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Thursday, 12 August 2004
Page: 26495

Senator STOTT DESPOJA (1:22 PM) —One of my constituents has just sent me a text message suggesting that the Democrats and others on the crossbench should simply walk out as a sign of protest against, or boycott of, this absolute thwarting of the democratic process, but I recognise that that would suit the purposes of this chamber. If we were to leave, the two major parties, who have colluded not only on this guillotine motion but also on other regressive pieces of legislation, would be too thrilled as a consequence. I see our responsibility in this place today as standing up—even if we are only seven Democrats and two Greens—for what we consider important democratic principles and, indeed, standing up for the role of the Senate. In case we have forgotten, in the Westminster tradition—or the `Washminster' tradition, if we are to be more correct about our democratic inheritance—the Senate is a house of review which has a responsibility to scrutinise legislation in an accountable and transparent manner. That is our responsibility and that responsibility is being abrogated today.

Ministers may say it is democratic because a majority of the Senate has decided, or is about to express its majority will so that we do decide, to impose this particular time constraint—`a TMM', as Senator Ian Campbell described it, a time management motion. It sounds almost Orwellian but that does not surprise me in the context of this week. This has been a shocker of a week—an embarrassing, shameful, disgraceful week. In fact it is one of the most embarrassing weeks in this parliament and I feel embarrassed and shamed being here today.

Friday, 13 August: what a bummer this has been. This week started on a regressive, shameful note. We started our week as legislators recognising a High Court decision that said we could detain innocent people for life—refugees, asylum seekers, who have come to our country and who are effectively stateless. Despite the fact that they were not going to be deported in the foreseeable future, we have a ruling which says that it is now legal to put those people in jail for life. That is how the week started and it did not get any better.

Today we have exposed not only this government but also the opposition for their lack of truth in parliament, in government and in representative democracy. My leader, Senator Bartlett, referred to the 43 eminent Australians who, last weekend, signed that invaluable note expressing their desire for real truth in government and expressing their concerns about the lack of commitment to that important transparent process which we are supposed to value. And what happened? By Wednesday, the debates in this place were all about how we could be incredibly derogatory to those people—43 people with whom I have not always shared the same political opinions but who are, nonetheless, eminent and distinguished Australians. Yes, some of them are older, and some of the derogatory references made to age in this place during the week were appalling. What a disgrace those comments were.

As I asked during the week, what other comparable democratic nation would spend its hours in the Senate—we spent at least half an hour taking note—condemning, trivialising, patronising, ridiculing and mocking 43 eminent people who helped make this nation what it is today, who made it great? Today I do not feel that my nation is so great. I certainly do not feel that the representative pinnacle of our nation, the Australian parliament, is acting in a great fashion.

Senator Ludwig has just said that the Labor Party will support the guillotine—not that we doubted it, because the votes preceding this debate have made the Labor Party's intention quite clear. And the only justification he offered in a very brief explanation to the Senate was that the guillotine is `reasonable'. Reasonable? What a joke! Half an hour for an electoral bill which deals with a number of issues! Voting rights of prisoners may be part of it—it is not my portfolio. Half an hour: that is 1½ speeches on the second reading. That is a joke and everyone in this place knows it. Of course it is a joke. And 3½ hours on the marriage bill? Don't give me reasonableness! That is not even attacking the substantive nature of the policy with which we are dealing.

We have 19 members on the speakers list. I have not put my name down yet and I wish to speak on that bill. Do the math, people: that is 6½ hours, or more. That does not allow time for debate on any of the amendments. Senator Greig, who has carriage of that portfolio, has spoken on these issues twice in the Senate today in, I might say, a brilliant manner—having clapped your last contribution, Brian, and being called disorderly, I will minimise my enthusiasm on this occasion. In his last contribution, Senator Greig outlined quite appropriately the fact that there are a number of amendments that will never be debated, that will never be dealt with. At best, dealing with those amendments would let us see a voting record of politicians in this place. We are not going to hear the rationale as to why politicians may have voted a certain way. This is all the more offensive because of the nature of the legislation with which we are dealing. I have no doubt that it is discriminatory in the sense that it has an implicit impact. It makes very clear how this parliament feels about gay and lesbian unions and I am embarrassed by that.

Senator Greig and Senator Cherry talked about the concern and disappointment that gays and lesbians in our community may feel. Well, I am married and my union satisfies the definition with which we will be dealing, but how dare anyone suggest that my union, my partnership, is any more valuable that that of a same-sex partnership! I do not suggest for a moment that, because I happen to be in a heterosexual relationship which meets legal requirements, somehow my union is more valuable. How dare we suggest that! How patronising we are! If only we were simply patronising. We are not: we are offensive if we pass legislation that has that implied criticism, that illusion.

Ministers cannot stand in this place and pretend that this bill is not discriminatory, and Labor Party spokespersons cannot either. I know there has been outspokenness from some members of the Labor Party, but for once in this place I would like to see a vote that is not on party lines—a vote about passionate, principled policy issues that we believe in. Cross the floor, for goodness sake. Senators in my home state have expressed concerns about the bill and the message it sends but they should not just talk about it; they should vote that way, for goodness sake. I am embarrassed to be on record today as the only South Australian senator who not only voted against the FTA but also will vote against this guillotine. I will vote and make clear my views on the Marriage Amendment Bill 2004. I am embarrassed that I am the only South Australian to do so, out of 12. It is appalling, and I hope South Australians remember it.

As Senator Cherry has made clear, it suits us politically and it suits us pragmatically, but surely these issues are broader than simply the electoral cycle with which we are confronted? Surely these issues are more important to us as legislators, as upholders of democracy and as parliamentarians—parliamentarians, my foot: members of parliament. I am yet to see a few parliamentarians in this place stand up for the real things that they believe in. So I commend my colleagues on their contributions.

Again I put on record that the Australian Democrats are pretty upset and angry today. This government has misrepresented its position today and in recent times when we have been told what the forward agenda is and yet it has been changed. Change is fine. Consultation is better. But informing the Senate of one thing and doing another is misleading and misrepresenting the parliament. It comes back to the original concern that many of us had this week—the concern articulated by 43 eminent Australians that there is a lack of truth in government and a lack of truth in parliament. Bob Brown is right: Friday, August 13 is Friday the 13th in this place. It has been a black day for parliament and democracy. The Democrats are not going to give up without a fight. We may not have the numbers but we certainly have sought to uphold the morality—for lack of a better word—and the democratic intentions of this place.