Senate debates

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws — Superannuation) Bill 2008; Tax Laws Amendment (Medicare Levy Surcharge Thresholds) Bill 2008; National Health Amendment (Pharmaceutical and Other Benefits — Cost Recovery) Bill 2008; Tax Laws Amendment (Luxury Car Tax) Bill 2008; a New Tax System (Luxury Car Tax Imposition — General) Amendment Bill 2008; a New Tax System (Luxury Car Tax Imposition — Customs) Amendment Bill 2008; a New Tax System (Luxury Car Tax Imposition — Excise) Amendment Bill 2008; Excise Legislation Amendment (Condensate) Bill 2008; Excise Tariff Amendment (Condensate) Bill 2008; National Fuelwatch (Empowering Consumers) Bill 2008; National Fuelwatch (Empowering Consumers) (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2008; Tax Laws Amendment (2008 Measures No. 3) Bill 2008; Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2008

Referral to Committees

4:30 pm

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

As senators would know and as Senator Evans reflected on briefly, this is my final fortnight in this chamber. I have been working in and immersed in the Senate for 18 years, as an adviser and then as a senator. In some ways it is nice that, even after 18 years of seeing everything that gets thrown up in this chamber, one can still be surprised by the level of absolute, bare-faced, extraordinary hypocrisy being put forward by the coalition here. After seeing all the things that get put forward for political reasons with the most ludicrous propositions being used to justify decisions and actions that are clearly politically driven, this is something that still leaves me breathless. I guess in some ways it is nice to not be so drenched in cynicism that I can still be surprised, or maybe the coalition are so creative that they can still find new ways to absolutely dredge the depths of debauchment of democratic process, weasel words and two-faced positions. The sorts of justifications that are being put forward by the coalition in regard to at least some of this legislation is nonetheless a disgrace and an insult to intelligence.

We are dealing with a whole lot of committee references cognately here and some of them are justified. I would certainly ask that we get to vote on some of them separately at the end, because clearly some of them are justified and appropriate but, frankly, some are ludicrous. Some of the suggestions that are being put forward to justify what is being done are completely offensive. We had some statistics from Senator Ellison saying that, when they controlled the Senate for the first year, they referred more bills than anybody else ever did—another wonderful example for those who like to catalogue lies, damned lies and statistics. It was a debauchment of process that the coalition used their Senate majority to block inquiry after inquiry into a whole range of areas at the same time they were bulldozing through other inquiries, which were sometimes into extraordinarily complex pieces of legislation, with a one-week turnaround.

Indeed, I can still recall another area where initially my breath was taken away with the audacity of the position being put forward. The coalition, when in government, would come along to the Selection of Bills Committee, which is the process used to consider whether or not to refer bills to a committee, and refer their own bills to committee before the bills had even appeared with a requirement that they report back, in some cases, by the next week. The committee was getting a bill that actually did not yet exist. I can recall being on Senate committee inquiries—and I am sure you can as well, Mr Acting Deputy President Marshall—where the committee would get a bill and would be sitting there asking: why are we looking into this? Who has got an interest? What is the issue of concern? There were no answers; the government were just bulldozing them all through like a sausage machine to try and use these debauched non-inquiries as a way of ensuring that their legislation got pushed through as quickly as possible.

It is also a sick irony that, after all the years of listening to the coalition whingeing about a hostile Senate and about how the government of the day could not get on with its program because issues were being examined by Senate committees, which the Democrats and the crossbenches often quite rightly insisted on, and after the coalition went so far as to block inquiry after inquiry when they had a majority, we are now getting this mantra about how we need proper accountability. We have seen it already of course. After no Senate select committees were put in place to examine specific issues at all over the last couple of years, three or four were put forward with coalition chairs and coalition majorities in the first week or two that we got back here after the election.

I will leave the argument about the potential budget impact to others to make. That is something that the government is much more aware of than I would be. Frankly, I think there are different arguments that can be made about some of the budget bills, but to me the major issues relate to the referral of bills that do not have anything to do with the budget. I think some of them are being sent off for longer than they need to be.

There is one other component of these motions that I must say again I find interesting and which I do not recall having seen before, despite my 18 years of experience. A whole range of bills are being sent off for August reporting dates, or September for the Fuelwatch bill, containing the wording not that the committee report by a set date, but that the committee not report before that date. Quite what that means, I am not sure. It is quite an interesting innovation whereby, even if the committee examines the matter, decides it has all it needs to look at and finishes its deliberations, according to this motion it is still not allowed to report before the date that the coalition is insisting on. I am not sure how that fits in terms of standing orders and it looks like a fairly curious innovation to me. If anything, it looks like another example of the coalition’s absolute insistence on forcing it off for as long as possible and refusing point-blank to allow the committee to report back any earlier, even if it has finished its job. Presumably the coalition will cover its ears, chant noisily and do everything possible to refuse to examine these issues, even if the committee has finished its job before the date that is set forward. It is interesting that that wording is not used for the ones that are reporting back next week; it is simply for the ones that are reporting back in August. The committees are being prevented, at least in theory, from being able to report back earlier, even if they decide that is valid.

One thing that particularly astonishes and appals me is the suggestion that the legislation dealing with political donations should not report back until June 2009—more than 12 months away. I know it is nice to be thorough, but need we take 12 months to examine an issue that is not that complicated? What is in the bill has also been dealt with before by previous Senate committee inquiries: the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters has dealt with it in the broad, and other committees have examined the whole issue of electoral donations in narrower contexts. To try and make any sort of argument that that issue cannot be dealt with on its merits in isolation outside of the entire electoral matters committee inquiry into the last election is an insult to the intelligence. That is fine when you have the numbers in this place; you can insult everybody’s intelligence—the numbers are the numbers and you can bulldoze things through or block things as you desire. But do not think that it is just the intelligence of other senators that you are insulting. You are insulting the public’s intelligence. That sort of argument is simply ludicrous; it is farcical. And to apply it to try and prevent, for over a year, debate on legislation dealing with political donations is clearly just a matter of naked political self-interest, and it will be seen as such and should be condemned as such.

Having said that, the opposition go one step further in regard to one other piece of legislation. The electoral matters bill, the political donations bill, they sent off for a year, with the report not due until 2009. But the bill relating to superannuation entitlements for people in same-sex relationships who have public sector superannuation, they are sending off, potentially, forever. It is quite an amazing reference: they are sending off the bill for the committee to inquire into and report on, but the committee is not actually allowed to conclude its inquiry into that bill and report back on it until it has looked at any other related bills that might be introduced down the track to give effect to the recommendations of a human rights commission report. Who is going to determine whether or not every single bill that is ever going to appear in regard to a recommendation from that report has appeared? Is it going to be the committee? Is it going to be the Senate? It is not stated. What we have is an open-ended inquiry—one, potentially, going on into the never-never—that is not able, according to this form of words, to report back until every related bill that may ever be introduced has also been examined. How farcical! How disgraceful, particularly when it is on a basic matter of justice, and particularly on a matter which, the coalition would have us believe—Senator Ellison’s own words would have us believe—they support in principle. Do not be so ludicrous. If you support that matter in principle, you would not send it off to a Senate committee to inquire into but never report on. It is simply a disgrace.

Adding to the disgrace is the history of this legislation and the issue involved. The Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws—Superannuation) Bill 2008 deals with a matter that has been examined time and time again by Senate committee inquiries. It was examined as part of a general, wide-ranging inquiry that was reported on to this chamber back in 1997. It was examined as part of a Senate Select Committee on Superannuation inquiry into work patterns in the mid-1990s. It was examined again by the Senate Select Committee on Superannuation, specifically in regard to another private senator’s bill, in 2000. The legislation of the Democrats that specifically aimed to address this matter has been debated in this chamber on at least one occasion, if not more, as have many individual amendments specifically relating to superannuation. The issue was examined specifically in relation to superannuation by a Senate committee as part of inquiries into the government’s superannuation laws and the superannuation choice laws in early 2000. The government, with the support of the Democrats, passed legislation containing similar measures to what is in this bill, in regard to personal superannuation, through this chamber. Yet we have Senator Ellison saying: ‘We cannot deal with this single bill in isolation from all these other measures, even though we support it in principle, because it would be irresponsible, because it requires careful scrutiny.’ How much more careful scrutiny do you need?

You were able to deal with a one-off piece of legislation that dealt with superannuation and issues relating to same-sex couples and interdependence on its own, in isolation, with the support of the Prime Minister of the day, Mr Howard. I had a joint press conference with Mr Howard out in his courtyard when I was leader of the Democrats, it was so important to him. It was the only time I ever had a joint press conference with Mr Howard in his courtyard. It was with regard to the superannuation choice legislation, which contained measures specifically enabling people in same-sex relationships to have equal rights—the same issue that is contained in this legislation. Five years later, you want to come in and say, ‘It would be irresponsible to deal with that in isolation, and we cannot pass it—we cannot even report on it—until every other piece of legislation that might appear, ever, at any time in the future, has appeared.’ Do not even try to suggest that you can make any sort of argument like that with any sort of integrity.

To cap it all off, last year this chamber considered a proposal by me to review a piece of legislation that would implement the recommendations of the human rights commission inquiry—the very report that you now say has to be examined in extensive detail, potentially forever. And that proposal, to examine a piece of legislation that would give effect to the recommendations of that report, you blocked. You stopped it being looked at, at all—not even in a one-week inquiry. Why? What was the pathetic, dishonest, dishonourable excuse you gave at the time? It was: ‘It has already been inquired into. We do not even need to look at it because it has already been looked at.’ You make me sick.

But what makes me even more sick is that people have been waiting for this injustice concerning superannuation and same-sex couples to be rectified for a long time and, year after year, they have had to listen to weasel words like ‘we support it in principle.’ Mr Howard said that he supported it in principle back in 2005. I wrote to him then and said: ‘We’ll cooperate. Anything you want, we’ll put it through.’ There was nothing. No action, no inquiry, no legislation—nothing. The coalition cabinet debated legislation concerning same-sex partnerships before the last election, and they refused to act on it when they could have. The current government proposes to act on one part of the issue which, according to the majority view, the coalition actually support but now want to send off to a committee with no reporting date. It is disgusting.

I, and also on behalf of Senator Nettle, who has worked on this issue over the years, propose to move an amendment that has been circulated in the chamber. The amendment seeks to rectify the flaw that I identified in the coalition’s notice of motion No. 6—namely, a reporting date. My motion provides a reporting date of 24 June, which is only next week. As government speakers themselves said last year, this issue has already been inquired into extensively; it was looked into only last year. The government’s legislation deals with only one part of this issue—public sector superannuation. That is clearly self-contained, as anybody who has been examining the issue for any time would know. So, frankly, one week is ample. One week is all that is being proposed by the coalition to look into the budget measure bills that deal with changes to the baby bonus eligibility, the family tax benefit, the Commonwealth seniors health card and the eligible age for partner service pension. The coalition can do all of that in a week, apparently. Therefore, I am quite sure that they could deal with this piece of legislation in a week—and that is what should happen. I, and also on behalf of Senator Nettle, move:

(1)
At the end of subparagraph (1)(a), add “by June 24, 2008”.
(2)
Omit paragraph (2).

It makes me angry to be treated like an idiot. Part and parcel of being in this chamber is that you have to listen to people give laughable excuses and then they expect you to take them seriously. To some extent, that is part of what happens in politics. I appreciate all of that. I am not trying to be high and mighty about these things, but this is an issue of injustice and it is a very serious injustice. As I have said, over a long period, it has been identified time and time again in a range of Senate committee reports. To use such facile excuses to delay justice once again, potentially indefinitely, is not only unjust—obviously—but extremely hurtful to a lot of people. Many people have been waiting for this injustice to be rectified for a long time. One of the reasons that it is time-critical, apart from the fact the bill has a 1 July start-up date—although, that can be changed—is that injustices come into effect in this area particularly when a person’s partner dies. That time is often very distressing to people. To have that distress compounded by this ongoing injustice is, I think, unconscionable.

People recognise that occasionally things take a while, but excuses are being used to indefinitely delay the implementation of measures that have a big impact on people. Those people whose partner dies between 1 July and however long this legislation is delayed for will bear the brunt of this political gutlessness. That is what is at play here. If anyone can make a good argument for what is being done here, I would like to hear it. You can say that this is to allow proper consideration and prevent anomalies—I have heard those sorts of excuses many times when I have moved amendments in this place—but what you are really doing is pandering to bigots. That is bad enough but, when people have to suffer injustice as a consequence of that, it is acceptable. When my amendment comes to a vote, I urge everyone to give it special consideration, because there will be a direct personal impact in what you do.

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