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Thursday, 30 September 2010
Page: 447


Senator HUMPHRIES (12:13 PM) —I thank Senator Sterle for the comic relief he has provided to us in this otherwise very serious and important debate. I rise to support Senator Abetz’s amendment to the question before the chamber and to put in perspective what is unfortunately a very unbalanced itemisation of this government’s agenda. As a responsible member of this chamber, I cannot support a program put forward by the Gillard government which is, in my view, a representation of a weak and dishonest agenda. As a responsible member of this chamber, I believe that the program the government has outlined neither boldly confronts the nation’s challenges nor honours the commitments made to the Australian people by this government at the recent election.

At the heart of my criticism of the way that the government has presented its program is the perception that there is at the core of this agenda a constant desire by the government to wrap its actions and its intentions in deceptive clothing, to erect the appearance of a solution when in fact it has none, and to paint itself as acting in the national interest when in reality it is seeking to secure its own political advantage or that of its mates. A colleague of mine in the other place referred some time ago to this government as being ‘addicted to spin’. I thought at the time the term was a little bit harsh, perhaps an exaggeration, but the more I look at what the Rudd and now Gillard government has done and the way it has tried to sell itself through all of its broken promises and mistakes I have to say that I think the term is very apt.

The first thing that this government asks itself when announcing some new program or when trying to explain, when something has gone wrong, why it has gone wrong is: ‘How do we portray ourselves to make us look better than we are? How do we escape blame for our own mistakes?’ When we have the language of honesty and openness and sunlight permeating the government’s present pronouncements in the new parliament it is frightening to see it reverting in its program to the kind of spin addiction that was so common in the last term of parliament under both prime ministers. Labor’s addiction to spin is based on the underlying assumption that its mission is so important and its cause so righteous that deception and even outright lies are justified in the furtherance of that mission.

We see this in the language that the government has used since cobbling together the unlikely alliance which has delivered it power and delivered it based on the principle that holding power is much more important than knowing what to do with that power once you have it. They are now apparently the party of consensus and we are the party, they say, of wrecking. Every Labor MP that walked through the doors into Parliament House on Tuesday of this week used the words ‘Tony Abbott’ and ‘wrecker’ in the same sentence. What has brought this about? Apparently, it has been brought about by the fact that the opposition will not sign up to the new paradigm. We are not prepared to buy the line that consensus must be elevated at the expense of conflict of any sort. This government seems to believe that a more effective parliament means all MPs having to agree with some form of the government’s program. If you do not agree with the government you are destructive.

I do not believe that this government actually does believe in consensus politics and the evidence I have of that is its behaviour during the 12 years of the Howard government during which time it agreed with the now opposition, the then government, on absolutely nothing. This government has signed up to the consensus mantra because it has been forced to by the weak position it has been left in by the Australian electorate. It has to compromise on its program because it lacks the authority of an election win and of a mandate to govern with. Because it has been cut off at the knees by the electorate it expects other parties to share this enfeebled position with it and to throw their policies away because Labor cannot keep hold of its. This opposition will not do that.

This opposition took a strong agenda to the last election, an agenda that faced up to Australia’s problems, an agenda that attracted some 700,000 more voters than were attracted to Labor’s agenda and we make no apologies for saying that we will pursue this agenda in the life of the 43rd parliament. We will confront Labor’s weak, spin-conceived agenda at every turn. That of course is the job of a good opposition. Benjamin Disraeli once said that you cannot have a good government without a good opposition and we intend to be a good opposition. By that I mean we intend to hold up government programs to the most intense scrutiny and if necessary to rebuff those programs. Why should we do that? In a sense we are reflecting the fact that the Australian electorate also rebuffed those programs.

The government said it wanted to move forward at the 2010 election, it wanted to adopt a new program, it wanted to put new things in front of the Australian community. In fact it suffered a swing against it of 2.7 per cent. People expressed by that decision a great reservation about the program Labor was putting on the table and I do not blame them one iota. I do not think this government is stupid; they know what scrutiny means. They know that parliamentary reform means that they are subjected to more pain on the floor of these two chambers. The fact is though that the government continues to speak in a strange, twisted language when it talks about this new era of openness and consensus. How do you reach a consensus by forming a committee with a predetermined outcome? How do you have openness when such committees proceed in secret and work with documents and submissions which are not open to the Australian community?

This government is not worried that the coalition will wreck consensus for Australia’s interests; it is worried that the opposition will wreck Labor’s interests not Australia’s interests. They conflate their own interests in the pretence of concern for the national interest and that frankly is not good enough. Take for example the phenomenon of them having been denied a majority in this parliament. You would think that that would lead an honest and open government—a government interested in openness and being forthright and frank with the Australian community—to say: ‘Our policies will be hard to deliver. We will try but we cannot promise that everything that we said we would put forward will get passed by the parliament.’ That would be a fair and honest thing to say.

But what the Prime Minister actually said, having been confronted by this new reality, is not that. What she said was that the government would now have to expect that all of its election promises could well be dumped and that nothing it promised would necessarily make it even to the floor of either the Senate or the House of Representatives for consideration by the parliament. Its promise to have a people’s assembly on climate change disappeared within days of the election. It has not even tried. It is not even interested anymore. That is not the reaction of an honest and open government, and there are so many policies of that kind.

The government ruled out a carbon tax explicitly, repeatedly and unequivocally before the election, and now the new minister, Mr Combet, says that the different political environment entitles them to simply trash that policy. Yes, a carbon tax is back on the agenda. They talked about an immigration policy—a very half-hearted and insincere immigration policy, it seems to me—that was based on an East Timor solution. Where does that stand now? Where is the progress with that? I suspect it is very much on the backburner. Every indication that has been given is that this will not happen in the life of this parliament. They said that they would not be extending the Curtin detention centre; there would be no plans for extension at all. That was simply a nonsense. It was a lie. Within days of the election it is happening. What they said would not happen is happening. They said that there would be a release of all the costings for all the states’ spending programs under the BER, Building the Education Revolution. Where has that gone? Nowhere—and so on and so forth with these broken promises. We have yet to hear by any means the end of that story. It is not good enough to cite the new political environment as an excuse to say that your promises are no longer of any importance. If this is the new paradigm, I am not interested. It is not good enough for me and it is not good enough, I think, for the Australian people.

Of course, the Labor government is not the only factor that is critical in the actions of government in the course of the next three years or whatever the term of the 43rd Parliament is. There are also other players, and I want to turn to them. Particularly in reference to this house, I am interested in the role that the Australian Greens will play in the formulation and delivery of government policy. I have to say that I particularly fear that element of this government’s program. Because the government and the Greens have offered to enter into an agreement, an alliance or a coalition—call it what you will—we have to hold the Greens responsible for the actions of this government as well. They said before the election that they would hold the balance of power, and they do. As a result, the Australian community needs to put them under a degree of scrutiny which they have not previously enjoyed.

With the advantages of being in a governing coalition come responsibilities. Senator Brown and the Greens took a great deal of time during the election campaign to distinguish themselves from the Labor Party, saying they had different policies and were not the same as the Labor Party. In fact, it almost seemed as if they were deliberately setting out to draw votes away from the Labor Party into their camp. But since the election result has been delivered, or at least since election day, Senator Brown has become almost the chief protagonist for a minority Gillard government. He has been spruiking it up and down the country and seemed to be the most relieved man in Parliament House when the Independents announced that they would support a minority Labor government.

Particularly in the ACT, where the Labor Party holds three of the four seats in the federal parliament, the Greens were at pains to say how they would stand up for Canberra against decisions made by a Labor government that mistreated this community. They would not be taking part in any decisions that were harsh to the people of Canberra. But within days of the election they were in alliance with the Labor Party. They were part of an informal coalition with a Labor government. They did not mention that during the campaign, and I can see why.

The Greens now have a responsibility to be honest about their policies, and particularly how much they will cost, because that is one issue on which they did not come clean during the election campaign. Senator Brown complained, even in this week’s sittings and beforehand, that the media had not given the Greens sufficient scrutiny; they were not giving them the sort of attention that they gave to the major parties. I would suggest to Senator Brown that that is actually a good thing, because the Greens’ policies, and in particular the cost of their policies, would not have stood up to very serious scrutiny. The Greens promised enormous sums of money—billions upon billions upon billions of dollars—in the course of this election campaign. No issue was too small or insignificant. No community sector’s concerns were too lightly held to warrant a considerable expenditure of money by the Greens. They made those commitments freely, and they clearly outspent the major parties many times over, with no explanation of how they would actually pay for these promises. The Greens have a responsibility to engage with contrary points of view and to respect the will of the Australian voters at the ballot box—and, after all, the vast majority of Australians voted for parties that said that they would rule out a carbon tax. They need to bear in mind that other parties’ programs are of at least equal value to their own.

Their policies, with great respect, are dishonest. I particularly refer to their policies on non-government education. In this territory, where take-up of non-government education is at its highest level anywhere in Australia, the Greens soon realised that their policy of cutting funding for non-government education was a considerable liability, so Senator Brown came to the ACT and told local media that the policy would not proceed and that there would not be cuts to non-government education in the ACT or anywhere else. The policy had been evacuated. That was fine until a few days later, when Senator Brown was interviewed on ABC News 24 and was asked by a journalist about this change in policy. Senator Brown said: ‘Oh, no. There’s no change in policy. Our policy stands as it appears on the website.’ Again, in the ACT we raised the issue of what exactly the Greens’ policy was. The Greens’ Senate candidate reiterated that the Greens’ policy was not to cut non-government education in the ACT. Again Senator Brown went to the National Press Club and was asked by a journalist about apparent plans to cut funding to non-government education, as per the Greens’ website. Yes, said Senator Brown: that policy stood. Again we went back to the Greens’ Senate candidate and said, ‘Do you or do you not intend to cut funding to non-government education?’ She said, ‘No, there’ll be no cuts to non-government education.’ That is the kind of scrutiny that the Greens now deserve. We need to know exactly what the policy of the Greens is and, frankly, relying on their statements during the election campaign is not enough to do that.

The Greens, however, were not the only party involved in this election campaign who displayed spectacularly high degrees of dishonesty. I am referring here not to another political party but to the role of the organisation GetUp!. GetUp! spent colossal amounts of money in this election campaign. I am not sure what happened in other electorates, but in a great number of booths in the ACT there were large numbers of GetUp! workers handing out glossy brochures advising people about how to ‘cut through the spin’ and to work out what was happening in the election campaign.

I had experience of GetUp! in the previous election in 2007, so I watched with some trepidation what their role would be in this election campaign. In the early stages of the campaign I actually had a little bit of hope spring to my heart because they said that they were going to campaign on three specific issues: asylum seekers, climate change and mental health. As a person who has taken considerable interest in mental health I was interested in this particular position because I knew that the coalition was putting forward a policy that would undoubtedly be seen by all objective observers as a better policy than that which, at that stage, was evident from the Australian Labor Party. Indeed, by the time the election itself came around it was clear that we had a much better policy: $1.5 billion for new programs to assist people with mental illness in this country, building on the policy of $1.9 billion announced by John Howard in 2006—a very sound and a very appropriate policy for the challenge of mental illness. I thought to myself, ‘Well, I’m sure we will get marked down by the GetUp! people on asylum seekers, and I’m sure we won’t get many points on climate change from them. But at least, if they are honest, they will tell the people that we have the best policy on mental health.’

Election day came around and the obligatory brochures appeared, handed out by the workers from GetUp!, and—miraculously—of the three criteria that they had announced they were going to use to judge the political parties in this election campaign two had remained much the same but the third had somehow transformed itself. It was no longer a question of judgment on the criterion of mental health; they had now changed their policy considerations to health care, of which only one component dealt with mental health. The other two dealt with other issues altogether—closing the gap for Indigenous life expectancy and a national plan for improving preventative health. These were not issues that they had raised during the election campaign and not issues that had been dealt with within the forum that I attended a week before election day. These were completely new issues and—surprise, surprise!—because of these other things we no longer had an advantage over the government. We no longer had brownie points in that department and—surprise, surprise!—once again the Greens, which promised to do everything in all of those areas without question and to provide unlimited dollars to solve these problems, got the highest score from GetUp!.

GetUp! is a front for the Greens and, to a lesser extent, for the Australian Labor Party. It is not a credible independent observer of Australian politics; it is a player. It is a party in all but name, and it should be regarded so by the Australian community.

I believe that this government starts its term in the weakest possible position. It comes to the Australian people pretending that it has an agenda of reform and change when, in fact, it has scrabbled to find an agenda at all before the last election in light of the fact that its agenda from the previous election had virtually collapsed, either because it had failed to find a way of delivering it or because its policies were undeliverable. This government does not fill me with much hope that it can do any better than the previous Rudd government.