Senate debates

Thursday, 29 November 2018



6:40 pm

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

Despite all of the conversation, analysis and commentary about the state of Australian politics, I like to draw people's attention to one very important point, and that is that, in the recent past, the big debates in our country—indeed, the big debates in this Senate chamber—have been handled very responsibly and have led to very clear resolutions. The 18C free speech debate springs to mind, as does resolution of the GST system in a way that allowed Western Australia to be properly compensated into the future but also ensured that every other state and territory wouldn't be worse off. Then, of course, there was the same-sex marriage debate.

What do those three things have in common? I argue that those three things have in common the fact that they were put into a process where competing views were put on the table, competing views were assessed and debated, legislation came before the parliament and the matter was resolved. That is certainly the case with regard to the resolution of 18C. That matter was put before the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights. That matter led to the development of legislation that came to the Senate, and the matter was resolved. The GST distribution system debate was put under the lens of the Productivity Commission, an idea that I'm proud to have advocated very strongly in my home state of Western Australia. The beauty of putting that very contentious issue into an independent economic process is that a body of evidence was revealed, and then parliamentarians like us—and, indeed, the government—could make a judgement call over how to resolve that issue with a very clear body of evidence before them. Similarly, with the issue of same-sex marriage or marriage equality in our country, an exposure draft was put before the Senate select committee. Everyone came to that committee. The committee could discuss, debate and resolve its position. Then Senator Smith, with the support of other senators, went off and developed a bill, and the issue was resolved.

That's why I continue to argue that this parliament must re-establish the long term strategies committee, a committee that previously existed in the House of Representatives—it didn't involve senators—from 1990 to 1996. It was charged with discussing, debating and gathering evidence from across the community from people with a view—whether people with very informed and evidence based views or just ordinary Australians. It was able to chart a course on a variety of issues.

One of those issues that it reported on was the matter of population. That's why in recent weeks and months I've been arguing that the parliament, as the representative of the people, should be given the opportunity to canvass community attitudes—ordinary community attitudes and the informed expert attitudes of scholars, the business community and others—to put before the Australian community a very strong and clear evidence base about future population growth in our country, because it is a big debate. Some people are nervous about giving the community a sense of expression. I'm not. The country, the community and the parliament, through a committee process, can handle the big issues. It's handled and resolved GST, same-sex marriage and the issue of free speech in our country. So the parliament can be trusted to take on the big issues, collect a body of evidence and help government come to a better position.

I'm proud that the coalition is tackling the issue of population, because in the last few months, when we've been having a population debate in our country—somewhat constrained, I argue—a story has begun to emerge, and that is that the population growth that has happened in our country has happened in a very restricted way. It has happened in our two biggest cities. The other story that we know is that, in other parts of our country, people would like to have access to population growth to support their regional communities and to support their local and small businesses. So I'm saying that the population debate in our country is actually many debates. But it shouldn't be owned just by government; it can be owned by the community. And the parliament is exactly the vehicle to do that.

I respect the fact that some people might be a little bit nervous or apprehensive about what this debate might deliver. But I'm someone who puts their faith in the Australian community and in the Australian parliament to be able to bring forward a very concise, evidence based conclusion and, indeed, some recommendations. We've seen it already. We saw it in the 1990s, when Barry Jones was the chairman of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Long Term Strategies, because, if we are genuinely interested in the prosperity of our country—and certainly coalition senators and members of the House of Representatives are—then we must plan and prepare.

I'm someone who says that we need to have debates in our country about what the future tax system looks like. I'm someone who believes that we should have a debate about what intergenerational and demographic change looks like in our country. I'm someone who wants to make sure that we're pricing infrastructure the best way we possibly can. I want to make sure that regional communities are being given the best opportunity to prosper in the same way that our cities are. And the right way to do that is to use the population debate as a lens through which to look at all of those issues and to plan not just for tomorrow, not just for next week, but for the next few decades.

Senator McKenzie and others here at the moment know that politicians are regularly criticised for having a short-term view of the world. What I'm saying is that the best way to correct that is to give some parliamentarians the opportunity to think about the future—to think about what the next few decades will look like for our country, because we know that things are changing. They're changing in our country. They're changing in our cities. They're changing in our regional areas. Indeed, they are changing across the globe.

I'm one who says that, if we are going to use limited resources, if we are going to wisely spend taxpayers' dollars, then we want to do so in a way that gets the best possible value for those taxpayers' dollars. I want to make sure that, when we're building and planning for infrastructure, we're properly building and planning for the population that is going to use and be serviced by that infrastructure in the decades ahead. I don't see that long-term thinking or planning anywhere.

That's why I remain resolute in my commitment to pursuing the idea of a parliamentary inquiry into population matters in our country. Those who know me well know that, when I come to a view, I stay committed to that view, and I do exercise a lot of tenacity—there's no doubt about that. I'm not giving up on this issue, because we know that the community is ready for this debate as well. And I think they can be trusted with this debate.

So let me issue a caution to parliamentarians in our national parliament: if you don't step forward and act quickly enough and give people a say, then public confidence in population growth, in our immigration programs, will be lost. The best way to retain a high level of public confidence is to give people the opportunity to express a point of view. Like I said before, they can be scholars, they can be the Australian business community, they can be my mum and dad—because, when we get an evidence base before us, we'll be able to make the best possible decisions.

We don't have to look too far. In the United Kingdom, the British House of Commons, in the last 12 months, as a result of the debate about Brexit, undertook a very extensive task, to go and speak to the British people about population and migration matters. It came to a very revealing conclusion. That House of Commons report—which was called Immigration policy: basis for building consensusstressed the importance of taking early action to avoid polarisation and misinformation on population and immigration issues.

I don't want to point the finger. I don't want to mention names. But, in this place, we know who wants to drive polarisation and misinformation— (Time expired)

Question agreed to.

Senate adjourned at 18 : 50


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