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Thursday, 12 December 2002
Page: 8157

Senator BROWN (9:37 AM) —When the Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Hill, said that the Labor Party's amendments—and by imputation the crossbench support for the amendments—would damn the safety of Australians, he reached a new low in the debate. What it uncovered coming from the Prime Minister's office was the new political correctness which says, `If you do not agree with the Prime Minister of this country, you are in some way on the side of those who are anti-Australian or who would create terror in this country.' That is no way to facilitate a debate in a great parliament like this. There is no doubt that this is a very complex and difficult piece of legislation, which demands resolution today. Therefore, it demands that both sides listen to each other and seek the best outcome in this debate that is possible.

We have had the leader saying that he has been horrified by the de facto government that the Labor Party presents itself to be. In fact, what he has been saying is that this parliament does not have a role as a check on the government, or in improving legislation coming from the executive of Prime Minister Howard. There is this idea that anything the Prime Minister puts forward, in these increasingly tense and dangerous days, cannot be countermanded even by the elected parliament of Australia. The Prime Minister stands aside and above that in his mind. That is a very dangerous mistake in thinking. This is a collectively represented parliament elected by the people of this country. The office of Prime Minister was elected by his party, not by the people of this country, and it is the parliament which is supreme.

When legislation is brought into the parliament by the executive—by a minister— and the parliament determines that there should be amendments to it, the government should listen. If the point of view of the government and the Prime Minister is that they will not brook improvement through the workings of the Senate and the parliament, it is democracy itself which is being questioned. The Greens have said that we oppose this draconian legislation. We and the Democrats have nevertheless supported the amendments that the Labor Party has put forward and supported the passage of the legislation so that it can go back to the House of Representatives for consideration. That is proper process.

The Labor Party say they have come up with a `tough, compulsory, coercive questioning regime' for ASIO to deal with terrorism. Whatever else the government might say, that regime gives ASIO unprecedented powers to take people off the streets and question them in the first instance without a legal representative and without other people knowing where they are, effectively in secret and with their usual rights taken away. These are not people suspected of terrorism, knowledge of terrorism or potential involvement in terrorism; these are innocents who ASIO suspects may have some information. This is indeed, as Senator Faulkner has said, a `tough, compulsory, coercive questioning regime'.

The government say that this legislation is needed; nevertheless, because the Prime Minister wants to appear to be above the parliament in these dangerous days, the government and the Prime Minister will reject it. They would leave ASIO with nothing rather than accept the Labor `moderate' proposition, as I heard the leader describe. Be that on Prime Minister Howard's head if the result of this is nothing. It is incumbent on the Prime Minister, if he believes that greater powers must be given to the surveillance agency—ASIO—to accept what the negotiations between the Labor Party and the government have produced.

I am talking about bringing this out from the Prime Minister's realm of ownership of democracy in this country and having him accept that this parliament is working in the national interest. How dare he or his ministers say that the workings of this chamber would damn the safety of Australians! How dare he or his ministers say that about representatives in this place! That is the new political correctness: trying to silence critics and constructive debate. The Prime Minister is now in the dock for that.

I have watched in this chamber for 18 months as the Labor Party has sided with the government on the Tampa incident, on legislation to bring in the Army against peaceful protesters before the Olympics, and on a series of laws which have eaten into traditional civil liberties and political rights in this country. But we are seeing something different here today. The Labor Party has said: `We are going to stand for something different. We recognise that there is a difficult decision to make between our political rights and our democracy on the one hand and the threat of terrorism on the other.'

The Prime Minister and the government feel that they cannot accept this situation where, for once, the opposition is acting as an opposition. They will not accept it. Well, they are going to have to accept that this is a democracy where the parliament ultimately makes the decision. If the Prime Minister walks away from that, be it on his head. It is his responsibility if, where he believes there must be strong laws, he opts instead for no laws. That is the Prime Minister's responsibility, and he has to recognise that. If this legislation fails today—I am talking about the democratic process here—there will be a void of new legislation for months to come. The Prime Minister will be out there, today and tomorrow, saying it is the fault of the Labor Party, the Democrats and the Greens. But he cannot maintain that. It will be on the Prime Minister's shoulders; and the test is on here. Does he want the stronger laws which the Labor party are now offering to him for ASIO to handle this situation—which, by the way, is a situation much closer to that which the Greens maintain is the better outcome— or will he opt for none at all?

My submission is that the Prime Minister has had a little too long being dictatorial from the executive, because the Labor Party have let him. Today, they have become an opposition again. The Prime Minister and the government have to understand that. From where I sit, if there is a zero outcome here today, it is not on Mr Crean's head. It is not on the opposition's head. It is because of an intransigent Prime Minister who has lost sight of the democratic process.