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Thursday, 29 March 2001
Page: 23292

Senator COOK (Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (9:41 AM) —by leave—I think this is more than just a little unusual. These bills—and there is no secret about this—are being rushed through by the government. We were asked to be ready to debate them at the opening of today's session. They are on the red as the first order of government business, and now the government wishes to defer them to some indefinite time.

The first thing that perhaps should be said about this is that we would have appreciated a bit more notice. The government yesterday held a debate with our whip and others on this side saying that we were not ready to proceed on certain bills and that we were delaying proceedings. We are ready to proceed on these bills; we are not delaying proceedings. Despite the fact that the allegation made against us by the Manager of Government Business in the Senate yesterday was wrong, we now find that the government is simply putting aside the program when, of course, everyone is available to proceed with that. That is just an organisational matter and quite an appropriate comment to make about management of the affairs of this chamber.

But when one considers the nature of these bills, the delay by the government takes on a completely different aspect and does raise in our mind considerable suspicion about motive. These are the bills that would reduce excise on petrol and increase excise on beer. These are the bills that have featured on the front pages of Australian newspapers for the last couple of days and have dominated television and radio reports of government legislative intent. These are the bills that embody the by now infamous duplicity of the government to match in the one set of bills a reduction in petrol excise and an increase in beer excise and deliver a `take it or leave it' vote to the chamber. That is what the government did in the House and what it got carried by sheer weight of its numbers in the House.

But the Prime Minister also acknowledged in question time yesterday that if the Senate divides the bills—and we foreshadowed in the second reading debate in the House that we intend to, and the Democrats had indicated to us that they would support that—then those bills will separately go back to the House of Representatives. And if you read the plain language of what the Prime Minister has said, the overwhelming implication is that the government will then allow them to be voted on separately. So we are not held to ransom and, in order to get a petrol price reduction, have to vote for a beer price increase. We can at least vote for a petrol price reduction and a beer reduction separately, not in the one document.

This is the sort of duplicity that is being engaged in and this is what these bills are about. They have come into this chamber after much public scrutiny, public unrest and absolute dismay at the approach by the government and we were told to be ready to start—and we are: we want to get into this debate. But then the government says, `Hang on, we are reorganising this debate and will defer it to some other time.' That raises a substantial suspicion about motive. Why is it necessary to reorganise this legislation? We also know from media reports that the government and the Australian Democrats are discussing this legislation. There is more than a hint of deja vu here.

Senator Faulkner —Not another deal, surely.

Senator COOK —There you go, Senator Faulkner—that is the $64,000 question. The American baseball player and homespun philosopher Yogi Berra said, `Here we have deja vu all over again.' That is exactly the situation we are in.

Early last year, when we were debating the GST legislation, the Democrats were with us and Senator Harradine had the swing vote. Senator Harradine declined to give the government the support to get their bills through the parliament. Then there was an extended delay. There were offstage talks and then came the infamous photograph of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Democrats shaking hands on the GST deal. What did Senator Lees say then? She said, `In 13 hours, I have made more progress in negotiating on these GST bills with the government than I made in 13 years negotiating with the Labor Party.' Those words have come home to roost, as the slow burn of the GST through the Australian community has contributed to the dismissal of a Liberal government in Western Australia, a National Party government in Queensland and a Liberal member from the safe Liberal Party seat of Ryan in Queensland.

I do not know if there is a deal being hatched that will reverse the apparent position that we face on petrol and beer. Certainly I am not—and emphatically not—accusing the Democrats of welshing on any undertaking. I have no reason to believe they are. But I do know that talks are under way now on this very matter and that does raise the suspicion. We could take the government on good faith; we could believe the Prime Minister—if he did not have such a terrible track record of being slippery, evasive and duplicitous.

Senator Hutchins —And slimy.

Senator COOK —Indeed. We could believe the Prime Minister, but remember what these bills are about. These bills, taken together, hold a gun at the head of Australian beer drinkers. These bills say, `If you want to pay a lower tax on your petrol to get to the hotel to have a beer, you're going to have to pay a higher price for your beer.' Would we put up with that? Which Australian would cop that type of blackmail? None that I know of. Will the Labor Party accept it? Absolutely not. I do not think a majority in this chamber will accept it. The media outcry has put the government under pressure and under the microscope—as to what they do and every move they make on issues like this—more intensely than ever before.

I want to register on this motion now to change the order of the debate that this is not an inconsequential move; this is substantial. The normal courtesies and concerns expressed in this chamber about managing business are being aborted. That is a secondary point to the main one—that these are substantial matters of public importance, and we ought to get on with the debate. This chamber ought to divide the bills to enable the questions to be put and determined separately and then to send those bills back to the House to be voted on separately there and returned to us.

Senator Faulkner —It should be voted on in here and not behind closed doors.

Senator COOK —That is right. It is entirely appropriate that if the government has got concerns about the course that it is now faced with that it come in here and express them. Let us not have little meetings locked away in this building canvassing issues in private, secretly, about `Why don't you do this?' and `Why don't you do that?' Let us come in, put it all on the table and have an open debate. If there is one thing that Australians get annoyed about with political behaviour, it is the secretiveness of it. This chamber exists for openness. Through you, Madam President: if you have got a concern, come in and say it. If it is worth saying in private, it is worth saying in public. I am not sure who was got the numbers to carry this change—I guess it will be carried—but I want to leave on the record those very serious concerns of the Labor Party on this most important piece of legislation.