer to that: no, of course they would not have. We all know that. That is why they fibbed to the Australian people in the first place. I do not think it is a stretch to call that a form of electoral fraud, not in a legal sense, not in a technical sense, but in a moral sense. That electoral fraud is something the Australian Labor Party will be accountable to the Australian people for. It is something that the Australian Labor Party will ultimately be answerable for at the polls.
The place in which we stand today is the place where the government of the day is answerable and accountable in between elections. We know that they fibbed to the Australian people and there is nothing we can do about that here today. But in between elections this is the place where the government is accountable, and it is in the committees of the parliament, as well, that there is accountability. Having evaded public scrutiny the least the government should do is allow the most full-blooded scrutiny and debate in this place. The government’s answer to that is, ‘Look, what are you complaining about. We are scheduling an extra week and some extra sitting hours.’ No, that is not good enough. You had a legislative program and you should have managed within it. This package of bills is so significant that it should not be a matter of weeks being allocated to it; it should be a matter of months being allocated to it.
We have heard from the Greens that this package has to go through the parliament because of a conference at Durban. A conference at Durban? I am sorry but I am not terribly fussed about what whoever is at that conference in Durban thinks. I care what the Australian people think. I care about the effect legislation passed through this parliament has on the Australian people-on their cost of living and on the capacity of business to sell their goods and services. That is what I am concerned about, not some conference in Durban. I am not concerned with providing an opportunity for the government and the Greens to strut about waving their legislation and saying, ‘Terrific, aren’t we great. Look at what we got through.’ That could not be of less interest to me and it could not be of less interest to the Australian people. Durban is an artificial barrier. It is bad enough that the government fibbed to the Australian people. It is bad enough that they formed government on the back of lie. The very least this government should do to seek to salvage some dignity is have a proper full-blooded debate in this place. They should go to the Australian people. They should call an election, but we know they are not going to do that because the result would be clear.
Senator Kroger: They would lose.
Senator FIFIELD: They would lose. They do not want to present themselves to the judgment of the Australian people. The model for scrutiny of significant economic change is the goods and services tax, which I think was change for good, unlike the carbon tax. I would argue that, whether you think the carbon tax is good or bad, it is a much more far-reaching change to the Australian economy than the GST ever was and, as such, it deserves greater scrutiny. The model for scrutiny is the GST as introduced under the Howard government. The contrast between our approach to significant economic change-I will not call it ‘reform’ because it is not-under this government and the significant economic reform under the previous coalition government could not be more different.
Firstly, the coalition sought a mandate at an election. There was no hiding, no subterfuge. Having won a mandate, we submitted our legislation to the most searing and searching scrutiny of any legislative package in the history of this parliament. At that time, the GST legislation sat on the table in the House before it was debated-something which has not occurred with the carbon tax legislation. After it passed the House and came to the Senate, the GST legislation spent five months in Senate committees-not a couple of weeks; five months. And after 25 November 1998, when the Senate established the Senate Select Committee on A New Tax System, that committee referred issues to three separate Senate references committees. At that time we had a total of four Senate committees examining the goods and services tax legislation. We followed a good and proper process. We introduced the bills, they sat on the table, we did not rush and the House had hours to debate. We did the right thing. We subjected the legislation to the appropriate scrutiny of the Australian parliament after having sought and gained a mandate.
The government should withdraw this motion for extra hours. They should withdraw this motion for an extra sitting week. They should also discharge the 19 carbon tax bills currently before the House. They should call an election. They should submit themselves-their tax, their legislation, their policy-to the judgment of the Australian people. If they did that and if they won, I would be the first person to say, ‘Fine, bring the legislation on. Let’s have a Senate committee process.’ Even then, if they followed that process, I would still be arguing that there should be a good five months of scrutiny in this place for a package of this magnitude.
Even if the parliament as a whole thinks that something is a good idea, that legislation is worthwhile, we still have a role to perform in the Australian Senate and in Senate committees-to be a fresh set of eyes, even on legislation for which there is wide agreement. For legislation for which there is not wide agreement our role is even more important-that is our job, that is what we should do.
Those opposite have made it clear that they have nothing but unbridled contempt for the Australian people. Those opposite do not care what the Australian people think. In fact, worse than that, they have contempt for what the Australian people think and they want to actively deceive the Australian people. Never in my time in professional politics of 20-plus years have I seen an act of this magnitude by a government of premeditated deceit of the Australian people-nothing with such premeditation and nothing of this size. We reject this motion to extend hours. We reject this motion to allocate an extra sitting week, not because we are against the parliament doing its job but because the government should be managing within the program it laid out at the start of the year. We on this side of the chamber will not be complicit in providing the opportunity for this government to facilitate a lie to the Australian people.
This legislation should be taken back to the Australian people and if, by some miracle, this government happened to win an election on that basis, they should then be subject to appropriate parliamentary scrutiny. We will reject this motion. This government have failed in their duty to be upfront with the Australian people and they are failing in their duty to provide proper scrutiny for this package of bills in this place.