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Improving politics and the Parliament.



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Senator Andrew Bartlett Parliamentary Leader Australian Democrats

9th October 2003

‘Improving Politics and the Parliament’. National Press Club, Canberra

Thank you for the opportunity to address the National Press Club on the topic ‘Improving Politics and the Parliament’.

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land, the Ngunnawal people

I acknowledge the presence of my colleagues, the Democrat senators, office-bearers and our local member Roslyn Dundas.

As an introduction to the topic and an explanation of my scar, I will quote from a book on the Senate released two days ago : It received much less fanfare than the Prime Minister’s paper but it is a lot more substantial, objective and accurate. The author, Stanley Bach says:

“If the government controls the Senate, we could expect it to stagnate or degenerate.”

He goes on to say, “If the Opposition controls the Senate…..perhaps an apt comparison would be … a rugby union match in which blood flows freely, but few tries are scored by either side.”

He says in a “Note to American readers: it would take another book to explain this comparison adequately, suffice to say it would not be a pretty sight” .

I joined the Democrats - not just because of the policies, but also the politics. The Democrats are by far the most democratic party. We do politics differently.

The Democrats embrace the idea first put forward by a New York Governor that: “All the evils of democracy can be cured by more democracy.”

We believe the plans released yesterday by the Prime Minister John Howard, propose less democracy in Australian politics.

Mr Howard’s plans for reform would mean less power for the Senate, less power for the Australia people and a lot more power for the Prime Minister and his Party.

And tellingly, the PM’s plans address a problem that doesn’t exist. The Senate is not obstructive.

In this Parliament alone -since the November 2001 election till lunchtime today- the Senate has passed 271 Bills. Around one in four were improved by the Senate before becoming law, many of them via Democrat amendments. Only 7 Bills have been negatived. So little more than 2% of Bills have been rejected. Most Australians would think that was a pretty good batting average.

The real problems in the Parliament are not the ones the Prime Minister wants to focus on. The real problems are:

- the lack of accountability of political parties, Ministers and their staff; - too much power already residing in the hands of the Prime Minister; and - the problem of the House of Representatives being neither representative nor much more than a rubber stamp.

These are some of the real issues that should be addressed. I will outline later some of the solutions the Democrats propose.

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We welcome the opportunity to discuss how to improve the way Parliament and politics works, but all the Coalition has offered is a cynical Senate-bashing exercise and a flimsy, poorly-argued discussion paper.

For seven years the Coalition have run a constant, brazen campaign to falsely paint the Senate as a problem, as obstructionist. They have run this campaign flying in the face of the facts, their own history and the Australian Constitution.

It is worth looking at the history. Before the Democrats entered Parliament in 1977 and first earned the balance of power in 1981, there really was a problem with an obstructive Senate. And it was the Liberal Party that was obstructive.

In 1975 more than one in four (27%) Bills were blocked by the Liberals. Compare that to the present Senate where just over 2% of Bills are rejected. In 1975 the Liberals blocked supply and brought down the Government, after years of a calculated campaign of obstruction.

The Senate has worked so much better in the last 20 years because of the presence of the Australian Democrats. We have brought a regime of reason.

One of the Democrats founding principles is that we will not block supply. History shows us the Liberals will. And their statements show us the Green Party would if they could.

Consider the scenario of a future ALP Government, with the Coalition and the Green Party controlling the Senate. About the only thing the Coalition and the Green Party would agree on is their willingness to block supply. That’s a Constitutional ‘bloodbath’.

The Democrats take seriously our responsibilities in the balance of power. We bring a rigor to the scrutiny of legislation and policy that is not undertaken by any other political Party.

We also bring to the parliamentary agenda, issues that no other Party has. It can be seen in our 29 Private Members Bills before the current Parliament on issues from Reconciliation to Genetic Privacy.

Since 1901, only 8 private senators’ Bills have become law although 58 have passed the Senate. So the House of Representatives record for blocking Senate Bills is 86%. Now that’s obstructive.

Two of the Bills that did become law were Australian Democrat Bills including the legislation that banned tobacco advertising. Another Democrat bill became the basis for the first World Heritage Legislation and saved the Franklin River.

We have brought forward issues no other party was talking about including animal welfare, refugees rights, and gay law reform. The major parties give no attention to animal welfare yet it is an issue of great import to many Australians.

We also engage and do the hard work on the traditional legislative agenda of tax, industrial relations, corporate law, health, welfare, and the environment.

We have worked hard to gain superannuation benefits for low income earners while still pursuing equality for same-sex couples.

We bring issues to the fore and assist people - not just politicians - to participate meaningfully in politics.

One of our other principles is to try and work with whoever is in Government. We have a strong history of success and achievement in Parliament in amending laws, while rejecting only a minimal number of Bills.

The Democrats are always prepared to explore opportunities to improve legislation. Some of our achievements in the last year include:

- improving the powers of a more independent Inspector-General of Taxation; - winning major welfare concessions that reduced social security penalties and improved protection for sole parents and over-50s job seekers; - securing significant environmental initiatives for the sugar industry; - winning stronger anti-piracy and copyright enforcement measures; and - improving the superannuation tax incentive plan to redirect savings to increase funding of the co-contribution for low income earners.

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Another example was the Telstra pricing regulations. Labor and the Green Party tried to scrap these Regulations. The Democrats consulted with the welfare sector, Telstra and the Government to gain cheaper phone Bills for nearly everyone and a further $10 million in assistances for low income earners.

We do the work. The Democrats move more amendments than the Labor Party and we have far, far more success with our amendments than any other minor party.

We work with and represent the interests of a wide range of Australian society. Our Party’s participatory democratic structure ensures our policies can never be captured by a narrow interest group. We engage with unions, big business, community and environmental groups but are captive to none.

We work hard in the Senate committee system to give different groups of Australians the opportunity to have input on policy. As you know, the Democrats will not support the current health and higher education packages. But we didn’t just reject them out of hand and go home. We initiated and are participating in Senate inquiries, including public hearings, to examine what their impact would be and to look for real solutions. And sure enough we are seeing the Government responding to the evidence coming before those enquiries and beginning to back down.

Under no circumstances will the Democrats support higher fees for Australian undergraduate students or allow this government to attack the fundamentals of Medicare. These are the sort of proposals that the Senate is presently preventing. We have the support of the Australian people.

We are not blocking supply we are blocking bad legislation. Yet the Government claims we are obstructing their economic agenda.

Consider the harsh Government proposals for Disability pensions and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme from last year. If the Senate had passed them it would have brought the Government around $300 million in each of the first years, straight out of the pockets of some of the most disadvantaged Australians. And when the Democrats stopped them, didn’t the Government kick and scream about fiscal responsibility.

Now it is revealed that the Government has a $7.5 billion surplus and it would have been at least $8.5 billion if they hadn’t gone to war.

The Government is not trying to cut health spending because they have to, they are doing it because they want to. Because no war chest of election tax bribes is ever going to be big enough for them.

Presently there are 6 double dissolution triggers in the current Parliament. The Senate is preventing is medicines becoming more expensive, disabled people losing their pensions, Australia becoming a smaller, meaner nation when it comes to refugees, and 3 relatively minor but still harmful industrial relations Bills.

On the Industrial Relations issue the Government is clearly driven by ideology rather than reality.

Nowhere is the Democrats vital role in the balance of power more clear. Between the Coalition representing bosses and the ALP representing union officials, the Democrats are there representing the interests of the Australian people. We are not bound by ancient ideologies, nor beholden to big business or the unions, so we judge legislation on its merits.

There has been 13 industrial relations proposals amended and passed and 3 proposals did not pass, comprised of:

- the (6) attempts to exempt small business from federal unfair dismissal provisions, despite there being no credible evidence that the existing federal laws pose a significant problem; - the (2) tries to add to existing secret ballot provisions for protected action aimed at making it almost impossible for unions to take protected action; and - the attempts to change termination of employment laws.

The Government constantly complains that by preventing these particular measures we have held up crucial workplace relations reform and hindered the economic performance of the nation.

Again, they are campaigning on a problem that isn’t really there. Australia has lower unemployment, low interest rates, higher productivity, higher real wages growth and lower levels of industrial disputation than in the past. Working days lost per thousand employees is at 30 days, the lowest ever.

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The Democrats agree with continuous improvement to workplace relations law, but do not believe that radical change is needed to law that is working well overall.

Clearly the Senate system isn’t broken so why is the Prime Minister proposing reform?

The Senate, and particularly the Democrats in the Senate, act as a watchdog on executive power. The Senate is a House of review ensuring legislation is accurate, fair and effective. It is also a house of accountability. The Senate does not need the support of the Government to inquire into particular Government activities or legislation. Unlike Joint committees that often need the consent of the Minister before they can examine an issue.

When Mr Howard was in opposition he acknowledged the importance of the Senate, describing it as “…one of the most democratically elected chambers in the world” .

The Coalition’s campaign against the Senate since they came to power, goes hand in hand with their campaigns against the Judiciary and the public service. This Government has consistently sought to undermine the separation of powers and grab more power for themselves.

And we now have an Attorney-General who as Immigration Minister constantly battled courts’ efforts to protect refugees and may have done more than any other Minister in Australian history to undermine domestic and international law. That he is now the chief law officer is a matter of great concern.

That’s why they attack the Senate. Because we are doing our job in scrutinising legislation and holding them to account.

Previous Coalition attacks on the Senate proposed changes to the voting system to make it easier for the Government to hold a majority in the Senate, and reduce the voting power of those Australians who support minor parties. The Prime Minister realises Australians would oppose this plan. Around one in four Australians do not give their first vote in the Senate to the major parties.

In fact many people vote differently in the Senate, particularly supporting the Australian Democrats. We are the only Party to consistently poll higher in the Senate than the House of Representatives. People want there to be a Party that will try to work with the Government where possible, but still provide a check on power and prevent the excesses and abuses.

In the latest proposal released yesterday, Mr Howard is trying to bypass the Senate through increased numbers of joint sittings. There are 76 Senators and 150 Members of the House of Representatives. The House of Representatives is not representative. The advantage that joint sittings give to the Government of the day is obvious.

Mr Howard is basically telling Australians they voted incorrectly, by not giving him a majority in both houses. He’s saying: ‘You got it wrong. And I’ll fix the system so you don’t do it again’.

The Government’s discussion paper on the Senate released yesterday is riddled with lies. Not least of which is a chapter with the ridiculous title, “The minority-led Senate”.

Mr Howard’s paper fails at the first hurdle because it does not and cannot make the case for change. It is addressing a problem that doesn’t exist. A strong Senate means good Government for the Australian people.

The Prime Minister’s campaign for reform has been dishonest, and his proposals are pathetic, but there is a real debate to be had about political reform.

I acknowledge that Parliamentary reform is not the most sexy of topics. What the Parliament does is very important. The laws we pass - or don’t pass - impact on the lives of millions of Australians. But Parliamentary reform is not the sort of issue that is going to get crowds on the streets. We are not going to see marches on the Parliament chanting:

What do we want? “Democracy for the people through the separation of powers, proportional representation, and mechanisms for transparency and accountability.”

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When do we want it? “When passed by the majority of people in the majority of states in a referendum as advised by the Constitution.”

Both the Senate and the House of Representatives do the Constitutional job they were designed to do but, like anything, we can make them function better.

Today I am releasing the Democrats’ proposals for Parliamentary reform. The Democrats many proposals include issues we have pursued for a long time. These are the real priorities for reform.

Firstly we need improved accountability of Ministers and staffers The Government has become increasingly arrogant, secretive and elusive. They should be required to appear before inquiries and estimates, when requested, to provide information, and answer accusations of abuse of power and misleading the Australian public.

There are other mechanisms needed to extract information. Ministers should be required to produce requested documents when ordered by the Senate . The House of Representatives Question Time should be reformed so questions are actually answered.

We need the House of Representatives to be made representative through the introduction of proportional representation.

In the House of Representative the Government holds more than half the seats with less than half the primary vote.

In the Senate, the Government also got less than half the primary votes (less than 42%). but they accordingly hold less than half the seats (46%).

The Democrats support removing the Senate’s power to block supply.

The Senate needs more sitting days and guaranteed time for Private Senator’s Bills. The last two years have been the shortest sittings in almost three decades in a non-election year. Despite this the Senate deals with an enormous amount of legislation passing almost 3 Bills a day . But legislation isn’t getting the consideration it deserves.

Reform is needed in the governance of political Parties including limits and greater transparency in political donations with legislated ‘no strings attached’ provisions and better standards in political governance in political parties. There is more rules required to run a local footie club than a political party.

The Democrats have long supported fixed 4 year terms federally. It would bring stability and certainty and prevent Prime Ministers calling elections just to suit their own interests.

We believe the power to commit Australia troops to war should be taken out of the hands of the Prime Minister and an acquiescent Cabinet, and given to the Parliament.

Similarly Parliament should be required to approve international treaties before they are entered into. If the US Free Trade Agreement is reached it will need the approval of the US Senate, but not the Australian Parliament.

The Democrats’ preference for reform is not to give more power to the Prime Minister. We want more power in the hands of the Australian people.

We offer a very different proposal to John Howard’s to address legislation in dispute.

The Democrats don’t accept the Prime Minister’s premise that there is a crisis of legislation in dispute or that the existing Constitutional provision for Double Dissolutions is inadequate. Obviously the Parliament does need a mechanism to deal with disputed legislation.

If the two Houses of Parliament cannot agree on legislation then the best solution is to take it to the people. The Democrats believe legislation in dispute could be resolved through binding plebiscites, asking the opinion of the nation.

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If the Prime Minister genuinely wants a mandate, then put the legislation to the voters. If the Government wants to argue it has the support of the people to implement major reforms, it should be prepared to prove it.

Any legislation that is the subject of a protracted dispute between the Senate and the House of Representatives could easily be put to the Australian people for a yes/no vote at a normal election. Unlike the Mr Howard, we trust the people.

Let’s look at the example of the Bill for the further sale of Telstra. It looks pretty likely at this stage to become legislation in dispute.

Under Mr Howard’s preferred option, he would wait three months, hold a joint sitting, pass the legislation and sell Telstra. There would be no way to stop him.

But under the Democrats’ proposal he could go to a normal election with all his disputed legislation and ask the Australian people, ‘Do you want to sell Telstra?’ And, ‘Do you want medicines to be more expensive on the PBS?’ And, ‘Do you want more disabled people thrown off the disability support pension?’

The Democrats are willing to back moves to give less power to the Senate and to the Parliament as long as that power goes to the people, rather than the Prime Minister.

The Democrats challenge Prime Minister Howard to include in any referendum, alternative proposals to the two he released yesterday. These should include a plebiscite model, as well as other long-awaited reforms including fixed terms and removing the Senate’s power to block supply.

I believe Mr Howard knows that his proposal to gut the power of the Senate has no chance of passing a referendum. The Senate does an important job and the Australian people are wise to it.

But I don’t think Mr Howard is putting Senate reform up in the expectation it will pass. It’s all just part of the campaign to falsely paint the current Senate as a problem.

The government will not be successful in using the threat of an early election or this campaign against the Senate, to try and bully the Democrats into passing bad legislation that is against the interests and wishes of the Australian people.

The Democrats in the Senate are what stands between the ruling party and what they wants most - absolute power.

Australians don’t want an elected dictatorship and will support a strong Senate. For the last quarter of a century that has been the role of the Australian Democrats in the Senate. We will continue to fulfil that role responsibly, effectively and fearlessly.