Wednesday, 25 March 2015
Suspension of Standing Orders
The reason we are in this position for Senator Fifield's information is that there was an inability from the government to appropriately consult with the many people on this side of the chamber on the important issue of extended hours.
I agree with Senator Fifield: we did meet to look at a range of issues about the need for extra hours of debate. We acknowledge the government was in a position that they had important legislation that needed to be considered and also the special circumstances of this week with the death of Malcolm Fraser and the state funeral for him on Friday. There was no disagreement about that, and you can see from notices on this paper today that there was agreement with significant extra hours this week—more so than we have ever seen in my experience in this place.
We agree that we need to focus the attention of the Senate on the important matters to be discussed. At one of those meetings, there was a discussion about maybe sitting on the Monday. We were told that we would receive a letter from the government following up on that meeting about what would be the proposal for extended hours for the Monday of budget week. There was no in-principle opposition to meeting on that day. However, this notice, which talks about a process different to any other sitting day for the Monday of budget week, came to us in a letter today at lunchtime after this notice of motion had already been circulated to everyone. That was the consultation process.
In good faith, we need to look at how the Senate best operates to meet the requirements of legislation. There were 'robust discussions' in those meetings we had earlier this week, and that is how it should be. Governments put forward proposals, and we look at the way that we can make them work. We have come up with an agreed result: two notices of motion amending hours this week have already been passed by this place without any dissent. We have put forward a reasonable proposal in the notice of motion about hours for the Monday of budget week that, if we agree to meet in this place on the Monday, we have a standard sitting day of the Senate. That would allow not just question time but the ability to take note of the answers of question time, formal business, any proposal to debate a matter of public importance or an urgency motion—standard operations of the Senate.
If our amendment is passed—and it has been circulated and should have come forward for debate—we would have between seven and eight hours of dedicated time to look at the items of business put forward by the government. That is not standing in the way of debate in this place; that is looking at how we can operate as a Senate, do our business and also ensure that the way the discussions are held are similar to that which we had earlier this week, where all the interested parties are gathered together, the discussion is held and the propositions are heard at the same time. Discussions should not be held in the way that this particular proposal has operated, which was that we got a letter from the Leader of Government which says that the members of the crossbench have already been favourably considering this proposal, rather than us having the opportunity as a group to put forward what we wanted.
In the discussion that we had with the government earlier this week, there was no debate on what would happen on Monday of budget week. People who were in attendance at that meeting had opportunities to talk about what would happen this week and also how we would look at the legislation agenda that the government is trying to have us consider. There has been great consideration, negotiation and allowance by the Senate to have extra hours to look at the important issues of legislation that came forward. Then, today, we had yet another demand and it was put as a fait accompli. That is not the best operation of the Senate.
We would save a lot of time if we could have these discussions as we did earlier this week. That does not mean that there will be absolute agreement; that does not always happen in negotiations. The way that the Manager of Government Business in the Senate has put it today, if we do not agree, we will be punished by not being part of the discussion. That was how I heard Senator Fifield put forward his position that, because there was a certain lack of accommodation or cooperation in the meetings earlier this week, they had to exclude the Labor Party from further decisions about what would happen in future hours motions. We think it is important— (Time expired)