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Wednesday, 12 May 1993
Page: 417


Senator WATSON (11.59 a.m.) —I rise on behalf of the Opposition to oppose the motion moved by the Manager of Government Business in the Senate, Senator Faulkner, to restrict speaking time to 20 minutes. On this side of the chamber, the Liberal and National parties side, we are appalled at this motion by the Government, and we are even more appalled by the attitude of the Australian Democrats.

  The Senate forms an integral part of the accountability chain; an accountability that sits very uneasily with the Labor Government. From time to time newspaper editors are rung up and abused by the Prime Minister (Mr Keating) when they take a contrary view to that of the Government. At present we have the fiasco of the special deals in relation to communications.

  The Senate is not the favourite chamber of the Labor Party. We have had unsavoury comments from the Prime Minister about senators and the role of the Senate. Why? Because the Senate chamber is part of a very important link within our democratic system—a system of checks and balances and of accountability. In a democratic society accountability is very important.

  One of the important links in the chain is the role of the Auditor-General. Why were the Auditor-General's funds restricted so that he could not fully discharge his responsibilities as Auditor-General? The way in which the Auditor-General has managed his task draws admiration from a wide spectrum of Australian society. He adheres to the highest standards. I think that, in his role as Auditor-General, John Taylor has raised the status of auditing. He has done that because he has fearlessly supported the need for accountability and the need for checks and balances. One of our roles in this place is to ensure proper scrutiny and proper accountability.

  I remind the Senate that accountability is not just a matter of counting the dollars and cents. Last night we saw a very unfortunate situation arise when the Government believed that the accountability of the tax office in terms of the estimates committee debates was just a matter of dollars and cents. The Government ignored the very special responsibility of the Australian Taxation Office in discharging its obligations to administer tax law in a fair and impartial way to ensure that our tax laws are fair and equitable. These issues were going to be challenged last night during the estimates committee hearings but those challenges were not allowed. What has the tax office got to hide?

  The proposal to limit speeches in second reading debates to 20 minutes is more than just a matter of limiting speaking time; it is a matter of putting a further check or limitation on this accountability, important though that be. This 20-minute limit on speaking time is restricted further by the Government's practice of grouping Bills together and debating them cognately. Last year in the tax area we had something like three to four minutes per Bill to thrash out the important issues.

  Within the next fortnight this chamber will be debating three tax Bills: two taxation laws amendment Bills and the Taxation Laws Amendment (Superannuation) Bill. If this motion is passed, contributions to the debate on those Bills will be limited to 20 minutes. Therefore, we will have less than seven minutes to debate each of those important Bills.

  The second reading stage of a Bill is very important because it sends messages to the Australian people telling them what issues they should be contacting us on. But if senators do not have the opportunity of sending out those signals and messages through this Parliament, then we are taking away from the Parliament the very responsibilities that we were elected here to carry out—to debate, to challenge and to put alternative positions. If those responsibilities are taken away from us we will have to rely on networks other than this Parliament to send our messages to the Australian public. I think that is unfortunate.

  Let us see how that is reflected in regard to administration. The taxation office—an area for which I have particular responsibility—is becoming subject to less and less parliamentary scrutiny. The office seems to be more concerned about dealing with its own groups that it has set up outside the control of this Parliament and as a result is devoting less time to the Parliament. It is making determinations and rulings which cannot possibly come through the Senate. For those people who do not have the opportunity or money to challenge those rulings—and challenges to a ruling must go before a court and the court system is so expensive that they cannot afford it—where is the justice? Taxation justice in this country depends on how much money one has and, as some witnesses suggested, on how much influence one personally has with the taxation office.

  When I first entered this Parliament the time allowed for a contribution to a second reading debate was one hour. I can recall Ministers, including the present Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Evans, taking up every minute of the 60 minutes to debate a Bill.


Senator Schacht —I am glad I wasn't here.


Senator WATSON —That was tolerated by the Liberal Party at the time. I say to Senator Schacht that the Labor Government is now denying the Opposition the opportunity for adequate debate by further restricting time at the second reading stage.

  I am concerned about the role of the Australian Democrats in relation to this motion. The Democrats will side with the Government and because of their numbers—the numbers being more important than the logic of the argument—they will sway the vote. For Senator Coulter to say that the numbers are important and the debate is unimportant betrays the ideals on which the Australian Democrats as a party were founded.

  I hope that those comments that were made today will be overruled by the Democrats' new leader, Senator Kernot. I believe Senator Kernot knows the value of debate in this place. Senator Coulter may not recall, but Senator Kernot certainly would, that last year when we were debating certain sales tax amendments it was the logic of certain proposals put forward by Senator Kernot that encouraged the Opposition to support a number of those motions. At that time a number of commentators, including representatives from the Democrats, said, `This is the way that the Senate should always work'.

  To the Democrats' credit, in the past the reverse has been true and, because of the sheer logic and strength of the argument in a debate, the Democrats have supported the coalition's point of view.

  If we limit debate at the second reading stage, the opportunity for such important decisions to be taken, based on the logic and force of the argument, would be lost. If a person who has been a successor to some of the great leaders of the Democrats, including former Senators Chipp and Haines, comes into this place and indicates that the debate is not important, it makes me wonder where that person stands in relation to the Democrats' original philosophy of selling to the Australian people its philosophy of keeping the bastards honest. If it is just the numbers that are important, debate is therefore unimportant.

  I would hope that, in the light of this debate, Senator Coulter may be persuaded to change his point of view and support the coalition so that we retain the 30-minute time limit. The 20-minute time limit is a further restriction and what will happen is that in time we will have a further whittling away of opportunities.

  From the point of view of the Opposition, this measure is just another link in the chain of taking away the rights of parliamentarians, particularly senators, to debate and challenge issues. It is a sad day for democracy. This measure will diminish the important role of this Senate. If that is on the Labor Party agenda, let every Australian take note because democracy is at risk in this country while the Labor Party pursues such a line.