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Wednesday, 4 December 2002
Page: 7099

Senator LUDWIG (9:50 AM) —I move:

Omit the following bills:

Family and Community Services Legislation Amendment (Special Benefit Activity Test) Bill 2002

National Health Amendment (Pharmaceutical Benefits—Budget Measures) Bill 2002 [No. 2]

Trade Practices Amendment (Small Business Protection) Bill 2002 [No. 2].

In speaking to the motion I will not take up a significant amount of the Senate's time—we have legislation before us at the committee stage—but it is at least necessary to set out the opposition's position. We will not be supporting the motion. We are in the penultimate sitting week of the Senate for this year. At this very late stage of the sitting, with the legislative program in front of us, we need to look at the program critically and make an assessment of and a decision on the priorities that need to be dealt with.

We have only six days remaining, including today, and numerous bills still to consider. Much of this legislation is, according to the government, urgent. The ASIO bill, for example, is one of the most significant pieces of legislation that we will consider in this sitting, in my view. We anticipate a lengthy and complex debate in respect of that stage, and we have not started it as yet. The committee report was handed down only last night at 11.19 p.m., and as yet the chair of the committee has not spoken about the report. I am sure most members will not even have an opportunity to read the committee report before we end up debating it. We note that the Trade Practices Amendment (Small Business Protection) Bill 2002 [No. 2] has already been considered by the Senate. In these circumstances, we do not regard it a priority that it be considered. When you look at the substance of that particular bill, the reason it is being proposed as urgent is:

The Government has on several occasions sought the introduction of protections for business, and particularly small businesses, against secondary boycott actions.

There is no claim for urgency within the text of the statement by the government to support the passage of the bill. If you look at the history of that particular piece of legislation, the exemption from the cut-off was—to say it again—firstly, to avoid the great haste with which this government might want to drive through legislation and, secondly, to enable the Senate to have more control when determining which matters are urgent or important and which matters can be dealt with later. The opposition, in relation to the Trade Practices Amendment (Small Business Protection) Bill 2002 [No. 2], have to then examine each bill upon its own merits. The opposition have been extremely generous to date in terms of our position to the exemption of bills from the cut-off date. In this sitting year alone we have agreed to something in the order of 34 bills for exemption from the cut-off.

Each bill, as I have said, should stand on its own merits. It should be highlighted that this government has failed to convince us that the Trade Practices Amendment (Small Business Protection) Bill 2002 [No. 2] is urgent. The opposition have already made their position on this particular bill quite clear. That position remains unchanged since the bill was first introduced. The government has had the debate on that bill a number of times before. It knows our position and it knows what our position will be. It is clearly no surprise to the government. The bill does not meet the priority test when applied. Already, as I have said, there is a significant legislative program to be dealt with. There is no practical reason for dealing with this legislation in an urgent way. Similarly, in relation to the National Health Amendment (Pharmaceutical Benefits—Budget Measures) Bill 2002 [No. 2], the government states in one sentence the reason for urgency:

If the Bill is not introduced and passed in the 2002 Spring sittings, projected savings to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme will not be achieved.

That may be a fact, but it is certainly not a reason for urgency for the bill. The bill does not contain urgent measures. There is no adverse effect on Australians if the bill is not considered. There is a program of essentially urgent bills that the government requires to be dealt with in this sitting period. This bill does not fall within that group. Similarly, the reason put forward by the government for the urgency of the Family and Community Services Legislation Amendment (Special Benefit Activity Test) Bill 2002 is hollow. The initiative contained in this bill is to commence on 1 January 2003. This is a fact—one put forward by the government. It then claims that it is critical that the bill be passed in the 2002 spring sittings ahead of the commencement date so as to have sufficient time to finalise supportive administration. But this bill had only just been reported on in the Senate, with the majority and minority reports only tabled earlier this week. There were over 50 submissions received in relation to that particular bill. The important issue to recall is that there is no stated urgency in the grounds to support the particular bill. The date is the only reason this government has been able to suggest that the bill is urgent, but the date in itself is not a claim for urgency. Therefore there is no merit in considering this bill ahead of other essential bills that we need to deal with, given the small time that we have available to deal with the legislative program in a way that ensures proper debate.

If the government were serious about the program and about having sufficient time to debate the legislation in the program this year, then it would have considered not setting aside some 10 or 11 days fewer than the number set aside in what might be considered more usual sitting periods. In 2000 there were 71 days set aside. In 2001—an election year, which was terminated from 27 September—there were 52 days. This year, to date, there have been 53 days. In relation to hours, 449.42 hours were set aside this year. Last year there were 442. When you look at the figures for the pattern of sitting, the opposition has met the requirements to expand the program to deal with the hours. We have, to date, provided an additional 55 hours and 24 minutes to meet the government's legislative program—in other words, to allow the government time to deal with the legislation. That is notwithstanding the fact that the government lost something in the order of 22 hours and 58 minutes out of the program due to early adjournment.

When you then examine the fact that there have been five occasions when the opposition has allowed government business to be dealt with during general business on Thursday, you will see that the opposition has ensured that the legislative program, notwithstanding the tight sitting days that were scheduled, has allowed the government to have sufficient time to deal with the program to date. In total, there have been 231 hours and 32 minutes spent on government business this year compared to 223 hours and 11 minutes spent on government business last year. The percentage of time this chamber has spent dealing with government business has remained in the order of 55 per cent to date, but in the last sitting period it was 68 per cent. The figure of 55 per cent is consistent and not out of kilter with earlier years but, if you look at the last session in this period, the opposition has ensured that there have been sufficient hours to deal with the program, which has been put forward to allow those bills to be debated properly and appropriately and considered sensibly.

The position we have now is that the government wants to treat the exemption from the cut-off in a manner that does not allow appropriate bills to be considered in the last few days—six in all—that we have, including today. Therefore, it is our position that we do not support the exemption for those bills.