Senator FIFIELD (Victoria-Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) (09:37): I can satisfy the
manager of government business. He is correct: we will be opposing this motion, and we will be opposing it for the same reason that we opposed the other motions to vary hours, the same reason that we opposed the motion for an extra week of Senate sitting, the same reason that we opposed the motion giving effect to the sham committee that Senator Cormann and Senator Birmingham were forced to participate in but where they did a magnificent job. It is for the same reason that we will be opposing this motion-and that is, to support any of those motions to vary hours, to have the Senate sit an extra week or to set up a sham committee would be to be complicit in the Australian Labor Party’s breach of faith with the Australian people. That is what the government has asked us to do time and again-to be complicit in and to help facilitate the breaking of a solemn election commitment.
Let’s go back to the last election. Each and every time that we debate procedural motions in this chamber in relation to the carbon tax, we have to go back to the last election campaign, when the Prime Minister put her hand on her heart and made that solemn declaration to the Australian people that ‘there will be no carbon tax under a government I lead’. We have to come back to that each and every time, because it is as a result of the repudiation of that solemn election commitment that we find ourselves in this chamber today debating this motion.
It was not just any old commitment that the Prime Minister gave. It was a solemn commitment. It was a commitment without qualification. Often when a political leader makes a commitment they will bracket it with qualifications, depending on particular circumstances, depending on an election result, depending on the state of the budget at the time that they gain office. But there were no such qualifications in the case of the Prime Minister’s carbon tax commitment, so we cannot allow the government to seek to make this chamber complicit in facilitating the breach of an election commitment.
I have to say, some of the most bizarre things I have heard since I have been in this place were the words from Mr Graham Perrett from the other place. Yesterday he said: ‘I can’t possibly countenance a change of Prime Minister. I can’t possibly countenance that, because that would be a breach of faith with my constituents. I broke faith with them once before because I backed Kevin Rudd. Kevin Rudd was our leader. They voted for me firstly thinking Kevin Rudd would be Prime Minister, but then I breached faith with them by being part of the Australian Labor Party which changed the leader that the people had elected. So I can’t breach faith with the public again. That is why, even though Prime Minister Gillard is the worst thing for the Australian Labor Party and even though the Australian public don’t want her, I have to stand by her. Not doing so would be a breach of faith.’
That is pretty tortured logic, you must admit, Mr Deputy President. Talk about swallowing a camel and
straining out a gnat, to quote the Bible. What is the greatest breach of commitment which we have seen in recent Australian political history? It is that of the Prime Minister, that ‘there will be no carbon tax under a government I lead’. Yet Mr Perrett thinks, ‘That’s okay -that doesn’t matter.’ It is just a minor policy issue to him. ‘No, no-the great matter before the Australian public at the moment is that I can’t breach faith with my electorate because they thought Julia Gillard was going to become the Prime Minister.’
I have to explain to Mr Perrett and probably members of the Australian Labor Party more generally how our system of government works. Individuals in electorates do not vote for party leaders; they vote for the candidate in their local seat. That is what they do. The role of the party leader is to articulate the party platform, the party policy, and that is what Ms Gillard did. She did her job. She articulated the party policy, which was that there would be no carbon tax. So I think Mr Perrett really needs to understand how our system works and that it is in fact his leader who has breached faith with the Australian public. I hope those opposite and Mr Perrett find that explanation helpful, because they certainly need it.
I do agree with the Manager of Government Business that this is historic legislation. He stated that and he is right. This is historic legislation, because we have not seen legislation that will have such a detrimental effect on the Australian economy being introduced by an Australian government. The government readily concede that this legislation will increase the cost of living. They readily concede that electricity prices will go up by at least 10 per cent. They readily concede that businesses will take a hit. We might disagree with them about the magnitude of that hit, but even the government concede that this will make life harder for businesses, that business input costs will go up. Even the government concede that over the next several decades there will be the equivalent of a $1 trillion hit on the Australian economy, roughly equivalent to one year’s economic output for Australia.
Governments are meant to be in the business of making life easier for businesses. Governments are meant to be in the business of improving the standard of living and the quality of life of Australians. So this is indeed historic legislation where our government is consciously and deliberately seeking to harm businesses, seeking to harm households, seeking to damage the Australian economy. Minister Ludwig for once nailed it: this is historic legislation. I do differ with him when he says that we should not be having this procedural debate because the need for a carbon tax is well settled. He said that we have been having this debate for 20 years. I have heard Mr Albanese say that there have been 38 parliamentary inquiries into the carbon tax legislation-wrong, completely wrong. A carbon tax as a concrete proposition before the Australian people has only been there for a matter of months. There was not even a carbon tax as a concrete proposition before the Australian people at the last election. That is the whole point: the Prime Minister fibbed. There was no concrete proposition for a carbon tax before the Australian people at the last election.
Senator Abetz: It was specifically ruled out.
Senator FIFIELD: It was specifically ruled out. So it is absolute rubbish when we hear time and again
from Mr Albanese and time and again from Minister Ludwig that this issue is well settled, that we have
had 38 parliamentary inquiries into a carbon tax and that a carbon tax is something which has really been debated for 20 years. What absolute rot! That is their defence for the fact that they are seeking to rush into this place legislation that seeks to breach a solemn election commitment.
This government just do not get it. They are determined to force onto the Australian people something which the Australian people do not want. The Australian people made it clear at the ballot box. All bar one or perhaps two members of the House of Representatives were elected on a platform of there not being a carbon tax, so the Australian people made it clear at the ballot box at the last election that they do not want a carbon tax. The Australian people have made it clear in just about every opinion poll. We should not slavishly follow the polls. We should not be led by the polls. We are political leaders. It is our job to articulate a case and to prosecute it with the Australian public regardless of whether it enjoys majority support or not. But it is a very arrogant government that does not take heed at least of the pattern and trend in every single opinion poll in relation to the carbon tax. That is the height of arrogance by any government.
We recognise that the government, having broken their solemn commitment to the Australian public, succeeded only a matter of minutes ago in getting the carbon tax legislation through the House of Representatives. It is indeed a very dark day for Australia when a government that was formed on the back of a lie has completed its first challenge-getting this legislation through the House of Representatives. They are halfway there. They are halfway through the process of breaching their election commitment, so this is a very dark day. No doubt Labor members over in the other place will be celebrating today. They will be cheering. They will probably be walking out and doing doorstops saying what a terrific day this is for the environment and what a terrific day this is for the Australian economy, but we know from the great work done by Senator Cormann in the Senate Select Committee on the Scrutiny of New Taxes that this tax will produce economic pain and no environmental gain. Sadly, that legislation has passed through the House of Representatives. I guess there is one upside of that-that is, the name of each and every member who voted for that legislation, the name of each and every member who broke their solemn commitment to the Australian public, will be recorded for the voters to look at at the next election.
Even though the legislation has passed through that place, we still have a job to do in this chamber. Minister Ludwig says: ‘What is the point of a debate? What is the point of discussing the legislation in this place? You on the other side have already decided what you are going to do.’ Yes, that is right; we have already decided what we are going to do. We are going to oppose this legislation. But even where it may be a foregone conclusion this chamber still has a job to do to apply scrutiny, to air issues and to put the focus on government hypocrisy. Part of the role of this chamber is to hold the government of the day to account. Where a government has breached a commitment, we should take the appropriate time to focus on that, to highlight it and to ask again and again why the government felt the need to breach its election commitment. We make no apology for that. As an opposition in the Westminster system, we have the job of holding the government to account and we are doing that. More broadly, this chamber also has the role of providing scrutiny. This chamber also has a role as a house of review, regardless of the partisan positions on a particular issue. We are determined to do that, even if those on the other side of the chamber are not.
We know those on the other side of the chamber are not committed to even a modicum of scrutiny in this place because of the way that they treated the committee inquiry process in relation to the clean energy package. It is usual in this place, where we have significant legislation, for that legislation to be considered by the committees of the Senate. That is why they are there; that is why they were established. Historically, this chamber has not taken much notice-quite rightly-of what they do in the other place. If they want to have their own committee inquiries, terrific. If there are joint committee inquiries, great. But that does not dictate or determine what the committees of this Senate do. So it was extremely disappointing when this chamber voted against the proposal of senators on this side that we refer the carbon tax package legislation to each of the Senate committees to inquire into those areas for which they have jurisdiction.
That is pretty much what happened when the goods and services tax was being looked at. When the new tax system legislation was introduced, there were numerous Senate committees that met simultaneously and looked at different aspects of the goods and services tax legislation. That legislation was not nearly as far-reaching as the carbon tax package. So, if it was good enough for the new tax system legislation and if it was good enough for the GST legislation to go through that exhaustive inquiry process over a period of some five months, then how much more appropriate and necessary is it that the committees of the Senate examine the carbon tax legislation in this place. Instead we had what I refer to as the ‘sham committee’- the committee which was racked and stacked. It was racked in that it had those carbon tax bills-19 of them-racked up to go into the one committee. It was stacked in terms of its membership; the conclusion was foregone. The committee met for two weeks was it, Senator Cormann?
Senator Cormann: One week.
Senator FIFIELD: One week! Sorry, I was being too generous. One week of inquiry by one committee on a package of 19 bills which will have the most farreaching effects on the Australian economy. One week, Mr Deputy President. I can see you are incredulous, but it is true.
Those opposite have proposed, and we will now have, an extra sitting week in the Senate to scrutinise this legislation. That is meant to demonstrate how committed they are to scrutiny, but it is a pretty weird approach where you say, ‘We are going to give you an extra week but we are going to guillotine debate.’ How does that work? You give with one hand and take with the other. We are against that extra week because, again, we would be complicit in the facilitation of the breach of an election commitment. And one week is not enough anyway. This legislation should be looked at for a minimum of four or five months. That is what should happen if we are to perform our duty as legislator -something which those opposite do not have the slightest interest in.
We all know what should actually happen-that is, those opposite should withdraw this motion, they should withdraw the subsequent motion on exempting these bills from the cut-off and they should discharge this legislation from the parliament. They should then have the Prime Minister go to Yarralumla-in fact, that might suit her at the moment as she might avoid something which may or may not take place in a few weeks-and she should say to the Governor- General: ‘I have made a bit of a blue, a bit of a blunder. I told a fib to the Australian people. They’re not happy about it. It would be unconscionable for me to continue to pursue this legislation through the Australian parliament. Therefore, Governor-General, I’m asking you for an election because I think the Australian people deserve to have their say on the carbon tax.’ I think the current situation, where the
government is completely incapable of governing- not through any fault, I might say, of the opposition. If anything, we are probably a little too cooperative at times for our own good. So, no fault of the opposition –
Senator Ian Macdonald: Hear! Hear!
Senator FIFIELD: I hear Senator Macdonald, for whose benefit that remark was made. But the Prime
Minister should say to the Governor-General: ‘We can’t do anything properly. We are incompetent. We
are a hopeless government.’ Whether it is because of pink batts, school halls, the Green Loans scheme, cash for clunkers, border protection or, for that matter, breaching fundamental election commitments like not introducing a carbon tax, she should say, ‘Governor-General, for all these reasons please grant me an election.’ That is the procedural matter which should be attended to today. It should not be the motion which is before us, which is seeking the indulgence of the chamber and seeking the connivance of the opposition to facilitate the breach of promise to the Australian people. It is not an indulgence we will grant the government. It is not a connivance we will take part
This is a very sad day; this is a very dark day for the Australian people with that legislation having passed the House of Representatives. But we, on this side, despite the matter having been lost in the other place, will continue to fight this legislation. We will continue to fight every motion and procedure which seeks to facilitate it. It is not too late for those opposite to say what is really in their hearts and to act on it- that is, they have breached faith with the Australian people. They should not proceed. They should go to their leader and say: ‘We need to abandon this. Not only is it electoral suicide for us but it is morally wrong to continue down this path of breaching faith with the Australian public.’ That is what they should do if the Australian Labor Party want to regain some decency of the Labor Party of old. We will be opposing this motion.