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Thursday, 14 November 2002
Page: 6454


Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (7:53 PM) —Senator Buckland's speech is in many ways fairly convenient for what I am about to speak on: the importance of having a strong upper house in our parliamentary system. Senator Buckland referred to issues relating to Telstra, some of them reflecting on the vote of the Senate yesterday when the Senate quite wisely voted against Labor's disallowance motion, which attempted to prevent consumers from getting cheaper phone bills.

Yesterday we had people like Senator Conroy, Senator Mackay and Senator Lundy pouring out all this nonsense about some absurd costings and basically giving a kick in the eye and a complete insult to the community sector in the process. Obviously, the same person has written Senator Buckland's speech and he is obliged to read it out and repeat the same flaws, mistakes and misrepresentations as yesterday.

That is why you need a strong upper house. Bad policy, such as privatising Telstra, is prevented only because we have a strong Senate. The majority of Australians want Telstra to remain publicly owned, and there are strong public policy reasons for Telstra remaining publicly owned. The Senate is the only thing that stands between John Howard and the privatisation of Telstra; the Senate is also the only thing that stands in the way of Mr Howard doing whatever else he wants to do. I accept that Mr Howard won the election—


Senator Ian Macdonald —What about the Commonwealth Bank and Qantas? I think you voted with Labor on those matters.


Senator BARTLETT —No, I think it was actually you people who voted with Labor on privatising Qantas. The Democrats have consistently opposed all privatisation, and that is why I repeatedly say that we are only sure during this parliament that Telstra will not be privatised. Clearly, the Senate will not do that; the Democrats will continue to oppose the privatisation of Telstra, despite Labor's scandalous and scurrilous misrepresentations yesterday. But we do not know about the next parliament, not because the Democrats' position might change but because the Labor Party might get into government. As we all know, they promise not to privatise when they are in opposition and then, if they get in, they privatise the lot. Of course, the coalition would support them and they would be reasonable to do so; at least their position is consistent in this regard.

So the Senate is crucial in the sense of having a strong upper house to stop bad public policy. But it is also crucial that the Senate not be controlled by an opposition party; otherwise, poor public policy decisions based simply on cheap, short-term oppositional politics would have ensured the success of yesterday's disallowance motion. It was a particularly bad idea that would have meant that cheaper phone bills for consumers would be thrown out the window, the low-income assistance package would be put in jeopardy, the extra $10 million that the Democrats were able to get for the working poor would be lost and 18 months of work by the community sector would be wasted.

I find it amazing that a pocket calculator and one misreading of one leaked, incomplete document led Labor to devise some astonishing costings that misread the situation by about a quarter of a billion dollars, yet the expertise of people who have been working in the community and directly with Telstra for 18 months on economic modelling to ensure that low-income people are better off is basically ignored and insulted. Labor's position on the Telstra regulations and call charges has basically sent a massive insult to those groups in the community who have worked over many months with Telstra, with the interests of low-income earners as their sole intention.

Labor are quite willing to give the boot to groups like the Smith Family, Anglicare, Jobs Australia and the Federation of Homeless Organisations and to put all that at risk simply for political reasons, relying on some extraordinarily dodgy costings—that is all they had for a fig leaf. That is why you need a workable upper house: so that, when things are being done purely for political point-scoring reasons, you have sufficient diversity to increase the chances of good public policy outcomes.

This is particularly relevant because at the moment, as we all know, there is an election campaign happening in Victoria. The upper house is the focus of the Democrats' message there, because what Victoria suffers from— apart from having Senator Conroy as a representative, perhaps—is that it has a dysfunctional upper house. It has an upper house which it suffers from because it has been controlled by the conservatives for 125 years; it is no wonder that it is dysfunctional. Unfortunately, Victorians will only be able to do half the job when they elect a government in the next few weeks, because they will not be able to elect an upper house that will do its job—as the Senate does its job—of standing between absolute power and the premier of the day, yet not becoming completely obstructionist.

If we look at the situation in Victoria, we see an upper house that has been controlled by the conservatives for over 100 years. We had the same situation in Western Australia until recently. The conservatives had controlled that upper house for 100 years and the Democrats finally broke that stranglehold and enabled the establishment of an upper house that was diverse and had no one single party controlling it. That situation has continued to exist ever since. If you look at the difference since then, whether partly under a Labor government or partly under a Liberal government, the key thing has been that the upper house has been able to operate as an independent house of parliament, properly scrutinising the actions of the government of the day, preventing bad policy decisions, supporting good ones and improving, amending, overseeing and scrutinising the financial and other activities of the government. So we have now seen in Western Australia significant improvements—leading edge improvements for all of the country—in law reform for gays and lesbians, which would not have been able to occur before under the old regime controlled by the conservatives. We will see the removal of malapportionment and gerrymanders in Western Australia. That will only occur because the upper house has changed. Proper democracy in Western Australia, which has nearly been delivered, will only be delivered because that upper house control has moved out of the hands of just one party. So in a sense it is completely accurate to say that having a strong and workable upper house is an integral part of the functioning of our democracy. Indeed, only that has delivered proper democracy in Western Australia. Surely Victorians have the same rights, as my colleague Senator Allison would undoubtedly agree—she having had to live through the horrors of the Kennett government.


Senator Allison —And been a victim of it.


Senator BARTLETT —So you are a victim of the horrors of the Kennett government. So it is Jeff Kennett's fault that you are here; you would be in a different job to this if it were not for him.


Senator Allison —Exactly.


Senator BARTLETT —There you go: we have something to thank Jeff Kennett for. What we have seen since under the Bracks government is a continuation of a lot of that secrecy, a lot of that restriction of FOI. The concerns that were raised by the Auditor-General so famously under the Kennett government have in many cases still not been addressed under the Bracks government because, in part, they do not have an upper house that is functional. Either it has been completely obstructive, controlled by a Liberal majority, or else, as in Mr Kennett's day, it has been a rubber stamp. We had the disgrace of things like Albert Park. We still have the disgrace of things like Albert Park under Mr Bracks, with the continuing takeover of public parkland and the continual lack of access of the parliament to figures on what the actual cost to the taxpayer is.

We still have a reduction in people's rights and a further centralisation of the power of the executive through the ability to change the constitution. A change to the constitution in Victoria can be done just through an act of parliament. With an upper house not acting in its proper role of scrutiny, the government of the day can simply change the constitution on a whim—so much for the rights of the electorate and so much for democracy. That is why upper house reform is crucial. To the credit of the Bracks government, they did actually put upper house reform on the agenda; they did actually introduce legislation to try to implement improvements in the upper house. The Democrats supported them in that endeavour. I am sure Senator Conroy, if he still has influence—I think he used to have lots of influence—will use it in this regard. He is shaking his head; now he is nodding his head. He does not support upper house reform!


Senator Conroy —I'm shaking my head as I've got no influence.


Senator BARTLETT —I am sure he will support upper house reform and will use his influence—which will no doubt return one day—to pressure the Bracks government to continue down that path, because it is in the interests of all Victorians to have an upper house that works. They should be supporting parties that will commit to a program of maintaining the push for upper house reform. Democracy deserves it, the parliament deserves it and the people of Victoria deserve it.