Senate debates

Thursday, 14 February 2008


Agricultural and Related Industries Committee; State Government Financial Management Committee; Housing Affordability in Australia Committee; Establishment

11:08 am

Photo of Andrew BartlettAndrew Bartlett (Queensland, Australian Democrats) Share this | Hansard source

As I have said once already this morning, it is a competition for hypocrisy. We have certainly got a lot of it here with regard to this motion before us, as Senator Ray, as always backed by his knowledge of history, has pointed out. I am not going to join in that: having railed against the lack of scrutiny of the previous government and their using their numbers to prevent it, I am not then going to vote against an opportunity to put scrutiny on the new government. Nonetheless, it is impossible not to make the point, as Senator Ray did, that over the last 2½ years, since the coalition had control of the Senate, not a single select committee was established. The last one was the Senate Select Committee on Mental Health—which, I might say, did an extremely good, non-partisan job—set up in March 2005 before the coalition got full control of the Senate. As I said, it did a good job, which makes it all the more inexcusable that there was no support provided for any attempts to set up select committees after that.

Of course, there were not a lot of motions put forward to establish select committees, so in that sense I suppose the coalition might try the furphy that there was only a few actually proposed: ‘You didn’t try.’ But the reason why people did not try is that they knew it would not succeed. We could not even get references up to the existing standing committees half the time, let alone set up select committees. It is worth looking at the history of this.

I would genuinely urge all senators here to look at the history of this. One of the issues that I think is very real, and that will become more real after July, is that in July we will have about 14 new senators coming in. We had 16 new senators coming in after the last election, so there are 16 people here already who know nothing other than the coalition having control of the Senate. We will have another 14 coming in. That is nearly half the Senate who will have no recollection and no corporate memory of the long history and tradition behind the Senate committee processes and why it often works so well.

I would recommend people look at the history. Senator Ray has touched on it a bit. It is outlined in Odgers in great detail. If you look at appendix 9 of Odgers, it lists all of the Senate select committees that have been set up since 1984—including, for example, one into agricultural and veterinary chemicals, which has some overlap with the one Senator Heffernan is trying to put forward now. Perhaps more relevantly to the point before us, appendix 8 of Odgers lists the number of select committees that were in place in the Senate each year since, I think, 1977. Perhaps it is not surprising but it is nonetheless interesting to read that the last time there were zero select committees in existence was back in the 1970s, which just happened to be when the coalition had control of the Senate and prevented any select committees being set up then. It was not until 1980, with the arrival of the Democrats and balance of power role, that select committees started to be established again.

Since that time we have had the standing committees put in place. They were permanent standing committees that looked at policy issues and often carried and examined the sort of references that are before us today and that are proposed for these select committees. Even at that time, as Senator Ray pointed out, select committees continued to operate. If you look through that list, in 1984, for example, which was the first full year of the new Labor government, six select committees were in place, although not all of them at the one time. The next year there were six. The next year there were four. The next year there were four. The next year there were five, then five, then four, then four, then five, then six, then five, and then six until in the final year of the Labor government in 1995, as Senator Ray pointed out, there were nine separate select committees put in place. As Senator Ray also pointed out, that then reduced in most years to no more than four—again, not all at the one time. As he said, there were an average of two. It went up to six in 2004 and dropping down again in 2005, until we hit the end of 2005 when the coalition got control of the Senate and it went to zero.

It simply cannot pass without us emphasising the extraordinary gall here. I know you need a fair bit of gall in this place, and perhaps I have never had enough and that is part of my problem. It shows an overpowering level of gall to be able to come in on the first day, after not allowing any select committees for three years, and then try and make an argument based on principle that we need to have three, particularly at a time when most of the standing committees have nothing before them. So you would be giving them something to do. I am not saying they are not all about to work on putting in place references, and I am sure they will get busy fairly soon. But you cannot even use the normal argument that the existing standing committees are all too busy, because they are not.

Having said that, I am not opposing the arguments that have been put forward for the specific inquiries here. As a person who, probably more than anyone else in this chamber, has argued repeatedly over many years for the need for a much greater focus to be put on the crisis in housing affordability, I would be hypocritical myself to then argue against setting up a committee precisely to focus on that. So I actually welcome that one in particular, because of my own personal longstanding interest in it. I have had less interest in fertiliser, I must say, but I am sure there is an argument there—I am not trying to belittle that. As I have repeatedly said in this place, in past years, it has been a real problem that there has not been adequate opportunity for the Senate to really put the heat on the government of the day.

So I welcome the fact that the new government will have scrutiny put on it from day one. It is still an open question of how the Senate committees will perform now that they have Labor government chairs and a Labor government majority, and that is not casting any aspersions on chairs. As an example of their dedication to the cause, I see that we have two new Senate committee chairs in the chamber here. I congratulate them both on their appointments. I think the fact that you are here listening to this debate shows how committed you are to an effective committee process, so I am sure you will both do well in that role. But the jury is still out on how the new government will use its numbers on the Senate standing committees. Will they use them fairly and reasonably or will they use them for partisan political purposes? I am still reasonably hopeful in that regard. To some extent I am sure it will come down to the individual chairs.

But there is no reason for the Senate not to immediately put the pressure on the new government and apply scrutiny, including by setting up select committees not controlled by the government of the day to examine matters more forensically. Even if the standing committees do not have a lot of other work before them, there can still be a benefit in having a committee set up that does nothing else but that one job—because there is the issue of the loss of continuity on standing committees when you have three or four different inquiries before you and different people shifting onto or off the committee depending on the issue. So having a committee where the people on it all know they are there for one task—that is, to focus on this one issue—can be valuable regardless of whether the relevant standing committee is busy or not. So I am not arguing against the substantive value of putting in place select committees on these issues, but it is impossible not to join with Senator Ray, at least in the main, in expressing astonishment at the level of hypocrisy from the coalition in suddenly turning around and making the argument for putting the scrutiny on the government of the day when every single person now sitting on the opposition benches voted time and time again to prevent that happening. Every one of you individually could have voted on many occasions to apply even just a tiny bit of extra scrutiny on the government of the day. If that had occurred in a few cases—not least in the Work Choices arena—then perhaps things might have been different in terms of the general election result.

I do not join with Senator Ray in his assertions about this being about lining people’s pockets. I think that is a little bit harsh, frankly. I have no knowledge of Dr Nelson’s leadership shakiness or otherwise, and I am not particularly interested. I do not believe this is particularly about lining pockets. But the hypocrisy is nonetheless undeniable and cannot pass without remark. Part of the reason it needs to be remarked on is that we do need to shift back to what the Senate is about. I guess, at least with regard to that, in setting up these committees there is the opportunity for the Senate to get back to doing its job: that is, not only scrutinising that government of the day—it is not just about using their numbers in the Senate to put the blowtorch on the government of the day, although that must be part of it—but also using the Senate’s role as a chamber independent of the government of the day to examine issues in a non-partisan way. That means not looking solely for opportunities to put the heat on the government but rather looking for opportunities to get better ideas out into the public arena, to get a more informed public debate and a more informed parliamentary debate, and ideally to get better policy proposals across the board and better legislation to improve things for the Australian people.

I would make the point again that the more we can depoliticise and ‘departisanise’—if that is a word—the Senate the better it will be for the Australian community. We can spend all our time in here scoring points left, right and centre—we have spent most of the morning doing it. I would remind the Senate of the complete lack of interest from the press gallery in anything that happens in this chamber, either today or yesterday. There was so little interest in the Senate’s role in the stolen generations apology that they were having morning tea while we were still having the debate here. That shows how little interest not only the House of Representatives but also the press gallery has in the Senate. If it has happened in the Reps, then it has happened. Whatever happens here, the interest is minimal. So, frankly, 99 per cent of the points we think we are scoring fall on stony ground, waste everybody’s time, make everybody more and more irritable, and do nothing for what we are supposed to be doing here—which is to achieve better results for the Australian community. So, having said that the jury is out on how well or otherwise Labor will use its numbers on the standing committee, the jury will also be out on how these select committees will perform. Obviously they will get through—the coalition has the numbers even without the Democrats’ support, which we will provide. I say that not so much from the point of view of what it means for the Democrats—which is obviously not very much given what is happening on 1 July from the Democrats’ point of view—but from the point of view of the public’s respect for the political process, and particularly for the Senate.

The Senate has a real opportunity, particularly come July, to re-establish some credibility not just for itself but also for the parliamentary process and the political process. I would suggest that it would be to the benefit of all of us, particularly those of you who will be continuing on here, if I might give some gratuitous advice, if the Senate could really rise above more frequently. I do not expect the press gallery to care because they rarely have—but I think people in the wider committee do notice, particularly those who do engage with the political process and the policy process. There is a real anticipation amongst those people, minority though they may be, who actually engage with the public debate and policy debate on its merits rather than on its point-scoring and talking points aspects, looking forward to the Senate starting to operate effectively again—not just in putting pressure on the government of the day but also in providing an opportunity to get ideas out there and considered more fully. That opportunity now presents itself once again. I hope these select committees will operate in a way that will enable that to happen.

I must admit that I particularly have my doubts about the committee on state government financial management. I hope I am proven wrong but I find it hard to see that one being used for anything other than an exercise in state government bashing. I will be pleased if you prove me wrong. They may well deserve it, but they are not the only people who deserve it. Ending the blame game might be a bit of political rhetoric from the new Prime Minister, although I am sure there is some genuineness in there. Whether it is genuine or not from the Prime Minister, I have no doubt there is a real desire, a huge desire, amongst the Australian community to end the blame game, and that includes the blame game and finger-pointing occurring across the parliamentary chambers here. So if that committee can actually do its job effectively rather than just turning into a ‘beat up state governments’ exercise then that would be good. I will suspend my disbelief on that one. Nonetheless I think the broader points have been made. I will not oppose putting forward any of the select committees. I do hope that this is an actual new dawn in proper and genuine scrutiny, but it is hard to look past some of the extraordinary gall shown here today—even for politicians I think there should be some limit on the level of two-facedness in the positions we put forward.


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