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Wednesday, 17 November 2004
Page: 37

Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (10:56 AM) —I respond as Leader of the Democrats to the speech by the Governor-General on the opening of the 41st Parliament. I start by acknowledging the Indigenous people who are the traditional owners of the land on which our parliament meets. The Democrats strongly believe that the opening of parliament should include proper recognition of our Indigenous heritage, including Indigenous welcomings. My Democrat colleague Senator Aden Ridgeway is currently the only Indigenous member of parliament. Tragically this will cease from 1 July next year and once again we will be left in a situation where we have no Indigenous representation in this parliament. Senator Ridgeway has already given notice of a motion supporting changing our opening ceremonies by incorporating Indigenous protocols into the opening of the next parliament. As he said, this would be not only a positive gesture of reconciliation but also an affirmation of our unique Australian identity. Parliaments in countries such as Canada, New Zealand and Africa already incorporate their indigenous cultures. Australia would benefit from doing this. Many of our opening ceremony processes have remained virtually unchanged for over 100 years.

I remind the government of a unanimous parliamentary committee report which recommended incorporating Australian Indigenous ceremonies and protocols into the opening of federal parliament. If the Prime Minister were genuine—and I find it hard to believe that he is, given his past record—and honest in saying that he will not ignore the Senate and that he will not treat his new found power with greater arrogance and let that new found power go to his head, an easy first step would be for him to adopt those recommendations that have long been ignored, recommendations supported across the political spectrum by an all-party parliamentary committee.

I was pleased to hear the Governor-General mention Indigenous issues in his address. I suspect the 110 words the Governor-General spoke on this issue probably were more words than the Prime Minister spoke about Aboriginal people during the entire six-week election campaign. The Governor-General in his speech said:

In these sittings, legislation will be reintroduced to further reform the delivery of indigenous programmes and services. Indigenous Australians are relying on a better relationship with all governments to improve their circumstances.

I wonder whether that, unfortunately, is not already the first dishonesty of the new government—in its parliamentary statements at least—because there was no legislation in the last parliament that would have created a better relationship with all governments to improve the circumstances of Indigenous Australians. During the campaign, the Prime Minister certainly did not say, `Elect the coalition government and we will impose discriminatory welfare requirements on Indigenous Australians,' yet as soon as the election was over there were leaks that this very thing was being considered. The Democrats will do all we can in the life of this parliament to ensure that Aboriginal issues are given the priority that they deserve, and that there is a genuine attempt to address the outrageous and disgraceful inequality that Indigenous Australians face.

The Governor-General's speech was given on behalf of the Queen but it was written by the Liberal-National government. This arrangement is a reminder of the incongruousness of Australia's current head-of-state arrangements. It is a reason that the Democrats remain committed to helping Australia develop into a republic. However, I wonder if in some respects the Prime Minister himself has become a closet republican. Certainly there would be few national leaders around the world who are greater supporters of the Republican President George Bush, president of that very powerful republic of the United States of America. Indeed, on key issues the Prime Minister appears to be on the side of the republican president rather than on that of the monarchist queen.

One key area where this appears to be the case is climate change. Noting that this debate and the amendment that has been moved will be forwarded to Her Majesty, I will move an amendment on behalf of the Democrats that I expect Her Majesty would support, and which I urge the government and opposition senators to support, relating to global warming and the Kyoto protocol. On Monday, 1 November, an article in the Guardian newspaper, titled `Queen backs fight on global warming', said:

The Queen will this week support a United Nations conference on global warming in Germany, signalling the royal household's whole-hearted conversion to green issues.

It was reported in a number of British papers that the Queen had castigated the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, for failing to persuade the White House to shift its stance on the Kyoto protocol, so I feel confident Her Majesty would welcome our amending this motion and the government taking note of it and her reported views that more pressure should be put on this republican president. The republican president should listen to the Queen, change his position on the Kyoto protocol and take more solid action on climate change. As the Governor-General is the Queen's representative in Australia, perhaps it would be more appropriate for him to make public commentaries in support of greater action on Kyoto and climate change rather than on some of the issues he has been commenting on lately. I move:

That the following words be added to the address-in-reply:

“, but the Senate is of the opinion that:

(a) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second is to be commended for her reported public support for implementation of the Kyoto Protocol; and

(b) the Government's failure to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, to take strong action to reduce Australia's greenhouse emissions and to urge the United States of America to do likewise, is putting at risk international efforts on climate change”.

It is appropriate, as I said in a speech earlier today, to acknowledge the election victory of the coalition. It is a significant achievement to be re-elected to government not just for a fourth term but with an increased majority. It is a particularly extraordinary achievement in light of the fact that polls showed that a majority of Australians believed that, in recent years, the Prime Minister had not told the truth on a number of important issues. On the other hand, the government did spend close to $100 million of taxpayers' money on advertising campaigns and self-promotion in the last financial year, an increase of 45 per cent from the previous year. I guess taxpayers can take some comfort from the fact that next year presumably will not be an election year and there will therefore be less government expenditure in this area as, I suspect, the need to inform the public of all these things will suddenly decrease for a year or two.

Reasons aside, the Liberal-National Party government has clearly had a historic achievement in gaining outright control of the Senate from the middle of 2005. It is the first time in decades that the government will control the Senate. Not since the end of 1981, under the Fraser government, has a government controlled the Senate in its own right. Of course, the big difference is that government members were not as silent and subservient in the late 1970s as they are now. We have already heard Senator Fifield's contribution, in which he said that he believes the role of the Senate should be that of a rubber stamp. He made the extraordinary suggestion that non-government senators—Labor, Democrat and Green senators—should vote against their beliefs and their party's policies and against what they campaigned on and were elected to speak out about so that the government can maximise this rubber-stamp nature of the Senate, which it sees as our only role.

One big change from the middle of next year will be that coalition senators will no longer be able to so readily rely on the Senate to ensure fairness and justice in legislation. The onus will now be on them. Whenever this fails to occur, and when further injustices and unfairness are inflicted on Australians, the responsibility will rest with the coalition senators who have failed to speak out and have failed to prevent that from happening, because we on this side of the chamber will cease to have that power. We will still have the power to speak out, although with talk of the government introducing institutionalised guillotines, limiting debate and not allowing inquiries to happen or ensuring that they report back quickly to prevent the opportunity for full scrutiny of issues, even our ability to speak out will probably be limited.

Our ability and our power to prevent the passing of unfair and unjust legislation will be gone. There is no doubt about that. The responsibility will then be solely on the coalition senators. They will not be able to hide behind or rely on non-government senators to do that job for them. They will need to stand up and be counted, and I certainly saw no sign of that in the Howard government's first three terms. They key thing now is whether that will appear with this new-found power. I am sure that government senators would regularly say that with power and rights come responsibilities. They have that responsibility now, and the Democrats will certainly be scrutinising them closely to ensure that either they fulfil it or they are called to account when they do not. The record of the Howard government in providing information to the Senate is already one of the worst in parliamentary history. This government's stonewalling and prevention of material being tabled, their refusal to answer questions and their dishonesty in answering questions are already among the worst in history. So in that sense things probably are not going to get much worse, because there has already been a massive amount of secrecy and a willingness on the part of the government to dodge accountability. They will just be able to do it with less effort than they have had to use in the past.

The Democrats challenge the Prime Minister to commit to maintaining the current Senate arrangements for properly scrutinising legislation, not just giving a tick and flick, one-day, overnight reference of a piece of legislation to a committee with a pretence that it is a genuine opportunity for scrutiny and public input, to ensure that inquiries can be held to allow the public and those with expertise to provide submissions on upcoming legislation and on key policy areas. It continually goes unrecognised that the Senate committee process is not just an opportunity for senators, particularly non-government senators, to express views, to explore issues or to use as a platform to embarrass the government. In my view, the key value and importance of the Senate committee process is the ability it gives to the public to have input. It is important for those who have an interest in, an expertise in, a commitment to or a passion about an issue to provide that on the public record, under parliamentary privilege, in the forum of the parliament itself, to all senators without censorship and with the full opportunity for those views to be scrutinised and tested. That aspect is so crucial and it will be lost if we have shortened committee inquiries and reduced opportunities for scrutiny. That is one of the key areas about which the Democrats will continue to pressure the government to ensure that it is retained. The government does not have a mandate to minimise existing accountability safeguards and the Democrats will do all they can to prevent that occurring.

As I said, the big difference between the current coalition government and the coalition government that had control of the Senate in 1980 is that there was clearly far more willingness on the part of Liberal Party MPs in 1980 to speak out on issues. I doubt if the Liberals of 1980 would have remained silent if the then Prime Minister had wanted to involve Australia in a pre-emptive strike on another nation to help initiate a war based on false pretences and lies and to directly reduce the safety of Australians. Of course, the war in Iraq continues to be fought and has already produced tens of thousands of civilian casualties as a direct result, with some estimates now as high as 100,000. Whilst Australia has been remarkably lucky in having had no Australian troop deaths in this conflict, we should not use that to ignore the many deaths and enormous suffering occurring as a result of it. In relation to Australian combatants the fact also remains that one in five veterans who returned from the first Gulf War have health problems as a result of their tour of duty. Whilst it was pleasing that the Governor-General recognised veterans in his speech I am concerned, including from the content of that reference, that the government's main focus in relation to veterans continues to be on parades, medals and anniversaries. These are important, but the Democrats believe that it is in properly caring for those who return from conflict that we truly honour the courage and contribution of the service personnel who sign up to protect Australia's interests. That is an obligation which this government continues to fail to meet.

The Governor-General's address outlined some specific programs for the coming term and the Democrats, as usual, will analyse and scrutinise legislation and vote for it on its merits. That is why we will continue to retain a consistent and principled position on matters brought back before this parliament which have already been scrutinised in the past—matters such as introducing discrimination against people who work for small businesses by removing their protection against unfair dismissal. From time to time I have read some suggestions in newspapers that, in this remaining seven months or so before the government gains control of the Senate, we non-government senators should try to make ourselves `relevant' by agreeing to things that we would otherwise oppose. Leaving aside the basic reality that whatever we might agree to in the next seven months can be changed or amended by the government afterwards, so that any agreement that we might reach would be worthless, this government has already shown in the past its willingness to completely break its word on a whole range of agreements in key areas, so we are hardly likely to be able to keep it to its word when it has total control of the Senate.

Secondly, the notion of agreeing to amendments or weakening your principles purely so you can be part of the action, so to speak, is a bizarre concept. It is certainly one that I have never seen the sense of or supported. It is not one that the Democrats have followed in any way in the life of the previous parliament. Some people have trouble recognising that the role of all of us here is to represent the principles that we put forward and to uphold our promises and it is about time that they recognise that. We seek to do so in a way that is constructive and can find ways to move forward. In that sense, compromise is always worth exploring, if it is positive compromise, but that is not the same as compromising your principles and your basic beliefs. Those areas about which the Democrats have consistently had concerns of principle, which we have rejected in the past, such as the unfair dismissal legislation; the sale of Telstra; the attempts to gut the Administrative Appeals Tribunal—that will no doubt reappear; and distorting our migration zone by removing thousands of islands from the protection of the Migration Act are areas that we will continue to oppose because our belief was and remains that they are unprincipled actions. Those actions are not in the public interest. They will reduce fairness and should not be passed by any Senate that is interested in upholding those principles.

The fact that our vote may be less crucial after 1 July is unfortunate, but our principles should not change as a result—and they certainly will not. We will consider the issues outlined, including those in the Governor-General's speech. We will take them on their merits and do all we can both before and after 1 July to make sure that all views are put forward and that this government is held to account for its actions not only on the ones it speaks about but also on the ones that it does not. (Time expired)