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Wednesday, 11 December 2013
Page: 1440


Senator BIRMINGHAM (South AustraliaParliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment) (13:30): I rise to speak on a matter of significant public interest, and that is the proper functioning of this legislative chamber. It is of particular concern to me and to senators on this side in the government that we are facing an unprecedented situation in the Senate in terms of the approach being taken by the opposition and the majority minor party, the Australian Greens, in terms of blocking the proper functioning of activities and workload within the Senate chamber.

In my 6½ years in this chamber I have seen it in various iterations. There was a period of time when, in government, the coalition senators of the Liberal and National parties held a one-seat majority. That continued through to the period after the 2007 election, when for a period of time coalition senators continued to hold a one-seat majority. Since then we have seen the circumstance of a hung Senate, where individual senators, like Senator Xenophon, and then Senator Fielding, exercised a balance of power; and since the last Senate election we have seen a situation where the Australian Greens, together with the Labor Party, hold a majority in the Senate.

What strikes me, as we move through another change of government, and one where we still have a Labor-Greens majority in the Senate, is that with the Labor-Greens majority this chamber is functioning very differently to how it functioned after the 2007 election when we had a coalition majority in the Senate. At that time—and I was part of the then new opposition—we agreed to things like extended sitting hours. We are willing to actually work in this place to allow the full debate. We may not have agreed to guillotine legislation or guillotine ourselves but we were willing to undertake the extra hours to ensure we had proper debate in this chamber. We were willing to undertake and accept that the government of the day had a right to have its legislation debated and voted on. It is the right of those opposite—and of any member of this place—to vote against any piece of legislation or proposal before this chamber. But it is the responsibility of senators in this place to work to allow matters to come to a vote, and it is irresponsible in the extreme to be in a situation where we simply do not see business progressed or dealt with and matters actually come to a vote properly.

Since the new government took office we have seen but a handful of bills actually pass this place. Three in total, I believe, have thus far managed to pass the Senate in the several weeks of sittings that have taken place. Contrast that with the House of Representatives, where several dozen pieces of legislation have passed. We already have a significant backlog, in the life of this new parliament, of legislation for the Senate to deal with. Little wonder, though, when we have seen the type of tactical games being played by those opposite—tactical games where they have split completely logical legislative packages so that bills may be considered separately. I refer in particular to the carbon tax abolition legislation, a package of 11 bills. The opposition took a tactical position here to split that so that all 11 bills would be debated separately—all 11 of them, never mind the fact that they are completely linked or that, when the Labor Party and the Greens were in government, they were quite happy to pass them as a package. They now, when we want to debate repealing them, come into this place and argue that we should consider them one after the other.

What are the consequences of the Labor Party doing that? The consequence is that it will take an extraordinarily long period of time to be able to progress through the legislation. The consequence, for the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (Abolition) Bill, was 10 hours and 46 minutes of this chamber's time was taken up on that one bill out of the 11 bills that constituted the government's package. Already, for the Climate Change Authority (Abolition) bill, four hours and six minutes of time in this chamber has been taken up and we are yet to get anywhere near a vote on the matter.

The opposition continues to have pretty much every single member speak, and certainly on the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (Abolition) Bill we saw some 27 Labor speakers come into this place. Pretty much everybody from the opposition ranks spoke. If they continue to apply that tactic on every one of the 11 bills in the clean energy, carbon tax abolition package we will see more than 117 hours of debate to get through each of those bills. That would be more than four times the time it took to pass the bills. It could take more than four times as long, given the tactics being deployed by the Labor Party and the Greens, to consider repealing the bills than it took to pass the bills.

What is especially notable is that Labor and the Greens are voting down these bills at the second reading stage and so they are not even passing into the committee debate stage where we might expect to have protracted debate and discussions. Although it took a long period of time for the carbon tax bills to pass, that was in part because we had a long committee stage as well as a long sequence of speeches in the second reading debate. But at that time we had extended hours and we had the bills considered as a group. Now we are being denied the opportunity to consider the bills as a group and being denied extended hours to be able to get on and deal with the matter. As I said, it is the right of every member of this place to vote how they see fit on an individual bill, but it should be their responsibility to facilitate the vote taking place.

We as a government could not have been clearer about the position we were taking in relation to the carbon tax when we went into the election. We went into it clearly saying that we would repeal the carbon tax. We clearly said the repeal would be the first piece of legislation introduced into the parliament. We honoured our promise. We made sure the exposure draft legislation was out in the promised time frame. We made sure that it was the first bill introduced into the parliament, as promised. We made sure that it had quick passage through the House of Representatives to give proper time for the Senate to debate it.

I give some minor credit to the Australian Greens, who at least said they would not play ball with the Labor Party's tactic of trying to bump the carbon tax repeal off to a never-ending committee cycle. The Greens at the time said, 'We are happy to have the vote.' If the Greens were happy to have the vote then, they should be happy to have the vote now. The way to facilitate having a vote now would be to support extended hours so we can work through the remainder of these bills for however long it takes to get on and have that vote.

We as a government were very clear that we wanted to lift this impost off Australian business and Australian households and that we wanted it to be the first order of business. That is what we sought to do. That is what we are seeking to do through this chamber. It is irresponsible in the extreme of those opposite to talk endlessly, to pad out speakers lists, to pile on speaker after speaker with repetitive arguments but then to fail to even support having the extended hours that might eventually allow us to proceed to having a vote.

This is not the only way that Labor and the Greens have been conspiring to subvert normal Senate practice. We have seen an increasing sequence of referrals of legislation to references committees—a practice that is not one the coalition adopted back when we held a Senate majority. We did not seek to abuse the longstanding practice of the Senate that reference committees consider general references, while legislation committees consider, unsurprisingly, legislation. But the Labor Party and the Greens, because they want to make sure that they exercise the resources of the committee secretariats to get the majority reports that they want written, are insisting on sending legislation off to references committees, completely subverting the idea of having the dual committee structure, rendering the legislation committees useless to the process because they are being shut out of what should be their proper job in this chamber.

The Liberal and National parties believe the Senate has a critically important role to play. We will respect the processes of this Senate. We have not come in here seeking to gag debate like the previous government used to do. We have not come in here seeking to apply the guillotine on umpteen occasions like the previous government used to do. All we are asking for in this place is to have the extra hours required to allow us to successfully pursue our agenda.

Our agenda is about lowering business costs in Australia, making the Australian economy more competitive and ensuring that we create jobs, wealth and opportunities to sustain Australia into the future. Whether it is in the sphere of environmental regulation, reducing taxes or another area of government activity, we are focused on that effort of creating the environment in Australia for investment and opportunity to grow.

That is why it is pleasing to see in my own portfolio space on the environment increased levels of environmental approvals actually happening. Minister Hunt is taking the decisions necessary in his portfolio to give approvals to development applications, with strict conditions in place to protect the environment, and getting projects off the ground. This is in stark contrast to what was happening under Labor where we saw consecutive environment ministers build up a logjam of decisions that never got through and were never considered and a situation where businesses wanting to get ahead with development simply faced an impediment to being able to do so.

I was very pleased in terms of easing the regulatory burden on communities, businesses and farmers that the House of Representatives earlier today disallowed two listings under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, directly relevant to my portfolio responsibility. One of these listings related to the Macquarie Marshes in New South Wales and the other listing captured vast tracts of land the entire stretch of the River Murray from the Darling Junction to the sea in a completely unnecessary way. They were made by the previous government days before they went into caretaker mode. In a complete abuse of privilege, thousands of kilometres of riverfront land were captured by the previous government in environmental regulations that added no net benefit to environmental protection but certainly added the potential for increased costs to landowners, businesses and those communities.

In the months since the election we have taken the time to talk to those communities and do the assessment that has demonstrated that there are already more than 500 listings—of individual species, of wetlands, of migratory birds—that already provide very strong protections for those stretches of the Murray River and for the Macquarie Marshes. Indeed, the advice that the previous government had when it chose to undertake those listings was crystal clear in saying that the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, which we are committed to implementing in full and on time, was the real mechanism to provide protection and recovery for those areas of the Murray-Darling.

This is a government that is getting on with ensuring that investment and opportunity can happen in Australia and that we are open for business. We plead with the other members of the Senate to allow us to get on and do the job, have the votes and make the decisions this chamber should make, and to facilitate that by allowing us to sit as long as is necessary to do so.