Tuesday, 17 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
by leave—I move:
- (1) That:
- (a) the Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws—Superannuation) Bill 2008 be referred to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee for inquiry and report; and
- (b) any related bill or bills that may be introduced to give effect to the recommendations of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s report Same Sex: Same Entitlements, dated May 2007, also be referred to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee for inquiry and report together with the following matters:
- (i) the definition of ‘couple relationship’,
- (ii) empirical evidence from the states concerning the existence, recognition and relative numbers of interdependent relationships, other than de facto (whether heterosexual or same-sex) and marital relationships,
- (iii) whether the definition of ‘couple relationship’ should be amended to incorporate other interdependent relationships and, if so, whether the definitions should be broadened to include those relationships or whether a separate definition is required,
- (iv) the fiscal implications of the statutory recognition of other interdependent relationships for superannuation and taxation purposes,
- (v) the definitions of ‘child’ and ‘child of a couple relationship’,
- (vi) the legal and fiscal implications of the definitions referred to in (v), particularly as they relate to the rights, obligations and liabilities of co-parents (i.e., the parent in a couple relationship that does not have a biological connection to a child of that relationship), and
- (vii) all other matters considered necessary by the committee.
- (2) That the committee is not to conclude its consideration of the matter contained in subparagraph (1)(a) until it has concluded its consideration of the matters in subparagraph (1)(b).
- (3) That the committee must hear evidence, inter alia, from:
- (1) That the Tax Laws Amendment (Medicare Levy Surcharge Thresholds) Bill 2008 be referred to the Economics Committee for inquiry and report not before 26 August 2008, together with the following matters:
- (a) the impact of changes to the thresholds on the number of Australians with private health insurance (PHI), including an examination of how many will abandon their policies as a result and how many will not take up PHI in the future;
- (b) the modelling underpinning the decision and the veracity of that modelling;
- (c) the anticipated impact on PHI premiums and PHI products offered;
- (d) the impact of the change on the cost of living and the consumer price index;
- (e) including the threshold, PHI rebate and lifetime health cover on increasing PHI membership;
- (f) the anticipated impact of changes to the threshold on:
- (i) the public hospital system including waiting lists and the financial requirements of state governments,
- (ii) the ongoing viability of PHI, and
- (iii) private hospitals.
- (2) That the inquiry hear evidence in all capital cities and from, inter alia, the private health insurance sector about the impact of the measures in the bill on the industry and on the public hospital system.
- (1) That the National Health Amendment (Pharmaceutical and Other Benefits—Cost Recovery) Bill 2008 be referred to the Community Affairs Committee for inquiry and report not before 18 August 2008, together with the following matters:
- (a) the impact of the Pharmaceutical Benefit Scheme (PBS) cost recovery on:
- (i) patients’ timely and affordable access to medicines,
- (ii) the Australian pharmaceutical industry,
- (iii) new products and innovation, and
- (iv) the independence of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee;
- (b) cost recovery mechanisms in other countries;
- (c) how cost recovery will improve the timeliness and effectiveness of the current PBS process for listing new medicines; and
- (d) the modelling and consultation underpinning the decision.
- (a) the impact of the Pharmaceutical Benefit Scheme (PBS) cost recovery on:
- (2) That, in conducting its inquiry, the committee hear evidence, inter alia, from the pharmaceutical industry, generic medicines industry, consumer and patient health groups, the Department of Health and Ageing, the PBS Evaluation Units and the Australian Medical Association and other medical bodies.
- (1) That the provisions of the following bills:
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 and
A New Tax System (Luxury Car Tax Imposition—Excise) Amendment Bill 2008,
- be referred to the Economics Committee for inquiry and report not before 26 August 2008, together with the following matters:
- (a) the incidence of the luxury car tax (LCT) and the effect of the proposed increase in the LCT rate on rural and regional communities, small business families and tourism operators;
- (b) the effect of the LCT increase on the prices of vehicles, the affordability of motor vehicles, the cost of living, and the consumer price index (CPI);
- (c) the expected impact of the increase in the LCT rate on vehicle demand and the likely consequences for government revenues including from the LCT, goods and services tax (GST) and stamp duty;
- (d) the growing incidence of the LCT over time and the adequacy of current arrangements for indexation of the LCT threshold, in comparison with alternative measures including the CPI, average weekly earnings and the increase in the retail price of motor vehicles;
- (e) the rationale for taxing ‘luxury’ cars at a higher rate than other goods and services;
- (f) the effect of the LCT and the proposed increase in the LCT rate on Australian vehicle manufacturers and vehicle importers and distributors;
- (g) the overall taxation burden on ownership and operation of motor vehicles including customs duty, GST, LCT stamp duty and excise on fuel;
- (h) the effect of the LCT and the proposed increase in the LCT rate on the adoption of vehicle safety features and environmental technologies; and
- (i) the extent to which the LCT is viewed as a non-tariff barrier by other car exporting countries.
- (2) That:
- (a) as a minimum, the committee hold hearings in Melbourne and Adelaide and hear evidence, inter alia, from Australia’s vehicle manufacturers, importers and distributors as well as from the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries, the Australian Automobile Association, the Motor Trades Association of Australia, the Victorian Automobile Chamber of Commerce, the Motor Trades Association of Queensland and the tourism industry; and
- (b) the committee also take into account submissions to, and recommendations of, the Bracks’ Review of Australia’s Automotive Industry.
- (1) That the provisions of the Excise Legislation Amendment (Condensate) Bill 2008 and the Excise Tariff Amendment (Condensate) Bill 2008 be referred to the Economics Committee for inquiry and report not before 26 August 2008, together with the following matters:
- (a) the impact of the changes on retail prices of domestic gas and electricity in Western Australia, and any consequent effect on consumer prices;
- (b) the impact of the decision on the industry generally and on the exploration for petroleum products in Australia; and
- (c) the impact of the decision, and the decision-making process, on domestic and international investment confidence in Australia.
- (2) That the committee must conduct hearings in Western Australia and hear evidence from, inter alia, industry bodies and joint venture partners on the North West Shelf.
- (1) That the National Fuelwatch (Empowering Consumers) Bill 2008 and the National Fuelwatch (Empowering Consumers) (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2008 be referred to the Economics Committee for inquiry and report not before 29 September 2008, together with the following matters:
- (a) the impact of the proposed Fuelwatch scheme on the price consumers will pay for motor fuel (including unleaded petrol, diesel and LPG) in metropolitan areas, regional centres and rural Australia;
- (b) the economic benefits and costs of the proposed Fuelwatch scheme to consumers in metropolitan areas, regional centres and rural Australia;
- (c) other economic costs of the proposed Fuelwatch scheme, including the compliance costs of the scheme for industry, particularly independent retailers;
- (d) the impact of the proposed Fuelwatch scheme on competition between motor fuel retailers and the operation and viability of independent motor fuel retailers;
- (e) intraday price volatility in the retail market, established price cycles in each state and territory, and consumer awareness of price cycles;
- (f) the impact of Fuelwatch on discounting, as well as the amplitude and duration of price cycles, including any penalties that will apply to motor fuel retailers for not fixing prices for 24 hour periods;
- (g) the potential use under the Fuelwatch scheme of sophisticated pricing strategies by motor fuel retailers who have more than one retail outlet, and how they may take advantage of the 24 hour rule;
- (h) independent analysis of the overall economic benefits and costs of the proposed Fuelwatch scheme;
- (i) independent analysis of the differences in motor fuel prices between Western Australia and other Australian states and territories, with particular reference to volumetric or consumption-weighted prices; and
- (j) the legal basis for the legislation.
- (2) That, in conducting its inquiry, the committee:
- (a) hear evidence in all capital cities and in such major rural and regional centres as may be determined by the committee; and
- (b) hear evidence, inter alia, from independent retailers, motoring bodies with knowledge of the retail motor fuel market, business organisations with an interest in motor fuel prices and independent think tanks and economists who have knowledge of retail pricing arrangements in the motor fuel industry.
- That the provisions of Schedules 1 and 2 of the Tax Laws Amendment (2008 Measures No. 3) Bill 2008 be referred to the Economics Committee for inquiry and report not before 18 August 2008.
And on behalf of Senator Ronaldson:
That the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2008 be referred to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters for inquiry and report on 30 June 2009 in conjunction with the committee’s inquiry into the 2007 Federal Election.
To clarify the terms of the notices: when I gave notice, the bills were still in the House, and my notices therefore referred to the provisions of the bills. Now that the bills have arrived in the Senate, I make it clear to the Senate that in relation to notices No. 7, No. 11 and No. 12 I am moving to refer the actual bills and not just the provisions off to committees.
There are a number of bills involved in this matter and we are conducting a cognate debate in order to save time. I believe it is best that we take each of these bills in turn in relation to the merits of referral to the respective committees. But, before I do, I think it is useful as a backdrop that I remind the Senate of statements made previously on the referral of bills to Senate committees. In this regard, I would refer to the following statement:
Whether or not this government has a majority in the Senate and whether or not the Liberal government won the last election, the Labor Party are not required to say, ‘Oh, well, we’re just going to roll over, agree to everything the government has announced and do nothing for the next three years.’ That is not the approach in a democracy …
That statement was made by Senator Sherry on 16 June 2005. Indeed, the Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Evans, on 14 June 2005, stated:
It is our responsibility to provide an alternative view of legislation, to speak out when we think things are wrong and to fight for those people whose interests we represent.
That is precisely what these referrals are all about: providing adequate time for those pieces of legislation to come under the scrutiny of Senate committees and, furthermore, providing stakeholders with a vital interest in these bills with an opportunity to have a say. Of course, we understand the government has an agenda. We have notified that a number of bills are non-controversial and, indeed, a number which are time critical. In that regard, we have referred three packages to Senate committees for reporting by next week. The coalition recognises that there are bills which are time critical and that we can conduct the scrutiny of those in the next fortnight and have them dealt with according to the government’s agenda.
But I am dealing here with something quite different. We have a package of bills, many of which were not election policy statements of the government in the recent election and many of which, we believe, have no budgetary impact. In fact, we say that the government, in painting a picture that this is in some way vandalising the budget, is conducting a completely false exercise in misrepresenting to the Australian people the process that we are pursuing. We are pursuing here the referral to Senate committees—and in one case to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters—important bills, some of which the Australian community has had little or no notice of.
I will turn to them in order. The Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2008, which we seek to have referred to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters for reporting on 30 June 2009, is an important piece of legislation dealing with political donations and related matters. The coalition is committed to a holistic reform of election campaign finance laws in the wake of many scandals which we have seen, particularly the Wollongong ‘sex and bribes scandal’. We make it very clear that having a piecemeal approach to electoral reform will not result in the outcome that all would desire.
We have heard from the government that they are pursuing electoral reform. We say: let that be in an informed manner and let the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, which deals with a review of each election, have available to it the means and the standing to conduct this review. This particular bill should be reviewed with other matters in relation to the recent election.
In relation to the Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws—Superannuation) Bill 2008, the government intend to introduce further legislation dealing with other recommendations of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission report. The coalition believe that this piece of legislation requires careful scrutiny. The coalition have said that we support this bill in principle, but there are details in this bill and in the government’s proposed bills—and I refer to the comments of the Attorney-General in this regard—that require scrutiny which you could not offer in just two weeks. We believe that, despite the fact we have given in principle support, it would be irresponsible of us as an opposition to simply wave it through and wait for further like legislation to come along which could have unintended consequences as a result of not being considered holistically with this bill. I might just add that this was not an election policy issue. I concede it was in the platform of the ALP but not one which was canvassed in the election campaign.
The Tax Laws Amendment (Medicare Levy Surcharge Thresholds) Bill 2008, to be referred to the Senate Standing Committee on Economics for reporting by 26 August, is an extremely important bill. We have recently learnt that the Rudd government did not ask either Treasury or the Department of Health and Ageing to model, cost or in any way assess the impact of the change to the Medicare levy surcharge on public hospitals. That is just one matter which requires close scrutiny. It is imperative for the health systems run by the states, territories and the Commonwealth of this country that we have careful scrutiny of this bill, and 26 August would provide that opportunity for the appropriate scrutiny to be conducted. Again, I reiterate the precise terms of this bill are not ones that I recall being an election policy of the government in the last election.
Similarly, the luxury car tax was not an election policy and it involves the government introducing another tax without consultation with industry, motorists or other stakeholders. This is an area where you could have flow-on effects which could be detrimental to motorists across Australia. The Tax Laws Amendment (Luxury Car Tax) Bill 2008 also requires careful scrutiny by the Senate Standing Committee on Economics. In our motion, we have put a reporting date of 26 August.
Similarly, the National Health Amendment (Pharmaceutical and Other Benefits—Cost Recovery) Bill 2008 was not an election policy of the government and we would seek its referral to the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs for reporting on 18 August. This is a measure which has had absolutely no consultation. Concerns have been raised about the independence of the PBAC, and that needs to be looked at. Other measures in this bill could have effects on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, which affects so many Australians. That needs careful scrutiny. The Fuelwatch bill was done overnight, in a matter of 30 or so hours, with public officials working through the night. It was not an election policy, and we believe that it has such consequence that it should be referred to the Senate Standing Committee on Economics, to report by 29 September.
No less than four government departments have briefed the Rudd government against the introduction of Fuelwatch including the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Department of Finance and Deregulation, the Treasury and the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism. We have a number of departments briefing against this legislation, and the government is intent on rushing it through. This concerns something which is uppermost in the minds of many Australians: the price of fuel. This is something which demands close attention and we have asked that the committee concerned not report until 29 September to give the Australian public the chance it deserves to have input into this important piece of legislation so that it is not simply rushed through in these last two sitting weeks of the financial year.
We would seek that the Excise Legislation Amendment (Condensate) Bill 2008 be referred to the Senate Standing Committee on Economics, for reporting on 26 August. This, again, was not an election policy and could well have ramifications in the energy sector. The government is making much of the fact that it says this will cost taxpayers $177 million if not passed by the end of this month. This bill is capable of amendment to such an extent as to recapture any excise from the date it was announced. There is absolutely no problem with that. The opposition has had a briefing from Treasury. I would defy the government to prove beyond doubt that this is the case, because it cannot deny the fact that an amendment—
It does. The government stands charged with misleading the Australian community in saying that this will cost $177 million of lost revenue to the taxpayer. What that is saying is that this bill, as such, will cost that amount of money if not passed by the end of the month. The government has not looked very far, because you can just amend this bill to allow it to recapture the excise for a longer period and to allow for this scrutiny—for the industries and the companies concerned to make submissions to the committee—and you could still have no loss of revenue. There is absolutely no basis at all to the argument that there would be lost revenue or that this will cost taxpayers money.
What we have on the other side of the ledger is a measure which could well see inflation in relation to the price of gas, increased taxation on gas, a clean energy—and this is a government which talks about greenhouse emissions and clean energy. Here we have a further tax being placed on gas. This is of essential importance to all Australians and also for foreign investment, which has brought much prosperity to this country.
We also have Tax Laws Amendment (2008 Measures No. 3) Bill 2008. That again was another piece of legislation which was not an election policy. This is a bill in response to a 2007 High Court decision known as McNeil’s case. It is a complex piece of legislation and one which merits close attention. It is not one that I think most senators would be across, nonetheless it deserves that scrutiny. As I said at the outset, we have agreed to three packages being referred to Senate committees for the scrutiny that can be offered in the fortnight that allows that and that they are time critical. But with these bills we do not accept that there is the cost involved that the government says. We reject that totally. We do not accept that they are time critical. We believe that they are of such importance that the Australian community deserves an opportunity—and especially those stakeholders who have an interest—to make submissions to the Senate committees. The July-August break provides a golden opportunity for that to be done. The coalition have a proud record in referring matters to committees.
We can look at the facts. In 2006, the first full year of the coalition’s Senate majority—perhaps those commentators who take an interest in this might have regard to it—the coalition government supported the referral of more than 100 bills to Senate committees for inquiry and report. This was the highest number of bills ever referred to committees in a calendar year and double the average number of bills referred to committee when the ALP was last in government. Let us see what the Rudd government is going to do about referring matters to Senate committees. Let us see if it can match the coalition’s record of 100 in a calendar year. Let us see if the Rudd government will agree to these referrals. Or is it going to deny the Australian people the chance to scrutinise important legislation which in some cases came with little or no notice?
I have mentioned the fact that the government has made much of the cost and the effect that this will have on the budget. These measures are all capable of being dealt with by referral and scrutiny without the attendant loss of revenue that the government claims. If the government were at all on its game, it would be able to remedy any aspect of delay especially in relation to the fuel condensate bill. I have outlined how it can do that. It is a matter which is capable of simple amendment. There is absolutely no vandalism or denial of revenue at all in any of these measures. It makes eminent sense, when we have the time, to deal with them together, for example in the case of a bill such as the Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws—Superannuation) Bill 2008—especially when the Attorney-General has said there will be others to follow. Yet this government wants to do it piecemeal, which will result in unintended consequences. It is similar with electoral law reform. We say you can have the law reform. It should take its course and it should be dealt with together with other aspects of reform. The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, as I recall, has been around for in excess of 25 years. That is its job. That is what we are asking it to do: to look at political donations and to incorporate it in the other aspects it is looking at in relation to electoral reform.
Any denial of these referrals is one which will deny public scrutiny and will be, in any shape or form, an arrogant denial of Senate process. We have carefully considered those bills which are needed and where time is of the essence. We have indicated to the government that we will comply with the government’s agenda in relation to those budget bills and getting through its package of bills in this fortnight. There are around 40 packages, as I recall, and we anticipate getting through those packages in this fortnight. However, there are some that have to be referred to Senate scrutiny by virtue of its committee system, and that is what we are all about. Where that can be done quickly we have pursued that path, but of course you could not do all of these bills justice by sending them off to Senate committees for reporting back by next week. That would be an abrogation of our responsibility in the Senate and as an opposition.
I think anyone listening to that contribution would realise that the Liberal opposition is dissembling. There is no coherence at all about its position. This is a very important debate because it is about whether the elected government of this country is allowed to deliver its budget, whether it is allowed to deliver its election commitments and whether it is allowed to deliver the surplus that underpins its attack on inflation and rising interest rates. This is fundamental to the government’s budget. It is fundamental to what we were elected to do only six months ago.
What we have seen today is an opposition who are prepared to say: ‘We lost the election but we are not going to allow you to govern the country. We are not going to allow you to deliver your budget. We are not going to allow you to deliver your election commitments.’ They concede that these are election commitments but they say: ‘We know better. We don’t accept the view of the people. We don’t accept the election result. Most of us, as former ministers now in opposition, think we should still be allowed to determine the size, shape and nature of the Australian budget.’ Unfortunately for them, the budget is drawn up by the government. The first Rudd Labor government is remarkable for the fact that this was the first budget in many years that delivered on election commitments made by the government. It also delivered on our commitment to fiscally conservative policy to try to keep pressure on interest rates. That is fundamentally undermined by a debate in which the coalition, in their dying days as a majority in this chamber, say they are going to use their power to destroy the budget strategy, to prevent the government introducing the revenue measures that were going to help fund the surplus. That is their arrogance—that they think it is permissible for them to try to destroy the financial and economic strategy of the government by looking to defer and delay revenue measures that underpin that strategy and underpin the $22 billion surplus that is fundamental to that strategy.
This is economic vandalism. It is economic vandalism because it serves no purpose. It does not achieve anything. The opposition are not actually saying: ‘We oppose these measures. We are going to defeat them.’ They are saying: ‘We are going to delay and defer. We are going to act as vandals. We do not have a point of principle here.’ They are not making the argument against the measures; they are making the argument that they ought to delay and defer, because they can inflict vandalism on the government’s budget. They hope to gain some short-term political advantage from that.
When they were asked today about the measure to remove the excise on condensate and were accused of achieving what they would by their position—which is to destroy a revenue measure that will return $177 million to the Commonwealth during the period for which they delay it—they said: ‘But we are not opposed to the measure; we just want to defer and delay.’ They do not have a position. Like everything else the Liberal opposition reflects at the moment, they are confused, lost and have no position or principle. What they are going to do is delay—and rob Australian taxpayers of $177 million that would help fund the economic strategy of the government—so they can consider the issues. They have had six weeks to consider the issues. This budget process is the same as every other. The government brought down the budget on 13 May. The opposition have had six weeks to consider their position and still they have not got a position. Still they hide behind process. Still they say: ‘We don’t necessarily oppose it; we just need to think about it longer. We just need to consider it more.’ They do not have a position other than that of vandals and other than that of hiding behind process in order to prevent the government achieving its economic strategy as contained in the budget.
Where they thought there was political pressure, where they thought they were under the pump, they have given in and said: ‘We’ll consider those bills quickly. We’ll consider the bills that deal with FTBB and the baby bonus.’ Because they have decided they do not have the political courage to oppose those, they are going to consider them quickly.
You get the chance to tell us what your position is today on all these measures, Senator Abetz. You have an invitation, and I hope you do not hide behind process. I hope you do not use the coward’s answer. You can tell us what position the coalition has on each of these bills, because quite frankly if you have a position we can have the vote and get on with it. If your answer is that you have no position and you need to think about it some more, that shows the political cowardice which you stand accused of. You do not have a policy, you do not have a coherent position, you cannot agree among yourselves.
I understand you walked out of your shadow cabinet meeting today after deciding to knock off another measure. The opposition are going to move a disallowance to our dentists reforms. There was no mention of that in Senator Ellison’s contribution today. The election commitments that the Labor Party made are apparently going to be disallowed in the Senate because they decided they could. They have got about eight days left of their Senate majority and they are going to wreck that measure as well. Why? Do they have an alternative that they have any hope of putting in place? No. They are doing it just because they can spoil and be vandals, not because they have a constructive alternative or any policy outcome capable of being achieved. By seeking to undermine these measures, they are going to delay and vandalise the budget to prevent the government from delivering on its election commitments and from governing in an economically conservative way.
Despite what Senator Ellison indicated, some of these measures will cost the Australian taxpayer. The delay will cost us millions of dollars. There will be consequences and a loss of revenue from this delay. There will be $220-odd million that the Australian government will not be able to collect as a result of the opposition’s actions. We will nail the opposition with the price of this. They are going to vandalise the budget by using their numbers to prevent the collection of that revenue. Their leisurely consideration will come at a cost, at last count, of about $220 million to Australian taxpayers. But the position changes so quickly so I cannot be authoritative on this; it was $300 million earlier in the week but it is now down to $220 million. With the dentistry measures they are going to oppose, it may have gone up again.
I do not know what their position on the bill is. All I know is what their position on process and procedure is. If you ask them where they stand on any of the great issues in Australian politics, they cannot tell you. They are all over the place. I look forward to the opposition senators contributing to the debate because we will then hopefully know where they stand on the condensate bill, on same-sex relationships, on the Commonwealth electoral amendment to make political donations more transparent, and on the increase in the luxury car tax. Are they going to support the luxury car tax increase or are they going to oppose it? I have no idea; they are hiding behind process—they are unable to say and need to look at it longer. They have had six weeks, including estimates. They have had ample opportunity.
These are not questions of broad public policy. These are small amendments to existing taxation revenue measures.
Because they are very important economically. This is not for some important broad social or economic policy like the Telstra bills, which I recall the Liberal opposition, when in government, rushed through with a one-day inquiry and with two-days notice. So, to be lectured by Senator Ellison on Senate process and proper behaviour is obscene, given their performance when in government.
We in the Labor government support the right of the Senate to examine policy issues contained in legislation. We support the role of the committees and we will continue to do that. But the debate today is about the government’s budget; it is about normal process and whether the recently defeated opposition are going to allow the government to deliver its budget. The weight is now on the opposition. They actually have to say what they stand for, if they stand for anything at all. They cannot hide behind process. They can have these bills referred and brought back next week if there are serious issues they want to examine. But these are not issues of wide application or broad public policy. They are very specific measures that, if you like, are much more narrow than some of the measures they have agreed to consider and bring back next week.
This is all about political vandalism and their inability to cope with the responsibilities of opposition. The Liberal Party are in a mess all over the country. They may make themselves relevant at some time down the track, but we do not have to worry. But they are relevant today because they are trying to destroy the budget and undermine the economic strategy of the government of this country.
It is an absolute irony of this chamber that the coalition come into this chamber and say: ‘Oh, no, we need to follow all these processes that we absolutely refused to apply when in government. We are going to apply them to the nth degree and drag them out for as long as we can to deny the government revenue and the capacity to deliver on its budget.’ But they will not do this on measures that they are opposed to; it is on measures they have not quite made up their minds about yet. They have not had enough time to work out whether they support or oppose the budget so they are going to drag it out until September, denying $220 million of revenue to the Australian government at the expense of taxpayers, while they decide whether or not they have got an opinion.
They have got a chance to have an opinion and do their jobs by voting in the Senate. They have got a chance to consider the legislation that is before them, which they have known about for six weeks.
Senator Abetz, I have listened to you for years saying how terrible it will be if the Greens have the balance of power; how awful it would be to hand over to the Greens, to the Democrats or to the Independents the capacity to influence legislation and to hold the balance. And what are you doing today? You are saying, ‘We will defer these measures until we lose the numbers. Then we will leave it to the Greens and the Independents’—sorry, Senator Bartlett, not the Democrats, because they will no longer be with us. The great irony is that the opposition are so confused, so lost, so without direction and are such a rabble that they have decided to hand the decision to the Greens. They are saying: ‘We could vote on this now, but it is too hard. We are so confused, so divided, so lost and so lacking in any political courage that we are going to let the new Senate deal with it—the Senate where we do not have the majority.’ It is a cop-out. It is political cowardice at its worst. You can defend some of this behaviour on the basis that they have had a crushing electoral defeat, that they have a leader who is making no impression with the people of this country and that they are a dispirited rabble. But they have got to the position of making the decision—it is a strategy and Senator Abetz was no doubt part of this cunning plan—and they have said: ‘We will give up our right to make a decision on the budget. We will hand it over to the Greens, Senator Fielding and Senator Xenophon.’
They have obviously seen the light, Senator Siewert, because this is certainly a change in their position. Senator Abetz and others have railed against you having the power to decide these things for years. But, somehow, now it is kind of convenient, because they want to run and hide. They do not want to take responsibility. What they want to do is hide behind process. They want to say: ‘We need to look at this for much longer. We have had six weeks, but we haven’t got a position yet and we would kind of like it if, when we come back, somebody else has to wear it. Senator Fielding is the swing vote. He will get to wear this. We can sort of oppose it but not have to carry the public criticism of our position. We could probably safely oppose it in July and August because Senator Fielding and the Greens will wear the criticism.’ What cowardice! What an absolute abrogation of your responsibilities.
This Senate has the capacity to debate—and pass or defeat—the government’s budget bills this fortnight in accordance with the normal process. It has the capacity to have short committee inquiries, as has been recommended by the opposition, into a number of matters that could be extended into the other bills in the motions before us. But the political cowardice of the opposition does not allow them to do that. They are going to try to run and hide. You cannot run and you cannot hide. You have to front up in this Senate and answer questions. Do you support these measures or not? Are you in favour of removing the exemption on the excise on condensate or not? Are you in favour of increasing the luxury car tax or not?
I rise on a point of order. I draw your attention to standing order 196. It appears as though the honourable senator was given one paragraph to read out. I think he is now on the 26th—
Senator Abetz, you have, if you have the moral and political courage, the opportunity to vote on the government’s budget this fortnight. It is your chance to put up or shut up. You can hide behind process, but you will be found. There is nowhere for you to hide. Your political position now is to say, ‘Let’s defer it and hope the Greens and the Independents make the right decision.’ That is your political decision. I have never seen anything as cowardly in all my time in the Senate. You have the chance to deal with the legislation. Senator Minchin invited me to come to him and work with the opposition on the passage of legislation through this place. I have made that point to my colleagues. That ought to be one of the things we first look at. Well, here is your chance. Here is your chance to support the right of a government to deliver on its budget. Here is your chance to ensure that the budget strategy of the government is not undermined. Take your opportunity, Senator Abetz and the opposition, and show you have some political courage. Do not try and hide behind process, because you have been exposed.
I rise on a point of order. Mr Acting Deputy President, you are quite right to chide me for interjecting. But when you allow the Leader of the Government in the Senate to personally address me non-stop—
If I can get the point of order out, you might hear it. What I am inviting you to do is to require the Leader of the Government in the Senate to abide by standing orders and not address senators directly across the chamber, because, when he does that in this thuggish, arrogant way—guess what?—I am tempted to interject.
The Acting Deputy President:
Senator Abetz, resume your seat. Senator Abetz, you have been consistently speaking directly to the Leader of the Government in the Senate—
The Acting Deputy President:
They have been tedious and repetitious interjections. If you refrain from interjecting—
The Acting Deputy President:
If you refrain from interjecting—
Thank you. I accept that I should do so. This is, as I said, a very important debate. It is important that the budget is delivered. It is important that the government of the day is allowed to deliver on its election commitments. The opposition have to answer the question: what gives them the right to deny the government the ability to deliver on its election promises? They were defeated at the last election for two reasons: (1) because the public lost faith in them because they failed to deliver on the promises they made to the electorate and (2) because of their abuse of their Senate majority. Here we are, within six months of the election, and they are seeking to carry out those two things that hurt them most at the last election.
All the government is asking for is the capacity to pass its budget. We accept the reference of matters of interest to Senate committees, but we ask the Senate to allow them to be returned in time for the bills to be debated and voted on by the end of this last sitting fortnight. It is the same process that has always applied to the budget. The opposition have had more than enough time to consider the bills. What they have not been able to do is find a position. They are so internally divided that they cannot work out what to do. They think that, by hiding behind Senate process, somehow it will all be resolved for them.
The bottom line is that it is economic vandalism. It is action that reeks of arrogance and reeks of the despair, disunity and weakness that the opposition are showing. It is important that the government gets its budget bills through. We urge the Senate to allow the government to pass its budget bills and not to hide behind process. Proper consideration can be given to bills, but let’s not hide behind process. Let’s debate the bills and vote on them. Let’s have some political courage from the opposition. We ask them to support the budget bills and ensure that this government is allowed to deliver on its election commitments and pass its budget.
As senators would know and as Senator Evans reflected on briefly, this is my final fortnight in this chamber. I have been working in and immersed in the Senate for 18 years, as an adviser and then as a senator. In some ways it is nice that, even after 18 years of seeing everything that gets thrown up in this chamber, one can still be surprised by the level of absolute, bare-faced, extraordinary hypocrisy being put forward by the coalition here. After seeing all the things that get put forward for political reasons with the most ludicrous propositions being used to justify decisions and actions that are clearly politically driven, this is something that still leaves me breathless. I guess in some ways it is nice to not be so drenched in cynicism that I can still be surprised, or maybe the coalition are so creative that they can still find new ways to absolutely dredge the depths of debauchment of democratic process, weasel words and two-faced positions. The sorts of justifications that are being put forward by the coalition in regard to at least some of this legislation is nonetheless a disgrace and an insult to intelligence.
We are dealing with a whole lot of committee references cognately here and some of them are justified. I would certainly ask that we get to vote on some of them separately at the end, because clearly some of them are justified and appropriate but, frankly, some are ludicrous. Some of the suggestions that are being put forward to justify what is being done are completely offensive. We had some statistics from Senator Ellison saying that, when they controlled the Senate for the first year, they referred more bills than anybody else ever did—another wonderful example for those who like to catalogue lies, damned lies and statistics. It was a debauchment of process that the coalition used their Senate majority to block inquiry after inquiry into a whole range of areas at the same time they were bulldozing through other inquiries, which were sometimes into extraordinarily complex pieces of legislation, with a one-week turnaround.
Indeed, I can still recall another area where initially my breath was taken away with the audacity of the position being put forward. The coalition, when in government, would come along to the Selection of Bills Committee, which is the process used to consider whether or not to refer bills to a committee, and refer their own bills to committee before the bills had even appeared with a requirement that they report back, in some cases, by the next week. The committee was getting a bill that actually did not yet exist. I can recall being on Senate committee inquiries—and I am sure you can as well, Mr Acting Deputy President Marshall—where the committee would get a bill and would be sitting there asking: why are we looking into this? Who has got an interest? What is the issue of concern? There were no answers; the government were just bulldozing them all through like a sausage machine to try and use these debauched non-inquiries as a way of ensuring that their legislation got pushed through as quickly as possible.
It is also a sick irony that, after all the years of listening to the coalition whingeing about a hostile Senate and about how the government of the day could not get on with its program because issues were being examined by Senate committees, which the Democrats and the crossbenches often quite rightly insisted on, and after the coalition went so far as to block inquiry after inquiry when they had a majority, we are now getting this mantra about how we need proper accountability. We have seen it already of course. After no Senate select committees were put in place to examine specific issues at all over the last couple of years, three or four were put forward with coalition chairs and coalition majorities in the first week or two that we got back here after the election.
I will leave the argument about the potential budget impact to others to make. That is something that the government is much more aware of than I would be. Frankly, I think there are different arguments that can be made about some of the budget bills, but to me the major issues relate to the referral of bills that do not have anything to do with the budget. I think some of them are being sent off for longer than they need to be.
There is one other component of these motions that I must say again I find interesting and which I do not recall having seen before, despite my 18 years of experience. A whole range of bills are being sent off for August reporting dates, or September for the Fuelwatch bill, containing the wording not that the committee report by a set date, but that the committee not report before that date. Quite what that means, I am not sure. It is quite an interesting innovation whereby, even if the committee examines the matter, decides it has all it needs to look at and finishes its deliberations, according to this motion it is still not allowed to report before the date that the coalition is insisting on. I am not sure how that fits in terms of standing orders and it looks like a fairly curious innovation to me. If anything, it looks like another example of the coalition’s absolute insistence on forcing it off for as long as possible and refusing point-blank to allow the committee to report back any earlier, even if it has finished its job. Presumably the coalition will cover its ears, chant noisily and do everything possible to refuse to examine these issues, even if the committee has finished its job before the date that is set forward. It is interesting that that wording is not used for the ones that are reporting back next week; it is simply for the ones that are reporting back in August. The committees are being prevented, at least in theory, from being able to report back earlier, even if they decide that is valid.
One thing that particularly astonishes and appals me is the suggestion that the legislation dealing with political donations should not report back until June 2009—more than 12 months away. I know it is nice to be thorough, but need we take 12 months to examine an issue that is not that complicated? What is in the bill has also been dealt with before by previous Senate committee inquiries: the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters has dealt with it in the broad, and other committees have examined the whole issue of electoral donations in narrower contexts. To try and make any sort of argument that that issue cannot be dealt with on its merits in isolation outside of the entire electoral matters committee inquiry into the last election is an insult to the intelligence. That is fine when you have the numbers in this place; you can insult everybody’s intelligence—the numbers are the numbers and you can bulldoze things through or block things as you desire. But do not think that it is just the intelligence of other senators that you are insulting. You are insulting the public’s intelligence. That sort of argument is simply ludicrous; it is farcical. And to apply it to try and prevent, for over a year, debate on legislation dealing with political donations is clearly just a matter of naked political self-interest, and it will be seen as such and should be condemned as such.
Having said that, the opposition go one step further in regard to one other piece of legislation. The electoral matters bill, the political donations bill, they sent off for a year, with the report not due until 2009. But the bill relating to superannuation entitlements for people in same-sex relationships who have public sector superannuation, they are sending off, potentially, forever. It is quite an amazing reference: they are sending off the bill for the committee to inquire into and report on, but the committee is not actually allowed to conclude its inquiry into that bill and report back on it until it has looked at any other related bills that might be introduced down the track to give effect to the recommendations of a human rights commission report. Who is going to determine whether or not every single bill that is ever going to appear in regard to a recommendation from that report has appeared? Is it going to be the committee? Is it going to be the Senate? It is not stated. What we have is an open-ended inquiry—one, potentially, going on into the never-never—that is not able, according to this form of words, to report back until every related bill that may ever be introduced has also been examined. How farcical! How disgraceful, particularly when it is on a basic matter of justice, and particularly on a matter which, the coalition would have us believe—Senator Ellison’s own words would have us believe—they support in principle. Do not be so ludicrous. If you support that matter in principle, you would not send it off to a Senate committee to inquire into but never report on. It is simply a disgrace.
Adding to the disgrace is the history of this legislation and the issue involved. The Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws—Superannuation) Bill 2008 deals with a matter that has been examined time and time again by Senate committee inquiries. It was examined as part of a general, wide-ranging inquiry that was reported on to this chamber back in 1997. It was examined as part of a Senate Select Committee on Superannuation inquiry into work patterns in the mid-1990s. It was examined again by the Senate Select Committee on Superannuation, specifically in regard to another private senator’s bill, in 2000. The legislation of the Democrats that specifically aimed to address this matter has been debated in this chamber on at least one occasion, if not more, as have many individual amendments specifically relating to superannuation. The issue was examined specifically in relation to superannuation by a Senate committee as part of inquiries into the government’s superannuation laws and the superannuation choice laws in early 2000. The government, with the support of the Democrats, passed legislation containing similar measures to what is in this bill, in regard to personal superannuation, through this chamber. Yet we have Senator Ellison saying: ‘We cannot deal with this single bill in isolation from all these other measures, even though we support it in principle, because it would be irresponsible, because it requires careful scrutiny.’ How much more careful scrutiny do you need?
You were able to deal with a one-off piece of legislation that dealt with superannuation and issues relating to same-sex couples and interdependence on its own, in isolation, with the support of the Prime Minister of the day, Mr Howard. I had a joint press conference with Mr Howard out in his courtyard when I was leader of the Democrats, it was so important to him. It was the only time I ever had a joint press conference with Mr Howard in his courtyard. It was with regard to the superannuation choice legislation, which contained measures specifically enabling people in same-sex relationships to have equal rights—the same issue that is contained in this legislation. Five years later, you want to come in and say, ‘It would be irresponsible to deal with that in isolation, and we cannot pass it—we cannot even report on it—until every other piece of legislation that might appear, ever, at any time in the future, has appeared.’ Do not even try to suggest that you can make any sort of argument like that with any sort of integrity.
To cap it all off, last year this chamber considered a proposal by me to review a piece of legislation that would implement the recommendations of the human rights commission inquiry—the very report that you now say has to be examined in extensive detail, potentially forever. And that proposal, to examine a piece of legislation that would give effect to the recommendations of that report, you blocked. You stopped it being looked at, at all—not even in a one-week inquiry. Why? What was the pathetic, dishonest, dishonourable excuse you gave at the time? It was: ‘It has already been inquired into. We do not even need to look at it because it has already been looked at.’ You make me sick.
But what makes me even more sick is that people have been waiting for this injustice concerning superannuation and same-sex couples to be rectified for a long time and, year after year, they have had to listen to weasel words like ‘we support it in principle.’ Mr Howard said that he supported it in principle back in 2005. I wrote to him then and said: ‘We’ll cooperate. Anything you want, we’ll put it through.’ There was nothing. No action, no inquiry, no legislation—nothing. The coalition cabinet debated legislation concerning same-sex partnerships before the last election, and they refused to act on it when they could have. The current government proposes to act on one part of the issue which, according to the majority view, the coalition actually support but now want to send off to a committee with no reporting date. It is disgusting.
I, and also on behalf of Senator Nettle, who has worked on this issue over the years, propose to move an amendment that has been circulated in the chamber. The amendment seeks to rectify the flaw that I identified in the coalition’s notice of motion No. 6—namely, a reporting date. My motion provides a reporting date of 24 June, which is only next week. As government speakers themselves said last year, this issue has already been inquired into extensively; it was looked into only last year. The government’s legislation deals with only one part of this issue—public sector superannuation. That is clearly self-contained, as anybody who has been examining the issue for any time would know. So, frankly, one week is ample. One week is all that is being proposed by the coalition to look into the budget measure bills that deal with changes to the baby bonus eligibility, the family tax benefit, the Commonwealth seniors health card and the eligible age for partner service pension. The coalition can do all of that in a week, apparently. Therefore, I am quite sure that they could deal with this piece of legislation in a week—and that is what should happen. I, and also on behalf of Senator Nettle, move:
- At the end of subparagraph (1)(a), add “by June 24, 2008”.
- Omit paragraph (2).
It makes me angry to be treated like an idiot. Part and parcel of being in this chamber is that you have to listen to people give laughable excuses and then they expect you to take them seriously. To some extent, that is part of what happens in politics. I appreciate all of that. I am not trying to be high and mighty about these things, but this is an issue of injustice and it is a very serious injustice. As I have said, over a long period, it has been identified time and time again in a range of Senate committee reports. To use such facile excuses to delay justice once again, potentially indefinitely, is not only unjust—obviously—but extremely hurtful to a lot of people. Many people have been waiting for this injustice to be rectified for a long time. One of the reasons that it is time-critical, apart from the fact the bill has a 1 July start-up date—although, that can be changed—is that injustices come into effect in this area particularly when a person’s partner dies. That time is often very distressing to people. To have that distress compounded by this ongoing injustice is, I think, unconscionable.
People recognise that occasionally things take a while, but excuses are being used to indefinitely delay the implementation of measures that have a big impact on people. Those people whose partner dies between 1 July and however long this legislation is delayed for will bear the brunt of this political gutlessness. That is what is at play here. If anyone can make a good argument for what is being done here, I would like to hear it. You can say that this is to allow proper consideration and prevent anomalies—I have heard those sorts of excuses many times when I have moved amendments in this place—but what you are really doing is pandering to bigots. That is bad enough but, when people have to suffer injustice as a consequence of that, it is acceptable. When my amendment comes to a vote, I urge everyone to give it special consideration, because there will be a direct personal impact in what you do.
The government has built a budget surplus of $22 billion to fight inflation and put downward pressure on interest rates. With these referrals, the Liberals are threatening the surplus. This is the surplus Australia needs if we are to fight the inflation that we inherited. We have to ensure that we put maximum downward pressure on interest rates, and the Reserve Bank board minutes released earlier today are a stark reminder of that. They reveal that inflation remains a key challenge. The minutes state that, over the past year, inflation has picked up at an uncomfortably high rate against a background of limited spare capacity and earlier strong growth in demand. The minutes also highlighted the role of the government’s strong surplus in fighting inflation.
The actions of the Liberal Party in this referral are clearly irresponsible. They are using, without good reason, their numbers in the Senate to delay key revenue measures in the budget. The bill contains straightforward measures that need to be passed by 30 June to ensure their implementation. These are not novel pieces of legislation. These are not grand policy initiatives. These are budget bills. The details can be considered either in a committee on Friday or in the Senate during the committee stage. That is the process that has been adopted in the past. We have a May budget, which means that implementation dates are from 1 July.
In opposition, the Labor Party had to deal with legislation in the time available. We came to a conclusion on the bills. We did not send them off to the never-never. We took the responsibility that opposition provided to hold the government to account for decisions in their budget. We dissected their budgets. We considered again the measures that we opposed, and we supported those measures that were beneficial. We did that so that the then government could implement their measures by 1 July. The May budget provided a time frame for us.
In this instance, this government wants its budget to be passed so that those matters can be implemented by 1 July. From what the opposition have said, you could really say that they are playing politics with it, but the truth is that they are ditherers. They are dithering about these 13 bills—not one bill, not two bills, but 13 bills. They cannot come to a concluded view about what their position is on these bills. The Liberals would rather play politics with the condensate bill. They would rather that those who can afford luxury vehicles not play a role in fighting against inflation. There is now a real threat to the inflation-fighting surplus. Those opposite, the Liberal Party, are delaying, perhaps even planning to oppose, several measures, but we do not know about that. They cannot find the gumption to come to a concluded view to inform the Senate what their position is on these bills. In fact, if the budget measures of these bills are not passed by 1 July, the next chance they will have is in early September. But the budget has to be passed. It should be passed. The first Rudd Labor government’s budget should be passed so that those matters contained in the budget measures can be implemented by 1 July.
The Treasury estimates the cost of delay that those measures will see at $284 million, and that will come directly off the budget surplus. You would think, from the way the opposition are behaving, that they do not care—that they do not care about working families, do not care about working Australians, do not care about those who are doing it tough in the community—because they do not want to assist this government in putting maximum downward pressure on inflation. They do not want to see those working families, those working Australians, those that are doing it tough, try to get the benefit of these budget measures.
It is time that the Liberals stopped using the Senate process to defer their responsibilities. The internal party tensions—I suspect—over leadership should not spill into this chamber. They are hiding behind the Senate processes now. It is irresponsible. They should not be doing it. They are delaying consideration of legislation at the expense of the Australian community. The reality is that the opposition have sent three bills to committee for Friday. It is within their ability to send bills to be dealt with by a committee on Friday if they think there are measures that require inquiry or that they wish to explore further. That is the opportunity that we have adopted in the past. We have met those challenges in the time available to ensure that the Senate can perform its function of scrutinising legislation but also meet budget considerations such as implementation dates of 1 July.
Of course, the Liberals could have treated all the bills in that way, or they could have actually come to a concluded view on some of them and informed the Australian public what their views about these bills are rather than hiding behind them. In fact, they are now doing a curious thing. By delaying, they are clearly handing over the responsibility to a future Senate that they do not have a majority in. They do not want to exercise the control that they have exercised in the past. It is curious because in the past they did exercise control—badly, I think. They used this place as a sausage machine. They processed bills through it. They used Fridays for committees. They had one-day inquiries. They referred all bills, whether they needed scrutiny or not, to committees to jump up their numbers, quite irresponsibly, to make sure that they could then come into this place and argue, if they had a mind to, that they were being responsible and ensuring that the Senate processes were being dealt with. It was a farce. What they were really doing was using the Senate as a sausage machine.
In opposition, they cannot let go of the reins. They cannot accept that the government of the day should have its budget dealt with appropriately by this Senate and the bills passed so that matters can proceed. Of course, when the opposition were exercising their numbers, they did not have regard to the matters that Senator Ellison talked about today. They did not have regard to the due processes that the Senate has. They had regard to the stark political reality that numbers win. That is what they had regard to. What they do not accept is this: they pretend to hide behind the process, but it is a fig leaf. What they are doing is transparent. The Australian public will judge them adversely for this role that they now play.
Senator Bartlett makes a very good point about the same-sex couples bill. It is a point that is worth reiterating: the essence of the subject matter of that bill has been dealt with many, many times in this place. The government has decided, according to its election commitments, to meet those commitments, but the opposition have decided to refer the bill off to the never-never. One questions the referral in itself, in that by referring it they have said ultimately that it will be referred contingent upon some unknown future event. One wonders whether it is in truth a deferral rather than a referral. In my view, it is a deferral because it is not contingent upon some known fact that we can ascertain so that the bill can be dealt with in truth.
The opposition should be reminded that they need to consider how these matters are dealt with and dealt with appropriately. The Rudd government recognises that working families, those people in the community who are doing it tough, need the inflation pressures alleviated. Let us look at what the opposition have done. When they got to opposition—if that is a better way of phrasing it—they immediately put in four select committees to deal with matters that they wanted to scrutinise—matters that they wanted to reflect upon, examine and inquire into. Here, they can pass the bills. They could refer these matters off to committee to have a look at their substance if they were really concerned about them. It is not necessary for them to take the role of simply deferring these measures. If they want to maintain an opposition’s role of being accountable, to scrutinise the government’s actions—