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Tuesday, 17 February 2004
Page: 24967

Mr BRENDAN O'CONNOR (6:53 PM) —I want to respond very quickly to the Chief Government Whip's view about whether or not the Prime Minister is an oppositionist. As the member for Fraser indicated not half-an-hour ago, it was this Prime Minister who was involved, as part of an opposition, in opposing the budget bills of 1974 and of 1975. It is this Prime Minister, the member for Bennelong, who opposed the introduction of Medibank and Medicare and who also opposed in the parliament in the eighties the introduction of superannuation for all by the then Hawke and later Keating governments. This Prime Minister has always opposed things for ordinary Australian citizens for their retirement and health care.

I do not think the Chief Government Whip is being at all accurate when he suggests that we oppose for opposing sake. Indeed, it is fairer to say that the member for Bennelong over 30 years—certainly while in opposition—has shown an inclination to oppose very important bills—bills that were about looking after the welfare of the majority of Australian people. That is on the record; it is irrefutable.

I rise this evening to support not only Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2003-2004, Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 2003-2004 and Appropriation (Parliamentary Departments) Bill (No. 2) 2003-2004 but also the second reading amendment moved by the member for Fraser, which quite rightly condemns the level of government waste and mismanagement and the wrong priorities of this government. The assertion that this government is the highest taxing government in Australia's history is axiomatic. That should not be forgotten. I suppose one could temper criticism of that record if one could say that the services that it has provided to the Australian community have been decent and have rectified deficiencies in the system. However, what we have here is a government that takes and taxes heavily, both through a consumption tax and indeed a PAYE tax, and yet at the same time does not provide the wherewithal to the community for them to have a decent quality of life.

Every member of this place knows, from speaking to constituents in their own electorate, about the difficulties confronting ordinary families that are working hard to make ends meet. They witness these difficulties in families placed under enormous economic pressure as a result of the family tax benefit scheme and the way in which the government seeks recovery for any alleged or real overpayment.

They see this also in the ongoing reduction of access to a bulk-billing doctor. Those families that are in need of a doctor who will consider them or their children regardless of whether they can pay an up-front fee know now that since this government has been in office—and not only since the start of this term but since 1996—there has been a gradual decline in access to doctors who bulk-bill. That is a problem that we are seeking to rectify but we are being stymied. I would encourage the Prime Minister and the Minister for Health and Ageing to embrace the Labor proposal to look to restore bulk-billing. Then we will see a turnaround.

There is no doubt that it is Labor that has always proposed and supported Medicare and has always been an advocate for a universal health system. Quite to the contrary, the Prime Minister has always been against Medicare. He is on the record as saying he wanted to stab it in the stomach. He said even more outrageous things about our public health system. In his actions he has gone about trying to kill Medicare slowly, hoping that people will not notice. People are noticing. They are noticing in the electorate of Burke and I know they are noticing in electorates across the country.

In rising today on these bills, which are about the way in which the government expends the community's money—the income of Australian citizens—it is important that I bring to the attention of this place, and through this House to the community at large, the real failings of this government in relation to those areas. But not only those areas: we are also aware that there is a major problem with the education policy introduced by this government. The proposal, if it were to be enacted, would mean increasingly greater impositions on students to pay up-front fees to enter into university.

I know there are many students and families who are very anxious about the degree to which this government will succeed in making higher education an education system for the better off in society. It is fair to say that the areas of Sunbury, Melton and Caroline Springs and the regional communities I represent in Woodend, Gisborne, Romsey, Lancefield and Riddells Creek are very concerned because there are not too many educational institutions that are close to them. Many families are not in a position to be able to provide further moneys to ensure that their children have the same opportunity as those from wealthier backgrounds.

There are suburbs in western Melbourne—Taylors Lakes, Sydenham, Delahey, Hillside and parts of Keilor, St Albans, Ardeer and Sunshine North—which, if I am elected at the next election, I will represent as the member for Gorton, as I am now the Labor candidate for that newly constituted seat. Those communities contain decent working families who seek to get equal access to educational institutions, and I think they will be looking very closely at the difference between Labor's policies, which afford people the opportunity to have greater access, and the government's policies in this area.

If one were to compare and contrast policies on the major issues on the domestic front and the initiatives that have been proposed by Labor and those that are being put forward by this government, Labor compares very favourably in very many of those areas. I think it is important that the community understand that, and obviously one of my roles will be to advance those arguments throughout my electorate and in those areas which I hope to represent if I am fortunate enough to have the constituents vote for me at the next election.

These appropriation bills are about the major issues, the bread-and-butter issues that concern people at their kitchen tables. However, there are issues which go beyond economics and go beyond matters that affect the family budget, or indeed the national budget. It is important to touch upon some of those issues as well. I am mindful of the fact that those matters that I have raised and other matters in the domestic realm are the ones most focusing the minds of constituents in my electorate, and in the end they should be the priority of any federal government of this country. But it is important to ensure that as a national government we lead the way on very important principles such as the right to natural justice and the human rights that should be applied to people—the rights we would want applied to us if we found ourselves in the same position as others less fortunate.

As the Leader of the Opposition said recently, it is about time we realised that this country is big enough to defend its borders but take children out from behind razor wire. I think it is about time we were also able to argue that we are big enough to accept that Australian citizens who are detained indefinitely, and arguably unlawfully, in another place should be given the right to natural justice. This country is big enough to consider the plight of Hicks and Habib, two detainees who until now have not had any basic rights afforded to them. The great thing about this country and its history, its involvement in the formation of the United Nations and the way in which it has defended basic democratic principles both at home and abroad, is that we have concerned ourselves with the principles of democracy because we know that, once we accede to those who choose not to support those principles, we have already lost the war. There is no point removing democratic principles in order to fight terrorism or protect one's borders, because we are already losing the war against terrorists who have no regard for humankind and no regard for those principles.

It is therefore very unfortunate that we have a government which has been fundamentally silent on the issues relating to those two detainees and all detainees who have been unlawfully kept at Guantanamo Bay. I am somewhat ashamed that it has taken a military lawyer appointed by the US military to represent David Hicks to point out that there are fundamental deficiencies in the way he has been treated since his capture two years ago. I came across an interview that was held on that left-wing television channel, Fox News, where the guest host and interviewer was Judge Andrew Napolitano, who questioned Major Michael Mori, the military defence counsel for David Hicks, on 26 January, about three weeks ago. In doing so he sought information on David Hicks's circumstances. He first asked Major Michael Mori whether in fact David Hicks could get a fair trial. Major Michael Mori responded by saying:

David Hicks cannot get a fair trial under the commission rules and procedures that have been established currently to try the detainees down in Guantanamo Bay.

The interviewer asked:

Why not? What's wrong with the procedures that have been established?

The response was:

What's wrong with the procedures is basically the procedures have gutted the recognised criminal justice system either in the civilian process or under the uniform code of military justice.

The interviewer went on:

Well, let's start with the judges. Are the judges independent, or do they work for Donald Rumsfeld?

The reply was:

Sir, there is no judge. The judge — independent judge has been removed from the system and been placed in the role of what they call the presiding officer on the actual jury panel themselves, so there is no independent judge to rule on issues, to control the process, to be an unbiased controller of the process to see that both sides get a fair access and fair presentation of the evidence without biasing the jury.

The further question was asked:

Well, who or what is the jury? What makes up the jury? Are they military officers? Are they civilians? Are they the same people that work for the prosecutor?

The reply came:

Sir, the actual members will come from the U.S. armed forces officers that are out there serving today, and that is the one hope and shining light ...

That was perhaps the only potential—

Mr Gavan O'Connor —The land of the free.

Mr BRENDAN O'CONNOR —That is right, as the member for Corio points out. If that is the only silver lining to this very dark cloud for these Australian citizens, then we should be very concerned about that. It is important to note that this is not a matter of determining the innocence or otherwise of David Hicks and Mr Habib. It is not about Messrs Hicks and Habib's guilt or innocence. That is something to be tried. However, it is clear that they are not being fairly dealt with under international law. Arguably, the United States is in breach of international law.

I recall late last year comments and criticisms by the usually very silent—so they can get access to people—Red Cross, which came out and raised concerns about the way in which these detainees were being dealt with. I also recall US POWs raising concerns about the precedent this is setting. You have here former American military who have served in action opposing the establishment of Guantanamo Bay because they realise that, if this precedent is established, in the future it could be argued that military personnel of the United States, or indeed Australia, in other conflicts are not military personnel but are something else. If there is some effort to define them somewhere between the domestic laws of the sovereign state in which they have allegedly breached a law and the laws of their home state, they could find themselves in a limbo land—a middle ground where they have no recourse to the basic rights of human justice under either system. So it is interesting that some of the calls to fix this have come from former US POWs who are concerned about the way in which these detainees have been treated.

As I say, if international judges can make comments about the unlawfulness of this behaviour by the United States, if the American Democratic Party—the largest opposition party—can raise concerns about the behaviour of the US administration regarding these detainees and if former POWs can raise these things, then how can our government contend that it is anti-American to criticise the action of the US administration in not providing any rights to these two Australian citizens? If we have a government that indeed has a strong relationship with the United States, then why is it that it cannot successfully raise these concerns and ensure that Australian citizens are dealt with fairly?

Mr Gavan O'Connor —Too weak!

Mr BRENDAN O'CONNOR —As the member for Corio says—quite rightly I think—this government is too weak to put a proposition that everybody inside and outside America is putting about these detainees. The government blinked when it came to the free trade agreement—that was about affecting conditions domestically—and it blinked when it came to looking after the basic human rights of two people who have yet to be charged, let alone tried, for any conduct that may be in breach of international or domestic law. I started this contribution to the debate today by saying that there were some major problems with this Prime Minister and his government in economic matters. I finish by saying there are also some other issues. It should be the case that this country is big enough to look after its citizens economically, but this country should also be big enough to defend its citizens, whether they are here or outside this country—even if it means talking to good friends and saying, `What you are doing is wrong.' If this government is not able to do that, then it is not fit to govern this country, and it is certainly not fit to govern the Australian people I know.