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Wednesday, 24 March 2004
Page: 21757

Senator STOTT DESPOJA (9:38 AM) —The Democrats also oppose the motion before us today to exempt the Greater Sunrise Unitisation Agreement Implementation Bill 2004 and the Customs Tariff Amendment (Greater Sunrise) Bill 2004 from the cut-off, for many of the reasons outlined by the previous speaker. The way this legislation has come to this parliament has been an abuse of process. The way this legislation has arrived in the parliament has been absolutely outrageous. As honourable senators would be aware, it was expected to be debated almost within hours of being introduced in this place. I think we had the legislation for about three hours, and some of us not even that. I acknowledge the government's apology for failing to give the Democrats the bill but giving it to the Labor Party and the Greens. I take on board that apology from Senator Abetz. Within three hours of that legislation being provided to senators, there was an expectation that it be debated.

More importantly, in relation to the so-called urgency there is actually no compelling reason why this legislation should be debated in such haste, no compelling reason for it to be exempt from the cut-off, no compelling reason for it to have been dealt with in this way and no compelling reason for the committee process to have happened with the alacrity that it did on Monday night. The report was tabled, as senators would know, after 6.30 last night, giving some of us the opportunity to write our supplementary and dissenting reports in a very short period of time. Through you, Madam Acting Deputy President Knowles, that is with all due respect to the secretariat, who handled that process with great aplomb. A committee report was tabled last night, there is a cut-off motion this morning and there is an expectation that we will now debate this legislation.

This legislation is complex. It is not only about issues of great wealth; it is about international jurisdictional issues and maritime boundaries. These are complex issues and they deserve more time for debate both in this chamber and through the committee process. I record my disappointment at the way this process has been conducted and acknowledge that many in the community have also put on record their concerns about the process. Many community groups would have been interested in providing information to the Senate deliberations and they feel that they have not had an adequate time or opportunity to do so.

I acknowledge that these bills relate to resources that are desperately needed by the people of Timor Leste. I do not think any of us can afford to forget that Timor Leste is a fledging nation, one of the poorest in the region and of course an important new neighbour. Why are we treating the government and the people of that new nation in such a way? The Democrats accept, very much so, that it is desirable for both governments to come to an arrangement that provides legal and fiscal certainty not only for governments but, indeed, for those corporations that are involved in this process. But we do not accept that as a reason for rushing these bills through the parliament in a manner which we believe has compromised the proper scrutiny of the legislation. There is no specific commercial deadline for the ratification of the agreement in the way there was a specific date for the ratification of the Timor Sea treaty. Yet one of the effects of rushing these bills through the parliament is that it has severely limited the possibilities for consultation and debate.

I am glad that the Senate Standing Committee on Economics had the opportunity to look at the bills, albeit briefly. I do believe the bills would have been greater served by consideration over a longer period of time. I note that the Timor Sea Justice Campaign indicated to the committee that they were aware of a number of organisations, including large NGOs, that were considering making submissions but that, due to the extremely short time frame and limited nature of the invitation to give submissions, were deterred from doing so. I want to record their view—and they argued this in their submission—that the small number of submissions should not be interpreted as a lack of interest in this particular issue. In fact, on the contrary, I think there is a growing interest. Certainly they indicated that there is a growing interest across various sectors of Australian society regarding Australia's relationship with Timor Leste and the Timor Sea negotiations.

The Democrats want to record today our deep regret at the way this legislation has been rushed through. Not in the committee process nor even today as we deal with this exemption from the cut-off have we been given any compelling reasons or shown compelling evidence to support the suggestion that Australia or Timor Leste would lose any revenue if ratification were prolonged even for a few weeks let alone a few days. There is no evidence to suggest that Australia or Timor Leste would lose out. That we could not even take a few extra hours is an absolute indictment on the parliament. It is particularly disappointing that the Economics Legislation Committee was deprived of the opportunity to hear additional evidence which I think may have assisted its assessment of this legislation and consequently the Senate's consideration of these bills.

For these and many other reasons the Democrats today strongly oppose the exemption from the cut-off. As we can read the numbers in this chamber, this debate will come on. I will move an amendment to this legislation to try and ensure not only that Australia gets a good deal but also that we do not rip off one of the poorest nations on earth—a nation that we have had positive dealings with, particularly in recent times, dealings of which we can be proud and this government can be proud. This process is not one that makes me proud. I am sorry that we will be debating this legislation with such haste.