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Monday, 19 March 2012
Page: 3222


Mr FITZGIBBON (HunterChief Government Whip) (11:46): I join with the Chief Opposition Whip in acknowledging the people in the gallery he has identified.

Not surprisingly, we heard a fair bit from the Leader of the Opposition about this weekend's Queensland election. Maybe that gives us some guide as to what this motion is all about. The interesting thing is that it appears to me that the Leader of the Opposition is looking for some ownership of the Queensland election. Let us be frank with one another. If the polls are correct the Liberal National Party in Queensland will win on Saturday. And there is the Leader of the Opposition desperately trying to cling to that imminent victory and hoping to get some credit and secure some ownership. We should not be surprised given the way he is travelling in the polls.

The House will not be voting upon the subject of the Leader of the Opposition's motion this week, simply because on at least two occasions Senate committees have identified it as a bill with drafting flaws and with enormous implementation issues. I listened very carefully to the Leader of the Opposition, and he would have you believe that the bill we are talking about today is the same bill he introduced in February 2010.

This motion is all about process. It is about the Leader of the Opposition's frustration that his wild rivers bill still has not come to a vote in this place. But what he does not tell members and those sitting in the gallery is that this is not his first bill or his second bill; it is his third bill. The first bill went to a Senate committee and was declared to be hopeless—full of drafting flaws and implementation challenges. The second bill also went to a Senate committee and they found the same thing. The third iteration of his bill went to a Senate committee and they were about to come to the same conclusion but Mr Abbott had the bill withdrawn from the Senate before facing the embarrassment of having it rejected by the Senate. So let us not have him come in here and say, 'What an outrage it is that since February 2010 I have been trying to get this bill through and I have been denied that opportunity because the government does not like my bill or there is a disagreement about the contents of the bill.' That is not true. We are still here debating the Leader of the Opposition's bill, in March 2012, because it is the third version of the bill and it has been rejected consistently by the Senate committee.

As the Leader of the Opposition complains, the bill has also been to House standing committees. Yes, it has but, again, it has been to different committees for different reasons. It has been to different committees because the Leader of the Opposition keeps changing his bill. We can only assume that that is a recognition that the various versions of his bill have been flawed.

But this is a motion about process, so let us talk about that. Members of this place, unlike many outside this place, are familiar with the Selection Committee process. It is part of our standing orders in this place and the agreement struck with the crossbenchers after the 2010 election. The committee, just like the Selection of Bills Committee in the Senate, determines which bills or motions submitted by private members will be debated and voted upon in this place. But the Selection Committee does something in addition to that. It determines which bills will be referred to House standing committees for inquiry. The opposition have been abusing this process, choosing to send just about every bill, including the appropriation bills, to a House standing committee. But, worse, they are doing so without identifying what they believe are the faults or even the strengths of the bills or which sections or subsections of the bill they would like inquired into.

I have with me a rather extraordinary statistic. In the 43rd Parliament—that is, this parliament in which we meet—81 bills have been referred to standing committees or joint committees. In the period between 1994 and 2010, some sixteen years, 16 bills were referred to committees. This is evidence that this system is being abused.

What is the outcome? It is that the House standing committees simply cannot do the work. They do not have the time or the resources to undertake all of these inquiries. It is simply impossible. They cannot possibly deal with every bill that comes before the House. And what has been the reaction of the standing committees? It took a bit of time but, understandably and predictably, the standing committees are now saying: 'Enough is enough. We cannot do 10 inquiries at any given time. We simply do not have the capacity or the resources to do so.' Here is where it gets interesting. The bill has been to two different House committees, I concede, but that is simply because the bill keeps changing and on this occasion the members wanted the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs to have a look at the legal side of this bill, which is known to have drafting flaws. The last time the selection committee referred this bill to a House committee it was unanimously agreed by committee members that the committee should reject the proposition that it should be required to look at this bill. Why? Because it does not have the resources. Dr Stone, Mr Vasta and Mrs Moylan were all part of that process.

The Leader of the Opposition came in here this morning to complain that the nasty government is running interference on this wonderful bill that he has had before the parliament since February of 2010. But the truth is that his own backbench is standing in the way of his aspiration to have this bill debated and voted upon in this chamber.

If we are going to talk about process, people in glasshouses should take care not to throw stones. In this hung parliament, the opposition has a hefty responsibility on its shoulders, as we saw this morning on the issue to do with the member for Dobell and pairing arrangements, and it should exercise those obligations and responsibilities sensibly. It is funny how these things often come back to bite oppositions when they choose to do otherwise.

I do not plan to say a lot about wild rivers and the substantive issue. Suffice to say, we are facing a Queensland election and there appears to be some connection, as indicated by the content of the speech by the Leader of the Opposition. But I am advised that traditional owners support the current policy. There does appear to be some link between the election and what is before us.

The government has made an unprecedented commitment to closing the gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Economic development is at the heart of this strategy. The government is working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to build lasting change, change that will last beyond the next generation not just to the next election. This is a complex area of policy. What the Leader of the Opposition, out of political opportunism, is trying to do is to destroy the native title acts built over so many years by so many people just to satisfy some people who are on the political campaign trail as we speak. I note that Mr Newman, the putative Leader of the Liberal-National Party in Queensland, seems to be saying one thing in the electorate in Brisbane in which he is a contestant but quite another thing when he visits far North Queensland.

Today the Prime Minister is announcing a very significant skills package that will undoubtedly have positive implications and positive consequences for Indigenous Australia. While the Prime Minister is out announcing her big package, the Leader of the Opposition is in here throwing a tantrum and spitting the dummy because he cannot get his way; because he cannot get his flawed bill voted upon in this place when it suits him.

In the US and Europe tonight politicians will be stressed and talking about how they are going to deal with their economic crises and how they are going to find employment for their people. In the meantime, we here in Australia are talking about how to get people into the jobs that are available. In regions like mine, notwithstanding that unemployment is now around three per cent, sadly we still have pockets of stubborn high unemployment, particularly among youth. And we have employers, particularly in the non-mining sectors, who cannot find people to fill the jobs that are available. They are the things that the Prime Minister has been talking about this morning and they are the things that we should be talking about here today.

We should not be talking about the frustration that the Leader of the Opposition feels because he is unable to get his private member's bill voted upon. I remind him that he is in opposition. I know that he does not appreciate that much. Maybe he will get another turn in government one day—for the sake of all those working families out there, we hope not—and he will be in a position to change a system in Queensland which was developed in consultation over many years. He should not expect, as Leader of the Opposition, to change the world from over there. He should not get stuck into everyone out of frustration because he is not getting his way. He needs to reflect on the process.

Going back to the selection committee, it has been working very well in extremely difficult circumstances. I acknowledge that the member for Lyne is with us. He sits on that committee and does a very fine job. But I know that he gets frustrated from time to time as well. After a fairly shaky start, when combativeness was the order of the day, people settled down after realising that the best way to make the selection committee function properly was to work cooperatively for the benefit of the parliament and therefore the Australian people. I have to say that that has been ongoing. There are moments when things get a little willing and there are minor disagreements. But there is one constant that consistently undermines the cooperative spirit within the selection committee, and that is the crazy behaviour on the part of the opposition of sending just about every bill introduced into this place to a House standing committee, with all the consequences that that has for the parliament, the chairs of those committees and all the members of those committees.

I said through a media outlet this morning that largely because of the nature of this parliament—the fact that we are a minority government—this is the busiest parliament in the history of Federation. I have no doubt about that. No-one sees that better than me as Chief Government Whip. We on this side have the busiest backbench in the history of the Federation. The Leader of the Opposition has refused to allow coalition members to sit on the speakers panel—what a disgrace that is. We have a relatively small number on the back bench, which by definition is a consequence of minority government. There are more committees than ever before and we need more backbenchers from this side sitting on the Speaker's panel—as you are doing this morning, Madam Deputy Speaker D'Ath—because on that side there has been another dummy spit: inexplicably, the Leader of the Opposition will not let opposition members join the bipartisan Speaker's panel. What a shot that is for democracy! In addition to that, the Leader of the Opposition has given instructions to the Chief Opposition Whip to send every bill to a House committee without any instructions for inquiry. There is no reference about the section of the bill or their concern with the bill and no recognition of the positives of the bill—just do it: 'Because if we can't run this place, we will wreck this place.' But that has come back to bite the Leader of the Opposition this afternoon. That we are not voting on this bill of the Leader of the Opposition is a consequence of the way that those opposite have sabotaged the processes of this place over the last nine months.

Debate adjourned.