Wednesday, 18 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
The Australian Greens do not support the prospect of an obstructionist Senate. However, we have always believed that the Senate has a crucial role in the Australian bicameral parliament as a house of review. In essence, the debate this morning is about that role. In the coming years we are going to do everything we can from the crossbench to review initiatives in the Senate—those from the government in particular because it is the elected government of the country but also those that arise from the coalition or the cross-benchers—and to improve those initiatives in the interests of the Australian people.
We will also be an innovative component of this Senate. We have a large list of legislative initiatives on the board and there will be more from the Greens. We do not see ourselves as being simply arbiters between the government and the coalition except in the role of getting better outcomes on behalf of the nation. We see the Greens’ role also as being innovators where the big parties fail to take initiatives which can benefit Australians as a whole. Of course, that means in the fields of social justice, the environment, the enhancement of democracy, which we have just heard some of the debate about, and achieving a more peaceful world, particularly on an increasingly dangerous planet threatened with overpopulation, environmental degradation and the spread of and increased expenditure on extraordinary armaments.
We have a proposal from the opposition—which has the majority in the Senate and which can, no matter which way we vote on this matter, presumably prevail through the use of those numbers in the coming two weeks—that eight measures being proposed by the government be sent to committee and effectively delayed some months, until at least the resumption of Senate sittings at the end of August, with the new Senate and the return of the balance of power to the crossbench.
In the matter of the electoral reform that Senator Faulkner and Senator Ronaldson have been debating, there is a proposed delay of at least one year before it comes back to the Senate. The Greens will not be supporting a delay on this matter, which was extensively canvassed in the parliament by current senators in 2006, when the Howard government brought its reforms into play and the Greens opposed them. Labor’s move to restore the previous situation is one that we support. Innovation in the area of electoral reform, which is badly needed, is something that we will back. So we will not be supporting the initiative from the opposition in that regard.
I can say, however, that we will support the sixth matter, which is that the National Fuelwatch (Empowering Consumers) Bill 2008 and the National Fuelwatch (Empowering Consumers) (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2008 be referred to the Senate Standing Committee on Economics for report by September this year. We Greens have been very strong in advocating publicly much greater action by the government—after 11 years of failure by the Howard government—to deal with the matter of transport in Australia and getting a better prospect of future ability for Australians to move to and from work and across the country in an age of increasing oil costs and threatening climate change. Our emphasis has been for there to be much greater investment in fast, efficient, cheap public transport.
The government’s budget fails on that score. As you know, Mr Acting Deputy President, 75 per cent of the transport budget goes into greater expenditure on roads—tollways in particular—and a lot of the 25 per cent that goes into rail and other forms of transport will simply go to the coal industry to help it export more coal to be burnt elsewhere around the world to magnify the problem of climate change. We believe that problem should be tackled in part in this country by a reorientation of our transport systems to concentrate not on getting coal to export facilities but on getting people to work on time cheaply and efficiently, no matter where they might live in this country. People need to be able to travel with a world-standard public transport system—a big difference from the situation now. The country lags right at the back of the field at the moment.
So we will be supporting a look at the competing arguments, which have raged in the public arena, about the proposal for Fuelwatch. Let the Senate get the competing points of view and the factual information, particularly that deriving from Western Australia, and report back here by September so that we can have some resolution of this initiative which the government says is going to reduce fuel prices. The opposition ostensibly says—and I hope I am not misrepresenting the opposition; someone can correct me if I am—that Fuelwatch will actually increase fuel prices. We do not have a resolution of that. Let the Senate have an inquiry to determine that particular matter. That is part and parcel of the committee system—to look at just such matters as that, gain the information from the public and report back to the Senate so that we can much more wisely vote on the matter.
My colleague Senator Nettle will speak shortly on the first matter, which is to do with the Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws—Superannuation) Bill 2008. The opposition, while in government, did nothing on this enormous injustice in federal law for 11 years. It seems a matter of concern to us that, through this process, the opposition wants to delay government action which is imminent now.
There are some tax bills listed here that fix anomalies or otherwise improve delivery of fairness in taxation. There is the National Health Amendment (Pharmaceutical and Other Benefits—Cost Recovery) Bill 2008. The Greens believe that cost recovery is a reasonable thing. The government is looking at recovering $9 million to $14 million from the pharmaceutical corporations that use the services involved here. This is a system that delivers $6 billion in benefits to Australians, who have arguably the best pharmaceutical system in the world. It is envied by many other countries. Cost recovery from the big corporations for the work that the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee does in assessing drugs being brought into that system and therefore subsidised by the government is not only reasonable; it is long overdue.
The Greens support the Tax Laws Amendment (Luxury Car Tax) Bill 2008. We have looked at it and we have assessed it. It will come down to a political decision rather than one made on the basis of facts to be derived from any Senate inquiry. I am sure the opposition has really made up its mind on that matter, and so have the Greens.
I will just go to the last matter again, which is the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2008. To put it simply, the Howard government amendments in 2006 turned a political donation system which we think was unsatisfactory into one which was much worse in terms of accountability and transparency for Australian voters. This bill goes back at least to that 2006 situation. We support the measures and believe they should happen now and not wait for another year for the review of the committee looking into the 2007 election. Mind you, that committee has a lot on its plate and we will be expecting great things from it. We support the government’s move here and we think the opposition should support it as well. The matter, as I said earlier, was debated extensively in 2006. This is an obstruction by the opposition, using its numbers before the turnover of the Senate. It is something that may be rectified in the new Senate. That will come down to the crossbench, I presume, and some new initiative from the government after we resume in August.
I finish by saying again: the Greens intend to consider matters brought before this Senate rigorously, with great responsibility and with recognition that we are not just a debating chamber taking political points of view; we owe it to the Australian people to get outcomes. What we see here today is a move by the opposition, which still has the majority numbers, to prevent outcomes which are reasonable in the main. We will support the opposition in the Fuelwatch reference to committee, but in regard to the other seven matters we will oppose the initiatives from the opposition.