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Tuesday, 9 December 1986
Page: 3626


Senator BUTTON (Leader of the Government in the Senate)(8.22) —I have heard all the arguments which have been put and I regret that, although I am normally persuaded by some of these matters, I was not tonight. Senator Chaney adopted a high profile in all of this, saying that we, as a government, had followed an unusual course, had denied the Opposition traditional rights, that this was disturbing, that this was a denial of the protection of the rights of the public, that it took away the Opposition's capacity to serve the public interest and, finally, that this was a government without honour. That is an interesting set of adjectives, but I would like to come back to that.

We had a discussion about this last week. The business of this House would never operate if it was not done on the basis of understandings and agreements. Let me be frank about it: We put to the Opposition last week that we would agree to an early vote on the Australia Card legislation. We asked: `Would you like to nominate a fixed number of speakers?'. We suggested that we might sit on Friday night and again on Saturday night to finish the business. None of these things were agreeable to the Opposition, and that is all right. It is only for that reason that the Government agreed to come back this week.

Opposition senators interjecting-


Senator BUTTON —They can all laugh. Senator Chaney cannot. He knows that what I have just said is true.


Senator Chaney —That's right. We should not sit on Saturday night, or Friday night.


Senator BUTTON —It is a legitimate position that we should not sit on Friday night. I am saying that we put these things to Senator Chaney; we put a number of things to him. We then put to him that if we came back this week, we wanted to deal with the Australia Card legislation and nothing else. Senator Chaney said: `Well, we ought to have Question Time', and we agreed to that. There were a number of other things said. Certainly everybody who left that meeting, except Senator Chaney, understood that we would have Question Time, the Australia Card legislation and nothing else. I am not putting it any higher than a misunderstanding. I am not accusing Senator Chaney of any bad faith in that matter. But that was the understanding we had. That is why this motion has been moved.

The logical extension of Senator Chaney's position that the Opposition is the protector of the public interest is that we should sit here every day, including Christmas Day. That is the logical extension of that argument. It would be a very cogent argument indeed if the things which Senator Chaney says are so important to this country-the situation of primary producers, the prevention of investment in this country, wages policy, fiscal policy and inflation rates as compared with our trading partners-had been the subject of any debate initiated by the Opposition in the Senate in the last fortnight. But the Opposition, in the last fortnight, was not interested in these very important things, which suddenly become very important, and they were not initiated by it because it is not concerned about them except when it happens to be a question of whether it might have a matter of public importance on a particular day-then those things suddenly become important.


Senator Archer —It doesn't do you justice to carry on like a raw prawn.


Senator BUTTON —If people just listen they will be able to decide whether I am doing justice or not. Let us look at some of the facts. The Senate might want to address the question of the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) playing blackjack or other important issues and the Opposition has Question Time to do that. We have agreed to Question Time and those issues can be addressed then.


Senator Boswell —But you never answer the questions.


Senator BUTTON —That is a different complaint. The important thing from Senator Boswell's point of view is surely to have his question asked because however silly the question might be, he can then go back to Queensland and say that he did not get an answer. That is about the highest aspiration which a politician like the honourable senator can have-to be able to go back and say that he asked this question that really rocked them and that he did not get an answer. Let us not go overboard about this question of protecting the public rights because if that were so, as I said, the logical extension of that is that we sit forever.

We are sitting here today, tomorrow and probably the next day, days on which the Opposition has 23 speakers on one Bill, and the Opposition has the facilities of Question Time available to it. Tonight we are arguing the question as to whether it should have a right on this particular Wednesday-I do not know whether it is Good Wednesday or Ash Wednesday-to move a matter of public importance of a character which it has not seen fit to move when the Parliament has been sitting in normal session.


Senator Vanstone —That is your assessment, no one else's.


Senator BUTTON —No, it is a matter of fact. The Opposition has to order its own priorities and it will do that. I really cannot see that in the circumstances the Government can be persuaded by the Opposition amendment, which is really rather pointless at this stage of the sitting.

Question put:

That the words proposed to be added (Senator Chaney's amendment) be added.