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Wednesday, 13 November 2013
Page: 107

Mr BURKE (WatsonManager of Opposition Business) (11:29): In the first instance, before I get into the substance of the debate, I refer to the fact that we have a number of first speeches waiting. It is quite possible within the business of the House to stop this debate at any point, pause it, allow people to make their first speeches, and then return to this debate later. The fact that people are making their first speeches should not be used as an excuse by the government to bludgeon changes to standing orders through without proper debate. The standing orders themselves are meant to be the foundation for debates. If we are not even meant to be allowed to debate them, it says something pretty extraordinary about what the government are trying to get away with in front of us right now.

If you have a look at what has been circulated from the Leader of the House, you find example after example of speaking times being reduced—example after example of the possibility of this parliament holding people to account being taken away. They now find supplementary questions unacceptable, yet they were so happy to stand up and ask them in this chamber at this dispatch box only months ago. Never once in the last term of government did they say there was a problem with being able to ask supplementary questions. They asked supplementary questions and they used them. Yet, the moment they get on the other side of the chamber, straightaway they want to use their numbers to get rid of them.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of what has been brought to this House by the Leader of the House is the new standing order to allow the Speaker to make a ruling that it is disorderly to comment on something where an allegation has been made previously. This automatically involves the Speaker in making a political judgement call on the merits of an argument. Immediately, this change to the standing orders says that, for what is otherwise a matter of political debate across the chamber, we will put into the hands of the Speaker the authority to silence one side of the debate, not on the basis that the words are disorderly—and I am not sure what words are left that are going to be disorderly, after the charade this morning. When there is a genuine cause for political debate, where someone will stand up and claim to have been misrepresented—and they get the opportunity to do that—it does not mean that the House automatically agrees with the claim of misrepresentation that has been made. There would be no shortage of examples where Labor members have stood up and claimed to have been misrepresented and the Leader of the House would say, 'Oh, no, I do not think you were misrepresented at all.' Yet the judgement call is meant to then be placed in the hands of the Speaker to determine whether or not a political charge is true.

Today, we saw the dangers in judgement calls being made where the standing orders are crystal clear—we had a dissent motion about it. The government now wants to increase the powers of the Speaker beyond what they have ever been in the history of this House so as to allow the Speaker of the parliament to apply censorship to political views—to provide censorship to one half of the political debate.

I could not imagine any change to the standing orders that would be considered as extreme as what the Leader of the House has just brought forward here, because there is no doubt whatsoever that the Speaker should not be involved in making a political judgement call. The Leader of the House wants to create a situation where, if we make an allegation about cuts or about something else the government are doing, they can stand up later and claim to have been misrepresented and put the reverse charge, and from that moment on the Speaker of the House can make a judgement call that the Labor side of the argument is not to be heard here.

I am sure there are some parliaments in the world where the person chairing the meeting has that sort of power. They are not known as the democratic nations of the world. Yet that is exactly what we are about to see here. Debates on matters of public importance are a classic example. They are one of the few things that the opposition overwhelmingly gets. Each day of parliament, with the exception of Mondays, the opposition get the chance to choose an issue we believe is important and put it before the parliament. It is an opportunity where the front bench opens the debate and the back bench then gets an opportunity to participate. For many members of the back bench, on the government's side as well, MPI debates are their main opportunity to make a contribution to the debate of the parliament on issues of national importance beyond their electorate. It has frequently been an opportunity for members of the Liberal and National parties to show that they have more talent than some of the people who were sitting in the front row of their own show. Also, there is no shortage of people on the government back benches who are well and truly more talented than the people they have on the front benches. When MPI debates are cut by a third, these people will then not get these chances. The start of the debates, when the frontbenchers get to speak, will still be there. But the backbenchers will be denied absolutely the opportunity they had to speak and to show some of the people sitting in front of them that, to their embarrassment, they are streets ahead of them.

Supplementary questions are not a recent invention of the last parliament. The clause in the standing orders on supplementary questions has been there for a very long time. If the Leader of the House believes, as he implied in his speech, that supplementary questions were a recent invention of the last parliament, that is just plain wrong. Supplementary questions have been available for a very long time, and it has been at the discretion of the Speaker as to whether or not they are to be allowed. Taking this out of the standing orders altogether means that the opportunity to stand up and immediately put pressure back on will have been removed for those occasions—and I reckon there will be a few—where members of the government come to the dispatch box and are not able to answer questions, or are perhaps even treating the parliament the way they have been treating the Australian media, or are unwilling to answer a question, even if they might know some aspect of the answer. Not only will it have been removed for members of the opposition but also it will have been removed from what I thought was meant to be an empowered back bench. Remember backbench question time? Remember that we were told that the backbenchers were going to have all this capacity to raise issues here in the parliament relevant to their electorates? And, if the answer came back and they wanted more information, the supplementary would have been the only way to get it. But at this moment that is gone because of what the Leader of the House has brought in here.

The Leader of the House has never been somebody who has respected debate in this parliament. But he has been somebody—

Government members interjecting

Mr BURKE: While those around him may say how unfair that is, if you look at his face, you can see that he thinks it is a fair call. But it is true that he has been somebody who has been more than willing to take advantage of every standing order that is there. Standing orders that were significant to them in opposition they want gone now they are in government.

The culture of secrecy that has been there from day one in this government is something that today enters the Australian parliament. Today, the culture of secrecy and the silencing of public discussion reaches the floor of the House of Representatives with the culling of speaking times, with the abolition of supplementary questions and—most disturbingly—with the change to the role of the Speaker to make the Speaker the chief censor in the Australian parliament. I find it absolutely extraordinary that anybody who believes in having a robust chamber could think that it was fair and reasonable for the Speaker to adjudicate on whether or not a political argument is accurate simply because someone on the government side has stood up and said that they feel that they were misrepresented.

After what we saw this morning with the interpretation that was litigated in the way that it was—and 'interpretation' is a very generous way of describing the farce of this morning—I think we have a pretty good idea that the government intend for this censorship power to be used absolutely by the Speaker. While they intend to engage in childish name-calling and in the teasing of a school playground, they also intend to make sure that political argument is shut down. This House should not let them get away with this today. This House should not stand idly by while the executive is again allowed to silence debate in this chamber.

Not only are the principles that are being undone principles that have been longstanding practice within this parliament; they are also the opposite of what this government told us it was going to do. In January of this year, the current Leader of the House made a speech explaining what changes he would bring to the new parliament if he became Leader of the House. Those election commitments, one by one, have been abrogated. We and the Australian people are discovering that those opposite are not being who they told the Australian people that they would be. Backbench question time is gone. We even had the quip from the Leader of the House earlier, saying, 'Every question time is backbench question time!' He was not saying that in January; he was not using that argument then. The Leader of the House said then that there would be an independent Speaker who would not attend party room meetings. That died yesterday. And it will be a very sad day on Tuesday of next week when, once again, the exact opposite of something that the government said they would do will happen now that they occupy the government benches.

We had from the Leader of the House example after example of reforms that he would make to the parliament. Another one, Mr Deputy Speaker Scott, was about your own position. There was going to be a guarantee in writing signed by the Leader of the House that that position would go to the opposition party. That was abrogated yesterday. Deputy Speaker, we have great respect for you in this job. We have a view about a particular promotion that may have been warranted. But there is no doubt that the litany of examples of this government doing something very different to what it told the Australia people it would do has now reached the floor of the parliament.

It is bad enough that the government are not doing the things they told us they would do. What is worse is that they are now going in the exact opposite direction. They are carving up speaking times and making sure that the opportunities for dissent within this parliament are taken away. They are turning the role of the Speaker from that of an arbiter and adjudicator to that of a censorship board. That is not what the Speaker is meant to be about. I am not sure what recommendation has caused this rush of blood to the head of the Leader of the House—that somehow he thinks that the role of the Speaker should be fundamentally changed so that, instead of being the person who manages and adjudicates the debate and who looks after the House, they become the person to stifle debate and to prevent members of parliament being able to put a counterview to the executive.

If you wanted to put a counterview in speeches, those speeches have now been cut. If you wanted to put a counterview in the MPI debate, that debate is about to be curtailed. If you wanted to pursue a minister through a supplementary question, the supplementary questions are now gone. And if you thought the Speaker had any chance of being impartial, unfortunately, what is proposed here puts the Speaker in an impossible position. It puts the Speaker right in the middle of making a judgment call that is not procedural but political. The House should recognise exactly what the Leader of the House is putting forward here and should reject it.