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Thursday, 5 February 2009
Page: 380

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Leader of the Government in the Senate) (9:32 AM) —by leave—At the request of Senator Ludwig, I move:

   That, on Thursday, 5 February 2009:

(a)   the hours of meeting shall be 9.30 am to 6.30 pm and 7 pm to adjournment;

(b)   consideration of general business and consideration of committee reports, government responses and Auditor-General’s reports under standing order 62(1) and (2) shall not be proceeded with;

(c)   the routine of business from 12.45 pm till not later than 2 pm, and from not later than 4.30 pm shall be government business only;

(d)   divisions may take place after 4.30 pm;

(e)   the question for the adjournment of the Senate shall be proposed after the Senate has finally considered the bills listed below, including any messages from the House of Representatives:

   Tax Bonus for Working Australians Bill 2009

   Tax Bonus for Working Australians (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2009

   Household Stimulus Package Bill 2009

   Commonwealth Inscribed Stock Amendment Bill 2009; and

(f)   if the Senate is sitting at midnight, the sitting of the Senate be suspended till 9 am on Friday, 6 February 2009.

I thank the Senate for its cooperation in bringing this debate on and not unduly delaying the Senate on procedural matters. In the government’s view there is an urgent need for action to stimulate the Australian economy. We have seen three times in recent months the International Monetary Fund revise down their projections for world growth and economic activity. Around the world, world leaders have agreed that governments need to take strong and decisive action to stimulate their economies and prevent the world falling into a deep recession. Projections are that this might be the most serious financial crisis confronting the world since the recession of the 1930s.

This is a very serious problem. I think some in Australia do not understand that because, quite frankly, the worst aspects of this have not yet hit us. They are only just starting to bite. Up until a few weeks ago I was much more optimistic, but then I saw redundancies starting to occur and the impact already being felt by Australian families. In my own state of Western Australia BHP closed the Ravensthorpe development, which threw hundreds of people out of work and basically destroyed the town, as they decided they could not continue with that mining activity.

These are serious issues for Australians but they are immediate issues. This is not some sort of academic debate about debt and macrofinancial issues, although those issues are also part of the debate. This is a debate about how many Australians will lose their jobs. That is what we are debating today. The revised economic forecast provided through Treasury indicates that unemployment will rise to seven per cent. I am sure that is of deep concern to all Australians and all members of the Senate. Based on Treasury advice, the government is saying that unless we act now those projections may be considered modest and we may actually see an even greater impact on the Australian economy.

It is clear that we need strong and decisive action now. The government would be remiss and failing in our duties if we did not act. So we have sought to act. We tried to get ahead of the curve with the economic package we brought in last December. Despite the commentary from those opposite, it did work. It had an affect that stimulated the economy, encouraged people to spend and encouraged people to support economic activity. That saw jobs saved and businesses maintained.

Senator Cormann —How many jobs?

Senator CHRIS EVANS —The senator interjects: how many jobs? This is serious, Senator; this is dead serious. I expect you to take your responsibilities seriously. If you think that people in Australia are going to be sitting down today—

Honourable senators interjecting—

The PRESIDENT —Order! Comments should be addressed to the chair and there should be no interjections.

Senator CHRIS EVANS —The opposition wants to have some sort of arcane argument about whether the package created 45,000 jobs or 50,000 jobs. Australians know that there are deeply frightening economic times confronting them and that their jobs are at risk, their financial security is at risk and their small businesses are at risk. They want the government they elected to act. That is what we want to do. We are asking the Senate to respect the votes of the Australian people and allow the government to act.

What we have seen in recent days is a debate in this parliament as to process, as if we have got time to spend a lot of time arguing about how we might handle it. I am sure Australians who got up this morning and looked at what occurred in the House of Representatives last night would have been absolutely distressed to see what were hairy-chested arguments—arguments while Rome burns, if you like—about minutia when what we need is leadership. The government are trying to provide leadership. We are trying to get support across the board to provide an economic stimulus to protect jobs—

Senator Ian Macdonald —You are so arrogant. It’s unbelievable.

Senator CHRIS EVANS —To protect jobs, Senator Macdonald. We actually think that is important. In order to give effect to the package, I met with Senate leaders and whips yesterday to try and get their support for a process that would allow the Senate to deal quickly with these bills, for two reasons. The first is to provide economic confidence in Australia, to provide certainty to Australians that we are going to implement the package and to provide confidence that there will be money flowing into the economy, that there will be money flowing to small business and that infrastructure projects will go ahead. Then businesses can plan on the basis of that stimulus package. I deliberately encouraged those Senate leaders to find the right balance between the absolute need for Senate scrutiny, which I support, and the need for the government to get its legislation passed—

Senator Ian Macdonald —What a joke!

Senator CHRIS EVANS —Senator, you were not at the meeting, but ask Senator Minchin what I proposed. The government said we would meet Thursday and Friday to deal with those bills that contained immediate payments to families—to fast-track those bills—and we would take up the opposition’s very constructive suggestion to move estimates and meet next week to debate those bills that go to infrastructure and the more complex matters of policy. We took up that offer. We said we would sit Thursday night, Friday, Saturday—whatever it took. Why? We said that because we want to make sure that we do not miss the proposed dates to get those payments to families—to get that money into their hands—to support them and to support the economy. That is the only reason we sought to ask you to sit—to give up another day or so to stay here, debate and scrutinise those bills and to give us the chance to make sure we met the timetable to put that money into families’ hands, to provide the stimulus in March for the economy and to allow you the whole of next week to examine the legislation.

I also indicated that we would support a Senate inquiry, that we would make that happen as well, because that is not an unreasonable request. But we have to balance the need for scrutiny, the need for parliamentarians to examine the detail and be informed, with the urgency of the government to act. We have to find the balance. We offered that balance and the Liberal Party scoffed. Senator Coonan scoffed. They were not interested. They said: ‘We’ve got plenty of time. Don’t worry about families getting the money. It’ll all be okay.’ We do not accept that. We actually say it is urgent.

Opposition senators interjecting—

The PRESIDENT —Order! Constant interjection is disorderly. You will have a chance to participate in the debate as long as the debate continues.

Senator Ian Macdonald —So tell us what—

The PRESIDENT —Senator Macdonald!

Senator CHRIS EVANS —The government says this is urgent. The reason we asked for those bills to be passed is concern—that is, serious concern and advice to us—that we might not be able to make the payment dates we have set. That is the advice I have received and that is the proposition I put to the Liberal Party and the minor parties. I said we would deal with the matters that are absolutely urgent. We will sit Thursday night, we will sit Friday and we will sit Saturday if you want to give certainty.

Senator Ian Macdonald —What a joke! So what difference is two days going to make?

Senator CHRIS EVANS —Two days, Senator. I am prepared to stay for the two days. You want to go home for the weekend. You want to go to the beach.

The PRESIDENT —Order! Senator Evans, your comments should be directed to the chair.

Senator CHRIS EVANS —We want to do the work; you want to go home and have your weekend off. We actually say this is urgent. We actually say it is important. We say, ‘Let’s deal with what is important, let’s deal with what is urgent now and for the bills that are less urgent—while they have high priority and we absolutely need to get them through next week—let’s take up the offer and deal with those next week.’ We want to make sure the Senate gets the chance to scrutinise those bills—we are happy to cooperate—but, regarding the bills that relate to payments for families, we need them ASAP. We want you to deal with those bills. We have to get right the balance between scrutiny and the urgency of the situation.

I sought the cooperation of the coalition and I did not get it. I got scoffed at. They said: ‘It doesn’t matter. We’ve got plenty of time. Don’t worry about it. Don’t worry about trying to get payments to families to support the economy. Don’t worry about trying to allow small business the opportunity to survive. We don’t care about jobs. There’s not really a problem.’ We say there is a problem, we say there is urgency and we would like you to reconsider. In this debate we want you to come to a position which says: ‘We will allow the parliament to sit as long as it takes to pass the bills that are urgent. We will come back next week, we will have the Senate inquiry and we will deal with those more complex bills then.’ That is what we would like. We are happy to have the scrutiny, we are happy to give you the time, but we would also like you to work Friday and maybe Saturday.

Senator Ian Macdonald —All right, let’s do it. Let’s have a full debate. You don’t want scrutiny.

Senator CHRIS EVANS —And if that is too much—

Senator Ian Macdonald —Let’s do it. All right, that’s good.

Senator CHRIS EVANS —Well, you’re opposing it, Senator.

Senator Ian Macdonald —Let’s do it and sit all next week.

Senator CHRIS EVANS —The motion is there—vote for it. Vote for it! But, no, you want a long weekend. You want the long weekend!

Senator Ian Macdonald interjecting—

Senator CHRIS EVANS —Quite frankly, we think it is more important. We think you ought to be more constructive, Senator.

Senator Ian Macdonald interjecting—

The PRESIDENT —Order! Withdraw that!

Senator Ian Macdonald —What? That he’s dishonest? He is saying that I want a long weekend. That is dishonest.

The PRESIDENT —I have just asked you to withdraw that.

Senator Ian Macdonald —But—

The PRESIDENT —Senator Macdonald, I am not going to argue. I have asked you to withdraw.

Senator Ian Macdonald —Mr President, I withdraw. Can I seek leave to answer a representation made that I want a long weekend? That is clearly dishonest. I seek leave to respond to that dishonest accusation by the Leader of the Government in the Senate.

The PRESIDENT —Senator Macdonald, I have had to call you to order on a number of occasions. You are entitled to speak in the debate, as I have pointed out. I have asked you to withdraw a comment that is unparliamentary—

Senator Ian Macdonald —Which I have done.

The PRESIDENT —which you have done. You still have the right to participate in the debate.

Senator Ian Macdonald —And I have sought leave, Mr President.

The PRESIDENT —A speaker is in the process of speaking. You then have the right, as a member of the Senate, to participate in the debate and answer any claims or any matters that are raised in the debate. I would think that is the proper course of action for you to proceed down.

Senator Ian Macdonald —In the meantime, Mr President, I have to put up with this joker saying something dishonest, that I want a long weekend.

The PRESIDENT —No, I am not saying that to you at all. I am saying that there is a proper course of action, in the process of this debate, to pursue through the chamber.

Senator Ian Macdonald —Mr President, can I ask him to withdraw the accusation that I do not want to sit and I want a long weekend? Can I ask him to withdraw that imputation against me as a member of this Senate?

The PRESIDENT —Senator Macdonald, you will have your chance to participate in the debate, and I can now see that this is going to be a fairly lengthy debate. You will have your chance to participate in the debate as every other senator in this place will.

Senator Ian Macdonald —Mr President, on a point of order: I ask that you ask the Leader of the Government in the Senate to withdraw the imputation made not only against me personally but, by implication, against everyone on this side of the chamber. I ask that you ask him to withdraw.

The PRESIDENT —I did not take the comment that was made as being unparliamentary. I do not think that has been ruled so in the past. I think that is something that you can quite rightly correct in the debate itself.

Senator Ronaldson —Mr President, on the point of order: it is traditional in this chamber that, if a member feels aggrieved about a comment made by another member, that member will withdraw it if the request has been made by a particular senator. There has not been any debate at all about whether it is fair, unfair, reasonable or unreasonable. Senator Macdonald has made a quite reasonable request to another senator in this chamber to withdraw a comment that he found to be a personal attack on him. If we are going to have a proper debate this morning, then surely appropriate rules should apply. Senator Macdonald feels aggrieved by the comment from Senator Evans and traditionally in this chamber that would be withdrawn.

Senator Ludwig —Mr President, on the point of order: I would not ordinarily engage on a point of order while a speaker is currently before you, but in this instance the contribution by the senator is wrong. The chair—not the opposition and not during the point of order—determines the point of order. The submission simply made just then is completely wrong. I would ask him to reflect upon what he said because it is wrong in terms of the procedures of this place.

The PRESIDENT —I have made it clear—and I do hear what you have said, Senator Ronaldson, and I have on other occasions intervened—that I do not believe that this is unparliamentary. I believe it is a debating point. I believe that if Senator Macdonald and others wish to correct the record, as they are entitled to, or change the record or give their view of the record then that can be done as part of the debating process. If I felt that it was in any way reflecting badly on an individual person’s propriety or integrity, then I would ask for that to be withdrawn. I do not believe that this has happened in this case.

I understand that the debate is going to be a fairly lively debate. I have worked that out already from the interjections from both sides and I understand that there will be robust debate in this place from time to time. But I will always apply fairness to both sides. I will not be partial in the way in which I treat either side. I will pull up the debate where there has been a transgression in the standards that have previously applied in this place. If I think that there is a direct reflection or imputation on the character of an individual in this place then, regardless of what side of politics they are on, I will defend them. I believe that if this debate is to proceed—and whilst there will be some fire in the belly, as I would call it, in the debate—I will expect people to not reflect badly on anyone in this chamber no matter what side they are on. I will ask Senator Evans to continue and those who want to participate in the debate can do so at the appropriate time.

Senator CHRIS EVANS —I think those listening to the debate will be appalled that that is the level of response we are getting from the opposition. We put a reasonable and balanced proposition, and it was scoffed at. We said we would sit as long as it took and allow as much scrutiny in the parliament—not in a committee but in the parliament—as was required to deal with those bills. We said we would sit Friday and Saturday to get those bills through so that we could meet the deadline to ensure those payments went out in March, as required. On the basis of our advice, the longer we wait the more risk there is to that. Senator Ludwig, the Minister for Human Services, will take you through what that means.

We put that in all fairness, we have been very open about it, and what we got was an opposition which said: ‘No, don’t worry about it. It can all wait. There’s no sense of urgency here. We can sit down; we can chat about it for weeks. There is no urgency.’ Well, those people getting redundancy notices have a different view. Those small businesses hanging on by the skin of their teeth have a different view. Those self-funded retirees who are waiting to see some certainty return to markets to protect their investments think it is urgent, think it is important and want the government to provide leadership. We would like the parliament to provide scrutiny but also allow the government to act—that is, allow the elected government to respond to a crisis. All we say is this. By all means have scrutiny, but do not delay to the point that you undermine the government’s capacity to act, undermine the government’s capacity to protect jobs—

Senator Ian Macdonald —So two days is going to make a difference?

Senator CHRIS EVANS —Two days makes a lot of difference, Senator, if your job is at risk. If your job is at risk, it does make a lot of difference. If you look at the emails I am getting from small business, that is what they are saying. The opposition have taken a very political position on this. They have invested in the idea that the long-term argument about debt will work for them. What we say is this. Act responsibly and act as an alternative government. Do not get yourself into the sort of mess you got yourself into last year. Do not pretend you are a government waiting to return; act as an alternative government. Allow the government to get on and do its job.

I think when the Liberal Party take their weekend and go home and talk to some real people they will actually get a very different view of this. Go out—go down to the beach, go down to the cricket, go down to the parks—and talk to real people. Talk to real people who work in retail and who know the bonus that was paid last year saved their jobs. Talk to real people who think that the payment of the back-to-school bonus will actually help them make ends meet and help them continue to contribute to the economy. Talk to the small business people who know that the investment assistance will allow them to grow their business, maintain their business and provide jobs. Talk to real people. We often get isolated here, senators—we all do. We all go along to party meetings and convince ourselves how right we are. But go out and talk to real people. That is not their perspective. They want to know why the government is not acting.

I urge Senator Fielding—and I see he is in the chamber—to walk away from the deal he has done with Senator Minchin, to not be a patsy for the Liberal Party, to actually think about what he is doing. Senator Fielding claims to represent families and small business in this chamber. I ask him—

Senator Ian Macdonald —Mr President, I rise on a point of order. Is it appropriate for the Leader of the Government in the Senate to call the Leader of Family First a ‘patsy’?

Senator Chris Evans —I said, ‘Don’t be a patsy.’ I did not mean to call him a patsy.

The PRESIDENT —There is no point of order.

Senator CHRIS EVANS —Mr President, rather than delay the Senate, I am happy to withdraw. My understanding of what I said was that I said, ‘Don’t be a patsy.’ Anyway, the record will correct that. The point I want to make is this. What we saw last year is that the Liberal Party on the infrastructure—

Senator Fielding —Mr President, I rise on a point of order. I wonder whether the Leader of the Government in the Senate could repeat what he said and then withdraw, so I can hear it to my face.

The PRESIDENT —Senator Fielding, whatever was said was withdrawn. It is expunged, Senator Fielding, as I understand it.

Senator CHRIS EVANS —Senator Fielding, as I indicated, I said, ‘Don’t be a patsy for the Liberal Party.’ There was an objection raised and I withdrew it. You were closer to me then than you are now, but I understand you were distracted. The point I make to the Senate chamber is that I urge Senator Fielding not to support the motion he has put and to actually allow the government to pay families the payments we want to pay them. You claim to represent families, but what you are doing is stopping us making those payments. You are putting at risk those payments. All I ask is that the Parliament of Australia deal with those bills over the next few days. You can have the examination, you can have the debate, but allow us to get those bills.

The irony of this whole debate is that the Liberal Party and the National Party say, ‘We want scrutiny, we want to examine these bills, but we are going to vote against them anyway.’ An uninformed observer might say: ‘What’s the point if they are going to vote against them anyway? What’s their position?’ Their position is firmly decided—that is, ‘Whatever the arguments, whatever the evidence, we are going to vote no, but it is really important that we delay for nine days.’ They want to delay the investment in the economy.

Senator Ian Macdonald —It’s nine days now.

Senator CHRIS EVANS —Well, all you are offering to do is pass them by next Thursday. Sorry; you are offering to defeat them by next Thursday! Your position is: ‘We need to delay till next Thursday to give us a chance to examine the reasons why we are going to try and defeat it.’

I say to the Senate and particularly to Senator Xenophon and Senator Fielding: look in their eyes. When they urge you in this debate to vote down the bills, remember last December when they ran out for a cup of tea and hid. When the pressure comes on, you will see fear in their eyes. They do not want you to vote down the package. Trust me. They do not want you to vote down the package. Their strategy is to vote no, to be all care and responsibility. But when it comes to the vote, Senator Fielding and Senator Xenophon, if you walk across to join them, they will wet themselves. They will have fear in their eyes. They do not want you to vote the package down. They want to delay; they want to make a political point that they think will serve them in the long term. But if you, Senator Xenophon, or you, Senator Fielding, say you are going to vote for them you will be fascinated by the response. They have taken the position that they are all care and no responsibility—that they can safely say they are going to vote against it in the knowledge that Senator Fielding, Senator Xenophon and the Greens will not do that at the end. It will be interesting to see whether or not, just before the vote, when we eventually get to it, the Liberal and National parties really want you to vote for them. I suggest to you that they are dead scared you might. If you do, you might find Senator Minchin out for a cup of tea and a few of his friends stuck in the toilet, because the last thing they want to do is defeat this package.

This is about vandalism. This is about delaying our responsible plan to assist the economy. But they do not really want it beaten. This is a political point-scoring exercise. I urge the Senate to support the government’s proposition for a change to sitting hours. It will allow the right balance between scrutiny and passage of bills that provide the economic stimulus the country needs. It will ensure we are able to make the payments we want to make to families and that we are able to put in their hands the money that will allow spending and consumption to support jobs. We do not want that put at risk. We are happy for a Senate inquiry, we are happy to take up the option of sitting next week to deal with the other bills. However, I urge you in this debate to think about the bigger picture, to think about what nine days of continued uncertainty will mean for business confidence and about the threat to jobs and the economy if the government’s package is held up and maybe not passed. I urge you to follow a more sensible, balanced view, to support our procedural motion and to give some certainty— (Time expired)