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Wednesday, 17 November 2004
Page: 33

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (10:42 AM) —I rise to speak in this address-in-reply debate on behalf of the Labor opposition. It is true that the speech by His Excellency the Governor-General does accurately summarise the government's intentions for the 41st Parliament. But the program of action is not just confined to the matters that His Excellency was asked to address yesterday. I agree with many media comments today that the speech can be described as an iron fist in a velvet glove concealing its true intent. This is not just because of the government's determination to achieve its objectives but because of the recent debate within the government on introducing greater change, made possible by the new political circumstances in the Senate.

The decision of the Australian people on October 9 was clear. The coalition won a majority of the two-party-preferred vote and a House majority. We accept that as of 1 July next year the government will, for the first time in 24 years, have control of the Senate. Labor respects that democratic decision.

At the same time we acknowledge that almost half the population favoured Labor over the coalition. Much as the government might wish, we will not be running up the white flag, we will not go whimpering off with our tails between our legs and we will not cease from fighting for those values of fairness, opportunity, equality and hope that so many people saw, and voted for, in Labor on 9 October. We will continue to take the fight to the government wherever it is warranted. We will be a constructive opposition and we will judge every bill and every motion on its merits, but we will not roll over and we will not give in. We will keep the faith for the people who put their faith in us.

Labor have always put our faith in the democratic institutions that make this country great. We value and support the role of parliament as the legitimate voice of the people. Within the parliament we take seriously the responsibility of the opposition to hold the government to account. We have committed ourselves to doing so, knowing that there are those who do not place such great stock in our democratic institutions and processes.

Part of that democratic tradition is parliamentary accountability, a responsibility that the Senate has accepted and contributed to by moderating the excesses of executive government. It is a truism in politics: in sustaining our democratic values, power unchecked is power abused. Throughout the history of parliamentary evolution, checks and balances have deliberately been incorporated to seek moderation, to effect balance and to diffuse absolute power. In the Australian context, the Senate has developed mechanisms and processes through debate, through the scrutiny of legislation and by using the Senate committee system to bring the government of the day to account for its actions. It did so when Labor was in power and it has done so when the coalition government has been in power.

Through estimates and the committee process, the Senate has consistently played a crucial role in improving legislation and forcing governments to take responsibility for their actions. That is a process in which my predecessor, Senator Faulkner, provided exemplary leadership. Other Labor senators have added to this fine tradition, as have senators from the minor and independent parties. I want to particularly mention the role Senator Jacinta Collins has played. Her recent defeat is a great loss to Labor in the Senate. We value and look forward to her contribution up until July. We regret her losing her seat.

Most Australians, whatever their vote, were surprised that the government will soon have control of the Senate. The fact is that from July next year this government will be the most powerful in recent memory. The loss of the non-government majority threatens the checks and balances the Senate has provided to executive government excesses. Already we have been alerted to a new and radical agenda—an agenda not endorsed by the Australian people on 9 October, an agenda more extreme than any we have seen in our recent history and an agenda which has been revealed only as the coalition have realised that they soon will have absolute power.

A policy agenda has emerged over the past few weeks which is radically different from that put to the people on 9 October. The coalition's election agenda was marked by two competing and, in some ways, contradictory strands: a small, moderate, conservative program of incremental change contrasted with the $6 billion vote buy, cynically targeted at key groups, which was passed off as a campaign launch. After 9 October, the program that the government took to the people disappeared off the radar. There was no discussion about how the government would implement its agenda and the policies it took to the election until yesterday when they were outlined in the speech made by His Excellency. Instead there were internal debates among the Liberals and the Nationals as they discussed how to take full advantage of the unchecked power that has fallen to them.

The arrogance of unfettered power is resulting in the advocacy of a new, radical right-wing agenda. Moves to sell off Telstra, to reduce the industrial rights of workers, to attack student organisations and so on have been on the government's wish list for years but were always kept at bay by the moderating power of the Senate. Now these issues are developing momentum in the government's thinking. In addition, there are now issues like abortion, doing away with compulsory voting and a move to change the way we elect our Senate, which were never on the agenda, were never discussed, were not part of any claimed mandate and were never put to the Australian people. In short, the government has been overtaken by political opportunism.

The talk of the government and its members since 9 October has not been about practical measures to build and strengthen our nation over the coming years; it has been about a radical wish list of those who would dismantle democratic institutions to entrench their power and call it a crusade for freedom. Why else has the issue of voluntary voting been placed back on the agenda? I know Senator Minchin has had it at the core of his political concerns for many years, but it is not an issue I remember being discussed during the campaign. Maybe my colleagues and I on this side of the chamber were too busy talking about how to get more money into our poorest schools or how to rebuild bulk-billing. The government's thinking on this is not about what the Australian people want and need; it is about trying to shore up the coalition's vote at future elections and removing parliamentary impediments to the passage of its legislation.

In addition to the new agenda which has emerged since the election, there is also a new dynamic emerging within the coalition. With the pesky matter of opposition largely taken care of for the next three years, the Liberal and National parties are finding themselves being asked to deliver to increasingly strident constituencies in their traditional power base. The last week has seen calls from coalition supporters for more dramatic political action, for an agenda which goes well beyond that which the government took to the people on election day.

Recently a group of well-known business personalities demanded that the Howard government consider industrial relations reforms that are far more wide ranging and radical than those the government has been proposing. Their call has been answered by the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, who has now requested a complete review of industrial relations legislation, including stripping away basic legal privileges enjoyed by unions, removing the right to strike, reducing the role of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission and establishing industrial contracts as the primary means of regulating employment. The H.R. Nicholls Society approach to industrial relations is once more dominating internal coalition debate: the dog-eat-dog approach to the workplace. Tax has not been ignored. Mr Peter Hendy of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry is now pressing the Howard government to rejig direct and indirect taxes.

At the same time divisions are emerging in its parliamentary ranks. Abortion has emerged as a priority of the Liberal's conservative wing, exposing a widening division and a concerning lack of moderation in government ranks. This is something that has obviously concerned the Prime Minister as in recent days he has tried to dampen that debate. How this government handles the increasingly strong calls on its new found power from its own constituencies will be a central test of it in this term. After 1 July, the government will not be able to rely on the checks and balances which the Senate has exercised, which have often protected it from the demands of its more radical right-wing constituencies.

The new dynamic in the coalition parties is also being exposed as the government moves to sell off the remaining publicly owned share of Telstra. I say `the government', but I should rephrase—in fact, it is only The Nationals who can sell Telstra. Only The Nationals, who will hold the balance of power in the Senate after 1 July, can take the decision to sell Telstra. Senator Boswell has made great claims about The Nationals holding the balance of power in the Senate and playing a critical role in the Telstra debate. As we just heard from Senator Fifield, there is a clear divergence of opinion in the coalition about these issues. I think The Nationals will sell Telstra. They will do so despite their claim that they will hold the balance of power and despite attempts to portray themselves as full partners in the coalition. They will do so because they have consistently shown themselves incapable of or unwilling to stand up for the needs of their rural and regional constituencies. In seeking a better deal for the bush they have not been pretty and they have not been effective and no amount of future proofing would save them from the electoral consequences were they to sell Telstra.

The government's new found power has also led to an arrogant disregard for the democratic institutions of our parliament. I talked before about the role of the Senate in tempering executive excess and in holding governments to account. Given the radical path that this government has embarked upon, that function should be more important than ever. Unfortunately, though, the job of the Senate will also become more difficult. The government has shown that it is not interested in maintaining the institutions of the Senate. Just as it wishes to silence student organisations and just as it wants fewer people to vote, so it wishes to silence the Senate. That is why the number of sitting days for 2005 has been slashed. That is why there is talk of changing the procedures of the chamber, introducing stronger time limits, increasing the use of the guillotine and changing the activities of Senate committees. The government's contempt for the Senate is clear. Removing parliamentary impediments to the passage of its legislation is gathering what I think is unhealthy momentum in the government.

I talked earlier of Labor's commitment to the accountability and moderation that the Senate brings to government. I also talked of the commitment Labor have made to those who put their faith in us on 9 October—almost half the population. As I said, we will be a constructive opposition: we will engage, look at government propositions and act in the best interests of our national community. We are right to do that as the official opposition. The current Senate reflects the legitimate choices the people made in the democratic process. After July our role will be more difficult—I will not dispute that—but Labor will continue to represent rigorously and energetically the views of those people who elected us.

As Labor's spokesperson on social security it will be my role to hold the government to account for its attacks on our community and on those who most need the support that the community can offer. Labor is committed to a fairer social security system which offers a necessary level of income support for Australians when they need it. We also believe that the social security system should supplement Australians on low incomes, particularly families who face additional costs in providing for children, people with disabilities and people who make sacrifices to care for others. Labor believe we should support Australians but also provide incentives to make the transition from welfare to work. The social security system is most effective when it rewards hard work and increases people's access to opportunities and skills so they can improve their standard of living.

In this new parliament, Labor in the Senate will be more than ever the check on government excess. We will continue to speak out against a radical right-wing agenda, against the unfettered arrogance of unchecked power and the government's cynical contempt for our democratic institutions and the values that most Australians hold dear. As a party, Labor has always sought to represent the best in Australian society. We have always believed in compassion and in protecting and supporting those who are disadvantaged, oppressed or simply struggling to cope. The true test of a society is its capacity to care for its less well off. We believe in freedom and fairness and we know that true prosperity does not hold these values hostage. We believe in a better way, in hope and courage, in responsibility, in community, in equality and, again, in fairness. That has always been the Australian way, and I am proud to say that that will always be the Australian Labor Party way. These principles will guide Labor in dealing with the most powerful and extreme government in recent history.