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Monday, 21 November 2011
Page: 9056


Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (17:15): I thank the Senate for the opportunity to speak on the government response to the report of the Rural Affairs and Transport References Committee. The spread of the Asian honey bee has been worrying me for some time. I come from North Queensland and I look after northern and remote Australia issues for the coalition. This is simply another case of the government's out of sight, out of mind approach. We have a minister who is completely out of his depth when it comes to anything to do with agriculture, fisheries and forestry. This is the first government for a long time that has had only one minister covering this portfolio. Whether the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry is interested or not, I am sure he does not have time to give to this particular issue, as with many issues in this portfolio, the attention that it demands. Agriculture, fisheries and forestry issues sit in the rural and regional parts of Australia, the more remote parts of Australia, including Northern Australia. There are no votes there and the minister has clearly shown on a number of occasions he has made decisions that he has no interest in—as I say, it is the out of sight, out of mind approach.

I congratulate Senator Colbeck on the great work he has done and on the issues he has raised, and I acknowledge that other senators have been very concerned about this matter as well. This response by the government deserves much fuller debate but again I despair—because of a motion supported by the Greens and the Australian Labor Party this morning we are not going to have an opportunity, apart from today, to discuss government responses to committee reports or to discuss the literally hundreds and hundreds of government documents that have been tabled in this parliament for scrutiny. Because of this guillotine decision earlier today, for the rest of this parliamentary year—for the rest of this calendar year—there will be absolutely no opportunity for senators to hold the government accountable for all these government documents and government reports that are brought into this parliament every week.

We hear about the new paradigm of open accountability, but where has it gone? The Senate's ability to look at government documents and committee reports at the appropriate times on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons is an essential part of a parliament keeping a government accountable. I think this is about the fourth or fifth week running that the government has done away with that opportunity for senators to look at these matters. This government response deserves much greater attention but it is not going to get it. By the time the Senate gets back to this report, the Asian honey bee could be anywhere. As Senator Colbeck points out, this is an issue which should be subject to intense scrutiny. Senator Milne is talking about a freedom of information request because she is unhappy with the response of the government. Senator Colbeck raises some issues about the conduct of this inquiry which really bring the honesty of this government to account. We know this government is led by a Prime Minister who told a deliberate lie before the last election, but you would think there would be a certain basic governmental honesty in relation to all of these documents.

Senator McLucas: Madam Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. I request that you ask Senator Macdonald to withdraw his comment about the Prime Minister. It was not parliamentary.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Crossin ): Senator Macdonald, I remind you that you cannot impugn another member of the parliament.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I withdraw my comment—I simply say that before the last election the Prime Minister promised there would be no carbon tax under a government she led, and we have just had guillotined through the Senate 18 bills introducing a carbon tax. Senator McLucas can assess that how she likes, but it does not seem to me to be terribly truthful or terribly honest when you promise not to do something before an election to get yourself elected and, immediately you are elected, you completely break the promise. If it disturbs her when I say the Prime Minister deliberately lied, I withdraw. But, as I say, I will leave it to the listeners to work out what it means when you promise a day before an election that you will not do something and then immediately you get into government you do it.

By the same token, the Australian people were promised with this deal with so-called rural Independents that there would be this whole new paradigm of accountability. Where are we in the Senate? All of these government documents and important responses to reports like this report of the Rural Affairs and Transport References Committee are not being considered. There is no scrutiny because the Greens and the Labor Party have chopped off the opportunity for the Senate to do its job and look at these documents. The carbon tax was guillotined, and for the whole week that was set aside for the carbon tax debate we could not look at government documents and could not look at these reports. Then we had an extra week. We all came back for an extra week, just for the Senate, so that we could debate the carbon tax. After one and a bit days of that week, the government and the Greens again guillotined it. But they did not uplift the ability to hold the government to account on many of these documents. And here the first motion for what is supposed to be the final two weeks of parliament this year is the government saying, 'Again this week we'll do away with any ability for senators to do their duty and look at these government responses.'

You will not get any of the media writing about this because it is a left-wing government doing it, but this should be a headline outrage: taking away from this parliament the ability to do its duty and to follow the 'new paradigm' of accountability. There is no accountability here. The government and the Greens—

Senator Mason: No scrutiny.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: There is no accountability and no scrutiny of that accountability because the government and the Greens continue to deny senators the opportunity to discuss this. Whilst I appreciate that Senator Milne has something to say on this Asian honey bee business, it does seem a little trite to me that she then gets up and takes 10 minutes of the Senate's time in debating this issue, preventing other speakers apart from Senator Colbeck and me from having a say on this, when she is one of those who supported the motion this morning to make it impossible to properly scrutinise all of these documents and reports such as this. I get very angry about that. One of the real roles of the Senate is to look at all of the government documents, to hold the government accountable, but how can you do that when the Greens and the Australian Labor Party take away those opportunities with what is becoming monotonous regularity?

As Senator Colbeck says, this needs a lot more investigation. It should be debated much more fully in the parliament, but it will be February before anyone else gets a chance to make a comment on this issue. This shows a government that have no interest in these issues. It is the out of sight, out of mind approach: 'Oh, the Asian honey bee will only come to tropical North Queensland. Who cares what happens up there?' Little did they think that it could destroy the horticulture industry by destroying the honey bee. And, as Senator Milne rightly says, little did anyone bother about the fact that it could have a real impact on our biodiversity. Those things just went over the minister's head. For a lousy couple of million dollars, research was stopped. What is worse, as Senator Colbeck points out, when the committee inquired into it, it seems—I was not on the committee, but it seems—that some of the witnesses might have even been gagged, and that in itself should be a reason for a full-scale debate on this in the Senate. But are we going to get that opportunity? Not this year. And, by the time next year comes around, it will be clearly too late.

There is the other issue raised in the debate about the Wet Tropics Management Authority. I would like to say a few words about how their funding has been cut back over the years, and perhaps that is why they did not get the opportunity to alert people to this beforehand.

For all of these reasons, we should have more time to investigate this report. I am just disappointed that the guillotining stops that.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Crossin ): The time for consideration of this document has expired. Senator Macdonald, do you want to continue your remarks?

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.