Tuesday, 27 November 2018
Days and Hours of Meeting
) ( ): I present a chart showing the program of sittings for 2019. Copies of the program have been placed on the table. I ask leave of the House to move that the program be agreed to.
That the program of sittings for 2019 be agreed to.
Firstly, I'm sure members will be pleased to have the schedule in good time before the end of the year in order to allow them to plan their 2019 arrangements around their work and family commitments. Some of the highlights of the schedule—it's quite unexceptional in terms of the schedule planning—include 17 sitting weeks of the House of Representatives, which would be about the average. In fact, under the former Leader of the House, we sat for 16 weeks in one of the years he put up during the 43rd Parliament.
That's rubbish; I never would have bagged you! You lost 76 votes in the 43rd Parliament; I'll give you the table.
Opposition members interjecting—
There are 17 sitting weeks—I'm being rudely interrupted, Mr Acting Deputy Speaker—which is about the average, and they are evenly spread between the first half of the year and the second half of the year. We will begin sitting again on 12 February, and the budget will be on 2 April, and there will be a normal period of about four or five weeks before the budget, in which time the Treasurer will prepare the first surplus budget since the last coalition government. Obviously, there's an election next year, in 2019, due by midyear. Whoever wins the election—which we hope will be the coalition!—will probably return in the second half of the year with a different sitting schedule, but obviously we are required to put a whole year of proposed parliamentary sittings to the parliament. I commend the sitting schedule to the House.
Can I first of all explain what's in front of us. This year, before the budget, between the houses of parliament, there were five weeks on the sitting schedule before we got to budget week. Last year, there were five weeks of parliamentary sittings before we got to the budget. The year before that, we had—guess how many weeks?—five weeks of sittings before we got to the budget. In 2015—quite an exceptional year—we had five weeks of sittings before we got to the budget. In 2014, we had five weeks. In 2013, we actually had six weeks. In the sitting schedule that has just been tabled before the parliament, there will be a fortnight of sittings before the budget. In that fortnight we don't even sit on one of the Mondays.
I'm going to quote someone who only last week was described by the Treasurer as a legend:
… what strikes me is that a government that does not have an agenda does not need to sit … Unfortunately, the sitting pattern gives away what Australians know about this government, which is that it does not have a plan for the future and it does not have an agenda … Why doesn't it have to sit? There are two reasons. Firstly, it does not have a plan for the future for the Australian people. Secondly, it cannot rely on its numbers in the House to pass legislation to win a procedural vote.
Be in no doubt: this is a surrender from this government. This is a decision from this government. The last thing they want to do is govern. So they have decided, having already explained pretty much that budget week will be the final week before we go to the polls, that there will be a total of 10 days of parliament sitting before the next election. They've already been in a situation, from the first day that this parliament sat this week, where they had to vote for things that they don't believe in in order to avoid the humiliation of the fact that what began this term, with the Leader of the House boasting about it being a strong working majority, had become a hopeless, dwindling minority. That is all they've become. The Leader of the House knows it and those opposite know it.
What's in front of us now is the surrender document. They've decided they don't want to risk what democracy might think of this government. They don't want to risk the fact that they have 73 votes on the floor and they don't know whether or not they have a capacity to govern. So, with that in mind, I move the following amendment:
That the following words be added—
"and the following additional meetings of the House are specified:
Tuesday, 5 March 2019;
Wednesday, 6 March 2019;
Thursday, 7 March 2019;
Tuesday, 12 March 2019;
Wednesday, 13 March 2019; and
Thursday, 14 March 2019."
By virtue of those extra dates being added to the calendar, we will get two extra sitting weeks. It will still be shorter than it has previously been, because of the budget being early, but it will be four sitting weeks instead of just a fortnight of sittings.
I know it will hurt the government if parliament has to sit, because the Prime Minister won't be able to have his face on the outside of a bus that he's not inside. He won't be able to do that incredibly fair dinkum, dinky-di, true-blue campaigning that is clearly working so well for him! What will happen is that the legislature will be allowed to legislate. We'll be able to turn up and do our jobs here in the parliament. An additional two weeks of sitting simply brings us into the ordinary parliamentary calendar. I love the way the Leader of the House was explaining how 'none of this was anything unusual'. He said: 'Look, you just put the dividing line between the second half of the year and the first half of the year, packing as many weeks as possible into the second half of the year, when parliament will have been dissolved. Then, bingo, you've suddenly got a first half of the year, because of an election, that will have only sat for three weeks.'
The concept of an interjection is meant to be that it helps.
To the crossbench, because this will come to a vote: we have an attempt by the government to render the crossbench as irrelevant as possible. We have a calculated attempt by the government to try to make sure that they eliminate the risk of a majority forming against them. They know already that it's not going to be a problem for confidence and supply—enough people have given them that guarantee. What the parliament will be able to do, though, is debate issues. What the parliament will be able to do is debate legislation. What the parliament will be able to do is deal with amendments on a series of issues that this government simply want to run and hide from. Take, for example, what they have done with live animal exports. It is legislation that, the moment they thought they might not win on the floor of the parliament, even though we'd been told the penalties legislation was urgent, all of a sudden, when there was a risk of it being amended on the floor, it disappeared, never to be seen again, just existing on the Notice Paper and nowhere else at all. That won't be the only issue where this government are wanting to run and hide. What's in front of us now will be an amendment that will very simply allow next year, because the budget is early, for us sit one week fewer than we ordinarily do. But for anyone to claim that in the period from the beginning of the year to 2 April we can only turn up for a fortnight—
It's not even a full fortnight; it's seven days. It's a government running and hiding.
So I simply put to the House: everyone will have different views on what we do on these additional sitting days, but we should turn up. It's a democratically elected parliament. Our electorates voted for us to be here and to represent them. The fact that the numbers on the floor have become inconvenient for the government doesn't change our democratically elected duty. I commend the amendment. For those people who are the reason that the government is suddenly wanting to hide from the parliament, the outcome of this amendment will rest on their capacity to make the case for their electorates and their capacity to use the fact that we are now in a hung parliament. I commend it to the House.
I am very pleased to second this amendment and to oppose what is the biggest try-on by a member of the coalition that we've seen with regard to a sitting calendar since the former member for Mackellar misread the sitting calendar and argued at this despatch box that parliament was sitting on Christmas Day, according to the schedule—a legendary performance! The coalition admired that contribution so much that it led them to make the member for Mackellar the Speaker in the government—and didn't that work out well for them!
Well, we have another legend, according to the Treasurer: the Leader of the House, who has put forward this quite extraordinary and bold timetable. What this timetable has is that parliament will get up here on 6 December, next Thursday. Then there's a seven-day sitting. By the way, the Senate is not sitting on four of those days. They are for the estimates processes. So there are three days for the Senate to deal with legislation. Then we have the budget week. Then the Prime Minister, whoever it is at that time—because there's still time to change your mind, folks; there's still time for one more coup—will go to Yarralumla to request an election on 11 May or 18 May, which are the only two dates now that the Prime Minister has effectively announced the budget on 2 April. That means he's announced the election date in May, as well. So there will be 10 sitting days between now, when parliament gets up next Thursday, and July or whenever the parliament comes back, which is most likely to actually be August. So we're talking about 10 sitting days in eight months. That is what they're proposing here. For the Senate, they're proposing six sitting days in eight months. That's what's before this parliament here.
We worry about a government that has lost its way and doesn't have an agenda before the parliament. But—for goodness' sake!—this is just lazy. It is opportunistic. But it's something a little bit more serious than that, too, because it is contemptuous of the democratic will of the people. It's contemptuous of this parliament as an institution. It is contemptuous of the rights of members of this House of Representatives and of senators to actually do the jobs that they are elected to do. And would we just go along with a timetable such as this?
Clearly, this is a government that is terrified of the parliament that it's supposed to preside over. What we know is that it's not just that they're scared of us on this side of the chamber and of the crossbenches; they're absolutely terrified of each other. They know that in the next fortnight as well, we'll have more articles about whether there will be another Deputy Prime Minister, because the National Party are still engaging in the hunt of Michael McCormack by the former Deputy Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce. And we know the problem that they have, really, is that when the parliament meets the party room meets, and that's what they want to avoid.
It isn't too late for the government to change leaders. Remember that the current Prime Minister—according to the Prime Minister-twice-removed, the member for Warringah—got there with just a handful of votes, five votes, in the caucus. He wasn't supported by the Liberal Party. He wasn't the preferred leader. He wasn't even the second-preferred leader, who was the member for Dickson. He was not even the third-preferred leader, who was the member for Curtin. He was the fourth choice as the leader of the Liberal Party. No wonder they're worried about having party room meetings. That's their problem.
But the problem for the Australian people is that the government are proposing here to come back late. I've put out a few parliamentary sitting schedules in my time. I did it six times. What we normally do is look for when Australia Day is. Australia Day this coming year, of course, is on a weekend. We would normally come back on the Tuesday after Australia Day. That's the normal process. But those opposite are not doing that. They're leaving it until 12 February, and because the Manager of Opposition Business is a generous fellow we let them have that week so they get all the Christmas cheer and they get extra time with each other. Quite frankly, the only thing in favour of this schedule is we don't have to see them. We come back to sit on 12 February but for just two weeks. So what we're saying is to have two extra weeks with just three sitting days in each of those weeks, because there are public holidays on the Mondays. So there are six extra sitting days to hold the executive to account, and that is appropriate because that's the job of the elected representatives.
The member for Wentworth changed from being the Prime Minister to being the honourable member who was sworn in just yesterday. It seems like a long time ago; I'm sure it seems longer for those opposite. And today there's another new crossbencher up there as well. So, because of that, parliament suddenly becomes too hard and we won't meet. Well, that's not the way that it works. You have to deal with the parliament that the Australian people give you. We dealt with the parliament, and I, as the Leader of the House, could rely on 70 votes out of 150. But we worked in a mature and cooperative way with the crossbenchers and we worked as well with many of those opposite in the coalition. We actually had policy debates in the national interest and we ensured that we were able to get through a legislative agenda in that parliament that included the National Disability Insurance Scheme, that included climate change action, that included the Gonski education reforms and that included re-writing the shipping policies.
The fact is that we were able to deal with the parliament that the people of Australia elected. The problem for those opposite isn't just that they can't deal with the parliament that the Australian people elected they also can't deal with the caucus that the Australian people gave them. That's the real problem here; their internals. But they're terrified by the externals in terms of the parliament that they can't deal with.
So parliament should sit for two weeks extra—three days in each week. It's a reasonable proposition, and if the government is smart they'll actually roll over on this and support it.
When the Liberals couldn't decide who they wanted to be the Prime Minister they shut the parliament down for six hours. Now that they've decided who he is they're going to shut it down for six months! They don't want the capacity for him to be questioned in here.
I have been through a parliament where that government did not have the majority. What can happen in that sort of parliament is that you get things done that the Australian people want. And when the government has goodwill, it will work with the crossbenchers to make that parliament effective. When we had the minority government in 2010, we sat for the full allocation of sitting weeks and we got things done. Yes, it was the case that during that time there were some motions and proposals that got put through the parliament that didn't necessarily have the government's support at the beginning. But they got there because people across the political spectrum worked together. That's what happened.
If you have goodwill and if you have the interests of the people at heart you can make a minority government work. But this is a calendar from a government that wants to hide—that wants to hide as much as possible between now and the next election. They've brought on an early budget; it's their right to do that. But it is not their right to say that everyone else who sits here in this parliament, representing people from across Australia, has no capacity to hold the government to account just because the government wants to have an early budget because they want to go to an election at the time of their own choosing.
One of the things that's particularly egregious about this sitting calendar is what it means for the role of the Senate. I understand why the government is scared of the Senate. We've already seen, on the first day back in this parliament, the Senate expressing its will that we need a national integrity commission—a national commission against corruption—bringing that down to the House and the House supporting that. That's because the Senate is a place that has a greater diversity of opinion in it, probably, than the House of Representatives does because of the different electoral systems. And there are many more things that the Senate could do to hold this government to account—just like it did with the national ICAC and just like it did with the royal commission into the banks.
I suspect there is a reason that the government is basically saying that the Senate will only sit for six days next year before we go to an election. And then after the election is called we may not resume until August, meaning that the Senate in this country will only sit for six days in the first six months of next year. That is an outrageous attempt to hide from accountability. One of the purposes of the Senate is to be a house of review, and the Senate is there to hold the government to account, just as the opposition and the crossbenchers have the right to do here. The Senate is there to scrutinise what the government does and, increasingly, the Senate is standing up to this government.
The answer is not to cancel the Senate sittings; the answer is to come up with better legislation. The answer is to come up with a climate policy. The answer is to say, 'We will go ahead with an integrity commission.' But to simply say, 'We are not going to allow the Senate to sit for more than six days before the election next year,' is outrageous. When most people in this country realise that this government is attempting to hide from scrutiny, this is going to come back to bite the government at the election.
The Senate and the House have voted, as we did yesterday, to say trust in government and trust in politicians is at an all-time low, which is one of the reasons why we need a national integrity commission. The message from that should be loud and clear: people do not want governments hiding from accountability; people want governments to be held to account for the decisions that they make. So it would actually be in the government's interests, if they have any interest at all in improving their own electoral stocks—I hope they don't, but if they do—for them to say: 'Yes, we're quite happy to have the Senate sit the usual allocation of weeks. We're quite happy to be held to account by the opposition and the crossbenchers.' You would imagine the government would say: 'We've got a wonderful program. Let's bring it to parliament to test it.' But, no. This is the most cowardly calendar I have seen. This is a calendar written by cowards. This is a calendar that is attempting to hide the government from the scrutiny of the crossbench, the scrutiny of the Senate.
I support the amendment to have the House and the Senate sitting for those additional weeks so that before we go to an election we don't have a situation where the government just drops a budget on us and we have no time to scrutinise it, and so we're asked to take them on trust. No. No. We should have the capacity, before the government are put to the test of the Australian people, which is likely to be in May—in May—to scrutinise them. The Senate should have the right to sit for more than six days before May to be able to hold this government to account and to make its case. The House of Representatives should have the capacity to sit for—it will sit for less than three full weeks before the government will call an election. To go to an election next year with a parliament, and this House of Representatives, having sat for fewer than 10 days—no; one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10. It is 10 days. That is all the scrutiny that we're going to be able to put on them in here before an election. It speaks volumes about the cowardice of this government and it's why the amendment should be supported.