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New South Wales
Patterson, Sen Kay
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Stephens, Sen Ursula
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- Start of Business
- INTERNATIONAL LITERACY DAY
- MAKE POVERTY HISTORY CAMPAIGN
- HURRICANE KATRINA
- CHERNOBYL NUCLEAR ACCIDENT
- WANDELLA STATE FOREST
- REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH SERVICES
- MEDICAL RESEARCH
- NATIONAL GYNAECOLOGICAL AWARENESS DAY
- INTERNATIONAL FOETAL ALCOHOL SPECTRUM DISORDERS AWARENESS DAY
- RELIGIOUS TOLERANCE
TELSTRA (TRANSITION TO FULL PRIVATE OWNERSHIP) BILL 2005
TELECOMMUNICATIONS LEGISLATION AMENDMENT (COMPETITION AND CONSUMER ISSUES) BILL 2005
ASBESTOS-RELATED CLAIMS (MANAGEMENT OF COMMONWEALTH LIABILITIES) (CONSEQUENTIAL AND TRANSITIONAL PROVISIONS) BILL 2005
ASBESTOS-RELATED CLAIMS (MANAGEMENT OF COMMONWEALTH LIABILITIES) BILL 2005
QUESTIONS WITHOUT NOTICE
(Conroy, Sen Stephen, Coonan, Sen Helen)
(Trood, Sen Russell, Hill, Sen Robert)
(Hutchins, Sen Steve, Coonan, Sen Helen)
(Johnston, Sen David, Minchin, Sen Nick)
(Brown, Sen Carol, Coonan, Sen Helen)
Unfair Dismissal Laws
(Parry, Sen Stephen, Abetz, Sen Eric)
(Fielding, Sen Steve, Macdonald, Sen Ian)
National Security: Terrorism
(Lightfoot, Sen Ross, Ellison, Sen Chris)
Australian Electoral Commission: Iraq Elections
(Forshaw, Sen Michael, Abetz, Sen Eric)
Indigenous Land Ownership
(Siewert, Sen Rachel, Vanstone, Sen Amanda)
Political Party Donations
(Carr, Sen Kim, Abetz, Sen Eric)
(Eggleston, Sen Alan, Coonan, Sen Helen)
(O’Brien, Sen Kerry, Macdonald, Sen Ian)
- PARLIAMENTARY LANGUAGE
- QUESTIONS WITHOUT NOTICE: ADDITIONAL ANSWERS
- QUESTIONS WITHOUT NOTICE: TAKE NOTE OF ANSWERS
- TRADE PRACTICES AMENDMENT (NATIONAL ACCESS REGIME) BILL 2005
- SENATE PROCESSES
- AUDITOR-GENERAL’S REPORTS
QUESTIONS ON NOTICE
Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts: Overseas Travel
(Evans, Sen Chris, Coonan, Sen Helen)
Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations
(Evans, Sen Chris, Abetz, Sen Eric)
Minister for Workforce Participation
(Evans, Sen Chris, Abetz, Sen Eric)
Tasinformatics Centre of Excellence
(O’Brien, Sen Kerry, Coonan, Sen Helen)
Australian Customs Service
(Ludwig, Sen Joe, Ellison, Sen Chris)
Australian Customs Service
(Ludwig, Sen Joe, Ellison, Sen Chris)
- Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts: Overseas Travel
Thursday, 8 September 2005
Senator STEPHENS (5:12 PM) —Considering that contribution to the debate, I think that we have all sat here in total irrelevance, listening to that drivel. I wish it had all been broadcast, because Senator Johnston’s contribution to this debate, if that is what it could be called, actually demonstrated to anyone who had the opportunity to listen—and I hope those people who are interested in this issue now go to the Hansard record—extraordinary arrogance and a level of condescension that beggars belief. In terms of his attitudes of being dismissive and contemptuous of democratic processes, that was something else. I suppose it was only to be expected given the contribution that Senator Johnston made to yesterday’s debate on the matter of privilege, where we saw the abuse of the government’s majority in the Senate and the processes and procedures that have served this chamber so well for such a long time being abused in such an extraordinary way.
But the issue is really that we are here much quicker than we thought we would be here; we are here arguing about this issue much quicker than we thought. We had given the government credit for respecting its majority and respecting its capacity to manage its business. People understand that that is the democratic process. What we were not expecting was that we would see such an abuse of the Senate majority that the government has and its determination to railroad through legislation with disregard for common decency in terms of giving the people of Australia a chance to consider just what the legislation is all about.
We have had 10 sitting days and we have already seen what the government has in mind. First of all, we had the issue of question time on the very first day of sitting—reducing the number of questions that were given to the opposition, but with more dorothy dixers to the government and so lots of opportunities for the government to trumpet its own successes. What a tragedy! Second, we have had the most extraordinary lack of opportunities to consider the work of the committees after Senator Hill indicated there was going to be a curtailing of the wide-ranging powers of committees to investigate the efforts and many bungles of the government, as demonstrated to the wider Australian society through the estimates process. So we know that Senator Hill and the government are quite interested in curtailing the work of the committees and we expect that very soon we will hear much more about that process as we move towards another estimates period, in November.
Let us think about just what is going on here. We have a government that wants to control debate, control the activity of the Senate and control the activity of the whole parliament. The government wants to hide behind its majority so that there is such a limited level of scrutiny of, and opportunity to hold it accountable for, its actions that people cannot see the glaring gaps and problems all around Australia after almost 10 years of a government that is tired and is papering up the cracks that are appearing across all of its portfolios.
We have a situation where the government is abusing its Senate majority, and I must reflect on yesterday’s debate regarding the matter of privilege that was referred to the President by the Senate Finance and Public Administration References Committee. The President ruled as he saw fit—that this matter should go to the Privileges Committee. Yesterday, in what was a most extraordinary debate, the government could not justify why it wanted to go against the reference to the Privileges Committee but used its numbers to push that argument through. There was no principle involved; it was just opportunism. It was about defending someone’s reputation, someone that we know is a card-carrying member and supporter of the Liberal Party.
But what it did was undermine some very important Senate processes and some important democratic principles that have served this Senate so well for so long. First of all, it certainly undermined the decision by Senator Calvert in his role as the President of the Senate, after he had determined quite sensibly that the issue should be referred to the Privileges Committee. He made a non-partisan decision. It was a sound decision and he obviously took advice on it to make that ruling. However, in his absence, we had the debacle yesterday where the government used its numbers to railroad the Senate and push through a decision that reversed his ruling and put in jeopardy the independence of the President in determining matters of privilege.
In doing that, we denied this gentleman his day in court, in many respects. We denied him the opportunity to defend his own reputation, and that is something that perhaps will come back to haunt the members of the government who, in being so quick to undermine the decision of the President and to undermine the independence of the Privileges Committee, have actually done this gentleman a disservice, because if it had been referred to the Privileges Committee, where the government well and truly has the numbers, the committee might have determined that there was no case to answer.
This is the sort of thing we mean when we talk about the subversion of Senate processes—using the procedures politically and disregarding what are soundly based principles of the Westminster system that allow good governance, that allow a sensible approach to managing the business of the parliament. That is just one example of how the Senate processes have been absolutely subverted since the government managed to secure its majority.
Another example is the recent treatment of the Clerk of the Senate. That was the most extraordinary experience. It relates to the same issue as the finance and public administration committee’s current inquiry into the Regional Partnerships program. The Clerk provided evidence to the committee of events which occurred long ago, almost 12 months ago. This unleashed a tirade of abuse from the Special Minister of State, Senator Abetz, who made a personal criticism of the Clerk of the Senate but also a criticism of his role as the Clerk of the Senate. That again undermined the institution that is the Senate and undermined the institutional processes that make debate here so fair and transparent.
So the abusive treatment of the Clerk, the leaking of information and the briefing of journalists were in fact all a smokescreen to deflect attention from the major issue, which the finance and public administration committee is actually considering, and that is the government’s systematic plundering of the public purse to fund party political advertising in its own interests. That is the issue. So there is the current inquiry into the Regional Partnerships program and the inquiry into government advertising about legislation that we have yet to see. This is extraordinary advertising; it is advertising that has nothing to do with informing the Australian community about the impacts of the legislation, because we have not seen that legislation.
We have an extraordinary sense of doom about the integrity of parliamentary processes under this government. We have extraordinary situations where committee reports are not responded to. There is a litany of parliamentary committee work where there has been genuine contribution and where extraordinary pressures have been put on community organisations and individuals to provide information and submissions to those committees—and they have done so in good faith. They put resources and huge effort into providing information to a range of Senate inquiries only to have the Senate inquiry reports tabled, debated and then shelved, with no responses to recommendations. There are hundreds of examples of that.
We have hundreds of questions on notice—questions that have not been responded to; questions that are disregarded because either the government does not want to respond or is not prepared to put the time, effort and resources into answering them. That is a hugely insulting situation for the people of Australia who use the democratic processes of the Senate and the House of Representatives to organise questions on notice. These are the processes that allow the wheels of democracy to turn. It is very disheartening to think that we are at this early stage in the new Senate arrangements and the new parliamentary period—and it seems that things are not going to get any better.
Witnesses who now provide evidence to inquiries find that their submissions are subjected to the most cutting and disparaging comments. We have people whose reputations have been criticised, who have been undermined professionally because of the evidence that they have provided to committee inquiries. That is an outrageous abuse of people’s power in this place. We had a minister of the government go through the submissions to an inquiry and attack those individuals and organisations providing submissions—and second-guess or misrepresent the intent of the witnesses. That is an outrageous abuse of process and power, and it does this place no credit at all.
We had that issue yesterday about cutting off debate on the Telstra bills. That was an extraordinary experience. However, I was very pleased to know that that debate was broadcast, and I have had several emails and phone calls already today from people saying: ‘How could that have happened? What did that mean?’ There is nothing else to say except that this is about the government using its numbers to push legislation forward and to push things through without debate. The problem is that there is no will on the part of the government to have any scrutiny or accountability about that legislation.
There is such a lack of transparency in what the government is bringing forward that this of course is of huge concern. And it should be of huge concern to people who want to see a democratic process, who want to see accountable government, who want to see their concerns taken seriously by a government. People do not expect to see a government that thinks it knows everything, that is so arrogant it is not prepared to be open-minded about the concerns of citizens and so arrogant that it is not prepared to take on board the fact that people might perhaps be so concerned about the privatisation of Telstra that that they want to make a submission concerning the bills currently before the parliament. Today is a joke. We have a situation—
Senator Patterson —You didn’t give them a chance on Qantas, the Commonwealth Bank or CSL.
Senator STEPHENS —I will take the interjection because it really is a pathetic defence of what is going on in the parliament. We do have a committee structure in place. We do have a process in place that is about referring the legislation to a legislation committee. We do have a process in place that provides an opportunity to consider the legislation. What happened today? We had one advertisement in the Australian. That advertisement said, ‘If you want to make a submission to the inquiry into the privatisation of Telstra, go to the web site and click on the links.’ Guess what? Until midday today the links did not work because the bills had not been through the parliament. There are less than 24 hours to make a submission because people have to have their submissions in by 12 o’clock tomorrow. There are less than 24 hours to make a submission about an issue of such concern, and you might only have the capacity to make a submission if you have express post available.
We have the arrogance of a government that pretends that everything is fine with Telstra. It pretends that everyone has the capacity, if they want to, to have access to the internet. Well, it is just not like that out in the community. If you do not get the Australian until this afternoon, which is the situation for some communities in Queensland, if you do not get the Australian until tomorrow, which is the situation for people in north-western Western Australia, then you have less than 24 hours to make a submission to this inquiry. That is the biggest joke of all. This is about actually paying lip-service to a process. It is about undermining the capacity of people to make submissions.
The reality is that this government does not want to hear any voices of dissent. It does not want to hear any criticism. It does not want to have open and transparent decision making. It wants to use the majority it has in the Senate to railroad through bill after bill. It does not matter whether it is this bill or the bill we will see in the not too distant future about industrial relations or a bill about welfare to work or whatever other draconian measure we are going to see in this place over the coming months; this is the future for debate in this place. It is going to be undermined. It is going to be driven by the arrogance and intent of this government to go forward with an ideological agenda. It is actually going to bring about the undoing of this government, because the Australian people will not tolerate being treated like mushrooms and with such contempt.