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Monday, 29 October 2012
Page: 8128


Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (11:01): I enter into this debate with some trepidation, I must say, after the three previous speakers—all of whom I congratulate and all of whom clearly show a depth of understanding and a passion about what is a very complex bill that clearly has a lot of shortcomings. Our leader in this debate, Senator Johnston, is a man well versed in these areas and has an almost scary understanding of the complexities of defence generally and of this bill, the Defence Trade Controls Bill 2011, in particular. I do no more than support what Senator Johnston has said.

I hope to say something in relation to the other two speakers, and I say this to Senator Bishop while he is still in the chamber: if you had been the minister, Senator Bishop—and Australia could do a lot worse than have you as the defence minister—would you have brought this bill to the parliament at this stage? I think from the very passionate and learned speech that you have just given to this chamber that your answer would be, 'No, as defence minister I would not have brought this here today.' So I listened intently and I have to say, Senator Bishop, that you were very persuasive in your address to the chamber and have persuaded me in a number of areas. The only broad disagreement I have with you, though, is that you kept blaming this thing called 'Defence', whereas in a parliamentary system it is the Minister for Defence that actually runs the Department of Defence, and the committees of this parliament can only effectively and legally deal with the Department of Defence through the Minister for Defence. So I think the previous speaker, Senator Bishop, was for most of his speech very precise and correct, but his criticism of this body called 'Defence' being at fault really should be changed to 'the Minister for Defence', because with all of the faults that have been pointed out with this legislation—in the committee, in the speeches so far and in the submissions to the committee—it is clear that any Minister for Defence across his portfolio would pull on the handbrake.

I hear from Senator Ludlam—and I hope he is not correct—that the only reason these bills are being rushed through parliament this week is that the American Secretary of State and the American Secretary of Defense are coming here and they need a photo opportunity. If that is correct—and I hope it is not, but I suspect that Senator Ludlam is correct—that is an appalling way for this parliament and indeed, more importantly, this government and the defence minister to act. In congratulating all three previous speakers, including Senator Ludlam, with whom I seldom agree—

Senator Ludlam: First time ever.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: No, it is not the first time, Senator Ludlam. It is not often I agree with you on content and policy but I do agree with you on your passion. If I can use the NBN as an example, you have been consistent all the way through in saying that the NBN should never be privatised. In fact, you make no secret of the fact that you think a lot more things should be government owned. That is an economic and political philosophy that you have, which many people had prior to the 1950s, but I do not think too many do these days, apart from you.

Senator Ludlam: And the Nationals.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: No, I would not even agree with that; in fact, I totally disagree with that. Senator Ludlam, you at least make no pretence about that. Similarly on these bills you quite openly say that most of the money that is spent on defence should not be spent and we should have peace in our time by being nice to people, appeasing people and talking to people—

Senator Ludlam: I knew it couldn't last.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: But it is true. Isn't that an accurate description of the Greens' philosophy: you do not need armies because the world is such a lovely place that we can all hold hands and dance around the maypole and we will have peace in our time—you do not need to spend any money on defence; you can spend it on hospitals and roads? It is a good concept to spend more money on hospitals, roads, schools and all that sort of thing but, unfortunately, history has shown that you do need a strong defence force and you need a strong defence industry. As other speakers have said, Australia punches well above its weight in its contribution to new defence ways and technology. That is why so many people are so concerned about the details of these bills, which can well cut off Australian researchers and Australian scientists from, firstly, allowing the free world the benefit of their wisdom and research and, secondly, the economic benefits that oftentimes flow.

Senator Bishop said the explanatory memorandum was drafted and published to mislead the committee. Perhaps the explanatory memorandum was drafted and published to mislead the committee, but whose fault is that? Who actually tables the explanatory memorandum? Whose explanatory memorandum is it? It is the explanatory memorandum of the Minister for Defence, Mr Smith. Your criticisms I think are accurate but wrongly directed. I cannot understand how this government continues to have in place a Minister for Defence who, by implication, even his own side criticises as being lazy, ignorant, showing a lack of care and being deliberately misleading. Much as Senator Bishop manfully tries to blame this other group 'Defence' for all the problems that are demonstrated in these bills, it is clearly an issue that the Minister for Defence should be dealing with.

Again I say, and I can say this I think quite honestly—I do not think too many people in the chamber would disagree with me—that I am absolutely confident that if Senator Bishop were the Minister for Defence then the consultation, or the lack thereof that we are all complaining about, for this bill would not have occurred. Senator Bishop would not have allowed this bill to get to where it is unless there had been proper consultation. I know Senator Johnston, as the next defence minister for the Australian government, would not countenance bringing forward very complex legislation like this unless he personally was convinced that all of the right people had been consulted on issues that clearly impact on them. Why this did not happen in this case, one can only wonder.

I return to the point made by all previous speakers—that is, this bill was actually brought in a year ago, passed through the lower house of parliament one year ago. It implemented a good system, a good proposal, negotiated by the Howard government in Australia and the Bush government in the United States, and therefore it was clearly something that would be of benefit to the Free World and would be of benefit to Australia and to our interaction with US forces. The idea was clearly a good one. Unfortunately, for the past several years the task of putting that good idea into legislation was left to a government which has, in so many ways, shown that it is clearly incompetent. I will not do what I often distract myself in doing—that is, going through the incompetencies of this government—but it is clear that this government is incapable of governing, incapable of managing. Now we have the ridiculous situation where one of the long-serving members of this parliament, and a senior person in the Labor Party, spends 20 minutes effectively criticising his own minister—sugar coating that by referring to it as this nebulous thing called Defence—about the way the minister has dealt with this very, very complex issue.

There was clearly insufficient consultation, especially with the defence sector and the university sector who are the ones who are going to bear the brunt of the legislation. The reaction has been mixed, with concerns raised over the role of the US State Department in approving Australian companies or individuals as trusted members of the Australian community. The process in gaining such approval is seen as cumbersome, costly and time consuming with no right of appeal, and how any minister could allow that to happen leaves me wondering. There is clearly a lack of confidence within the defence industry, in the Australian Defence Export Control Office, to make consistent decisions on what strategic goods can or cannot be exported. What is being proposed by the government remains unacceptable to the university sector and, for reasons which were made clear in the Universities Australia and the University of Sydney submissions, those proposals are clearly not in Australia's best interests.

The interim report of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade accepted the sector's concerns regarding the effects of the bill on the university and the broader public research sector as legitimate, and acknowledged a lack of consultation with these sectors prior to introducing the bill into parliament. It concluded that it would be folly to proceed with the bill at this time. As Senator Bishop has said—and he is anticipating someone else speaking who is apparently going to tell us this—there has since been all of the necessary extensive consultation, but clearly Senator Bishop is not convinced and, I might say, neither am I.

I am also very concerned that the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills, a committee which I currently chair but did not chair at the time that this bill was dealt with by the committee, had raised a very lengthy series of concerns about this bill, some of which, I understand, have been addressed in some of the amendments which the government will be bringing forward but many of which have not been addressed. Things like devolution of decision making, retrospectivity—which must occur in this case, one would think—and strict liability offences carrying very substantial penalties are all things which lead me to think that there should have been a much closer look at every single part of this bill.

There are a number of speakers on this bill, I am aware, and I am not going to hold the Senate too much longer. I just conclude almost where I started, by again saying: why is it that members of the committee, a majority of whom were members of the government party, are clearly concerned that this legislation is coming through? I do not think anyone, including the Labor members on the committee, would disagree with Senator Ludlam that the only reason this bill is being rushed through without the proper scrutiny, the proper attention and the proper amendments that it needs is to provide a photo opportunity for Mr Smith and Ms Gillard to greet the American dignitaries when they turn up in the country in the very near future. If that is a reason for the way this government runs this country, I think that little more needs to be said about why it is so important to get rid of this government at the earliest possible time. This is just symptomatic and emblematic of what this government is all about: spin, photo opportunities and forgetting the fact that bills such as this being rushed through to get that spin and that photo opportunity out there could well cause irreparable harm to our research communities, our defence industries—

Senator Ludlam: Don't vote for it.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Senator, this is, as I say, a bill that was initiated by the Howard government because it was a good general policy, and that is why we are reluctantly supporting it. What is the alternative? To vote against it and have nothing. For as long as this government is in power, Senator Ludlam, it does not matter what you do: either you have no bill or you will have this sort of half-baked thing, more interested in the photo opportunity and the spin than in what is really involved. It was an idea brought forward by a serious government who took things seriously. It is a good idea that has turned into poor legislation at the hands of a poor government—which, Senator Ludlam, your party keeps in power. So don't you lecture me about supporting bad legislation of this government. You could correct that tomorrow, and you could correct many of the other ills in Australia's governance at the present time by withdrawing your support from a government which is clearly incompetent—and this bill proves the point.