House debates

Wednesday, 24 November 2021


Corporations Amendment (Improving Outcomes for Litigation Funding Participants) Bill 2021; Second Reading

10:57 am

Photo of Peta MurphyPeta Murphy (Dunkley, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

It's quite extraordinary. With all of the issues that Australia is facing today, all of the urgent matters that this parliament should be addressing and that this government should be addressing, apparently the most important thing on the Morrison-Joyce government's agenda today is stopping people who can't afford to pay a lawyer being part of a class action so that they can get justice. What is their motivation in doing this? Who is the Morrison-Joyce government standing up for by trying to limit the ability of people who are damaged and have a legal right to claim damages—but can't afford the justice system to be able to do so—to get representation in a class action? Who's interests are they really looking after? We know the first interest they always look after is their own. I called it the Morrison-Joyce government, but let's be fair: in the last month or so it's clearly been the Joyce-Morrison government. We know that everything they do is through the prism of trying to get themselves votes and trying to get themselves re-elected. The least the Australian population deserves is a government where everything they do is through the prism of making Australians' lives better, but that is not what they have with this government.

This legislation, once again, is evidence that the interests that this government defends are their own and their rich mates'—not the people in my electorate who need to be part of a class action to hold corporations and institutions to account for systemic damage that they have caused. This Morrison-Joyce government is not on the side of Chrissy Stewart, who emailed me last Friday. She is a client of Shine Lawyers as part of their recent class action against Johnson & Johnson for the Gynemesh. That is such an important class action. Women's health in this country, for too long, has been second class, and here we have an action for women who have been damaged and are seeking health support, and it's exactly the sort of thing that this government wants to shut down. Chrissy emailed me and said: 'I don't know about you, but this Morrison government are totally disrespecting the Australian people. As far as I can remember, they never went to the last or past elections telling of their intention to do this. This is wrong and so disrespectful. I, like many Australians, do not have the funds to take action when things go wrong. I feel like we are getting more and more like America—just look at the proposed electoral changes they want to bring in.' Yes, Chrissy: just look at them. That's the next bill that this government wants to debate—restricting people's ability to vote. Chrissy goes on to say: 'It's wrong, wrong, wrong. To me, Morrison and some of his counterparts are treading all over us. We are being treated as second-class citizens. I am praying that they won't get back in.' There is a message for you, Prime Minister. There is a message for you, Treasurer. There is a message for you, everyone on that side of the chamber who is going to vote for this legislation. People like Chrissy from my electorate can't afford to take on a giant like Johnson & Johnson. They need to access class actions to get justice.

There are many problems in our legal system that need to be addressed, starting with a family law system that seems to heap more pain and more damage on vulnerable children and vulnerable women at some of the hardest times of their lives. The response of this Morrison-Joyce government has been to abolish the Family Court to make it harder for them. They are going to community legal centres, which operate on the smell of an oily rag to help the most vulnerable people in this country and cannot for the life of them get this Morrison government to fund them to deliver the services that are needed. People who have had their lives impacted by somebody's actions against them too often decide not to go to court to pursue their lawful remedy because of the costs of going to court, and the delays of the systems that are straining under underfunding and systems that are archaic and haven't been updated, in the end, wear people down and they just let it go.

There are so many things in our legal system that, if it really cared about justice and access to justice, this Morrison-Joyce government could be looking to improve. And what they choose is this piece of legislation to limit even further people's ability to get justice. I'm tempted to say it's extraordinary, but sadly it just seems to be par for the course for this government. As we have come out—or are coming out, we all hope—of this pandemic, as restrictions are easing, we know that there are going to be more and more people who are going to need to access the legal system as a result of being victims of domestic and family violence. The deputy speaker in the chair—the member for Macarthur—and I are on the social policy and legal affairs committee of this House, and we held an inquiry into domestic violence during most of this pandemic. Every single witness who works in the system—from counsellors to people who work in housing, people who are victims of domestic violence, community legal centres and advocates—told our inquiry that instances of domestic violence went up during the lockdowns and restrictions and that, in particular, women's ability to access services went down. That was partly because of the restrictions that meant they couldn't go out and access services and partly because for public health reasons they were locked in their homes with their perpetrators. Every one of those witnesses told us that they anticipated an increase in the need for their services when restrictions were lifting.

So one would have thought that an urgent matter for this government to bring to the parliament would be an improvement in the ability of those vulnerable women and children to access legal services and support services. One would have thought that the urgent matter that we should be debating today would be how much extra money and resources should be put into community legal centres, legal aid commissions and the family and Federal Court system to deal with the anticipated increase in matters—but, no. It's difficult to know whether to be angry or just deeply disappointed at the priorities of this government. Perhaps they don't think that there are enough votes in standing up for vulnerable people. Perhaps there are not enough political donations for them in standing up for vulnerable people. But that is what we are here to do.

People with money, people who are privileged—like those of us who are members of this parliament—and companies that are massive international corporations and have lots of money are doing okay. The people who need a voice are the people who have lost their jobs or who are working in low-paid, insecure employment; people who have children with disabilities; people who are in violent or coercive relationships; people who haven't got enough money to buy a home and are in long-term rental and have discovered that their rent has increased exponentially during the recession; people whose public school is crumbling down around their ears and who look five kilometres up the road at private schools that have swimming pools, Olympic running tracks and wonderful STEM centres; and people who work two or three jobs to make sure that their children have food on the table and can get to school the next day. They are the people who need a voice. They are the people who need a government that says, 'I know how hard life is for you and has been for you, and my priority is to help you so that your life, your children's lives and your community's life can be better.'

If we have ever had an opportunity in our generation to say, 'Here's a reset for our country; here's a time when we can say, "What are our priorities? What do we value? What do we want the future to look like for our children and our children's children?"' surely it is now. Surely, as we have grappled with COVID and we are coming out of a crisis, that is the opportunity for the parliament and for the government to look to a better future. We know that this Prime Minister likes to use a lot of words about rebuilding and coming out of this pandemic, but where is the evidence of the commitment to that? Where is the program of saying, 'As we invest in infrastructure, as we invest in manufacturing, as we build a renewable energy base that makes us a superpower, reduces emissions and helps us to have a future where the planet isn't destroyed, we're also looking to those people who have done it the hardest, we're also looking to those people who are most vulnerable and we're also looking to those communities where intergenerational poverty and socio-economic disadvantage are holding them back,' and saying to them: 'You are our priority'?

What Australia deserves is a government that's on their side, that's on everyone's side and that says: 'As we look to economic growth, we look to economic growth that benefits everyone. As we look to the future, we're going to set ourselves benchmarks. We are going to say that we have a legal system and a justice system that everyone can access, no matter how much money they earn and no matter where they live. We are going to look to a manufacturing base that means that we have sovereign capability and supply chains in this country and that we are investing in sustainability for now and for the future. We're going to have a health system which means that it doesn't matter how much money you've got on your credit card; it just matters whether you have a Medicare card so that you can get help when you need it—the best help.'

What are the priorities of this government? I don't know how many times I've stood in this chamber, having written to the minister for health, and said that in my electorate bulk-billing GP clinics can't get and keep doctors, which means that people in my community who can't afford to pay out of pocket to go to the GP get compromised health care because they can't get to a GP. Why aren't we doing something in this parliament today and debating legislation to fix that instead of debating legislation to make it harder for that same cohort of people to access the justice system? How many times do we have to stand in this chamber and say that the public education system should be the gold standard of education in this country, that every child should get the best education possible and that every educator in the education system should get all the resources they need to deliver that education? Why aren't we talking about that and debating that right now instead of legislation to make it harder to get justice? This Morrison government is not on your side.


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