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Tuesday, 29 November 2005
Page: 125

Senator STEPHENS (10:53 PM) —It has been a long day. As the days go by, I am becoming more ashamed of this government and my colleagues across the chamber who clamber to defend the raft of legislation that is being rammed through the parliament at the moment. It is very hard to respect a government that is intent upon changing the social and economic situation of Australian families, all in the name of reform, by shredding the rights and protections of working and living standards.

I can only promise Australian families that when Labor wins government this legislation will be confined to the realms of history—confined to a dark period that will one day serve as a valuable lesson about what can happen when an extreme ideology is let off the leash and allowed to savage the rights of Australian workers. It will also serve as a powerful reminder of the strength of collective action. It will be a reminder of a time when the workers of Australia united to reject this legislation and oust the Howard government that forced it upon them—to reject this government’s attempt to cut salaries, cut conditions, cut entitlements, cut minimum standards and cut the independent umpire, the Industrial Relations Commission, from the Australian workplace.

I am not an industrial lawyer and I am not a former trade union official, so tonight in my contribution to the debate I would like to focus my remarks on the limited scrutiny that the government has allowed this legislation, as evidenced by the quality of the majority report that was tabled yesterday. It is a sham, a whitewash and an absolute disgrace.

The inquiry into the provisions of the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 has continued the Howard government’s escalating trend of cutting and savaging the scrutineering role of the Senate as a house of legislative review. It is a trend that started on 1 July this year and a trend that shows no sign of slowing. In fact, it took just 10 weeks after taking control of the Senate for the government to decimate decades of Senate practice and procedures. In those first 10 weeks, the government committed 10 horrid abuses of Senate scrutiny in an attempt to turn the Senate into a rubber stamp for its extreme policies. Labor has been highlighting these abuses as they have occurred, and now there is a national awareness of the extent to which this government has reneged on the Prime Minister’s commitment to the Australian electorate that he would respect his Senate majority.

Let me remind you of the farce that was the one-day Telstra sale inquiry. Honourable senators will remember this inquiry—yet, considering its duration, I would forgive them if they do not. This lightning-flash inquiry that had at its core the sale of $30 billion of taxpayer assets had just one day to receive and read submissions, hold public hearings, summarise evidence, decide on recommendations and write the report. And let us not forget this ‘limited overs’ version of a committee inquiry prevented submitters from addressing the issue of privatisation and gave them just 24 hours in which to write their submissions.

This inquiry was unprecedented. It dropped the bar for post-July Senate inquiries so low and so fast that now an inquiry of the same time frame would be maintaining the status quo and an inquiry of two days length would be a 100 per cent improvement. What a spin to put on that. So now are we supposed to consider that a one-week inquiry is a seven-fold improvement? Well, no matter the spin one puts on post-July inquiries, they no longer reflect the legislative scrutiny of those held before the Howard government took control of this place.

Let us look at the time frame around the legislation that we are debating at the moment. The terms of reference were drafted and submissions were called for before the legislation was even seen, meaning that submitters had to respond to hints, public comments and the government’s propaganda campaign. The public had only one week to send in their submissions after the bill was introduced into the House. Public hearings were held one week after the close of submissions, meaning the committee hardly had any time to adequately consider the submissions. And, during the inquiry, opposition senators were given one hour to question officers from the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations about the bill. How generous of them! How generous for an inquiry into one of the most complex and reforming bills ever introduced into the parliament—a bill that proposes the most profound changes to workplace relations in over a century.

Of course, we know why this inquiry was such a farce. We know, in fact, because in an article in the Age newspaper on 17 August this year Senator Brandis was reported telling coalition MPs that the strategy of the inquiry was ‘stupid’. The article read:

... Senator Brandis yesterday told a private meeting of Coalition MPs that he could not believe what he had heard, branding the strategy “stupid”.

“There’s nothing in this for us,” he said. “Senate inquiries are a free kick for the Labor Party, the media never run anything except things that are embarrassing for the Government and it won’t have any public purpose because the detail will be in the legislation for all to see anyway.”

There it is. That is why, no matter how controversial or complex the legislation, this government insisted on having a farcical inquiry, because it serves no purpose for this government. They are an encumbrance upon the government’s implementation of its extreme ideological agenda. From the thousands of emails, phone calls and letters we are receiving and the numbers of people attending meetings and rallies around Australia, we know that Australians are worried. This inquiry was important. It served an important public purpose and it revealed what a poorly cobbled together piece of legislation the Work Choices legislation really is.