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Tuesday, 27 August 2002
Page: 5774


Mr SWAN (4:31 PM) —I would very much like to support the referral of the Excise Tariff Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2002 and the Customs Tariff Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2002 to the Main Committee. The Main Committee is a very important institution in the operations of this parliament. Indeed, when it was established, a report called About time, brought down by the then backbench committee headed by Dr Blewett, proposed at page 9:

Referral would be by means of a resolution of the House following negotiation between the parties and any Independent members. In practice, as divisions on the motion would be time-wasting and counterproductive, the motion would not be moved without prior opposition agreement.

That was something that we all thought was a very good idea if we were to ensure that the Main Committee operated in a bipartisan way and did not in any way take over the role of this chamber—the pre-eminent chamber, I might say, of the parliament. Certainly, the intention of the founders of the Main Committee was that the Main Committee was to be there for matters that were non-controversial, for matters on which there was agreement between the parties in the House of Representatives. So I can fully support the referral of the Excise Tariff Amendment Bill and the Customs Tariff Amendment Bill to the Main Committee. This procedure was reinforced by the Procedure Committee in its report of July 2000 entitled The Second Chamber: enhancing the Main Committee. There its members talked about the evolution of the Main Committee as a vehicle for debating bills such as the Customs Tariff Amendment Bill, and they referred to some controversy that had arisen about referrals to that committee. I quote from page 8 of that report:

Rather than restricting bills to those upon which there was no disagreement, bills could be referred, even if they were controversial, but so long as it was agreed that it was appropriate to consider them in the Main Committee.

Indeed, that is the process that has been followed with these two bills being referred to the Main Committee. That report then went on to observe that this procedure had changed with the Euthanasia Laws Bill 1996 but, as the report The Second Chamber noted, that bill was a private member's bill. So I am pleased that we are not speaking here today on bills which are private members' bills. We are speaking on bills which are government business, and that is entirely as it should be, and it is another reason why I can fully support the reference of these two bills to the Main Committee. The Second Chamber report observed, back in July 2000, that another unusual aspect of the reference was the fact that the bill was undoubtedly controversial. So that reference then was controversial—but it was a private member's bill.

A third unusual aspect was the machinery employed to refer the bill: the suspension of standing orders. On that occasion, the then Leader of the House, in the debate that was had about the referral of a controversial matter to the Main Committee, made the point that, on that occasion, the bill could be referred to the Main Committee because it wasn't government business; on that occasion it was a private member's bill. So, even then, when there had been a contested referral of a bill to the Main Committee, the government of the time made the point expressly that that was because it was a private member's bill and it was not seeking to breach the convention and the understanding that established the Main Committee—that is, that controversial bills which are government business should not be referred to the Main Committee if there is controversy or disagreement about that process.

I am pleased that we are referring these two bills to the Main Committee, because there is no controversy whatsoever about these bills, and this process will assist the operations of this chamber. If these were different bills, if they contained a controversial element, if they were bills which were important to the future of the nation—its social, economic, cultural and moral development—it might be another matter. If we were to refer such bills to the Main Committee, it would be like saying, `The grand final of Rugby League is very important; every year it is held at Stadium Australia; it is the pre-eminent contest in Rugby League. But this year we are going to shift the grand final from Stadium Australia down the road to the Homebush Primary School'—and that certainly would be a downgrading of the grand final. That is what is happening in the Main Committee at the moment. When these two bills go to the Main Committee, they will be blocked there by a bill which should not be dealt with in the Main Committee but on the floor of this House, because this House is the pre-eminent place where controversial and important matters affecting the cultural and moral development of this nation should be debated.

What occurred in this House last night, when those bills were referred to the Main Committee, was the equivalent of taking the grand final away from Homebush stadium at half-time and sending it down the road to the Homebush Primary School. That is a fundamental abuse of the established procedures of this House. That abuse is one that cannot be tolerated because this parliament brought to itself new respect in the last couple of days by the way in which we dealt maturely with the stem cell legislation. But, as is typical of this government, that was suddenly strangled. What this government did was to take the parliament by the throat and strangle accountability and civility by sending a bill to the Main Committee which was controversial, on which there was no agreement from the opposition for its referral and which related to important matters before this nation. When the Leader of the House came into this parliament to deliver his speech on the stem cell legislation, he said:

Let me ... say that this debate is fundamentally about the kind of country that we are.

I agree. That is why it should be debated in this chamber, not in the sideshow two floors above. It should be debated here. If the Leader of the House believes that the stem cell debate will determine what sort of society we will become and that it is one of the most significant dialogues of ethical distinction in this country and the rest of the world, and if the Leader of the House cannot conceal his own fear that Australian morality will suffer should that bill be passed, why is he in this House forcibly pushing the bill to the Main Committee? He comes into this House and moralises and then sends the bill to a sideshow—a bill on which another 50 members of this House desire to speak.

The Main Committee, where these bills are being referred, is currently not being properly used. It is being debauched. It is being debauched like parliamentary standards have been debauched in this House since the parliament resumed after the election—too few sitting days to begin with, then there was the debacle of the terrorism legislation which was rammed through the House in something like 16 hours. There was the debacle of the excision legislation which was debated in the House in quick time. Here we have, by the admission of the Leader of the House, the most important moral debate in the country not being debated in this House; it is just being rammed up to the Main Committee. So it goes up to the Main Committee when there are 50 members of this House who have not spoken. It has been great for the Leader of the House. He has been allowed a first-class conscience. He can debate it here, but that is no good for the rest of the people who want to speak—they get to express a second-class conscience in the Main Committee.

It is not acceptable to the Australian Labor Party to have parliamentary standards debauched. The motion that was moved in this House yesterday to do that was not a motion to suspend standing orders; it was, in fact, a motion to amend the standing orders presented as a motion to suspend standing orders. Last night in the parliament, both here and in the Main Committee, we were trying to hold this government accountable and stop it debauching parliamentary standards and downgrading the views of all those members of parliament who have yet to speak in the Main Committee. As usual the Leader of the Government in the House put on his boxing shorts and rammed it through. He rammed it through, and the victims of all of this are not just the members of parliament who are yet to speak in the House; the victims are of course the people of Australia, who are denied their legitimate voice in the pre-eminent chamber of this parliament.

This decision to abuse the Main Committee and to refer the stem cell legislation to the Main Committee will destroy any credibility that this government may have had left as a government that stands for accountability. This is the government that came to power on a promise of standing for an independent Speaker. This is the government that came to power on a promise of reforming the parliament. This is the government that came to power on a premise of better behaviour. At every opportunity they have had to show their wares, they have debauched parliamentary standards. While I can support the referral of these two bills to the Main Committee, I cannot support the debauching of the parliamentary practices of the House of Representatives.