Senator FIFIELD (Victoria-Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) (16:30):
Senator Collins, you are not speaking to this, clearly?
Senator Jacinta Collins: We want to get to the NDIS!
Senator FIFIELD: Mr President, I must start by noting that interjection. The government are so keen to get legislation passed they are seeking to move a motion to guillotine debate. There is a slight inconsistency there.
As I mentioned in the earlier procedural debate, this motion seeks to mire two important issues in grubby partisanship. It seeks to sully the NDIS debate by giving precedence to the government’s package of media bills. I would have thought that if there was a piece of legislation that deserved to be considered on its merits-that deserved all the opportunities that this forum provides for discussion and debate-it would be the National Disability Insurance Scheme. Indeed, it has been a matter of some pride for all those around the chamber that the proposition of legislation for a National Disability Insurance Scheme is something that could demonstrate the Australian parliamentary and political system at its very best to the Australian people-where all parties come together to say that there is an issue, a cause, that is bigger than ourselves and the parliament, and that the need to deliver a new deal for Australians with disability is so great.
That has been the experience to date. That was very much the tone and theme in the other place when they were debating the NDIS legislation. There were no restrictions on debate in the other place. There was no effort to curtail examination in the other place. There was no attempt to limit the airing of views of stakeholders in relation to the NDIS in the other place. I have taken some pride in the fact that we in the Australian Senate tend to be a little more respectful of the processes of this parliament, that we tend to defend more vigorously the role of parliamentary committees and the committee stage for bills in this place. But what we see in the motion before us is a pure, simple, naked guillotine.
The PRESIDENT: Order! This is the precedence motion that is before the chair. I just thought I would draw that to your attention.
Senator FIFIELD: This is nothing more than an attempt to give precedence to something that will ultimately give effect to a guillotine that will curtail debate on the National Disability Insurance Scheme. There were 1,600 submissions to the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee inquiry into the NDIS legislation-an extraordinary number of submissions. It just goes to show the level of community feeling and the desire for that piece of legislation to be passed. So it has been with a heavy heart and great disappointment that I have seen this afternoon a series of motions, the ultimate objective of which is to facilitate the passage of a motion that would see the guillotining of debate on the NDIS legislation.
The other issue which the various procedural motions today have sought to sully is that of the apology to those who have been forcibly adopted. We had, I thought, reached agreement around the chamber that Thursday’s arrangements would be reordered in order to facilitate that apology in the Australian parliament. I thought that agreement had been reached on that. We willingly said that we would do whatever was necessary to arrange tomorrow’s program in the Senate to acknowledge the special nature of the day and facilitate the activities that will take place. That was an unexceptional decision by those around this chamber. I thought it had been clear that any motions that the government might seek to move in this place in relation to business today to facilitate their package of media bills would be completely separate from Thursday-that Thursday would be quarantined and respected and that the significance of the apology would be acknowledged in this place by not seeking to drag matters of controversy into tomorrow.
We saw in the motion that Senator Collins circulated earlier today an attempt to combine the rearrangement of business today with the rearrangement of business tomorrow, which was bad enough in itself. But in addition to that, Senator Collins sought to include in the arrangements for Thursday another guillotine and the listing of the package of media bills. That should never have happened. It should never have been contemplated. When that fundamental error was drawn to the attention of the government they reverted to the original motion on the Notice Paper for Thursday-but subsequently proceeded to endeavour to amend that and repeat the errors that were in the motion they circulated today.
You may have some difficulty following that train of events, Mr President, but probably not because you know this place better than almost anyone. For those who may be listening, yes, it sounds confusing, and it is confusing because this government’s management of this chamber and their efforts to seek to arrange government business in this place have been nothing but a shambles. It has been completely chaotic over the last day. There is no other way to put it.
We have two issues which should never have been mired in controversy: the National Disability Insurance Scheme legislation and the apology to those who were forcibly adopted. This Senate still has the opportunity to not be complicit in the government’s attempts to merge, muddy and sully the handling of the NDIS legislation and the apology on forced adoptions. That is why the coalition have not supported any of the procedural motions in relation to these matters today, and we will not be supporting this motion either. To do so would be to make senators on this side of the chamber complicit in an effort to say to the Australian people that Senator Conroy’s package of fundamentally flawed media bills-Senator Conroy’s Orwellian legislation-was more important than the National Disability Insurance Scheme. Let me tell you, I do not think Senator Conroy’s legislation is more important than the National Disability Insurance Scheme and I do not think that Senator Conroy’s legislation is more important than the apology to those were forcibly adopted. I think these motions and the activities of the last 24 to 48 hours in this place tell you everything you need to know about this government. Yes, they pay lip-service to the importance of a National Disability Insurance Scheme and, yes, they pay lip-service to the importance of an apology to those who have been forcibly adopted. But when it comes down to it, what really matters to this government is partisan political advantage, and they will seek to get that however they can. If that means introducing draconian media laws to gag a free press, then they will do that. If it means seeking to gag and guillotine legislation on the NDIS in this place in order to give precedence to Senator Conroy’s package of media bills, then they will do that. If it means sullying Thursday, which is meant to be a day dedicated to the issue of an apology to those who have been forcibly adopted, by combining it with consideration of Senator Conroy’s deeply controversial package of media bills, then they will do that. That is what this motion is about, that is what the motion before was about and that is what the next motion will be about-naked, partisan political advantage and the pursuit thereof. As I say, if there were any two issues that should have been quarantined, separated and defended from being dragged into that grubby, grubby objective of this government, it would have been the National Disability Insurance Scheme legislation and the apology to those forcibly adopted. That is why we cannot support this motion.
But, as I said earlier today, I do have to hand it to the government in one respect: they are remorselessly consistent. They always default to the restriction of expression, the restriction of freedom, the restriction of debate and the restriction of scrutiny at each and every opportunity. That is what the package of media bills is about. We have all heard of the Public Interest Media Advocate. We all know that that is really a political interest media advocate or, if you want to dress it up a little bit, you can call it a government interest media advocate. That is what that new position is about. That is the fundamental essence of most of the bills in that media package which Senator Conroy is seeking to put forward. We know they always default to seeking to curtail expression, to curtail thought, to curtail a free expression and to curtail legitimate democratic criticisms of a deeply flawed government.
We know that this government do not like criticism. Who does like criticism? There is not a government that has ever been elected-or a government that has been in office who has not been elected, for that matter-who likes or enjoys criticism. When we had the privilege of being on the other side of this chamber, we did not particularly enjoy the media criticism that we received. But you know what? It kept us on our toes. It helped make us better. It helped ensure that where there were errors and where there were failures, they were exposed, and it helped the government of the day to govern better-much as an opposition providing scrutiny of the government of the day should help them to govern better. I must say, I feel a complete failure on that score because our scrutiny has not helped this government govern better in any way, shape or form. Lord only knows what their governing might have been like if we had not applied the scrutiny that we have. We know that they always default to curtailing and seeking to gag the critics, as is the objective of their package of media bills, the passage of which these procedural motions are ultimately designed to help facilitate.
We all agree with the National Disability Insurance Scheme, but it is very complex legislation. I spent nine days in public hearings with the Community Affairs Legislation Committee looking at the NDIS. I spent a lot of time looking at the legislation, looking at the draft rules, talking to stakeholder groups and reading the submissions that have come in-it is complex legislation. Even when there is an area that you agree upon, you still have a job to try and make sure that the legislation is the best that it can be. That is why we have these processes. It does not matter whether a proposition is one that all parties agree with or one that is the subject of deep controversy, this chamber, this Senate and the committees of the Senate have a job to do to examine all legislation to make sure that it is the best that it can be. The more complex it is, the greater that task and the greater that responsibility is. This is why the parliament as a whole has spent the best part of 3½ months looking at the NDIS legislation. The Community Affairs Legislation Committee spent the best part of 3½ months looking at that legislation.
And yet this government wants to curtail the very important committee stage of consideration of that legislation. There are many, many community groups, people with disabilities, disability organisations and disability advocates who have views that they want ventilated, who have made the effort to put submissions to the community affairs committee and who, at the very least, want some of the questions that they have posed put to the government. They support the legislation-of course they do-but they still have questions in relation to it, and yet this government seeks to deny them the opportunity to do that.
I want to draw a contrast between the level of scrutiny that there has been on the NDIS legislation, which is going to be curtailed, and the media bill package. There have been 3½ months of scrutiny by the community affairs committee into the NDIS legislation. Let me compare that to the scrutiny that there has been on the package of media bills which Senator Birmingham has been so assiduously working on. That package of media bills has had 3½ days of consideration. Just compare that: 3½ months consideration of the NDIS versus 3½ days consideration of the package of media bills. It is bad enough that the guillotine will come down on the consideration of the NDIS legislation, but it is appalling beyond belief that the package of media bills that Senator Conroy would like to see through this parliament has only had 3½ days of consideration.
When you think about it, if a package of legislation which is complex and which has the support of the whole parliament has 3½ months of consideration, how much more consideration should a package of bills, which do not have the support of the whole parliament, are incredibly controversial and do not have the support of a single media outlet or a single card-carrying member of the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance-other than Senator Bob Carr, who proudly produced his MEAA card last night; he is the sole member of the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance who was actually in favour of Senator Conroy’s package of legislation-deserve? But if we need 3½ months to consider a complex but supported piece of legislation in the NDIS, why on earth is this government only allowing 3½ days consideration by the Senate environment and communications committee of Senator Conroy’s package of bills? There is only one reason-that is, this government knows that the legislation will not stand scrutiny. This government knows that with every day that passes, more and more Australians recognise Senator Conroy’s package of bills for what they are: an attempt to muddle-well, it is a muddle, that is for sure-an attempt to muzzle the free press.
We have a tendency in Australia to take for granted those things that underpin a free and democratic society. We all know what they are. It is the freedom of association, the rule of law, freedom of speech and a free press. This government has systematically set about undermining each and every one of those underpinnings of our free and democratic society, including freedom of association, where they are quite happy for unions to march in at will through the front door of a business. I think people in business should be able to associate with whomever they want. As for freedom of expression, we saw what happened to Mr Bolt when he simply expressed a view in a newspaper on something-he was hauled off to court. And we know now that Senator Conroy is seeking to curtail freedom of the press. When it comes to the rule of law, you only need look at the government’s abolition of the Australian Building and Construction Commission to see what their attitude is to the rule of law. The rule of law does not apply if you are a particular sort of organisation. This government have been remorselessly consistent in their attempts to curtail freedom. They have been remorselessly consistent in their efforts to curtail their critics. As I said, they have always defaulted and always will, because that is the Labor way-to try to shut down their critics.
We cannot support the motion that is before the chair at the moment because we cannot and never will be complicit in anything that seeks to curtail freedom of speech and freedom of expression. That is the ultimate objective of each of these procedural motions-that is, to facilitate, through this parliament, without scrutiny, a package of media bills that will fundamentally undermine one of the underpinnings of our free and democratic society. We cannot do that; we will not do it. As long as we have breath in this place we will speak out against what Senator Conroy is trying to do. We will speak out against what the Prime Minister is attempting to do. I do not care whether she is the Prime Minister or whether she is replaced by someone else, Labor is, at essence, the same. What we really need is a change of government. We are not going to allow them to facilitate this particular measure.