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Wednesday, 21 June 2006
Page: 126


Senator LUDWIG (5:45 PM) —I rise to support the motion of Senator Chris Evans. The Howard government has had control of the Senate since 1 July 2005 as a result of the Liberal Party winning the sixth and final spot in my home state of Queensland. Like many Australians I did not welcome the prospect of coalition control of the Senate. Like many Australians I suspected that the coalition would abuse the numbers. Like many Australians I was willing to suspend my suspicion and listen to the sweet promises that dripped from the Prime Minister’s tongue. He said:

... I want to assure the Australian people that the government will use its majority in the new Senate very carefully, very wisely and not provocatively.

We intend to do the things we’ve promised the Australian people we would do, but we don’t intend to allow this unexpected but welcome majority in the Senate to go to our heads.

That is what he said. He added:

We certainly won’t be abusing our newfound position. We will continue to listen to the people and we’ll continue to stay in touch with the public that has invested great trust and confidence in us.

Almost 12 months to the day the Senate has suffered the most massive blow yet from this arrogant government. The powerful Senate committee system that is prized around the world by functional democracies is set to have its heart ripped out by a coalition government. The move by the government to reduce the number of Senate committees from 16 to 10 will strengthen the government’s stranglehold on the Senate.

The committee system has evolved since the 1970s into a powerful voice to hold the government to account. This attack by the government is nothing more than a backward step for Senate oversight. The current system was established in 1994 and has served Australia well. It is important to note that there was no government dissent up until now about the workings of the Senate committee system. The present system involves eight pairs of committees. One of the pairs is the reference committee, which examines matters referred to it by the Senate, such as—and you might all recall—the inquiry into government advertising and the inquiry into military justice. The second of the pair is the legislation committee, which, as the name implies, deals with bills that have been referred to the committee by the Senate and undertakes the estimates work. The government chairs the legislation committees, the opposition chairs four references committees and the minor parties chair two.

Today, in a move of unprecedented arrogance, the government wants to scrap the paired committee structure in the Senate. The government argues, wrongly, that there is no good reason for the duplication of paired committees in the Senate. That is completely wrong. There is no duplication. The committees do different work and meet separately. The Australian people have a right to ask: what does this mean for the chamber’s ability to hold the government of the day to account? In other words, what are the practical effects of the government’s attack? What the attack basically does is tilt the balance of the committee system firmly towards the government. At the moment, the opposition and minor parties can form a majority report on major issues that are referred to the references committees.

Be under no illusion. What these changes are about is removing the one place in the whole system where the opposition party and minor parties can be guaranteed that the government cannot put the fix in. That is totally unreasonable. When the government has control of the chamber it already has control of what the reference committees can look into. Not content with controlling the issues, it makes this bold-faced attempt to ensure, having granted a reference, that the committee can only look at the areas the government wants it to. What these reference committees do, when allowed, is sometimes shine a light into the dark corners of this very shady government. But this government recoils from the cleansing light of public scrutiny. They are creatures of the dark that scuttle into the corners as soon as the light falls upon them. Under this extreme government we are witnessing a steady attack upon, and the slow but sure destruction of, our public institutions.

Like no other government in history, this government has sought to stack the Public Service, Australian embassies and agencies like the ABC with political appointees. It has commenced an attack on both workers and the Australian Constitution with its hideous Work Choices legislation. It has only today passed legislation to corrupt the political process by making it possible for all parties, but in particular the Liberal Party, to hide donations. It has sought wrongly to influence public disclosure in this country by mas-sively increasing the entitlements for sitting members and by an advertising blitz the like of which we have not seen before. The message in all this is as follows: when Mr John Howard makes you a promise, he speaks with a forked tongue. He guaranteed all of us a Senate safe from tampering. But today we see its power under attack.

Is it any wonder even his own backbench called the Prime Minister a ‘lying rodent’? Never before has this nation seen such a mean, tricky, cunning individual with such a deep resentment of public institutions as this Prime Minister. This is yet another Howard attack on public institutions. These reference committees, as we have known them, act as a powerful accountability mechanism. Without such a mechanism in place democracy is poorer as a result. Senate committee inquir-ies such as the inquiry into the effectiveness of the Australian military justice system and the inquiries into the government’s obscene expenditure on advertisements and into the Regional Partnerships Program which exposed regional rorts will simply no longer appear. This is a tragedy for public accountability and a tragedy for anyone with an interest in robust democracy.

It did not start here, of course. When the government got to power in the Senate, as early as August 2005 it unilaterally altered the allocation of questions at question time. Since then it has routinely rejected non-government amendments to bills even where support was found from government members of committees. The government has continued in the last 12 months to block references of bills to committees for no reason. Examples are the legal and constitutional provisions of the Migration Amendment (Detention Arrangements) Bill 2005; in the economic area, the Tax Law Amendment (2005 Measures No.2) Bill; the employment, workplace relations and education amendment to the terms of reference provisions of the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005; and again in the economic area, the Taxation Laws Amendment (Superannuation Contributions Splitting) Bill.

In addition, the government has reduced the time available to committees to consider bills, with no reasons given. They have taken early report-back dates and used their numbers to enforce that in the Senate. Drunk with power, the government has sought to use the gag and the guillotine to pass legislation. It has chosen not to consult on the first occasion and to allocate times in the Senate. It has done these things in order to control the Senate. Since 1 July 2005 the government has gagged the Senate 16 times and used the guillotine five times. Bills, such as the Telstra bill, were gagged. It has also reduced the number of sitting days in the first half of 2006, ensuring that there is a reduction in scrutiny of its programs. Also, as I earlier stated, it rejected proposals for references to committees often with no reason and even against the wishes of its own back bench. Such matters included a reference to the Legal and Constitutional References Committee on the detention of Cornelia Rau; an employment, workplace relations and education reference on the impact of the package of industrial relations changes; a foreign affairs, defence and trade references with regard to involvement of the AWB in the Iraq food for oil program; and a regional affairs and transport reference. They have all been knocked back.

At the last budget estimates this government took eight hearing days away from estimates to make sure that the Senate could not use all the time available for estimates to hold the government to account. The government also refused to answer questions in respect of the Australian Wheat Board. What the government has also done is delay answering questions on notice. The estimates also saw the refusal to allow a particular witness to appear. You can all recall that in February 2006 there was a rejection of the motion to have Mr Sol Trujillo appear at an estimates hearing. The government has also, through expanding the hours of the Senate, ripped away from the time available for opposition general business when you can seek to have a debate. Clearly, this government is about hiding from scrutiny, shunning the spotlight on its abuses, misuses, mismanagement, mistakes, mischief and waste.

Let me now examine in detail how the government proposes to take a knife to the Senate. Under this proposal the government controlled Senate committees will be able to decide not only what references they will accept but also what evidence they will have presented to them. The witnesses to be called will also be determined by the chair of the committee. The chair will also write the majority report. Effectively, the committee secretariat and the resources of the committee will shift none too subtly to government control. Then, of course, we have the powers of committees to send for documents, to travel to different locations to hear evidence, to determine the length of the inquiry, and to meet and appoint subcommittees.

Clearly, the work of the Senate and its ability to do its work without interference will now be significantly affected. If it is the will of the government, the government can also use its power to refuse in camera hearings, to resist evidence being introduced and also ensure what evidence may be heard. Under this proposal that government could also foreshorten inquiries. The government has not even bothered to send the proposal in the first instance to the Procedures Committee. The opposition had to raise the issue for the government to take it seriously and we had to come here to move a motion to obtain it. This would have allowed real debate on the merits of the proposal to be aired. That is what the government should have done first. It had to be embarrassed into it. A report would have been completed to inform the Senate of the merits of the proposal first rather than having to do it after we forced the government’s hand. I suspect the government’s strategy was to try to avoid this procedure and come up with a lesser process.

The government is not going to be allowed to get away with this outcome. Why? The government knows that the changes proposed would not be subject to critical examination by the Procedures Committee. It has since realised the error of its way and has backed down to allow the matter to go now to the Procedures Committee. A healthy democracy is where a government can be held to account effectively and openly. Without transparency and scrutiny a lazy, arrogant government can hide many things from public view and can convince itself that it is in the best interests of the people for it to do just that.

This is a change that the government has wrought on the opposition and minor parties without prior consultation. The government had originally offered, disingenuously, to seek feedback on three issues only—that is, whether there should be eight committees or 10, which portfolios the committees should cover and the number of members within each committee. That was really an insult, because it did not go to the principle involved here. It did not go to the real issue; it went only to peripheral matters.

The legislative and general purpose standing committees appointed under Senate standing order 25 are described in the bible of the Senate, Odgers, as the ‘engines’ of the Senate’s committee system. This proposal will cause the engines of the Senate to splutter and die. These new proposals will result in the government controlling all of the Senate committees. This will mean that the work of the Senate committees will be dictated by the Prime Minister. The committee chairs will do the government’s bidding in their work. Mr John Howard will select committee chairs in the same vengeful way he has selected ministers, thus giving him a veto over the work they will do. I suspect he will also determine what work they can do.

Above all, the Senate committees allow for the public to engage in the Senate process with confidence that their views will be carefully considered. Thus, there is the ability for the public to engage in policy and law making. More particularly, the Senate committees allow for grievances to be aired by the public and throw light on any mischief of government. The dynamics of the current paired committee system allow government and opposition senators and minor parties to find common ground on issues. All this will be thrown away with government dominated Senate inquiries which will only be given work of the most perfunctory type to keep coalition backbenchers busy and out of harm’s way.

There may be some who voted Liberal at the last election listening to this speech tonight who say: ‘Oh, well. They won the election. Why shouldn’t they do what they want with the Senate?’ I will tell them why: the Senate is yours. It is your property, and one of the last safeguards of your right to good government. It is not the property of the Howard Liberal government. This is a house owned by the Australian people. I say to the government: it is not yours to dismantle brick by brick.

It is pretty clear to me what will happen overnight: there will not be another reference to a Senate committee that the Howard government does not want or another majority report that the government disagrees with. This is a wrong and arrogant path and it should be rejected outright. It is a massive intrusion by the executive into the role and independence of this chamber. If you do not believe me, look at the hand that signed the paper. This warrant was delivered not by the hand of the President, but by the Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Minchin. The government holds the whip hand in the Senate and it has now demonstrated that it is prepared to use it. There is no justification for this abuse other than a government that is using its numbers to crush all opposition, no matter how reasonable it in fact might be.

This government cannot argue that this is an improvement. It has not come to this Senate with clean hands. This is nothing short of a done deal designed to reduce the ability of the Senate to hold the government to account. This government does not like open, accountable processes. This government does not like transparency. This government does not like the light shone on its workings, because it is afraid of having those workings exposed for what they are. It is afraid that there might be mismanagement and mischief hiding there. This is a government that is demonstrating that it likes to hide its intent, cover up its mistakes and shun publicity when it is being criticised. There has been no statement before from this government that the current system of committees is not functioning well. What the Liberal government has tried to do today is, basically, shaft the Senate.

To the Australian people who may be listening at home or on the road tonight, never forget what the Prime Minister said just five days out from Senate control. He said this to the Sydney Morning Herald:

I’m not going to allow this unexpected majority to go to my head.

That is what he said. He went on:

I want to make that clear, I’m not going to do that. Because that would be disrespectful to the public, and it would disrespect the robust nature of the Senate, even with a Coalition majority.

Never forget that quote—I won’t. Never forget to ask yourself, ‘How on earth did I ever put my trust in this man?’

What we now have is a government that is prepared to use its majority across the board. We have now seen it all. We have seen a government that is prepared to affect question time and shift it in favour of the government. We have seen a government that has sought to affect the legislative program in this place by using the gag and the guillotine. We have also seen that this government is prepared to attack the Senate committee system—the engines of the Senate. The government is prepared to mercilessly attack the ability of the committees to look into things and throw light into dark corners. This government has abused its majority in the Senate within 12 months. Never forget the promise that the Prime Minister made, because he has broken it; he has snapped it clean in half. This Howard government should be ashamed of itself, but it will not be. It relishes the nastiness that surrounds it.