Thursday, 23 October 2008
Dissent from Ruling
That the Deputy Speaker’s ruling be dissented from.
The opposition is dismayed to have to move a motion of dissent from your ruling, Mr Deputy Speaker. This is a critical issue about Westminster democracy and the parliamentary process. We are very disappointed, shocked and surprised that you would make a ruling that such a motion would be in order. We have heard from the member from Banks trying to run interference on behalf of the incompetent and failed Leader of the House. This motion is unprecedented, it is uncalled for and it is out of order. It is out of order because it is unparliamentary. It is a potential breach of privilege. There are motions that could be moved about the misleading of the House by a member of the House or a condemnatory motion saying that a member of the House should be condemned for an action, but it is utterly unprecedented in the history of Federation for a motion to be moved demanding an action by any member of this House. It is a breach of privilege, it is a denial of freedom of speech and it is a denial of the rights of every Australian to be able to express their views.
This government—so drunk with power, so overblown with its own importance and rhetoric, in the midst of a major international crisis, having bungled the financial response to that crisis leading to a dislocation of the financial sector, a freeze on retirees, farmers, small businesses, savings and deposits—is facing one of the gravest crises in the history of this Federation and yet the Leader of the House comes into the House today and moves a motion which is essentially outside the standing orders of this House and which is potentially a breach of privilege. He has the time to come in here and waste at least an hour of this House’s time in the midst of an international financial crisis on a ridiculous motion condemning the Leader of the Opposition for doing something that he should not be condemned for doing and demanding he come into the House and perform an action—something that the government cannot ask him to do and yet that is what this government is doing.
What is the Treasurer doing? What is the Prime Minister doing? What is the Minister for Finance and Deregulation doing? What is the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government doing at this crucial time? I will tell you what they are doing, Mr Deputy Speaker. They are wasting the time of this House. They are wasting taxpayers’ money. Their eyes are not on the ball. They were not on the ball two weeks ago on the weekend of 12 and 13 October and they are not on the ball now.
I thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for his guidance. The crucial point of our dissent motion against your ruling is that this motion is out of order. It is out of order because it is a breach of privilege. Mr Deputy Speaker, you ruled it in order. For that reason we have dissented from your ruling. We are entitled to do so. This is a democracy—although in the last few months we might have been foolish for not believing that perhaps some of our democratic traditions have been thrown out the window by this government. We apparently were not allowed to ask them questions. How dare we ask them questions about their scrutiny of and accountability for their failed financial package! And yet today we see that the manager of government business in the House has come in and moved a frivolous, foolish and trivial motion. He has reduced the House to a ‘ragtime show’, the Australian reported today.
A ragtime show is on display from both the manager of government business in the House, who thinks he is so clever, and this government, which thinks it is so clever. They have moved a motion which is out of order and which is a breach of privilege. And I can tell you one thing: we on this side of the House will not stand by and tolerate an attack on the freedom of speech of any member of parliament in this place. We will stand up for the right of freedom of speech even for a member of the government. Even the member for Fowler and the member for Petrie have been attacking the government’s education revolution this week. We are not going to try to close them down, unlike the government. The member for Fowler will be next, I suppose. The manager of government business will probably move a gag on the member for Fowler the next time she tries to speak. But the other thing is that—
we are of the view that freedom of speech is at issue in this debate. If this motion is allowed to be debated in accordance with your ruling, it will be a denial of the freedom of speech of the Leader of the Opposition and other members of this House. There is no precedent in the history of Federation for a motion to be moved demanding that a member of parliament attend this House, perform an action—
and use certain words, as my honourable friend the member for Flinders interjects. They do not even give the Leader of the Opposition the opportunity to come into this House and speak if he wishes to do so. By the way, he would have been happy to do so yesterday if the government had had the courage to move a censure motion against the Leader of the Opposition. They went around the gallery yesterday saying they were going to censure the Leader of the Opposition, but they did not have the guts to come into the House and do so. He would have been happy to put this debate on the table. Where is the Prime Minister?
I am responding to the matter. Where is the prime ministerial statement on the financial crisis? There is no precedent in the history of this Federation for such a financial crisis to be bedevilling the Australian public, yet the Prime Minister refuses to come into the House and give a prime ministerial statement. But I digress.
The opposition’s view is absolutely clear. We will stand up for freedom of speech. We will not tolerate an attack on the freedom of speech of any member of this House. Your ruling is false and wrong. I am sorry to have to say so—we have great respect for you, Mr Deputy Speaker—but on this occasion you have allowed yourself to fall into unsound thinking on the standing orders and how they operate. The standing orders are very clear. This motion is out of order. It should be rejected. You should revisit your ruling and make it quite clear that this is out of order. We should return to the normal transmission of government business in this House, as was planned. This is a stunt. It was a surprise attack—a Pearl Harbor on the opposition—but we were ready for it because we know not to trust the manager of government business in the House. He did not even show us the schedule of sittings until 9.01 this morning. He told me he was going to move a motion on national rental affordability, but as soon as I was out of the chamber he moves a motion of this kind. We know not to trust him. I asked the manager of government business if the next item was rental affordability, and he said yes. As soon as I was down the corridor, thinking he had a clear run, he moved a motion. We were back here pretty quick-smart, and we are on to him. We are not going to tolerate these attacks on the Leader of the Opposition or any other member of this House. This motion is out of order. It is wrong. Mr Deputy Speaker, your ruling was wrong. We dissent from your ruling and ask that you change your mind.
The motion is seconded. This dissent motion is very important. It is critical to the standing and reputation of this parliament that the dissent motion moved by the member for Sturt and which I am seconding now be carried by this House. In accepting the motion from the Leader of the House, Mr Deputy Speaker, you have accepted a motion which offends a fundamental principle of our democracy. The greatest principle of our democracy, the principle which has echoed down the ages, the principle which has made Westminster parliaments respected throughout the world is the principle of the absolute sanctity of free speech. The great principle of parliamentary privilege is designed to ensure that no member of parliament can be interfered with in going about his duty as he sees it. The problem with this motion, which I regret to say you have accepted thus far, is that it offends this great principle. It seeks not just to condemn the Leader of the Opposition, not just to disagree with the Leader of the Opposition, but also to put words into the mouth of the Leader of the Opposition. It seeks to control the thoughts of the Leader of the Opposition.
I say to members opposite: they can disagree, they can condemn, but they cannot dictate. All the numbers in the world do not justify trying to dictate to a member of this parliament. If members opposite persist in this course of conduct, having listened to the arguments in this current debate, they will be guilty of bringing into this chamber the worst standards of political thuggery—Tammany Hall and Sussex Street rolled into one and imported into this great chamber of democracy.
It is utterly offensive to try to control what members of this parliament say. I have been a member of a government. I was in command of the numbers of this House for the six years in which I was the Leader of the House, and I have to say that not once did the former government try this trick. Not once would the former government have even contemplated pulling a stunt like this, because it is fundamentally against all principles of democracy. It is fundamentally against all conceptions of free speech. If this motion is permitted, the government could quite conceivably come into this chamber and put a motion demanding that all opposition members support a government bill. They could use their numbers to completely crush any dissent or any opposition in this House.
I know how politicians in this place are always looking for political advantage. I know how the Leader of the House looked at a couple of newspaper reports this morning saying that the Leader of the Opposition said something which went a little bit too far and he thought, ‘Aha! Let us come out and fundamentally embarrass the Leader of the Opposition.’ If he gave the Leader of the Opposition five minutes to speak, fair enough. If he simply condemned the Leader of the Opposition, fair enough. But to try to put the Leader of the Opposition on his feet and put words into the Leader of the Opposition’s mouth—that is one giant step too far.
Mr Deputy Speaker Adams, you are a man of decency and integrity. You are a man who has overcome hurdles to be in this place. You of all people should understand just how precious it is to be in this House and just how important are those principles of free speech and independence of mind which should govern every member of parliament’s actions. That is why you should have ruled differently and that is why this dissent should be carried.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise to support your ruling. The former Leader of the House, when he was Leader of the House, moved in one motion—not two—to suspend standing orders, demand action and refer the member for Perth to the Privileges Committee. This happened in a very similar fashion, the member for Warringah might recall. He expressed no opposition to that. He did exactly this, and your ruling is consistent with the determination of the parliament at that time—with one exception. We have done this properly; they did not. They did it in one motion. We have done it in accordance with standing orders.
What this motion that you have ruled in order will do is ask the Leader of the Opposition to come into this parliament and to retract, on behalf of the opposition, three statements, because in the last three days we have seen unprecedented attacks from the opposition on Australia’s financial regulators. On Tuesday the Leader of the Opposition called for Dr Ken Henry, the Secretary of the Treasury, to be sacked. On Wednesday Senator Abetz called the Secretary of the Treasury a liar, and now, on Thursday, we have the member for Canning alleging that the Governor of the Reserve Bank is politically biased and incompetent. This is an unprecedented attack on—
This is an unprecedented attack on the integrity and independence of our most senior economic regulators during a global financial crisis. Dr Henry and Governor Stevens served the Howard government with distinction. They were appointed by the Liberal Party and they served them well. The decision by the Leader of the Opposition to attack these men, directly and through the member for Canning, is political cannibalism of the worst kind. This is the Leader of the Opposition showing that he is willing to say anything, do anything and trample over anyone to score short-term political points. Confidence is absolutely critical at a time of global financial crisis.
Mr Deputy Speaker, on a point of order: this is a very specific motion. The Leader of the House is required in this motion to argue why your ruling should not be dissented from, not to reach out into the wider ranging debate which he is engaged in now. I ask you to bring him back to the motion before the chair.
I am going directly to the points raised by the member for Sturt in his motion of dissent. The reason this motion should be debated by this House and determined by the elected members of this House is that, at a time of global financial crisis, confidence is absolutely critical—confidence in Australia’s economic regulators, confidence in our independent financial regulators.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise on a point of order to do with relevance. The Leader of the House is defying your ruling. He is required to speak on whether or not your ruling is correct and he is clearly moving on to areas of debate.
This motion is not just entitled to be moved before this House; it is imperative that it be moved before this House because attacking the credibility of our economic regulators during a global financial crisis is like defaming the fire department during a bushfire. It is not on. This motion has been moved to give the Leader of the Opposition the opportunity to come into this House and ensure that at a time of global financial crisis we walk away from this parliamentary fortnight with the whole of the House of Representatives expressing confidence in the Reserve Bank of Australia, the Secretary of the Treasury and our independent financial regulators.
When working families are under pressure, it is not a time that it is acceptable to attack Dr Henry and Governor Stevens in the reckless and irresponsible way that has occurred over the past three days. That is why this parliament has a responsibility at this time of global financial crisis to debate this resolution, which would after all simply require the Leader of the Opposition to express confidence in the Secretary of the Treasury and the Governor of the Reserve Bank. But the opposition will go to any length to avoid having the Leader of the Opposition act responsibly.
This is no longer a question just about policy; this is a question of character and leadership. I say to the former Leader of the Opposition that he would have understood that at a time of global financial crisis you do not attack the Secretary of the Treasury and you do not attack the Governor of the Reserve Bank. If the Leader of the Opposition fails to condemn today’s attack on the Reserve Bank, he fails the test of character and leadership that all national leaders face. This is a critical moment in time; this is a big test. We are providing an opportunity for the Leader of the Opposition—
Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise on a point of order. If the Leader of the House had wanted to move a censure motion, he could have done so. His remarks would go to a censure motion now. He should come back to the question before the chair.
I am doing that, Mr Deputy Speaker, because I am addressing why this motion is in order. I have addressed why it is consistent with motions that were moved by those opposite when they sat over here and I have addressed why it is particularly important at this time of global financial crisis that this occur. The Leader of the Opposition does face a test today: to back the stability of the economy and the stability of our regulators.
There are consequences for ordinary working people, in every electorate that we represent, of a failure to have confidence in our regulators. Those on this side of the House have confidence in our economic regulators. In the 12 years that we sat in opposition, there were no attacks from our leaders on the secretaries of the Treasury, there were no attacks on governors of the Reserve Bank because we understood that at ordinary times that would be unwise and irresponsible. But at a time of global financial crisis it is simply reckless and dangerous. That is why the Leader of the Opposition should take the opportunity provided by this motion to come into this House and express confidence in the Reserve Bank of Australia and express confidence in the Secretary of the Treasury.
The Chief Government Whip will resume his seat. Order! Before the Leader of the Nationals puts his point of order, I gave the seconder the right to speak, but gave two from the opposition side the right to speak on the motion of dissent. I intend to give two from the government side the right to speak on the reply. The Leader of the National Party will resume his seat.
In condemning your ruling, in supporting the dissent, the member for Warringah said: ‘I was Leader of the House. I never did anything like this in my term as Leader of the House.’ I present the evidence to support your ruling, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is a report of the Procedure Committee, which was chaired by Margaret May, entitled: Motion to suspend standing orders and condemn a member: report on events of 10 October 2006. What did it report on? It reported on a motion moved by the honourable member for Warringah when he was Leader of the House. What did the Procedure Committee find? Did the Procedure Committee say that the member for Warringah was correct and that he had followed the proper course? Of course it did not. It actually recommended unanimously that standing order 47 be changed and that, in fact, we have two motions, just as the Leader of the House has moved. The member for Warringah, in speaking to this motion, is absolutely condemned by his own words, his own lack of memory and his own actions when he was Leader of the House.
Both motions draw attention to the fact that this parliament is sitting at a time of global crisis. Is this disputed by the opposition? Are they saying that there is no global crisis? Are the opposition offering bipartisan support? No, they are not offering bipartisan support. This is what is objected to by the Leader of the House and by members of the government on this side of the House. They are not only not offering bipartisan support but playing petty politics at a time of crisis for ordinary people. They are attacking, in the most shameful way, the Governor of the Reserve Bank. Indeed, the Leader of the Opposition is himself attacking—
Opposition members interjecting—
The Chief Government Whip is sadly mistaken about the motion that he is debating. He is now debating the substantive motion, not the motion about your ruling, Mr Deputy Speaker. I ask you to draw him back to the motion which is currently before the chair, and that is the motion about your ruling.
I have had discussions with my colleague the honourable member for New England. His viewpoint is I think the same as my own. I take the view that the country is in a fairly serious situation. We have to find $80,000 million to meet the balance of payments next year because we have no manufacturing and are closing down agriculture. Our housing values are six times average annual earnings, whereas in America they are only three times average annual earnings. So, if they have a crisis, our crisis is far worse. The economy is being carried by mining, and I represent the biggest mining province on earth. Mine prices are down 30 per cent, possibly 50 per cent. Zinc, which is a very good mineral barometer, is down from about $4,000 to $1,400. That is the seriousness of the crisis that we are in. Every member here should listen when I say we really need a bipartisan approach to what is a very serious crisis that is going to be, in my opinion—and I could be wrong—worse next year than it is this year. We want everyone to, please, work together to give the people of Australia some confidence in what is happening.
The proposition being put forward by the government is that the opposition cannot attack a public servant. Everyone here should read what happened between 1929 and 1932 because Gibson, the head of the Reserve Bank, was dead wrong. He was incredibly wrong. He took the advice of Otto Niemeyer, and everybody knows now that Niemeyer probably caused the Depression—that was what Winston Churchill said. We took Niemeyer’s advice. The proposition that the government is putting forward—that people on this side cannot attack a public servant—sorry, is not a proposition that I agree with. It is very important that that be established. In my judgement, what the opposition are doing is indulging in partisan politics—and they can laugh and they can scoff, but this is very serious indeed—at a time when I think we should be pulling together.