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Wednesday, 11 August 2004
Page: 26179

Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (4:20 PM) —I think this is a shabby, shonky set-up by the senators, which should be given short shrift. It is simply not acceptable. I will not go into the details of the process; Senator Allison has said what needs to be said about that. But clearly Labor and the Liberals decided that they want to sit a few more hours to get the US Free Trade Agreement Implementation Bill 2004 and the US Free Trade Agreement Implementation (Customs Tariff) Bill 2004 through, came to agreement and basically said, `Oh, by the way, guys, we're going to sit late tonight.' If they think that is an adequate degree of consultation, I guess that is for them to indicate, but it is worth emphasising that—whilst we all want to ensure that the overall will of the Senate prevails—there is still a general need to recognise the desirability of cooperation on all the different processes and procedures that operate in the Senate.

If there is a lack of interest or willingness in taking a generally cooperative approach across the board, it is certainly a lot more likely that things will occur more slowly—not out of any desire to cause difficulty, but simply because, unless you can be sure that you are being fully informed, you need to take your time to make sure that things are not being slipped through as part of agreements that you have not heard about—so that they can be properly looked at. It is the same reason that the Senate insisted on ensuring that a contentious piece of legislation went to a committee. We do have a convention in this chamber that, even if just one senator wants to send a bill to a committee for a brief examination, we allow that to happen unless there are extraordinary extenuating circumstances, because proper examination can reveal flaws—even when the rest of us think everything is fine. I do think we need to reinforce that basic principle.

The other thing is that the motion will put in place over four extra hours of sitting so that the Senate will sit through until midnight to debate the US free trade agreement legislation. As has already been said, there are still further amendments that have yet to see the light of day and the Senate will have to consider those. Yet we are being expected to sit until midnight—to make people more tired, to reduce the sharpness of their critical faculties—to examine this agreement. The people who are in favour of this agreement are themselves saying it is very complex, very technical and very difficult, yet they are trying to make us sit and pass the legislation by exhaustion. We are to examine matters we have not even had a chance to look at yet, let alone question the government or the Labor Party on. We need to examine how they are supposed to work and whether they will do what they say they will do, particularly in an environment where we have an unprecedented degree of concern across the community.

There has been a lot of recognition of the unprecedented action of the 43 eminent Australians who expressed concern about the lack of honesty and the lack of openness there is and the lack of trust that people can have in the political process in general in Australia. I saw Air Marshal Funnell on Lateline a couple of nights ago. He was at pains to say that that letter was not just an attack on the government but an expression of concern about democracy and the political process in general in Australia. He thought that things had got to such a stage that there was a growing degree of dissatisfaction, despair and apprehension amongst informed people as well as the general community, who felt that they could not trust the democratic process any further and that they could not trust their political leaders to tell the truth. That is why these sorts of rush jobs are completely unacceptable; that is why the Senate's role is important.

The Senate's role is to ensure that the government of the day is held to account, to ensure that proper scrutiny is done and to ensure that an amendment that appears in the dead of night—after the media have gone home, when everybody is tired and sick of it all—with no notice is not agreed to without being properly explained. When necessary, the Senate needs to hold the main opposition party to account as well. That is our job. That is why the Senate's role is as important at the upcoming election as the decision about who ends up as Prime Minister. As this whole free trade agreement debate shows, either option—Labor or Liberal—in government will kick up lots of examples of trying to get away with diverting attention from some of the main issues. It is the Senate's job to reveal the truth and to look in detail at the whole range of issues—not just at a little, manufactured, artificial disagreement about pharmaceutical benefits that does not even go to the core of that issue. It is the Senate's job to actually look across the board at all of the components of the free trade agreement.

Sitting through until midnight is not something the Democrats believe is appropriate or necessary. I concur with and reinforce the points made earlier about fixed terms. I think those need to be emphasised as well. The role of the Senate is not to get caught up in pre-election positioning by the major parties. The role of the Senate is to hold all of them to account. We cannot do our job properly if there is this continual `maybe we will, maybe we won't' hinting, faking and smokescreening about an election date. We should not have to tailor our debates and our examination of legislation to the electoral agenda of the Prime Minister or, frankly, the electoral agenda of the opposition. It might suit both of them to sweep the free trade agreement off the agenda and turn the spotlight onto something else. It does not suit the Australian people, and it does not suit the Senate because it would be an abrogation of our responsibility to examine such a major agreement, one we will be locked into for potentially decades to come.

If we had a fixed election date, we would know how long we had and we would not have to have these artificial extensions just to give a little bit more flexibility. Maybe the Prime Minister will call an election on the weekend; maybe he will not. We will pass this now and get it out of the way, and we will sit for as long as it takes just to give him the extra flexibility. I do not think the Senate should be tailoring its activities to ensure electoral flexibility for the Prime Minister or the Labor Party. Certainly the Democrats are not part of that.

I also make a general plea. In my period in this place, which is getting close to seven years now, and my involvement in a behind-the-scenes capacity before that, there was not what I would say a rock solid precedent but there was a general recognition that we should not sit Wednesday nights at least if we are to have extended sitting hours. That seems to be another convention that is going by the board, along with other far more important conventions such as a non-political Public Service and an honest democracy. It is not just a matter of senators not wanting to sit until midnight or wanting to have a night off; I am thinking particularly of the staff, the advisers, the clerks, the draftspeople, the attendants and the other people who have to work in this building. At least we have a dinner break in this motion, but the late sitting does impact on all of those people as well. There is no doubt that there is less public and media scrutiny of things that happen at 11.30 at night. Sometimes it is necessary to sit extended hours; I acknowledge that. But this is not an adequate excuse for us to start doing it just a few weeks into a new session, let alone on a Wednesday night. For a range of reasons—both the specific ones in relation to the bill before us, particularly as there are amendments we have not seen yet, as well as the broader ones—this is not a good approach and it is not one the Democrats support.

I reject the suggestion—certainly from the Democrats' point of view—that we are involved in a filibuster here. This free trade agreement is hundreds and hundreds of pages long. It should be remembered that the bills before us deal with only part of the free trade agreement. Large parts of the agreement are not able to be touched directly through legislation because the legislation only enacts those components that require changes to the law. There is a whole raft of it that we are not able to even touch. That is a flaw in the process that the Democrats believe should be changed. Parliament should have a say on entire treaties, as they do in the United States and many other jurisdictions.

This is not just some small matter. It is incredibly broad. It is incredibly comprehensive. It is incredibly complex, and there are large areas of it that I know the government and the Labor Party do not want to have exposed, do not want to have debate on and do not want to have to answer questions on, but that is the Senate's job. I have not even spoken at all in the committee debate, so I reject the notion of filibustering, given I have not spoken. The other Democrats have contributed when and where appropriate, but it is clearly a matter that is of major public concern. The larger parties might want it off the agenda and out of the spotlight. I do not think the public do—I think they want to know more about it. That is what the Senate's job is. Having more hours to do it in in one sense enables us to do it, but doing it at midnight is not the best way to do it, particularly when we still do not know the full detail and the full amendments that we are supposed to be examining.

Question put:

That the motion (Senator Ian Campbell's) be agreed to.