Wednesday, 14 September 2016
Statute Law Revision (Spring 2016) Bill 2016; Second Reading
I rise to speak on the Statute Law Revision (Spring 2016) Bill 2016. What an exciting time to be alive—no wonder the public gallery is packed out for this piece of legislation. There are not many bills that pass through this parliament—this wonderful, 115 year old institution—that do not actually change the law at all, but this bill before us, this piece of Turnbull-Joyce legislation, does not change the law, not even slightly. I know that because the explanatory memorandum for the bills says:
None of the corrections makes any change to the substance of the law.
This is quite extraordinary.
Today we are celebrating or commemorating or acknowledging a one-year anniversary of when the Liberal and National parties combined to overthrow the democratically elected Prime Minister of the day, Tony Abbott, the member for Warringah. If we look at their agenda and their plans for the future we see this piece of legislation: the Statute Law Revision (Spring 2016) Bill 2016. It is a sad reflection on the Turnbull government and what they have become so quickly. They offered hope, briefly, and then it flickered and spluttered into nothing.
The Australian Parliament House website lists a couple of definitions and it defines the Australian parliament as: 'An assembly of elected representatives, usually having an upper and lower house which, with the head of state—the Queen, represented by the Governor-General or Governor—makes the laws for the country.' It makes the laws. It does not spend its time correcting spelling mistakes in the laws or adding a few bits of punctuation. But that is actually what this piece of legislation is all about. It is an attack on grammar and a war on punctuation.
Good governments spend their time enacting the vision that they take to the Australian people—that is what good governments do and that is what reforming governments do. Admittedly, conservative governments often are about reacting to the plan put forward by the progressive Labor governments, and that has certainly been the case for the last 40 or 50 years. Sadly, we see this piece of legislation—the Statute Law Revision (Spring 2016) Bill 2016—and we see that it is indicative of a government that does not have a vision.
These are the amendments that will be made in this Turnbull-Joyce bill: schedule 1 corrects minor drafting errors and modernising language used in offence provisions in 15 acts, schedule 2 corrects some misdescribed amendments in four amending acts, schedule 3 substitutes references of specific ministers and departments for generic terms in one act, schedule 4 repeals some spent and obsolete provisions of two primary acts, and schedule 5 repeals a spent amending act. Not surprisingly, the Labor Party is not opposed to this bill. These are minor corrections, and, as I said, they do not change the law at all.
But what is the point of the Turnbull-Joyce government if they spend all their time correcting spelling mistakes? Where is the vision? Where is the plan for Australia, especially in these uncertain times? I remember, during the 44th Parliament, when we had those grand occasions called the red tape reduction days, when that was the finest hour for any backbencher when they took their liquid paper to a couple of commas and showed the people they represent who was boss. Sadly, we do not have those red tape reduction days. Why don't we, one year on, bring them back so that the visionary work of the Turnbull-Joyce government is truly celebrated!
When a law actually needs changing, the government wants to have a plebiscite before it will do its job and legislate. We have put an alternative plan out here when it comes to a plebiscite. We say that the role of government is to be representative—that is what representative democracies are. A plebiscite-led government is a different model. It has some merits in terms of it being able to go to the people, but the Westminster system we have here—which, more accurately, is a 'Washminster' system—is based on representative democracy. The people of your electorate put you into parliament to do your job.
To change our Constitution is something that is quite difficult, as I am sure you well know, Acting Deputy Speaker Wicks. To change the Constitution is a difficult thing. I think we have tried it 42 times, and only eight times has that occurred. If you go to chapter VIII, 'Alteration of the Constitution', section 128, 'Mode of altering the Constitution', it talks about the process but there is no mention of plebiscites. Obviously a plebiscite is an opinion poll. It is not something that is referred to in our Constitution. We have a Prime Minister who was a barrister in another life. He understands constitutional law and at one time was able to be a champion in the Spycatcher case. He understood the fabric of Australian history, yet now has rolled over and is sending a worm into the heart of representative democracy. Instead of doing his job, he is going to suddenly replace the Westminster system of government with this plebiscite process.
When it comes to gay and lesbian Australians, for some reason their rights are different to every other right: the right of women to vote, the right of Indigenous Australians to be included and referred to. All of those other rights—the Racial Discrimination Act, the Disability Discrimination Act—that have evolved over time, parliamentarians have stood up and argued their case and voted according to their party and platform. Somehow, when it comes to gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual and intersex Australians, there suddenly has to be a different set of rules. Why is that so? If the member for Wentworth wandered down Oxford Street in his electorate and spoke to the people who are going to suffer under such a plebiscite, he would understand that it would be wrong. He can stand up and wash his hands and say: 'Oh, no, the people of Australia will be fine. The people of Australia will get this right; they will be respectful.' The reality is that young people who are working through their journey in life will suffer, will endure harm and will be bullied. That is something that will be on the Prime Minister's conscience.
When it comes to legislating, we see a very, very sad track record for the Abbott government, and for the Turnbull government one year in. Even legislating to have a plebiscite seems problematic for this Turnbull-Joyce government. I do not think they are going to have the numbers in the Senate; they are wasting their time. I would like to particularly commend Senator Smith from Western Australia for having the courage to say that he would not be party to any plebiscite. He will represent the people of Western Australia, but would do it according to the best interests of the people of Western Australia. I am hoping that other members of the Liberal and National parties will join suit and not visit this harm on the Australian people.
How did we get to this. As I said, one year ago today, the member for Wentworth became Prime Minister. He was backed in by desperate backbenchers, most of whom are no longer here—certainly the Tasmanian contingent and others from parts of New South Wales. The member for Wentworth has become one of the greatest political disappointments of our time. Sadly, so focused on power that he has forgotten all about the qualities of fairness and equity. He keeps saying, 'These are exciting times.' This is what Prime Minister Turnbull called the initial period of his prime ministership. He is prone to say, 'So far, so good.' I think that was a line in the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I think Robert Redford used it to talk about the guy that jumped out of the building—going down saying, 'So far, so good. So far, so good.'
These are certainly interesting times, and they were interesting times in the lead-up to the 2 July election—that long eight-week election campaign following which we saw the number of backbenchers on the coalition side reduced significantly. With sagging popular approval ratings, the Prime Minister led the country on a very unusual road to an election. With great fanfare, just over five months ago, Prime Minister Turnbull invoked the rarely used powers contained in section 5 of the Constitution and asked the Governor-General to recall parliament for an extra three sitting weeks—an extraordinary request. Other than after a general election, section 5 has only be invoked on four occasions since 1961, and two of those occasions were so that the Queen could open the new session of parliament. On one of the other occasions it was necessary when Prime Minister John Gorton did not have his government's program fully prepared for the first sitting after the 1969 election, and in 1968 parliament was prorogued after the death of Prime Minister Harold Holt.
So, we had the member for Wentworth prorogue the parliament under section 5. The reason given by the Prime Minister in March that warranted such an unusual request was that parliament had to be recalled to give consideration to two 'important parcels of industrial legislation.' Those pieces of legislation were the ABCC bills and the registered organisations bill. I have copies of the letters where it is noted on 21 March that it was all about this industrial regulation. The letter to the Governor-General, carrying the Governor General's signature where it says 'Noted':
Although the grounds for a double dissolution under s.57 of the Constitution exist in respect of the Registered Organisations Bill, it is the Government's preference to have it and the ABCC Bills passed by the Parliament rather than invoke the s.57 procedure.
Yet, as we well recall, the registered organisations bill was not put to the people in that parliament. Instead, people cleared off. There was a letter to the Governor-General, to the Queen's representative, stating what was going to happen yet the member for Sturt was not able to organise things enough to put it to the House. Parliament was recalled on Monday, 18 April for a period of three weeks. The bills were put before the parliament and obviously were rejected by the Senate. Prime Minister Turnbull then advised the Governor-General to exercise his power under section 57 of the Constitution to dissolve both houses of parliament simultaneously to enable an election of both houses—again, not a power that is often invoked, and it was only the seventh time since Federation that this power had been used. Obviously it was an attempt to regain some control over the Senate; instead, I think the Liberal-National Party lost senators in that process. We have certainly ended up with some strange individuals with some strange views, including some senators from Queensland who have a strange understanding of representative democracy—and science.
During the election, we hardly heard any discussion from the coalition about either the ABCC bills or the registered organisations bill—notwithstanding that they were the very reason Prime Minister Turnbull called the election, as noted in the letter I quoted. Post-election we have Prime Minister Turnbull with a slim majority of one in the House of Representatives, and on one occasion, for the first time since the 1960s, the government lost control of the House. As I said, there is also a reduced number in the Senate and we have an increased crossbench. On this anniversary today of Mr Turnbull's seizing the prime ministership it is hard to think of a single achievement of his government. He has these three-word slogans. He keeps saying 'jobs and growth', but we know there has been a collapse in the number of full-time jobs since he came to power. Far from him being the great Messiah, we see a government in chaos, with backstabbing, sniping and undermining at a time when the nation of Australia needs great leadership.
People thought this great business person, who had been connected with the HIH collapse, would be a steady hand on the economy's rudder but instead we have seen the situation reduced to slogans like 'jobs and growth'. There was all that talk about economic leadership but, as I said, the number of full-time jobs has collapsed—300 full-time jobs have been lost every single day since the beginning of the year. The Prime Minister has taken us from economic thought bubble to economic thought bubble. He has been talking about states effectively reducing state income taxes—wasn't that a visionary statement, though I think it only lasted five minutes. That is the sort of leadership we have had. At a time when we know there are revenue problems, he talks about states increasing their own taxes.
His economic leadership has been anything about. It has been a complete shambles and, as I have said, we have challenging times coming. I am particularly concerned about productivity flatlining, about wages growth flatlining so that people are effectively earning less every year, but still we have a government obsessed with unions when we have slow wages growth. We have a Prime Minister who is shackled to the policies of the member for Warringah—in fact, they are the only achievements he can trot out at a time when the Great Barrier Reef is under threat and we need to act on climate—(Time expired)
Question agreed to.
Bill read a second time.
Ordered that this bill be reported to the House without amendment.