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Monday, 28 November 2005
Page: 8

Senator ELLISON (Manager of Government Business in the Senate) (1:01 PM) —Can I say at the outset that the government’s program has been on the record now for some time. On 3 August this year we circulated bills for the spring sittings. The list that I have states that bills marked with an asterisk are proposed for introduction and passage in the spring sittings, and that was circulated on 3 August this year. It is a comprehensive program. The government has never made any secret in relation to its reform program—in particular, in this fortnight, the passage of the industrial relations reform package, Welfare to Work and the antiterrorism bills, which are timely. There are other bills as well which the government needs to pass. However, to say that we have not made people aware of our program is totally false, because we have had it on the record now for some time. Indeed, as usual last week we distributed the program for this week, and that is what we normally do.

There has been criticism and we have been asked why we need the extra time. As I have said before, since 1 July this year we have seen the average government business time in a Senate sitting week reduced from between 14 to 16 hours to around 10. When you examine the time that the Senate has spent on procedural motions, you can see where the time has gone. Just on motions to refer matters to reference committees and suspension of standing orders, we have spent over 17 hours. That is well over a week’s sitting of Senate time being spent on procedural matters. Even in this debate today about an hour has been taken up debating sitting times. We have a job to do. We are senators. We are elected to deal with the passage of laws for this country, and that is a prime role of the Senate and the other place. We have as a government been elected to put in place reforms and policies. We intend to do that, and that is precisely what this is about—ensuring that we can do that.

In relation to the sitting fortnight, I think 22 November was the reporting date of the committee for the workplace relations package. Today we will see the two reports on the antiterrorism legislation and also Welfare to Work. Of course the government will consider those reports. It is proper that it does. That is the norm. There is nothing unusual about that. In fact, if we did not set aside some time to consider those reports and any possible amendments, we would be roundly criticised. The program we have in place this week allows for an extensive second reading debate on workplace relations, it allows extensive time later in the week for debate on the antiterrorism package and it provides for consideration of the reports from the various committees that I have mentioned. That is entirely in order. There is nothing unusual about that.

I might touch on question time again. Since I have been in the Senate, which has been for some time, whenever there has been a change in representation in the chamber it has had an impact on the structuring of question time. The government now has a majority in the Senate, and there has also been a change in representation by the minor parties, and that has been reflected in the number of questions. It has always worked that way. Since I have been in this place we have had a change in representation of various parties and entities, and that has resulted in a change of the structuring of question time. There is nothing at all at odds with precedent on that.

In relation to the reference of the antiterrorism package to a Senate committee, for the record I remind the Senate that when that was moved, I think in the last sitting fortnight, what was intended was that the matter would be dealt with by the Senate committee during the two-week up period. Due to procedures in place the vote could not be taken at that time. An amendment was moved by the Democrats. That had the consequence that that motion could not be dealt with at that time and we lost the opportunity of that two-week period. That was in the sitting fortnight previous to the last. Our intention, as I recall it—I was not here—was to provide two weeks of up time for that consideration. We have since remedied that by extending the time for reporting in relation to that antiterrorism package. We will have the committee report today, and we look forward to the receipt of that.

But in relation to this sitting fortnight, it is necessary to have these extra sitting hours if we are to get the job done. That is a fact. A prime role of this Senate and all senators who form it is to consider government legislation and deal with it. If we did not have this extra time we could not deal with that legislation and it would be left until February next year. Putting if off would clearly be a dereliction of the duty of the Senate. So these extra hours are essential. Looking at the Senate’s past practice, at the end of the year there always tends to be a logjam, if you like. What we are doing with this—and we gave notice of this motion in the last sitting fortnight—is dealing with it now rather than at the eleventh hour to avoid that last-minute rearrangement of times. In the past, the opposition and others have been the first to criticise us when we have done that so we are doing it well in advance so everybody knows where they stand. It is a thoroughly reasonable proposal and I commend it to the Senate.

Question agreed to.