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Wednesday, 27 June 2018
Page: 85


Senator WONG (South AustraliaLeader of the Opposition in the Senate) (17:29): I just want to clarify whether, if the suspension is carried, there will be a substantive debate.

The PRESIDENT: The suspension motion, if carried, is to literally put the motion as a formal motion.

Senator WONG: Without amendment or debate—thank you. Well, I rise to speak against the suspension of standing orders, and I'm pleased that you, Mr President, clarified that the government is proposing to support the suspension of standing orders to enable this motion to be voted on without debate or amendment. That is a very unfortunate position that the government has taken and one that I would respectfully suggest that the government may come to regret.

We have, since 1998, in this place avoided having this kind of debate—that is, a straight up-or-down vote—on matters of foreign policy for very sound reasons. Senator Faulkner in May 1998 articulated the position very clearly:

In cases where there is not unanimous agreement on such a motion, the Labor Party will not be agreeing to formality. We take the view that foreign policy motions should not be decided without debate. We believe that formal motions are not an appropriate instrument for formulating or conveying positions on foreign policy. They are a blunt instrument. Senators may either support them in the form in which they are put before the Senate or oppose them. They may not amend them. The nuances and subtleties of foreign policy issues and the impact on Australia's relations with other countries needs to be carefully considered and debated, and the procedures for formal motions in our view preclude such important considerations.

That is why consistently this opposition has behaved very responsibly and voted with the government on a number of occasions, even in relation to motions where we may have been far closer to supporting the content of the motion than the government, but we have respected a convention that has been operating in this place since well before I came here and well before a number of us came here—that is, since 1998.

Now, for some reason the government have decided that they are going to walk away from this today. They are going to walk away from the convention whereby both parties of government recognise that having the Australian Senate vote without amendment or debate on matters of foreign policy is not in the national interest, that external parties, other nations, other entities obviously receive the information of the Senate resolving something and give that a great deal of weight. And senators in this place are not enabled to properly debate nor amend motions so that they reflect the different nuances of views around the chamber in relation to foreign policy. You don't do foreign policy in a tick-a-box way, and that is what formal motions enable.

We have been responsible as an opposition. In the period certainly since I've been in this place, this has always been the approach taken. Now, on this occasion, the government have decided that they are willing to suspend standing orders to enable this motion to be resolved—more importantly and relevantly, without amendment or debate. This is a very, very poor step by the government. If this is the precedent followed, it will mean that motions moved by the Australian Greens on highly controversial matters would be voted on without amendment or debate. I would say to the government that it is not in the national interest for Australian foreign policy issues to be dealt with in this way and, frankly, to be used for the purposes of pressing a political issue domestically.

There have been occasions on which Labor people have supported a denial of formality on motions that I think many people might have been inclined to support. But we have held the discipline of recognising that this chamber ought not deal with matters of foreign policy in the way of this procedure that the government is now supporting. The chamber should not do so. I would say to the government that you should really consider whether or not this is a sensible way for you to approach these matters. This is a poor precedent, and it is a precedent that I suspect foreign minister Julie Bishop will not be pleased with down the track when she sees what the consequences of removing this convention are. It will mean that motions that cause the portfolio and the government concerns could be debated and resolved in this chamber, and that is not a good thing.

The PRESIDENT: Senator Patrick, you have one minute before the debate expires.