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Thursday, 24 March 1994
Page: 2147

Senator HILL (Leader of the Opposition) (10.12 a.m.) —The opposition is dissatisfied with the explanation that has been given by the Manager of Government Business in the Senate (Senator Faulkner). It demonstrates the continuing incompetence of the government in the management of its program. This year's Senate sittings were broken into three sittings so that bills could be carried over to a subsequent sitting if they could not be dealt with within the sitting in which they were put down for debate. There is only a short break until the Senate resumes at the beginning of May. If there is legislation that is not completed today there is no reason why it cannot be completed then.

  That is the background to this. What we find now, however, contrary to all the assertions that the government made just a month or so ago when it brought in this new timetable, with its friends the Australian Democrats and the Greens, is that—for the second time this week—it wants to breach the time structure that it had imposed upon the Senate. It wants to do that with no good explanation at all, because the minister has not sought to explain, firstly, why these bills must be carried today or, secondly, why they could not have been done last week when the government chose other priorities beyond that of the legislative program.

Senator Ferguson —Senators' interests are pretty important!

Senator HILL —Last week, as Senator Ferguson said, the government's priority was a code on senators' conduct that the government has played around with for over 10 years. However, last week, all of a sudden—again because of a deal it had done with the Australian Democrats—it became critical and had priority ahead of all government legislation. Today, of course, what is critical is the government legislation and the Senate has to come back and sit late tonight to achieve that. A month ago we were told that that was unwise because it is unhealthy. There was concern for the health, not only of senators—probably not so important—but of staff and officials around this place. There was also concern about the cost of sitting late at night. All sorts of sensible reasons were argued as to why there should be an 8.00 p.m. cut off for the Senate—and now we have, twice in one week, the government coming in and saying, `We are not going to apply our own rules; we are going to apply new conditions'.

  Really all this does is demonstrate continuing incompetence in the management of the government's program. We do not know what is going to happen at 10.30, if this is carried. The minister was not even prepared to give an unqualified assurance that the Senate is not sitting tomorrow, so everyone is now confused over the program. There are meetings; committees are scheduled to meet. The minister basically said, `I'll give you an assurance provided you pass all my legislation within the 10.30 time frame'—

Senator Faulkner —That is not what I said at all.

Senator HILL —Senator Faulkner can explain it again because it is not clear to us on this side of the chamber. What he was not prepared to do was to give an unqualified assurance that the Senate would not be sitting tomorrow. The other uncertainty we have is the retirement of Senator Richardson, who apparently wants to make some statement after question time. He will not have the gall—will he?—to do it in the form of a ministerial statement, so those opposite will be seeking leave for him to make an explanation; and all his friends, like Senator Faulkner on the Left, will want to get up and say what a wonderful contribution he has made to Australian life and to the nation, how he effectively used environmental grants to help win one election and sports rorts to win another.

Senator Faulkner —You are not attacking me on the Left again, are you? Don't tell my preselectors.

Senator HILL —The Left are not doing too well at the moment. I saw their mission heading into Mr Keating's office late last night—and they were very glum, I can tell you. I read this morning that they have missed out yet again. Apparently Senator Faulkner gets the gold and goes into Cabinet, but the boys and girls a bit further down the line are suffering again. You too, Madam Deputy President, are well qualified for higher office, but not under Mr Keating's regime. That is really an aside.

  What I am concerned about, however, is that we do not know what time the government is planning for a debate on Senator Richardson this afternoon. If that is again going to take priority this afternoon over legislation, is the government expecting the Senate to sit late tonight to facilitate its valedictories? Valedictories ought to be on the adjournment. Senator Faulkner might think that should be so as well, but what Senator Faulkner is unable to do at this stage is tell us that government time is not going to be taken up this afternoon with some business concerning Senator Richardson. Again, we do not know what is going to happen later today.

  In all those circumstances, as I said, we find the matter totally unsatisfactory. Cooperation we are always prepared to give in sensible management of the program, and we would do that again today. But that goodwill, I regret to say, is not reciprocated, if the government is unable to tell us its plans in regard to the Richardson debate this afternoon, or give us an unqualified assurance that the Senate will not be sitting tomorrow.