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Thursday, 13 May 2004
Page: 23213

Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (10:29 AM) —This motion seeks to enable the debating, in effect, forthwith of the family assistance legislation measures contained in the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (More Help for Families—One-off Payments) Bill 2004 and the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (More Help for Families—Increased Payments) Bill 2004 that were announced just last Tuesday night, less than 48 hours ago. The legislation was only introduced in the House of Representatives yesterday and was guillotined through the House of Representatives yesterday against the wishes of the Labor opposition in the House of Representatives.

I recognise that the one-off payments bill seeks to enable, as the name suggests, a one-off payment to be made to people before 30 June. No doubt the government will use that as a reason for the absolute urgency to consider and pass this bill. The Democrats are very concerned about this process of legislation being introduced one day and rushed through the next. It is not simple, straightforward, one-line legislation. It is very significant, complex legislation. The government would be well aware—even more importantly, many, many Australian families are well aware—that there are significant flaws in the existing legislation dealing with family payments because it is very complex and was put through at the time without, in my view, adequate scrutiny. A lot of people have been paying the price ever since.

To repeat that performance and rush through something without any scrutiny at all—and let us be honest here: there will be no serious opportunity for scrutiny of the complexity of this legislation if it is rushed through today—is of concern to the Democrats. That is what this cut-off motion is about. As I understand it, looking a little more closely at the standing orders, the session this week is actually a single session in its own right as a budget session and when we come back in June it is a new session. So the only impact of this motion is to enable it to be debated today. The Democrats are not seeking to hold this up. We are seeking to ensure that it actually gets some respect and is properly examined and that the Australian people, quite frankly, get some respect and have these proposals properly examined.

There are two bills which seek to exempt the cut-off. I would ask that the question for those two bills be put separately. We will very reluctantly but nonetheless accede to allowing the one-off payment bill to be debated straightaway. We will agree to that. But the other legislation that deals with the broader range of payments and changes to family arrangements should, at a minimum, be examined by the Senate committee process.

Senator Faulkner has just said, in relation to the previous question we were talking about, that we will be examining the budget estimates in just a few days. As we all know, the budget estimates can be used to cover a range of issues. We have just been talking about using them to examine the behaviour of coalition forces in Iraq. But the primary, absolutely fundamental first purpose of estimates is to examine budget proposals: how they are going to work, what the costs are going to be and who is going to be affected.

Whether what the government says the legislation does is what will actually happen is debatable. We have had problems with family payments legislation to date. The legislation was introduced and it was said that it would work a certain way and be wonderful. Then we found out that it has not worked that way. A lot of people have had difficulties. It is our job—forget about the politics of it—to have a look at this to make sure that, at a minimum, it will do what it says it is going to do and there are not going to be unintended consequences. It is almost inevitable that in an area we all know is complex you will get unintended consequences if you just rush it through solely to suit the Prime Minister's election timetable and the political timetable of the major parties.

I know the Labor Party objected in the House of Representatives yesterday to it being rushed through. I have just seen a press release from the member for Lyons, Mr Dick Adams, complaining about being gagged before he even got through a couple of paragraphs of his speech on this legislation and saying that the government obviously do not want criticism of their bill because it is getting too close to the truth. At least in the Senate we get a chance to talk about these things. That is one advantage we have over the House of Representatives. But let us not sell ourselves shorter than we need to. We have budget estimates. Senator Collins in particular has quite a good record of forensically examining all these sorts of things. I do not want her to miss out on that opportunity by having this pushed through. All the questions will still be asked, but there is hardly any point if the legislation has already gone through.

I do not think it is acceptable to say, `We will put it all through now and then we will see how it is going to work and fix it up later.' I could go on for many hours about the number of pieces of flawed law that currently exist that have been pushed through and about which it has been said, `We will sort it out later if it does not work.' There is no rewind button on legislation and it is very hard to fix up later. It wastes time and public money and the Australian public have to suffer in the meantime with any flaws.

We are not supportive of rushing this through at all. I know that some of the one-off payments are meant to be paid by 30 June. The government will say that we need to have all the systems in place to enable this money to be doled out. Frankly, I think that is a poor excuse as well. Everybody knows when budget day is. To try to basically defy reality and force through payments overnight purely to suit an election timetable, and for no other reason, is not a terribly good reason to rush through legislation. I am not going to let the government get away with misrepresenting our position by saying that we are trying to deny people getting an immediate assistance payment. So we will not oppose the cut-off and we will enable the immediate debate on the one-off payment bill. We will contribute to that debate of course; we believe there are some changes and improvements that can be made. The broader bill to do with family assistance should be examined by Senate estimates to make sure that the very significant amount of taxpayers' money that is going to be committed as part of that legislation will be spent effectively.

I do not think any of us can pretend that we will be able to make that judgment properly without, at the minimum, having gone through the budget estimates process. Otherwise we may as well not have scrutiny of these sorts of things. Normally, legislation of this significance would go to a legislation committee charged specifically with examining that bill and nothing else. However, the Democrats, as always, are willing to be constructive and flexible. We are not simply trying to get in the way; in fact we are trying to facilitate even better legislation. So we would like the question on the two bills to be put and voted on separately. Let me be clear: we are not seeking to hold up the second piece of legislation, the so-called more help for families—increased payments bill, but we want to ensure that it is not rushed through the Senate before the budget estimates process. We simply seek to adjourn the question on the second bill until the first day of sittings after the budget estimates committee hearings—which, as I understand it, would be 15 June. I do not know whether procedurally that is something we can do now or when the question is put.

To make our position crystal clear, the Democrats are willing, with some reluctance, to support the motion for the immediate debate on the one-off payments bill but wish to amend the motion in relation to the second bill, to do with the broader changes to family assistance, in order to have that motion enabling the cut-off to be deferred or adjourned until the first day of sittings after the budget estimates committee hearings, which is 15 June. That is the next day of sittings anyway, so we are putting it off for one sitting day to enable the budget estimates committees to do their job, to enable the Senate to do its job and to at least give the legislation some degree of examination. I think that is the absolute minimum that the Senate should insist on to enable us to exercise the responsibilities we are elected by the people to carry out.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Hutchins)—We will divide the question on the bills.