House debates

Thursday, 17 August 2017


Qualifications of Members

2:51 pm

Photo of Mr Tony BurkeMr Tony Burke (Watson, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Finance) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That so much of the standing orders be suspended as would prevent the Member for Watson from moving the following motion immediately—

That the House:

(1) notes:

(a) this House has unanimously asked the High Court to determine whether the Deputy Prime Minister is constitutionally qualified to be a Member of parliament and thereby to determine if the Government has a majority;

(b) the Deputy Prime Minister has admitted he was a citizen of a foreign power right up until the weekend and has already started campaigning for the New England by-election;

(c) former Minister Matt Canavan has resigned from Cabinet and will not vote in the Senate until the High Court resolves doubts about his constitutional qualifications;

(d) the Prime Minister is continuing to accept the Deputy Prime Minister’s vote in this House even though it means that victims of the banks are denied the Royal Commission they’ve been calling for and Australians continue to have their penalty rates cut; and

(e) the situation with his Deputy Prime Minister is unsustainable; and

(2) therefore, calls on the Prime Minister to:

(a) admit his continued reliance on the Deputy Prime Minister’s vote is causing real harm to the people of Australia;

(b) rule out accepting the vote of the Deputy Prime Minister while his constitutional qualifications are in doubt; and

(c) direct the Deputy Prime Minister to immediately resign from Cabinet.

The Prime Minister told the truth today when he said he was transparent. When the Prime Minister said he was transparent, he was spot on, because no-one has missed the transparency of a Prime Minister who will do and say anything to cling to office. This is an illegitimate government throwing a tantrum, and as they throw a tantrum and throw the toys in every direction, they don't care who they contradict, even when it's themselves. They're willing to jeopardise a relationship and create a new international incident with New Zealand, they're willing to jeopardise arguments they made as recently as Monday, they're willing to undo the arguments that they made when Senator Canavan resigned and they're willing to completely undo the arguments that they put in place when the Greens resignations took place.

The Prime Minister will probably get up in the House later and be very passionate, but in order to believe what the Prime Minister says today you have to ignore what he said last week. This issue is exactly the same as everything that we get from this Prime Minister. In issue after issue, no matter how much passion he brings to the table, you can only believe what he says today if you ignore what he used to say. It's not long ago that we heard it was incredible sloppiness on the part of the Greens party, and administratively just how hopeless they were—

Government Members:

Government members interjecting

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

Could the Manager of Opposition Business just pause for a second; I don't want to eat into his time. Members on the government side, on my right, will resume their seats or leave the chamber.

Photo of Mr Tony BurkeMr Tony Burke (Watson, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Finance) Share this | | Hansard source

In terms of what happened when the Greens party resigned, if you want to believe those arguments from the government are right then their defence of the Deputy Prime Minister can't be right, because their defence of the Deputy Prime Minister now is: 'Oh, he didn't know; he had no way of knowing.' If that argument's right then every criticism they made about the Greens party is completely wrong. They put arguments in terms of the responsibility of Senator Canavan and whether Senator Canavan had done the right thing. If he did the right thing—and they argued passionately then that he was doing the right thing—then everything the Deputy Prime Minister is doing now is completely wrong. But now we will hear the Prime Minister argue with the same level of passion as to why his deputy is doing the right thing now, with the exact opposite argument to what he put when Senator Canavan decided to step aside and not vote.

But of all the arguments that this government has been willing to put, nothing has been more bizarre than their conspiracy theories. It's interesting today: no Dixer for the Minister for Foreign Affairs. I was ready to move the extension of time, but the opportunity just wasn't there. Instead of looking like Sherlock Holmes uncovering the conspiracy, it was the school prefect saying, 'How dare you dob on us!' That was the argument they wanted to put. They were like that final scene of Scooby-Doo, when they say, 'We would've got away with it, too, if it wasn't for you meddling kids.' What they put forward—their entire defence here, the whole conspiracy theory—is based on the fact that they didn't think they'd get found out. That's what they're upset about—that the Deputy Prime Minister has been willing to go through the entirety of his parliamentary career in breach, on the face of it, of Australia's Constitution. Their objection, their anger—the conspiracy—is that somebody worked it out. Somebody worked out that maybe this government with a majority of one was in fact a minority government. Somebody worked out that, when they were ridiculing the Greens, it was not just some anonymous backbencher who was guilty of doing the same thing; it was the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia.

What those opposite don't seem to understand—but a lot of their backbench, from Phil Coorey's article, have worked it out—is simply this: what they have done this week is not sustainable. Everybody knows. If they let this two-week break go and parliament comes back on 4 September, do they really think we will have moved on? Do they really think the Australian people will suddenly be okay with the concept that every time there's a vote in this House, we don't know if it is a legitimate majority? Every time the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia stands up, we don't know if he's legally in office. When the Prime Minister goes overseas, Australia will be the only country in the world being run by someone whose own country doesn't know whether he's legally allowed to do the job. That's the situation and the embarrassment that this Prime Minister is willing to put us through.

I have to say, you wouldn't need much authority, when the evidence is this strong, to say: 'Deputy, you've got to stand aside. If the High Court clears you, you'll come back.' It wouldn't take much authority to do that. How little authority does this Prime Minister have, that in the face of the House unanimously referring the matter to the High Court, he can't even say that to his deputy? All he can do is look down the barrel of a camera and say: 'I'm a really strong leader. I am a really, really strong leader.' Strong leaders don't need to say that, Prime Minister. Strong leaders don't need to make comments like that. But you don't need to be a terribly strong leader to say, 'If we don't know whether or not we're governing legally, maybe we ought to ask him to stand aside.' That's not an unreasonable position for the government to arrive at, but this Prime Minister has so little authority that he cannot even bring it to that. The government wants to argue that, somehow, this is a matter only within the Canberra bubble that doesn't have an impact on the real life consequences for Australians. Well, tell that to the victims of the banks, who were denied a royal commission in this place by one vote. Tell that to the shop assistants at Penrith Plaza, who the Prime Minister dismissed by saying: 'Oh no, trickle-down economics will work for them. They'll get jobs.' They've got jobs—the problem is they had a pay cut. And the reason they had a pay cut was one vote—one vote! For some of the lowest-paid workers in this country it was getting a pay cut or having their conditions protected, and it was the one vote of the Deputy Prime Minister that may well have been unlawful.

The Prime Minister might like to think the issue will drift off because the media cycle will move on. I say to the Prime Minister: just stop and think about the gravity of what we are talking about this week. The government only has a majority of one, and we have unanimously voted, to the High Court, that we don't know whether that majority is lawful. This is a big deal, and this doesn't require much leadership to be able to move on. If the people behind the Prime Minister have given him so little authority that he can't even direct a member of his frontbench, who might be there unlawfully, to step aside for a couple of months, then why are they keeping him there? If they won't give the Prime Minister enough authority to make a simple decision like that, then they should make the move that the member for Warringah is beckoning on. If there was any stability in those behind him, there would be stability in this parliament. But there is not. The government at least last week thought maybe it would get a diversion this week from the postal vote, or the postal survey. Well, they got it—they got the diversion they were looking for!—and the entire legitimacy of this government is called into question. Those opposite in the front row might not have worked it out but the Australian people have, and those behind them have worked it out too. (Time expired)

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the motion seconded?

3:02 pm

Photo of Joel FitzgibbonJoel Fitzgibbon (Hunter, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Agriculture) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the motion, and I want to indicate to the House that I've agreed to give up some of my time to Mr Wilkie so he can make a contribution on behalf of the crossbench. This motion is one about ministerial responsibility. It's about time this Deputy Prime Minister started to take some responsibility for his own action, or inaction. When he was caught out doctoring his Hansard, it was the fault of his staff. When his departmental secretary tried to stand up for the staff—well, we know the history there: he was gone. When he couldn't answer a question on Channel Ten's The Project, he first blamed the person doing the interview, and then, when that didn't work, he blamed his media adviser. Do we remember the hashtag #PrayForJake? When he wouldn't move on the white spot outbreak in the prawn sector, it was the Queensland government's fault. When he introduced a backpacker tax for the first time, it was the Labor Party's fault—

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The member for Hunter will cease speaking for a second. He needs to relate his speech to why standing orders should be suspended, as the Manager of Opposition Business did.

Photo of Joel FitzgibbonJoel Fitzgibbon (Hunter, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Agriculture) Share this | | Hansard source

I will, Mr Speaker. This motion is urgent because people out there in the community are watching this parliament, and they are seeing a rabble. They are seeing a Deputy Prime Minister who, by his own admission, is not validly sitting in this place. They are seeing a Deputy Prime Minister and a minister for agriculture, resources and Northern Australia sitting in this place, and they are asking themselves: how can people in those sectors take this minister seriously when there is such a black cloud hanging over his head?

Already, people are asking themselves about the capacity of this Deputy Prime Minister. In four years in that portfolio, he has not done one thing to help the agriculture community. People in the mining sector and other sectors now have a very low expectation about his capacity to do any more. The government needs to explain, again, what is the difference between the case of Senator Canavan and the case of the current member for New England. I cannot understand the position of the Prime Minister. He heard the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources admit himself that he is a goner in the High Court. He has kicked off his campaign in New England. I say to you, Prime Minister: if he's accepting his demise, it's time you accepted it.

We thought we might hear better from the Prime Minister. We thought he might take some responsibility. He has form in not taking responsibility. His failed NBN project is a perfect example. But we would have thought that, as a Prime Minister of this country, someone holding such high office, he would stand up and take responsibility for the actions of the Deputy Prime Minister. It's apparently everyone else's fault but the Deputy Prime Minister's. It's New Zealand's fault. It's the Labor Party's fault. It's anyone's fault but the Deputy Prime Minister's. He has a responsibility to his constituents. He has a responsibility as Deputy Prime Minister and to the electorate more broadly to concede, admit, accept and take responsibility for his own actions and inactions and step aside both from his portfolio responsibilities and from his right to vote in this place until the High Court has come to a conclusion on the matter he himself and his own government—not the Labor Party, not the opposition, but his own government—has referred to the High Court.

So it's time, Deputy Prime Minister, for you, for the first time in your 10 years in this place—remember that, for 10 years you have sat in this place with a big question mark hanging over your head—to take responsibility for your own actions and, indeed, inactions.

3:06 pm

Photo of Andrew WilkieAndrew Wilkie (Denison, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Speaker, on indulgence, I will just very briefly speak on behalf of the member for Indi and the member for Mayo and explain why we have been abstaining this week on this and similar motions. We agree that it would be better for the member for New England to step aside from cabinet and the position of Deputy Prime Minister until this matter is resolved. However, we cannot support a motion that his vote does not count because, frankly, until the High Court has decided on this matter, he has been elected and the people of New England deserve to be represented and it's proper to accept his vote. I think we should pay respect to the High Court and allow it to adjudicate on this matter, and then it will be finalised. In the interim, why don't we all just get back to work and focus on the issues that everyone in this country is concerned about, such as health, education and jobs, and stop this fractious, juvenile debate which has interrupted every question time this week? It has not been in the public interest.

We know there's an issue. We know it's an important issue. We on this side and most of the crossbench agree that the member for New England would be better to step aside from the cabinet and the position of Deputy Prime Minister. But, please, let's respect the High Court and let them adjudicate on whether or not his vote should be counted.

3:07 pm

Photo of Malcolm TurnbullMalcolm Turnbull (Wentworth, Liberal Party, Prime Minister) Share this | | Hansard source

The member for Denison and I agree on this fundamental point that the member for New England is entitled to sit in this House. He is a member of parliament. As long as he is a member of parliament, he is entitled to be a minister of state under the Constitution. We acknowledge the advice from the member for Denison, but the fact of the matter is this: the member for New England is entitled to sit in this House. The reference to the High Court was not done for any reason other than to give the court the opportunity to clarify this area of the law which has been the subject of so much controversy recently.

I agree with the member for Denison when he says we should be focusing on the issues of vital importance to Australians. That is why this motion should not be supported. Just in the last six weeks, this is what the government have been doing to keep Australians safe. We have gone to the G20 and secured the support of the 20 leading economies to take action to counter terrorism right across the world, to ensure that the internet is not used to promote terrorism and to spread extremism and to ensure the big tech companies and social media companies cooperate with governments to ensure that we can track down and defeat those terrorists. And we've seen—

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

Can I just ask the Prime Minister to pause for a second. As I said, I do give a lot of latitude in these debates, but it's important that the material relate to why standing orders should or should not be suspended. The Prime Minister has the call.

Photo of Malcolm TurnbullMalcolm Turnbull (Wentworth, Liberal Party, Prime Minister) Share this | | Hansard source

The matter that I'm addressing is the important issues that we are dealing with now and the House should be dealing with because the issue about the Constitution is, as the member for Denison said, going to be considered by the High Court.

But let me get back to the most important obligation of government, which is keeping Australians safe. In the last few weeks, we saw the most dangerous, potent terrorist plot in our history disrupted and contained. We saw extraordinary work from ASIO, the Federal Police and the New South Wales Police Force—all our agencies working together. This government—my government—has never been prouder of our agencies than we were when we saw them frustrate that plot and have those two men charged, knowing that their action, their professionalism and their courage has saved hundreds of lives.

We have been working, too, to relieve the pressure on energy prices. We're taking action to bring down the price of gas simply by ensuring that Labor's failure of policy is not continued and there will be adequate gas supplies on the east coast. That's an urgent matter the House could be debating. That's an urgent matter upon which we are acting. Of course, in the right now and in the here and now, so many Australian families and businesses are paying more than they need to for electricity. That's very clear. They're on the wrong plan. They were on a plan, then that expired and nobody told them what was going to happen. They find themselves paying much higher rates. Literally millions of households are paying more for electricity than they need to. We've taken action and brought in the heads of the big electricity companies. What they're doing is they are now contacting their customers and telling them of the opportunities to pay less for electricity. That is ensuring that Australian families who are feeling the pinch and who are struggling with higher costs will have the opportunity to get the information to get them on the right prices.

In the last 12 months, we have seen 240,000 new jobs created in Australia. The Leader of the Opposition talked about it being a jobless economy with no job growth. Two hundred and forty thousand new jobs is a lot of jobs—believe me. The participation rate is high. We're seeing strong jobs growth. What we're not seeing is enough growth in wages, and that is why we want to drive stronger economic growth. Let me tell you what will deliver higher wages: higher economic growth and higher demand. The Governor of the Reserve Bank said just a few days ago: 'If labour markets are strong, workers will get bigger pay rises. Where there's strong demand relative to supply, wages will rise.' There's very strong demand for some types of construction workers because of the infrastructure spending of this government. That's what's happening. We're spending money on infrastructure—$75 billion. So the Governor of the Reserve Bank acknowledges that there's demand there. He notes there's demand in some other areas—in IT—but we need stronger demand. What is going to give stronger demand? What is it? It's more investment. How do you get more investment? You reduce business taxes. The opposition used to know that. That cowardly fellow, who always turns his back when things get a little uncomfortable, the Leader of the Opposition, knows exactly what happened.

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The Prime Minister will resume his seat. The member for McEwen, on a point of order.

Photo of Rob MitchellRob Mitchell (McEwen, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I ask the Prime Minister to withdraw that unparliamentary remark.

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

You can't ask anyone to withdraw. It wasn't directed at you.

Mr Rob Mitchell interjecting

The member for McEwen will not argue with me. You're allowed to raise a point of order. You can't ask people to withdraw—I can. You can have a look at Practice on exactly how this occurs. The Prime Minister has the call.

Photo of Malcolm TurnbullMalcolm Turnbull (Wentworth, Liberal Party, Prime Minister) Share this | | Hansard source

In the last six weeks also we have passed laws to ban the practices of the Leader of the Opposition when he was running the AWU—all of the unaccountable, shifty conduct he used to get on with; taking money from big companies in order to trade away workers' penalty rates. That's what the opposition leader did when he was running the AWU. What about giving money to himself? He talks about conflicts of interest. This is a union leader who, with union members' hard-earned funds, spent $25,000 on himself. He paid it to himself, to his own campaign. Even worse in many respects, he took $32,000 from a building company with which he was negotiating an enterprise agreement. He didn't tell the members about that—oh no. No, no. I tell you what, Mr Speaker, the Leader of the Opposition, when he was running the AWU, always had his members on a need-to-know basis, and he thought they didn't need to know anything. He sold some mushroom workers down the river, and he treated all of his members like mushrooms: he kept them in the dark. He told them nothing. So we passed that law, and the Labor Party voted against it. What we've done also is ensure that unions will have to be accountable, as companies are, and transparent.

Under the leadership of the Leader of the Opposition, he paid $100,000 to GetUp!—$100,000 to GetUp!. There is no evidence that it was authorised. We would love to see the minute. It would be good to see the minute, but it hasn't been produced—$100,000 to GetUp!. Very relevantly this week, GetUp! only a few months ago started a campaign to rename Australia Day 'Invasion Day'. That's the organisation he was funding and of which he was a board member. GetUp! is prominent in campaigning to destroy Operation Sovereign Borders. GetUp! is the biggest campaigner, joined by many members of the Labor Party, for opening up our borders so that we would once again have thousands of unauthorised arrivals, drownings at sea and kids in detention. This is the shameful record of Labor. The Leader of the Opposition funded a capable political organisation, GetUp!. They've got a big organisation, they get their message out—it is a dangerous Left-green Labor message. They get it out there, and they've been funded to do it by the Leader of the Opposition. He can't walk away from that responsibility.

For the last six weeks, we've been keeping Australians safe, we've been putting downward pressure on electricity prices and we've been growing the economy. Those are the urgent issues. That's what we should be debating. That's why this motion should be denied. (Time expired)

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The time allotted for this debate has concluded. The question is that the motion moved by the Manager of Opposition Business be agreed to.

3:24 pm

Photo of Malcolm TurnbullMalcolm Turnbull (Wentworth, Liberal Party, Prime Minister) Share this | | Hansard source

(—) (): I ask that further questions be placed on the Notice Paper.