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Wednesday, 17 November 2004
Page: 18

Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (9:35 AM) —I would like to speak to this motion on the days of meeting of the Senate. Senators would probably be aware that the Australian Democrats expressed concern a number of times in the previous parliament about the limited number of sitting days that the Senate met to consider legislation. For those who are not aware of that, I am sure they would enjoy looking through the Hansard and reading some of my speeches on the matter.

Senator Ferguson —I don't know that they would.

Senator BARTLETT —I am sure that you would.

Senator Payne —Insomnia is a terrible disease.

Senator BARTLETT —That is most unfair. The number of days proposed by the acting Manager of Government Business for the Senate to consider legislation, not so much for this year but for 2005, has hit a new low. Although it has already been publicly commented on, this is the first opportunity to say in this chamber that the number of sitting weeks in the first half of next year is totally derisory. In over seven months through to the start of August, there are only six sitting weeks and three of those are short weeks that do not include a sitting day on the Monday. So in effect we are down to 21 sitting days, which is just over five of the normal four-day sitting weeks, in the first seven months of next year.

It is no secret that during the first six months of next year the government will not have control of the Senate. This is a fairly blatant attempt by the government to prevent the Senate from being able to properly scrutinise and properly debate legislation during that period when the government does not have control of the Senate. In one sense you could say that it is smart politics by the government to put things off until it has the numbers and can then do what it wants. But this is a pretty clear indication right from the start that the Prime Minister's statement that the government will not let its new power in the Senate go to its head, that it will ensure that the Senate will still be able to function in its role as a house of review is, once again, just a lot of hot air. Right from the start we are being given a pretty clear sign of the government's intent to avoid full scrutiny at a time when the Senate still has the maximum ability to do so.

I fully accept that the election result is legitimate and democratic and that the government will have control of the Senate from the second part of next year. I complain about that because I think it is a bad thing, but I do not negate the legitimacy of it. I think it is a very unfortunate situation that the overall number of sitting days for the Senate changes next year. Even when you add in the much heavier sitting program in the second half of the year, in historical terms it is right at the bottom end of the numbers of sitting days, particularly when you consider the fairly large amount of legislation that the parliament now deals with, alongside the literally thousands of disallowable instruments and regulations and ordinances that are tabled and require the scrutiny of senators.

Even with the second half of next year having a much larger number of sitting weeks—there are eight sitting weeks in the final four months of the year—when you add all the sitting weeks together it is still an incredibly small number by historical standards. Calculations by the Democrats suggest that it is the lowest number in a non-election year certainly since the end of the Whitlam era, when Mr Fraser got into government in 1975-76. The number of sitting days is right down there, even when compared with the low number of sitting days that you tend to get in an election year. I assume that next year will not be an election year so having such a low number of sitting days, even after adding the number of sitting days for the second half of the year when the government will have the numbers in the Senate, is another indication of the lowering of the respect that this government has for the Senate and for the parliament. It is the continuing escalation of an approach that seeks to avoid not just the Senate but the parliament as a whole as a legitimate mechanism for debate, for the expression of opinions and for the scrutiny of government activity and seeks to take the activities and the power base of the government outside the parliament altogether.

This is a very serious problem that has been spoken about a number of times in the past by the Democrats. Indeed prior to the election I moved a motion to insert extra weeks into this sitting year, which was not supported. I flagged that it may be appropriate for the Senate to consider amending its timetable a bit down the track to add extra sitting weeks to the first part of next year. That is certainly something that needs consideration and I urge the opposition also to give consideration to it. At this time, whilst I will not oppose the motion, because obviously we need to have some sitting days, it is important to draw attention to the fact that this is an incredibly low number of sitting days. By historical standards this is the lowest number of sitting days in 30 years, and the amount of legislation we deal with these days is much greater than that dealt with 30 years ago. On top of that is the added insult of the incredibly low number of sitting weeks during the first part of the year—in fact right through until August—when the government will not have the ability to so easily control what happens in the Senate.

So this motion is the first sign, and it is not a good sign, that the government's comments about treating its new-found power in the Senate with respect are not likely to be followed through in practice. As I said, the Democrats acknowledge the democratic legitimacy of the government's control of the Senate from the second half of next year but we do not believe the government should avoid the democratic legitimacy of the existing Senate by preventing the Senate from sitting until that time. At the election the government did legitimately get the majority of the seats in the Senate from the second half of next year; I think the public clearly did give the government the keys to the Senate but they did not give them permission to trash the place. The Democrats will certainly continue to do what we can to ensure that the government do not trash the place. We will have to look at other mechanisms to try to ensure that that can be done.