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Monday, 28 February 2011
Page: 627

Senator ABETZ (2:01 PM) —My question is to the Minister representing the Prime Minister, Senator Evans. Can the minister confirm that, in the days before the last federal election, Prime Minister Gillard said:

There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead.

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations) —I can confirm that this government has been committed to a carbon price and to attacking carbon pollution in our community since before the 2007 election. Interestingly, at that time we had bipartisan support for a scheme to produce a reduction in carbon emissions. Former Prime Minister John Howard—even John Howard, who was regarded by many as a fairly conservative influence in the Liberal Party—argued the need for this sort of reform.

Senator Brandis —On a point of order, Mr President: even allowing for commentary and prologue, nothing that the minister has said in response to the question is relevant. The question could not have been narrower. He was asked to confirm whether the Prime Minister made a statement or not. It is, with respect, hard to see how commentary and prologue can be directly relevant to the question of whether or not a particular statement was made by the Prime Minister.

The PRESIDENT —The minister has two minutes to answer the question. The minister is reminded that there is a minute and 29 seconds remaining to answer the question.

Senator CHRIS EVANS —I thank Senator Brandis for making a contribution, because I remember the days when he used to believe that climate change was a problem for this country. I remember the days when the Liberal Party was serious about tackling climate change and when he supported that position. But unfortunately that is no longer the case.

It is the case that the Prime Minister has been very upfront with the Australian public about these issues—very upfront. She has been in the media the last few days answering questions, responding to the issues posed by the opposition, and she has made the continuity of Labor’s position seeking to address this issue very clear. You might recall that three times in the last term we brought legislation into this parliament and three times those opposite, with a combination of Independents and Greens, rejected that legislation. The consistency of this government’s approach is on the record. We have consistently attempted to make a major reform to our economy to reduce carbon pollution.

Senator Brandis —On a point of order, Mr President: with 28 seconds to go, nothing we have heard from the minister so far has been directly relevant to the question of whether a statement was made or not. The question could not have been narrower. As I pointed out to you on the last sitting day, an answer cannot be all prologue, particularly if the question is narrowly focused on one issue of fact—was a statement made or not? If you allow this minister to occupy the entire two minutes with prologue and commentary, you will be condoning a defiance of the sessional order.

Senator Ludwig —On the point of order, Mr President: the minister is addressing the question. The opposition are seeking a yes or no answer in response to their question. My submission is that the minister is answering the question by explaining the issue without being drawn into a yes or no response. So my submission is that the minister is on point and is answering the question.

The PRESIDENT —I draw the minister’s attention to the question. There are 28 seconds remaining.

Senator CHRIS EVANS —The Prime Minister has been very frank with the Australian community about these issues. The Prime Minister has made it clear that this party, the Labor Party, has been committed to effective action against carbon pollution for many years now and that we have tried, in each term of our government, to make legislative reform. We will continue to do that. As part of the new parliament, we have set up a process which will hopefully see real action and legislation out of this parliament. (Time expired)

Senator Brandis —Mr President—

The PRESIDENT —I see that you are on your feet, Senator Brandis. I do draw your attention to the fact—

Senator Brandis —Mr President—

The PRESIDENT —Just wait a minute, Senator Brandis. It is very hard when there is commentary going on across the chamber.

Senator Brandis —Mr President, on the question of relevance: I rose, with two seconds to go and, by the time you acknowledged me, the time had expired. By the time the time had expired the minister had not addressed the question, in defiance to your direction to him to come to the question. That is the consequence of rulings which say: ‘Up until the very end of the period allowed for answering the question, a minister can engage in commentary, prologue and political badinage.’ Your ruling does not operate successfully, Mr President, when you have ministers prepared to defy you, as the Leader of the Government in the Senate just did, preventing the opposition from taking a point of order and preventing you from enforcing the sessional orders until the time has expired.

The PRESIDENT —Senator Ludwig.

Senator Ludwig —Mr President, I rise on a point of order. The minister was responding to the question that was asked and was being directly relevant to the issue raised. What we now have is a question that has been asked in such a way, with a political overtone, that is designed to elicit a yes or no response—

Opposition senator interjecting—

Senator Ludwig —which can be answered, and is being answered, by the minister without saying, as the case may be, yes or no, by explaining the context of the question and by answering in the context of the question and to the issue that is embodied within the question. What we now hear from the opposition, again through an interjection, is simply: ‘A response, either yes or no.’ The minister, in answering the question, does not have to answer yes or no. The minister can actually explain what the issue is, whilst being directly relevant to the question raised. That is the point. Therefore, there is no point of order by the opposition in raising this issue. They are simply ignoring their own standing orders by taking frivolous points of order in this way.

The PRESIDENT —I have consistently said during question time that I am not able to tell the minister how to answer the question. All I can do is see that the sessional orders are adhered to. They may not supply the answer in the manner and in the desired form that you require. But I listen closely to the minister’s answers on each occasion and I endeavour to ensure that the minister is complying with sessional orders. That does not mean that I can tell the minister how to answer the question.

Senator Brandis interjecting—

The PRESIDENT —You are entitled to take a point of order, Senator Brandis.

Senator Brandis —Mr President, having heard the minister’s answer in its entirety and the time limit for answering the question having expired, are you now ruling that his answer was directly relevant to Senator Abetz’s question?

The PRESIDENT —There is no point of order there.

Senator ABETZ —If sessional orders do require a directly relevant answer, let’s try this supplementary question. Minister, is it a fact that the Prime Minister, in her Labor campaign launch speech, of some 5,462 words, made no mention of a carbon tax nor of any other mechanism to reduce carbon pollution?

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations) —I have to concede that I do not have a copy of the speech with me so, to that extent, I will have to take Senator Abetz’s question on notice. I will have a look at the speech. The Labor Party have made clear for a number of years our commitment to get a price on carbon, to deal with the heavy levels of pollution that are being emitted in our economy and which are leading to the global problem of climate change. We made concerted efforts in the previous parliament to try to get through legislation, to introduce a CPRS. We were unsuccessful in that regard. But our analysis, our critique, our support for the need to seriously address climate change has been longstanding. As I say, the opposition used to support us in those endeavours, until the right wing of the party exerted its control. I would encourage the Liberal Party to rethink their position to help us address this serious issue. (Time expired)

Senator ABETZ —Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. Given that the minister has not denied either statement and, given that the minister has not denied that the Prime Minister said that there would be no carbon tax under a government she leads, who is leading the government? Senator Brown, Senator Milne and the Greens? Or did caucus actually have a say in this decision?

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations) —I think the Australian public would be interested to know that all the Liberal Party and the coalition have to offer on a most serious debate is to try to make some low-level political pointscoring. Seriously, if you take the issues of carbon pollution and climate change seriously, you would think that you would try to engage in a policy debate. You would think you would have something to say about the real issues confronting our nation with respect to climate change. But no, we have this nitpicking, minor political stuff that maybe works inside the Liberal Party at their party room meetings, but has no relevance to the broader Australian public and the serious challenges involved. It is about time the Liberal Party took their responsibilities as an alternative government seriously. Quite frankly, at the moment you are a laughing stock.