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Wednesday, 8 February 2012
Page: 217


Mr KATTER (Kennedy) (10:29): The member for Denison and I very much oppose the proposal with respect to time for questions. We are not going to divide and waste the time of the House. Since we have very strong feelings about this, we very much appreciate the assurances from you, Mr Speaker, and from the opposition and the government that a little bit more time will be provided to us. I would point out that the member for Denison and I, as the member for Kennedy, are two of the people furthest away from this area. We need more time to explain our position to people who come from the big cities who really do not have a feeling for some of the problems existing in very isolated communities.

Mr Randall interjecting

Mr KATTER: There is a Western Australian making a noise there and he is quite entitled to. Those on that side of the House were in government for 12 years, and I do not think anyone was particularly admiring of their government's performance in Western Australia—not the people I know from Western Australia. Maybe you need a little more self-assertiveness.

This place has been reduced—let's be honest—to dorothy dixers from one side and banana peels from the other in the amount of intelligent debate. The speaker before last referred to Peter Andren, who put out a press release in his last parliament saying that in this parliament there would be only three people who ask genuine questions on behalf of the people of Australia and that the rest of it is all politics. That is almost a direct quote from one of his last press statements.

In the Queensland parliament in the years I was there I can tell you that the questions asked by National Party members were anything but dorothy dixers. I would say that at least once a week Premier Bjelke-Petersen called in one or the other to be roasted over the question they had dumped into the parliament. It does not serve the interests of the Australian people to muzzle your back bench. It does not serve the interests of the Australian people every morning to throw banana peels in front of government and think that that is your job. To illustrate my point, at the commencement of the state election campaign in Queensland one leader savagely attacked the other five times. Then the next leader came on and he savagely attacked the other four times. I was looking at my notes and I did not mention either of them. I was going to say what we were going to do for Queensland. You can argue whether it is a good thing or a bad thing, but that is not the way this place should be.

As far as I am concerned, every three weeks crossbenchers have a minute and a half of the public forum of Australia—question time is the public forum. I do not think the parliament really has that role; whether it should or not is a matter for debate. Question time most certainly is a forum which a lot of people in Australia watch. The only people who are asking genuine questions in the public interest—and I do not want to say that is true all the time because sometimes the opposition does and at odd times there is a contribution from the government. I believe that taking that half minute from our minute and a half every three works is muzzling and emasculating the voice of the people.

You have a party position but the people who sit here do not. Even Adam Bandt and I, who represent a party, do not have a party position in the sense I mean here. All the more reason why we appreciate your indulgence and respect, Mr Speaker, for the interests of the crossbenchers in providing that degree of latitude. The opposition's position can be put repeatedly throughout question time and the government's position can be put repeatedly throughout question time, but the crossbenchers' position cannot be put repeatedly throughout question time. We very much think that your indulgence there is more than justified.

I want to use an illustration to indicate why we need that time. If you go through the questions I ask, you see that yes, I am, like everyone else in this place, guilty of a little bit of pejorative twist in the questions but I send my questions to the minister. I am not here to throw banana peels in front of the government. I want genuine debate, and you do not get genuine debate by springing a question onto a minister three seconds before he gets up to speak—that is banana peels. When the Liberals were in power, I sent my questions to them as I do when Labor is in power. I want an intelligent response; I am not here to play political games.

Let me be very specific. The very great question for this country in the live cattle debate was that as a Christian nation we have a responsibility to help our fellow man, whoever they may be—the Good Samaritan and all that in the Gospels. I hope Indonesia have the same attitude because we have cut off their food pipeline. We are fighting wars. We have fought wars continually since I was handed a rifle in 1964 to protect our oil pipeline. The food pipeline is infinitely more important. The President of Indonesia has said, 'You can take these people because you have miles of empty space.' I will be very technical about this. If you take out 120 kilometres of coastline, the golden boomerang from Cairns, through Brisbane and Sydney to Adelaide, with a little dot around Perth, there are fewer than a million people living on a landmass—

The SPEAKER: I would like to draw the attention of the member for Kennedy to the substance of the motion we are debating.

Mr KATTER: Mr Speaker, it sounds as though I am going away from the motion but I am not. I will endeavour to provide you with a more specific response. If you ask a question this way, 'Is the minister aware of the findings of the report on water development in Northern Australia? Could the minister advise the House whether the government is going to implement the committee's recommendations?' he will answer it by saying: 'We do not necessarily carry out the recommendations of a committee and we will be considering it in due course. The member is right in asking the question. We will provide an answer for that question in due course.' Please excuse me for saying that every single person in Australia who listens to that piece of garbage says, 'What's all that about?' So let us ask the question this way: 'The minister would be aware of the findings of the committee reporting on water development in Northern Australia and their recommendations that no dams or developments should take place in the northern third of Australia. In the light of the fact that Northern Australia has 304 million megalitres of Australia's water and the other two-thirds have only 80 million megalitres and we are trying to do all the farming in the bottom two-thirds and none in the top third, wouldn't the minister believe that there should be some development where the water and the farming land are, instead of in that part of the country where they are not?'

The minister is left with no alternative but to give an intelligent response, unless he wants to look like a fool. He has to come to grips with the real issue and the real guts of the question, which is that we are sitting on an area the size of China and using none of it to feed anybody—except for a few moo cows and a few sheep walking around, and they are dwindling: 60 per cent of those sheep are gone and 30 per cent of the cattle are gone. There is a hell of a difference between asking the 30-second question and asking the 45-second question, where you get that information and where you force the minister to give an intelligent response to one of the most burning questions. I will quote the great Ted Theodore, founder of the labour movement in our country, and one of the great heroes of Malcolm Fraser and of Paul Keating. If you walk into my office there is a big picture of him on my wall as well. You could not find three more unlike people—not that I am in their class of importance—but all of us agree on that. This great man said, 'We will not be able to hold on to this country.' This question is a burning question for the people of Australia. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono spelt it out three weeks ago in a very strong statement about boat people—'You have got plenty of land there and plenty of water there'. North Queensland can feed 100 million people. That is not a figure plucked out of the air. That is based upon the water and the land being used by—

The SPEAKER: Would the member for Kennedy return to the substance of the motion, please?

Mr KATTER: Mr Speaker, you understand what I am saying here. There is a hell of a difference between putting substance in a question and blandly asking a question, because you will get a bland, boring and utterly irrelevant response. That is the point that I am trying to make here. I crave the indulgence of the House in stretching my 40 seconds, or however much time I have used up so far, and I appreciate the indulgence of the House in this. I use this question as an example, because there would be no way you could get that message across in under 45 seconds.

The Leader of the Opposition has said, 'We always ask questions in under 30 seconds.' I said to him, 'That is not right.' He said, 'Well, you know—most of the time.' But maybe it is the other times that the opposition is doing the job an opposition should do. The supplementary is a very valuable weapon—I go right along with that. I am very pleased to see movement in that direction.

Finally, I have great difficulty every week of my life in figuring out why this place is so out of step with the people. Even the people of North Queensland could zip down to their state parliament late on Monday night and be back home on Thursday night. A fair proportion of federal members—members from Western Australia, members from Northern Australia, members from Tasmania—would find the best part of a day gone getting here. We spend a day getting down here and a day getting back. If you are in a party you are not allowed to go uptown to speak to the public servants, so you never get to speak to a public servant. But in the state parliament you could stay an extra day to speak to a public servant and still have three days back in your electorate. It is almost impossible for so many of us to be in our electorate—even the member for New England takes the best part of a day to get home, although geographically he is not that far away. I am sure there are other members in the same situation as the member for New England. Spending time down here means we are not interfacing with the people. All of us would know that if you want a project done—for example, I am spending immense time on getting a safe harbour in North Queensland—we need that time back there to organise it and to show the leadership that anyone who is an elected representative should show in the area he represents. The member needs to say, 'This is what has got to be done, fellas, and this is how we have got to go about it.' Convincing the electorate is quite frankly more important and it is a prerequisite before we come down here to convince it.

The arguments put up on the issue of time are very relevant indeed. Remember that maybe a fifth or a 10th of the members here will take a full day—with good connections—to get here. It takes me, for example, eight hours to get here, and I am sure Warren Entsch is no different. The member for Dawson would be no different, and the members for Western Australia would be no different. That is if you are lucky enough to get all the good connections and nothing goes wrong, because you have about four connections to get as well. It is one of the reasons I profoundly believe that we are out of step. Even if you do not agree with that proposition, we are more out of step that we should be. I think most people in this place would agree with that. The decent members here would love to have more time to interface with the people that they are supposed to represent. The opposition, the member for Denison and I support the proposal of the time limit.

The SPEAKER: I am sure the member for Kennedy would not mind my mentioning the conversation I had with him when he was the honourable member for Flinders in the Queensland parliament. He asked me did I have any questions for him to ask, because he had run out.