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Thursday, 22 April 1999
Page: 4187

Senator BROWN (6:11 PM) —One has to look behind the effect of this motion which authorises the Select Committee on Information Technologies to sit next Tuesday night, if the Senate itself is sitting. I make it clear that I will be opposing the Senate sitting next Tuesday night for a whole range of reasons but not least because we have a whole year in which to consider important pieces of legislation.

I am well aware that the government wants to get through most of its legislative slate for this year in the first half of the year in an extraordinary effort to utilise Senator Harradine and Senator Colston, the Independent senators, to get legislation through which it will not be able to get through after 1 July when the new Senate numbers are here—the Senate that was voted for by the people of Australia in October last year. This item is extraordinary because I believe it is part of the game play going on outside of this chamber to foster legislation, such as the sale of Telstra and GST legislation, through the Senate courtesy of Senators Harradine and/or Colston.

The Senate has heard my view on the accelerated treatment being given to the establishment of the Committee on Information Technologies which is looking at how to prevent pornography on the Internet, pornography in cyberspace. I have no worry about that happening, but I am acutely aware of the fact that, after six months of nothing happening, the committee was suddenly established a week or two ago and that the whole process is now being truncated to give a result to the wish of Senator Alston and the government to hastily bring in regulations censoring the Internet by 11 May—budget day.

What an extraordinary situation. For six months nothing happens and then everything has to happen within a couple of weeks. We have the establishment of the committee and the hearings. We see from motions now on the Notice Paper, and foreshadowed, the dealing with the legislation itself by this committee. Here we have a motion to ensure that whatever happens, if the Senate does move to have a sitting next Tuesday night, that cannot get in the way of this either, that the committee's hearings will proceed to give a result by budget day. We are going to get, on the day of the budget, the delivery to Senator Harradine of his wish that there be censorship of the Internet.

All of us are concerned about material on the Internet. I have a particular concern about violence. I note that the Eros Foundation, and one can take or leave their figures, did a public survey which found that the majority of Australians are more concerned about violence than sexually explicit material in cyberspace. In fact, the figures, as I understand them, are that 50 per cent of Australians would first ban violent films; 32 per cent would first ban racist material; and 12 per cent would first ban sexually explicit material. I think that is probably a fair reflection of what the public thinks. But it is not a reflection, I submit, of what Senator Harradine thinks or Senator Alston thinks.

We also know, no matter what this committee comes up with, that the ability to censor explicit material on the Internet deriving from Australia is not going to knock out the ability to censor material coming from overseas, and that is where 90 per cent or so of it is coming from. It is going to be an ineffective instrument. If there are legitimate reasons for such a move, then this committee should be looking at them—but not now.

This is purely political pay-off. This is about what the Independents are getting for considering the sale of more of Telstra and/or the passage of the GST. This Senate is being asked to be party to that process without being informed. If we are going to be part of the process of paying off Senator Harradine, then let the government tell us what the process at hand is. Let the government say, `Yes, this is the negotiating process as we see it.' Explicit or inherent, let the government say, `This is what is going on here. We are concerned about the GST. We feel that it would cushion the process of the GST through this chamber if we were able to offer other things to the Independents.'

Whether one of them is this legislation and this committee's establishment, let it not be inherent, let it not be inferred—let the government be direct about it, let the Independents be direct about it. On the face of it, we are in the process of establishing a committee to rush through a wish by the Independents, who will be less powerful after 1 July, to effect what Australians can see or cannot see on the Internet. I stress again: it is valid that this chamber look at such things. What is not valid is that the agenda of this chamber be altered to give effect to a negotiating process outside this chamber which has nothing to do with this legislation but which has to do with the government's wish to get through the GST and/or the sale of Telstra.

Mr Acting Deputy President, you will be aware that the government has circulated a list of what it calls `high priority' bills to be dealt with by this chamber prior to 30 June—the great date when the new senators come in here and the Democrats take the balance of power, which, as far as the government is concerned, is currently held by the Independents. It is an extraordinary list. There are little asterisks next to the list of high priority bills and the list under it of bills that will be dealt with, `time permitting', by 30 June. The government lists 27 pieces of legislation it would like to see through by 30 June. At the bottom of the page, it says:

This list does not indicate the order of priority.

But I can tell you it is very close to what the government's priorities are. When you look at this list of 27 bills, the ANTS package of bills come first, the sale of Telstra comes second, and then third is the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Online Services) Bill 1999 —so the anti-porn legislation is No. 3 on this list. What is below it? What has been shuffled out of the way to make way for this priority legislation for Senator Harradine, if that is the case? And the government can tell us whether or not it is the case. There is the Migration Legislation Amendment (Temporary Safe Haven Visas) Bill—potentially for people coming from Albania. There are the appropriation bills, the Wool International Privatisation Bill and the Export Market Development Grants Legislation Amendment Bill. There is legislation to do with radically altering—in my submission, for the worst—the environment laws of this country. There is the Further 1998 Budget Measures Legislation Amendment (Social Security) Bill. There is legislation on telecommunications and superannuation—so that people will have a choice of superannuation funds, a choice that is currently not available. There is new workplace relations legislation: that comes in way down at about No. 10.

There is other legislation on taxes, quarantine, the destruction of forests, corporate law, customs and Aboriginal issues as well as on textiles, clothing and footwear matters and higher education. They have all been moved down the list so that a hastily concocted committee can deal with pornography on the Internet, although the government did not move in the first six months of this term of office to do anything about it at all.

It is patently obvious what is going on here. I do not want to be party to it. I believe the Senate should order its priorities according to what is important and not according to what is going on in negotiations either in the Prime Minister's suite or in the suites of the Inde pendents. I do not think that we should be a party to having our priorities set without the government being explicit itself about what is happening in those negotiations. It is a matter of extraordinary importance to the public. I would agree with Senator Harradine that pornography or violence or racism on the Internet are important issues we should be dealing with, but I can tell you this: there are many Australians who are more concerned about the effect of the tax package on their lives and about the sale of Telstra and what that might do to people in regional areas or to low income earners who are not in the CBD—there are a whole host of other issues, as I have just listed.

I know the government might get up and attack on this and say that it is not so, but give us an explanation, please, as to why a sudden priority has been set now—at this time when the government is engaged in massive negotiations with the Independents, who very often cannot be in here because they are so busy. I respect that—people often are not in here because they are busy. But it has been obvious to me, watching events here in the last week or two, that the Independents are distracted by their heavy burden. Senator Harradine will not cavil at this, as he sees it is on his shoulders to make sure he gets right whatever arrangement he and the government come up with on the GST and the tax package. So it is a very disturbing situation. It is a case of trying to find out what is being traded here but, above all, in my books it is a case of the Senate not having its program changed and important matters being dropped down the list to make way for a negotiating process which might suit the Indpendents but which is not giving priority to the real needs of this nation.