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Thursday, 7 December 2017
Page: 10016

Senator DI NATALE (VictoriaLeader of the Australian Greens) (10:20): Well, what a remarkable spray we've just heard from Senator Macdonald—Senator Macdonald seeking to give the opposition a lesson on misogyny! To paraphrase a former Prime Minister as you walk out the chamber, Senator Macdonald: if you want to know what misogyny looks like, get yourself a mirror. What a remarkable spray we just heard from Senator Macdonald!

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Bernardi ): You should address your comments to the chair, Senator Di Natale.

Senator DI NATALE: Through you, Mr Acting Deputy President, to get a lecture from Senator Macdonald about misogyny beggars belief. He is a senator who in this chamber has shown himself to be unfit to represent the state of Queensland.

Let's name what is going on here. What we've seen is an orchestrated raid on a union office, at the behest of a partisan organisation, the Registered Organisations Commission, where the cameras arrived before the police. The cameras were there to film the raid on a union office before the police arrived—utterly remarkable. What you have seen there is an assault on democracy, and this is part of a broader attack on democracy from this government. Whether it be unions, whether it be charities or whether it be its response to the constitutional crisis engulfing the government right now, this is a government with no regard for democracy.

Let's look at what happened here. We had this raid on the union office. We had the media there, tipped off so that they could film the raid, which was effectively a piece of theatre orchestrated by the government. On Tuesday, the minister indicates that she has no knowledge of it. We hear on Wednesday, through a Senate committee, that the minister again, five times, denied having any knowledge of it. She sits in a meeting with the staffer who allegedly has been involved in this incident and with the Prime Minister, again indicating that she has no knowledge of the events that have occurred. And then suddenly we have a staffer falling on his sword—utterly remarkable. Here we have a staffer of a minister sitting in meetings with the minister while the minister denies to the Senate on five successive occasions that she has any knowledge of what's going on, and then conveniently we have the resignation of a staffer.

If she was confident that that was the passage of events then why would she refuse to release information that supports her claims? The minister has consistently refused to release information to support claims that her office and she herself weren't involved in tipping off the media on what was effectively a raid on an office and a piece of theatre for the evening news. If she had that degree of confidence then she'd be cooperating with the investigations and she'd be providing all relevant information.

The truth is we don't have a government with any regard for democracy. No-one's taking responsibility for this turn of events. She's hiding and refusing to comply with orders from the Senate, and of course the consequence of that is that we have the situation that's unfolded right now. The minister is either incompetent or lying—or potentially both. We don't know, because she refuses to comply with orders from the Senate. Now that the staffer's gone to ground, we don't know any more. I suspect they'll pop up at some point in a cushy role with the Administrative Appeals Tribunal or be looked after in some other government-appointed position. That's where most Liberal Party casualties—martyrs—end up. That's effectively the way of rewarding people who are prepared to subvert our democracy rather than stand up for it.

We have a government that has no regard for democracy. And it's not just through this orchestrated raid of a union office. We're seeing it time and time again. There is a creeping authoritarianism from this government, through its attacks on unions and civil societies and its lack of integrity when it comes to upholding our Constitution. Just look at the government's recent reform that it proposes to end foreign interference in Australia. The Greens absolutely support an end to foreign donations to political parties; we've been leading the charge on that front. We need to go further. We need to ensure that there's an end to corporate donations as well as foreign donations, because it's that corrosive influence from huge multinational corporations that is a far bigger problem than influence from foreign entities. But, of course, the government couldn't help itself. Rather than just limiting its proposal to donations to political parties, it's decided to attack non-government organisations and charities, doing everything it can to prevent the influence of people advocating for better rights and conditions for workers, for stronger environmental protection, to increase our international aid budget and to increase funding for medical research.

This is a government that wants to use the apparatus of the state to silence dissent. That's what it's doing through its attack on charities and non-government organisations—restricting the right of ordinary people in this country to advocate for a better world, not vested interests arguing to line their own pockets—no, that's okay. That's why they're not going to touch the massive corporate donations that come from their donors and line the pockets of the Liberal Party. But when it comes to individuals who argue for an increased aid budget, so that we do something about global poverty, or when it comes to individuals who understand that climate change is a global challenge and requires global solutions—and there are individuals in every corner of the world who want to contribute to the effort to fight climate change—then no, the government wants to silence those voices. When it comes to leaders in the aid sector who want to ensure that we increase our commitment to international development, the government wants to silence those voices—groups like Oxfam and World Vision, who are arguing to end extreme poverty, not to line their own pockets. What's this government's response? 'Let's try and shut them up. Let's try and restrict the influence of donations on the work that they do, the advocacy that they do, to help the world's poor.'

And we know that these attacks will go further. They've already said that they want to remove the tax deductible status from community organisations that advocate for policy outcomes that would make the world a cleaner place, a safer place, a more equal place. Just think about what this government's proposing through its changes to foreign donation laws for an organisation like Oxfam, who stands up and says, 'We run programs that we know address global poverty.' I know myself; I've worked in some of those programs—rolling out HIV prevention programs in India so that kids as young as 12 don't contract HIV. If part of my work was to argue for more funding so that we could roll that work out on a bigger scale, this government would be hitting us through its proposed changes to foreign donations law. For organisations arguing for greater investment in medical research, doing the medical research is fine, but if they wanted to expand that the government would say: 'No; you stick to your knitting. You let us clamp down on all of those areas of civil society that we don't like.' It's utterly remarkable.

If you want to see this government's approach to democracy, look no further than the way it's handled the constitutional crisis that is engulfing it right now. There is no more serious a charge that could be levelled at a government than whether it has legitimacy—whether it has the numbers on the floor of the lower house of parliament to constitute a majority. No more serious a charge could be levelled at a government than that.

We don't like section 44 of the Constitution; we've said that on a number of occasions. I think it's a relic of the past. We need to reform it, as successive government committees have indicated needs to happen. We need to make sure that what we have is a process that allows people from a wide variety of backgrounds to represent the diversity of the Australian community. That's why section 44 needs to change. But we are stuck with it and, while we're stuck with it, we can't have one set of rules for the coalition and another set of rules for everybody else. That's not a democracy; that's not the way a democracy works. We could have addressed the problem that's landed on this parliament; we could have addressed it quickly and swiftly. When two of our Green senators realised that they were dual citizens, they sought legal advice and resigned within a matter of days. Here we are, five months later, with the government being dragged kicking and screaming to a disclosure regime that it won't comply with. We're heading to Christmas and about to leave and we'll start this parliament in the New Year without knowing whether this government has a constitutional majority and whether the decisions that this parliament makes are, indeed, constitutionally valid. This is remarkable stuff.

The government's approach to democracy is to attack its opponents and use silence and cover-up to make sure that its own mistakes aren't disclosed. Look at what happened to the President of the Senate. He came forward and confided in colleagues, saying, 'I'm concerned I'm a dual citizen.' What was the advice from senior ministers in the government? It was: 'Keep your head down, shut up and hope the whole thing goes away.' But, of course, it hasn't. What about the standards of ministerial responsibility? When the first minister went down in the dual citizenship crisis, what did we see? We saw a standard adopted that said, 'While there's a cloud over your head, you need to step down from your ministerial responsibilities.' Suddenly it happens to the Deputy Prime Minister, and then it was: 'No, we'll adopt a different standard for Mr Joyce. We'll adopt a different standard for Senator Nash. We'll continue to hide and cover up and hope this thing goes away. We'll refuse to support an audit.'

The Greens said, when this occurred months ago, 'This is something that just needs to be sorted out, and sorted out quickly. Let's have an audit. Let's put this nonsense behind us and get on with the business we're paid to do. Let's get on with governing for people, and not looking after our own interests.' What was the government's response? It was: 'No, we're satisfied that we have no issues with our members. We're going to implement a disclosure regime that's inadequate and that we won't comply with.' We now have members of the government who won't even comply with their own disclosure regime. So here we are, about to break for Christmas, with a government that can't confirm it has the legitimacy to govern and that has a shadow hanging over its head.

This is part of a much bigger pattern. What we are seeing is a retreat of democracy. What we are seeing is a government that is prepared to do anything to silence dissent—those unprecedented attacks on union officers informing the media, orchestrating some theatre for the television news, refusing to comply with orders of the Senate to disclose who knew what when. We know enough; we know a minister on five successive occasions said she wasn't involved and then, when a brave journalist stood up and outed her, she threw a staffer under the bus. Cowardly! Gutless!

It is about time that those of us who support democracy—whether we're on the progressive or conservative side of politics; whether we're democratic traditionalists or democratic activists—stand up and recognise that we have a responsibility to support our democratic institutions, to acknowledge the Westminster traditions that underpin this parliament and to prevent these attacks on that precious privilege we have in representing the community in this place called our parliament. It starts with ministers stepping up and accepting responsibility for their own actions. It starts with strengthening civil society, rather than quashing it. It starts with recognising that when you've got a constitutional crisis on your hands you take responsibility, you show leadership and you sort it out and let the cards fall where they may.