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Friday, 22 June 2012
Page: 4242

Senator HUMPHRIES (Australian Capital Territory) (12:09): I thank Senator Cash for highlighting the context in which this debate is taking place. It is clearly not one of the finer examples of the Australian democratic process at work. Perhaps I can just underline that point that Senator Cash made about what is happening here for the benefit of people who are listening to this debate on the radio or in the chamber. The Senate is dealing—on a Friday, when it does not normally sit—with a whole range of government legislation that the government has not been able to organise to have on at an earlier time for debate. It is legislation that spends millions upon millions of dollars of Australian taxpayers with grossly—

Senator Jacinta Collins: They are called appropriation bills.

Senator HUMPHRIES: That is right—appropriation bills. They are very important bills and are the way in which the parliament authorises the government to spend money. These bills are being considered in extremely shortened periods of time. The appropriation bills this morning had about 100 minutes of debate—hundreds of millions of dollars spent in about 100 minutes of debate. This legislation is important. It has got about one hour of debate—a 60-minute debate.

Senator Jacinta Collins interjecting

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Collins, order!

Senator HUMPHRIES: The national vocational education and training legislation, important legislation, again expending millions of dollars, has got 40 minutes in which the Australian parliament can decide what is important and what is not about this legislation. That is disgraceful.

Senator Bilyk interjecting

Senator HUMPHRIES: You would be able to get up and have your say as well, Senator Bilyk, except there is no time left. You have cut the time short. There will be no time left for you to have your say about this legislation.

We have here a very serious problem with the process, even though, as Senator Cash pointed out, this legislation is not exceptional. I think it is important for us to be able to bring together the resources of two disparate arms of the Commonwealth drafting function into the one office, the Office of Parliamentary Counsel. That of itself is an important, uncontroversial development that makes it easier for legislation to be properly drafted, and I think that is a rational use of resources. But I have to say that the one thing about this process that fills me with some dread is that by providing for the expanding volume and complexity of Commonwealth legislation to be managed more effectively and efficiently in this one office, we are, sadly, going to abet the process whereby the Australian government has spectacularly dishonoured one of its promises.

I know there is not much point in my getting up here and talking about the broken promises of the Labor Party. That is old news. It is a different story every day; this is only one more story to add to the list. But among the millions of promises the Labor Party appears to have made, it made a promise at the last election that for every piece of regulation it imposed on the Australian community it would take another one off—put one on, take one off. That is a sensible idea for every Australian household, every Australian business, every person in employment, every person who drives a car, every person who operates a farm and everybody subject to thousands of regulations. There are, frankly, too many regulations for the average citizen to understand and be able to work to and obey. So the promise was made to remove some regulations.

That is not what has actually happened. This government has been able to repeal some regulations. It has repealed a total of 86 regulations under the life of the Rudd and Gillard governments. Great, they have removed that burden from Australians. Unfortunately, while repealing the 86 regulations through the consolidated offices we are now considering, they have at the same time added a few more.

Senator Cash: How many more?

Senator HUMPHRIES: It is rather a large number.

Senator Cash: Ten? Fifteen? Twenty?

Senator HUMPHRIES: It is a bit more than that, Senator Cash. I am afraid they have added, while removing 86 regulations, 18,089 new regulations. The world is so much better for that fact! We are all so much better off now that we are so heavily regulated by this government! So, as we creak and groan under the weight of the regulations that the Labor Party promised would not be happening, sadly we are assisting in this process by passing this legislation today. That gives me great regret, because I think it makes our system of government complex. It puts a burden on people. It makes the effectiveness of our system of government, which relies on principles like cooperative federalism to be able to work better, less effective. This legislation, sadly, facilitates that process, even though we cannot object to the idea of consolidating the resources of the government in the one place. When I see consolidation taking place, I get suspicious. We are told that this is about making things more efficient and bringing them together so that a more effective use of specialised technology can be made by those who draft the laws and regulations of our country. But I have also seen other examples where consolidation is, in fact, a byword for cutting. Only this morning I debated on radio with Senator Lundy the government's decision to consolidate Medicare and Centrelink offices in Canberra. We are told that they are consolidating two offices of Centrelink in the Tuggeranong Valley and two offices of Medicare in the city. This is not about making things better, more efficient and bringing people into the one-stop shop that people talk about. It is actually about making cuts. That is what it is all about. It is about reducing the services available to people—in this case, in Canberra—and it is a weasel word for describing a process whereby the Commonwealth drastically and in a fairly ad hoc fashion reduces its expenditure across the Australian community.

Why are they reducing their expenditure? It is because for the last four years they have spent at unsustainable rates. They have run up massive deficits and huge debt. At last somebody inside the government said, 'We have to draw a line under this and start to make the government live within its means.' So today they are involved in a desperate, random scramble to try to reduce the size of the government's spend. Decisions like this to consolidate are what results.

When the explanatory memorandum to this bill says that the bill will not have any net financial impact, I assume that that is a way of saying it will not cost any more money, but that, in fact, is not the same as saying that it will not save money. This is about reducing costs as well as making the organisation more efficient. I assume that was Mr Stephen Skehill's brief when he produced his report, Strategic review of small and medium agencies in the Attorney-General's portfolio. But whether that is the intention or not does not matter.

The other concern I have about this legislation is that, again, while we accept that we need to be more efficient in the way we spend money, we are also allowing for a greater resource to be targeted on the making of regulations. We have seen in recent years so much more of the Commonwealth's law-making function descend from laws, which have to pass through the parliament and which the democratic representatives of the people get to vote upon, down to regulations, where there is not the opportunity for parliament to debate and amend laws effectively that apply to the Australian community. This new consolidated Office of Parliamentary Counsel will be able to make regulations that affect that transition the government has been engaged in for a number of years now in a way which I suspect is not in the best interests of a healthy, functioning democracy.

Democracy is not having its best day today with the application of the guillotine, so it is appropriate that this legislation be considered for its impact on the quality of our democratic process. I for one greatly regret the fact that opportunities to have debate in this chamber about important things affecting the Australian community are diminished in some way. We have the spectacle of the parliament having to rush through the chamber legislation that is important to the future quality of life of Australian citizens and which represents the expenditure of millions and millions of dollars which Australian taxpayers have contributed to the Commonwealth's coffers in a way which just does not allow members of the Senate or the other place to do their job properly because the time has not been provided for proper analysis and consideration of what the parliament has to do. If we have to come back in the future and amend some of these bills—and I would not be surprised if we do at some point—because they have been rushed through this parliament like it is some sort of sausage factory, we will be there to ask, 'Is it really any surprise that we find ourselves in this invidious position of having to come back and repair at leisure the things we have done in haste because of the incompetence of this government?'

This government, which has botched so much of what it has done in the last four years, now expects us to trust that it has done things properly on this occasion.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: The time allocated for this debate has expired.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.