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Wednesday, 2 November 2011
Page: 7919


Senator MILNE (TasmaniaDeputy Leader of the Australian Greens) (10:36): I support the motion and I support the amendment that recognises that the coalition thinks the Greens should have the chair of the Environment and Communications References Committee. If they want to add the environment committee to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Com­mittee—and indeed to the committee which Senator Siewert already so capably chairs, the Community Affairs References Com­mittee—then that would be perfectly fine. We recognise the obvious competence available to chair these committees. But what came to mind as I was listening to the last speaker, Senator Joyce, was the phrase that 'when ignorance is bliss it is folly to be wise', because what we heard in the Senate was an ignorant diatribe from Senator Joyce. What should be putting fear into the hearts of people following this debate this morning is that the person who engaged in that ignorant diatribe aspires to be the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia. That is what is so appalling. That is terrifying, and I think people listening would be horrified by that. Yesterday, in the contribution that he made on the carbon price, he articulated that there is a god-given right to pollute, that the atmosphere is free to be polluted. He said that putting a price on carbon in trying to restrain pollution—the polluter pays—was somehow contrary to his god-given right to pollute. So I think people listening would recognise that what we have heard is frightening. It is frightening from this point of view, that this motion is about democratic representation. I recognise that the coalition do not like the fact that they are an opposition party and they do not like the fact that opposition parties should be represented on Senate committees on a pro rata basis. Senator Joyce referred to Odgers on several occasions, and people ought to be afraid when they recognise that he completely misrepresented Odgers. Odgers makes it very clear that crossbenchers have a say in terms of committee chairs and committee operations in this Senate. Odgers makes that very clear, which Senator Joyce did not do.

After the last election, the Greens increased our representation in the Senate to nine senators. There is a recognition, in terms of pro rata, that we have the capacity to chair at least two committees, and that is the basis on which we have argued for the chair of another committee, and the legal and constitutional committee is the case in point. Given the standing orders of the Senate, you do not expect to have the kind of reflection that Senator Joyce engaged in with relation to Senator Wright. I would remind the Senate of Senator Wright's career to date. She has not only acted as a solicitor, both in this country and overseas, but has lectured at Flinders University in public and environ­mental health. She has been a member of a residential tenancies tribunal. She has been a solicitor on the Legal Practitioners Conduct Board of South Australia. She has been on the Social Security Appeals Tribunal. She has been a mediator at Relationships Australia and the Deputy President of the South Australian Guardianship Board. So, contrary to the assertions from Senator Joyce, Senator Wright is very able and well qualified and has life experience that will make her an excellent chair of this committee. I look forward to that being reflected in the make-up of the Senate committee chairs.

I do remind the Senate that what is so extraordinarily hypocritical here is that it is the coalition who opposes at every turn the implementation of democratic principles in Australia. Only yesterday the first of the Greens bills that restore to the ACT and the Northern Territory their democratic rights passed both houses of parliament—and that was opposed by the coalition. They took away the rights of the Northern Territory and the ACT parliaments, they overrode the laws of those parliaments and they continued to do so right up until the last minute yesterday, and in the votes they opposed it. So there we have the coalition, who want to take away the democratic rights of the ACT and the Northern Territory, and here we have the Greens who have restored, with the government, those rights to the ACT and the Northern Territory which the coalition would have continued to see taken away. So, when we talk about where the commitment is to democratic representation, I note (a) there is a pro rata distribution in Senate chairs and (b) there is a commitment of the Greens to democratic representation, as is evidenced by the passage yesterday of that legislation restoring the rights to the ACT and the Northern Territory.

But my experience in the Senate goes back further than that. I was elected in 2004 and took my place in the Senate in 2005, when the coalition government had control of both houses. It was then that we saw their complete belief in a god-given right to rule at any cost while ruling out any democratic representation. The coalition abolished the Senate committee system as it stood prior to that election. Not only did it do that but it took all 10 chairs for itself. There are other people sitting in here today who came into the Senate at that time who will recall that. Senator Polley, my colleague from Tasmania and a Labor senator, came into the Senate at the same time and Senator Polley will recall that is precisely the case—that the coalition abolished the tradition of the Senate committees, abolished the right of the opposition parties to have any chairs in the Senate committees.

Honourable senators interjecting

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Ludlam ): Order, senators! Senator Milne has the right to be heard in silence.

Senator MILNE: So this is the hypocrisy of some of the people who have spoken today: they were sitting there and grinning from ear to ear as they took away the democratic representation of any opposition member to chair any committee at that time. Senator Macdonald was sitting there then and was very happy to take away such representation from everybody else. What is more, when the opposition members of the Senate, from the crossbenches or the Labor opposition at the time, put forward proposals for Senate inquiries into a range of very significant matters, they were voted down as a matter of course. Only those inquiries which the coalition were prepared to have were actually allowed to be even investigated at that particular time. One of the great strengths of the committee system in having opposition members and crossbench members chairing Senate committees is that, in a balance-of-power parliament when no-one has all the power, you get investigations into things which the government of the day does not necessarily want to have inquiries into. Not only do you get inquiries into things the government of the day may not want investigated but on the inquiries of the references committees the government does not have the numbers to dominate the outcomes. As a result, you get very significant Senate inquiry outcomes that are taken seriously by the community. During the years when the Howard government had control of both houses, the Senate committee reports were regarded as having very little significance because they were seen as a rubber stamp of the Howard government and the chairs made sure in those reports that they were government reports and that was all there was to them. Here we have people like Senator Joyce standing up and talking about democratic representation while refusing to acknowledge that when the Howard government had power it used that power ruthlessly to destroy democratic representation in the Senate.

This motion is saying that we recognise, as Odgers points out, the right of reasonable pro rata representation across the parliament for Senate committees. The committee system was changed when Labor got back into government so that we had opposition representation, but we have had abuse of that from the coalition. There was an agreement that there would only ever be three select committees at any one time and that they would be for specific periods, yet having agreed to that the coalition abused it. That is just part of what the community must now be worried about. The community should be worried about what would happen if the coalition ever got control of both houses again, because their track record to date is that they want to control everything. What is more, they have no respect for science, no respect for economists, no respect for international lawyers and no respect for anyone who does not agree with them, as we have heard from the leader of the coalition.

The leader of the coalition has cast absolute contempt. He has treated the scientific, economic and legal communities in Australia with contempt. To be truthful, we are now hearing drivel from people who are refusing to acknowledge that the born-to-rule mentality of the coalition showed itself during the Howard government years with the abuse of the Senate. What is even more interesting is that one of the major reasons the Howard government lost government in 2007 was the community's unhappiness with the Howard government having destroyed the democratic representation in the Senate in the manner to which it had usually been given expression. The community wanted to make sure that there were checks and balances and that the Senate was restored as the balance to a majority in the House of Representatives. That balance of democratic representation, with the ability of the government to chair legislative committees and the opposition and the crossbenchers to chair the references committees, means that you get a balance of interest. Because we have a balance-of-power parliament repre­sented here in the Senate, we get the issues that are on the minds of Australians up for investigation by Senate committees. Those Senate committees are taken seriously when they represent a fair cross-section of the Australian community. That is the basis of this motion.

What we are hearing from the coalition is their view that they have a right to all of the chairs and that they should not be shared according to a pro rata distribution or to democratic representation. The coalition simply thinks it should keep all of those chairs. It is anti-democratic. It is anti the rules of the Senate. It is anti the commitment to the Australian people of fair repre­sentation in the Senate and it is restoring what the Howard government tried to take away and did take away for a considerable period. Over those years, I moved several times for inquiries into various aspects of the impacts of climate change on agriculture and other aspects in the Australian community and the upshot of it all—

Senator Nash: Why don't you want the environment committee?

Senator MILNE: I hear Senator Nash saying that she would support us having the chair of the environment committee as well, so I hope that she will support that amendment when it comes forward.

Opposition senators interjecting

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Order! On my left. Senator Nash, is there a point of order?

Senator Nash: Mr Acting Deputy President, there is a point of order. I think the senator should withdraw that. I did not say the environment committee as well; I said the environment committee instead of the legal and constitutional committee.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: There is no point of order.

Senator MILNE: Thank you for the clarification, because it is now clear that Senator Nash does support the Greens having the chair of two committees. I thank her for that acknowledgement because clearly that is part of the debate here this morning. I look forward to seeing—

Opposition senators interjecting

Senator Joyce: Mr Acting Deputy President, a point of order: I think that is a complete misrepresentation of a statement that was made and a deliberate misrepresentation of another senator. The Greens have just stated that we believe they should have two committees—that has never been stated. They are definitely misleading the chamber if that is what they continue to say.

Senator Bob Brown: Mr Acting Deputy President, on the point of order: the Greens have heard the opposition speakers in silence—

Senator Bernardi: We didn't tell lies, though. That's what you're doing.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Bernardi!

Senator Bob Brown: But, as we are hearing now from Senator Bernardi, they are breaching the standing orders, as were Senator Nash and Senator Joyce, by interjecting. They are now trying to defend those interjections. They have no point. The interjections themselves were unruly, and if they had not broken the rules there would be nothing for Senator Milne to be cogently commenting on.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: On Senator Joyce's point of order, Senator Nash has not actually had the call from the chair during this debate. I have no way of knowing what she said. I call Senator Milne.

Senator MILNE: As I was indicating, the Greens do want to pursue our responsibilities here in the Senate very vigorously and we are already doing that. Senator Siewert has been and continues to be an exemplary Chair of the Senate Com­munity Affairs References Committee. When I speak to people around the country, of all political persuasions, they say to me that they regard Senator Siewert extremely highly as being a very professional chair. I have absolutely no doubt that Senator Wright, if it is the will of the Senate, will be an equally good, professional chair in that role with the experience she brings to the Senate.

It is time for people to reflect on how we want our democracy to operate in Australia—whether we want it to give effect to the will of the people as shown at elections. The will of the people at an election returned nine Greens senators to the Senate. That means that on a pro rata basis the Greens should have the chair of two committees. We are now moving to ensure that that actually becomes part of the Senate process in spite of the fact that if the coalition had their way they would once again abolish the Senate committee system, once again take away chairs from any opposition party. Make no mistake about it, Mr Acting Deputy President, the contributions we have heard today have just reinforced the extent to which they would ruthlessly destroy a democratic tradition of the Senate since its inception—that is, until the Howard government destroyed it during that particular period.

As I pointed out earlier, Senator Joyce misrepresented Odgers, as Odgers specifically talks about the role of the crossbench in relation to Senate committees. One of the things that seems to confuse and distract Senator Joyce and some of his colleagues, as was evidenced by his speech, is a view—and it must come from his experience in the coalition—that people can only have a similar view about things if they are dragooned into it by the leader's office. I can see that that was a tradition with the Howard government and I can see it is a tradition with the current leader of the coalition. What this points out is something that the Greens alone have in the political process in Australia, which is a consistent philosophical view. It is a consistent philosophical view that is based on the global Greens charter.

One of our great strengths in the 21st century is that, unlike other political parties in parliaments around the world, including here in Australia where they base their views on their opinion polling, on what their focus groups have to say, on what newspapers such as the Murdoch press have to say and so on, the Greens have a philosophical view based on the four pillars of ecological integrity, participatory democracy—and participatory democracy is what we are pursuing here in this parliament—social justice, and peace and nonviolence. Those four very strong philosophical views underpin the Greens, and we bring that perspective to every issue that comes before us. That is why when a matter comes before the parliament you know, as Senator Faulkner and others have said about us in the past, that the Greens have a consistent philosophical view that it is based on a set of principles—unlike the other parties, who actually do not have a philosophical view anymore, which is why they are all over the place on a variety of issues. That is why we are strongly in favour of participatory democracy and the pro rata expression of what came from the 2010 election. I look forward to the Greens taking the second share in the Senate committee process.