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Monday, 21 February 2011
Page: 612

Mr BANDT (1:14 PM) —In opposing the government’s motion, and in moving an amendment that would put financial responsibility at the centre of this debate, the Greens are upholding the Constitution. We are upholding the Constitution because the bill currently before the parliament, the Social Security Amendment (Income Support for Regional Students) Bill 2010, is not an appropriation bill. There is a strong line of argument that explains why this is not an appropriation bill.

If the argument is that it is an appropriation bill because it is going to result in the expenditure of money, then arguably any bill that passes the Senate is an appropriation bill, because almost any bill that one could imagine that would pass the Senate may require a public servant to do something, it may require the government to do something, it may require a committee or a tribunal to act in a certain way, and that will involve the expenditure of money—possibly even greater than the government had initially anticipated. More importantly, there is a strong line of argument, equally as strong or stronger in my submission than that advanced by the Attorney-General, that says: where there is an existing appropriation that is unlimited, the parliament has already passed the appropriation bill and the parliament has said, ‘We do not know how much money this will cost, but we are prepared to write an open cheque to pay the money, because it is important.’ When parliament subsequently amends the criteria to access that pool of money, that does not amount to an appropriation bill within the meaning of the Constitution.

It is not only the Senate that believes that, it is not only the advice from the Clerk of the Senate to the President, and it is not only the President who believes that; in fact, this House did exactly that in 2007. In 2007 there was a bill that originated in the Senate. It was the National Health Amendment (Pharmaceutical Benefits) Bill 2007, and it created an entitlement to pharmaceutical benefits in respect of prescriptions issued by optometrists, and it was to be funded out of a standing appropriation in the principal act. That bill passed the Senate, it came to the House and it passed without demur from the then opposition. The reason it passed is that the House has accepted that, in instances such as this, it does not amount to an appropriation bill.

The Attorney-General referred to a number of authorities and I have had a look at those authorities. It is very clear that the courts say: ‘This is about the law-making process. We are not adjudicating on a final law. We will not trespass into that, because that is a matter for the parliament to resolve.’ It is a matter for the House, the Senate and the government exercising executive power, and the other members who make up the parliament, to reach agreement amongst themselves about how they are going to proceed.

In previous parliaments, for reasons that one can readily imagine, where the government has had the numbers in the House of Representatives, when a bill has come here the government has simply been able to say, ‘This does not amount to an appropriation bill.’ But that does not mean that that is necessarily the case, and it does not obviate the fact that the parliament still has to decide what it is going to do with it. We have not confronted a situation before where we have a minority government and where legislation has been brought before the parliament to determine how we are going to deal with it. Those past practices may be well and good, but they do not speak to the situation that we find ourselves in now.

I am concerned that by adopting the principle that anything to do with money is automatically an appropriation bill or that anything to do with an existing appropriation is automatically an appropriation bill we in this parliament are ceding an enormous amount of power to the executive—power that ought to lie in the hands of this parliament. If we are to say that anything to do with money requires the minister to have a message coming from the Governor-General, we are diminishing the role of the Senate to initiate legislation other than appropriations legislation and I think we are diminishing the opportunities that are available to the crossbench in this House.

As a matter of principle we should be able to debate this bill. I would not support this bill; I would vote against it. The Greens do not support this bill if we are able to debate it, but I should emphasise that that is not because of the substance that this bill speaks to. My electorate of Melbourne has the highest number of students of any electorate in the country, and many of them live in residential colleges and they have come from regional areas. I know the enormous difficulty that people have in getting access to the independent rate of youth allowance and having enough money to live on. That is why, for quite some time, the Greens have been saying that we need a new test that will make sure that rural and regional students are not put at a disadvantage and that we do not have a continuation of the figures that we see at the moment where we know that students who do not come from the city are twice as likely, if not more likely, to not complete their first year because of the unique pressures that they face. That is why we want to see a new universal test that would mean that if a student has to travel more than 90 minutes to get to their university, they should be entitled to an independent rate of youth allowance.

I cut my teeth as a student politician around cost of living and access to university campaigns. I have seen governments from both sides, over many, many years, reduce the level of youth allowance to the point where it is far, far less than unemployment benefits. And systematically governments of both persuasions have restricted access to it. I do note the irony in that these very criteria and restrictions that we are debating at the moment arose effectively out of a deal between the coalition and Labor to reform the youth allowance.

It is absolutely clear that rural and regional students need better treatment, and that is why we need a better test that will enable everyone to get access to youth allowance. But the reason that I would not support this bill if we were allowed to debate it is that it is financially irresponsible, in the parliament that we have at the moment, to put up bills that would involve additional spending of money without having before the parliament, either in law or in some other way, a means by which they are going to be funded. We are completely able to do that; that is within our means. That is why, when this bill was before the Senate, we moved a motion that a message be sent to this place to ensure that the mining tax was increased sufficiently to enable the payment of increased youth allowance.

That amendment did not succeed in the Senate, and that is very disappointing. Given the balance of this parliament, we should not be in a situation where we are spending money in an irresponsible manner without saying where it is going to come from. It is not good enough to say by press release, as the coalition has done, that we would cut this program or that program, especially when that program has already been dipped into by the Leader of the Opposition for flood reconstruction; you cannot double dip. It is not appropriate to simply issue a press release to say: ‘If we were in government, this is how we would fund it.’

There is a means by which the parliament could do it and that has not been taken advantage of. That is why the amendment that I am moving to this motion that has been circulated in my name—that the bill proceed when parliament has agreed to a method to finance the measures contained in this bill—seeks to put economic responsibility at the centre of how we deal with this question in this finely balanced parliament.

The Constitution and the authorities that have been referred to send a very clear message—that is, it is up to the parliament to decide which bills it will pass and which ones it will not. We need to put the question of economic responsibility at the centre so that we can have a better deal for regional and rural students, and so it is funded in a fair way that does not leave a hole in the budget.

I am concerned that we find ourselves potentially in a situation where we diminish opportunities in the future that are available to this crossbench and to this parliament to legislate in innovative ways. I note that, despite some of the claims that might have been made by the Leader of the House by voting against this motion, it ought not be taken in any way as dissent from your ruling, Mr Speaker. This is not a matter of dissent from the ruling of the Speaker; this is a matter of the House collectively deciding how it will conduct its own business on a very important matter. It is not within the standing orders in the form of a motion of dissent from the Speaker; it is simply an opinion about how the House ought to conduct its own business.

I move the amendment in the terms that have been circulated. I hope that we are all able to take advantage of the opportunities offered by this new parliament. I hope we are able to have debate about a very important issue, and we do not respond simply by shutting down debate about an important constitutional issue. Ultimately, I hope we can get a better deal for rural and regional students but in a way that is economically responsible. I move:

That all words after “That” be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

“the bill proceed when parliament has agreed to a method to finance the measures contained in the bill”.

The SPEAKER —Is the amendment seconded?

Mr Oakeshott —I second the amendment and reserve my right to speak.