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Wednesday, 8 December 2004
Page: 88

Mr LATHAM (Leader of the Opposition) (3:26 PM) —I move:

That the Deputy Speaker's ruling be dissented from.

If it is not bad enough for The Nationals to be dispensing the pork, if it is not bad enough to have a Nationals minister who cannot give a decent explanation in the House of Representatives, if it is not bad enough to have a Nationals minister who twice misleads the House, we now have the ridiculous situation of a Nationals Deputy Speaker trying to censor debate—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. I.R. Causley)—If the Leader of the Opposition wishes to reflect on the chair I will name him.

Mr LATHAM —I am moving a dissent motion. I am reflecting on the chair's ruling, because for you, sir, to sit down the member for Wills is a betrayal of democracy. It is a betrayal of this member's right to move and address his matter of public importance. His matter of public importance is:

The abuse by National Party Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries of the Government's Regional Partnerships Program.

Now, Mr Deputy Speaker, you might not like criticism of the member for Dawson. You might expect members to come up and say, `She's wonderful'. You might expect members to come up and share your point of view, but that is not how a democracy works. The member for Wills has got the right to criticise her and he has the right to introduce his matter of public importance saying that she has abused her ministerial responsibilities.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —I remind the Leader of the Opposition that this is a dissent motion.

Mr LATHAM —Did anyone say when he moved the matter of public importance that it was out of order?

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —This is a dissent motion, not a debate. It is a dissent motion on my ruling.

Mr LATHAM —I am dissenting from your ruling, Mr Deputy Speaker.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —You are now debating.

Mr LATHAM —Are you in the debate? Are you in the debate or can I have my say? I have moved a dissent motion on your ruling because, quite frankly, it is undemocratic and outrageous for you to sit down the member for Wills when he was debating and moving his matter of public importance. If someone thought it was out of order to move a motion that talks about abuse by National Party ministers they should have done it at the start of his speech. For 13 minutes, time after time, he outlined the abuse by this National Party minister of the government's Regional Partnerships program. Mr Deputy Speaker, you might regard the member for Dawson as wonderful, but on this side of the House we do not share that opinion. We expect the capacity in this House to make the criticisms, to ask the questions, to move the matters of public importance and set out, chapter and verse, the abuse by the National Party minister. What the member for Wills did was comply with the matter of public importance. Rarely in this House have I seen a member stick to the matter of public importance so strictly. Time after time he was outlining the abuse by Minister Kelly, the abuse in her office to have Mr Ken Crooke on staff while he was acting as a paid lobbyist for a grant recipient.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —That has nothing to do with the dissent motion.

Mr LATHAM —He has been outlining the abuse of the minister with regard to these letters that were signed but never dated, the abuse by the minister to mislead the House of Representatives yesterday in saying that the grant had been announced when in fact it had not, the abuse of the minister today in misleading the House in saying that she thought the grant had been announced and it was public knowledge—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Can I remind the Leader of the Opposition—

Mr LATHAM —even though she was writing a letter to the grant recipients saying, `Keep it confidential.' So the member for Wills, moment after moment, minute after minute—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Can I remind the Leader of the Opposition that the ruling was on the fact that you cannot attack another member in this House—only by substantive motion. He is now debating the whole issue. That is the dissent. I ask him to come back to the dissent.

Mr LATHAM —I again remind you about and urge you to read the discussion of matter of public importance. It reads as follows:

The abuse by National Party Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries of the Government's Regional Partnerships Program.

You say the member for Wills has no capacity in that MPI to attack the Minister for Veterans' Affairs. He is talking about an MPI that is accusing her of abuse of a government funding program—and you are saying he is not allowed to attack her! That is why I am dissenting from your ruling. By sitting him down, saying he had no right to attack her, even though the MPI talks about her abuse of the funding program, you have in fact outlined the reason why the dissent should be carried, because clearly you did not understand the wording of the MPI.

The member for Wills had every right to attack the member for Dawson, the Minister for Veterans'Affairs, on issue after issue, grant after grant, misleading after misleading, maladministration after maladministration. Of course he had every right in this democratic chamber to attack her. We are not here for a haircut. We are not here for some mutual gratification society. We are not here for a stroll in the rose garden. We are not here to pat her on the back and say, `Oh, good on you De-Anne: you've rorted the programs, you've had the abuses, the conflicts of interest, you've misled the House a couple of times. So, good on you, De-Anne, the daughter of Joh: you are a Nationals true blue.' We are not here for any of those purposes, Mr Deputy Speaker.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. I.R. Causley)—The Leader of the Opposition will come back to the dissent motion.

Mr LATHAM —We are here, elected by our constituents, to hold the government to account for the proper expenditure of public money. I have 130,000 people in my electorate, most of whom work hard to pay their taxes. When they see money being abused this way in the public arena they expect me and every single member on this side of the House to stand up and say, `That is wrong; it is a maladministration.' In fact—

Mr Martin Ferguson —That is corrupt.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Batman will withdraw that remark.

Mr Martin Ferguson —What, for saying it is corrupt?

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Will you withdraw the remark?

Mr Martin Ferguson —To facilitate debate I will withdraw it, but you and I know it is right.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —That is not a withdrawal. The member for Batman will withdraw it.

Mr Martin Ferguson —I withdraw on an unconditional basis to facilitate the debate. There are more important matters at stake at the moment.

Mr LATHAM —Our constituents expect us to stand up and say it is wrong, to say it is a maladministration, to say it is an abuse, and the member for Wills has done that. He stood up in the House and introduced this MPI about the abuse by the minister of the Regional Partnerships program. He has done nothing more in his presentation to the House than stick to the MPI. He has not personally abused the minister. He has not done anything other than outline his matters of concern set out in the MPI under the banner of abuse. Your intervention earlier on to say that he is not allowed to attack the minister other than by a substantive motion is just nonsense. I am dissenting from that ruling because surely in an MPI, when you are talking about the abuse of public money, you are allowed to attack the minister. It is just commonsense.

What other purpose can we have in the MPI other than be critical of a minister who twice has misled the House. Time after time today she could not defend herself at the dispatch box. We have seen the conflict of interest of the aptly named Mr Ken Crooke. We have seen the minister with this fanciful explanation that somehow she signed the letters but they were never mailed—they were lost under the filing cabinet and she did not know anything about it. All of these things do not make any sense and any reasonable person, any reasonable taxpayer, would think there has been an abuse of public money here.

I listened very carefully to what the member for Wills was saying. He addressed those matters in the same terms as my suspension motion earlier on and in the same terms as his contribution seconding that suspension motion. Under an MPI he is allowed to make those points. It would not be in order and he would not be meeting his responsibilities as an MP if he introduced an MPI talking about funding abuse and then stood up and tried to pretend that everything is okay. It is true that we on this side of the House lost the last election and that we are still in opposition. But it is also true that we have been elected here by our constituents with the democratic right to have our say and with the democratic expectation that those who occupy the chair will give us a fair go.

We heard from the Speaker the rhetoric about `firm but fair'. We want to see you, Mr Deputy Speaker, in your discharge of the responsibilities of Deputy Speaker, give people a fair go. The member for Wills was entirely within the terms of his MPI. You warned him a couple of times. We thought this was just an attempt to try and disrupt his rhythm and his speech, but when it got to the point that you sat him down and denied him his right and capacity to finish his MPI, I could reach no other conclusion than that, as a member of The Nationals, you are trying to cover up for De-Anne Kelly. You are trying to cover up for your mate.

Mr Truss —Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise on a point of order. The Leader of the Opposition repeatedly refers to the Minister for Veterans' Affairs by her name, not by her title. That is clearly out of order.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Members know they have to refer to people by their seat or by their title. I remind the Leader of the Opposition that even though this is a dissent in the ruling of the chair he cannot reflect on the chair and he cannot make those imputations.

Mr LATHAM —Mr Deputy Speaker, it is a dissent to the chair's ruling, and I am certainly reflecting on the chair's ruling and the reasons why I believe it has been made. You need to understand the seriousness of this. I know you think you have got the numbers over there and they are all going to walk in like robots and do the right thing, just as De-Anne Kelly comes to the dispatch box like a robot. If this motion gets up, you are out. If this motion gets up then you would be obliged to resign, so it is a very serious matter.

Mr Truss —Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise on a point of order. Only seconds before you cautioned the Leader of the Opposition that he was not to refer to members other than by their titles.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The Leader of the Opposition will refer to members by their seat or by their title. They are the standing orders.

Mr LATHAM —There are the standing orders, of course, Mr Deputy Speaker, and there is also House of Representatives Practice, which states as follows at page 560:

The MPI is one of the principal avenues available to private Members to initiate immediate debate on a matter which is of current concern. However, although Members on both sides of the House are entitled to propose a matter for discussion, it now appears taken for granted that the opportunity is, on the whole, a vehicle for the Opposition. In practice the great majority of matters discussed are proposed by members of the opposition executive and are usually critical of government policy or administration (or such criticism is made in the discussion itself).

Your ruling, Mr Deputy Speaker, is inconsistent with House of Representatives Practice, which says nothing more than what we have seen here today. A member of the opposition, the member for Wills, has introduced his MPI. It is critical of the government. The wording is about funding abuse. He has set out, chapter and verse, the funding abuses in each and every case. You have made a judgment, and a ruling earlier on, that attacking a minister is out of order under the terms of the MPI.

That just sets an appalling precedent. It is inconsistent with the practice. It is not something that can be regarded as fair or democratic in the chamber. We can go right through this dissent, but I think the best thing, Mr Deputy Speaker, is for you to reconsider what you have done, to understand that fair-minded people in the House, and the public, would say that trying to gag a member of the opposition for talking about the funding abuse in the MPI—according to the standing orders and according to House of Representatives Practice, you have just got it wrong. We will excuse you the mistake. You have the capacity to say now that the member can have his time back and finish his speech, and we can get on with the MPI. But as an opposition we are not going to wear for a moment a National Party Deputy Speaker sitting down one of our members who is doing nothing more than exercising his democratic rights, consistent with House of Representatives Practice, consistent with the standing orders and consistent with the traditions of this House.

It will not take me my full time to make these points. They are self-evident. Sir, you are now obliged to admit that you have made a mistake, that it was just plain wrong. If you do not, we will have a shocking precedent in this House in that, according to your ruling, members of the opposition will not be able to attack ministers in an MPI. That makes an absolute farce of this House. It takes away our principal avenue for criticising the government each day. We ask the questions—which, by implication, can be critical—but we have no other capacity under the standing orders of a regular sitting day than to introduce an MPI that criticises a government minister.

In my 11 years here I have never seen someone sat down for criticising a minister during an MPI. You might not have enjoyed the criticism, you might not have agreed with them, but that is not your job as Deputy Speaker. Your job is to be impartial and to allow members to get on with their business of exercising their democratic rights under the standing orders and House of Representatives Practice. So I strongly urge you to reverse your ruling, to recognise that you have made a mistake and have set a horrible precedent in this place. While you might be a supporter and defender of the minister, surely when you sit in that chair you are a lot better than that.