Senate debates

Wednesday, 8 August 2007


Consideration of Legislation

9:31 am

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation) Share this | | Hansard source

I move government business notice of motion No. 2:

That the provisions of paragraphs (5) to (8) of standing order 111 not apply to the following bills, allowing them to be considered during this period of sittings:APEC Public Holiday Bill 2007Appropriation (Northern Territory National Emergency Response) Bill (No. 1) 2007-2008Appropriation (Northern Territory National Emergency Response) Bill (No. 2) 2007-2008Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (Northern Territory National Emergency Response and Other Measures) Bill 2007Northern Territory National Emergency Response Bill 2007Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Payment Reform) Bill 2007.

Photo of Bob BrownBob Brown (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

This motion is for an exemption from the cut-off order of a number of bills which the government knows ought to have been brought into this place in time for a proper discussion by the Senate, informed by the people of Australia. That means having the ability under the standing orders of the Senate to have them adequately examined—to have them go to a Senate inquiry, to have the Senate inquiry go to the Australian people, to have that inquiry report back to the Senate and for there then to be informed debate and decision making.

This motion firstly removes from that proper process the APEC Public Holiday Bill 2007. APEC is coming up next month, and the government may well be able to argue that that is something we can deal with expeditiously. But then we have the five bills relating to the Northern Territory—500 pages of complex legislation which this government has, in the pre-election period of 2007, brought into the parliament and, by dint of its numbers, shoved through the House of Representatives in one day. And the intention is to do the same in the Senate.

I have never seen such an abrogation of the role of this Senate in the 11 years I have been here, and I do not think there has been such an abrogation of the proper role of this Senate and an overriding of it by this or any government for many decades. This is complex legislation which is not just about the welfare, future and wellbeing of the 40,000 Indigenous people in the Northern Territory affected but about the nature of this country itself. Yesterday we saw Indigenous representatives from the Northern Territory in this parliament being hectored by a member of this Senate as they tried to present to us, through the media, their huge concern about this legislation.

Let us make no mistake about this: there is a deep-seated feeling within Indigenous communities that, while action is required to help and where social parameters show that the Indigenous community is in great need of assistance, that must come with consultation and with the assistance of the Indigenous community, which this government has refused over the last 10 years. The Howard government has turned its back on the Indigenous people of Australia over the last 10 years. Now, we have 500 pages of legislation being brought in here, and the government says, ‘We will suspend standing orders to ram it through the Senate.’ That is what is happening here. It is saying: ‘We will suspend standing orders. We will override them by dint of numbers.’

This is government by the executive and parliament being sidelined on one of the most important issues. This legislation goes to the core of what this nation is: how we relate to first Australians and whether we accord them the honour they should have—and that is equality as citizens.

Photo of Julian McGauranJulian McGauran (Victoria, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

You’re a disgrace!

Photo of Bob BrownBob Brown (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

The member opposite says, ‘Disgraceful.’ I agree. It is a disgraceful process that is being undertaken here. Of course this legislation should be going to a committee, and of course that committee should be going to the Northern Territory to inform itself. This government says to the Indigenous people and, indeed, all the people of the Territory: ‘Come to Canberra on Friday or miss out.’

We are going to have a one-day sham of a committee system on Friday and the government says, ‘Come here or you miss out.’ That is the Prime Minister’s attitude towards the rest of Australia. He says: ‘I set the rules. You fit in or you miss out.’ So we have the exclusion of all Australians from their right to feed into this process here on Capital Hill. The Greens will not accept that. We are not going to accept the presumption by this government that it is the arbiter of all ideas and nobody else in this country counts. It is desperation politics by a government that is heading for a shipwreck.

What is the opposition going to do about this? Nothing. Not a thing. It is an opposition in name only. This process is wrong. This process is corrupting this parliament. I am talking here about the process, not the outcome. We have yet to deal with this before it gets guillotined here in the coming week or so. I am talking about this process. This is Prime Minister Howard’s government corrupting proper democratic process, which means we must be informed. When you are dealing with people whose lives, future and culture are at stake here then you get informed.

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation) Share this | | Hansard source

You want it wrecked!

Photo of Bob BrownBob Brown (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

The minister opposite used the word ‘wrecked’. What he is really pointing to is the prospect of the wreckage of government leading to a truncated process which defrauds democracy. The role of this Senate as house of review is being ripped away by the Howard government through a motion on a Wednesday morning which says that one of the most important and complex pieces of legislation ever dealt with by this Senate is not going to go through a committee process, is not going to have informed debate and is not going to be dealt with honourably. This is not an honourable process and it is not an honourable government. We Greens will oppose this motion.

9:39 am

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

Let us be clear about a couple of things here. Firstly, the Democrats would support straightaway any measure that the government identifies specifically within these bills that has to be passed today, tomorrow or next week that is essential to protect a child from harm tonight. If the government identifies those measures specifically in this legislation, and it can clearly demonstrate that they are essential to provide immediate protection for a child that is at risk, then we will support those aspects of this bill. That needs to be clearly stated up-front.

We have already heard interjections from government members during the last contribution—anybody that stands up and says, ‘Hang on a minute; let us have a proper look at these bills,’ immediately gets slandered with, ‘You are trying to wreck the whole thing. You are trying to destroy it. You do not care about children. Children are going to be hurt tonight because you are holding this up.’ We, collectively as a parliament, and the political process have ignored this problem and wider issues of concern to Indigenous people for decades and certainly in the life of this government. You cannot ignore an issue for 11 years and then suddenly say, ‘Yes, this is a crisis; it is so urgent that we now do not have time to listen to you about how we should do it properly.’ That is, in effect, what is being attempted to be done here.

If we are genuine, as I believe we all are, about wanting to be as effective as possible in assisting Aboriginal children particularly, Indigenous people in the Territory more broadly and, hopefully, Indigenous people across the nation then the least we can do is try to make sure that we do our job properly in figuring out how best to assist them. In terms of the Senate’s role in this job, that means looking at the legislation that is put before us. If a case can be made that parts of the legislation are urgently needed to protect a child that is at an immediate risk, then make that case. But do not just smear everybody who raises questions and accuse them of holding the whole thing up, putting children at risk and playing politics. This is too important for politics for all of us. I hope we can take that attitude in the course of the coming debate.

It also needs to be made clear what the motion before us is about. It is about exempting the various pieces of legislation dealing with the Northern Territory situation and some other measures that I will come back to later—but the bulk of it deals with the Northern Territory situation—from the standing orders that would otherwise prevent them from being brought on for debate straightaway. This bill has just been introduced. As we know, it was made public only yesterday. Frankly, I think there is a good case to be made, in terms of the ability of the Senate to do its job properly, that you do not begin debating today 500 pages of complex legislation that was introduced yesterday, particularly if the issue is very important—unless a case can be made for immediacy, which has not been made. The effect of this cut-off motion that the government has put is to enable debate to start straightaway. If we do not pass it the effect is not to stop the bills coming on, it is not to hold everything up; the effect is that the bills will not be able to be debated until we come back in three weeks time. That is what I am advised. It does not hold them up until next year. It means that when we come back in the first sitting week in September we can then start on the debate. That would mean there would be three weeks intervening when we can actually properly look at it and actually do some listening. That is not only an eminently sensible approach; it is the responsible approach to such an important issue. It is a common-sense approach, frankly.

I have no doubt about the minister’s personal commitment to this issue; it is quite clear that he feels very strongly about it emotionally. But he is not the only one who feels strongly about this. All of us who feel strongly about it for all sorts of reasons and from all sides of the debate need to make sure that our strong emotions and feelings do not get in the way of us being able to think rationally. That is what we need in this debate—an ability to combine the strong emotion, commitment and desire to assist in making significant change with rational thinking, common sense and some listening. We need to do a lot more listening, not just to each other but more importantly to the people of the Northern Territory who are going to be most directly affected.

I do not think that many people in the wider community are aware that the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Payment Reform) Bill 2007 has a whole range of measures that have nothing at all to do with the Northern Territory. That legislation puts in place the framework for enabling payments to be quarantined for people across the country if they are seen as not meeting requirements regarding enrolment of their child at school or school attendance benchmarks, or if they have notifications regarding child protection. It also includes the framework regarding the Cape York welfare reform trials, which I am supportive of trialling, of letting them go ahead and seeing how they work.

There are significant, and—let us not kid ourselves—very far reaching changes in one of these bills to do with potential quarantining of welfare payments for parents across the country in relation to areas like school attendance, enrolment and child neglect notifications. As I have been informed by government briefings, these changes are not likely to come into operation until 2008, and certainly not before next year. We are not going to get a chance to look at these very far reaching and significant measures. We are being asked to start debating them straightaway. Even though there is not the faintest suggestion that there is urgency for these measures, they are being pushed through under the cloak of the Northern Territory situation.

I am not saying that I oppose those measures; frankly, I am interested in exploring how those measures could work, what other things might attach to them, what role the states would play. I would be interested in hearing more from the Cape York institute about how those measures are going to work up there, because they have done a lot of work on them. They have got resources backing it. They have got a whole range of programs attached to it. They are linking it in to people at the community level. It would be very useful for the Senate to inform itself about all of those things.

If we were to support this motion we would be facilitating an inability for us to inform ourselves. If we vote for this motion we will be forcing ourselves not to inform ourselves, which is simply not responsible. The whole point and the history of the standing order that prevents legislation being introduced and debated straightaway was to prevent legislation from being bulldozed through unless the case could be made for urgency. I know the government has tabled a statement of reasons as to why these bills are urgent but I do not think that made the case, particularly—and let me emphasise this—given that the consequence of not exempting these bills from the standing orders, the cut-off motion, is not to put them off until next year but just to put them off until the next sitting fortnight, the second week of September.

As I said at the start—and I will continue to emphasise this, because I am not going to let the Democrats be smeared with the suggestion that we are putting children at risk simply by doing our job of properly scrutinising important legislation—if there is any measure in these bills that the government can identify that is specifically necessary to protect a child who is at risk now, then I ask them to do that in the debate forthcoming, presuming this motion will pass. That is an important issue.

We are not the font of all wisdom, the government is not the font of all wisdom, the minister is not the font of all wisdom. None of us here are, particularly on these issues which are difficult, complex and involve a part of the country which, frankly, most of us do not have a great deal of experience with—the Northern Territory—and any experience we do have is inevitably fleeting. There are a lot of people who have very helpful and valuable information about how we can best do this.

There is the old adage that has entered into the public lexicon in a cynical and ironic way of someone coming to your door and saying, ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help,’ and everybody runs scared in the other direction. The reason that has such resonance with people is because it is so true. That is because governments across the board, of all persuasions and at all levels, and political parties in general—it is probably part of the human condition where people have any power and authority—tend to think: ‘Well, I know what’s best. I’m coming in and I’m going to do it.’ Nobody has more experience with that than Indigenous people. People just roll up and say, ‘We’re here to help; now out of the way.’ If we are all here to help, as hopefully we all are in this area, then let us do a little bit of listening about how best we can help, before we charge in.

The final point is that there are things already happening in the Northern Territory, and many of those things are not contingent on what is in this legislation, and they will continue to happen. This legislation is only one component of the whole range of things that are being proposed and that are being done in the Northern Territory. Properly examining this legislation does not bring everything to a screaming halt; it simply ensures that the implementation of the intervention—as it is called—occurs, as much as possible, in an effective way. Surely, what we all want is for it to be effective.

The Prime Minister in speaking about this intervention a few weeks ago said, ‘Along the way we’ll make mistakes.’ Of course, the government will make mistakes, as we all make mistakes, and nobody can suggest otherwise. But we do have a responsibility to minimise those mistakes rather than just say, ‘Oh well, we’ll do what we think’s best; if we make mistakes we can’t help it.’ A lot of the time you can help it, if you think through things properly. Certainly, with this legislation, it is our responsibility as a Senate to think things through properly. Nobody can avoid mistakes being made but we certainly can avoid some of them. Many of them can be avoided quite easily if we do a little bit of listening and a little bit of thinking, and there is not enough of that at the moment. There is plenty of heat.

I think it is fantastic that so many people are focusing on the terrible conditions faced by many Aboriginal people and putting some genuine thought into how we can shift that situation and provide a serious circuit-breaker. I congratulate the Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs for that. It is a really good situation and it does provide a real opportunity. But it also provides an opportunity that can be squandered, as previous opportunities have been, and it provides a situation—let us not kid ourselves—where, as bad as some of the situations may be, we can actually make things worse if we go about this in the wrong way. The need to do something should not be confused with the need to do anything, and I fear that is a real risk that is before us. We need to put those things more to the front of our minds over the next little while as we are considering some of these issues.

So the Democrats will oppose this motion. I need to clarify that. I initially thought that the cut-off would mean that the legislation would not be debated until next year. I am informed that, due to the arcane nature of what defines various things with sessions and other sorts of things, it means that we would start debating it in the next sitting fortnight, which, whilst very quick, is nonetheless appropriate given the circumstances. But starting debate on the legislation now or in five minutes time, which is what will happen, is not appropriate and not responsible, given the circumstances, unless the government can make a better case for particular measures within it that are absolutely essential immediately to protect children at risk now.

9:53 am

Photo of Chris EvansChris Evans (WA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

I indicate on behalf of the Labor opposition that we will be supporting the motion to grant exemption from the cut-off to bring on the package of bills that relate to the Northern Territory emergency response. In doing that, though, can I say that I did not disagree with anything Senator Bartlett said except perhaps the conclusion he reached. I thought it was a very balanced and useful contribution to the debate. But Labor is of the view that the response to the highlighting of child abuse in the Northern Territory is urgent, that there has been a recognition of a long-term problem and that there has been a recognition that there needs to be an emergency-style response rather than the sorts of gradualist responses that we have seen over the years, which have withered on the vine and not led to meaningful change.

As the Senate knows, traditionally Labor argues very strongly for proper process in the Senate, and I will say something about that now, but we have also always accepted the right of the government or others to move to exempt bills from the cut-off to bring on debate where there is an established need and urgency. We indicated to the Prime Minister from the day the response was announced that we would provide bipartisan support for that emergency response, and that position is respected in our decision today to support exemption from the cut-off—that is, that we ought to facilitate bringing on the debate and bringing on the capacity for the government to take measures that go to assist in dealing with what has become a child abuse crisis in some Indigenous communities.

As I mentioned at the outset, Senator Bartlett’s points are well made. I share some of his concerns about the process. The fact that the legislation was not made available to members of parliament until yesterday means that there has not been time for proper scrutiny. While I appreciate that the government has made some attempt to allow for scrutiny by allowing a one-day Senate inquiry, I think everyone acknowledges that that is an extremely rushed timetable, given the size and scope of the bills and given, as Senator Bartlett rightly pointed out, that so much of what is in the package is not totally related to the Northern Territory emergency response. Nevertheless, on balance we accept the urgency and accept the need for the parliament to get on.

The question of process that most concerns me in this debate is not actually the Senate process; it is the failure to consult with Indigenous people. I think the great failing in this is the concern among Indigenous people that their voices have not been heard and that they have not been engaged in the response. I think that risks the failure of the whole package. All our experience, from all sides of politics, is that solutions do not work unless there is Indigenous ownership of those solutions. That is acknowledged by all Indigenous people from left and right and it was acknowledged in the past by all political parties. So I think the government has to do much better in trying to build Indigenous support for these measures; otherwise, as I said, they will seriously undermine the very genuine and focused attempt to deal with the problems.

So we will be supporting the exemption. I also want to make the point that Senator Bartlett made well, which is that people can have different views about this package and still be equally committed to providing a safe environment for children and to strong attempts to prevent child abuse. That does not mean that people cannot have different perspectives on how one goes about that. I have been concerned at some of the posturing by the minister which says, ‘You are either with me all the way or you are somehow a defender of child abuse.’ That is a totally inappropriate stance to take and I think it would be unfortunate if we went down that path. We have seen a bit of that when we have had debates about the Iraq war—that if you are opposed to the Iraq war you are somehow making some sort of critical judgement of Australia’s service men and women. That, of course, is a nonsense. It is also a nonsense to assert that those who have a different view about how one responds to the question of child abuse in Northern Territory Aboriginal communities are somehow defending the perpetration of that abuse. So I hope we do not see that in this debate. I think all senators are equally committed to measures that assist in preventing that abuse and making Indigenous children safe. To be fair to the Greens and the Australian Democrats, both parties have had a long interest and involvement in Indigenous affairs in this parliament and I do not think their commitment to those issues can be questioned. While I disagree with them on a number of these things and will support the government on measures they will not support, I certainly do not question their commitment to the issues or their right to have a different view. I think it is a good thing for our democracy if those voices are heard.

As I said, my major concern at the moment is the fact that Indigenous voices are not being heard. I saw on the news last night Senator Heffernan gatecrashing a press conference held in the grounds of Parliament House by the Indigenous leadership who were in Canberra yesterday. I think that was one of the most disgraceful acts I have seen by a member of parliament within the bounds of Parliament House. It is another outrageous act by Senator Heffernan, who seems to have no standards. The government seems unwilling or unprepared to take action to ensure that its senators act with appropriate decorum and dignity. I think gatecrashing that press conference where Indigenous people were trying to have their voices heard is contemptible and I think Senator Heffernan owes the parliament and those people an apology. Quite frankly, he is a serial offender and it is getting way beyond a joke. I think the Prime Minister ought to take serious action to deal with Senator Heffernan. By failing to act he is seen to endorse what is, I think, totally unacceptable behaviour.

So, as I say, we think there is a case for urgency with these bills. Labor will be supporting the exemption. We will be actively participating in the Senate inquiry on Friday and we will be actively involved in the committee stage of the bills. We accept that, as it is an emergency response, it is appropriate that the parliament deal with these bills this fortnight rather than delay a further fortnight. Of course, there is always the possibility that we may not sit again. We are now in the time frame for the calling of an election. I think if the Prime Minister does not call the election before the next sitting then he will have gone over three years for the parliamentary term—which of course he is entitled to do. But we are at the stage where an election is due so I do not think postponing this legislation to a sitting that may not occur is a sensible action for the parliament to take. We do think this is urgent. We do support the thrust of an emergency intervention. We have some amendments and we have some disagreements with the legislation but we do think it is important to provide bipartisan support for a strong response. As part of that, we support the Senate debating the bills this fortnight and we will support the exemption from the cut-off.

10:01 am

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

This issue has been urgent for decades, and it has been urgent for the entire period of this government. Now, in the dying days of this government, just in the run-up to an election, all of a sudden the government decide that there is an emergency in the Northern Territory and we have to rush this 500 pages worth of legislation through the parliament with no scrutiny and with no consultation with the community. The government have now decided that it is urgent. If this is such an important issue for the government—it is definitely an important issue for us—why haven’t they bothered to deal with this earlier? Why haven’t they bothered to carry out proper community consultation? Why won’t they let this legislation be subject to the proper scrutiny of parliament?

I can tell you that we as parliamentarians will not be able to do our job properly in the short space of time that we have to review this 500 pages of complex legislation that changes many acts: the Native Title Act, the land rights act, the Racial Discrimination Act and the Social Security Act to name but a few. No senator will be able to stand up in this chamber, put their hand on their heart and say that they understand absolutely every single clause of this legislation—it is impossible in the time frame that is available. The need for action has been there all along, but now, in the run-up to an election, in the dying days of this parliament, all of a sudden the government decides that this is urgent and needs to be dealt with immediately.

It is a shame that the ALP are being complicit with this government in this. One of the reasons the government want to rush this through is that they do not want the community to have the opportunity to adequately review this legislation because they know it is terrible legislation. They know it is discriminatory. They know it will not deliver on child abuse. This is not about dealing with child abuse; it is about a whole different agenda for this government. And Labor are complicit in helping the government do this. They want this legislation through quickly so that their actions and their support of the government are not adequately reviewed. They hope this will die down in the media before the election. They know that Aboriginal organisations do not like this legislation, do not support it and do want the ALP to support it. They know the community does not want this legislation. That is why they also want to rush it through. They also know that this issue has been urgent for the last 11 years.

This legislation, as I said, is complex. It changes a large number of acts. It does not address the fundamental issues of child abuse. How does taking people’s land away address those issues? How does changing the permit system and taking control of who goes onto that land address child abuse? We do not know what impacts the welfare reforms are going to have. We need time to review them. It was also interesting that when the media, the minor parties and probably the ALP were being briefed on this legislation no mention was made of the fact that these three main bills will change the Racial Discrimination Act. There was not one word in the briefing about that. It was only when you saw the legislation that you realised that the government were exempting themselves completely from the Racial Discrimination Act. There is just no way that people can understand the extent and the impact of all these changes. Also buried in this legislation is the fact that the welfare reforms extend not only to the Northern Territory but also to the wider community.

When I asked the government yesterday how much it was going to cost to implement the actual reforms and the administration of the welfare reforms they were unable to tell me. Do they know? I do not know. Or do they just not want to say how much it is going to cost? Again, this parliament needs time to adequately review these changes and the community needs time to adequately review these changes and to have a say. This legislation will not deliver the stated outcomes on child abuse. There are a range of things that need to be done to address this very serious problem, but they are not being done. I take great offence at the government implying that, because we do not support this discriminatory legislation, we are somehow supporting child abuse or the perpetrators of child abuse. That is absolutely offensive to those of us who care about these issues and who want to see real, long-term changes made.

The first recommendation from the Little children are sacred report that suddenly opened the government’s eyes to this issue is the one about consultation. It says that consultation with the community is the absolute key in addressing these issues. Where was the government’s consultation? Nowhere. There had been no consultation when these changes were announced, and the government do not want any consultation now. We have been granted a day’s committee hearing. Where does the government want this referred to? To the Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs. Does that not also send a strong message to the community? The government say that these changes are about dealing with child abuse. Which committee deals with those issues? The Standing Committee on Community Affairs. If the government really thought the issue was about child abuse, why would they not refer the package to Community Affairs? If we can only have a one-day hearing and there is a package of bills, would you not send the whole lot to Community Affairs? No, they want to send it to Legal and Constitutional Affairs, who will look at some of the legal and constitutional issues but will not deliver on the outcomes, which the government state are about dealing with child abuse.

If we had more time, we would be able to divide the package up so that we could deal with those legal and constitutional issues, the issues around welfare reform and the issues around child abuse, and actually have the two committees look at these issues. Of course, the government do not want to give the time, because the government do not actually want a proper review because they know very well that this will not deliver on their stated outcomes, and they would be afraid of public scrutiny. If they really cared, they would have been dealing with this issue years ago instead of shelving a number of reports that have been tabled. Over four years there have been reports and reports about these issues and the government have chosen to ignore them and shelve them.

As I said, a minute before midnight—a minute before they are due for election—they decide that this is an urgent issue. Yes, it has been an urgent issue for years and years, and they have taken no action. Now they want to ram through the most draconian, discriminatory changes with no scrutiny. It is an abuse of the parliamentary process. We need time to review this legislation so that everybody voting on this legislation in this place can stand with their hand on their heart and say: ‘We know what these changes will do and we understand the implications. We understand the intended consequences and we have also reviewed the legislation for any unintended consequences.’ None of us will be able to do that. When we sit in this place to vote next week, none of us will be able to say that we understand the full ramifications of this legislation, because we have not had time to review the complex changes that are involved here.

As Senator Brown said, the Greens will be opposing this motion. And it is a great shame that we are going to be required to deal with this complex, discriminatory legislation in this rushed manner. In years to come, I think people will look back and they will understand what we did here. If they cannot understand it now, in years to come people will understand the result of this rushed process.

10:10 am

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation) Share this | | Hansard source

Basically, two bills are being considered here. The first one is the APEC Public Holiday Bill 2007. This bill ensures that employees’ entitlements are preserved in relation to the APEC public holiday on 7 September 2007. I have not heard any opposition in relation to that, so I assume we have unanimity in relation to that bill.

The package of bills that has evoked some discussion has been the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Bill 2007. If I may, I will go through the Labor contribution, the Democrat contribution and then deal with the nonsensical and bizarre contribution of the Australian Greens. First of all in relation to the Labor contribution, I thank the Labor Party for its bipartisan approach on this issue. I just have a slight word of warning for them. In attacking us in relation to the money to be spent on it, as they did at question time yesterday, they really are sending out a mixed message to the Australian community: on the one hand, playing the ‘me too’ game but, on the other hand, trying to undermine us as a government. Can I suggest to them that if they really do want to be a credible government they should stop walking both sides of the road on these types of issues and come down firmly where they know in fact they should be coming down—and, that is, fully on side with the government.

Senator Evans did mention that the Indigenous community had not been heard on these matters. I understand that a former federal president of the Australian Labor Party, and of Indigenous background, Warren Mundine, is in fact supportive of this legislation. One of the real difficulties—

Photo of Chris EvansChris Evans (WA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

A good bloke but he is only one voice.

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation) Share this | | Hansard source

But, I would have thought, potentially, a fairly representative voice. One of the difficulties that we have in this debate is that a lot of the Indigenous community leadership has in fact been presiding over communities in the full knowledge of what is going on, and therefore there are certain elements who will undoubtedly find the exposures that are now occurring very uncomfortable. Having said that, can I acknowledge Senator Evans’s comment that this is a crisis and it does need to be dealt with expeditiously.

I turn to the Australian Democrats contribution. Yes, it is a cheap point to say that we have been in government for 11 years and why act now. I think we all know why we are acting now. It is because of the ineptness of the Northern Territory government, who had, until this legislation, the constitutional and legal responsibility to deal with these issues and, for whatever reason, did not. All that I would invite people to do is have a look at the Lateline performances by Chief Minister Clare Martin with Tony Jones. It is not often that I would praise the ABC, but these showed absolutely everything that was wrong with the Northern Territory government’s approach and its complete incapacity to deal with this urgent issue—even when confronted by the report co-authored by Rex Wild QC. She was then interviewed about that and what her response to it would be. It was one of those very few interviews of a Labor person where I was cringing in embarrassment for her. It was an embarrassing, inept interview indicating that really she was not willing to deal with the issues.

Why are we dealing with it now? Because of the report that highlighted all of these issues that came down only recently, and the Northern Territory government’s complete inability—I will be kind and say ‘inability’; I will not say that they did not want to—to deal with the issues, we believed that we should involve ourselves and that is what we have done. Of course, if we are to be condemned—and this is a point that was also made by the Greens in the debate—for having waited 11 years, does it not follow logically that we should be condemned even further if we delay by 11 years and one month or 11 years and two months? If that is the case, if we are to be condemned for having waited for so long, surely our condemnation ought to be all the greater? But, no, these people do want us to delay and delay and delay. Quite frankly, I find it bizarre that they would want to delay this package of measures.

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Siewert interjecting

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation) Share this | | Hansard source

On cue, an interjection from Senator Siewert. Allow me to turn to the Greens contributions. It was quite a bizarre contribution from he who would seek to have control of the Senate under a Rudd government. I recall Senator Brown on the TV in Tasmania condemning the potential early recall of the parliament. There was no necessity for that and it would be a total waste of taxpayers’ money, he said, because the parliament was going to start sitting on 6 August. There was no need to recall parliament early; we could start dealing with the legislation on 6 August and debate it then. Guess what? We did not recall parliament early; we want to start debating it this week. Guess what? Senator Brown is against that as well. Unfortunately, that has become the hallmark of his silly approach to anything within the public domain. You run one reason to oppose something one day and then run the exact opposite reason the next day just so you can get a cheap headline and be seen opposing the government. That is why the Australian Greens should never be provided with the balance of power in this place. They simply are not deserving of it.

We were also told that the parliament was being bypassed and abused. Hello! We are in the parliament, we are in the Australian Senate, we are debating the issues and every single parliamentarian will be voting on these measures. I might add that some of us have got into this parliament with three or four times the vote that Senator Brown and others have gained from their constituencies and so, if I might say, we speak with a degree more authority and more public support than that which Senator Brown would assert for himself and his small crew of Green senators. The Labor Party have taken a conscious decision on this, as have the Democrats, as have we and as have the Greens, and the numbers will fall where they will. That is the democratic process. But you cannot say the parliament is being sidelined on the very day that you are debating the matter within the parliament and are about to have a vote on the issue in the parliament. This is the sort of nonsense that we get fed from the Australian Greens every day. And that is why we do get fed up with their mantra.

Can I simply say to the Australian Greens about all their fancy words about abiding by the rules: now there is a first! The Australian Greens—who condone members of their staff trying to handcuff themselves and organising to try to get people handcuffed at a public demonstration, damaging the Prime Minister’s vehicle, doing those sorts of things—are all of a sudden putting hand on heart, saying, ‘You’ve got to abide by the rules.’ We are abiding by the rules, because the standing orders in this place do allow for this debate to take place and for senators to take a vote. We are abiding by the rules. Are we rushing it through? Yes, we are, because we believe that this is a national crisis.

Photo of Kerry NettleKerry Nettle (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Suddenly it’s a national crisis!

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Nettle cannot have it both ways. She condemns us for having sat back for 11 years and not doing anything; now she condemns us for acting. No matter which way you turn in this debate, you can be assured the Australian Greens will be opposed to you. I simply say to the Australian Greens: you can have all your fancy words about process, you can have all of your fancy words about standing orders in the Senate—and I fully support them—but standing orders allow for this debate and for legislation to be rushed through in times of a national crisis, such as this is. If I have to ask myself the question, ‘What is more important, a Senate committee going on for an extra couple of weeks or trying to deal with this national crisis and looking after kids in the Northern Territory and seeking to protect women from domestic violence and abuse?’ I know where I will fall on that discussion. It will be on the side of the kids and the women.

Photo of Kerry NettleKerry Nettle (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Nettle interjecting

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation) Share this | | Hansard source

We have heard them and we have seen them, Senator Nettle. When you have two-year-old kids suffering from sexually transmitted diseases, you do not have to talk to them to know that something needs to be done. When you see women with multiple fractures time and time again, you do not say to them, ‘Let’s consult about these issues.’ The time for action has come, and we as a government are willing to take that action for and on behalf of the disempowered people that you will not see on the TV saying, ‘We haven’t been consulted.’ Unfortunately, that has been part of the problem. We are seeking to assist those disempowered people and the victims, and the Howard government makes no apology for trying to rush this legislation through. If we have a choice to consult further with some of the leadership groups that say they have not been consulted or to assist the victims, we will always fall on the side of the victims. That is what we are doing with this legislation, and I would urge all honourable senators to allow this debate to proceed as quickly as possible.

Question put:

That the motion (Senator Abetz’s) be agreed to.