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Wednesday, 13 November 2013
Page: 164


Senator SINGH (Tasmania) (11:45): I rise to speak to this address-in-reply. Firstly I want to begin by acknowledging the result of the federal election on 7 September and to recognise the efforts of the Australian Electoral Commission, which is and remains, I believe, one of the world's best electoral agencies and a model for both developed and fledgling democracies. Obviously, though, some of the results have not yet been finalised, and I acknowledge the extraordinary—if not bizarre—circumstances in Western Australia and the challenging situation in which my colleague Senator Ludlam and my colleague and good friend Senator Pratt find themselves. It is my hope that that situation is resolved in a way which gives Western Australians the faith in their electoral institutions that they rightly deserve and have come to expect. It is also, of course, my hope that Senator Pratt is returned as a senator in this place.

It is also incumbent upon me to reflect on the result of the election in my home state of Tasmania and to pay tribute to those outgoing members of the other place. I shall not eulogise their time as members of parliament too much, because I am sure that their contribution to public life, whether it is as legislators or in some other roles, is not yet over, but I would like to pay tribute to my good friend Sid Sidebottom, to Dick Adams and to Geoff Lyons. I want to say thank you to them for their service to their communities and for their commitment to our state and our nation in their time as members of parliament. Also, Julie Collins, the member for Franklin in the other place, deserves congratulations for once again being recognised by the people of Franklin for the work that she does representing them in parliament, fighting for the rights and interests of people who are most in need of help in our community.

Finally, I must also make note of the dedication of our Labor candidate for the division of Denison, Jane Austen, who drew on a depth of experience as a teacher and as someone who has worked in mental health to run a campaign that very much connected with people. While her efforts over more than a year did not result in the return of Denison to Labor, Jane helped to ensure support for community organisations, responded to literally hundreds of constituent matters and brought together employers and jobseekers in Denison. Jane was, of course, assisted by many volunteers and supporters from Labor and from the community, all of whom give their time and energy out of a belief in the values and potential of the Labor Party and our candidate.

But there is no doubt that around the country there was a certain ambivalence at the last election, leading to some unexpected results in both a number of lower house divisions and in the Senate contests. Unfortunately, there were a high number of informal votes in some places as well. But our democracy is an ever-changing system, and we should welcome new voices. We should also, however, remain alert to the capacity of our system to cater for new electoral trends and adjust our system to ensure the most democratic outcome. This, along with the question of tracking and securing ballots to avoid a repeat of the situation in Western Australia, will no doubt be a matter of some consideration by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters and a matter of serious public interest in the next three years.

Ultimately, the votes of the people of Australia have delivered government to the Liberal and National parties joined in coalition, however unstable or uncertain that coalition can sometimes be, particularly on matters of foreign ownership, farming or issues affecting rural communities, to name a few. Yesterday we heard the Prime Minister speaking, by that antiquated quirk of the monarchy system, through the Governor-General, who delivered an address on the government's agenda. I must say I hope that one day we can rid ourselves of that curious and quaint convention and speak as a democracy ought to speak: directly and with a sense of our own national identity.

But what was most striking about that address was the lack of ideas contained within it. The fact is the government, almost uniquely in the history of Australian governments, has been elected not with an agenda of its own, not with any ideas of its own but instead with a handful of slogans and with a pledge to repeal the vital reforms introduced by the previous, Labor government. With characteristic negativity, the coalition has failed to make that transition from opposition to government, instead outlining a plan to undermine existing plans in the national interest.

The government has begun to tear up those plans and the maps for the National Broadband Network, dividing this country into digital haves and have-nots. It has reduced the potential for future growth in our economy in doing so. The government has pledged to repeal the carbon price, the emissions trading scheme that almost all economists and scientists believe is the best and most efficient way to achieve carbon emissions reduction. The government has pledged to repeal the minerals resource rent tax and tried at the same time to perpetuate the fiction that, if the MRRT goes, it will also need to repeal the low-income superannuation contribution and the schoolkids bonus, presumably just because it is on a roll.

One of the government's first acts following the devastating bushfires in New South Wales was to take the extraordinary decision to repeal important payments to families affected by those bushfires, including people who were shut out of their homes for more than 24 hours. Despite the plea from the opposition and members of the community to not cut off a payment that was so rightly provided by the last Labor government, Minister Keenan has not reintroduced payments to those families affected by the bushfires in New South Wales.

This government, which yesterday tried to spell out its agenda, has revealed a hollow negativity unbecoming of any Australian government. In fact, on Sunday evening, two days before the opening of this parliament, the Prime Minister used his office and his website to release a social media message which claimed that 'as far as the Government is concerned the adults are back in charge.' This is coming from someone who, when he was Leader of the Opposition, allowed and encouraged dismissive, insulting and misogynistic language to be the principal tool of his political attack. This social media message was particularly insulting. It confirms the Liberal born-to-rule mentality and demonstrates the approach the coalition has to government in general—that is, to treat the Australian people like children.

In the eyes of the Abbott government, the people of Australia are not old enough, are not wise enough and are not Liberal or National enough to understand the business of government, so they ought not to be told. The people of Australia do not need to hear about on-water matters, the state of the economy or how the government is dealing with the budget emergency it spoke so much about in opposition. The people of Australia do not need ministers to front the media and explain themselves or even have ministers face up to parliament to explain matters in their own portfolio. As far as the government is concerned, the adults will deal with that—Abbott's adults will deal with that and the people of Australia should be seen and not heard. That is the way this new government is treating the people of Australia—like they are children who should be seen and not heard while the adults are back in charge. How insulting to the people of Australia, who have every right to know what this government has in its agenda.

Over on this side of the Senate we believe in quite the opposite: that the people of Australia deserve to be furnished with all the information so that they can make decisions about the need for effectiveness of policies for themselves. We believe in transparency in our government and openness in our government. For all the Prime Minister's and the Attorney-General's talk about freedom—and they are clutching onto motherhood statements—they have very little faith in the Australian people and even less regard for the intellectual freedom of the electorate.

The government's other early distinction is its exercise of astounding vindictiveness against those it perceives to be enemies, threats or outside of its old school tie network. Only days after the election the coalition announced that it would, for no reason other than spite, rescind the worthy appointment of former Victorian Premier Steve Bracks as consul-general in New York. Shortly after, the Attorney-General made a point of requiring Barrie Cassidy, the respected ABC journalist and stalwart of the press gallery, to step down from the volunteer position of chair of the Old Parliament House Advisory Council despite his manifest qualifications to continue in that position. The heads of departments who had, according to the tinted perceptions of the coalition, been altogether too compliant in executing their duty to the government of the day under Labor were also rolled.

Such vindictiveness goes more to personal prejudice and private vendetta than to any sort of public interest. The public interest is and always has been best served by having the brightest and the best around the table. It should be said that the brightest and the best tend to also be a diverse group of people. It is not served by lining up yes-men to close ranks around unprepared and incapable ministers or by executing the enemies of the club. The victims of the coalition's vindictiveness of which I have spoken are eminent and capable people. Although the country will be poorer without their service, I hope they will be able to forge ahead and contribute in other ways to Australian society.

There are many more victims of the coalition's petty spite who will suffer more lasting damage from the government's actions. These are the families who will no longer receive the schoolkids bonus and the low-income earners who will have less super on which to retire. The coalition has demonstrated a willingness to risk community safety and sacrifice the lives of young Australians in their quest to send a political message and a threat. I am talking, of course, about the government's decision to review funding for successful applicants under the National Crime Prevention Fund. The National Crime Prevention Fund is a $40 million component of the Australian government's package of measures to address gang violence and street crime in our community. The NCPF is designed to support those who address the cause of street crime, particularly the cause of street crime amongst young Australians. Diversionary activities, particularly training and employment opportunities, are known not only to reduce the risk of crime in communities but also to give young people the tools to build more meaningful, law-abiding lives. It is there to ensure that our young people stay out of the criminal justice system. Those programs support crime prevention for young people.

The NCPF is funded through the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, under which proceeds of crime that break foreign or state laws can be confiscated and redirected to good use in preventing crime. That is, money from criminals goes into crime prevention—fairly simple. Applications for this year's program closed in May. In August this year, after an anxious wait, organisations across the country were informed of their success by the then Minister for Justice. The names of some of the successful organisations will be familiar to all senators; they include Father Chris Riley's Youth Off the Streets charity and programs run by the Police Citizens Youth Clubs. Some successful applicants were local government organisations doing local crime prevention work but others were small organisations doing important grassroots work. The funding delivered under the NCPF would either sustain these organisations or allow them to expand into areas where they would be able to make a very substantial contribution and a difference to the lives of young people at risk of coming into contact with the justice system. They were going to really make a difference to those young people's lives, to ensure that they live a life free of crime—exactly what the National Crime Prevention Fund is designed to achieve.

One such important program in my home state of Tasmania is run by an organisation called Training Opportunities and Options for Learning—TOOL—which applied to run a program called the Youth Employment Challenge to connect disadvantaged young people to after-school work, employment and traineeships. It is difficult to imagine anybody opposing such a worthwhile program which has such a groundswell of community support and such potential to encourage young people to invest in their own wellbeing and behaviour and to live their lives free of crime. This particular program cost $190,000 to run and it certainly saves the government and the community a lot of money in the long term. That is perhaps why this program has bipartisan support in Tasmania. Both the Tasmanian Liberals and the state government support this program, and it has also received great acclaim throughout the community. Therefore, it is difficult to understand why, in mid-October—more than two months following notification to TOOL that they had been successful in receiving funding from the National Crime Prevention Fund—the Attorney-General's Department got back in touch with TOOL, as it did with many successful recipients under this grants program, to tell them to stop what they were doing because the new government was reviewing that very program in light of its election commitments. Here was a very worthwhile program, in fact there were eight similar programs in Tasmania, and many more across the country, who had been notified that they were successful—only to find out after a change of government that that notification was not worth the paper it was printed on, because this new government had basically torn it up.

TOOL have sensibly gone about retaining staff, ready to commence their project, and now, in the face of this government decision, they must consider retrenching people. Other organisations are at risk of closing down, given that they have incurred expenses to prepare for various initiatives that they were told they would receive funding for. Why? Because the new government have decided that they are reviewing the program in light of their election commitments. Let us remember: they are reviewing a program that comes from the National Crime Prevention Fund. The National Crime Prevention Fund has nothing to do with consolidated revenue. As I outlined earlier, this is proceeds of crime funding. This is funding from criminals that is going into crime prevention. Why on earth would any government want to take money away, put a halt on such a program, when these organisations are doing such an effective job in the community to ensure that our young people live a life free of crime? These organisations have been stonewalled by this government and, I understand, have been reminded by my Tasmanian colleague, Senator Eric Abetz, that the process of review 'may take some time.' These organisations do not have time. Organisations like the PCYC are, every day, ensuring that our young people get the best opportunity to live a life free of crime. They need this funding to ensure that our jails, our criminal justice system, do not end up with these young people in there through the support of such organisations. (Time expired)