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Wednesday, 2 November 2011
Page: 7930


Senator CORMANN (Western Australia) (11:26): The Senate has very important constitutional responsibilities. The Senate has a very important job to do as part of the checks and balances on government power. The Senate has a job to do to scrutinise the activities and the performance of government, to hold the government to account—that is what the Australian people expect us to do. Naturally, opposition senators are more enthusiastic about ensuring that the activities of government are properly scrutinised than government senators are. And that is of course the way the system has been designed; that is how it is meant to operate.

Senate references committees are a key tool for the Senate in its pursuit of its responsibilities of scrutinising the activities and performance of government. So when we as a Senate make a decision about who should chair a Senate references committee, it is not just about a job for an individual senator; it is about the chair of that committee helping the Senate fulfil its core constitutional responsibilities in scrutinising the activities of government and holding the government to account.

The Greens are a party of government. The Greens have lost all their enthusiasm for scrutinising the activities of government, for holding the government to account, for ensuring that we have open and transparent government. The Greens used to be enthusiastic about scrutinising the activities of government, about holding the government to account. The Greens used to be an enthusiastic opposition party in the Senate. Between 1996 and 2007 the Greens were very enthusiastic about scrutinising the activities of government and holding the government to account. Even between 2007 and 2010 the Greens were still somewhat committed to scrutinising the activities of government. But ever since they signed that little piece of paper, ever since Prime Minister Gillard and Senator Bob Brown met in front of that little table, signed that little piece of paper, signed the alliance agreement—since they joined together to form the government of Australia—they have lost all enthusiasm for holding the government to account.

Look no further than the Greens' conduct in this chamber. There used to be a day when the Greens were completely opposed to the use of the gag. There used to be a time when the Greens thought it was evil to guillotine debate—it was anti-democratic. Now, whenever the Greens are unhappy about where a particular debate is going, whenever the Greens are unhappy that the government is too much on the back foot, is under too much pressure because the Senate is scrutinising the activities and performance of government, because the Senate is holding the government to account, the Greens are at the front of the queue when it comes to gagging debate, when it comes to guillotining debate, when it comes to preventing the Senate from fulfilling its constitutional responsibilities of holding the government to account. The Greens used to be in favour of openness and transparency in government. In fact, we were led to believe that the inclusion of the Greens as part of this Labor-Green government—with its Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Conroy, who is here in the chamber—was going to be a new era of openness and transparency. What a disappointment that has been. The Greens are now working very hard to help with the cover-up. There has been cover-up after cover-up by a secretive government.

If the Greens were truly committed to openness and transparency in government, why didn't they join the coalition in forcing the government to release all of the information about the mining tax revenue estimates? Why didn't the Greens join the coalition in forcing the government to release all of the information about their carbon tax modelling? Why do the Greens vote again and again with the Labor Party in preventing the Senate getting information out of the government about the activities of government? It is because the Greens political party are an integral part of this government. They have lost all enthusiasm for the job of holding the government to account. Yes, the Greens were successful at the last election. Their representation in this chamber increased and there is a case for the Greens getting additional chairs, but they should not be chairs of the references committees. These committees are part of the Senate activities in holding the government to account; they are there to be filled by enthusiastic opposition senators focused on scrutinising the activities of government. The Greens should get the government chairs on those committees.

People across the community need to understand that there are effectively two committees for each area of policy responsibility. There are legislation committees, chaired by government senators, and there are references committees, chaired by opposition senators. The Greens are a party of government and the increased representation of the Greens in this chamber should be reflected by an increase in their representation in government chairs of legislation committees. But this is not what the Greens are all about.

Senator Ludlam, who has just been relieved as Acting Deputy President by Senator Cameron, has talked in the past about his commitment to increased openness and transparency from government. That was before the 2010 election. Since the 2010 election Senator Ludlam, along with every single one of the other Greens senators, has been part of the cover-up. He has been part of this constant push by the Labor Party to keep information away from the public. References committees are a very important tool for the Senate to pursue the government and get access to information the government is not readily prepared to release or put in the public domain. Remember, this is part of the deal that the Labor Party signed with the Greens to form a government. There was a clause in there: we were going to have an Information Commissioner. Do you remember that? The Information Commissioner was going to settle disputes between the Senate and the executive government about the release of information when the government refused to put particular information into the public domain. The Greens said there was going to be huge achievement, huge progress and a huge increase in openness and transparency, because the Greens had convinced the Labor Party that the Information Commissioner was going to settle disputes between executive government and the Senate about the release of information that the executive government wanted to keep secret. What has happened to that? We are now 15 months down the track—about halfway through this term of government—and the Information Commissioner is still not in a position where he can fulfil that role. They are just empty words in that particular agreement. It is another example demonstrating the Greens' total lack of enthusiasm for scrutinising the activities of government.

The Labor Party clearly likes the fact that the Greens would take away a chair position from the opposition. It is very convenient for a government that is secretive and non-transparent, that is a bad government that has a lot to cover-up and does not want the pesky scrutiny of an effective references committee with an effective opposition chair who is enthusiastic and committed to scrutinising the activities of a bad government. They would much rather have one of their buddies chair a references committee. If one of their buddies from the Greens chairs a references committee it is going to be much easier to deal with; it is going to be a lot less hard work. They are going to be much less on the backfoot having to provide information that they would rather not have out in the public domain. There are all these stuff-ups out there by the government; there is a lot of information the government wants to keep secret. If you look at the performance of the Greens over the last 15 months, my suspicion is that the Greens will continue to be complicit in helping the Labor Party cover up whatever they can get away with. That is not in the Senate's best interests and not in our national interest.

The Constitution has designed the checks and balances in our system, the checks and balances on government power. The way the Senate is supposed to operate with government parties and opposition parties is clearly for opposition parties to do the best they can holding government to account and scrutinising their performance, and for the government to govern. The Greens are trying to have it both ways. They are trying to be the government and they are trying, badly, to be the opposition as well. And they cannot. That is a schizophrenic approach to the operation of this chamber that is not going to work.

The Labor Party is so keen to have a Green senator chair an opposition committee that the government is moving the appoint­ment. Why are the Greens not putting this proposition to the Senate? That particular question is a very good question that was raised by an earlier speaker. Why is it that a Labor minister—the Manager of Govern­ment Business in the Senate, no less—is moving this appointment of a government senator representing the Greens to be the chair of what is supposed to be an opposition dominated committee. Why is that? No doubt it is because, in this area, the govern­ment is very, very keen to have less scrutiny, to have less pesky questions asked and to have a less enthusiastic pursuer of bad government policy. They want somebody who is going to be part of the government team to take some of the heat off the government, and that is not in our public interest.

The question has been asked: if the Greens want another committee chair, why aren't they focusing on their core business? They want to make people believe that their core business is about caring for the environment. But we all know that is a ruse, we all know that is to make themselves respectable with the mainstream across the Australian community. And it probably has worked to a degree, sadly. People have not really seen the true face of the Greens. But this move today actually shows what really makes the Greens tick. It is not the environment, it is not doing the right thing on so-called green issues, what makes the Greens tick is a social agenda that does not have mainstream support across the Australian community. Therefore they are forever looking for opportunities to weasel their way in, to sneak their way in. In fact, I would be very interested to know what their intended agenda is going to be once they control the Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee. I just wonder what Senator Ursula Stephens thinks about a Greens senator driving and controlling the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee agenda. Where are the good people in the Labor Party who I know are privately concerned, the same as coalition senators are, about many of the loopy ideas that the Greens want to pursue? Where were they when the Labor Party made the decision to give them this key strategic role where they are going to be able to bring one loopy idea after another before this chamber? Where are they? Silent.

I have to say that people across Australia are increasingly concerned about who is driving this agenda. They know that this is a government with the green tail wagging the red dog. They know that the Greens are running the show and they are concerned about it. None of the issues that we are debating at the moment are issues initiated by the government, whether it is the carbon tax, whether it is gay marriage, whatever it is. It is either the Greens or some Independent that is forcing the government's hand. This Labor dog is just doing as they are told by their Greens and Independent tail. I can tell you that people across Australia are increasingly concerned about it. This move today is just another move that will reduce the level of scrutiny, the level of pressure on executive government that would come from this chamber, which will lead to inferior public policy outcomes. That is not in the national interest.

Like others, I do not really know Senator Wright all that well. I have had a look at her biography on the parliamentary website and I have listened carefully to what she has had to say this morning and she clearly has extensive legal experience. However, she does not have much experience in this chamber. In fact, she does not have much experience as a member of parliament more generally. She has been here for four months and I am sure that throughout her career she will make a fine contribution for her party. Like all of us, it takes a while to get into the job and to learn all the ropes and to learn how to properly perform these sorts of leadership responsibilities as part of the Senate. But what I do know is that Senator Gary Humphries has been a senator for nine years, has been a member of the ACT Legislative Assembly for 14 years, has been a Chief Minister and has been the Attorney-General of the ACT for six years. He is a distinguished parliamentarian and of course, above everything, he is part of the opposition and he is an enthusiastic opposition senator who is enthusiastic about scrutinising the activities of government, which is the job of the chair of the committee. This is not about a job for Senator Humphries. Senator Humphries has clearly got the credentials, the track record and the experience to be a very effective chair of the legal and constitutional committee, as he has been in recent times. But more important than anything is that, given the responsibilities of the Senate, given the responsibilities of Senate references committees as part of our overall role to hold the government to account and scrutinise the activities of government, he will be more motivated to do a good job.

This is not a reflection on Senator Wright as an individual senator, this is a reflection on the position she holds as part of the government. Senator Wright will clearly be less enthusiastic about probing and actively pursuing the activities of this government. I see Senator Wright shaking her head and I admire her idealism. But the truth of the matter is that she will find out very quickly that she will not be in charge of her own destiny in relation to this. She is part of a Labor-Green alliance in government. Senator Bob Brown and Senator Christine Milne will tell her very quickly if she gets out of line. If she is seen to be giving the government too much grief, you watch how quickly Senator Brown and Senator Milne on behalf of Prime Minister Gillard are going to come down on her like a tonne of bricks. There is absolutely no way that a Greens senator who is part of this government is going to be as enthusiastic in scrutinising the activities and performance of this bad government as a senator representing the coalition in this place. And for the coalition there clearly is no senator better equipped to lead the work of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee than Senator Humphries.

That is why the coalition strongly opposes the motion that was moved on behalf of the Labor-Green government by the manager of the Labor-Green government's business in the Senate, Senator Ludwig. That is why, even though we do not agree with giving the Greens, who are part of the government, an opposition position, which will lessen the level of scrutiny of the government, in a spirit of generosity and cooperation we have suggested an amendment which would see the Greens be able to take responsibility for their core area of interest, which we are led to believe is to focus on environmental issues around Australia. Clearly they could not care less about the environment. Not only did they first demand the position of Chair of the Community Affairs References Committee, which has responsibility for a wide range of social policy issues, unrelated to the environment; their second priority is the Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee, which has got nothing to do with the environment whatsoever. This is showing their true colours. As Senator Joyce said earlier, their true priority is to focus, through this particular mechanism, on social engineering and social agendas that are widely opposed across the Australian community.

This is a dark day when it comes to the Senate's role in scrutinising the activities of government. This is a day when the Senate's capacity to hold a bad government to account will be lessened if this motion gets up. (Time expired)