Senator FIFIELD (Victoria-Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) (15:57): At first blush what the government is seeking to do by acknowledging the transmission of the message from the House of Representatives and seeking to have these clean energy bills proceed without formalities and taken together looks fairly unremarkable. But this is a very unusual circumstance. Never in my knowledge of Australian political history, which is reasonably extensive, has a government so blatantly broken faith with the Australian people. There was a clear and unequivocal commitment by the Prime Minister to not introduce a carbon tax. All Labor senators and all coalition senators in this chamber who were up for election at the half-Senate election in 2010 presented themselves on the platform of not introducing a carbon tax-as, for that matter, did every member of the Australian Labor Party in the other place and as for that matter did every member of the coalition in the other place.
Senator Cormann: It is an L-A-W law carbon tax.
Senator FIFIELD: Senator Cormann cites Paul Keating’s L-A-W law tax cuts as another instance of a breach of faith with the Australian people, but I think this one even eclipses that-this promise was so stark, so clear and completely without qualification. That is why we are not simply standing back and
waving this procedural matter through this place. That is why on a joint select committee we have opposed other procedural matters, that is why we opposed the proposition for an extra sitting week, that is why we opposed motions for the variation of hours and that is why we are seeking to handle these carbon tax bills in a different manner in this place today. To do otherwise, to sit back and simply wave this particular matter through at this point in time, would see the coalition being complicit with the government in breaking its election commitment to the Australian people. The numbers are no doubt against us in this place and on this matter, but that is no reason for us not to do our job. That is no reason for us not to seek, at each and every stage of the consideration of this package of legislation, to hold the government to account. That is our job. We have sought to do that with previous procedural motions to grant additional time and days and we seek to do so again today.
We used every opportunity available to the coalition in the other place to seek to defeat this legislation and to thwart its progress, not because, as we are accused by those opposite, we are being mindlessly negative or because we are oppositionist in nature-far from it. This is an incredibly cooperative, incredibly constructive and incredibly positive opposition. We have a direct action plan as an alternative to the government’s carbon tax agenda, which has been very well articulated by Mr Hunt in the other place and by Senator Birmingham in this place. We do have an alternative plan. Every time today, every time over the previous weeks and every time in the weeks ahead when the government says, ‘You’re a negative, oppositionist coalition,’ we will say, ‘That’s wrong,’ because we do have a clear plan and we do have a clear alternative.
The matter that is before us here, moved by Minister Ludwig, is that the bills may proceed without formalities and may be taken together. We think that they should not be taken together. We think that this package of 19 bills should be considered in sequence. Each of them deserves proper scrutiny. The government have sought to thwart proper scrutiny by passing a motion in this place which will see a guillotine come into effect in the weeks ahead in November. As I said this morning: on the one
hand the government make great play of the fact that they consider this legislation should-as they say-be scrutinised appropriately, so they schedule an extra week; on the other hand they move a motion to put into effect a gag, or a guillotine. Call it what you will, the upshot is the same: the purpose of it is to truncate debate. The purpose of it is to stifle debate. What we want to see is the maximum amount of sunshine cast upon these bills, because we know that did not happen in the other place. It was a very short debate in the House of Representatives. We know that that scrutiny did not take place in the joint committee established for that purpose. This was a joint committee, which I charitably suggest operated for two weeks-
Senator Cormann: Three weeks.
Senator FIFIELD: Three weeks? I suggested it was operating for two weeks but it was only in session
for one week. As all of us in this place know very well, the most direct parallel in recent parliamentary history in Australia is that of the goods and services tax and the new tax system legislation. There we had multiple Senate committees examining that package of legislation at the same time and doing so for over five months. This chamber, as a result of the Australian Greens and the Australian Labor Party combining, denied the Senate’s committees the opportunity to examine the clean energy legislation.
We have a combination of problems here when it comes to parliamentary scrutiny. In the House of Representatives we had a very rushed examination. We had the curtailing, or the guillotining, of debate in the House of Representatives. We also had the forestalling of the work of the Senate committees. So the last place and the last opportunity for scrutiny for this package of bills is the Australian Senate, and we want to seek every opportunity to make sure that that happens. That is why we are moving that these bills not proceed without formalities and that they not be taken together. We have a job to do. We know the numbers are stacked against us but, regardless of whether a result in this place is a foregone conclusion, this chamber has a job to do. This chamber has a job as a house of review and senators have a responsibility as legislators to make sure that there is appropriate examination of the bills that come before this place.
What we are seeing with this package of bills is the ultimate in gesture politics, but unlike usual gesture politics this has a detrimental effect. Usually in gesture politics there is some symbolic act taken but no detriment or harm is done. However, this is a political gesture which will do enormous damage to Australia, it will do enormous damage to Australian businesses, it will do enormous damage to Australian households and, for that matter-looking specifically at my shadow portfolio of disabilities, carers and the voluntary sector-it will do enormous damage to Australians with disabilities, to charitable organisations, to not-for-profit organisations and to the voluntary sector.
This legislation will be like a punch to the solar plexus for the not-for-profit sector in Australia. As a parliament we are meant to be keeping an eye out and trying to make life easier for Australians who are particularly vulnerable and who face additional challenges because of circumstances beyond their control, such as people with disabilities. Whereas the usual starting point for a government with any policy or piece of legislation is to do no harm, the starting point of this government with its policy and with its package of legislation is to do harm. That is the purpose of it. This was very clearly unearthed in the Senate Select Committee on Scrutiny of New Taxes, which Senator Cormann chaired, and despite all the obstacles in their way it was also something which was brought to the fore by Senator Birmingham and Senator Cormann together in the sham joint committee. So we should be in no doubt that this legislation will do harm, because that is its objective: it seeks to do harm. We would be derelict in our duty as an opposition if we did not take each and every opportunity that this parliament affords for scrutiny-whether it be in matters of public interest, matters of public importance, motions to take note of answers, question time, questions on notice, Senate estimates, debate on legislation, debate on procedural motions, or whatever opportunity is presented by this chamber-to hold the government to account.
If there is one thing I am not going to do, and that Senator Abetz, Senator Cormann, Senator Birmingham and Senator Williams are not going to do, it is to be complicit in facilitating the breach of an election promise solemnly given by the Prime Minister of Australia. We will not do that. We do not care how often those on the other side accuse us of being obstructionist or difficult. We are not. We are doing our job. The attitude of those opposite is: ‘The numbers are in the bag. We’re going to get this through. The opposition should lie back, let it all happen, think of a brighter and better day and just turn a blind eye.’ That is the attitude of the government. Apart from showing contempt for the parliament, apart from not valuing the role of review that this chamber has, more than anything it just shows contempt for the Australian public.
It is bad enough that the Australian Labor Party formed government-I will not say ‘won the election’, because that is certainly debatable-on the back of a lie and won many of the seats that it holds on the back of a lie. That is bad enough in and of itself. It deserves to be condemned for that and that alone. But, recognising that it is in the nature of the Australian Labor Party to be dishonest and to deceive the Australian public, the very least that the government should have done was to ensure adequate scrutiny of this package of legislation in the other place and in the Australian Senate and its committees. It has not done that.
But there still is the opportunity for the Australian Labor Party to redeem its soul. There is still the opportunity for the Australian Labor Party to regain some dignity. There is still the opportunity for the
Australian Labor Party to seek to reconnect with those people who used to support it. I say ‘used to support it’, because it is very clear now that the traditional base of the Australian Labor Party do not support it. But it is not too late for the Australian Labor Party to redeem its soul, to reconnect with its traditional supporters and to regain some dignity and some integrity. The way that it can do that is by discharging this legislation. As I said this morning, it is open to the government to discharge this legislation.
Having done that, the Prime Minister should go toYarralumla and say to Her Excellency the Governor- General: ‘I’ve made an awful blue. It seemed a good idea at the time to tell the Australian people that I wouldn’t introduce a carbon tax, but it’s kind of caught up to me. The Australian public are kind of onto me. The game is up. I know that, so therefore, Governor- General, I’m seeking an election to seek a mandate for this package of legislation.’ Then the Prime Minister, having secured an election, should have the strength of her convictions and say to the Australian public: ‘This carbon tax is good for you. You need this carbon tax. You want this carbon tax. You just don’t know how lucky you’ll be if you end up getting a carbon tax.’ That is what she should say if she really has the strength of her convictions.
That reminds me that I have seen one member of the Australian Labor Party do just that. That was the member for Isaacs, Mr Dreyfus. I was very fortunate: I attended the annual general meeting a few weeks back of an organisation called SEMMA, the South East Melbourne Manufacturers Alliance. Dandenong, where this meeting was held, is the heart of the manufacturing belt of Victoria. Something of the order of 44 per cent of Victoria’s manufacturing output comes from the south-east. The topic of Mark Dreyfus’s address to these 300 manufacturers in Dandenong was ‘The carbon tax and why it’s good for your business’. I must confess I did take a little bit of perverse pleasure in seeing 300 manufacturers strip flesh from the body of Mr Dreyfus, but what I found particularly informative was when one manufacturer stood up and said, ‘Mr Dreyfus, the electricity bill for my manufacturing business is going to go up by $120,000 a year as a result of the carbon tax,’ to which Mr Dreyfus replied in words to the effect of, ‘That just goes to prove my point that the effect of the carbon tax will be modest.’ They just do not get it. Another manufacturer stood up and said: ‘We’re in the medical devices business. One of our products costs $1,500 to make. Our margin on the product is $16, and the carbon tax will completely wipe that out.’ Mr Dreyfus said words to the effect of, ‘I think what that tells us is that your business has other problems.’
Senator Abetz: What arrogance!
Senator FIFIELD: The height of arrogance. But I do have to give it to Mr Dreyfus: at least he was honest enough to go out there and to say that he thinks a carbon tax will be good for your business. The Prime Minister should have that same courage if she really believes in this package of legislation. She should have the courage to go to the public and say: ‘This is great. You’ll never be happier. You might think you’re happy now, but it’s nothing compared to how your life will be under a carbon tax.’ If that is what she really believes then she should go out there and she should sell that. I think I know what the result would be. But, if by a miracle, the government should happen to win that election, I think everyone on this side of the chamber would respect that verdict: the public would have clearly spoken, the public would have been given an opportunity to have their say-and we of all people would recognise that.
But, even if that highly unlikely scenario happened, we would still insist in this place on decent scrutiny. We would still insist on proper Senate scrutiny. We would still insist on five months of scrutiny of legislation of a significant magnitude. Even if the end result would be that the parliament would pass that package, this chamber, this parliament, has a job to do: to scrutinise this legislation. And it is the opportunity for that scrutiny that this government has sought to deny on each and every occasion-whether it be in the other place or whether it be in this place.
The most recent reason rolled out as to why this legislation must be passed, why it is so urgent, is the Durban conference. We were a little sceptical before the Copenhagen conference that there would not have been great hand-holding, rejoicing, embraces and universal agreement as to how to proceed in relation to climate change. We were a little cynical about that, and it did not come to pass. I have my doubts that it will come to pass at Durban, as well. But let me tell you, Mr Deputy President, I am not too fussed by what anyone at Durban thinks. I am not too fussed by what any other government who is represented there thinks. What I care about, what everyone on this side of the chamber cares about, is what the Australian people think and what the effect of this legislation will be on them. We stand here for the Australian people: we stand here for jobs, we stand here for growth, we stand here for business-because business employs people-and we stand here against unnecessary increases in the cost of living. This legislation deserves full examination, and it is for the reasons I have outlined that we contend that this legislation should not be taken together, that it should be taken in seriatim.