Senator FIFIELD (Victoria-Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) (10:26): Mr Deputy President Parry, I know that you are a student of political history and that you would have read many of the words of former Prime Minister Paul Keating. Like you, I do not agree with much that Paul Keating said but one thing he said time and again, which I absolutely do agree with, is that the Australian people expect value from their parliament and the Australian people are definitely not getting value from this Australian parliament.
We had the farce during the carbon tax debate where the government initially passed through this chamber a guillotine, which was bad enough. That was outrageous in and of itself. Coming on top of the breach of promise to the Australian people not to introduce a carbon tax was bad enough but they compounded it by seeking to deny this parliament its rights and prerogatives to properly debate and examine that legislation. So the government put a guillotine in place. But then they one-upped themselves. They put a gag on a gag by bringing forward the date of that guillotine. The Australian public did not get value from the Australian Senate on that occasion with the carbon tax debate.
We have seen the same approach taken to this sitting week. The legislation which we have before us this week, those 33 bills, are of a different magnitude in their impact to the electorate-to the Australian public-on the economy. But they are of a different magnitude. In this place, as senators, as members of a house of review, we take the view that every piece of legislation should receive proper scrutiny. Every piece of legislation should be subject to the processes of inquiry, the processes of examination, that this chamber provides. That is regardless of whether a particular piece of legislation has the support of all senators or whether a piece of legislation is a matter of great contention. We have legislation before the chamber this week, some of which we are in heated agreement about and other items are matters of some controversy. Regardless of which of those two categories they fall into, each piece of legislation does deserve to be properly examined and we have been denied that opportunity. The government seeks to further compound that by eliminating the three sitting days next week, and that is the subject of this particular motion.
I agree with Senator Xenophon in saying that this chamber has not covered itself in glory in this past week. The situation as the guillotine was applied each night this week was farcical. there is no other way to describe it.
If we want an explanation as to why the public are from time to time a little cynical about politicians, a little cynical about the parliament-and I am a great defender of the parliament and of my colleagues in this and the other place-we need look no further than each night of this week. We had an incredible situation-a situation I have not seen in my seven and a bit years in this place-where senators were called to vote upon legislation in a circumstance where there had been no opportunity for debate, no opportunity for second reading speeches, no opportunity for amendments to be debated, no opportunity of any sort for the legislation to be debated. As Senator Abetz said, of the 33 bills that were the subject of that guillotine, 20 proceeded to conclusion without any discussion of any sort. And when those bills are racked up, when they are stacked at the end of the day, and all stages of the legislation dealt with one bill after another, with no breaks in between, no discussion, no examination, it is absolutely no surprise that on occasion the government made the wrong call as to which way they were voting. It was extremely difficult for senators to know what the question before the Senate was, what matter we were being asked to cast a vote on. It was no surprise at all. I hope we never see again that farcical situation where senators essentially do not know what they are voting on. So, if we want a bit of an insight into why the Australian public are a little bit cynical from time to time, we need look no further than each night of this week.
The manager of government business referred to the three days scheduled for next week as being ‘if required’. Those three days were part of the motion which established the sitting schedule for this year. I think the House took a different view from the Senate. I think they took the view that they were not real sitting days and they were only if there was urgent business required. But in the Senate we did not take that view. We took the view that the motion that was passed through this chamber is what would happen-that on those days that were scheduled we would sit. Senator Ludwig, in his contribution, said he did not want to speak for long because he did not want to take up the opposition’s time to debate the bills today. The reason we do not have time to debate those bills today is-
The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Stephens): That we talked for an hour.
Senator Sherry: Because you’re talking too long!
Senator FIFIELD: No! You cannot have it both ways. You cannot say, ‘We’re pulling three days out of the parliamentary sitting scheduled next week, we’re instituting a guillotine each night of this week on 33 bills, but the reason you don’t have enough time to debate is that you’re actually debating the motion which is seeking to deny sitting days.’ No, the reason we do not have adequate time to debate is that you have instituted a guillotine; the reason we do not have time to debate is that you are axing three sitting days next week. Us being here performing the function of seeking to defeat a motion which is intended to deny the chamber three sitting days next week is not the reason we will not have adequate time to debate. That is perhaps the most pathetic and feeble argument I have heard Senator Sherry put-and Senator Ludwig for that matter. Let us be clear: we want to defeat this motion. We are endeavouring to persuade those opposite to defeat this motion. We are endeavouring to persuade the Australian Greens to defeat this motion. It is this very motion which is denying the Senate the opportunity to apply appropriate scrutiny to bills. The reason we have this truncated debate is that we are being squeezed between a guillotine and an axe which wants to do away with the sitting days next week. So Senator Sherry and Senator Ludwig, if you are going to mount an argument, please do a little bitter than that. It would be appreciated.
We want the Senate to sit as scheduled next week for two reasons. The first reason is that this chamber still has legislation to debate. If we were sitting for three days next week there would be no need for the guillotine which is in place this week. That is the first reason. We are a house of review and we should do our job. We should apply scrutiny, we should ask the appropriate questions of government ministers in the committee stage and we should hold the government to account. That is the first reason the Senate should still sit next week.
The second reason is that the government will be releasing very shortly their Mid-Year Economic and Financial Outlook, the MYEFO. But this year the MYEFO is in effect going to be a mini budget. This government has made a lot of its commitment to bring the budget back into surplus in 2012-13. Well, it was a commitment, but it has slipped and slided a bit since then. It became an objective, it became an aim, it became a hope, it became a dream, it became a fantasy-and now it has come back to being an objective. I still think it will end up being a fantasy, but will have to wait and see.
The government have placed great emphasis on that commitment to a surplus as being the foundation of their economic credibility. But the deterioration in the state of the budget is not because of revenue shortfalls-although that is what the government always cites-but because of policy decisions by this government. What that means is spending; it means decisions taken by this government to spend more money; it means decision taken by this government to spend more money than they received in taxation revenue. That is why the budget is going pear shaped. That is why the MYEFO next week is going to be more in the style of a mini-budget than a mere economic update. A mini-budget of that significance needs to be appropriately examined, and the place for it to be appropriately examined is here in the Australian Senate and over in the other place.
The government should do two things. Firstly, they should withdraw this motion and allow the Senate to sit next week, as scheduled, on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Secondly, they should recall the House of Representatives so that it too can examine the MYEFO. There are two reasons that the Australian Senate should sit as scheduled-to allow it to do its job of examining legislation in order that it can do its job of being the house of review and to allow the House of Representatives to re-examine the MYEFO. I add a third reason: to allow us have the question times which were scheduled for next week. Question time in this Senate and in the other place is one of the great accountability mechanisms of the Westminster system. We have a few more accountability mechanisms in the Australian Senate. We have our estimates committee system, which is the envy of parliaments around the world and is a robust and fantastic accountability mechanism, but the centrepiece of government accountability to the parliament under the Westminster system is question time, and we and the Australian public will be denied three question times-Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday-next week.
It is not as though this is a particularly good government. You might not concede that, Madam Acting Deputy President Stephens, but I think the majority of the Australian public would agree with it. Governments which are this bad need scrutiny. They need the scrutiny of question time and the opportunity it affords to shine the light upon them, and that opportunity will be denied us next week. We need to have those question times next week because this government should go scarcely a day without examination. It is bad enough already that the Australian parliament this year is sitting on fewer days than in almost any non-election year in its history, but this government is seeking to further curtail the number of days that the parliament sits and further curtail the opportunities for scrutiny through question time.
We need to have the opportunity to continue to examine this government for a number of reasons. This government has perfected the crafting of bad policy-they have made an art form of it. You will recall, Madam Acting Deputy President, Fuelwatch and GroceryWatch. One of those got up for a while, and the other never got off the ground. They were very badly crafted policies. This government’s border protection policy is a debacle. This government has made an art form of bad policy, and one of the reasons that we need to have the Senate sitting and to have question time is so that we can continue to examine and probe bad policy. Another reason that we need to have those question times is that, although this government’s policy crafting is bad, they are even worse at implementing it. So there is bad policy, which is not a great way to start, and then there is absolute incompetence in administering that bad policy. There is hopelessness on top of bad conception, and it is a really bad combination. We need to have the opportunity in this place, in question time, to find out if there are further administrative blunders-to try to protect the government from themselves and to try to expose some of this bad policy before it goes too far. We need to have the opportunity to ask about badly crafted policy; we need to have the opportunity to inquire about program administration.
Senator Ryan: And programmatic specificity!
Senator FIFIELD: And programmatic specificity! If you could encapsulate the crafting of bad policy in one phrase, it would be Kevin Rudd’s-the former Prime Minister’s-‘programmatic specificity’. There is an even more important reason, though, that we need to have question time next week, and that is the very basic principle of the accountability of a government to the parliament. This government evade accountability at every opportunity. They evaded it on the carbon tax when they lied to the Australian people-they did not want to be accountable to the Australian people, so they fibbed. They then evaded accountability by curtailing debate in this place on the carbon tax, and they have sought to do that again this week with the 33 bills before us. They take every opportunity to evade accountability.
It is also important to have the parliament sit in order to hold the government to account because we know that they are specialists in deceit. This government promised that they would be better than the coalition. They promised that they would set new standards of accountability and integrity. We have heard Senator Faulkner talk a great deal about that. I do not doubt Senator Faulkner’s sincerity on that point, but I tell you: I do not think many of his colleagues share it. This government is characterised by deceit.
Perhaps the most disgusting example of deceit that we have seen in recent times is what happened over the other side of this building yesterday. This outfit really have a taste for guillotines. They guillotine legislation, and yesterday they guillotined a Speaker. That has not happened for centuries. Off with his head! Boom! It came off, it was clean and it was quick-it was a guillotine. His head is gone; he is gone; it is over- we have a new Speaker there. The reason I say that it was one of the most disgusting things I have seen since I have been in this place is that one can only wonder-though I am not going to cast aspersions on anyone-about the circumstances that led to the former Speaker’s resignation. I am tempted to take the former Speaker’s words at face value, but I can tell you, Madam Acting Deputy President, that there are many who will not, including most members of the Australian public and including the Australian press gallery. I do not think they will take his words at face value. There could be no clearer example of why it is important that the parliament sit every day on which it is scheduled to do so than the events of yesterday. Nothing this government does is straightforward. Nothing this government does is as it seems. This government has perfected deceit. This government has turned it into an art from.
We need to have this Senate sit next week. We need to have it sit so that we can appropriately debate the remainder of the 33 bills which are still before us. We need to have the Senate sit next week so that the MYEFO minibudget can receive appropriate scrutiny. We need to have the Senate sit next week so that we can perform the function of holding the government to account. We need to sit next week so that the government is answerable to the chamber that the people have elected. We need to sit next week so that the Australian people get value from this chamber.
As Paul Keating always said, the Australian public should get value from their parliament. We need to sit next week so that we can ask this government questions about their badly crafted policies. We need to sit next week so that we can ask the government questions about their administrative competence and about the programs which they are seeking to deliver. We need to sit next week so that we can make sure that this government does not continue in its deceit of the Australian people.
This-the curtailing of the sitting of parliament-is not a minor matter. People have fought for centuries over the rights and prerogatives of parliaments. People die for the opportunity to have their parliaments meet, sit, be elected. We should not be cavalier in dismissing sitting days of the Australian parliament. We are elected to do a job. On this side of the chamber we want to do that job. The government should withdraw this motion. The Australian Greens, if this motion is put, should vote with us. This motion stands condemned.