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Wednesday, 22 August 2001
Page: 29951

Mr BEVIS (12:53 PM) — When dealing with legislation from this government, I have noticed that the titles given to the bills are very often misleading. I came to that conclusion in my portfolio responsibilities of industrial relations very easily. You need look no further than the government's second wave industrial laws, which had the official title of `More Jobs, Better Pay'. There was not a person in Australia who believed that is what that law was about. But it does encourage you to read carefully what the title should be and what it is.

This bill has a most innocuous title. It is the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2001, and that sounds straightforward enough. If they are going to use their usual standards, though, it probably should be retitled—something like `the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Liberal Party Funding Fix) Bill 2001'. If you read the bill, you find that in fact the Liberal Party is mentioned, in just six clauses of the bill, no fewer than 30 times. There are only a few pages in this bill; nearly every paragraph has the Liberal Party mentioned in it. This is a bill that has one purpose only: it is to fix the Liberal Party's internal headaches. That is what the bill proposes to do; it has no other purpose.

The people of Australia would rightly ask, `Why, in the dying days of this government, as the parliament draws to a close with the election near, would parliament spend precious time dealing with this issue?' This is not important legislation for the welfare of ordinary Australians. It will not produce one extra dollar in the pockets of any Australians; it will not create any more productivity; there are no exports it will generate. This is not a bill that does anything at all to assist Australia at large. The parliament is spending its time in these dying days of this government trying to deal with a bill that does nothing more than provide a financial fix for a political problem that the Liberal Party have. I do not think too many voters in any electorate, whether they are Labor or Liberal, would appreciate knowing that this parliament is being required to spend its time dealing with such a self-serving piece of legislation. But we are, because the government is in disarray; we are having to deal with this because the Liberal Party are in disarray. One of the reasons they are in disarray is that they cannot control their own organisation, and the old adage, `If you can't control your own party, you can't control the government; if you can't lead your party, you can't lead the government,' is certainly apt.

Nowhere is the disarray in the Liberal Party more evident than in Queensland, although that is a big call to make when you look around the country and you see that Chikarovski in New South Wales continues to suffer from divisions, the Liberal Party in Victoria are still trying to figure out what they should do after Jeff Kennett's departure, the Liberal Party in South Australia are desperately trying to hold on against the odds and the Liberal Party in Western Australia were so distraught at losing the election that we saw a quite remarkable set of circumstances: the defeated Premier had this charade that he was going to resign and then he was not going to resign, then he was going to get one of the federal Liberal backbenchers from Western Australia to swap seats and she was going to go into the state parliament for a deal to become leader of the Liberal Party in opposition. When that fell through as well, he decided he probably would not hang around either. What a shambles of an organisation.

So this parliament is being asked to fix this mess of a political party called the Liberal Party; asked to spend its time to fix this mess and to do what John Howard and the Liberal Party organisation cannot do for themselves. There is a simple solution to the Liberal Party's problem in this. There is a simple solution to the problem of Lynton Crosby and John Howard: show a bit of leadership. If you cannot lead your own political party on a matter of national campaign finance, why should any Australian believe you can lead the nation? I am sure the people of Australia will have an opportunity to reflect on that as the weeks unfold.

In spite of that litany of disarray of the Liberal Party around the country, you are hard pressed to find a place where they are in greater disarray than Queensland. I suppose someone has to stand in this place to defend the Liberal Party of Queensland, because no-one on the government side has. I find myself in the peculiar circumstances of defending the Queensland Liberals against their national leadership's incompetence on the one hand and aggression from others in the other half of their faction on the other. They were reduced to three members in the state parliament, which is a truly remarkable outcome. It did lead to some interesting circumstances, I must say, because the leader of the Liberal Party was then selected as the—

Mr Slipper —Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise on a point of order. I want to draw your attention to standing order 81, which deals with relevance and says:

No Member may digress from the subject matter of any question under discussion ...

This legislation is the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2001. The member for Brisbane initially pointed out that it related to funding for the Liberal Party. That is indeed correct. The member is now digressing widely from the subject matter of the bill. I would ask you to bring him back to the contents of the bill.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Hawker)—I am sure that the member for Brisbane will come back to the bill.

Mr BEVIS —As I am sure you are aware, Mr Deputy Speaker, this debate has been wide ranging, as the parliamentary secretary knows, and if he wants to continue to take points of order on me that he knows are frivolous and contrary to the rulings that have been given throughout this debate by Mr Speaker and other deputies in his place then let him do so. It will not cause these facts to be hidden. As I said, this is a bill which on no fewer than 30 occasions refers to the Liberal Party in just six clauses. This is a bill where the parliament is being asked to pass a law to fix an internal problem of the Liberal Party. It is absolutely central to that that those internal problems in your political party on that side of the House that caused this parliament to deal with this bill are totally germane to this debate, because if you did not have that mess in the Liberal Party you would not have this bill here. You keep raising points of order and I guarantee we will take up the 20 minutes and I guarantee I will repeat those accusations against your political party and substantiate them.

We are here because the Liberal Party cannot govern itself. This bill is here because it cannot govern itself. The public is entitled to know why it cannot govern itself. The government have not been willing to present themselves and explain why they need this bill. They said it is technical. They know that is not true. This is not technical at all. It is because of their internal divisions. It is clear to the world, even if it is not clear to the parliamentary secretary, that that is the case. Just yesterday the front page of the Brisbane Courier-Mail carried the banner headline `Dumped Lib warns of poll fallout'. It was referring to an ongoing problem of internal factional brawls in the Liberal Party that saw Councillor Caltabiano, who until yesterday was the leader of the Liberal Party in the Brisbane City Council, get rolled for a position on their executive—it is the first time a leader of the Liberal Party in the Brisbane City Council has not been a member of their state executive. This is what Councillor Caltabiano said:

I can't believe the stupidity of the party ... Any issue like this that negatively portrays the Liberal Party can clearly have an impact (at the federal level).

The article went on to state:

Sources said an ongoing brawl between two party factions led to Cr Caltabiano being dumped from the state executive.

Councillor Caltabiano is often linked to a faction associated with former state MP and powerbroker Santo Santoro. Most of his council colleagues are associated with an opposition faction linked to former party president Bob Tucker. Bob Tucker, of course, is important in the background to this bill and why the parliament is being asked to shift money around within the Liberal Party. I am sure members will know that Mr Tucker was the unsuccessful Liberal candidate in the recent Ryan by-election. He wishes to be the candidate at the next federal election, but, because of the internal brawls which produced this bill and which have seen Bob Tucker on the losing end of a decision at the state executive, he decided to take the Liberal Party Queensland executive to court and challenge their decision. It transpired that the Liberal Party Queensland division said that they did not have enough funds to fight that matter in the Supreme Court and they asked the national office of the Liberal Party to bail them out. The national office of the Liberal Party, for reasons I am sure are quite sound, said that they would not fund the defence of that action in the Queensland Supreme Court, so a couple of fairly well-heeled Liberal members of the state executive took it on themselves and lost. Bob Tucker won.

What we are about here in this parliament is passing a law to shift the money around in the Liberal Party so that some of those embarrassments might not occur. That is what this bill is designed to do. There is a clear link with this parliament and with the government in relation to the way in which this money changes hands in the Liberal Party. The article in yesterday's Courier-Mail had one other interesting paragraph. It noted:

Prime Minister John Howard and state party president John Herron refused to comment on the latest display of disunity, prompting criticism from party sources that the pair were unprepared to exert proper leadership.

That is dead right. It is that same absence of leadership that requires this parliament to deal with this bill. If indeed Senator Herron were a real president of the Queensland branch and if he had the leadership qualities, he would have sorted that out. If indeed John Howard were Prime Minister and head of the Liberal Party in any meaningful way, he would have sorted this out. It is passing strange that whenever there is an industrial dispute we get a tirade from ministers opposite telling us that Kim Beazley or I or someone should go and tell the ACTU—

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —I remind the honourable member, under standing order 80, to refer to members of this chamber by their seat or title.

Mr BEVIS —I am not sure which one I did not.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —You referred to the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr BEVIS —I doubt that he would have been offended, but I accept that it is not in accordance with the standing orders. The Leader of the Opposition and I find ourselves attacked on a regular basis whenever there is an industrial dispute, being told that we as Labor Party members should tell our union people what to do and that if we cannot tell the union people what to do then we are not leading properly. So the standard that the government wants to apply to the Leader of the Opposition is not only should he be able to lead the members of the parliament in the caucus, not only should he be able to lead the ALP organisation, but also he should somehow be able to tell the trade union movement in every corner of the country what they can and cannot do and when they can do it. That is the standard that the government applies to the Labor Party. When it comes to the Liberal Party we have a situation in which the Prime Minister is not even able to sort out the question of where the money goes in his own political party. So he loses the argument in his political party and fronts up here in the parliament to try to crunch through a bill to fix that problem that the Liberals have.

The scenario that I referred to in yesterday's Courier-Mail has been followed up, of course, by the events in the council chamber that are reported in today's Courier-Mail. Under the heading `Labor reopens Libs' self-inflicted wounds', the article states:

An empty chair stole the show at the weekly Brisbane City Council meeting yesterday.

It was a powerful symbol that Liberal Party infighting had claimed another scalp.

They were referring to the empty chair that is normally occupied by the Leader of the Liberal Party in the Brisbane City Council, where the Liberal members outnumber their colleagues in the state parliament by about three to one. Obviously that did not warrant their leader having a place on the state executive. This is symptomatic of the internal problems in a party that comes here to the parliament asking for a special law to be carried about how they run their own internal finances. What a shambles! In his closing remarks, the member for Calare made some passing reference to the attitude of the government in introducing its registered organisations bill. He started to touch on a point which I wish to raise also, and that is the attitude the government likes to take on matters of self-government and regulation in relation to bodies like trade unions.

When it comes to bodies like trade unions, you certainly would not see the government facilitating this sort of assistance—quite the opposite. However, there seems to me to be an interesting parallel. The government is very keen to promote what it views as freedom of association when it comes to industrial matters. Freedom of association is, indeed, a principle that the Labor side of the parliament holds dear as well. It is an obligation under our ILO commitments—not that that would mean a great deal to this government, because it has breached ILO commitments on a number of occasions. To the extent that it means anything to them, they should be pleased to know that freedom of association is actually a common view shared by most countries in the world. When it comes to this bill, though, a different standard is being applied.

This is not freedom of association in the Liberal Party; this is the parliament legislating to decide for the Liberal Party where its money will go. There is no freedom of association, there are no broad rights here for the Liberal Party membership to make the decision. In fact, the Liberal Party membership have made the decision. They made a decision that Lynton Crosby and the Prime Minister do not like. So, because the Liberal Party has come to a free decision which happens to be a decision that the Prime Minister does not like, the parliament is now being asked to step in and pass a law to tell the Liberal Party what they will and will not do with their money. That is a most peculiar set of circumstances.

This is without doubt one of the most extraordinary pieces of legislation that this parliament will deal with in a long, long time. It is an indication of the total lack of control that the Prime Minister has over his own political party. It is an indication of the absolute chaos and division that exists within the Liberal Party in every state and territory but, I have to say, most notably in Queensland. I would like to think that at least the Liberal Party members in Queensland were willing to stand by the Liberal Party organisation in Queensland, but not one of them has. The parliamentary secretary at the table comes from Queensland. He is in the Liberal Party now, although he used to be in the National Party.

I am rather bewildered that the parliamentary secretary at the table does not choose to support the desires of the Liberal Party rank and file in this matter. I am rather surprised that the member for Moreton, who spoke earlier in this debate, took the opposite view and did not want to support the position. That may have something to do with which faction of the Liberal Party in Queensland they are members of. They might like to enlighten the parliament as to whether they are in the Santoro group or whether they are in the Bob Tucker group. In any event, the parliament should not have its time taken in this way to try to sort out a tawdry internal dispute in the Liberal Party.

This is a Dodgy Brothers bill. It has no place in this parliament. The Liberal Party should be ashamed of itself for bringing it to the House. It has enough to be ashamed about with the way in which it has conducted its internal affairs without compounding the problem by bringing this bill before the parliament. But make no mistake about it: the government's lack of leadership, the Prime Minister's lack of leadership and the internal divisions within the Liberal Party are now bare and exposed for all to see. I can assure you that the people of Australia will take that into account when they decide who has the capacity to lead this nation into the 21st century, as they did in Queensland with resounding results. I have no doubt that, given the divisions of the Liberal Party in Queensland and the way in which the government has now brought this bill forward, that will be spotlighted in Queensland in the weeks ahead.