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Thursday, 17 June 2010
Page: 3681

Senator PRATT (4:13 PM) —The motion before us this afternoon implies, quite ridiculously, that the Prime Minister is not even entitled to have a view about the Senate’s approach to government legislation. This is an entirely unreasonable proposition. As we are all very much aware, this government, unlike its immediate predecessor, does not have a majority in this chamber. As such, the Senate clearly has the capacity to impact on the government’s ability to implement its legislative program. As a consequence, what takes place in this chamber has a direct influence on the government’s ability to action policies in the national interest and to fulfil its promises to the Australian people.

If a party in government has made a promise to the Australian people, whether during an election or in any other context, and delivering on that promise proves difficult or impossible the Australian people are entitled to know why. Is it because circumstances have changed? Is it because new information has come to light that makes the proposal less compelling than it once appeared? Or is it because, despite the government’s best efforts, this chamber has either rejected the proposition, refused to consider it, delayed it, obstructed it or amended it beyond recognition? Does the government believe that the proposal is still good policy, still in the national interest, or does it not? Is it abandoning or delaying the proposal for some reason to do with the merits of the proposal itself or is it doing so because the chances of the proposal passing this chamber in a recognisable form appear remote? These are all legitimate questions.

Equally, if the government fails to deliver on a proposal within a given time frame, the public is entitled to know why. Is it because of unforeseen developments outside this place or is it because this chamber in its wisdom has gone out of its way to delay the implementation of a measure? These are matters of great public interest, matters where the public has a right to know. In fact, there are a number of very significant issues that I have been lobbied on where people have asked why the government has not done this or that or not done more. I have had to tell them it was not the government; it was the Senate. People have asked me why this nation has not taken action on climate change, why the government’s mandate from the last election has not been acted on. The government took action, but the Senate blocked this action.

Senator Brandis —Can you explain why you won’t have a double dissolution?

Senator Bernardi —Kevin won’t allow them to.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Ludlam)—Order! Can we have less yelling—thank you.

Senator PRATT —The Senate chose to leave this country without the laws that would have provided a framework for reducing emissions. I have to say that personally I am constantly surprised by the number of people—even people who are active in the broader environmental movement and who supported the scheme—who believe that if the Greens had voted in support of the CPRS it still would not have got up.

Senator Brandis —Mr Acting President, I direct your attention to the standing order which prohibits a senator from reflecting upon a vote of this chamber, which is what Senator Pratt has just done. When she resumes her address, might she also care to explain to the Australian people why the government will not call a double dissolution election?

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Senator Brandis, I do not believe there is a valid point of order.

Senator PRATT —People were horrified to learn that because of the honourable actions of two senators opposite the CPRS would have got up were it not for the decision of the Greens to put their ideological position before reform on carbon pollution. It is important to recognise that the Greens did choose to block the Carbon Pollution—

Senator Bernardi —Why don’t you have a double dissolution?

Senator Sherry —Why don’t you shut up and let her speak?

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! We need to hear Senator Pratt over the interjections from both sides, please.

Senator PRATT —It is important and pertinent to this debate to recognise that this chamber blocked the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. The Rudd Labor government has had to cop this chamber’s decision at the expense of the environment and at the expense of getting our economy on the right footing for a carbon constrained future, and the public are entitled to know how this came about. They are entitled to know just who was responsible for this lost opportunity and who was not. It is legitimate to express our frustration and anger at this decision and others taken by this chamber. It is legitimate to remind the Australian people why it is that we are without the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, a scheme that after the last election Australian people believed and had a right to expect would be implemented.

I have also been asked by students who were expecting access to much-needed student income support why it languished in this place for so long. I have had to explain to them that the Senate left them in limbo over the summer period and, alarmingly, right into the first semester of this year. So it is stating the obvious that the Prime Minister’s view on these questions may not always accord with those opposite. It is surely no surprise to any of us.

Opposition senators interjecting—

Senator Sherry —On a point of order, Mr Acting Deputy President, the level of interjection and noise coming from those opposite has gone well beyond what is reasonable and tolerated in this chamber. Senator Abetz was listened to in almost total silence, but Senator Brandis and others are continuing a barrage of interjections. Not only is it unparliamentary and rude, it is also against the standing orders, and I would ask you to bring the chamber to some level of order.

Senator Brandis —On the point of order, Mr Acting Deputy President, the interjections have been coming from the government as well as from the opposition. You and I both heard Senator Sherry, as duty minister in the chamber, a few moments ago repeatedly yelling at Senator Bernardi, ‘Shut up’. I do not think that that phrase is parliamentary. It is not something that Senator Sherry was pulled up on—he should have been. If you are to make a ruling on interjections, might I invite you to ask Senator Sherry to withdraw his unparliamentary language?

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Thank you. I do not believe there is a point of order, but I remind both sides that all interjections are disorderly, particularly if we cannot hear the senator who has the call.

Senator PRATT —The public has a right to know, to hear both sides of the story and to judge for itself the merits of the case. To argue otherwise is to set this chamber up as some kind of judge, jury and executioner combined in the court of public opinion. It is one thing for this chamber to say that it does not agree with the Prime Minister’s view of its actions. It is quite another to say that his expression of those views is an unprincipled thing to do. The public is more than capable of deciding for itself which view of reality to accept: the Prime Minister’s or that of senators opposite.

I very much doubt that the public wants the Senate to take on the role of censoring the Prime Minister for expressing an opinion on this or any other matter. Are those opposite really suggesting that the Prime Minister, if he believes that this chamber is thwarting, undermining, obstructing or delaying the policy intentions of this government, should not be allowed to say so—that he has no right to express his views? It is an absurd proposition. What do those opposite suggest the Prime Minister do in such a situation? Do they want him to lie and concoct a reason other than the real one, or do they want the prime minister to say, ‘I’m sorry; I can’t tell you why this measure has been delayed, deferred or defeated, because if I did the Senate might be offended?’ It is patently ridiculous.

We hear a lot in this chamber about the need for our own standing orders to be interpreted with sufficient latitude so as to allow robust debate. All kinds of liberties are taken in this chamber and in the other place on this basis, and I for one am quite glad of it, because the last thing we want to be part of is quashing the very to-and-fro of ideas and arguments that allow the public to hear all sides and make up their own minds about issues of importance. Whether or not the Senate is thwarting the government’s legislative program or budget, either in whole or in part, is surely a matter of public importance. It is surely within our fine traditions of robust debate, both within the parliament and within the media, for the Prime Minister to express his views forcefully, whether in the other place, to the public directly or to the media. To describe such an action as an unprincipled attack on the chamber is simply ridiculous.

I will give those opposite the benefit of the doubt. I will assume that what they actually meant to say was something like: ‘The Senate believes that the Prime Minister’s description of its actions in relation to the government’s legislative program is inaccurate.’ Let us say that is the proposition. That might be a legitimate matter for debate. It is a debate that I am more than happy to have, a debate I will address today, for I am very much convinced that the Prime Minister’s description of this chamber’s attitude and actions is in fact all too accurate. That is not to say that I do not take the role of this place very seriously. I do. I take very seriously the role of this place in reviewing and amending legislation, as does the government, but I also share the government’s frustration. Too often the delays and knock-backs have not been about expressing legitimate views of senators but of political posturing. This has been, I believe, at the nation’s expense.

We came to government with a big agenda, after 12 years of coalition neglect, and it is right that we are keen to prosecute this agenda. But it is a plain fact that the numbers in this place have made that a hard job to do. Opposition senators have crossed the floor to vote with the government and yet the legislation concerned has still been defeated. The government does not have this luxury. A single government senator crossing the floor would guarantee the defeat of any government bill. The fact is that this chamber has a small number of senators with a narrow support base that holds the balance of power. Furthermore, while the opposition requires the support of just one of those senators to frustrate the government’s program, the government requires the support of all seven crossbench senators, a group that is comprised of individuals with very divergent views on many critical issues confronting this country. The opposition, on the other hand, picks and choose its supporters on the crossbench, depending on the issue—and it is not a luxury that the government has. The Liberal opposition have exploited this for all it has been worth. It might have been in their political interest to do that, but I do not think it has been in the national interest—and we are entitled to say so.

The Prime Minister is quite justified in drawing the nation’s attention to this and in expressing his frustration. There are no fewer than 37 bills that this place has either rejected or passed with amendments unacceptable to the House. These bills include the Australian Business Investment Partnership Bill and associated bill; the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme Bill; the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme Bill (No. 2); the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill; the Fairer Private Health Insurance Incentives Bill and associated bills; the Fairer Private Health Insurance Incentives Bill (No. 2); the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill; the Horse Diseases Response Levy Bill 2008; the National Fuelwatch (Empowering Consumers) Bill—and I could go on.

None of these measures were purely trivial or technical. These measures concerned issues that were of great concern to the general public or of particular concern to specific communities and specific issues. There were important issues like the effectiveness of this nation’s response to climate change, the need to ensure a sustainable health and aged care system in the face of an ageing population, the viability of student services and representative organisations on our student campuses, and the ongoing struggle to ensure that political donations enhance the dynamism of our political culture without undermining its integrity. None of these issues are trivial—far from it. They are all important issues—issues that impact on our democratic traditions and our ability to confront issues in the national interest. Many of the measures frustrated by the opposition sought to deliver on Labor’s election commitments. And at least one measure, the CPRS, which was defeated not once but twice, sought to deliver on a promise that was also supported in principle by both the Greens and the coalition—namely, swift action to put a price on carbon emissions

Other measures which were frustrated by the opposition sought to address critical issues, because changing circumstances or review and public consultation had established a strong case for action and yet you did not act. These included measures to make private health insurance fairer and more sustainable for the future, to allow for more dental services to be delivered to hundreds of thousands of needy Australians, and to establish Australia’s first ever preventative health agency.

On top of all of this, the opposition has also delayed government legislation for measures to make the Medicare levy surcharge fairer on middle-income Australians and measures to deliver an economic stimulus to Australian businesses and households.

Senator Brandis interjecting—

Senator Bernardi interjecting—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! I am sorry, Senator Pratt, I cannot hear you because of continual interjections that have gone for about the last 15 minutes.

Senator PRATT —There are the measures that you opposed to bring benefits to thousands of schools around the country. There are many thousands of schools that have had enormous benefit from the Building the Education Revolution stimulus package. You have to stand up and say, ‘We didn’t want to support your local school community.’

Measures that delivered economic stimulus to Australians to keep them working during the global financial crisis were opposed by you in this place. Fortunately, we did have the numbers on that issue. These are measures that everyone except the opposition now accepts were urgently needed to protect Australia from the worst of the recent global economic crisis.

We have seen repeated action from the opposition and the Greens to use up this chamber’s time on exercises that distract and divert the Senate from the important issues. It engages us in debate that changes and achieves nothing —meaningless gestures. This afternoon’s motion is yet another example of this kind of time wasting.

This parliament and this chamber does its job best when governments have to argue and negotiate their position through this place effectively. This chamber has a vital role in creating a strong and open democracy. Strong checks and balances are indeed required, but we need a Senate that provides proper and fair legislative scrutiny and good legislative outcomes.

The government and the opposition will be held to account for their actions at the next election—and all the senators in this place who are up for election will be held to account. We will not stand idly by as the government’s agenda is frustrated and obstructed by the actions of this chamber. The Australian people are watching us closely in the lead-up to the next election.

When reform has been promised and is expected and does not eventuate or is compromised severely because of the actions of this chamber—not the government—it is of vital importance that people know. Our Prime Minister has a right to express his views and his frustration. It is entirely fair that our Prime Minister and the Rudd government put its case on these issues to the Australian people. The Australian people in the lead-up to the next election are watching. Australians will make their own decision and hold members and senators of both chambers to account.