House debates

Wednesday, 11 October 2006

Dissent from Ruling

3:37 pm

Photo of Kim BeazleyKim Beazley (Brand, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Speaker’s ruling be dissented from.

I do this with very great reluctance, Mr Speaker, but a precedent has now been set which simply cannot stand. It simply must not be permitted to stand. I agree that it is very likely that the motion I have just moved will be defeated along party lines, but I ask the House Procedure Committee and those members of the government who regard this place seriously to sit down and contemplate what has just happened here.

I very frequently move in this chamber a suspension motion, which is a prelude to a censure motion. Sometimes the government take the view that they will debate the censure motion, and invariably when they do I say about two or three sentences and then the appropriate government minister stands and says, ‘We’ll accept the motion.’ Then I formally move a censure motion. The government’s acceptance of that motion effectively permits the substantive issue to be discussed. In the chair, of course, Mr Speaker, you have an awful lot of problems when the government chooses not to accept the proposition that the censure motion should be moved and the debate takes place around the motion of suspension, because the opposition spokesperson and the government person in reply will frequently attempt to introduce the substantive matter which is the object of the suspension into the debate on the motion of suspension.

Just as frequently—and this is often upheld by the Speaker—somebody on the other side of the debate will stand up and say, ‘The only appropriate way to debate a suspension motion is to debate it procedurally and not substantively.’ Of course, the convenience of the House is often served by allowing that to go a little further, but not much further, and it is never interpreted by either side of this House or by Mr Speaker that, when a suspension motion is moved, the substance of the issue under discussion has been got to the heart of. It is not assumed. The fact that the government actually agree with that proposition is evidenced by the fact that, as frequently as you move the suspension motion and have it debated through, they interrupt that and accept suspension. In other words, standing orders are then suspended. When the government spokesperson stands up and says, ‘We accept that motion,’ that person is not accepting the substance about to be moved but accepting the notion that the debate on the substantive matter should be contemplated by the House.

Invariably, these motions that I move are censure motions on individuals, like the attempt of the government to condemn the member for Perth. Frequently, the words that are incorporated within the motions that we move in the opposition contain words like ‘condemn’. We condemn the government, censure the government, censure the Prime Minister or censure the minister for whatever. What is then debated in the context of a censure motion is the notion that that particular person ought to be censured, and the cases both for and against the censure are laid out.

Imagine the precedent you have just created, Mr Speaker. When I next move a censure motion and the Leader of the House stands up and says, ‘We accept it,’ on the basis of that interpretation the government will have just said it accepts censure. On the basis of that interpretation the government will have just said it accepts a condemnation. On the basis of that proposition, a government carrying such a resolution would see either its own resignation before the Governor-General later in the course of the afternoon or the resignation of the particular minister before the Prime Minister after that. Nobody in this place would seriously contemplate that that should be so.

The reason these substantive motions of censure have to be discussed and the reason they are taken seriously is that people’s reputations are at stake. They are at stake on the other side of the House when we move a censure motion, and yesterday the member for Perth’s reputation was at stake in the debate. It is expected that with the relevant time permitted—for the mover of the motion I think it is 15 minutes—there is the opportunity for that to be moved and for the detailed case to be set out against the member. Then there is the opportunity for the member or minister who is being censured to present a detailed defence. Then the opportunity is open for another person on the other side of the debate to stand up and rebut elements of the defence of the person concerned. Then, following that, there is an opportunity for those defending the person under attack to get up and further rebut the argument. There is an opportunity for a dignified debate.

When my father was a member here and a suspension was accepted by the government and then a motion of censure was moved, Bob Menzies would close the parliament. Bob Menzies would say that the government’s tenure of office was under challenge in the most serious forum in which it could be discussed. If it was after question time, for argument’s sake, or during the course of the afternoon that the Leader of the Opposition, Dr Evatt generally, would move a censure motion then the Prime Minister would come into the chamber, accept the suspension and say: ‘The government’s reputation is now under attack. We will suspend the parliament until this time tomorrow, when it will be possible for us to mount a defence and hear the argument made against us.’ Those were the days when parliament was taken much more seriously and when members of parliament took themselves much more seriously than in these days of combat and warfare, when parliamentary standards have basically disappeared altogether.

The simple fact of the matter is this: on this occasion the other side of the House traduced the reputation of the member for Perth, who is more than capable of defending himself. It is nonsense to assume that this parliament would for one minute condemn a member of parliament on the basis of a 10-minute speech, under testy standing orders which actually do not permit a case to be made, followed by a 10-minute reply in which, basically, the person giving the reply should not defend themselves but make an argument as to why the matter should not be debated. To suggest that, as a result of all that, it is appropriate to have a resolution condemning somebody’s reputation in this chamber is simply nonsense.

I cannot for the life of me work out why, having got the suspension, the minister did not stand up on that occasion and make a case in the 20 minutes available to him. I made a mistake earlier—I said it was 15 minutes. I cannot for the life of me work out why the minister would not then stand up at the dispatch box for 20 minutes and make his case. I can only assume the reason would have been that the government would then have gone through to a proper, full debate on the censure of the member for Perth in which all of us would have had the opportunity to lay out in very great detail the traducing of the rights of ordinary Australians taking place now on the Prime Minister’s site, about 500 metres down from this parliament. There, people are being subjected to undue pressure. People who want a decent outcome in relation to a collective agreement have found themselves abused and suborned. There, people are being intimidated into signing AWAs. All of that would have come out in very great detail in the debate which would have taken place.

I can only assume that the government feared that prospect. But in fearing that prospect they should not have started on this course. If they want to condemn somebody on this side of the chamber it is a serious thing. If we want to condemn someone on that side of the chamber we regard it as a serious thing, and we would move heaven and earth, if we could get it, for a few speakers from each side in such a debate.

This ruling was not a ruling that saw the member for Perth properly dealt with. The standing orders do not permit a proper discussion in a way that allows a proper judgement to be moved to condemn an individual on either side of the House. The standing orders simply do not permit that type of debate on a suspension. I do believe, Mr Speaker, you must change your position. We must dissent from the ruling. (Time expired)

Photo of Julia GillardJulia Gillard (Lalor, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Health and Manager of Opposition Business in the House) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.

3:48 pm

Photo of Tony AbbottTony Abbott (Warringah, Liberal Party, Leader of the House) Share this | | Hansard source

I do not propose to long detain the House, although, out of courtesy to the Manager of Opposition Business, she can have as much time on this motion as I propose to take myself. Let me make it very clear that if the Leader of the Opposition spent as much time on policy as he does huffing and puffing in this parliament he would certainly be a much better and more effective Leader of the Opposition. Today we have had more self-important posturing from the Leader of the Opposition.

Let me make it very clear that a practice has grown up in this House, rightly or wrongly, of debating substantive issues by way of suspension motions. On numerous occasions the opposition come into this House and move a suspension motion. In the course of that debate they make the substantive points that they would have made if that suspension motion had been passed. Let us be absolutely clear that a practice has grown up in this House of substantive points being made by way of a motion for suspension.

Certainly, in debating the motion for suspension yesterday, a number of substantive points were made by the mover of the suspension motion. He was constantly interrupted by members opposite taking points of order. When, by contrast, the member for Perth stood up to speak on the suspension motion he similarly addressed the substantive points but, respecting the contemporary practice of this House, there was no attempt to interrupt the member for Perth in making the substantive points that he sought to make.

This is the clear situation. It is possible, and indeed it is now the standard practice in this House, to have substantive debates by way of suspension motions. I would have thought that members opposite would have been grateful that, having had a successful suspension motion, the House did not further proceed with the business for the simple reason that the member for Perth had been caught out red-handed.

If members opposite want to have further debate on this matter we will oblige them at the appropriate time. There are certainly any number of opportunities for them to debate workplace relations matters in this House, if they choose. I simply make the point that what happened yesterday was perfectly in accordance with the contemporary practices of this House. Your rulings were correct, Mr Speaker. The explanation that you gave in answer to the member for Lalor was a perfectly fair and reasonable statement of exactly where things are in this House at this time.

3:51 pm

Photo of Julia GillardJulia Gillard (Lalor, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Health and Manager of Opposition Business in the House) Share this | | Hansard source

I wanted to hear the Leader of the House speak in order to hear what arguments he put. Unfortunately, he did not have any. There is a very clear point here that we need to understand. When you look at page 321 of House of Representatives Practice you see it deals with the question of the censure of a member or senator—and it deals with it specifically. When you look at that section it tells you that, apart from motions against the Leader of the Opposition, a motion of censure of a private member has only been moved on two occasions. On those two occasions, both motions were agreed to.

I think we can assume that a motion of censure against the Leader of the Opposition is, if you like, a political device to have a political debate and not necessarily a personal allegation against the Leader of the Opposition. There were only two occasions on which such motions were moved and agreed to against private members. One was against the Leader of the National Party, then in opposition, for conduct unworthy of a member. Another was a motion put to the House condemning the Leader of the National Party for reflecting on the Speaker, and the motion was withdrawn by leave after he apologised.

I only take you to those precedents, Mr Speaker, to reinforce the point that censuring or condemning a member of the House is an unbelievably unusual thing because it is an unbelievably serious thing. And because it is a serious thing, there are special ways of dealing with it under the standing orders. It is exactly, if you like, why we have different laws in the criminal arena from those in the civil arena. We make special rules to protect the rights of the accused. In the standing orders of this parliament the same approach has been taken, and special rules have been made to protect the rights of a member who is the subject of a substantive allegation.

Those rights mean that that member gets to deal with that matter by way of substantive motion and, by way of substantive motion, put their answer. The member gets an extended time for the debate and an unrestrained debate. You cannot implant that into a procedural motion and get the same result. The very fact that you cannot implant it into a procedural motion and get the same result is borne out by more than 100 years of history in this place, where chamber research has been unable to identify where a procedural motion has been used to get a substantive result other than dealing with the most basic of procedural things. The precedents you use, Mr Speaker, show that.

We have allowed those matters to come together if we have been changing the sitting times of the House, or perhaps changing the way in which we are dealing with a bill. We have never before in this parliament witnessed a day when it occurred that an individual member was under attack. We ought never to allow that to occur and it ought not to have occurred yesterday. I understand that the past is history. What we are debating now is the future. I think the best reading of yesterday’s Hansard is that there was a procedural motion moved—

3:55 pm

Photo of Anthony AlbaneseAnthony Albanese (Grayndler, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Manager of Opposition Business in the House) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the question be put.

A division having been called and the bells having been rung—

Mr Speaker, could I clarify that this vote is just on that the motion be put, or are you going to count this as the substantive motion as well?

Order! The motion before the chair is that the question be put.

Question put.