Where’s the sunshine?
Close scrutiny of contentious legislation is a crucial part of the checks and balances on government power that exist in our country. A healthy democracy requires strong accountability and transparency mechanisms to function. The Australian Senate is charged with applying this close scrutiny through the close examination of legislation that is put to Parliament for consideration.
When it comes to legislation that will have a significant impact on the day-to-day lives of all Australians, appropriate scrutiny is vital. One of the most significant economic changes in recent times was the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax by the former Howard Government. This tax reform package was introduced into Parliament with a mandate from the Australian people, sought by the Coalition at an election. Having won a mandate, the GST legislation was submitted to the closest scrutiny of any legislative package in the history of the parliament.
Firstly, the legislation sat on the table in the House of Representatives before it was debated, allowing Members and Senators ample time to examine and familiarise themselves with the content of the bills. After the legislation passed the House and came to the Senate, it faced five months of intense analysis in three separate Senate committees plus the Senate Select Committee on A New Tax System, a committee created specifically to critically examine the GST. Due process was followed, and Members and Senators had hours upon hours to debate the legislation, which was subjected to the appropriate scrutiny mechanisms of the Australian Parliament.
Compare that to the current Labor Government’s appalling attempts to evade proper scrutiny of its carbon tax legislation. The package, consisting of 19 bills, represents the most consequential legislation introduced into the Parliament for some time. The effects of the carbon tax will be felt economy-wide, and all Australians will no doubt experience its impact. No matter what your view is on the carbon tax, it cannot be denied that it represents significant, far-reaching change that will reach every corner of our country.
Yet despite the magnitude of these bills, the Government was intent on ramming through the legislation with as little scrutiny as possible. The bills were introduced into the House of Representatives and debate began almost immediately. When it came to the Senate, the Government refused to allow the 19 bills to be referred to Senate Committees for inquiry. Blocking the referral of bills to Senate Committees is almost unprecedented, but that did not stop this Government or their Greens alliance partners from doing so. Instead, they referred the bills to a joint committee stacked with Labor and Greens MPs; the Orwellian-sounding ‘Joint Select Committee on Australia’s Clean Energy Future Legislation’. This Committee gave members of the public less than a week to make submissions on the legislation. To make matters worse, in the Senate chamber itself, Senators were granted just 63 seconds to speak on each bill.
For a Party that often criticised the Howard Government for lacking transparency, the Labor Party has certainly not welcomed scrutiny now they are in office. Along with the Greens, they sought to evade due process and proper scrutiny to ram their carbon tax through. Their flagrant disregard for the important role Parliament plays in scrutinising important legislation is extremely worrying to those who value government accountability and transparency. Particularly concerning is that this trend may continue during parliamentary debates on other contentious legislation mooted by the Government, including the mining tax and gambling reform.
If Julia Gillard and the Labor Party continue down this track, there can be no doubt that the political process will become even more opaque. Good governance will be the ultimate victim of this disturbing trend.