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Monday, 30 August 2004
Page: 26664

Senator FAULKNER (Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (3:50 PM) —Pursuant to contingent notice, I move:

That so much of the standing orders be suspended as would prevent Senator Faulkner moving a motion to provide for the consideration of a matter, namely a motion to give precedence to a motion to establish a select committee on the Scrafton evidence.

We always do our best in this chamber to try to work cooperatively with all parties—government, opposition, the minor parties and Independent senators. Sometimes, apparently, channels of communication are blocked, and this appears to be one of those times. I accept that that can happen. I am sorry that it has happened. My understanding is that it was worked through the forums we have off chamber. If Senator Harradine was not aware of that, I apologise to him. It is a matter beyond my control but, of course, we accept responsibility for that.

The situation is, however, that the parliament is to be prorogued tomorrow. We have already had a motion pass the Senate in relation to the adjournment of the Senate tomorrow, so this matter is indeed an urgent one. I think there is an unarguable case for urgency. That at least is supported by the fact that the government is willing to give leave for the matter to be debated and determined. That does not go to the substance of the issue.

This is in the context of Mr Howard having used what is a very unusual tactic: to effectively dissolve the House of Representatives today so that the House does not sit, and prorogue the Senate and the parliament tomorrow. Why has the government proposed, as Senator Hill did to me yesterday, that the Senate decide not to sit these two days? That was a suggestion that was made. The fact is that, if the House had sat on these two days before prorogation, Mr Howard would have had to face two question times. He would have had to answer directly questions about his misrepresentation of the children overboard incident during the election campaign. He would have had to defend his version of his conversations with Mr Scrafton in the dying days of that campaign. More importantly, he would have had to explain his continuing refusal to be frank and truthful with the Australian people.

It is quite clear that Mr Howard chose to dissolve the House to avoid this situation. He did not want to be held to account. He chose to cut and run. I actually wonder if Mr Howard thought the issue through in relation to the Senate. On the one hand, he says to us that he allowed the Senate to sit in order to avoid the charge that he was trying to evade scrutiny; on the other hand, the Leader of the Government in the Senate was proceeding on the assumption that the government and the opposition could simply agree not to sit and petition the Senate President accordingly. But that is not the case. The Senate had determined that it would resume sittings today. In the absence of prorogation, those sittings proceed. There is no provision in the standing orders for a majority of senators to cancel a scheduled sitting.

The only way we can effectively make a decision about this substantive matter before prorogation is to do it in a sensible, and I think civilised, way—which is by leave. In the absence of leave—which I had expected would be forthcoming, given the off-chamber discussions that took place—a suspension of standing orders is the only viable option.

I think the case for urgency in relation to this matter is unarguable. Whatever the Senate determines to do in relation to this matter, it has to determine it before five o'clock tomorrow. That is the end game. If we follow the normal processes, there is no guarantee at all that we can complete our deliberations on this matter, so I think the arguments for dealing with it now are substantive. I understand there is even debate going on at this time around the chamber about the possibility of the Senate not even sitting tomorrow, if it completes most of its business today.

Senator Hill —We all hope.

Senator FAULKNER —You might hope that, Senator Hill. The opposition has an open mind on that issue. The case for urgency is a strong one, and I commend it to the Senate.