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Thursday, 9 December 2004
Page: 120

Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (4:40 PM) —I always thought the adjournment debate at the end of the year was meant to involve expressions of Christmas cheer and all those sorts of things.

Senator Chris Evans —By the way, happy Christmas!

The PRESIDENT —Perhaps we might have a change of tone now, Senator.

Senator BARTLETT —I will do my best. As always, I think the major parties sometimes cannot help themselves, getting into the furious accusations and finger pointing and, to some extent, missing the issues that actually affect the community. Having said that, the Democrats were not opposed to the idea of investigating this particular issue that has been the subject of the last couple of speakers. Indeed, to some extent the government did so by picking up on a Senate motion that was moved by the Democrats and supported by the Senate. But if they are in any way wanting to suggest that they did so for any reasons other than political expediency and politically driven motives leading up to the election, they would prove that they were genuine about public accountability by also picking up the frequently repeated Senate resolutions calling for royal commissions into issues of much greater significance, particularly repeated resolutions calling for a royal commission nationally into child sexual assault, to which the government have continually said: `No, it's a waste of money. It's not the best use of resources.' As Senator Evans said, we have had five royal commissions under the life of this government, two of them into this Centenary House issue. We do not object to that being looked into; we do object to very serious, chronic problems affecting the future of this nation and the lives of hundreds of thousands of Australians continuing to be ignored. We urge the government once again to reconsider supporting taking up those Senate resolutions to adopt inquiries into child sexual assault and also the frequently repeated resolution to have a proper independent inquiry into the SIEVX, which might not seem as important or have as much political point scoring opportunity as the Centenary House lease but did involve the death of 353 people. I think it is appropriate that all the questions relating to that be answered.

As part of this closing debate for the year, I wish all senators and people in the parliament, particularly the parliamentary staff, a merry Christmas. We did have a curious assertion from the minister for multicultural affairs today that saying merry Christmas might be offensive to Muslims, which I found a bit bizarre. I think Muslim Australians can cope quite well with the concept that Christmas is more than just a narrow Christian festival. People who are not practising Christians—such as me, for that matter—are still quite able to cope with being wished a merry Christmas without feeling that I am having religion pushed down my throat. I thought it was quite an odd assertion from the minister for multiculturalism, although it was done as a way of avoiding the real question and the real challenge of people who are not going to have a merry Christmas whether they are Muslim, Christian or anything else, which is the people who are continually locked up in detention centres by this government in Australia and on Nauru. I do not know what those detained on Christmas Island who are mainly Buddhists would think. I am sure they could cope with being wished a merry Christmas. I am sure they would be much happier if they were given some freedom. Either way, I wish people a merry Christmas and a good break, particularly those people who service all of us here—the staff, the attendants, the clerks and the many other people who work in this building day after day who are not the focus of the spotlight but who are in many ways just as critical to keeping democracy churning over.

We started out this last sitting fortnight with the condolence motion and debate for Janine Haines, a former leader of the Democrats and often stated to be the best leader of the Democrats—certainly so far. I would like to take this opportunity to repeat on behalf of the Democrats our distress at her premature passing, our acknowledgment of her great contribution to the parliament, and our condolences and compassion to her family. In her final year in the Senate Janine Haines actually occupied the seat where I am now standing and it is an honour in that sense to follow, I suppose you could say, in her footsteps by standing in the spot that she stood in. This is the last time that I will be standing here and speaking from this spot as leader of the Democrats. The leadership will be changing over next week and Senator Lyn Allison will be taking on that role. I wish her well in that role and certainly offer her my support, as she has provided support to me as deputy for the last couple of years.

I would also like to thank the Democrat membership, who have been through a lot in recent times. They have had a difficult year and a difficult last couple of months. I would also especially like to take the opportunity to thank, on the public record, all of the staff of Democrat parliamentarians, particularly those on my personal and electorate staff, who have also been through a very difficult year. The people I have on staff currently are a fantastic group of people. They are very well organised and incredibly capable, and they put in an enormous amount of work with very little acknowledgment and often a lot of criticism. They are responsible for an enormous amount of achievement through this Senate.

Despite the Democrats' very disappointing, very poor election result I will always defend the enormous amount of achievements we gained as a Senate team with the support of those staff through our work in the Senate, making a difference and improving laws that improve people's lives. Whilst obviously you need to keep getting elected to this place in order to make a difference, that is why you do it—to improve people's lives and to make sure that issues that would otherwise be forgotten are addressed and acknowledged. I am very proud of what the Democrats, with the staff group that are working for the senators at the moment, have achieved in the last few years in an enormous number of areas—too many to go through at the moment. Clearly, we are improving things and making a positive difference to people's lives in ways that will bear fruit for decades. I will always defend that legacy and I will always acknowledge the particular role that the staff, and the Democrats membership more broadly, have played. To quote Clint Eastwood in one of his movies, `Deserve's got nothing to do with it.' The Democrat membership and the staff did not deserve the situation they have now but that is the way things happen sometimes.

As leader of the Democrats, I accept the election result—as I always have done—and I accept responsibility for it. There is no doubt that in a number of key areas—small in number but nonetheless big in importance—over the past five years, the Democrats as a parliamentary party stuffed up in a big way. That has to be acknowledged and the people who were let down should be apologised to. But I remain convinced that there is a strong need for a party to fill the role that the Democrats played: strongly speaking out for and promoting justice, freedom, opportunity and environmental protection—but in a way that sees business, big and small, as part of the solution, not part of the problem, as parts of the Left in this country do. Business, big and small, plays a crucial role in generating wealth and opportunity and, indeed, ways of improving environmental protection, and freedom and justice. We need to look for ways of working in with those people and that part of our society and our economy, whilst being aware of the potential downsides. We need a party that is independent of both the major parties and not tied to dogmatic ideological views. That is a role that is still very much needed and it is certainly one that I am keen to continue to play.

We also need a strong Senate. It was very frustrating during the last election campaign to be unable to get the message out there about the possibility of this government getting control of the Senate. We had a lot of media interest in the government having control of the Senate after the election—which was a little bit late. It is now a reality and I acknowledge that that is a result of the expressed views and votes of the Australian people. We need a Senate that will be independent of the government but will work constructively. Certainly we will seek to continue to work constructively whilst holding and strongly pursuing our own independent views. We will continue to do our best in that regard.

When we have had a bit of a rest, after Christmas and the new year, we will be back next year for a very small number of sitting days. There will be a historically low number of sitting days before 30 June so we will only very briefly see each other in this chamber, now and then, whilst the government waits until it gets the numbers. That is unfortunate but there is plenty of work to do out in the broader community and there are plenty of issues that still need addressing. There are plenty of people who have issues, concerns and needs that are being ignored by the major parties. The Democrats—and I, personally—will continue to do all we can inside and outside this chamber to make sure there is a voice for those issues.