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Wednesday, 2 November 2011
Page: 7924

Senator HUMPHRIES (Australian Capital Territory) (10:57): At a personal level I am philosophical about—

Senator Conroy: Declare your interest.

Senator HUMPHRIES: My interest has been pretty well declared for me in this debate, thank you, Senator Conroy; more than amply declared for me. I am philosophical about having to give up the chairmanship of this committee. The Greens' intention to take this chairmanship has been evident for quite some time, has been signalled for some time, so I am not surprised that I am in the position today of being deprived of that chairmanship.

But there are two reasons that I feel this is a very sad day for the Australian Senate. One is that this represents a very significant shift in the way in which the Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs does things. It is a very well respected committee, one that has had an air of being able to produce reports that are a step or two away, on many occasions at least, from the political dimension of debates on the floor of the Senate. It has been able to produce reports that have garnered respect in the broader community because they have been seen as dispassionate and independent assessments of the evidence before the committee. I have to ask myself whether that kind of reputation can be preserved in a situation where effectively the government and its close ally the Greens control both the references and legislation perspectives of that committee. For those listening to this debate who might be unaware of what the chairmanship of a committee indicates, that committee will have only those two perspectives. Not only does a party get to provide the chair of the committee but, effectively, it gets control of the committee. If two parties, such as the Greens and the Labor Party, work together on the committee then the chairmanship of that committee delivers control of the committee's deliberations—the majority reports of the committee—to the party or parties with that majority control. So, both the references version and the legislation version of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee will now effectively be controlled by the Labor-Greens axis in this place. The party that represents the largest grouping in this Senate—the coalition, the parties that represent half of all the votes cast by Australians at the last federal election on a two-party-preferred basis—will be unable to put a perspective in the majority reports of either of those two committees.

It is important and significant to note that this committee and the Community Affairs Committee of the Senate constitute the committees with the strongest purview over social policy in this country. They represent the vantage point from which the Senate views a whole range of critically important legal and social issues and are a very important part of the work of the Senate overall. Consider some of the issues the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee has considered in the last few years. It has had a strong overview of issues of national security and intelligence through supervising issues like the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security and the intelligence services in Australia. It has looked at issues like child support. It has looked at the Commonwealth Commissioner for Children and Young People Bill. It has looked at migration matters, most recently examining the government's deal with Malaysia for the swapping of asylum seekers between those two countries.

So the committee has looked at critically important issues from a whole range of perspectives. But those issues will now be considered by a committee with two manifestations, both dominated by this Labor-Greens axis. I use the phrase 'Labor-Greens axis' because it is very clearly the case in this Senate that those two parties work so closely together that they cannot be described as anything other than a coalition or an alliance. In the course of this year there has been only one occasion among the hundreds of divisions that have been held on the floor of this Senate when the Labor Party and the Australian Greens did not vote together—just one. If they are not a coalition, not an alliance, not the same party effectively operating as two different factions, then why are they cleaving so closely together on so many votes over so many issues? In fact, Labor and the Greens have always had very close cooperation, generally supporting each other to the tune of more than 95 per cent of all votes conducted on the floor of this chamber. So the suggestion that the Greens are a separate party with a separate perspective that is going to be quite separate from the government is completely untrue.

A vote today that the chair of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee should be a member of the Australian Greens will deliver to that side of the chamber all the work of this important committee. The voice of the other significant part of the Australian community that does not take that perspective will be lost except in dissenting or minority reports of the committee, which do not carry anything like the same weight as the majority reports of the committee. That would be most unfortunate, and I think it would be a sad degrading of the integrity and capacity of a very important Senate committee.

The other reason I am opposed to this motion is that pretty dirty tactics have been used to get to this point. A little while ago, the minister rose and announced that he had to move this motion on the floor of the Senate today because the committee had been unable to reach agreement on this subject. I am certain that the Labor members of the committee did not tell the minister that. They know that there has been no discussion at all on the floor of this chamber about the chairmanship of the references committee—not one word of discussion about it. It has never been raised.

Coalition members obviously did not make that bizarre representation. I can only assume that the Australian Greens have told the minister that they have sought valiantly to get the chairmanship of this committee on the floor of the chamber and that they have been rebuffed. Where else would that bizarre claim have come from? Was it Senator Bob Brown who told the minister that? Was it Senator Wright? Who told the minister that this was the case? It is not true, is it?

That is just one of the indications of the dirty tactics the Australian Greens have used in respect of this matter. We see these dirty tactics all the time. We have seen them in the application of the Greens policies during election campaigns. We saw them with the passage of the legislation for disallowance of the territory legislation through this place just the other day and through the House of Representatives yesterday. The man who moved legislation in the parliament to overturn Northern Territory legislation because he did not agree with it has now triumphantly declared that he got legislation through the parliament to give the territories more rights—rights that he was happy to take away a couple of years ago. This is the party that has a policy of removing funding from non-government schools in Australia but whose leader was happy, during the last federal election campaign—when he came to campaign in the Australian Capital Territory, where we have the highest level of take-up of non-government education anywhere in the country—to say: 'Oh, no; that policy won't be applied. We're actually not going to do that anymore. We've decided to put that policy to one side.' When asked by a journalist in the National Press Club debate a couple of days later, 'Why have the Greens decided to abandon this policy?' he said: 'We haven't done that. Our policy on this subject still stands. We're not backing away from that policy.'

Senator Conroy: What has this got to do with the topic?

Senator HUMPHRIES: It is to do with hypocrisy, Minister.

Senator Conroy interjecting

Senator HUMPHRIES: We were not in bed with the Australian Democrats. We did not sign a deal with the Australian Democrats. The Democrats voted against us more often than they voted for us in this parliament. So, rewarding those sorts of dirty tactics is just unconscionable and I do not believe the Senate should do it.

Imagine if we came back in the next parliament—were we fortunate enough to be on the other side of the chamber—and we said, 'Well, the National Party is a separate party and they are entitled to their own allocation of chairmanships, quite separate from the government's.' What would you people say about that? You would be up in arms. You would be out of your trees with rage. But that is exactly what you are doing here today, and you know it. You know that this is a very bad precedent to be setting. This is not a good way for the Senate to proceed. It degrades the value of a very important process in this Senate. I think the chairmanship of the two manifestations of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee should reflect the voting intention of Australians at the last election and the composition of this Senate. With this motion being passed it will not do either of those things.