Senate debates

Friday, 22 June 2012


Parliamentary Counsel and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2012; Second Reading

11:24 am

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Northern and Remote Australia) Share this | Hansard source

Perhaps we should get the AWU to put some money into the electricity supply in this place. It is rather unnerving to be speaking almost in the dark, as one might say. This bill proposes to amend the Parliamentary Counsel Act 1970 to provide for the transfer of the legislative drafting functions from the Attorney-General's Department to the Office of Parliamentary Counsel.

Firstly, I congratulate those who do the drafting functions in this parliament. It is never an easy job to convert the thoughts of politicians into legislation, into laws, that then impact upon most Australians. It is a very significant task that the Parliamentary Counsel does for the people of Australia. The work requires great skill, great ability, particularly, I might say, under this government; it was not quite so bad under our government. But the qualified professional lawyers in the drafting office have had to put some of the crazy thoughts of the current government into legislation, and that is a task I would not want to undertake.

Madam Acting Deputy President, you would understand the concerns of the drafting office when they saw before the last federal election, as we all did, a promise by the current Prime Minister that 'There will be no carbon tax under a government I lead.' That was a direct promise to the Australian public—and those in the drafting office. The rest of us would have said, 'One of the things the drafting office will not be doing in the next three years is drafting legislation to implement a carbon tax.' You can well appreciate that that would have been furthest from the minds of the people in the drafting office, because they, like everybody else in Australia, would have been able to understand the commitment, the promise, the hand-on-heart pledge, by Ms Gillard, the Prime Minister of Australia then and today, that there be would no carbon tax. Shortly after the last election, one of the first instructions given to the Office of Parliamentary Counsel, the parliamentary drafting office, would have been to prepare 18 different bills to implement that carbon tax that Ms Gillard solemnly promised the Australian public she would never introduce. How do you then draft 18 separate bills—again, I am glad it was not me who had to do it—to implement this carbon tax which we had all been promised would never be implemented? It was not just one bill saying, 'There will be a carbon tax; pay up.' There were 18 separate bills because the mere fact of introducing a carbon tax—in many cases overriding any rights the states might have, in many ways dealing with the impacts of the tax coming out and compensation being paid—is so complex. Trying to draft legislation that penalises up to 500 major emitters but no-one else is a skill in itself.

It is a long time since I practised law—and, even when I did, many might have said I needed more practice!—but I do know the difficulty in drafting documents. I never had to draft legislation, but I can well understand that drafting complex legislation like the carbon tax bills would have been a real difficulty, even for those skilled, tested and trusted practitioners in the parliamentary counsel office. I know that some, if not all, of those carbon tax bills will be flawed—and you can be assured that, when those flaws become evident after 1 July, in the typical refuge of scoundrels, the minister will get up and say, 'Oh, this is a technical error, a drafting error,' by implication blaming the parliamentary drafting office. It is guaranteed that that will happen.

One of the reasons that will happen is that those 18 very complex bills drafted by the parliamentary counsel were barely debated in this parliament. This parliament is supposed to debate all legislation to ensure that the executive government's program is thoroughly investigated and tested. But you will recall, Madam Acting Deputy President Stephens, that in this chamber those bills were rammed through in double-quick time; and, if you divide the time that was guillotined from debate on the legislation by the number of senators and the number of bills, you will find that every senator had a couple of minutes to debate every bill. As a consequence, most of the bills were not even mentioned in this chamber, because the Greens and the Australian Labor Party had got together to curtail debate and, therefore, scrutiny of those 18 carbon tax bills so that the obvious flaws could not be pointed out. I can understand the Labor Party and the Greens political party not wanting to have full debate on those bills—and particularly the Labor Party, because their leader, Ms Gillard, had promised there would never be a carbon tax, so the sooner they could get it in and get it through, the better. As I heard one of my colleagues say yesterday, the one good thing you can say about the Greens political party—and I struggle to find even one thing—is that, at least insofar as the carbon tax is concerned, they were never duplicitous. They always indicated it was part of their program. They always thought it was a good idea. With respect to those in the Greens, the radical Left in our country—as represented by the Greens political party—rarely have any good ideas, but at least they were honest about the introduction of the carbon tax. I give them credit for their honesty. You cannot say that of the Australian Labor Party.

I know Australians around the country are just waiting for their opportunity to say, 'We will not be lied to,' to Ms Gillard and the Labor Party—I suspect Ms Gillard will not be there at the next election. It does not matter what they think about the issue—whether they agree with a carbon tax, whether they are sure that the world is coming to an end because of carbon emissions, whether they are sure that the current change in climate is different to the climate change that has been happening for hundreds of thousands of years—most Australians will never forgive the Australian Labor Party for their duplicity, for promising one thing and doing another. Most Australians and all of the Labor Party know that, had they promised before the last election to bring in 18 bills, drafted by the parliamentary drafting office, that would introduce that, they would not have been elected at the last election. Everybody knows that. The Labor Party know that. You can see from the faces of fear opposite us in this chamber even today that Labor Party people know that, had they promised it before the last election, many of the senators would not be in this chamber today. But they know for certain that, at the next election, Australians will show their disgust at the duplicity and dishonesty of Ms Gillard and the party she currently leads. I raise those points again to make known to the parliamentary drafting office that we understand the difficult role they have.

The main amendments in this bill will confer on the Office of Parliamentary Counsel additional functions, functions that are currently performed by the Office of Legislative Drafting and Publishing. These relate to the drafting of subordinate legislation, making arrangements for the compilation, printing and publication of laws, and other functions incidental to ensuring the quality of legislative instruments. For those listening to this debate, let me indicate what 'subordinate legislation' is and what 'legislative instruments' are. They are pieces of legislation, pieces of rulings, by the government of the day that impact on people's lives—that can send people to jail, that can create offences. They are not legislation that is debated in this chamber. Subordinate legislation is usually called regulations and ordinances. They are supplementary or subordinate legislation that ministers sign off on and they then have the same force of law as legislation that is debated in this chamber. That has been happening since time immemorial, and it is necessary for the functions of government for that to be the case.

The Senate Scrutiny of Bills Committee, which I chair, looks at every piece of legislation, not in a policy sense but to determine whether people's rights are unduly being trampled upon, whether civil and political rights are being interfered with or whether governments are overstepping the mark by dealing with things in subordinate legislation which should be dealt with in the main legislation and debated in this chamber. I have to say, since the advent of the Gillard and Rudd government there has been an increasing tendency with legislation that is debated for them to come into this chamber and say, 'Here's the broad outline of the legislation, but the details of the legislation will be dealt with in regulation promulgated by the minister, under his hand, at some later time.' Increasingly under Labor governments, and certainly under the Gillard-Rudd Labor government, there is this tendency not to bring important legislation to parliament but to deal with it by way of subordinate legislation. Again, that does not lessen the skills needed by our parliamentary draftsman. But it is a concern for me, and I think it is a concern for most senators on this side of the chamber. And, were it known more widely, it would be a concern for all Australians that instruments that can impact upon their life, liberty and property are being drawn in the back rooms by departments of government, put into hopefully a legal form by the parliamentary draftsman and then ticked off by the minister without ever being debated in this chamber.

If you believe in parliamentary democracy then you understand that laws should be passed only if they are fully appreciated and understood and then debated and exposed by this parliament of the land and certainly by this Senate. This Senate has long had a reputation for inquiring and looking very closely—it was set up by our founding fathers to do so. (Quorum formed) The Senate is supposed to be a house that reviews bills. Under what is a very typical relationship between the Greens political party and the Australian Labor Party today, debate on this bill is also being guillotined. It shows the absolute farce which happens with a guillotine motion, which has required the Senate to come back and sit today in a very truncated way. And if you look at the Labor Party benches, you will see that none of the ministers are here. They put in these additional hours, then curtail the debate in time to ram through as many bills as possible without proper scrutiny and then the ministers all flit off around the country and around the world. It is okay for everyone else to turn up, but where are the ministers?

It shows the whole farce of this guillotine process that has been put in place yet again by the Australian Labor Party and the Greens political party—34 bills are being rammed through the parliament in this very short, two-week session. It simply shows that, so far as the Greens and the Australian Labor Party are concerned, the old idea of the Senate being a house of review that would fully and thoroughly investigate every aspect of legislation has gone by the board.

I have a lot more that I want to say about this bill and indeed other bills that are being rammed through parliament today and next week. But, unfortunately, time is going to beat me yet again. That is what happens when you have this situation. I hope the people of Australia who are listening to this debate will understand just how rotten it has become in this parliament, a parliament that is supposed to scrutinise bills but which the Labor Party and the Greens keep curtailing, ensuring that proper investigation and scrutiny does not occur. I am conscious other colleagues want to speak, so I am going to stop before my time elapses.


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